Chip stopped at the Hy-Vee grocery store to pick up a refill on his crate of ramen and tuna fish cans. Since returning to the homeland of corporate nutrition, Chip had reverted his diet from raw food vegan to lazy-tarian. Some days he didn’t even bother cooking the ramen figuring that it all went to the same place anyways. Chip was only slightly guilty about the lack of seaweed in his cart as the smiley 15 year old cashier checked him out. Refusing the offer of help out to his car as slightly below the dignity of an adult male, Chip walked his one bag out to the parking lot by himself and headed slowly for home, whatever that was.
Growing up, Chip had lived with his Mom and Dad in a ranch house on the south side of town in a neighborhood full of nearly identical ranch houses. With little to recommend itself to Chip’s inflated sense of real estate, he sold the little house very soon after his mother died, not figuring that he would end up back in Fredrickton before a million years were out.
Yet here he was, not there he was, because now that he was back in town he wouldn’t have minded sleeping the old house, but it had a new owner and he doubted they wanted him sleeping in the small bedroom at the end of their hall. Instead, when he got back to town, he had spent all but the last few hundred dollars of his severance package to pre-pay the year’s rent for a loft overlooking the downtown shopping street.
As lofts go, it was a pretender to the title, with ceilings not much taller than an ordinary apartment and the exposed brick looked more like a lack of wall covering than an edgy architectural take on the underpinnings of human shelter. But, it was a bit less jarring of a transition than a cheap one bedroom apartment in the floodplain of the river would have been.
He took his one pot from the pile of dirty dishes next to the sink and set about washing it to get ready to cook. Chip applied the just-in-time principle from computer science to his dishes, figuring that every dish needed to be washed once per use, so why hurry things along by washing it so far in advance and then just leaving it in a cupboard getting dirty again. Instead, this way if he didn’t use his fork or spoon for a meal, he hadn’t already paid up front the time to wash it. Feeling swank enough to cook his noodles tonight, he filled the clean pot with water and set it to boil.
While it boiled, he took stock of the rest of his meager possessions that had made it back with him. Melissa ended up with most of furniture and housewares in their sudden yet strangely amicable separation, while Chip got the electronics and the boxes of unopened mail which fit easily into his coupe for the drive back across the mountains and the plains right back to the place where he started. The computers and nests of cables had taken up residence on a card table from the thrift store and the folding chair that went with it didn’t demand any fine positional adjustments when it was first occupied. There weren’t any sofas there the day he had gone to the thrift store, so the chair in front of the table was the only seat in the whole loft. This suited Chip fine because he spent most of his meal times in front of the computer anyways.
It was however embarassing when the bell rang and Chip bolted up knocking the chair over backwards, startled that he hadn’t even considered the possibility that another human might be in the space at the same time as he was. He pretended to rush around thinking about tidying up before whoever it was came up the stairs, but he didn’t seem to be fooling himself with the act. When he gave up the charade, he just stood awkwardly at the top of the stairs waiting to see whose head appeared above the railing.
The first thing to appear above the railing wasn’t a head, it was a hairdo and so Chip knew exactly who had come to visit him. Lurlene Randall was going to be his first house guest and that seemed even stranger than a week of winks. Chip briefly flashed on the nightmare scenario that she had brought Buck Lemaire with her and they were going to replay the first dance at the senior prom in front of him where her happiness shone down on his loneliness like an emotional mig welder. Blesedly, she was alone as she came to the top of the stairs and pivoted on her kitten heels to see him standing there staring dumbly at her.
“Whatcha lookin’ like that for?” The drawl was a bit forced, but it seemed like such a good fit with the oversized, superfluous sunglasses and polka dot hair ribbon that Chip didn’t want to break the spell by commenting on it. Either the sweater she had been wearing this morning had shrunk in the heat of the hair dryers at the beauty parlor during her workday, or she had re-jiggered the arrangement of some of the parts inside for increased effect.
“Luh, Lurlene, you’re … here,” Chip stammered lamely.
“Apparently that wasn’t obvious.” There she went again with the wink. Some sort of wrinkle in the space-time continuum was definitely developing.
“Well, are you going to invite me in for a drink?”
He desperately would have liked to, but he would have had to already invite some glassware over for a drink and he had neglected to do that ahead of time. Rather than inviting her to share swigs from his water bottle or fair traded stainless steel coffee travel mug, he suggested instead “Why don’t we go out for a drink?” Which was pretty smart because it avoided the bachelor loft scene entirely, and it kept the winks and the sweaters at a comfortable remove from locations where he would be spending lots of time alone in the future.
What wasn’t smart about the drinking out suggestion was that this was Fredrickton. He couldn’t just yelp up a well-rated drinking establishment in an adjacent neighborhood where nobody knows your name, much less your high school GPA. Instead, whatever bar they ended up at would be inhabited by older patrons who had been there since his parents were toddlers and younger patrons who had probably sat on Chip once or twice after Sunday School. Ticking off the short list of possibilities, Chip turned left at the bottom of the stairs as he tried to pull Lurlene along in his wake. She was surprisingly light on her well-painted toes and caught up right by his side in just a few seconds.
“Slow down, tiger! I didn’t know you’d be so hot and bothered to start drinkin’.”
“Sorry, people walk a little faster where I’m from. Where I was from. Where I was. Whatever. Sorry, did you know I would be home tonight?”
“I figured you just got to town so you wouldn’t likely have anything else to do yet.”
Chip thought of how right she would have been, except for the strange hard drive contents riding around in his pocket. Trying to forget that and stay focused on the current interaction, he asked “How was work?”
“What is it with you and work? Now that you’re unemployed, do you need to live vicariously through the experiences of the gainfully employed? Work was work. Hair was cut. Gossip was gossipped. Any details in particular you’re fishing for?”
“Yes, I mean, no, not gossipy details, just … what can you tell me about Ellen Suffolk?”
“They say she got some money from her late ex-husband. No one around here ever met him, she moved in after he had died, but the story is that she can afford her land because of the money that he had made that got left to her. I’m not sure why someone’s ex-husband would leave them a big chunk of cash in the will, but stranger things have certainly happened, even around here.”
“Have you ever seen a movie that she’s made?”
“A movie? No, why do you ask?”
“Well, she’s got 10 grand in video editing computers in her basement and she seems like she might know what she’s doing with them.”
“There hasn’t been any word up at the library about a film showing, but maybe she doesn’t make movies that people at the library would like to see.”
“Hurgh,” Chip grunted and they neared the door of the Re-Bar. Turning in, Chip was relieved to see that he knew very few of the faces at the bar, yet still uneasy that this could be an even worse sign that he couldn’t even recognize the people he should know. The two found their way to a table and Chip danced an awkward little jig while he tried to decide if he should pull out the chair for Lurlene.
Again she chuckled at him and sat down saying, “Why ever did you come back here, Mr. Hardwick?”
Mr. Hardwick was what people called his father, so for a moment Chip didn’t know who she was talking to. He did eventually realize that there was only one Hardwick left in this zip code now and it was him. When he didn’t pipe into song quickly enough, Lurlene clarified “You don’t have family left here and you don’t have a house here and you don’t have a girlfriend here, so why what was it that brought you back here?”
Even though he now realized he was being addressed, he didn’t know the answer to the question, so he couldn’t do much more than stutter “W-well, um, this is where I come from. This was home.” This was an accurate account of historical geography, but not an insightful answer to the question she had asked. “I don’t know, I guess I thought that this was a safe place to come back to, to start over again.”
Lurlene backed off her chill, diva exterior a bit as he said this, almost seeming to soften the sheen of her bangs a little. Chip continued “I was hardly even back here after Mom and Dad died, but I must have felt something familiar then. When things went south in the West, I just started driving this way. Perhaps I am part deranged homing pigeon.”
“Are you going to sit up in that loft eating 25 cent noodles forever or do you have some longer term plans for taking up residence?” she asked, apparently unaware that he had paid a year’s rent in advance.
“Well, the cost of living is low here. It doesn’t take much to keep going. I could start consulting from here, maybe go back to some of the people I worked with, try to drum up some business.”
“Wait, what concern of this is yours. Didn’t you hate me in high school?”
“I never hated you. I just considered you below the threshold of my concern,” which was a surprisingly delicate way of telling him that he wasn’t even worth noticing.
“Judging by your surprise visit this evening, I seem to have risen above that threshold, at least recently.”
“It seems so” she nodded engimatically and Chip wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t just be easier to be out of her sphere of influence still.
“You were talking this morning about some meeting tomorrow night. If I’m going to be taking up real residence here, I should start caring about my local elected officials. What’s been going on politically in the last 10 years?”
“Nothing, at least, nothing that a new immigrant needs to care about. The same seven people have been getting elected to the five county supervisor seats for my whole life. They act like they run the place, even the two of them who aren’t in office at any given time, but really there’s nothing much to be in charge of besides the county fair schedule and the new bulbs for the traffic light.”
“Now, here comes this mining operation from out of state and they need a permit to start blasting for this sand and finally, the Cabal has something to decide about and they’re milking it for all it’s worth. They set themselves up as an ad-hoc committee of the whole and they’ve been holding public hearings and sending around minutes, but really they’re just showing off. They could have voted on this 7 months ago, but then they wouldn’t have gotten to write off all of those working lunches while they reviewed the comments of the citizens…both comments they received.”
“What’s the mining company think about their grandstanding? They can’t be happy to wait on their payday for some two-bit yokel lovers of fine catering.”
“They’re chomping at the bit, but they’ve played this game in enough small towns around here and across the river in Wisconsin to know that if they bide their time, these small towns almost always come around in exchange for the promise of jobs, jobs, jobs.”
“Then what’s the big deal about tomorrow night?”
“Well, suddenly it looks like maybe the supervisors won’t roll over immediately anyways. There’s a group of people in town who are really opposed to this kind of mining and they’re starting to make a stink. Don Mockson says he’s got 10 people ready to do a sit in and you can bet those supervisors don’t want him ruining their tidy little meeting with actual comments. So, there’s a chance that they might just say no to the permit to avoid any possible embarassment.”
“That’s direct action in Iowa for you. Rather than doing a sit-in, you simply raise the topic of a sit-in and it has the desired effect.”
“Almost, except for one problem: Buck Lemaire is whispering into their ears that the protest may not happen. He’s the local fixer for the company. He’s played this game successfully in a few other towns around here and now we get to find out how well he’s played it here in his hometown. If he can head off Don’s sit-in and get the supervisors to return from their parliamentary excursion as a committee of the whole, he could get the permit signed tomorrow night and be digging by the next morning.”