12 The PennDot Engineers 1, Slightly Unethical
February 10, 1988
Phyllis was tidying her desk and files and wrapping up the day’s work. She didn’t always feel as if she was the neatest, most efficient secretary she could be, so it always made her feel better to organize at the end of the day. Leaving her desk uncluttered and prepared for tomorrow helped her in the morning as well. She was just switching off the word processor when Alex came through the door.
“I thought you wouldn’t be back after you’d been gone for so long,” she said. “Were you visiting Mr. DeBolt this whole time?”
Alex shook his head. “I had been there for about an hour when Pastor Stewart came in. We talked briefly after that, and I left. I needed to think, to clear my head, so I took a drive to Hattiesville and back along the infamous 592. Is everyone gone?” He looked around the office. All the doors were shut. The Engineering Department of District 13 occupied a suite of offices with Phyllis’ desk and filing cabinets and several chairs in the reception area. Surrounding the central area were two engineer’s offices on the right side and the draftsman’s office on the left. A small kitchenette separated the two back corner rooms — the conference room and the Chief Engineer’s office. Alex had reluctantly moved into the Chief Engineer’s office about two months ago, which left the front engineer’s office vacant.
“Keith left about four o’clock saying something about an appointment. Pat showed up and hung around here for a few minutes just doing nothing, and, finally, he and Henry left. I think they were going to the Basement Grille for dinner.”
“The photographer Pat from The Chronicle?”
Phyllis looked at him speculatively and nodded. “How is Mr. DeBolt?”
“He looked like… uh, well, he said it himself, ‘death warmed over.’ It didn’t look like anyone had combed his hair or shaved him for three days. And all those tubes…” Alex looked at Phyllis. “His memory was fine, though.” He dragged a chair over to sit across from her desk. “If I’m keeping you, go,” he said. “You’ll probably have plenty of overtime in these next weeks.”
“No. Talk if you need to. I won’t say anything to anyone. Although I might have to become a hermit.”
“We all might. We might need to drag couches into this reception room for overnighters and lock the door to photographers, friends, and curiosity seekers.”
“It won’t work, Alex. This is too small of a town, too small of an office, and even if we don’t say a word, rumors will fly. Rumors are already flying. A girl from the Chronicle called just before you came in. She was asking about the old road project.”
“This is not the way a project should begin… and this is why PennDot enacted rules of order for road projects. We could all lose our jobs,” he said thoughtfully. “Though would they fire all of us?” He grinned and said in a news announcer’s voice, ‘In a local story tonight, the entire staff of PennDot District 13 in Adamsford was fired yesterday. When asked to comment, the local secretary Phyllis Deeter said…’” He leaned forward and held an imaginary microphone in front of Phyllis.
She burst out laughing and said, “No Comment. No, no, wait. I mean, Screw You Ross!” She covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh, I can’t believe I said that.”
It was Alex’s turn to burst out laughing. “I hope that felt good. Don’t worry, when Ross calls tomorrow morning, your secret is safe with me.”
“You know that he’s calling tomorrow morning?”
“He is calling every morning from now on. Till eternity. Or till we get the plan done.”
Alex sighed. “I don’t know what to tell Angie. I don’t know what to tell anyone. Nothing, right? Oh, sorry. I’m forgetting and talking to myself. You’d better go home.”
“Let’s walk out together. There’s nothing more you can do here today. You should go home and tell Angie that you’ve gotten a huge project laid on you. That it’s confidential, and you’ll tell her what you can but not to ask any questions.”
“And the first thing she will do is ask me a question. The Question. Does it have to do with the accident?”
“And you will give her a hug. Tell her you love her. And that you can’t answer any questions.”
Do I love her? Alex wondered to himself. How will this all turn out?
He spoke what had been in the back of his head off and on all day. “Phyllis, we’re going to have a baby in May. I can’t get fired.”
Phyllis got up from her desk and gathered her coat and purse and keys. “Come on. You’re going home to your pregnant wife. It’s highly unlikely you will be fired. It’s much more likely that when this is over you will choose to find another job somewhere else. Somewhere sane. Where they don’t ask their engineers to do impossible, slightly unethical projects.”
“Is this project unethical, Phyllis?”
“I don’t know, Alex. Is this project unethical?”
“Conrad DeBolt said that Ross left him high and dry on the ’63 project even when he had promised to back him up.”
“Did Ross promise to back you up?”
“Yes, he did. Those exact words.”
“Well, then. You know how much those words are worth.” They were standing at Phyllis’ car.
“Phyllis, you need to get a new car. When this project is all finished, I’ll help you find one myself. My brother in Warren, Ohio, works for a car dealership, and I can put him on the lookout for you. You need a nice Toyota for getting up and down your driveway.”
“Thank you, Alex. Go home, love up your wife and get some sleep. Tomorrow will be an adventure.”
He grinned. “So far, I haven’t been looking at it as an adventure. Thanks. I think that’s a good perspective.”