High Value, Chapter 3: Chris Ekte

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Chris Ekte was running behind schedule. His wife’s vehicle was in the shop with a faulty computer chip, so he had to drop her off at work on his way into the shop. Her shift at Klein’s Family Grocery didn’t start until 9:00 a.m., which was later than he liked to get going. What was extra frustrating was that, while he could fix almost anything mechanical, the newer vehicles had computer parts that could not be jiggered into working with shop wire and bailing twine. Paying the dealership to do work that he knew would only take a few minutes felt like a racket, but there was nothing to be done. They needed two cars.

They needed two cars because they needed two jobs. With kids in school and all the bills that came with family life, there was no way they could get by on his income alone. That was not to suggest his wife made much. She’d been a reliable employee of Klein’s for years yet made only slightly above minimum wage. And no benefits; she worked exactly thirty-one and a half hours each week, ensuring that old man Klein, and now his son Brendon, never had to fork over an extra dime.

Brendon Klein. He and Ekte had graduated a couple years apart and so, while they knew each other, they had never played sports or really hung out together. Brendon was not a likeable guy, at least not to Ekte, though he could admit that he was not going to get any nominations for Citizen of the Year, either. His wife hated working at Klein’s, but there were not a lot of other jobs around Chippewa Lakes that she qualified for. Brendon never harassed her or anything, so all she had to do was survive six-hour shifts, with a fifteen-minute break, working the till. It was easier than hauling ice.

And that was another reason they needed her car; his vehicle was an ice truck. Or, more precisely, a refrigerated truck, one that had a cab with only limited seating. Not enough of a bench for the entire family, even if they weren’t all legally belted in. Damned Mexican-made junk cars and their stupid Chinese computer chips, he thought.

Ekte pulled into the shop yard and backed his truck up to the loading dock. He had called ahead before he left home and confirmed that his two employees—now his only employees—would have the day’s ice packaged and ready to go. The bay door started to lift before he put the truck in park.

“Hey, boss.” It was Luis. At least, Ekte thought it was Luis. He still got Luis and his brother Raul mixed up, even though they had been working for him for nearly six months.

“Sorry about the old lady’s car, boss. I’ll bet Raul could fix it.” It was definitely Luis. He was not one to refer to himself in the third person.

“Ah, man, I could fix the damned thing if it didn’t require a chip. Stupid computers,” Ekte replied as he lumbered down from the driver’s seat. The truck cab had plenty of room to accommodate his size, but the step down was often hard to do in a dignified manner.

“That’s why I don’t buy them new cars,” Raul shouted down from behind a pallet jack. “Can’t fix them.”

Ekte nodded. Raul started to load a pallet of ice onto the truck, one of four stacks that would be out for delivery that day. Luis jumped down from the dock carrying a piece of paper in his left hand.

“Boss, I hate to say this, but we got another call from that lady at the unemployment office. I told her I didn’t know nothing, but she kept saying you need to call her right away. I took the number, but I didn’t say nothing to her.”

Luis handed the note to Ekte, who looked at it without really looking at it. He knew who it was and he knew what she wanted. Stupid bureaucrats. Damned system. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone?

Earlier in the year, his pastor had asked him if he could help a fellow parishioner out with a job. He didn’t really need another employee, but Ekte found a place for the guy on the crew. This guy, a loser named Tim, asked to be paid in cash because of a problem he had with a bill collector or something. He claimed he was trying to get back on his feet and be a better family man. Ekte smelled a rat, but he couldn’t say no to his church.

Sure enough, after a couple months of pretty mediocre performance, Tim started coming to work loaded. Ekte didn’t drink and he didn’t do drugs. He accepted that other people did, but he had zero tolerance for it at work. He told Tim to leave and not bother coming back.

Ekte thought he would hear it from his pastor, but instead he heard from the state. Tim filed for unemployment and, when there was no record of him with the unemployment office, Tim told them he was being paid in cash. That didn’t go over well and now Ekte was receiving formal letters, and fielding the occasional call, threatening fines and legal action if he didn’t come clean and pay thousands in back taxes.

What a mess. Luis and Raul kind of knew what happened and offered to help out, to even stretch the truth on Ekte’s behalf if necessary. They also hadn’t liked Tim. There wasn’t much that could be done, however, at least not without hiring an attorney—which Ekte didn’t have the money for. He hated attorneys, anyway. All they did, in his opinion, was charge lots of money for wasting time. And they liked to hear themselves talk, pretending they were smarter than everyone else. Attorneys were the worst.

Luis and Raul had families. They didn’t need to be tangled up in this. Ekte figured he would just continue to ignore it and hope it all went away.

The truck was full of ice, so he climbed in the cab (going up was more dignified than the trip down) and Raul, whose turn it was to go on the rounds, jumped up in the passenger seat.

“Kind of a short list of stops today,” he said.

“Yep,” Ekte replied. “That might work out alright since I need to pick up the wife.”

“Yeah, but we still gotta sell some ice. We need to get paid.”

“You bet. Let’s do it.”

The truck rolled out and headed to their first stop: the ice coolers at Sleepy Point Resort.

Stay tuned next week for chapter four!

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