by Ned McQueen, hardboiled detective author
Chip couldn’t decide what he disliked more: the weak coffee or the sickly sweet smile that it came with. Since returning to Iowa from Oregon, all of the coffee was too see-thru while the people were anything but. He couldn’t complain about the early winter sunshine coming through the window of the Java Jive on Main Street in Fredrickton, Iowa; it was a damn sight better than he’d be seeing in Portland this time of year.
Chip Hardwick was 35, newly free from his girlfriend of 8 years, and newly returned to his hometown of Fredrickton, Iowa, population 5,000 on a really good day in the fall when the leaf-peepers came to town and the annual Sauerkraut Festival was in full swing. As he sat in the coffee shop that morning lamenting the lack of hipster penetration into the warm beverages sector in the Midwest, he was also lamenting the complete lack of significant accomplishment that had penetrated into his lackluster existence.
He had done well enough at Fredrickton High, but that was a bit like being the best looking fish in the pet section at Wal-Mart. He had done well in science and math while he was a student and had eventually been lured out into the bright lights of the West Coast when he had graduated from Iowa State University with his degree in computer networking. Returning home was a bit of a rude awakening from the dream he had been weaving around himself during his decade dabbling with urbanity. He had begun to convince himself that he was a tiny bit above average when he was out drinking soy lattes and eating vegan sushi.
But, that had all come crashing down when Melissa had dumped him for the barista voted most-likely-to-commit; perhaps explaining his sour mood in the coffee shop this morning. Now, he was back in his hometown hoping to recover a bit of his sanity, but beginning to fear that his choice of location would have the opposite effect.
He sipped his clear, brown liquid while he checked Craigslist on his overly-swank MacBook Helium. Craig had really sunk quite far when he started opening a site for every one-bit town across the country, but apparently it was free to flip the switch on fredrickton.craigslist.com, even if nobody ever posted anything there that they didn’t also put in the local swap sheet. At that moment, Chip was checking the listings for “Gigs / Computer” and he was more happy than he’d been all week to find an item. One item. Titled “Computer help wanted” it couldn’t be more generic, which suited Chip fine since it meant that all the skills he had picked up at his endless succession of startup jobs might even come in handy. Maybe someone would need a T-1 line punched down onto 30 year old phone equipment, but around here, even that wasn’t likely.
When he clicked on it, the message read simply “Am experiencing difficulties with computer operation at my advanced age. Please call on me if you might be able to help.” Despite the faint whiff of elderly snootiness, it seemed benign enough and unlikely to require pulling phone lines between floors of a brick building like he had done at his last job in the newly renovated lofts of Portland. Chip bumped the number from his laptop to the Evernote queue on his phone and leaned back with a slightly satisfied air.
Of course, that was the moment when Lurlene walked in the door. She seemed to have lived up to the caricature implicit in her name, wearing a tight cashmere twinset under her denim jacket. Colony collapse had not taken any toll on her beehive hairdo, but Chip suspected that she did need to import a steady supply of vintage hair products from the local estate sales to maintain the EPA-defying sheen. In addition to being a throwback to the 1940s in appearance, Lurlene was a throwback to the 2000s in emotional significance for Chip. Channelingly the popularity of her unbroken line of cheerleader ancestors, Lurlene was the most popular girl in school for Chip’s entire life, or at least until he escaped. Chip, however, was not the most popular boy in school and so there was a lasting coolness divide between the two of them that apparently survived to this day.
“Why, Chip Sparks, what ever are you doing here?” Lurlene drawled with great affectation. She had seen Chip walk in here every morning for the past week and Chip knew it because she had inexplicably winked at him every one of those mornings from her post behind the chair at Darlene’s Beauty Shop (no relation) across the street. Perhaps today he would find out what possible significance a woman of Lurlene’s dimensions could squeeze into a wink.
“Hello, Lurlene. How’s tricks?”
“Tee hee, you were always so out of line when you were younger” she laughed, which was hardly telling Chip anything he hadn’t known already about her opinion of him.
“I guess I mean, how’s business this morning?”
“Oh, no need to be so formal with me, we go way back. It’s been fine. Mrs. Brown was in for her cream rinse and told me that her nephew Ricky won’t be going out for football in the fall.”
While Lurlene seemed to think that this was the depth of crisis, it sounded very reasonable to Chip who had lasted half of one season of junior varsity football before he had to give it up because he couldn’t handle the emotional burden of missing tackles.
“How disappointed she must be,” Chip tried to sympathize to keep the conversation going. “And what else have you been seeing out your window this morning?”
“Besides you? Well, I haven’t seen this much interest in a Board of Supervisors meeting since old Lyle got himself elected by mobilizing the Elks Club vote and tried to outlaw briefs.”
“You’ll have to get me up to speed. I didn’t get good local news coverage online while I was gone. Don’t you have any bloggers in this town?”
Lurlene sneered lightly and began to deliver the dish. “The mining companies have been salivating over some local sandstone formations for months now. They want to blow them to smithereens and sweep up the dust and ship it off in train cars. Apparently our sand is famous the world over for its use in drilling oil or something like that. Anyway, there’s a hearing coming up next week in front of the County Board of Supervisors to decide if they get their permit or not.”
“It’s turned into a big kerfuffle now with some people really opposed to what it will do to our scenic bee-oo-ty and other people desperate for some of that oil money that’s been pouring into North Dakota. The buzz on the street is that there’s going to be a showdown at the meeting on Monday. Buck Lemaire is working for the mining company now and he’s going to be there presenting their case for jobs, jobs, jobs. On the other side, there’s a group led by old Don Mockson that is supposed to planning a real, live sit-in. I’d hate to see what Buck’s going to do to Don if he tries to sit-in within kicking distance of his engineer boots.”
Chip knew Buck Lemaire of course. He was the male counterpart to Lurlene in the high school social superstructure, except in his case, he was descended from a long line of roustabouts with a golden throwing arm. If it involved a bal, Buck excelled at it. Which meant that he hadn’t been terribly impressed with Chip’s very existence after his short, slightly tear-stained football career.
“I’m glad to hear that Buck hasn’t lost any of his joie de vivre while I’ve been gone.” A simpering blink was Lurlene’s only response to his crossword puzzle French aphorism and she clicked her tongue and smiled at Chip and went to make her order at the counter.
Turning back to his laptop, Chip clicked the space bar to wake his computer from sleep and entered in the disk encryption password to get back to his secret stalking of meager employment. Satisfied that there were no other job listings on the Fredrickton Craigslist—in fact, no other listing at all, not even an old headboard from someone’s wedding dowry—Chip closed the lid on his super-slim computer and slid it into the lumbar pocket on the back of his Scott-e vest. As he left the cafe, he tried to throw a casual wave over his shoulder to Lurlene, but in the middle of the gesture he realized he still had no idea what the winks signified, so he stuttered on the key pivot at the top of the wave and ended up looking like he was frantically trying to hail a pedicab. As there were no pedicabs within 300 miles, all he got was a cramp in his neck and an unsurprised hair flip from Lurlene.