Chicago Chick - G A Lorén - ebook

Chicago Chick ebook

G A Lorén

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Opis

Chicago Chick is a story about a young woman who is forced to leave the big city due to bad luck with relationships. She lands in rural Illinois with her daughter. Struggling to build a new life, she bumps into two men who have strong impact on her future. One is a man you shouldn't bump into; a wanted rapist. The other one is a guy she falls desperately in love with. The story is flavored with drama, passion and humor. If the #metoo movement would feel the need of a manual for women under attack, the chapter 'when bubbles burst' might add some inspiration.

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Liczba stron: 608

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Golden opportunity comes like a snail and goes like a lightning…

Table of Contents

Friends till it ends

End of Dream

Wrong end of a Nightmare

Middle of Nowhere

Keeping Illusions alive

Favorite Pastime

Expectations

Summer Time

Flashback

Review

Audition

Devil’s planning

Fuel and Pool

Wanted

Holy Procedure

First Time

Ticking Eyes, Ticking Bomb

When Bubbles Burst

Nonsense

Lucky Losers

Tire Tracks

Paint in your ass

Truth and Consequence

Muddy Water

Reporters Game

Consultation

When Love Hurts

Rehearsing, Reunion

Farmer vs Farmer

Mill of Law

Promising Prospect

Celebrity Electricity

Urban, Rural

Wrong Direction

Shocking Encounter

Ups and Downs

Hunter’s Game

Easy Rider

Sigh Fashion

Rainy Goodbye

Sad Girl, Sad Song

Another Sad Farewell

From Gloom to Boom

Good Boys, Good News

Greenbacka Dollar

Another Day, Another World

Friends till it ends

SAM LOOKED FROM ABOVE HIS GLASSES as he pushed the bundle across the desktop.

“About time you check out, Joshicker. Another month and you’d count among permanent decoration.”

The big man flashed an inward smile as he took half sitting position on the desktop.

“I can live with that. Beats pollution.”

“Is that how you feel?”

“In my bright moments.”

The frosty irony led the minds to side tracks. Some reflections triggered nasty sneering. The warden locked his hands behind his neck.

“What now?”

Joshicker’s smiling changed to bitter sarcasm.

“What else, I’m going back to my job.” He pretended to search the bundle. “Where the hell is my uniform?”

Silent chuckling confirmed the bonds between the men. Sam interrupted with another grim leer.

“Cremated like mine.”

Joshicker flicked his hand.

“At least you got away with sacking and a warning.”

“Right, sergeant. I was lucky.”

Joshicker’s thoughtful glance slipped out through the window. The sight of fences and guard towers didn’t improve his mood.

“Six years for a fuck. I’ll never forgive that damned bitch! What a sick idea to rig a camera.”

Sam made an ugly grimace. The prostitute had accused him of the same crime but there had been no proof. Still, circumstance had led to the humiliating discharge.

“Will you get back on her?”

“She’ll have her share when she burns in hell.”

“You’ll be there watching?”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

The image of frizzling human flesh silenced them. For a moment they were lost in introspective rumination. They had been friends for as long as they could remember. As Joshicker walked out, it would be like a last farewell. Sam wanted to extend the moment but treating emotion wasn’t his showpiece.

“Will you stay in Texas?”

“I’m racing north. To Canada if that old wreck makes it all the way.”

Sam nodded sideways. He had brought Joshicker’s Mazda to the prison and parked it outside the gates. He shifted forward in his chair and handed over the keys.

“No problem. I charged the battery and filled the tank. It started like that.” He snapped his fingers.

“Good.”

Joshicker jangled with the keys before stashing them into his pocket. He fingered out a couple of bills from his wallet. Sam checked him.

“On the house.”

The wallet went back to the inner of the baggy blazer. Another moment of contemplation followed. None of them wanted to initiate the break up. Sam looked over his glasses again, this time in a questioning manner.

“What’ll you do in Canada?”

“Same as all cops after sacking – private investigation.”

Sam nodded. He too had pondered on that kind of future. The jailer job had saved him.

“No need to go to Canada. You’re a free man now.”

Joshicker grabbed his bundle and slid off the desktop.

“Free is a funny thing, Sam.” He nodded to the inner of the building. “My kind of free died in that foxhole.”

Sam walked around the desk and reached out his hand.

“Take it easy on the roads, you haven’t been driving for six years. It’s a hell of a bustle on the asphalt.”

“Don’t worry, Sam. The one thing I’ve learned at this place is to take it easy.”

Sam walked up to the window to watch his friend strolling towards the gates. The big guy looked small and lonely on the huge yard. Sam didn’t believe he had learned to take it easy. The hullabaloo that danced around in Joshicker’s head had led to nothing but destruction.

End of Dream

THOUGH HE HAD NEVER worded his appreciation, John Carlson liked to listen as Carsie picked his guitar in the workshop. And though Carsie would never admit, he chose to practice in the barn because he wanted audience. John ogled his son as he fastened a metal box in a vise.

“What’s the name of that song?”

Carsie stopped playing. Not because of the question but a string needed tuning. He grimaced as he failed to adjust it to the proper G.

“Just toying with chords, perhaps it’ll be a melody one day.” He picked the string repeatedly. “Must buy new strings, can’t tune these anymore.”

“Sounds all right to me.”

Carsie knew his father had a soft spot for folk music.

“Bertie Berger asked us to play at the Senior Club; he’ll be seventy-five.”

“He’s that old? Doesn’t look it.”

The reminder that not everyone would reach that age squeezed John’s mid-section. He was sixty-one. A week ago, the physician had told him the cancer was beyond curing. He had urged the doctor not to tell him how long time he had. It would be like waiting for the gas chamber. Suppressing unpleasant facts was his life philosophy.

Carsie slid off his stool and leant the guitar against a fence. The barn hadn’t housed livestock for decades. The young musician was ignorant of his father’s condition.

“Must summon the boys; we need rehearsing.”

The boys meant Les Gode on five-string banjo and Tom Brown on fiddle. Carsie did most of the singing but all members knew how to join in with low as well as harmony parts. According to most listeners, the trio did a good job. Carsie ogled his father in wait for response. A nod, a glance or silent grunting would do. There was no such sign. His head shook in idle resignation.

John Carlson kept fiddling with his box. His current mind actually concerned what Carsie was ruminating on – concentration problems. Through sleepless nights, he imagined he could feel the tumor nibbling at sensitive parts of his brain. As to top off the depression, he had received the diagnosis frail heart. He prayed the heart disease would beat the cancer.

As the silence changed the atmosphere in a puzzling way he looked up and noticed that Carsie watched him. He tried to recall if there had been a question. A silly smile ended the abortive attempt.

Like so often over the last weeks, the attempt to concentrate had opposite effect. Instead of trying to solve the practical problem, his mind started grinding on his unproductive biography. He sighed as he failed to lead the mind work to happier tracks. His life was painfully short of happy tracks.

His wife Christine had left him a good year ago. Though the marriage had been a poor joke from first day, she had been the only woman in his life. The divorce had been settled the day he had received his medical sentence. He had read the legal document in the doctor’s waiting-room. Like getting two death sentences in one day. The element of irony pulled his mouth to a bitter smile. Christine could no longer make claims on the huge estate. Everything would go to Carsie. He beckoned the young man closer.

“Come over here, Carsie. I’ll show you something.”

Carsie took no interest in his father’s innovations. None of them had yielded the fortune John had talked about since his first brainchild had transmuted into a pathetic version of a golf bag. It would take a heavyweight champion to transport the thing around the course and when you released the grip around the handle it fell and spread clubs and balls on the ground.

A few patents had been sold for peanuts, but none of them had gone into production. Not even the practical thumbtack remover in the shape of a modified screwdriver. John Carlson made money on repairing agricultural machines, but major source of income was tenant farmers fees. The huge estate was divided into four agrarian sections. The laughable fees had been the same for seventy years. Two thirds were hunting ground, also leased out for peanuts.

Carsie rammed his hands into his pockets as he sided up with the shorter innovator. He watched the thing in the vise with vacant air.

“Okay, I see a metal box with two pipes sticking out. What about it?”

John Carlson looked at his son with shy pride. The boy was good-looking and good-hearted. He wasn’t strikingly brainy but common sense helped him make the right decisions. His smile and charisma had an effect on women. John nodded to the box.

“Why don’t you have a girlfriend? You’re thirty next.”

Carsie shrugged. They had chewed on the issue so many times that he felt like a parrot.

“I’m not ready for marriage.”

“I’m not talking about marriage. But if you don’t start dating, it will be too late. The chicks your age are married and the younger ones think you’re too old.”

“They don’t want me. I have no luck with women.”

John dropped the subject. Talking to Carsie about the opposite sex was like talking to a brick wall. He guessed the boy hadn’t been with a woman at all, not even Betty Brown, the pretty black girl who served as Pickers Point’s associate for lonely men. It wasn’t likely he had met anyone elsewhere. He only left when the band played in small towns around the county. It didn’t happen often and the trio always returned when the performance was over. They loved to sit on the porch in the dark, sipping beer and discussing whether it was the best gig ever. Carsie’s only passion seemed to be his music.

A tired sigh left the inventor’s sunken chest as his conscience reminded him that he was poor adviser in the delicate subject of approaching women. It remained a mystery why a handsome woman like Catherine had agreed to marry him. Even bigger mystery was that the marriage had lasted for thirty years. Perhaps the big farm had been primary attraction. She had grown up on a smaller farm.

“This metal box will make you rich. I have registered a patent in your name. The document is in the drawer.”

He nodded to a cracked piece under the workbench. Carsie shrugged. The million-dollar story had transformed to a mantra.

“Why my name? It’s your innovation.”

“Don’t ask. Listen.”

John Carlson wiped his forehead with cotton waste. It was midafternoon and very hot. The doors to the barn were wide open. Normally, it meant a breeze that cooled the air, but right now desert-like heat gushed in.

“You know that engines are propelled by gas. Now, gas is made of oil and oil is not only expensive, it’ll become short supply in a few years. The Chinese and billions of Asians can suddenly afford cars.”

Carsie turned his eyes to the sky. His father’s tardy way of presenting his cases had been exposed to public irony for decades.

“Really? I had no idea.”

John Carlson ignored the scorn.

“This little box will change everything. The content will replace gas and almost all other energy. All you have to do is attach the box to the carburetor with a duct and the car will keep rolling for at least five thousand miles.”

Carsie wasn’t in the habit of scrutinizing people’s features but something about his father’s appearance bothered him. The skin was grayish and the blue eyes seemed to have grown in the thin face.

“Modern cars don’t have carburetors.”

“Find an old one with a carburetor.”

Carsie had a feeling of listening to a child’s fantasy. And the unhealthy looks distracted him.

“Okay, what’s inside?”

“Since you take no interest in techniques, the explanation will do you no good. But there’s a notebook with all information in the drawer. It’s built on Electro-magnetism and the unknown power of bauxite.”

“Never heard of.”

“You would if you had paid attention at school. It’s the ore used to produce aluminum. Now, what’s happening is that the mix produces a substance that equals gas – not in the liquid form – but gas in a gaseous state.”

“Gas turned into gas. Amazing.”

“It is amazing. Science hasn’t touched upon this. The box content does what gasoline does in a carburetor.”

“Have you tried it?”

“I tried on the mower. It worked fine.”

“A mower is not a car.”

“It’s the same principle. It’s all about principles. You don’t invent mechanical stuff, you invent principles.”

Carsie’s head shook again. This time to clear it from irrelevant mind work. He had started pondering on appropriate mix for Saturday’s show. These old people would certainly appreciate Burl Ives’ ballads.

“Why haven’t science thought of it? The big institutions have recourses to test all materials.”

“Got nothing to do with big, it’s a first time for everything. All great inventions start with one person’s idea. And the metal itself doesn’t do the job. Heating process and interaction with other components are involved.”

Carsie’s struggled to appear interested.

“Okay, but why do want me to know? You’ve never told me about details of your creations before.”

“There is a reason.”

“What reason?”

John Carlson sighed again. Within short Carsie would be alone with a giant estate and a big house. A woman by his side had been on his wish list for years. He wondered what was wrong. The boy was a real looker. In his late teens the girls had lined up. One of them was Jennifer Brown, a sprightly little darling with an infectious smile. She had told John in confidence that Carsie had been first choice for all pretty young women. There had been frequent invitations to exercise in bed. The poor chicks had thrown in the towels when the object of affection had treated them like creatures from outer space.

And he didn’t know how to cook. After Catherine had left, John had taken over the kitchen. He wasn’t much of a cook either, but he knew how to season pork chops and fry sausages. In spite of that, or because of the uniform menu, Carsie often went to town for hamburger or pizza.

But food habits were trifles compared to the other problem. Carsie’s lack of interest in techniques had expanded to major obstacle because of John’s limited time on earth.

He had other qualities though, perhaps more useful than technical skill. Carsie was economical. He had been in charge of the estate’s finance since his grandfather’s death. To John Carlson, money’s only value was as investment in innovations.

After he had received his first diagnosis, he had signed up for a giant loan to cover the metal box illusion. In his world of hazy daydreams, debts were removed from the cause-list when the borrower died.

“Now, over the next few weeks you and I will spend some time together. I’ll teach you how to produce one of these. It is important that you understand the principle. Then you register a company and start production.”

He noticed that Carsie’s eyes drifted out through the open doors. He guessed that in his mind the young man was out on the yard swinging his baseball bat, his only other hobby.

“Whatever you do, don’t sell the patent. Imagine this, if the stuff can propel a car engine, it can propel a generator. Everybody can produce own electricity.”

Carsie nodded and kept back another yawn. Contrary to his father’s assumption, baseball wasn’t current issue on his mind. He hadn’t played baseball for years. His reflections concerned one other of his father’s inspirations that had turned out to be pure fantasy. It too had been about energy, a favorite issue of John Henry Carlson’s.

A prospective buyer – an engineer from a reputed firm – had arrived to have a look at the heater that would warm up any house for one third of the current costs. The man had found himself staring at an empty cast iron shell. He had looked ready to suggest transport of John Carlson to the nearest asylum. The innovator’s explanation that the thing wasn’t quite ready for production hadn’t improved the judgment.

Since that embarrassing incident, Carsie questioned all whimsical chronicles about future success.

“I won’t sell but what the hell, this is way above me?”

There was no immediate answer. They looked at each other again, Carsie questioning, John with sadness.

“If you run into problems, ask Pittershawn Bradley advice. He can solve any technical problem.”

Carsie knew Pittershawn well. The young man was a frequent guest in the workshop. In public opinion, he was the only one qualified to challenge John Carlson in the local nutcase competition.

He didn’t know what to say and kept watching his father’s pale face in silence. Something was out of tune, it was early summer and everybody had a fresh tan.

A nickel started spinning inside Carsie’s head as in search for the slot. Fragments of the chat that had seemed irrelevant suddenly knocked for attention. Why involve Pittershawn Bradley when John Carlson was around?

The coin dropped hard. It was like a slap on his cheek. His father was dying. It stunned him he hadn’t noticed before. It was the approaching end that drained the man’s features of color. Suddenly he saw nothing but big sad eyes in the hollow face. He realized it was cancer; all symptoms were there.

He gulped and closed his mouth. For more than a minute he searched for words to ease the tension. He felt his smile gluing to his face while brain and tongue got stuck with collective paralysis. He felt like an idiot and hinted he looked like one.

THE SITUATION WAS DISASTROUS in more than one sense, not least to him. First, he didn’t have a job. Tom Brown, the fiddler doubled as self-employed carpenter. When he needed assistance or wanted to take a few days off, he called in Carsie or Les Gode or both. It could be weeks between commissions, though.

The leasing contracts paid the house loan and a little more. He knew the fees could be tripled but that involved bargaining with tough neighbors. The hunting ground – two thirds of the gigantic estate – was leased out for a laughable thousand dollars a year.

The music didn’t yield much. The band didn’t get many assignments and people who hired them considered singing and playing a hobby. His savings would keep him going for six or seven months.

The numbness refused to ease. He struggled to give a relaxed impression and wanted to say something casual about anything but his tongue didn’t obey. He also wanted to end the imbecile staring but couldn’t take his eyes from his father’s colorless face. In his fantasy the round head gradually assumed the shape of a cranium. The skin and hair seemed to dissolve and fall off like in a computer-generated image in a movie.

In the middle of his dimness, topics started bouncing in his anaesthetized head. He grabbed one of them like catching a fly in the air.

“Why Pittershawn Bradley?”

“Because he can help and he won’t cheat on you.”

The following silence seemed to shudder in the air. Senior returned his son’s scrutiny with half-closed eyes. He realized the truth had dawned on the young man. Right now, he was probably working on the diagnosis. To him, the word tumor was written on his face. He prayed Carsie had jumped to the right conclusion. It would save him the painstaking explanation. Since the final confirmation of his physical condition he refused to speak the word ‘cancer’ aloud.

CARSIE INTERRUPTED his stupefied staring and turned to look through the door opening again. An out-house covered his field of vision but he didn’t see it. For no obvious reason, his mind resumed the opposite sex topic. Perhaps instinct tried to pass on the message that a woman in the house wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

It wasn’t true he had no luck with women. He knew what was wrong. It was all in his mind. The very thought of being alone with a woman ready for love dazed his brain. More than once, girls had started dropping their garments in his presence. With sweat rippling down his forehead, he had fabricated feeble-minded excuses like recalling appointments or that his mother was ill.

He didn’t blame the girls if they jumped to conclusions like impotence or homosexual disposition. He had often tried to analyze the conflict from psychological point, but the subject was above him. He refused to involve his mother’s sordid involvement.

He felt ashamed for pitying himself for trivial reasons at a moment like this and forced his mind back to neutral track. Pittershawn Bradley saved him again. The guy was the archetype for a nerd. All he cared for was technical odds and ends. When a new product was introduced on the market, he bought one and detached every piece just to see what it looked like inside. Though he was a trained engineer he didn’t have that kind of job. He worked as warden in the Lutheran parish and seemed perfectly pleased. All he wanted was to be left alone with his mechanical stuff.

Carsie rested his sad eyes on his father’s profile. The innovator pretended he didn’t notice. To avoid returning any kind of sympathy, he kept toying with his box in a ridiculous way.

Carsie recognized that this was not how father and son were supposed to treat emotion. Consolation and understanding ought to set the standard. He filled his lungs and shifted to the humbleness that confronts all humans when the reminder of death takes possession of the mind.

“Okay, I’ll talk to Pittershawn if anything goes wrong. When do you want me to start learning about that thing?” He prayed his way of pronouncing the finishing word didn’t interpret as disrespectful.

JOHN CARLSON NOTICED the change of tone and attitude. He felt sorry and pleased in equal shares, but most of all he felt empty. He had an awkward feeling of reading his will aloud. The chief agony was that he had to live his last days on earth without being able to discuss his torment with Carsie. They didn’t have that relation.

He blamed the religious background though he had never paid religion much attention; neither had Carsie. The family had been members of the Lutheran church since their ancestors had arrived six generations ago. Lutherans don’t complain, Lutherans don’t praise anyone but God; Lutherans always feel guilty. Lutherans work, save, invest and work more.

His conscience reminded him that he hadn’t been much for saving during his mediocre life. Another reason for his reluctance to penetrate certain issues was of genetic nature. He prayed the obscure truth would never surface.

“Let’s start tomorrow.”

They eyeballed again like trying to speak through glancing. For the first time, John Carlson felt genuine empathy for his son. He was desperate to give the young man something to live for. And he wanted to be remembered as the goodhearted father. Actually, he was a goodhearted though very naive man.

They ended the silent emotion with each a consoling smile. Carsie accidentally hit the strings on his guitar as he grabbed the instrument and walked out. The tone had a sinister ring to it. Like a lonely church bell. He felt sick to his stomach.

TOMORROW NEVER DAWNED on John Henry Carlson. As next day’s first sunbeam formed a beautiful square on the wall in his bedroom, a merciful heart attack ended his life.

Wrong end of a Nightmare

JOSHICKER SLOWED DOWN at the lonely house. He was tired on the point of passing out. He had been driving for hours without spotting a place where he could stop for rest and food. And he was in desperate need of road direction. He didn’t even know which state this was.

He stopped on the courtyard with engine running and walked up to the house door. A face withdrew from a window when he rang the doorbell. He didn’t notice.

The door flung up before he had taken his thumb from the button. A shotgun pointing to his stomach turned on his rage but he suppressed the anger. Twenty years in the force had taught him to treat pressure. Without taking his eyes from the hostile face, he noticed a stairway to the upper story and an open door to another room.

The shotgun man struggled to maintain aggressive approach. Joshicker checked a sneer.

“Don’t point that gun to me.”

“Don’t tell me what to do in my house!”

The man twisted his face to laughable misunderstanding of threat. The clerical collar clashed with his looks and behavior. His voice kept cracking.

“What do you want?”

“I want a road direction to the nearest motel.”

“There is no motel around. How the hell do I know you’re not a robber or a murderer?”

“I’m a police lieutenant.”

“Yeah, and I’m Jesus. Piss off!”

He made a foolish, far too slow sweeping motion with the gun. Joshicker caught the opportunity as the weapon pointed sideways and wrung the piece out of the man’s hands. Like taking a toy from a child, he thought. He still kept back the scornful smile.

The priest’s aggression shifted from shock to horror. His eyes drifted between the gun muzzle and his empty hands like he was watching an illusionist’s trick.

Joshicker found the situation more comical than dramatic. He pointed the barrel to the guy’s stomach just to teach the moron what it’s like to have a shotgun five inches from your chest. It didn’t occur to him that the gun hade landed in his left hand during the tumult. He was right-handed. He raised his free hand to wave his fist in the man’s horror-struck face.

The tiredness played a disastrous trick on him as he made to clench the hand. He clenched the wrong hand and squeezed the trigger by mistake. The blast from the weapon was the most frightening sound he had ever heard.

An appalling grimace distorted the victim’s face as he dropped to the floor like a bull in the slaughterhouse. During the fall he flung out a hand and scratched Joshicker’s cheek with his nails.

Joshicker’s grimace wasn’t prettier though he twisted his face for another reason. The horror pumped up his mind till it seemed ready to explode. The puddle of blood on the rug rippled in under his shoes. The victim stared with stiff and accusing wide-open eyes.

Police instinct took over again and urged him to check the pulse though he realized the man was very dead. He snatched a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the shotgun and threw it into the hall. The weapon bounced and landed with the butt on the dead man’s chest.

A cat mewed loudly from top of the stairway. Joshicker jerked up his head and held his breath while he listened for other sounds. It was so silent he could hear his heart pounding. He spun around and ran down the stairs.

“Damned fool!”

He couldn’t decide whether he meant himself or the dead priest. Probably both. He threw him in behind the wheel and slammed the door so hard that the handle came off. He threw it out through the open window. The tires spread gravel and sand over the courtyard as he took off.

GLARING SUNLIGHT announced another hot day. Despite the early hour and open windows, the temperature inside the car approached ninety. Joshicker shook his head hard as to clear it from a nightmare. Yesterday’s distress had tortured him throughout the night. He had been so upset he hadn’t even considered stopping and try to get some sleep. The fuel meter needle rested against the little pin that announced emergency. He stopped at a road sign and read Pickers Point 1876 dwellers. His yawning drained the near atmosphere of oxygen but exhalation restored the balance.

He looked and felt destroyed. The scratch marks on his cheek had darkened and gave impression of fight with a cougar. His stomach cramped with hunger.

He rolled into the little town and prayed he would find an open eatery or at least a grocery store. It was nine o’clock and very silent.

Half a mile down the street he stopped again and read Swede’s Restaurant on a blue and yellow sign. A big fellow made industrious use of a broom outside the entrance. Joshicker got out and walked the few steps to the open door. He too was a big man but the guy with the broom outsized him. He stopped sweeping and gave a stern nod.

“Morning, sir, the kitchen hasn’t opened yet but we can fix egg and bacon if you like.”

“Fine, and a sandwich if it isn’t too much trouble.”

“No problem. Step in.”

Joshicker followed him into the place.

“And coffee, please.”

He chose a table near the door. Only one other table was occupied. An older man read a newspaper and sipped coffee. The men eyed one another for a second and greeted with indifferent nods. Joshicker made sure he had his back to the other guest as he sat down. The scent of bacon made his nostrils tremble. He dug out items from his pockets and put them on the table. A cigarette case with engraved letters reflected in the light from a window.

A plump woman in her sixties arrived with his food. The sandwich was bigger than the plate. He started shoveling in before she had walked away. For the next ten minutes, the only sound in the room was the clattering from his cutlery. He had never experienced egg and bacon this tasty. He sucked up the grease with a piece of his sandwich and rinsed with coffee.

Full stomach satisfaction filtered through snug smiling. His idle gaze stopped at a bulletin board. The message ‘Lutheran Parish looking for Substitute Clergy’ caught his attention. His smiling shifted to arrogant during reading. His father had served as a parson in a small parish in Texas. He knew all about the holy procedure. He got up and tore down the piece on his way out.

The elder man lowered his paper and set his narrowing eyes on the stranger’s disappearing back.

Middle of Nowhere

PICKERS POINT WAS SAID to have its name from an early settler with unusual talent for making enemies. No trifle was too petty for argument. If no human was around, he picked on his dog. Rumor had it that a plum had choked him to death as he inhaled to wreak his wrath on a man who had thrown an apple-core on his land.

Not everyone was pleased to live at a place with association to an ill-tempered complainer. A widespread alternative was that the name had a connection to apple picking. The objection was that the name had been there before the apple farms.

Elevated class explanation was that the first natives had been people looking for a select place to live. Residence pickers, they called them. Their pretext involved the pretty environment.

Others, with origin back to first dwellers insisted that the name was mis-spelt, should be Pickets Point, referring to the old farmers’ picket fences.

Truth or construction; when the place had grown big enough to earn a name on the map, no one objected to Pickers Point as official identification.

Today’s Pickers Point was a well-organized community with nineteen hundred inhabitants in the central area and another thousand in the rural surroundings. Many derived their origin from Scandinavia though the younger generation barely knew where to find that part of the world on a global map.

RETIRED BANKER EBENEZER BAIRN was born and raised in Springfield. He had applied for a situation in Pickers Point local bank when he was forty and had lived in this peaceful district for thirty-two years. He didn’t care much for origins. For all he knew, he was American with bonds to Scotland.

As bank manager he had been offered a spacious residence in the center of the village. After retirement he had considered the house too big but he had kept it for reasons of comfort. When his wife had died, the house had grown even bigger in his mind but the new excuse for not selling was old age.

His porch was the perfect spot for observing life in Pickers Point. Facing north, it was shadowed during hot hours; a tin roof covered and glassed wall sections served as rain and wind shelter. Virginia creeper trailed up on poles and framed the two elder men behind the railing. Only their heads were visible. Ebenezer and his friend Frick Everett spent so much time at the place that people regarded them part of the town decoration.

The panorama included Swede’s restaurant, the barbershop, the bank and – best of all – the bus stop. The latter was so close that no one disembarked the Chicago Bus without being thoroughly scrutinized. It was also a site where people passed by on foot. Many stopped for a chat. The gentlemen were well informed of local events and people’s thinking and doings.

FRICK’S OLD ROCKING CHAIR moved in time with his idle thoughts. He didn’t take out his pipe as he spoke.

“The best about being retired is that no one tells you what to do.”

Ebenezer was used to his friend’s manner of speaking. Words and smoke came out through the same corner of the mouth. It gave impression of visible remarks like in a cartoon.

“You’ve said that before, Frick. But you’re a retired doctor. The doctor has no boss.”

“How little you know about the human race, Eben. Every patient was my boss. Every diagnosis, every prescription was questioned. As soon as people catch the tiniest cold, they know better than the doctor; they consult him only to confirm own diagnosis.”

Ebenezer sighed.

“Do you know what, doctor. You’re an old whiner. Nobody questions the doctor’s word, no matter how wrong he may be.”

“There you go.” Frick mimicked with a surly grimace. “How wrong he may be…The doctor is nothing but wrong.”

He reached for his beer and had a decent swig. The only occasions when he took out his pipe was when he was eating, drinking or sleeping. His eyes lost focus.

“John Carlson had no reason to question his diagnosis, though. Poor fellow.”

The mention of the dead innovator reminded them of life’s ups and downs. As members of the same parish, they had attended the emotional funeral. Young Carsie had looked lonely and abandoned in his dark suit. Christine, mother and ex-wife, hadn’t regarded the incident worth the trip from her new residence in California.

They devoted to introspective rumination for a moment. Ebenezer broke the silence.

“At least he escaped being eaten by that cancer. The heart attack must have been a relief.”

“I’d say it was. I saw quite a few being tortured by brain tumor during my doctor era.”

Ebenezer turned to watch the old physician with sad air. The puffing friend didn’t notice or pretended he didn’t notice. The banker shrugged.

“You’re working on the same diagnosis, doctor, blowing that pipe from the minute you get up in the morning. You’ll end up in your grave before your time.”

“You’d make a better doctor than I was, Eben.”

Thoughtful reflection silenced them again. The topic had been up to debate many times and the response was always the same. Ebenezer leant back in his chair. Colored by his former profession, he had a fancy for involving finance in his meditation.

“Did it occur to you that Carsie at the age of thirty is the second largest land owner in the region?”

“I’ve thought about it. A heavy load for a young man Massive paperwork with those leasing agreements, I suppose. Not to mention the estate.”

“Bill Anderson administrates the estate.”

“Carsie makes the decisions.”

Ebenezer agreed with absent-minded nodding.

“I asked if he needed expertise support with the paperwork, but he declined with thanks. He told me he had been in charge of everything concerning finance since his grandfather died. His father only added his signature.”

Frick’s head shook in sad recognition.

“I’m not surprised. Before John Carlson got buried in sacred ground he was buried in his workshop. Real life was a disturbing element in his world.”

A man on bicycle pedaled by. He greeted the men on the verandah with raised hand. They responded with each a lazy motion. The fellow stopped outside the barbershop and parked his bike. Ebenezer grimaced.

“So, our new priest will have a beauty treatment before his first sermon.”

Frick caught the quarrelsome pitch.

“He’ll have his hair cut or a shave like everybody else. What about it?”

“It’s something uncanny about him.”

“Since when do you take an interest in parish matters?”

“Got nothing to do with Jesus. Something about the guy gives me the creeps.”

“Not easy to please you, Eben. How can you make a cocksure statement about a fellow you don’t know? He has only been here for a week. He maintained the funeral service well enough.”

“He read aloud from a book. I saw him at Swede’s place when he arrived. He didn’t look like a priest to me.”

“What should a priest look like when he’s off duty – in contrast to other people?”

“First, he hasn’t got red-rimmed eyes and three days bristle. He looks neat and dignified – an example to people. This guy looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. Except for his clothes, they looked as if he had slept in them for a week.”

Frick pondered on the untimely allegation. Ebenezer was a keen observer, but he used to introduce his conclusions in a more composed vocabulary.

“Did you talk to him?”

“No, but I heard him talking to Swede. The only thing about him that resembled a man of the church was his manner of speaking. He spoke like someone used to addressing an audience.”

“You can tell that from a couple of words?”

“Just a feeling.”

“You think he is hiding something?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Why a clergy situation if he’s on the run?”

“Can’t think of a better cover.”

Frick ogled his friend thoughtfully. The dogmatic portrayal of the innocent stranger clashed with Ebenezer’s normally modest manners.

“What’s his name?”

“John Butterfield, he claims.”

“Claims? You don’t believe he knows his name?”

“I believe he does, but it’s not John Butterfield.”

The fictive element didn’t escape the puffing doctor.

“You’d make a great crime writer, Eben.”

“Perhaps, but this is based on observation. The man put a cigarette case on the table while searching his pockets. Engraved initials were J.J.”

“Doesn’t mean a thing. He could have bought it in a second-hand shop or inherited from a relative.”

“He could have stolen it. But that’s speculation. Fact is that he put a cigarette case on the table and the letters J.J. were clearly visible.”

Ebenezer grabbed his beer bottle, confirmed it was empty and returned it. His idleness kept him from fetching another one.

“John Carlson was my kind of fellow. He didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t.”

Frick chuckled with his mouth closed.

“I understand you feel related to him. He was the most pitiful innovator ever to appear in the state of Illinois.”

“Don’t debase the man, doctor. He was buried two days ago. Show some respect.”

“The truth is not debasing.”

“It is sometimes. The tone makes the music.”

A reminder of one of John Carlson’s escapades pulled the doctor’s mouth to a big smile. The story was so funny he had to take out his pipe.

“Do you remember that apple picking gadget he constructed to reach the upper fruits. The thing that worked like a travelling crane with the picker hanging horizontally, face down and arms free, legs kicking in the air like when a kid learns to swim. It was operated with a remote control, fastened on his belt.”

“Don’t mock the poor man, Frick. He tried his best.”

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘best’ in connection with that man’s exploits. When he tested – the device was powered by electricity – something got out of control and it started transporting him back and forth at high speed. It was nothing he could do to stop it. Smart as he was, he had chosen a tree next to the road. A bunch of youngsters passed by on mopeds. They stopped to watch – not to help. One of the bastards began humming that old tune ’Now they calls me hanging Johnny’.”

“Yeah, I heard about it. The grocer’s saucy lad was one of them. Kids have no respect for older people any more. Anyway, Carsie fixed it and got him down.”

“Yes, when he got back from a job two hours later. Professor Carlson was on the verge of blackout.” Frick ogled his watch and looked down the street. A quarter of a mile of the straight road was in sight from his position. “The bus is late. Who’s driving today?”

Ebenezer searched his memory. He knew the bus drivers’ schedules by heart.

“Must be Peterson.”

“No wonder it’s late.”

Frick looked down the street again. Dust emerged from behind a two-story building.

“Here it is.”

Ebenezer got up to fetch more beer. He stopped in the doorway.

“Talking about Carsie, his band is playing at Bertie Berger’s birthday party.”

“Really? Better reason to accept the invitation than to celebrating that old Scandinavian sourpuss.”

“Bertie’s a nice fellow.”

He went into the house and returned with two bottles. As he thudded down in his chair, the bus stopped and the dust cloud caught up. A soft breeze blew it across the street towards the bank building.

Only one person disembarked. A pretty young woman put her suitcase on the ground and brushed down her jeans to clean her palms it seemed. She looked irresolute. The bus driver hooted a greeting to the doctor and the banker as he continued his journey.

Frick lowered his voice.

“That’s the prettiest thing I’ve seen in this town for years. I wonder who she is.”

The woman caught the sound of his voice though not the words. She brightened up as she spotted the two pensioners behind the railing.

”Hi, do you know if there is a hotel around?”

Ebenezer beckoned to her.

“Come up here, young lady. You’re getting dusty down there. People drive like car thieves.”

As she came closer, they established she was not only pretty; she had that kind of female radiation that urges men to pull in their stomachs. Frick almost forgot he was seventy when she flashed an adorable smile. Her teeth were small and very white.

“I’m Cornelia Beckerbie. Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you, Cornelia. My name is Frick Everett, retired doctor.” He nodded sideways to his friend. “This is Ebenezer Bairn. He spent his working life squeezing money out of decent people. He used to be a bank manager. What brings a pretty thing like you to a godforsaken corner like this?”

A shrug served as response. Ebenezer offered a chair.

“Would you like a glass of beer?”

“Yes, please. It’s really hot.”

He paced to the kitchen, returned within seconds and handed a glass with foaming liquid to the pretty guest. She had a mouthful and looked like she needed it.

“That was good.” Her eyes drifted among the two men. “Do you think it’s possible to find a job and a place to live around here?”

Frick nodded eagerly. The prospect of seeing this beauty on a regular basis was very appealing.

“What kind of job?”

“Any job, I used to work as a waitress in Chicago.”

“In that case I have good news.” Frick pointed across the street. “See that blue and yellow sign?” He waited for her to nod. “The owner’s name is Swede Anderson. The place is as close to classy as you get around here, nice food and nice clientele. Ebenezer and I drop by every Sunday. They serve a delicious ‘kalops’.”

“Collapse?”

“No, kalops, Swedish version of goulash. Worth a try.”

She gave her delighted smile again. A glint in her eyes revealed sense of humor.

“Am I right to conclude that Swede Anderson derives his origin from Sweden?”

Frick chuckled at the over-explicit observation.

“He’s more Swedish than the Swedes. And he’s proud of his origin. Being of Scandinavian stock isn’t unusual around here, though.”

She nodded knowingly.

“The word is that Swedish immigrants had a substantial influence on Chicago when it was built. That’s where I was born and raised.”

Frick knew his regional history.

“Chicago was second only to Stockholm in number of Swedes during a period.”

“Really? I didn’t know.”

Ebenezer thumbed to the restaurant.

“Swede told us he’s looking for a part time waitress. He and his wife do most of the job, but they’re getting old. A girl works extra Fridays and Saturdays. When he takes in your looks it’ll be full time job just like this.”

He snapped his fingers and prayed his smile looked fatherly rather than lovesick.

She was aware of her female vitality.

“You think I have a chance?”

“Sure. He hasn’t advertised yet. Stress that you’re a great fan of everything that comes from Sweden.”

“All I know about that country is that Swedes are great ice-hockey players. Is he there right now?”

“He’s in his office at this time of day. The rush is over.”

She nodded to her suitcase.

“Can I leave that one for a minute?”

“Of course.”

They watched her tripping down the stairs and hurrying towards the eatery. Ebenezer craned his neck to catch another glimpse of the sexy posterior that moved rhythmically inside the tight jeans.

“Enterprising girl. If she gets the job, Swede might double his business.”

Frick’s air shifted between worry and sarcasm.

“Take it easy, Eben. You’ll have a stiff neck if you keep wringing your head like that.”

The banker put his hand on his neck and rubbed gently.

“Glad you mentioned it, doctor. I already have a stiff neck. Is it anything you can do about it?”

“No, but there is something you can do. Look here.”

He turned his head hard, looking over his shoulder.

“Do this twice a day and stay in the position for as long as you manage. Press hard, jerk a little.”

They kept twisting their heads as if looking at something to their left. Staring direction was down the main street. From the corners of their eyes, they saw the priest coming out of the barbershop, swinging his leg over the bicycle and pedaling towards them. As he passed, he tried to catch attention. They were too busy pressing necks to respond. The cyclist noted they were looking strictly in a certain direction and looked curiously to the same point – lost control of his own direction and hit a stone with the front wheel. The wheel wobbled before bike and rider fell noisily on the dusty road. For a moment the stout man’s shoes pointed to the sky. It was not a seemly position for a man of the church.

The noise interrupted the neck exercise. Frick and Eben watched the clergyman getting up with some difficulty and brushing down his trousers. Frick raised his voice.

“Everything all right, father?”

Ebenezer hissed from behind clenched teeth.

“Not father, he’s not a catholic!”

Frick didn’t care much for ecclesiastic refinement.

“Need any help, father?”

The priest dismissed with a hand motion. Only his pride had got hurt. His expression went from humiliation to irritation like the two men had deliberately cheated him to lose concentration.

“No, I’m all right. The front wheel hit a stone and made me lose balance.”

“They shouldn’t let those pebbles lying around without warning marks. I’ll have a word with the technical department. Alicia Hertzman is responsible.”

The clergyman didn’t miss the irony.

“Thank you, sir.”

The companions watched him straddling his vehicle and continuing along the road in considerably higher tempo. They decided he looked rather silly when he bent over the handlebars like a tournament cyclist. Frick kept watching until the man was lost behind a hedge.

“Now, you must repeat in the other direction.”

Ebenezer looked straight ahead for a moment.

“Repeat what?”

“The neck exercises.”

“It really hurts to do that, you know. I’d rather live with the stiffness.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, it always hurts for a start. You must work with that idleness of yours.”

“I’m seventy-two; I’m supposed to be idle.”

They resumed beer sipping and glancing down the road for signs of life. It was midafternoon and the heat kept people indoors. A massive Schaefer dog slept outside the restaurant. It stretched out and blocked the sidewalk.

The restaurant door opened, Cornelia stepped out and nearly stumbled over the dog. The men straightened up and tried in vain to diminish their tummies. When she was sure they had seen her, she raised her arm and waved energetically. The friends decided the job was hers.

The doctor smiled like he hadn’t smiled since his daughter in confidence had told him she was pregnant after ten years marriage. Ebenezer raised his arm and returned the waving.

Not knowing that his friend made the same decision, Frick made up his mind to increase his number of weekly visits at Swede Anderson’s place. They were both widowers.

Keeping Illusions alive

CARSIE WETTED HIS THUMB before counting. The five-dollar bills looked well used.

“Fifty for you.”

He handed over the money without looking at the guy who received it. Les Gode made sure it was fifty before he stashed the bills into his shirt breast pocket. He sat on the top bar of a fence that surrounded an empty corral. His feet rested on the second bar and the banjo on his lap.

“Not much considering the time we spend practicing and making up programs for the bastards.”

Carsie shrugged and counted another fifty.

“They think they’re doing us a favor, paying at all.” He handed the bundle to the other man who was leaning against the fencing. “Fifty for you, Tom.”

Tom Brown sighed but he didn’t count the bills that went down his jeans back pocket.

“We’re doing it for fun, remember.”

Les played the first bars of ‘Little Brown Jug’ to stress his ironic mind.

“Very funny playing for a bunch of half-asleep mummies. We should change the mix, country and bluegrass rather than folk songs.”

Carsie counted fifty for himself and another fifty for expenses. The latter bundle was stashed into a little cashbox he was squeezing under his arm.

“We’d better stick to what we do best. These people really appreciate our music. I’d rather play for a bunch of listening pensioners than a pack of fed up teenagers.”

“Teenagers don’t dig country music.”

“Some of them do.”

Les Gode picked his instrument lazily when there was a pause in the conversation.

“Perhaps we need a singer.”

Carsie didn’t catch the intention.

“Why? We’re all good singers, harmony part and all.”

“I mean a pretty girl. It would attract young boys and young girls; they all dream of stage career.”

Carsie rested his eyes on the only moving objects around – Les Gode’s picking fingers.

“Where do we find such a girl in Pickers Point?”

They fell silent to ponder. The town housed as many pretty girls as any other small place in Illinois, but no one was known to have a good enough voice.

Tom Brown looked at his watch.

“I got to go. Work is waiting.” He flashed questioning glances. “I have a job for one guy. The church council asked me to fix the vestry, mostly painting.”

Carsie shook his head.

“Not me; this estate business is killing me.”

Tom looked demandingly at Les Gode. He preferred Carsie. Les needed someone to keep an eye on him. The banjo player accepted with an indolent shrug.

“Okay. I need the cash.”

“Good. I’ll be in my office at around four.”

The office meant a corner and a desk in Tom Brown’s garage. The lanky fellow sauntered to his pickup. Tom Brown Carpenter was painted on the door. People thought Carpenter was his name. Carsie watched the Chevrolet rolling over the courtyard. His eyes lost focus when the transport was out of sight.

“That old Volvo of yours, is it still running?”

The change of subject narrowed the banjo picking friend’s eyes. He stopped playing.

“Why?”

“I need to borrow it.”

Les Gode nodded to Carsie’s Ford.

“What’s wrong with that one?”

“It’s a fuel injection, I need a carburetor.”

“What for?”

Carsie thumbed to the barn.

“I’ll show you.”

Les jumped down and followed his friend to the huge building. As he passed his car, he put the banjo on the passenger seat. He too had an old pickup for daily use.

IT TOOK A MOMENT to get used to the subdued light in the barn. The metal box was fastened in the vise just like John Carlson had left it the day before he died. They sided up at the workbench with hands in pockets. Carsie had spent hours reading the instructions. It might as well have been written in Chinese. John Henry Carlson’s fancy for cryptic language in speaking as well as writing remained a cause of annoyance. One of the documents – probably passing for sort of testimony – began with the self-invented aphorism where mediocrity rules, talent is a threat and ended with the apparent nonsense hay, man. Should have been hey, man if anything, Carsie sighed.

He knew Les shared his lack of fascination for techniques. The reason he told him was the need of the Volvo. The banjo man nodded to the box.

“That thing’s got something to do with my Volvo?”

“It’s got something to do with fuel.”

Carsie took the box out of the vise and weighed it in his hand. It was the size of a Bible.

“If it stands up to Dad’s expectations, it will change the world.”

Les Gode looked as thrilled as he was.

“Your daddy kept changing the world ever since this innovation baloney got stuck in his mind. Did any of his ideas go into production?”

Carsie shrugged as he recognized the scorn as reminiscent of his own. Now that the eccentric man was gone, he felt he owed him a sacrifice, though.

“People misunderstood him. That’s what happens to all great minds during their lifetime. Like Darwin.”

Les Gode nodded though he didn’t agree. Respect for Carsie and his father kept back the most sarcastic whims.

“They didn’t misunderstand Edison or Bell.”

Carsie rocked the box in an educating manner.

“Father claimed that this little energy case has the power of replacing all kinds of fuel in all sorts of engines. Imagine what that’ll do to a world in energy crises.” He nodded as if he knew all about it. “The problem is that this is the only sample and he didn’t find time to try it, except for on a mower.”

“It worked on the mower?”

“It worked fine.”

“What kind of mower?”

Carsie sensed a strike of interest in Les Gode’s voice.

“It’s old, but it has a carburetor.”

“If it works on a mower, it should work on any petrol-powered engine. Am I right?”

“That’s what I need to confirm before I take steps.”

“What steps?”

In spite of his doubts, Carsie had mused on the prospects of the innovation. If it did its service, it actually might yield a fortune. His air announced massive inside information.

“To start a large-scale production.”

“Is there a patent?”

“Yes. In my name.”

“Will you sell it?”

“Sell what?”

“What else, the patent.”

Carsie shook his head as if the question was too stupid to answer.

“You don’t sell a patent. People cheat on you and take the profit. Own production is the way.”

Les Gode knew that except for the inherited property, Carsie’s financial standing equaled his.

“That will cost a lot of money.”

This was the delicate issue. How to raise the money? Selling the farm was out of question.

“I’ll engage a consultant.”

“Do you know what consultants charge?”

Carsie sighed and decided he didn’t want to listen to his friend’s whining right now. Les had a way of setting down people’s mood with earthy questions.

“Don’t cheer me up, Les. Let’s try it on your rickety Volvo first and have the debate afterwards. And remember, if a product is attractive enough, it will sell itself.”

He was proud of the finishing sentence; it was his own words. Les’ face beamed with indignation.

“Don’t you call my Volvo rickety. It’s a cat-back, year fifty-seven, a collector’s car in perfect condition. Suppose you break it with your damned box.”

Carsie knew the Volvo was a sensitive topic. The condition was far from perfect.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean rickety. It’s a good car.”

The apology moderated the temperamental banjo player though he didn’t look happy.

“Okay, I’ll pass by tomorrow with the old darling.” A pleading pitch altered his manner. “If you manage to start that production…?”

Carsie put his arm around Les’ shoulder. Like good old friends, they sauntered out of the barn.

“Of course, I’ll give you a job. Good job, leading position. You’ll have a seat in the board too.”

Les nodded and smiled at the picture of Mr. Lester Gode in dark suit, making decisions that had an effect on people’s life and doings. It didn’t cross their minds they had taken over a dream from a notorious dreamer.

IT WAS ANOTHER HOT DAY. People were urged on the radio to be careful with open fires in southern and western Illinois. It hadn’t rained for weeks. Les checked him before he stepped into his pickup.

“By the way, I had a bite at Swede’s. He’s got a new waitress. She’s from Chicago. You should see her. Wow!” Hand motions generated fantasy pictures of Marilyn Monroe’s curvy physique. “And she’s nice too. Why don’t you drop by and ask if she can sing?”

Carsie nodded thoughtfully. The suggestion that a pretty girl might increase the band’s appeal had nibbled its way to the brain section where he stored real life options.

“Okay, I’ll do that.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s time for a bite right now. Would you like to join me?”

“I’ve had my lunch, but I’ll have a beer to keep you company.” He stepped into the car and slammed the door. Before he turned the key, he leant to the open window. “And to have another gaze at that divine creature.”

Carsie whistled an idle version of Love Me Tender as he sauntered to his Ford. Even if he peeled off his friend’s habitual overstatements when the issue was good-looking women, this specimen ended up pretty enough in his fantasy. If she were available for flirtation, he could work on his women phobia. She wouldn’t recognize his reputation as poor soul in female company.

Actually, things had changed dramatically since his father had died. For the first time he felt he had something of real value to offer a woman. He had the giant farm; he had a popular band, he wasn’t bad looking and he was considered nice and friendly. And the house was ridiculously big for a bachelor.