To read from the beginning of this novel, Eminent Domain, you can click here or on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.
Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Feb. 9-10, 1988
Alex flipped on Channel 10 for the news and sank back into the couch. Angie was already engrossed in her pile of pregnancy books. At least she had given up trying to involve him, he thought. As she got bigger, the whole thing seemed easier to imagine, and last week he had put his hand on her belly and felt it move. But birth classes and exercises and shopping for baby stuff — all that was more than he could do. He gave her his charge card and told her to get what she needed. If she was upset about it, she didn’t let him know. Mostly she was just quiet.
It was strange living twenty-four hours a day with a woman he didn’t know very well. She seemed so eager to please and made no demands on him. He thought the politeness a strain, and it certainly didn’t seem like anything he had expected from marriage. Not that it was bad. He wondered how long it would stay like this, and would it get worse or better? Things would change when the kid came, but he was fuzzy on the details of just how it would change. Connie Chung was discussing Nicaragua and he tried to pay attention, but mostly he just watched her mouth moving. He was glad no one would ask him what she had just said.
Then he changed his mind and wished someone would ask him, so he could admit he wasn’t listening; at least then there would be a conversation. The telephone rang and Angie jumped up to answer it. She did talk on the phone a lot to her girlfriends, he thought. He only knew a couple of them, and they seemed very young. Much younger than Angie. He’d suggested inviting them to dinner and even volunteered to cook for them. Angie had said ‘Maybe sometime’ and that was the end of it. ‘I like these quiet evenings at home with you,’ she had said. ‘We probably won’t have too many more of them.’ Maybe it was the long quiet evenings that were making him restless.
Angie appeared at the door. “It’s for you,” she said. “It’s Bill Clancey from The Chronicle.” Her eyes were question marks, and he shrugged.
“Wonder what Clancey wants with me?” he said.
Almost a half-hour later, he put the telephone receiver back on its hook and sat staring at the stripes in the wallpaper in front of the hall desk. Angie had wandered through occasionally to see if he was still on the phone and to gently eavesdrop. She would probably be back through in a minute, and his thoughts were very jumbled. He needed to think — alone somewhere — so he practically ran up the stairs to the bathroom, locked the door, stripped off his clothes, and turned on the shower.
Downstairs, Angie heard him hang up the phone and go upstairs. She was puzzled when she heard the shower come on. What odd behavior. He was so different. She didn’t have any idea what he wanted from her, so she just kept going slow, trying to be calm and helpful. But what should she do now? The phone call had obviously disturbed him — he had seemed flustered when she had gone in to check on the conversation. She tiptoed upstairs and stood hesitantly in front of the bathroom door. Finally, she knocked. “Are you okay?” she called.
“Yeah, yeah,” his voice had the hollow sound of someone talking under water. “I just need to think for awhile. I’m okay.”
She turned and headed back downstairs. She hoped it wasn’t anything too serious. They certainly didn’t need a heavy duty crisis at this point. She went back to reading Husband-Coached Childbirth.
Alex woke early the next morning. As he was waiting for the coffee, he put a croissant in the toaster oven and sat down to read the newspaper. Clancey had gone all out: a cover story of the accident, several pictures, an editorial… His eyes skimmed to the bottom of the front page. He winced as he read the headline:
Engineer Discusses Solutions to Route 592 Disaster
He hadn’t discussed any solutions! He had tried to play it down, but Clancey just kept coming back to it. There had been a plan drawn up, maybe fifteen, twenty years ago when economics in the area had been better. Nothing had ever been done with it, and it had died on some bureaucrat’s desk. That was way before Alex had even considered becoming an engineer. He couldn’t remember how he had even known about it. But Clancey had remembered it and kept asking. Where was the plan? Was it being reconsidered now in light of all these accidents on Rte. 592 this past year?
He read his own voice quoted in the paper:
“No, I’m sure it’s not being considered at this point,” Alex Goddard said in a telephone conversation last night. “It isn’t in the four-year-plan or even the twelve-year plan. There are many deteriorating bridges in the county, and they will be our main emphasis this year and next. I believe there are only two projects currently in the plan for Rte 592: a partial resurfacing from Adamsford to the bridge by the State Game Lands this summer, and a new bridge at Four Corners to be completed by the end of next fall.”
Would it be possible to get the project done if it’s not in the Twelve-Year Plan?
That had been a loaded question. He read on:
“Goddard noted that in his past five years as a District Engineer with the Department of Transportation, there had been no additions or deletions to the basic Twelve-Year Plan. Goddard is currently serving as temporary chief engineer for District 13 while Conrad DeBolt is on a six-month leave of absence for health reasons. When asked if it was possible to initiate a project that is not in the plan, Goddard answered that it was possible, but the decision would have to be made at a higher level — either with engineers in Harrisburg or state legislators.
When State Legislator Tom Del’Olio was contacted…”
They even called Ollie, he thought. In a way he was glad, for he was sure he had sounded more intelligent than Ollie. Yep; he grinned as he read on. The last paragraph was Tom Del’Olio saying no, he wasn’t aware that there had ever been a plan for a new road to Hattiesville.
He finished his coffee. Well, the headline was bad, but at least they hadn’t misquoted him or had some terrible typos that made the whole article unreadable.
He left the newspaper unfolded so Angie would see it, and ran upstairs to kiss her goodbye. She rolled over sleepily. “Good luck today,” she mumbled. Alex stood up. “Whatever happens today, it certainly won’t be another ordinary day at the office.” Buttoning his coat, he took the stairs two at a time and ran outside to start the car.
Alex walked into his office and threw his coat over the chair. Phyllis, his secretary didn’t usually come in for another half-hour, but already there was a large note on his desk in her handwriting. “Call Ross as soon as you get in, 717-227-9200.”
He sat down and took a deep breath. Ross Fowler was generally amiable, but there was always a bit of unpredictability about him. You could be talking to him, thinking everything was going fine, when suddenly you were on the defensive. Alex remembered how relieved he had been when he’d discovered everyone felt trepidation when they had to talk to Ross. For the first six months of his job, he’d thought it was just him. Ross was not the big boss, but he was the Chief Engineer and he also had a lot of political clout. He was good friends with the governor, and everyone expected him to be given a new job soon. There were bets on what the job would be. Most agreed that it would be the Department Secretary, but Keith, the other engineer in the office insisted he would be named the Director of the Department of Corrections.
The phone rang and he picked it up before it even finished ringing once.
“Hello-o-o Alex,” Ross said a hearty, booming voice. “Did you get my message?”
“Ross, I had my hand on the phone to call you, just as it rang.”
“Your illustrious, industrious newspaper editor in Adamsford called me at home last night.”
“He did? Did you read the article? They called Del’Olio too.”
Ross Fowler chuckled. “We got copies of pertinent articles in the department’s electronic mail late last night. When is Ollie’s term up anyway? Don’t you folks have anyone smarter you can send down here? But, hey, he made you look pretty good, eh?”
“I don’t know, Ross. It was tough having to talk off the top of my head like that.”
“You did okay. Sounded like you knew what you were talking about, but didn’t give him any answers.”
“Well, what answers could I have given anyway?” Alex asked.
Ross was silent for a few seconds, thinking it might be good that Alex was young and inexperienced; thinking it was good that Conrad DeBolt was on sabbatical. “You think you can handle some pressure?”
“What’s up, Ross?”
“That’s right, Alex. Never answer those loaded questions with a direct yes or no. Could get you in trouble in days to come.” There was silence at both ends of the phone.
Alex wondered if Ross was playing some sort of game with him, and he decided to keep quiet. He’d asked his question; let Ross answer it.
“Well Alex, the governor seems to think this project might be a good thing to get out of the cupboard.”
“He does?” Alex tried not to sound incredulous.
“He does. Seems he’s concerned about that little road and all those accidents. And he’s been meeting with Con-Oil. They are definitely interested in western Pennsylvania. The governor thinks a new road up there might interest them a little more. And think of all those jobs and how popular the governor might be in your area around election time.”
Alex was confused by Ross’ sarcastic tone. Any new company locating in, or even near, Adamsford or Hattiesville would be greeted with enthusiasm. Anything to help ease the 13% unemployment rate. He said as much to Ross, but as far as he could tell, Ross ignored him and just went on with his planned speech.
“The road will be done and the governor re-elected before any business deal is signed. You understand, Alex? Quiet is the key — we don’t want to announce anything that’s still at the talking stage. Now, you take a look at that old plan. There was a big stink about it years ago, because it took a lotta people’s little houses. You see if you can update it some. Take fewer houses, more empty land. Do a good job, Alex. This project is going to get done, and we don’t want people too upset. Of course, it seems most people won’t mind because it’s a squirrelly old road, but those people who live on it — well, they’re just not gonna like it much. The Governor’s gonna try to get you as much money for this as he can, but a couple of projects will have to be put on hold. I’ll get back to you on which ones. Course all this has to go through the legislature, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Now, we’ll want this new plan soon, a couple of months… ASAP. Put all your boys on it, Alex, and see that it’s good. I’ll call you on Friday to check in again. You got anything to ask me?”
Because he was stunned and could think of nothing else to say, Alex laughed quietly into the phone. “Ross, you guys must have been up all night on this one.”
“That’s right, Alex, we were,” Ross said. “And now I’m going home to take a nap. You get busy and I’ll call you on Friday.” He hung up, and Alex put down the receiver.
Not an ordinary day at all.