A Small Adventure
My friend Richard always calls on Sunday mornings, usually when I’m out to breakfast.
“Hello,” I answered my phone at the dinner.
“Hey Max. Say, can you help a friend of mine this morning?” Richard asked on the other end of the line. He was more talkative than usual, not a good sign. Richard isn’t talkative unless he wants something.
“I suppose. I don’t have anything going on.” I said. It was the typical parry and thrust that Richard and I engaged on before he sent me on some adventure.
“Great. His name’s Avery. He just needs someone to ride along on an errand.”
“Okay,” I was a little skeptical. Richard usually used me as a taxi service. I was normally okay with that, Richard gave good adventure. Not being the taxi was different. “Where do I meet him?”
“Oh. Right. Um, where are you?”
“Sally’s Diner in Hiawatha,” I said. The waitress rang up a customer at the register at the end of the bar. It wasn’t a bar-bar, it was the kind of bar you found in a diner.
“Perfect. Avery’s in Robins. Just hang out and look for a pickup.” The line went dead. Richard wasn’t one for goodbyes. Great. A pickup. Those are a rare enough sight in Iowa, shouldn’t be a problem. I looked at three pickups in the parking lot through the window. Robins and Hiawatha could have been one suburb of Cedar Rapids. I wouldn’t have to wait long.
“You Max?” a tall, grey man asked as I was paying my bill a few minutes later. His hair looked older than his face. The lines there weren’t the deep crevices that his grey hair said should be there. His face was more like shallow gullies of age.
“I am. Avery?” I asked.
“Yep,” Avery extended a hand. He had a firm shake, normal for an Iowan. Usually Richard sent me to all sorts of odd people. They were all fellow Iowans, but not quite Iowan. There was usually something odd about them, some quirk that put them in the ‘Erie Indiana’ cast rather than ‘The Music Man’. Avery could have played Professor Harold Hill. Well, maybe the Mayor.
“Richard didn’t say much about what we’re doing,” I said as I climbed in the passenger’s side of Avery’s Silverado. It was fairly new, just a few years old I guessed. It was a work truck, not a trophy for some city dweller who imagined they were a working stiff. There was mud caked in the wheel wells, the bed liner had respectable scuff marks. A chocolate Lab considered me as I got in. What could be more rural America than a tall guy, his work truck, and a chocolate Lab?
“He never does,” The Lab said.
“Uh,” I managed. The strange things Richard exposed me to tended to turn me monosyllabic.
“Mocha, be nice,” Avery said as he started the truck. The dog sniffed me, licked her lips.
“Sausage. I like him. Bacon would be better, but sausage is acceptable.”
“I just need someone to help with the Sprites, maybe help me haul some bribe dirt. Mostly I need you to be an extra body to make us look ‘bigger’,” Avery said, pulling out onto Center Point Road.
“Sprites?” I asked.
“Richard never tells them anything,” Mocha said. How did dog lips even form words? I looked right at her. I saw her lips form words. I heard her speak, a mid-tone, neutral voice with a hint of Minnesota accent that wasn’t unusual in Northern Iowa.
“Mocha,” Avery warned.
“What? Having another feeder is all well and good, but what’s he going to do if they go Lilliput on us?” The dog curled up between us and lay her head on Avery’s thigh.
“We’ll be fine,” Avery said.
“Sprites?” I asked again.
“Sprites.” Avery nodded.
You wouldn’t know to look at it, but Iowa has a Sprite infestation. Normal people never look close enough to see the hints of magic in the world. Mostly those hints are subtle, subdued; folks are content to just skip over them in daily life. They miss the convenience store goblins, the pixies that teach english. Farmers have a harder time doing that. Farmers have to deal with the Sprites that infest the less tame places in Iowa.
Avery said it was the German settlers who came over after the Civil War that brought the Sprites. Mocha thought it was earlier than that. Someone brought the Sprites with them. They aren’t indigenous to North America. They forced out the native nature spirits, sending them packing to the more wild parts of the Midwest, the Dakotas, Oklahoma. Now the Sprites were just another crop pest to be managed.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Place up by Alburnett,” Avery said.
“Delagardelle’s place,” Mocha said sleepily. “Bet they have deer sticks.”
“Small farm, but Jim Delagardelle hasn’t paid the union reps yet.”
We were already out of Hiawatha, nearly through Robins. Alburnett wasn’t far. It’d be a short ride, on the scale of Iowa rides.
“Union? Didn’t you say something about Sprites?”
“Yeah. The Sprites joined the Teamsters when it was clear the government wasn’t going to deal with the NSL.” I didn’t press. NSL? National Sprites League? Whatever. Mocha started to snore on Avery’s leg.
It was early spring in Iowa, not late enough to be warm, but late enough that most of the snow had melted or sublimated. The trees were still bare bones reaching for the sky, but at least that sky was blue and sunny rather than the grey oppression that winter entailed.
Alburnett wasn’t a suburb, more a one street town that housed a few farmers, teachers, and the occasional engineer that didn’t want anything to do with Cedar Rapids. It was a small town, but not far enough away from a city to form a well and proper small town. We drove through it in sixty seconds with one stop at the lone streetlight.
The Delagardelle place was less than a mile out of town. The farmhouse was new, not a iconic stick style cube. The barn was ancient and looked mostly unused. The few other outbuildings were pole buildings, not old, not new either. A big Deere hunkered next to the machine shed, a snow shovel still attached to the front. Mocha woke up as the truck bounced onto the dirt driveway.
Jim Dellagardelle came out of the house and walked up to the truck as Avery parked. “’Morning,” he beamed. He looked about as old as Avery’s face. His hair ruminated on going grey, but mostly maintained its sandy blonde.
“Morning Jim,” Avery said, sliding out of the Silverado.
“Hello,” I offered. Mocha jumped out behind Avery and nuzzled at Jim’s hand. Jim gave me a quick once over and nodded. I guess I passed whatever test he had for strangers.
“Been out to talk to them?” Avery asked.
“No,” Jim said. “Not since last month. Stuff started going missing in the machine shed this week.”
“Yeah…” Avery mused. “What are you willing to give them?”
“Well. It’s been tight this year,” Jim rubbed his neck.
“Come on Jim. I’m not going to negotiate with nothing.”
“I can go up to fifteen percent of my yield or I can leave the west twenty acres fallow this year, not both.”
“Okay,” Avery said. “I can work with that.”
Avery and Jim shook hands. We started off for the fields. Mocha loped ahead of us, sniffing at the ground, marking every dozen yards or so.
“Ever seen a Sprite?” Avery asked
“Just once,” I said. Avery nodded. The Sprite I ran into in Solon that was skimming ATM cards looked like a teenager who’d shrunk in the wash.
It wasn’t cold exactly, in the mid thirties, maybe up to forty. The ground wasn’t mud, but it toyed with the idea. Mocha found the tracks first, of course she did. There were little footprints in the snow, then in the dirt, that led towards the stream that ran through Dellagardelle’s field. There was a copse of trees there.
The Sprite that met us looked wild. The one I’d met in Solon must have been a city Sprite. This sprite sported a thick flannel shirt and rough canvas pants. I had no idea of its age. I didn’t even know if it was male or female. As it spoke I still couldn’t tell.
“Far enough Mediator,” It squeaked at us. We stopped.
“I’m here to represent Jim Dellagardelle in his land dispute with the local chapter.” Mocha said. Wait, what? Yes, the dog was the mediator.
“We accept your presence as Mediator and invite you into our home,” The Sprite said formally. “Hi Mocha,” the Sprite softened and scratched the dog behind the ears. Mocha smiled a doggy smile.
Sprites normally make their home in the woods, sometimes in larger forests, but they like to be around people. Darker things lurk in forests, things that are disinclined to cohabitate with Sprites. Iowa is perfect for them. No forests to speak of, plenty of woods, plenty of people, but not too many. The little copse of trees on Dellegardelle’s stream was the Sprite version of Albernett; a Sprite one-street town. We gathered around a broad stump that served as a table. Avery and I stood, there was no way we’d fit in the Sprite sized chairs. Mocha sat on her haunches.
“It’s not a contract year,” Mocha said.
“No, but we have a problem.” the Sprite said.
“Tina,” Avery whispered to me. “She’s the Grandsprite.”
Grandsprite. The Matriarch then?
“Sprite problems are Sprite problems,” Mocha said. “That’s how the contract reads.”
“I know,” Tina squeaked. She looked sad. “I just raised trouble with Jim to get you out here. Sorry.” Tina elongated her ‘sorry’, more of that Minnesota accent that infected Northern Iowa.
“Oh.” Mocha said. “So… there’s no dispute?”
“No,” Tina said. “My granddaughter Teegan has run off. Could you bring her home?” Mocha looked over her shoulder at Avery. I could feel him shift on his feet next to me. I got the sense that Tina and Mocha were friends that Avery didn’t approve of.
“You know where she is?” Mocha asked.
“She’s in Iowa City,” Tina said.
“No,” Avery said simply, out of place. Mocha was the mediator. Avery apparently was just the taxi driver. I was even less than that.
“Tina, can I have a moment with my feeder?” Mocha asked.
The Sprite bowed and left the stump.
“No?” Mocha accused. “No?”
“We are not going to Iowa City. That’s crazy.” Mocha rolled her doggie eyes at him.
“Come on Avery,” Mocha semi-whined. “It’s Tina. If we do this for her everything gets easier next year when the Sprite contract renews.”
“I don’t care if she’s the regional steward, Iowa City is too dangerous.” Wait, Iowa City, dangerous? I admit it’s a little odd, a liberal bastion in a vast conservative ocean, but I’d never heard Iowa City described as dangerous. Mocha noticed my confusion.
“We don’t have to go. Sausage can go,” she said, referring to me.
“Sausage?” Avery asked. The dog nodded at me. Avery looked at me, looked at Mocha, looked at me again.
“What if Teegan doesn’t want to come home?” Avery asked. Had I just been volunteered? I kinda thought I’d just been volunteered.
“I won’t promise Tina anything. We’ll just try. That’ll be enough to get us some cache for the contract negotiations next year.” I couldn’t tell if the dog was trying to help a friend or just score points for her negotiations next year. She didn’t wag her tail, but then a good negotiator wouldn’t.
Avery considered Mocha’s idea. “You up for that?” Avery asked me.
“Uh.” Monosyllabic, maybe I could claim it as a second language. “I guess?” I wasn’t sure. Was it just as simple as fetching a party Sprite out of a bar in Iowa City? Probably not. Nothing that involved magic was. I should have been more reticent, considering how averse Avery was to Iowa City. Still, I’d been there plenty and nothing unusual ever happened, other than the normal unusual Iowa City things.
“Fine,” Avery shook his head. “He’ll try.”
“Wait, I’m going to go find a Sprite in Iowa City? Where do I even look?” I asked.
“Well, New Pioneer Co-op probably.” Mocha said, then considered things more. “No, you’re right. You’re kinda worthless.” I objected to that. “Okay, not worthless,” Mocha rolled her eyes. “Just… “ she searched for an appropriate pleasantry to mask her contempt, “Inexperienced.”
“We could see if Lilly would go with him,” Avery offered.
“Yeah,” Mocha said, a slight wag in her tail. “Yeah, that’d do. Call her and see if she’s up for it.” I’d met Lilly and her partner, Carol, in our adventure in Solon. Lilly was Carol’s self-described ‘Maniac Pixie Dream Girl.’ I suspect each of those words was carefully chosen to be ironic and completely accurate.
Avery nodded and fished his phone out of his pocket. He walked off to call Lilly.
“Thanks,” Mocha said when he was out of earshot. She nuzzled my hand appreciatively.
“You’re welcome,” I stroked her head.
My Audi made short work of the trip from Hiawatha to Iowa City once Avery and Mocha had dropped me off. Tina hadn’t been keen on the idea of me going to get her Granddaughter rather than Avery and Mocha. She admitted that it would be bad for Mocha to go to the college town. I hadn’t figured out why Avery and Mocha were afraid of Iowa City. Tina warmed up to the idea when she heard that Lilly would help. They only knew each other by reputation, apparently that was enough.
I collected Lilly with a quick stop in Swisher. She wasn’t in her Michelin-man, deep winter gear today. It was warmer, she sported a trench coat that made her look like like a twenties flapper. She didn’t say much on the trip. She played with her phone the whole way.
“Let’s start at the Javahouse, downtown,” She said as we passed the I-80 interchange. She pocketed her phone and smoothed her short red hair.
“You don’t seem as afraid of Iowa City as Avery.”
“Nah. I just don’t like it, too many crazies.”
The Javahouse is what I think of when I think of a college coffeeshop. It occupies an old building with a tin stamped ceiling, boring into history like a chronologically entranced weevil. It’s not much different from Brewhemia in appearance, the clientele is ten years younger than in Cedar Rapids, and thirty five percent more diverse. It was mostly empty on a Sunday morning. The day was sauntering towards something that approached noonish, but it still counted as morning. That kept the vampiric college students away. I hoped that was only a euphemism.
“Rachel!” Lilly beamed falsely at the barista. Apparently they knew each other. Rachel was chilly, all angles and starched sleeves. She looked over the counter to see Lilly’s diminutive form.
“Hello, Lilly,” she said. It wasn’t an intentional parody of the Seinfeld, ‘Hello, Newman,’ line, but I heard it that way.
“Hey, can I get a grande-half-calf-mocha-latte-frap?” Lilly asked, a staccato of coffee talk erupted from her.
“Sure,” Rachel said cooly. “Anything for your friend?”
“Oh. Um. Just a coffee I suppose.” It was the wrong thing to ask for at a trendy Iowa City coffeeshop. I could have ordered properly at a Starbucks, or a Dunkin Donuts, but here I was a deer in the headlights.
“A coffee,” Rachel repeated. She didn’t bother following up. I guess I was bumpkin enough that she’d give me whatever counted as bumpkin coffee in her world.
“How’s things?” Lilly asked as Rachel worked on our order.
“Fine, you?” She feigned a pleasant tone. I knew enough about that tone to back away and let Lilly handle all of this. I’d already set things wrong by ordering coffee in a coffeeshop.
“Oh, you know, the usual. How’s Megan?”
“What do you want Lilly?”
“Little lost Sprite case,” Lilly said. You could hear the hurt in her voice as Rachel cut their banter off.
“Lost Sprite?” Rachel asked. She produced a paper cup of coffee and nodded at me. I snatched it quickly before I drew her ire.
“Babe in the woods, well, out of the woods. Teegan, from Albernett,” Lilly said.
“Haven’t heard anything,” Rachel said, working on Lilly’s concoction. She pumped different squirts of coffee syrup into a cup angrily.
“Did I say caramel? I need caramel too,” Lilly said. I could hear Rachel’s eyes roll.
“Not many places for a Sprite to hang out in Iowa City,” Lilly mused. “I figured she’d bounce through here regularly; it’s just filthy with creatives.”
“Haven’t seen a Sprite here,” Rachel said. “I don’t work all the time. Maybe she ‘bounces through’ in the evening.”
“Come on Rache, I need a lead,” Lilly said. “Whipped cream too. Double.”
I sipped at my coffee. It was hot, bitter, thick almost, and as black as a politician’s heart.
“Alburnett?” Rachel asked, searching for the whipped cream.
“Ayup,” Lilly said.
“Well,” she frothed whipped cream into the cup, “I haven’t seen any Sprites here, but I might have seen a couple at Gabe’s last night. Didn’t recognize one of them.”
“Anyone I’d know?” Lilly asked.
“How should I know what Sprites you cavort with now?” Rachel asked. Lilly elbowed me in the thigh.
“Pay the woman,” she said. Rachel rang us up, Lilly looked at the bills I produced and kicked me. I added another two twenties, and gave Lilly a questioning look. She nodded.
“She might have been dancing with Saulie Penderghast,” Rachel said, pocketing the extra bills.
“Thanks Rache, you’re a peach,” Lilly lilted. We left. Lilly dropped her drink in the garbage.
“You…” I gawked at her.
“Hate coffee. Can’t stand the stuff. Come on, let’s pay Saulie Penderghast a visit.”
Saulie lived above Short’s burger joint on Clinton street. It wasn’t much of a walk.
“How do you know the Sprites that live in Iowa City?” I asked as we clopped through the mostly deserted streets.
“Hello? Pixie? I used to live here too,” she said. “Saulie and I go way back. Lucky, that.”
The stairs to the apartment tried to be clean, but couldn’t summon the wherewithal to pull it off. They creaked in protest as I walked up, Lilly was like a cat padding on them. Saulie’s door was a faded blue, grimy, with scratches that revealed a pale yellow undercoat. Lilly knocked.
“Who is it?” Sauie was two octaves gruffer than I imagined a Sprite could be. He sounded like a Sprite Harvey Firestein. He didn’t open the door.
“Lilly, your favorite pixie,” she almost sang.
“I gave at the office,” Saulie grumbled.
“Ain’t here to break legs Saulie, just lookin’ for someone.”
The door opened a crack. Saulie’s tiny face took us both in. He was tall, as tall as Lilly. It wasn’t saying much, they were sprite and pixie.
“Huh. Who’s the putz?” Why did everyone call me putz? Was it some magical code for ‘person who gets drawn into things that are beyond them?’ I don’t suppose that needed to be magical. Honestly, it was accurate.
“Max. He’s harmless,” Lilly said, then shot me a glance. “Mostly.”
“Who you looking for?” Saulie asked though the crack in the door.
“Teegan from Alburnett.”
“Never heard of her.” Saulie said.
“Never heard of her?” Lilly emphasized the last word. I suppose Teegan could be a boy’s name. I don’t think I’d like to be a Teegan, but then I’d grown up a Max. Can’t get much more masculine than that, unless you’re Butch, I suppose.
“Her, him, what’s it matter? Ain’t heard of ‘em.”
“Rachel says you were dancing with her at Gabe’s last night.” Lilly said.
“Hey, you know me, I can’t dance.”
“If only you let that stop you,” Lilly grimaced.
“So what if I was? It’s a free country.” Saulie stalled.
“Just let them in Saulie,” a high-pitched voice said from behind the door. He looked back. I could see the genuine concern on his face, the question there. He opened the door and let us in.
Teegan could have been mistaken for her grandmother Tina. They were mirrors of each other. She sat crosslegged in a huge bay window that overlooked the Pentacrest, the Old Capitol dome glinted in the cool spring morning.
“Your grandmother sent us,” I said. Lilly gave me a look, but I was done with her pixie-noir bullshit.
“I know,” she said. “I knew she would; send someone that is.”
“You okay babe?” Saulie asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Could you make us some tea maybe?” She asked. She was not-quite shivering under an oversized shawl that was big enough to be a poncho on her.
“Sure, sure,” Saulie said and shuffled off to the back of the apartment, to what I guessed was the kitchen.
“Listen,” I said, sitting down in the single person-sized chair in the open great room. “I don’t know why you left, I don’t know anything really. I just know that your grandmother is worried. I said I’d see if I could find you.”
“There’s nothing here,” Teegan said. “It’s so boring, nothing changes.” There was a quiet resignation there. She sounded like a teenager with wanderlust, but not. The words came out as older, tired.
“I didn’t say I’d bring you back, just that I’d find you.” I expected to find a kid off to explore the world, but who would explore the world in Iowa City? A teenager I supposed, but even then, it seemed small, sprite-sized.
“You can only walk through the same cornfields for so many years. Even when we moved from Elkader, it was still the same.” That explained the hint of Minnesota in her accent, Elkader was along the border.
“Tina just wants to know you’re okay,” I said. Lilly settled into a tiny recliner. She seemed non-plussed that I’d grabbed the lead from her, but wasn’t upset enough to intervene. I think she was just seeing what my play was.
“I’m not,” Teegan said, a catch in her voice. “I miss them. I miss them so much.”
“We can take you back,” I said. “If that’s what you want.” Saulie came back with a Melmac tray of tea cups.
“Woah, woah, woah. Nobody’s takin’ no-one nowhere.” He said, almost dropping the tray.
“I can’t go back,” Teegan said. “I ran away. How can I go back?” I could feel Lilly concentrate on not rolling her eyes.
“Of course you can,” I said. “They’re family. You can always go back.” It was true in my world. I was pretty sure it was true in Tina and Teegan’s world. I know it wasn’t always true, that troubled me.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Saulie said defensively. The tea cooled, un-offered.
“He’s right,” I said. “Tina just wants to know you’re okay. You look pretty okay to me.”
“Could I just visit?” Teegan asked. I wasn’t sure if Tina would lock her granddaughter in chains to keep her in Albernett. I doubted it. Mocha wouldn’t put so much faith in someone that would. I didn’t know Mocha well, but she seemed like a good dog.
“Probably,” I said.
“Saulie, will you go with me?” Teegan asked. For all his gruff posturing it was obvious that she meant something to him.
“Yeah, ‘course babe,” he said, sitting down next to her. “’Course I will. Happy to go visit the great unwashed in podunkville.”
“Podunkett,” Lilly corrected.
That’s how I became a Sprite taxi service. It’s how I gained the favor of the Eastern Iowa Sprite Teamsters, and a good dog named Mocha. It wan’t a great adventure, but this is Iowa after all, we like our adventures small here in podunkville, podkunette, podunk city.