11 Alex, Burton, Conrad
Wednesday, February 10, 1988
The hospital parking lot was full — the spaces that weren’t filled with cars were filled with heaping hills of snow. Alex drove out of the main parking lot and managed to find a spot in the smaller lot across the street. Phyllis had called and found out that Mr. DeBolt was in room 316. He hoped it was a private room.
By the time he had reached the third floor, his palms were sweating. He’d never liked hospitals, nor did he like visiting sick people. He knew it was a character flaw that he should work on fixing because he was pretty sure that Angie wouldn’t go for a home birth. I hope the maternity ward isn’t painted this puke green, he thought.
The door of Room 316 was open. In the far bed by the window lay an old man hooked up to many tubes, propped up and looking out the window. His thin white hair stuck up all over his head, as if no one had combed it yet today. The television that hung from the ceiling was tuned to a game show, but the volume was muted. By his bed was a lunch tray that hadn’t been touched: broth and red jello. The first bed was empty. Tentatively, Alex knocked on the doorsill.
Conrad DeBolt turned his head to see who had knocked. A look of surprise passed over his face; “Alex? I haven’t thought of the office in awhile. I think my days there are over. I suppose at some point, I should send in my resignation, eh?” Suddenly he looked confused. “Oh. That’s not what you’re here about, is it? Because I could…”
“No, no,” Alex assured him. Then he felt mildly guilty that he had never even come to visit the man, although truthfully, he had not even known he was in the hospital until Phyllis mentioned it yesterday. “I just heard yesterday that you were in the hospital…” he started. Oh, rats, he thought, that makes it sound like I’m being a do-gooder and visiting as soon as I knew… “Phyllis said to tell you hello. She’ll probably be in someday soon…” he faltered.
“Yes, she came to see me once. I can’t remember how long ago. Time gets distorted when you’re in a place like this. Nights turn into days turn into weeks. I don’t even know how long it’s been.”
At work, Conrad DeBolt had worn a suit every single day. It might even have been the same pinstripe blue suit, but he doubted it, for Mr. DeBolt never looked rumpled. Alex envisioned five identical suits hanging in the closet next to seven starched white shirts. Seeing the usually dapper man in a hospital gown and sporting gray stubble and uncombed hair was jarring. “Mr. DeBolt, don’t they shave you around here?” Alex asked, and then he regretted that comment too; perhaps it was rude?
Conrad felt the stubble on his chin, “Yes, I probably look like death warmed over,” he said. “That’s the way I feel too, so I guess it’s appropriate. But I’m being rude — please sit down, Alex. Can I offer you some cold broth or jello?”
Alex grinned. “I can see why you haven’t eaten. Can I go down to the vending machines and get you anything? Or, I guess you’re probably not allowed. Would they throw me out for that?”
Mr. DeBolt smiled a weak smile. “Thank you kindly for the offer, but I’m just not hungry. They could bring me a big T-bone steak, and I’d maybe eat two bites… I’m on my way out, Alex, and I’m not saying that to be morbid, just facing facts. I’ve had a good life, and I’m ready to meet my Maker. Now then, what did you come to talk to me about? I’m sure it wasn’t to ask after my health. Although I do appreciate the visit.”
Alex noticed the folded up newspaper on the bedside table. “Have you read the newspaper, sir?”
“What can you tell me about the 1963 plan for Rte. 592?”
“You mean the 1963 fiasco for Rte. 592?”
“Yes sir. Can you tell me why it was a fiasco?”
“Let me guess. Ross has been on the phone to you this morning. He’s given you orders to come up with another plan for the road. Quickly and quietly, right? And you’re a smart young man, you don’t want another fiasco with the same road. So you’re here to find out what I can tell you.”
Alex looked straight into the man’s watery blue eyes, though it was hard. “Yes, sir, that’s about it. You’ve worked there for thirty-five years; you probably know what’s going to happen before it happens.”
“Ross Fowler also probably said it was a good thing I was gone, didn’t he?”
“No sir. We didn’t talk about you, but I know there was trouble. I don’t know if I can keep from making the same mistakes, but I don’t much like the similarities I’ve seen so far. And I don’t even know much.”
Mr. DeBolt put his head back against the pillow and sighed. “I’ll tell you what I think might be helpful to you. A few weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have even done this. But I like you, Alex. I think you’re a good engineer, and I don’t like seeing them put you in this position. If I were you, I’d run from this job.” He turned his head to look at Alex. “There was a newspaper girl here earlier asking questions about that old road project. I didn’t tell her anything, but I’ll tell you some things, and you can make your own decisions.
“In 1963 I’d been with the Highway Department for almost ten years, working as an engineer in the Pittsburgh office. They sent me up here early in the year to take over the office for a man who was having surgery. The promise was that I would be the Acting Chief Engineer while he was recovering, and then when he retired the next year, I would be promoted.
“Like our situations now,” Alex mused.
“Exactly like our situations now, although I don’t know what they’ve promised you.”
“Nothing,” Alex said. “They’ve promised nothing. Though in my head, I thought…”
“Of course,” Mr. DeBolt said. “Anyone would.”
“In the spring of that year, I received a visit from several Department officials from Harrisburg, including Ross Fowler as well as the State Representative from Allegany and the State Senator from the 12th district who was William Schultz.”
“The governor? And Ross? –”
Mr. DeBolt held up a shaky finger. “Let me talk. They wanted an interstate between Adamsford and Hattiesville fast — there was nothing like that — nothing even close — on any plans. Interstate 79 was just getting started, but work was progressing on it in fits and starts. An exit here, an exit there… there was trouble with the contractor and there was big federal money to be had after the Interstate Act was passed.
“They pulled me into their scheme. If I finished the design of the road — my predecessor, Joseph Haines, had already started it — they would ram it through the legislature that session. And they all assured me they would back me up. They needed this link between Adamsford and Hattiesville to finish the link that was being built from Germantown to Allegany. The entire road was supposed to go from I-79 in Pittsburgh, north east to State College and then up to New York where it would join up with their Rt.17. The University folks traded favors to the politicos who just claimed they wanted easy access to both Harrisburg and Penn State from all corners.
“Well, that never happened.”
“No it didn’t, because they didn’t foresee that even though people liked the interstates, they didn’t want their houses and land taken for a road. The state wasn’t paying fair prices for what they were taking back then, unless you were a foresightful politician who had bought up some land.
“Anyway, I did the road the way they wanted, and it had been passed by the House with the Senate set to vote on it soon. But when the time came to send out the Eminent Domain letters, for some reason people went wild. And they got an attorney who fixated on the fact that the road had not been brought before the public in any way, and why was that? The attorney for the County Commissioners suggested that more hearings needed to be held before the road was actually begun. And the judge went for it. “I was accused of drawing up the road to benefit those who were paying me, and no one backed me up. Instead of getting promoted, I got fired.” Mr. DeBolt leaned his head back on his pillow, out of breath.
Alex was silent for awhile to let the man rest. Then he asked the inevitable — “How did you get your job back?”
“I knew things. And no one could ever trace any money to me, except my salary.” He paused to take a shaky breath. “The main point you need to take away from this sad story is this: No one will ever back you up. The secondary point you need to know is — Don’t consider that anyone in politics or the government is trustworthy, even if you yourself are.”
“Did Ross get kickbacks?”
“I wouldn’t tell you that even if I knew.”
“It all sounds so familiar. Only instead of the University it’s…” Alex faded out as he remembered the charge of secrecy.
“Yes, stop. Even though I’m going to die soon, I don’t want to know.” Conrad grimaced.
Alex sat in awkward silence as he contemplated Mr. DeBolt’s words.
A gentle knock on the door startled the two men. They looked up to see Pastor Burton Stewart’s tall frame in the doorway. “Conrad, am I interrupting?” he asked. “Because I can come back…”
“No, no, come in Reverend Stewart. I could use some prayer.”
Alex stood up. “I was just getting ready to leave.”
Burton offered his hand. “You’re Alex Goddard, aren’t you? I’ve been wanting to meet you.”
Alex shook his hand. “Pastor Stewart. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I heard that you married Angela McCall? She used to come to the church, and she was a favorite of my wife’s. How is married life?”
“Fine, fine,” Alex nodded. He was distracted by small talk and turned to say goodbye to Conrad DeBolt. The man had his eyes shut tightly as if he were in pain. “Thank you for talking with me, Mr. DeBolt. I’ll think carefully on what you’ve said.”
Conrad DeBolt lifted his free arm. “Pastor,” he said. “You’d be missing an opportunity if you didn’t invite this young man to bring his new wife to church.”
Burton Stewart smiled. “You took the words right out of my mouth, Conrad.” He turned to Alex. “We’d be pleased to see you some Sunday. My wife, Denise, especially. Tell Angela we said hello, would you please?”
Conrad interrupted. “Now, Burton, he’s going to be a busy man here these next weeks, so just don’t expect them for a little while. But yes, I’m sure he and Angela will be showing up for Sunday services soon.”
Alex stiffened in mortification. Nothing discreet about that, he thought. Thank you Conrad DeBolt.
Mr. DeBolt still had his eyes closed.
Pastor Stewart looked perplexed at the odd comment. He looked between the two men and could make nothing out of it. Gently he said to Alex, “If you ever need to talk, I’m available. Pastoral conversations are confidential, you know. And I love to talk to young couples about the challenges of marriage too.”
“Thank you, Pastor,” Alex said as he escaped out the door. But he mentally filed away the offer of a confidential conversation from a good man. He might need that sometime soon.