To read from the beginning of this novel, Eminent Domain, you can click here or on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 1988
Phyllis woke with a start when the cat vaulted over her head and off the bed. She should be used to it by now. When Ron, who delivered her newspaper, offered to bring it to the door instead of leaving it in the mailbox at the bottom of the driveway, she jumped at the chance and offered him an extra tip. Now she regretted it though — every morning at 5:00 sharp, the newspaper hit the door, the cat leaped up to investigate the noise, and she was awake.
Sometimes she would snuggle back under the covers and try to squeeze in another hour, but this morning she knew she would never go back to sleep. She shrugged on her robe for warmth, and wandered out to the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot. The aforementioned cat, Tootsie, was sitting at the door staring at the newspaper. Or perhaps she was staring at the foot of snow mounded by the door, underneath the newspaper.
“Eh, there’d better be something good in it, Tootsie, for the trouble you’ve caused,” Phyllis grumbled good-naturedly. She peered out into the dark; the lamp post down the walk was still lit, the walk was covered with snow, but her driveway was mostly plowed. At the bottom she could see the headlight of Matt’s tractor making passes with his plow.
“What a sweetheart he is,” she thought out loud. Tootsie meowed, and Phyllis laughed. “Oh I know you agree with me, but you want some breakfast, don’t you?” She hurriedly fed the cat and rumbled around in the kitchen cabinet for a thermos. Pulling on her boots and heavy coat she shouldered open the door to fetch the newspaper before it froze onto the pile of snow. She hoped the coffee would be done before Matt got back to the top of the driveway.
The headlines blared at her from the front page; she sank down on a kitchen chair and silently read the front page. The coffee maker beeped, making her jump. She looked out the door — Matt was just about to the garage. She poured a cup for herself and the rest in the thermos for Matt and trudged out the front door. He would know what had happened, she thought. The snow was almost up to the top of her high boots, so she stood on the porch and waved the thermos at Matt.
He idled the tractor and jumped down as if he were a man half his age. He scolded her. “I’ve had coffee, and you shouldn’t be out in this without your sidewalk shoveled. I can…”
She interrupted. “Now Matt, let an old lady take care of you. You’re plowing my driveway for goodness sakes. Besides I want to know what you know about the accident last night. I can’t believe this all happened, and I was just safe and snug in the house. I left work early yesterday and never looked out the front windows after I got home.” She held the newspaper in front of him as if he hadn’t yet seen it.
Matt shook his head. “Bad business,” he said. “They got it all right there, except they didn’t say that the other driver was killed instantly too. They said he died at the hospital, but he was already gone when the ambulance driver transported him.”
“Did you go down?” she asked, her voice fading.
“No, but Burton did. We were leaving the church when the emergency vehicles all pulled up. He rode down to the scene with them, and then later came back up and had soup with me.”
“The article said it was still under investigation…” she said.
“Well they’d better investigate the road then. And the weather.” Matt rubbed his hands together, and Phyllis handed him the thermos.
“I’d invite you in to get warm, but I’d better get in to work. Did you see they interviewed Alex? It looks like they are investigating the road… And thank you so much for plowing — I’d not be going to work if it weren’t for you.”
“Of course. That’s what neighbors are for — and thank you for the coffee. I’m heading right home and I’ll have it with my oatmeal.”
Phyllis’ big old boat of a car — a 1980 Oldsmobile — wasn’t really suited for driving down her driveway in the winter. Actually, it wasn’t suited for driving anywhere in the snow, but it just never had seemed the right time to get rid of it. That Oldsmobile was the car she and Andy had bought just days before he died. She had argued that it was too big, but Andy had wanted it. And then two weeks later, he’d had a heart attack and was gone. She should have traded it in immediately, but she hadn’t, couldn’t. And she was left with a car that was too big and memories that became sweeter as the years passed. Lately she’d been noticing that the new cars were smaller and rounder, and she sort of liked them. She was keeping her eyes open. The time had come.
The office was dark when she arrived. She was an hour earlier than usual, so turning on the lights and making coffee became her job. As she was looking in the snack cabinet to see if there was anything still edible, the phone jangled loudly in the empty office.
“Good morning. PennDot District 13, Engineer’s Office. Can I help you?”
The voice on the other end of the phone was loud and jolly. “Good morning to you Phyllis. How is the weather up there this morning?”
There was no mistaking the voice of Ross Fowler from the Harrisburg office. Often the voice of doom, some engineers said. “Hello, Ross. The weather is calm this morning, but the garage is busy and all the trucks are still out clearing from yesterday evening.”
“Well the office staff is hard at work early. Is Alex there yet, by any chance?”
“He isn’t due in for another twenty minutes or so; can I leave him a message?” She wasn’t going to let Ross think Alex was late.
“Eh, well, I’ve been up all night; I’m just thinking everyone else has been as well. Have him give me a call as soon as he gets in.”
“Right, should be soon.” She was already writing Alex the note to put on his desk. As she hung up the receiver, she thought, Today might be the perfect day for some cinnamon rolls… She put her coat back on and hurried out the door.
Twenty minutes later she returned to find Alex sitting at his desk staring at an old map of some sort. She hesitantly walked over to the doorway and Alex motioned for her to come in.
“Did you call Ross?” she asked.
Alex nodded. “Well, actually, he called me just as I had my hand on the receiver,” he said. “What a strange conversation.”
“Stranger than usual?” Phyllis asked with a wry smile.
“Much stranger.” Alex stood up. “Phyllis, were you here when the first plan to re-route 592 was brought up?”
She shook her head. “I came a couple of years after that. Let’s see, it must have been about 1963, because I came in ’65. But I remember it. Oh, wasn’t that an uproar!”
“I don’t know much about it,” Alex admitted. “In 1963 I was ten years old and we lived in Warren, Ohio. Tell me what you remember.”
“Well, as I recall, it was touted as the newest most modern road plan that the Highway Dept. could come up with — a four lane interstate with cloverleafs and all — for a road between here and Hattiesville — with an exit for Price’s Corners! Actually, it was supposed to be a link in a larger pattern of four-lane highways that would come out of Pittsburgh from the northeast, go through State College, and end up in New York somewhere. I think only one section of that plan ever got built — you know, that four-lane between Germantown and Allegany?”
Alex nodded. “I knew that road was unfinished and part of a larger, scrapped plan, but I didn’t know 592 was part of it.”
“There was such a fuss. I’m glad I didn’t work here then. At the time a lot of politicians thought it was a grand idea, and there were rumors that some of them would profit by it, but you know rumors and politics… Truly, I think it was just a quickie scheme to get some Federal highway money into Western Pennsylvania.”
“I’ve been looking at it for the last few minutes.” He walked over to his desk where the map was spread out. Phyllis followed him. “It certainly looks like they just put a straight edge over the road and said, ‘Here’s where the new road will go.’”
Phyllis peered at the map. “So this is what you’ve been studying. Well, in the early sixties interstates and divided highways were the big new thing. I don’t think much thought went into the design. No one expected the ruckus it would cause.”
Alex rummaged through his top drawer, found some tacks, and stuck the old map on the wall. “Is there anyone besides DeBolt who is still here and remembers what happened?” he asked.
“Mr. DeBolt is the only one who’s still around. He would surely talk to you, but I’ve heard recently that he’s not doing very well. I should go visit him.” She paused. “Does all this have to do with Mr. Fowler’s phone call?”
“Sure does. I’m supposed to put everyone on designing a new route 592. It’s supposed to be top secret, and we’re supposed to have it done in a couple of months or so. And it distinctly sounded like if we don’t come through we’re up that proverbial creek without a job.”
“Oh my! Goodness, that’s a lot of supposes! What a tall order — two months!” Phyllis sputtered. “He knows that we’re a small department — only two engineers, a draftsman, and a secretary! An old secretary! And what about public input? Whatever are you going to do, Alex?”
“Phyllis, you are a perfect secretary. I couldn’t ask for anyone better, but you sure aren’t helping right now.” Alex sat down in his chair, and put his chin in his hands. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. I just got the phone call twenty minutes ago…”
Alex looked perfectly miserable and she was immediately contrite. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. But I still think it’s terrible. I can hold all your calls today. I have some warm cinnamon rolls from The Hearth, and I can bring you a sandwich when I go out to get mine. Anything else?”
“Yes to all of those. Thanks. I’ve got to think this out today, before I say anything to anyone.” He looked at her.
“Not a word. To anyone. But what about Keith?” Keith was the other engineer in the office.
“I’d like to get my thoughts cobbled together a bit before I talk to him. Can you hold him off for a couple of hours? Shoot. I’ve got questions and I don’t know which is worse, to call Ross back and admit that I didn’t think of it, or not call him back and screw up something…”
“Do you want my opinion, or do you want me to be quiet?” She grinned.
He looked at her: a trim, no-nonsense older lady with short brown hair and glasses on a chain around her neck. The perfect, wise secretary who kept the office running like a precision machine. He’d be a fool to not take her opinion on most everything. “I value your opinion, Phyllis. I’m going to be asking for it a lot these days…”
“Absolutely, call him back. And soon, because he was up all night.”
“Yeah, he told me that.”
“And be careful listening to my opinions, because my beautiful house is out there close to that old road…”
“Yeah, I know that, too.” He sighed. “Lots of people have their houses on that road. And no matter what they look like on the outside, the houses are beautiful to them.”
She nodded and quietly shut the door to his office. “Dear God, just let him remember that,” she whispered.