It was strangely early when Chip woke up the next morning without any help from an alarm. Programmers weren’t know for being dawn worshipers and Chip was no exception. He liked to get his solid eight hours each night, but he much preferred to start them at least after midnight and preferably not end them too much before 10 a.m. As he lay wide awake on his mattress, Chip vaguely recalled that he had been dreaming before he woke up. he wasn’t one of those people who solved his problems in his dreams, so he didn’t try too hard to remember what it was that he had been dreaming of, but he did have a clear visual image of himself wearing a fedora hat. This wasn’t anything that he had ever tried as an actual fashion choice, but it had a certain hard-boiled 1920s appeal and he rolled over to grab his phone to check on a few online stores to see what it would take to get a good fedora. Like any good geek, he had to do his research before buying, so he wasn’t ready to 1-click anything yet, but he did get some ideas of the various categories and price ranges that he should be thinking about.
Casting aside his hat quest for a trip to the tiled bathroom, which was the only walled space in the entire loft, he figured when he had finished there that he may as well get on with his day. Washing one bowl from the sink, he poured himself a bowl of cereal and munched it in a still-surprised daze of early morning wakefulness. He decided to supplement his cheery disposition with a small helping of social interaction so he shrugged on his jacket full of gadgets and went off down the main street, which was not called Main Street, that was two blocks over, but the primary thoroughfare was called Division Street, but it didn’t seem to divide much except the two sidewalks. He even sauntered a bit as he walked down Division to the coffee shop.
As he turned and grabbed the bell-hung door, he caught sight of Lurlene in the salon across the street shampooing the hair of an older woman and giving a command performance of hanging on her every gossipy word. She must not have been too engaged really, because she was able to spot Chip across the street and give him another one of her confusing winks. She couldn’t wave with her hands wrist-deep in the suds, but Chip would have preferred it if she would have just nodded. The nod is a clarifying gesture, asserting an affirmative greeting, while the wink is furtive and sneaky and where Lurlene was concerned, Chip’s inner child was still suspicious that if she was being sneaky, then he would likely be on the receiving end.
When all of them had been in elementary school together, Lurlene and Buck and Chip and everyone else born in the same year at the small hospital in town all went to the same school because there was only one in town. They managed to get enough students for two classes when they were in the first grade and Chip had felt as if he had a year to live without social stigma since Buck and Lurlene were holding court in the other class, which left Chip relatively unmolested since there wasn’t anyone left in his class to impress, so the knock-on bullying that came from people who wanted to climb the social ladder was absent for the year. In second grade however, there was a rude awakening when the two classes were merged into one after some families had moved out of the district. Anxious to reassert their social dominance, Buck and Lurlene had redoubled their effort to enforce the pecking order. If Buck had been a chicken, he would have lost all of the feathers on his head from all the pecking that came down on him that year.
Shaking the strange trip down memory lane from his consciousness, Chip managed a small wave to Lurlene before he rang the bells opening the front door of the coffee shop. Chip was halfway through his first Americano when he saw Lurlene almost jogging across the street, bouncing in her haircutting smock as she came.
“Howdy pardner,” she greeted him with her drawl swinging over towards Oklahoma this morning.
“And a howdy back to you, I guess. Did you come over to get some coffee?”
“Oh, yeah, I needed something to get me going this morning. I was up late playing bunco with my aunts and I’m not as young as we used to be anymore. Did you have an exciting night up there in your penthouse?”
“It’s called a loft and I had a very productive evening if I do say so myself.”
“Have you produced a clue as to what you are going to do with your life now that you live here?”
Chip reflected that he hadn’t produced many clues at all, except the sketchy information he had gleaned about Buck’s assumption that he should be free to use company tools whenever he wanted. He figured Lurlene would know plenty more of the juicy details of that case, so he asked, “Did Buck ever get into any kind of trouble when you two, uh, dated back in high school?”
“Buck Lemaire? No, he was sort of a sweetheart back then. I mean he’d mix it up with some other boy to let off some steam, but he didn’t ever get in trouble for it.”
“So he didn’t ever lose his temper? Get upset with what someone was saying and haul off and hit them?”
“Buck has always had a bit of a short fuse, but he wasn’t actually the type to just up and punch someone. No, Buck would plot someone’s demise carefully, putting together the pieces until they just walked into his trap. Remember the time that Jimmy Flowers’s pants fell down in the lunch room and everyone saw the purple heart boxers that Joann had given him? That was Buck. He’d work on the button on Jimmy’s jeans every day in the locker room before PE. Eventually, the thread was so frayed that they couldn’t stand it any more and his baggy jeans took a trip down to see his ankles.
“I can’t even remember what it was that Jimmy did to get in Buck’s way. He did always expect to have things his way.”
Lurlene made a sour face as if the topic was causing her some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance and she tried to shake it off before it penetrated her simplistic view of the past.
“So, do you think that he did the same thing with Don Mockson?”
“What!?” she sounded particularly outraged that someone would ask that question out loud. “Of course not. You saw him at that meeting, he didn’t do anything, the old man just fell over. And besides, who knows if they’d ever met before. Maybe that was the first time that Buck and that old guy had ever been in the same room before.”
Chip wondered briefly if that was a testable hypothesis, but the thought was too distracting to be able to maintain a conversation, so he tried to file it away for later, but his mind was notoriously bad at that. That’s what pocket computers were for. Everybody needs an external brain with non-volatile storage.
Chip returned to the conversation after what he hoped was an unnoticeable time spent lamenting his atrophied mental capacities. “Well, maybe they did know each other and maybe Buck had been plotting his demise for a long time.”
“What, like some kind of poisoner out of an Agatha Christie novel?”
That version sounded a bit more hyperbolic than he had intended, so he tried to bring his questions back to earth. “No, I don’t mean, uh, what do you know about Buck’s run-ins with the law?”
“Oh, lots of rumors but nobody seems to know anything. One version of the story says that he was just biding his time before he put them up on eBay.”
“Wait, you can sell tractors on eBay?”
“Sure, everyone around here does it. Are you sure you and I went to school together?”
“Maybe I was there in body but not in spirit.”
“And now you’re here in both? Are you getting ready to settle down? This is a good place to get a wife, raise a family.”
Chip shuddered a little bit at what he imagined it would be like to be married to Lurlene and have little diva children running around stepping on his toes and questioning his qualifications for parenthood. “I don’t think I’m quite ready for that right now. Besides, there can’t be that many single girls around here that didn’t make up there mind about me a long time ago.”
Lurlene threw a little pout as she shrugged her shoulders and defended her coinhabitants, “I don’t think you’re giving the people here very much credit. You don’t have to be the person you think that we think you are. You can just be the person you are now and people will eventually adjust to who that person is.”
Chip nodded reflectively. He hadn’t expected teabag-level aphorisms from Lurlene, but maybe she had been taking her own advice and wasn’t the same head cheerleader that he still thought she was.
“Well, my coffee treat is gone and done and you haven’t even ordered anything yet. I’ll see you around then, I guess.” Chip smiled sheepishly and even thanked her, “Thanks for all your help. It’s good to have at least one friend in town
Lurlene beamed at his unexpected turn of gratitude. “You’re welcome. If you need anything in this town, you can call me. I think everyone around here owes me at least a small favor. When you’re a hairdresser, you collect enough salacious trivia about people that they can’t very well say no when you ask for a favor.”
Chip nodded and smiled at her offer, then went out the door to return to his loft and his car and then to head for Ellen Suffolk’s out in the country.