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One of the key characters in A Plot for Pridemore is a young, frustrated newspaper reporter named Pete Schaefer. As a journalist, it is his job to peel aware the layers of what could be most scandalous story in the history of Pridemore, Missouri.

This is NOT Pete Schaefer.

This is NOT Pete Schaefer.

There is no reason, however, to believe that Pete is up to the task. He spends most of his time mired in loneliness and self-pity, occasionally summoning the ambition to scroll through job listings in the latest edition of Editor & Publisher.

As a former small-town reporter myself, I can relate to Pete’s anxieties, although he is not a carbon copy of me in my 20s (at least I hope not). Anyway, here is how we first get to know Pete in A Plot for Pridemore

____________________________

Expelling a long, low groan, Pete Schaefer slapped the facsimile from Edwards Funeral Home on the computer clipboard and started typing:

Naomi D. Elbert of Marshall City, formerly of Brush Hill, died Sunday, May 25, at Truman Retirement Center. She was 81.

Before anything else Monday morning, Pete’s job required him to type the obituaries of everyone who died over the weekend – often a lengthy assignment given the number of blue-hairs in the region. Right now he was on Obit No. 8, his mind so far removed from what he was doing that he’d unwittingly invented two new ways to spell Naomi.

Pete found it hard to concentrate on the obits, or “Oh-bitches,” as his coworkers sometimes called them. After a year at the Pridemore Evening Headlight, the formula was so ingrained that he would merely slap the funeral notice on the clipboard and let his fingers clack away at their 50-words-a-minute pace. This freed him to contemplate the newsroom’s avocado green decor, the fluorescent light that flickered annoyingly over his head and a faded poster that advertised the Affair on the Square arts and crafts show from 1986.

Funeral services will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Edwards Funeral Chapel with the Rev. Edwin Hodge officiating. Visitation will take place prior to services.

Edna Bright fastened one of her Jimmy Carter grins on Pete as she waddled past his desk. It was a rare morning he beat her to work. Plump and cheery as a Christmas ham, she was the Headlight’s society editor and probably the most contented person Pete had ever met. Watching her swing an oversized purse around the back of her chair while singing an off-key version of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” he wondered if Edna Bright wasn’t the source of the old notion that all fat people are jolly.

Pete kept his head down, pretending to focus on his work: Survivors include one sister, Maureen Dowell of LaGrange; two sons, John Elbert of St. Louis and Duane Elbert of Wellsville; and a daughter, Yula Mae Lowry of Forest Park.

Edna nibbled a doughnut and slurped her coffee while reading the St. Louis Intelligencer, occasionally clucking an “Oh, my,” or a disapproving “Ewww!”

Then silence. No slurping. No ewwws. Peter sensed her beady eyes, dark as night, watching him.

“Hiya Pete,” she said when he finally looked up. “How’s your morning?”

Slowly turning from his computer, Pete decided to shock her with a smile of his own. Not one of those put-on numbers he gave the cut-and-paste girls in production that even they could see through, but a real, genuine smile.

“How are you, Edna?” he asked so naturally as to make you think he said it every morning.

Edna wasn’t surprised. If anything, she seemed encouraged.

“Say Pete, did you catch The McClusky Files last night?”

The McClusky Files,” he said, vaguely recalling the show in which an aging actor plays an aging detective. “Is that the one that’s set in Miami?”

“No, you’re thinking of Randy Slaughter, Medical Examiner,” she said. “McClusky Files is in L.A.”

“Of course.”

“I just really love that McClusky, don’t you? I mean, he’s nice and polite like a gentleman should be, but he’s tough, too. He always gets his man and he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, if you know what I mean.”

Edna smiled. “I can tell that’s probably the way he is in real life, too.”

Pete gave one of those half laughs that most people would read as a sign of disinterest. Not Edna.

“Last night was one of the better ones,” she said. “McClusky and these other people are guests on this millionaire’s yacht, you see. And, almost as soon as they all get on board, the millionaire disappears.”

“Really?” Pete said.

“So all of a sudden, people just start disappearing: the millionaire’s wife, the movie star—”

“—the professor and Mary Anne?” he offered.

Edna giggled to show she caught the reference, and went on.

“Usually I’m pretty good at picking out the murderer before everyone else. But I didn’t have a clue on this one. Jerry thought it was the millionaire, but what does he know? I mean, he’s the only guy in Rotary who thought O.J. was innocent, you know?”

“Right.”

“Just when we’re at to the part where McClusky’s gonna nail the bad guy, I get this phone call from my daughter, Alicea. She’s about your age, you know.”

Edna was shaking now, her banshee cackle filling the mostly empty newsroom.

“So I get off the phone and I rush back to ask Jerry whodunnit. Well, he’s already switched the channel to SportsCenter. Took me six phone calls to find out it was the Portuguese deck hand who strangled ‘em all with a piano wire and threw their bodies overboard.

“Ewwwww,” she said. “I almost strangled someone myself last night!”

“That’s funny,” Pete offered in a tone that suggested he didn’t think it was funny at all. He gave her a tight smile and returned to his computer.

Edna let out a huff and left her desk for another cup of coffee. Peter felt pretty evil for leading her on like that. He could be pretty mean when he was depressed, and he was depressed nearly all of the time lately.

He thought about starting another conversation when Edna returned. But the other staffers were ambling in and he needed to call the area cops to see if there‘d been any overnight car wrecks. Obits and road fatalities – it was some sweet gig he’d scored for himself more than a year removed from journalism school. Woodward and Bernstein had better watch their jocks.

From the corner of his eye he watched Edna settle into her seat. He’d come up with something thoughtful to say to her first thing tomorrow, even if he had to watch network television to do it.

____________________________

The afternoon sun sprayed rivulets of light through the dusty blinds that hung over Pete’s futon. Angela sat up, crossed her skinny legs under the sheet and watched Pete sift through the dirty clothes, old magazines and sports gear that cluttered his bedroom closet.

“What are you looking for?”

He smiled as his fingers grazed the beat-up leather briefcase.

“My soul,” he said, pulling the briefcase out of the closet and opening it.

“Wow,” she said as he pulled out a fistful of typed pages. “You wrote all
that?”

“It’s nothing. Maybe 200 pages in all, double-spaced.”

“That’s nothing?”

“Not for a book,” he said. “You heard of Schubert’s unfinished symphony? This is Schaefer’s unfinished novel.”

“Wow,” she repeated, plopping next to him on the floor. Save for the three-legged recliner that tilted like a sinking ship in Pete’s living room, there were no chairs in his one-bedroom apartment, so the two spent most of their time on the futon or the floor.

“You never told me you were a writer,” Angela said.

“I’m a newspaper reporter. You know that.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know you were a writer,” she laughed, folding her arms across her chest. “What’s it about?”

“Oh, your typical Coming-of-Age, Loss of Innocence, Love Story.”

“Sort of like Great Expectations?” Angela suggested.

“Yeah,” Pete said, and he gave her a soft kiss. “Except with zombies.”

“Can I read it?”

He flicked through the pages before finding a chapter he liked, the one in which Sully and Bart take Bettger down to Creepy Woods for one last bong hit. He ran his hand through her long hair and studied her crinkled brow as she read, making note of whether she smiled at the funny parts. She giggled once or twice, always a good sign.

It was that giggle that reminded him of Angela’s current status on the high school varsity cheerleading squad. Most of the time, Pete thought her comparable to the somber, artistically inclined women he’d dated in college. The crinkle in Angela’s brow gave her a thoughtful look that seemed older than her years and she could quote whole passages of Dickinson or Thoreau. He would almost start to take her seriously until, in a beautifully unguarded moment, she’d relate a fart joke she learned in study hall or clumsily pick the chords to “Smoke on the Water” on his guitar. That’s when the giggle came out and it was suddenly Saved By The Bell time at Pete’s place.

He loved and detested that giggle. Loved its affirmation that he could make someone laugh at a time in his life when he didn’t laugh much at all. Hated how it reminded him that what he was doing with Angela went beyond the bounds of acceptable adult behavior. He’d tried many times to tell her this. Well, once or twice. But Angela would just giggle and kiss him and tell him to shut up, and Pete would mind his manners as they crawled back onto the futon.

They met in October at a downtown festival called Olde Pridemore Days. He’d seen her around town a couple of times, hanging at Truman’s Malt Shop with her high school buddies or passing through the newspaper office to drop off her “Teen Beat” column. But Olde Pridemore Days was the first time they really talked.

He remembered almost every detail of that day: she wore a spaghetti string halter top and a pair of ripped-up blue jeans, edgy stuff for a Sunday in Pridemore. They spent the day walking around, eating Sno-Cones and funnel cakes, making fun of the lame country/western act on the main stage. They talked about books and music, and how cool it would be to move to Paris, just living and writing like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and those other Lost Generation guys.

They made out that night on the courthouse steps, an encounter that soon led to Angela’s afternoon visits to Pete’s apartment when she could slip out of her independent studies class. The first four visits, Pete was able to pull back, throw on his jeans and mumble something about getting Angela back to school before the start of seventh period. The fifth time they reached the precipice, an unseasonably warm February day when Pete was supposed to be covering a livestock show in Hodgeville, Angela straddled his waist, grabbed his shirt with her fists and said in a husky voice, “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Pete gave in. He hated himself for it, but not enough to stop meeting Angela at his place most Wednesday afternoons. He was weak. He was stupid. But mostly he was bored. She was the only girl he’d met since moving to Pridemore, and he was tired of pretending he didn’t like having her around.

“How long ago did you write this?” Angela asked when she finished the chapter.

“It’s been a while. I haven’t really touched it since college.”

“You ought to finish it,” she said, pulling him close. “I mean, think how much you’ve improved as a writer since then.”

“Really?” he asked. “You think it needs work?”

“I dunno. I mean, this part about the guys drinking and partying, making all the pop culture references – it’s funny, but it’s kind of played out, you know?”

She wiped a strand of hair from her mouth and gave a half-smile.

“It kinda reads like a beer commercial.”

He was still reeling from the blow as they drove to the high school in his beat-up Ford Explorer. Kinda reads likes a beer commercial. This from someone who ate Oreo cookies icing first, who’d only recently shifted her musical allegiance from Beyonce to Taylor Swift. It was a mistake letting her read his book, he thought. Did he expect an educated response from someone who was struggling to maintain a B average in junior English?

Come to think of it, this whole thing was a mistake. And driving Angela to school was beyond dangerous. They were getting very careless, Pete thought. He watched her light a Marlboro while grooving to a pop song on the radio. It was amusing to watch her smoke because she hadn’t mastered how to tap the ash off a cigarette.

“What did I tell you about smoking in my truck?” he asked.

“That I’m allowed to do it except when you’re pissed over something I said about a book you wrote.”

“I’m not mad.”

She leaned across the gear shift and kissed his cheek.

“I’m such a meanie,” she said with a pout that was both cute and condescending. “I guess when you’ve been reading Crime and Punishment for two weeks, everything else reads like a beer commercial.”

“Oh, so now I’m not even as good as Dostoyevsky?” he said, breaking into a grin as they approached their drop-off point near the gym.

She gave him a kiss that surprised him with its deepness. It was the kind she planted on him that night at the courthouse steps.

“I love you,” she said in a throaty whisper. “I know you hate that, but I do.”

“Okay,” Pete said, handing Angela her books as she stepped out of the truck. “Just don’t tell your daddy.”

____________________________

Pete was explaining his premature baldness to a waitress when his buddy, Headlight sportswriter Dave Felton, walked into One-Eyed Willie’s, the only Pridemore establishment left with a liquor license since the Lizard Lounge closed.

“Yeah, my brother’s losing a little on top himself,” the waitress said. “He’s pretty freaked out about it.”

“It’s genetic, you know,” Pete told her after a sip from his longneck. “It’s passed down from your mother’s side of the family.”

The waitress pondered this for a minute.

“My mom’s not bald,” she said.

Felton and Pete exchanged the same weary look they shared in the newsroom whenever Edna referred to the president’s anti-terrorism policy as The War on Towel Heads.

Like two strangers in a strange land, Felton and Pete clung to each other almost out of necessity. They were both about the same age and both St. Louis natives. They both enrolled in journalism school with grand thoughts of someday working for The Washington Post or The New York Times, and they both graduated into a crappy job market with $18,000 salaries at a newspaper they’d never heard of (“This,” Felton said after a couple of whiskey shots one night at Willie’s, “is what is known as paying your dues.”).

Meeting once or twice a week at Willie’s had become something of a social highlight for Pete. He cringed to think what Pridemore would be like without having a friend around.

He nodded toward the baseball highlights on the overhead TV. “Cards took a pounding today.”

“No pitching, yet again,” Felton replied.

Pete ordered a Bud Light and surveyed Willie’s decor of birds, bayonets and batting helmets. It beat looking at the clientele, which this night consisted of two utility workers and a woman with mall bangs dancing alone. The jukebox was playing its usual mix of Three Dog Night, BTO and, in a token nod to the ‘80s, Night Ranger.

“Larry asked about you today,” Felton said. “He’s starting to wonder where you’re spending your Wednesday afternoons.”

“I’m spending them at home,” Pete said with a shrug. “Comp time.”

Felton shook his head and laughed. “You’re an idiot.”

“What?”

“He’s gonna find out.”

“I guess I’ll be out of a job, then.

“It’s kind of like detonating a highly sensitive explosive,” Pete added after some thought. “You never know when it’s going to just blow up in your hands.”

“Don’t romanticize it, Schaefer. You’re screwing your boss’s daughter. Your boss’s 17-year-old daughter.” He laughed as he fished his shirt pocket for a lighter. “You’re just an idiot, that’s all.”

“You said that already.”

The door creaked open, and Felton and Pete glanced back as if they expected Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson to drop by for drinks on their way through town. But it was just some grubby guy in a shirt with his name on it. The dancing woman left her spot at the jukebox to give him a lingering hug.

“Done any work on your book lately?” Felton asked.

“Looked at it today, that’s all,” Pete said with a sigh. “How’s yours coming?”

“I can’t summon the muse,” the sportswriter said. “Every night, I sit there, blinking at a blank screen. I end up watching re-runs of Seinfeld and falling asleep on the couch.”

Pete laughed. “It’s this town, you know? It’s sapping our brains.”

“Yeah,” Felton agreed, mashing his cigarette into an ashtray. “I need to get out of this fucking town.”

Pete looked at the TV, which was flashing highlights from the previous night’s Marlins-Phillies game.

“Florida would be nice,” Felton said, reading Pete’s mind.

“I’ve got an uncle in Jacksonville,” Pete said. “We could crash at his place until we found jobs. Maybe we could open a hot dog stand on the beach, or whatever.”

“Felton’s Franks, we’d call it,” Felton said.

“That could give us some cash until our novels got published. We’d open for lunch at eleven and close around two so we could get some beach time—”

“—and watch the sun go down each evening with our beautiful, bikini-clad girlfriends,” Felton added. “When do we leave?”

“Tomorrow,” Pete said instinctively. “How much money you got saved up?”

“About two hundred – give or take a hundred.”

“I’ve got about five hundred,” Pete said, really thinking now. “So we’ve got enough for the drive and maybe a week after that.”

“Should we give two weeks’ notice?”

“In two weeks we’ll lose our nerve,” Pete said. “It’s gotta be now.”

Felton took a thoughtful drag from his Camel and grinned. Meatloaf was on the jukebox now, wailing about how two outta three ain’t bad.

“You don’t even have an uncle in Florida, do you?”

The door opened. Felton and Pete glanced back, in case a starlet appeared.

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