Eminent Domain: 6, Alex Goddard

To read from the beginning of this novel, Eminent Domain, you can click here or on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.

6 ALEX

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.

Eminent Domain: 5, John and Elizabeth

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

5 John & Elizabeth

Elizabeth woke for some reason and twisted about in bed to see the clock. It was a quarter till four, and her husband John’s side of the bed was cold. She thought for a minute about scrunching back under the warm quilt and pretending that she never woke up, but a mixture of curiosity, worry, guilt, and love made her sit up and put her warm feet on the cold wooden floor. She sighed.

Making her way into the kitchen, she smelled the coffee and noticed the half-empty pot. She called gently down into the basement, so as not to wake any children, just to see if he was down in his workshop. Then she remembered the children were all in town spending the night at her parents. There was no answer from the workshop, but she didn’t expect one; several ewes were pregnant and due soon, and he was most likely in the barn.

She peered through the kitchen window, but there just wasn’t a good view of the barn from the house. That had always frustrated her — who would build a barn that you couldn’t see from the house? Or more likely, why wouldn’t you put windows in the house, so you could see the barn?

Her warmest wool socks were stuffed into her barn boots by the door. She pulled them both on and shrugged into her barn coat; the lantern by the door was gone. Perhaps she should fill a thermos with more coffee.

Trudging out to the barn through the new snow wasn’t easy, but at least the snow had stopped and now stars glittered in the February night sky. She stopped for just a minute to gaze upwards and listen to the snowy silence of a winter night in the country. A great horned owl hooted from the silhouetted trees at the edge of the woods and added mystery to the stillness.

She stepped in John’s larger footprints and quietly let herself in the man door around the side of the barn. Through the dim overhead light she could see her husband in one of the far stalls. He had his back to her and was kneeling in front of Bathsheba, one of their best ewes, who was on her side in front of him. As Elizabeth got closer, she could see a lamb cuddled up next to the big, wooly mama. A large bubble of fluid lay on the ground behind her, and John’s arm was up to his elbow inside Bathsheba’s birth canal.

“I’m here,” she said softly, not to startle him. “Is there anything you need?”

“I just don’t know if I can turn this second one,” he said, his voice muffled because his face was leaning against the matted wool of a sheep’s rump. “The first one there came easy, I guess, but it’s been almost an hour and a half for this one.”

“I can try,” she volunteered. “My arm is smaller.” There was nothing she liked less than lambing season. Give her children, chickens, plants, fruit trees, even bees, and she was fearless, but the possibility of death that hung in the air during lambing always gave her pause. They’d lost relatively few lambs — it was true. And John always knew which ewes to breed for easy births. Those who had a hard time were sold for meat or sheepskins, depending on their age.

“I can feel its legs locked,’’ he said. “And I just don’t want to hurt Bathsheba. Give me another minute.” John knew his wife’s hesitancy on helping with lambs; she’d done it in the past and was gentle and unflappable. But afterwards, when the lamb was stillborn, he had found her crying — hiding among the bales of straw in the room downstairs. He tried not to ask for her help unless it was absolutely necessary.

Icelandic Sheep Photo by biologyfishman via Wikimedia Commons.

Icelandic Sheep
Photo by biologyfishman via Wikimedia Commons.

Bathsheba had borne twin lambs with no problems for the last three springs. Even as a first time mama, she’d been fine. She was one of their Icelandic ewes, known for their wool. They didn’t have too many, most of their sheep were Katahdins, raised for meat and didn’t have to be sheared. But Elizabeth had wanted just a few for yarn, and John had chosen the best breed for wool and easy lambing. He, too, had come to love Bathsheba, with her proud horns and soft grey wool.

Elizabeth watched her tall Mennonite husband intently; it was in times like these that she was so grateful for him. He was strong and dependable. He always knew what he was about and where his strength came from. He never doubted, and she was often in awe of his unwavering faith. She thought of the two men who had lost their lives in the accident earlier this evening, and of the truck driver’s wife, who most certainly now knew that she was a widow — her life changed in an instant. Silently she prayed for peace for the new widow that she didn’t even know, and then she thanked God for her blessings — John, the children, the farm, her parents both still living and close by — and she ended the prayer thanking God for the blessings of new life, for Bathsheba, the new little lamb by her side, and the one being born to be delivered safely tonight in the sheep stall.

John twisted a bit and suddenly sighed. “Ah, there she goes,” he said quietly; and with a gentle tug, he pulled out his arm and with it plopped the tiny lamb, yellowish and gooey. Bathsheba turned to lick and clean the newborn, and the one by her side bleated its displeasure. He looked back at her. “All looks well,” he said.

They stood together looking down at the new family. John gently pushed the newborn over to suck the colostrum.

“I guess I should wash off,” he said, but he made no move to go anywhere.

“I’ve got more coffee,” Elizabeth said as she brought out the thermos. “And I’ll get a warm rag.” She walked over to the large trough sink right inside the door. With a closet next to the sink, she thought this might have been the smartest suggestion she’d ever had — running hot and cold water in the barn — and a deep sink to fill buckets. The barn was far enough away from the house and she’d spent her first winter as a pregnant farmer’s wife hauling buckets of water to the chickens who were wintered that year in the barn. John eagerly agreed that it was a necessity when she had mentioned it — he already had visions of sheep farming and keeping real livestock in the barn. That running water and sink trough committed them to being real farmers. That and the fence… She smiled as she wrung out two soft old towels with warm water — one for Bathsheba and her lambs and one for her husband.

When she returned, John had turned over two buckets for sitting. She gave him the warm wet rags and poured coffee. “I’ll share,” he smiled as she handed him the thermos cup. “Have a seat, my dear. It’s the best seat in the house.”

“It is,” she agreed. “So what do we have here?”

“Two happy little girls already sucking at Mama,” he smiled, rubbing his arm briskly with the wet towel. “And it really wasn’t that difficult. I probably didn’t even need to help, but I do love that Bathsheba girl. Listen to her talking to them.”

As they were nursing, Bathsheba was still licking them clean and making  mama sheep noises to her babies. “Two girls! What a fine start to lambing season! How about the others?” Elizabeth asked. Now that danger seemed to be over, she relaxed — a successful farm birth is a joyous occasion.

“Well, there’s nine more, you know?” Often she was distracted with children and chickens and food, and he was never sure how much attention she paid to the sheep. They were in his care. “But they are all still eating fine — no one’s off their food yet, so I think we’ll have at least a day or two of good night’s sleeping.”

“Too bad the children missed this,” she mused. “Eli would have been the first one out here — and more help than I was,” she admitted.

“Didn’t need help, did we Bathsheba?” John rubbed her wool and checked her back end to make sure all was well. He sat back down and took the cup of coffee from her. “Since we’re here in the barn in the middle of the night, drinking coffee, and celebrating two young ewe lambs,” he paused. “What do you think of trying to buy the orchard this spring?” He pointed across the road as if she didn’t know where the orchard was.

Yes, the orchard… Across the road, adjacent to Mary’s. They’d talked and talked about it, but never could decide if it was the right time. If we don’t offer him something soon, the trees will be so broken down, none of them will be worth trying to save, she thought.

“Yes,” John nodded. “It’s the truth.”

Elizabeth bit her lip, wondering if she had really spoken that thought aloud. And so she added, “But we don’t even know IF he will sell, OR what he wants for it… We’ve just been talking about it forever, it seems.”

John looked warily at her and grinned. “Have I worn you down at last?” he asked.

“I look over at those apples just rotting on the trees, and it cuts my heart — you know that. But…” She started to speak, bit her lip again, and stopped.

“Yes, we both know the monetary objections,” he said. “But the farm is doing well. We’ve got, God willing, ten to twenty new lambs coming and all the seeds for this year are bought and paid for. That’s a first. In February! Perhaps, it’s time to ask, at least. Then we can know and act on it. Or not,” he added.

Elizabeth nodded. She had prayed and prayed over this and never had seen or heard a clear answer. But tonight’s events, the reality of life ending suddenly no matter what you did or who you were — well, trusting God and stepping out in faith to live your life as best you can — Was that an answer? Perhaps.

She took her husband’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ll never know until we ask, will we?”

He pulled her up from her elegant bucket seat. “Sheep grazing among the apple trees?”

“Only in the spring and summer,” she warned. “You have to keep them away from my apples in the fall.”

He kissed her.

Eminent Domain: The News Room

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

The News Room
Tuesday, Feb. 9, 1988

The news room of the Adamsford Chronicle was empty except for one lone copy editor who was typing an article into her word processor.

As she finished she glanced up at the clock — five minutes to five — and stretched. People would be straggling in soon and she could go to dinner. She got up from her desk to go look out the window at the storm and thought how glad she was she had brought her dinner tonight so she didn’t have to go outside. She walked back and gathered together the articles she had typed, drew a long red line through them, and put them on the editor’s desk.

Carl, the sports editor, stomped the snow from his boots as he reached the top of the stairs. They had just finished exchanging comments about the weather when the police scanner blared, requesting police cars, a firetruck, and an ambulance to the scene of an accident on Rte. 592. Instinctively they both walked over closer to find out what had happened.

Each new arrival to the newsroom saw people grouped around the scanner and walked over to join them. When Bill Clancey, the editor, walked in at a quarter past five, they all knew that there had been a serious accident on Rte. 592 near Prices Corners General Store. One fatality, a trucker from Youngstown and possibly a middle-aged man from Hattiesville — his status was still in question. The man’s wife was trapped in the car, which had been pushed off the road and rolled over from the force of the truck. The semi-truck had jackknifed across the road and the road was closed. No blame had been leveled yet. It had happened on that treacherous curve coming down the hill just beyond the store — Digby’s Bend.

Everyone listening in the news room knew exactly where it was. Yes, it was bad curve on a steep hill on a terrible road. They all agreed.

“How many accidents will it take to get the state to work on that road?”

“There were five people killed on that road last year, and who knows how many accidents?”

1988 Word processorThe copy editor who was missing her dinner hour sat down at a Dialog terminal and punched in a few keys. Within a minute or so, the machine began to type back to her: “Sixty-seven accidents on Rte. 592 between Adamsford and Hattiesville last year. Five fatalities, twelve seriously hurt, and the rest minor injuries.” She pulled the printout from the machine and waved it at Clancey.

Carl said what they were all thinking. “That’s more than one a week…”

“Damn it!” the editor said quietly. “I’m writing an editorial tonight. We’ll run it tomorrow with the article about the wreck. Linda, can you do a feature story on past accidents on that road? Use that machine again and find as many statistics as you can.”

She nodded. She might as well eat dinner at her desk.

Pat, the photographer, hadn’t even taken off his down jacket, and he already had his gear packed into an insulated bag.

“Rob, you go with him for the story — and get a couple of good shots!” he yelled, as they hurried downstairs and out into the blizzard.

“Carl,” the editor barked. “Get me PennDot on the phone. I want to talk to Alex Goddard — I think he’s the chief engineer now. And Linda, when I’m done — I’m going to warn him about the editorial — you interview him too and see what you can find out. See if they’ve got anything on the back burner for 592. And get some good quotes.”

He sat down at his desk. Ah, this was just what he needed: a good local issue to get things stirred up. Who would dispute the fact that this road needed to be taken care of? He gulped some coffee and turned on his word processor.