Eminent Domain: Valentine’s Day, Alex

Sunday, Feb. 14, 1988

Alex was sitting in his office on Sunday morning, not really waiting for Ross’ daily call, but yes, waiting for his call. He had papers in front of him, maps, and enlarged sections of the old road plan, but his brain was elsewhere. Only the fourth day in, and his powers of concentration were failing. Of course, here he was at his desk on Sunday at 8 AM. The others weren’t due in until nine, and Phyllis had asked politely and firmly for Sundays off. He’d said yes, with the caveat that if something was desperate she’d have to come in, and she had cheerfully agreed.

When the phone rang, he took his standard deep breath and answered. Ross’ voice was no longer jovial either. In the last phone call he had sounded just loud and brash. Brash was usually a cover for something else; Alex had wondered idly what it meant.

“…just wanted to keep you on top of things. Jonathan Lee, Esquire, and I are flying up with the helicopter tomorrow. While you guys are out enjoying yourselves on the carnival ride, we are meeting with Del’Olio. He’s going to sponsor this project in the House, and we have some coaching to do. Next week, on Monday the 22nd, we are going to have a public meeting about this project. It will likely be in the courthouse — your public meeting room isn’t big enough, and we don’t want SRO. People will be better behaved in a court room, don’t you think?”

Alex felt the warmth drain from his upper body. “What does that mean for us, Ross? What do you want from us at this meeting?”

“Well, you’ll all want to be there. It’ll put a local face on the project — you know — not a project designed by engineers from Philly. And you’ll just tell them that you’re working hard to keep everything fair and everyone happy.”

“Why do I have the feeling that we are being hung out to dry?” Alex asked.

Ross’ voice turned edgy. “Listen, Alex. I’m missing a vacation to St. Croix because of all this, and it had been planned for six months. My wife is not happy. My attorneys are not happy. The governor is not happy. You’re not happy. As far as I can tell, I’m the biggest happy suck in Pennsylvania these days, so don’t start whining to me. You’re getting paid well for this. I am not. We’ll talk more tomorrow, but start planning your comments to Clancey, because they’ll be ringing you up. See you tomorrow.” The phone clicked.

“Don’t hang up on me!” Alex shouted into the empty receiver as the dial tone buzzed in his ear.


The engineers wandered in around nine o’clock, all looking as if they had gotten a good night’s sleep. Keith found Alex lying on the couch with his eyes wide open staring at the ceiling.

He looked up at the ceiling. “Nope, it doesn’t look good up there,” he said. He sank down in the recliner they had dragged in from Henry’s apartment yesterday. “What did the Horrible Head Honcho howl about this morning?”

“I’ll tell you when everyone gets here,” Alex said.

On cue, Dana and Henry walked in. “Okay, we’re here. Looks bad.” Henry said.

“I’ll come in tomorrow at eight o’clock and answer the call,” Keith said. “And…”

“You won’t have to — Ross and the attorney, Jonathan Lee, are flying up with the helicopter. They aren’t going with us — I guess that’s good, anyway — they are talking to Del’Olio while we fly. But the big news is that next Monday there is a public meeting at the courthouse about this project. We are all to be there —  you know, putting a local face on the project. I’m feeling like we’ll be at the table facing the crowd — well, no one said that, but…”

Everyone was silent.

“What no smart remarks from the peanut gallery?” Alex asked. And immediately he said, “Oh, guys, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to…”

Dana interrupted him. “It’s fine. We aren’t offended. But we do need to know what it is we’re supposed to say. Are we supposed to have plans or something? In a week?”

“How many ways can we say ‘We’re working hard to keep everything fair and everyone happy’?” Alex said.

“We will try our best to be just and equitable with everyone,” Henry said with a self-satisfied smirk.

“We want your trust and we will work hard to be un-biased,” Keith said.

“We are working day and night on this and we welcome everyone’s input. Call us anytime,” Dana said.

“That could be dangerous,” Alex laughed. “How about, we are local, just like you, and we want a non-partisan, legitimate plan to fix this dangerous road.”

“We sound like we’re running for office,” Dana said.

“We might be running for our lives,” Henry said. “They did fire DeBolt.”

“The key word to all of this is honorable. That’s what we have to be, and we have to come up with the best plan with the least damage.”

“What a way to spend Valentine’s Day,” Henry said.

“Let’s go get some breakfast,” Keith suggested.

“Can’t go anywhere public and talk about this,” Alex said. “Let’s go to my house and I’ll fix bacon and eggs for everyone. Just let me call Angie to warn her she’s about to be descended on.”

When he came back a few minutes later, Keith had found Roget’s Thesaurus on Phyllis’ desk, and they were looking up words for fair and happy.

“Angie didn’t answer,” Alex said. “She’s probably in the shower. Come on, we can all squeeze in my car, and maybe we’ll take a drive after we eat. Bring that thesaurus along…”

Eat Two Things

Supper, or dinner — no matter how many people are in your family, or how elegant or plain the fare, the evening meal is important in the life of your family.

Sociologists have long told us that. We get to converse with those we love most about our days and share laughter. Families bond over meals. The modern family that doesn’t sit down together for dinner loses out on an eating-together-relationship that can’t be replaced by other activities.

Yet how do we make time for cooking dinner when we work and get home tired and unorganized; or have to pick up the kids and take them to practice; or have evening meetings, classes, or homework; or…fill in the blank here.

Maybe our standards are just too high… Where is it written and how did it come to be that a good dinner includes salad, meat, potatoes, another vegetable, bread, and dessert? Restaurants who are trying to make money? Oh yes, throw in an appetizer there too. Few of us cook meals like that at home for family. And we shouldn’t. It’s wasteful; it’s too much food; and we’re all too fat anyway…But that’s the ideal, isn’t it? Little feasts as everyday dinners. More is better.

Lately I’ve been reading about the Rule of St. Benedict — medieval rules for monastery life. Not because I want to become a monk and not because I believe rules are inherently good for us, but because I’m interested in simplicity. I’ve been trying to simplify my life for at least five years now, and I’ve only partially succeeded. One of the intriguing rules of simplicity from the Benedictines is Eat Two Things. Bread and soup. Soup and salad. Rice and vegetables. Oatmeal and fruit. Cheese and fruit. Eggs and vegetable. Rice and beans. They are lovely duos, aren’t they? (Surely salad and dessert fits in here somewhere too?)

This intrigued me because I had just been considering the fact that when I made three things for dinner, I felt that I could call it a Nice Dinner. But just two? I was usually mildly guilty — as if I could have done better. Not that we were still hungry. We weren’t. But call it what you like — American society, Western food habits, Restaurant-itis, Foodie culture — two dishes didn’t look like a real meal to me. My go-to thoughts were not of gratitude, but guilt — that I didn’t make that salad, or those brownies, or the extra vegetable. And can I just say that we don’t usually go hungry at the cottage?

So for the rest of May, we will be trying this for our dinners. Two things. For the sake of intentional eating. Simplicity. Health. Gratitude.

*except for Saturday evening when we are having company for dinner and yes, we’re having appetizers, bread, salad, steaks, mushrooms, potatoes, and two desserts. Eight things. For hospitality’s sake…

**just in case you are interested, here are the appropriate words about food from the Rule: (notice the suggestion of vegetarianism for all but the weak and sick…and that indigestion is caused by excess…)
Making allowance for the infirmities of different persons, we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient at all meals; so that he who perchance cannot eat of one, may make his meal of the other. Let two kinds of cooked food, therefore, be sufficient for all the brethren. And if there be fruit or fresh vegetables, a third may be added….
If, however, the work hath been especially hard, it is left to the discretion and power of the Abbot to add something, if he think fit, barring above all things every excess, that a monk be not overtaken by indigestion. For nothing is so contrary to Christians as excess, as our Lord saith: “See that your hearts be not overcharged with surfeiting” (Lk 21:34).
Let the same quantity of food, however, not be served out to young children but less than to older ones, observing measure in all things.
But let all except the very weak and the sick abstain altogether from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

Eminent Domain: 13, Harrisburg Descends, Engineers Ascend

13 Harrisburg Descends; Engineers Ascend
Saturday Feb. 13, 1988

It’s a good thing there aren’t surveillance cameras in the Engineers’ Office of PennDOT District 13, Alex thought as he surveyed the chaos.

Maps were thumbtacked on every spare wall. They had each thrown in twenty bucks and purchased a cheap couch from Fisher’s Big Wheel. The store had actually delivered it to the door, and they had all three dragged it up into the spare office with Phyllis holding the doors and giving directions. Then they had placed a standing order for two large pizzas to be delivered on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And since they had been on the phone, they ordered pizzas for today too.

“I will bring crockpot soup and homemade bread every Thursday,” Phyllis promised. “I can’t bear to see you eat junk all the time. It won’t be good for your stress levels. Or mine,” she added. “And also, I don’t mind cleaning up after you, but you can’t be Total Slobs.” She bent to pick up the pizza boxes.

“Ah, Ma, come on…” Henry teased. He got up and hugged her. “We won’t be total slobs, we promise.”

“Right,” said Keith. “Especially if we want to impress Dana.”

“We need a coffee table,” said Alex.

“I can bring in my coffee table,” said Keith. “We need a Barcalounger, too.”

“We are working in here, not watching movies,” Alex said.

“I thought this was going to be our lounge and napping office,” Keith said.

“Speaking of work, let’s go look at some of these maps and brainstorm.”

The three of them were actually working, discussing possibilities, looking at topography, and throwing out ideas, when the phone rang. Phyllis appeared and looked at Alex. “It’s Ross.”

Alex disappeared into his office, and though they all listened, no one could tell what Ross was saying by listening to Alex’s end of the conversation. Until he said, “But Ross… that’s impossible.”

Phyllis wondered aloud if every one of Ross’ phone calls would involve this much stress.

“Count on it,” Keith said. “It’s the man’s middle name.”

“I think it’s the nature of this project,” Henry said. “We knew it when we signed on. I think we also need a kitchen cabinet filled with Excedrin, Antacids, and maybe a bottle of vodka.”

Alex walked out of his office and all eyes turned to him. “There’s good, there’s bad, and there’s messy,” he said. “Which first?”

“Good,” “Bad,” “Messy,” Phyllis, Keith, and Henry all spoke at once.

Alex shook his head. “Maybe we should retire to the lounge.”

They had just sat down when the door to the office opened and in walked a slender girl with short blonde hair. She was loaded down with a bulging brief case and a large green flowered duffle bag. “Hi guys,” she grinned. “I’m Dana and I’m early.”

They all stood up. Henry was the closest, so he took her duffle bag and stuck out his hand. “You’re just in time for our first staff meeting,” he said. “I’m Henry, this is Phyllis, the ugly guy over there is Keith, and the tall guy is Alex. He’s the boss, so be nice to him.”

Alex walked over to shake her hand. “I hope you have a sense of humor,” he said. “And if they start to drive you crazy, Phyllis will take care of you. Or them.” He smiled. “Welcome. Henry was telling the truth; we were just about to have our first bit of good news/bad news. So would you like to join us, or do you need some time to gather yourself before you jump in?”

“Just need a place to put my coat and boots, and I’m ready. It didn’t really take that long to drive — I actually drove over Rte. 592 to get here.”

Phyllis took her coat. “What did you think?” she asked.

“It’s an old fashioned country road that’s beautiful but not suited to the modern desires for speed, efficiency, or safety.”

“Yep. A one sentence summary,” Keith said. “Bill Clancey should hire you.”

Dana looked puzzled.

“He’s the newspaper editor, who covered the front page and the second page, and, in essence, got Harrisburg interested in this whole mess, in a single day,” Keith said. He handed her a copy of Wednesday’s Adamsford Chronicle.

“And has Ross Fowler calling us twice a day,” added Henry. “I hope our illustrious boss informed you of the dangers involved in accepting this job.”

“He did. Our mission, should we choose to accept it…” and she whistled the beginning tune to “Mission: Impossible.”

“Okay, someone get Dana a chair.”

“As long as it doesn’t self-destruct in five seconds,” Henry grinned.

Phyllis stood up. “Here, have mine. I just want to hear the good bits, and then I have to get back to work. My job is not the same as yours. Thank goodness.” She smiled at Dana.

“Ross has been having meetings with Con-Oil executives and he met with the governor yesterday,” Alex began. “Apparently attorneys are doing most of the talking, but Con-Oil wants to give the appearance of doing everything on the up and up. The secrecy of the project is off, but Harrisburg is taking the reins as to what gets said and when. So we don’t say anything until we’re given the okay to do so.

“The second thing is that Con-Oil is not interested in having the road go through the State Game Lands. So one of our ideas is out the window already, before we even got to develop it.”

“Well, that sucks,” Henry said. “That was going to be the best way to avoid taking people’s houses.”

“Yes,” Alex agreed. “I told Ross that if he wanted us to take fewer houses, we had to use the public lands instead, but he was firm — no State Game Lands.”

“Yeah, but we knew that whole wetlands issue made it iffy,” Keith added. “If you ask me, they don’t want to have to wait on variances from DER.”

“Wait,” Dana said. “You mean after we draw up the plans, there aren’t going to be meetings or any public hearings or anything? The Transportation Commission won’t allow them to get away with that, will they?”

“There has never been any public input on this road. The plan was drawn up before the PennDOT that we all know and love existed — when a bunch of local Highway Departments were loosely run by the state. No Twelve Year Plans, No Three Year Plans… so there were no meetings for it. No input, just an engineer drawing up the road on some Harrisburg engineers’ and senators’ request. Ross says that the legislature rammed it through quickly. This whole project is crazy, so there you are: seems to me like anything can happen, and we should try to be as prepared as possible.”

Alex paused. “I saved the best for last.”

Henry groaned.

“On Monday afternoon at 1:00, weather permitting, there will be a helicopter at the Adamsford Airport waiting to give us an aerial tour of the countryside down SR 592. We have it for four hours. The pilot will land at the airport outside Hattiesville if we want, so we can talk and decide what we might like to see from the air on the way back.”

“Are you serious? Cool.” Henry said. “Wait. Is Ross coming too?”

“Uh, that wasn’t made plain to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. I couldn’t really ask, ‘Ross, are you coming with us?’ But I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Honorable Tom Del’Olio is invited.”

Henry groaned again. “My first helicopter ride, and it’s ruined by some jerk I didn’t vote for. How big is this chopper anyway?”

Alex shrugged and shook his head. “Can it get much stranger than this?”

Phyllis stood up. “I’m afraid it will. And it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Tomorrow we’ll spend the day getting Dana up to speed, comparing topos, and the old plan. Have questions in your minds that you want to see on that chopper ride. The maps tell us the terrain and the contours, but they don’t show us where all the buildings are. I’d like to have a photographer. When Ross calls tomorrow, I’m going to request that he bring one. Unless any of you have skills?” He looked at Dana.

“I do have a good camera in my duffle, and I’ve taken shots from the air before, but I’m no expert.”

“Well, you win, unless these guys are holding out on me about their expertise?”

Keith and Henry both shook their heads.

“Great! You’ve got the honors,” he said to Dana.



The first chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found by clicking here, or by clicking on Fiction Projects in the menu bar.