At some point over the winter, I plan to once again pick up my manuscript for Bostonia – A Secret History of the City on the Hill and see if I can finish it — and I mean finish it finish it, as in fix all the lingering problems and do my final polish and at long last have on my hands a fully completed novel.
I’ve received some initial feedback from my band of loyal test-readers and I know where most of the issue are (the climax, which has some gaping holes thanks to my zeal in finally writing the damn ending), but the first two-thirds of it are solid.
Below I present the first few chapters for your reading pleasure, which introduce the principal protagonists (sadly, my main antagonist, a creation of which I am particularly proud, does not show up until many pages later). If you’re interested in reading the whole thing once I’ve made (what I hope are) the last major corrections — and I know who you are — let me know.
BOSTONIA – A SECRET HISTORY OF THE CITY ON THE HILL
Well I love that dirty water
Boston you’re my home
– The Standells
Everyone who lives in Franklin has heard the story at least once.
The version known and accepted by the general public goes like this: more than two centuries ago, the people of Franklin wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking him for a bell for the town church. He instead sent them books, which the townsfolk used to establish what would become the nation’s first public library.
More specifically: in 1778 the town fathers of Exeter, one of hundreds of growing hamlets scattered across the face of Massachusetts, formally incorporated and changed the name of their township in honor of the famed statesman and Boston’s native son. A few years later, they wrote to Franklin requesting a donation to fund the purchase of a bell for their meetinghouse. Franklin — who was in Passy, France at the time, finishing up his tenure as the Colonies’ ambassador — wrote the following letter to his friend, Dr. Richard Price, on March 18, 1785:
My nephew, Mr. Williams, will have the honour of delivering you this line. It is to request from you a List of a few good Books, to the Value of about Twenty-five Pounds, such as are most proper to inculcate Principles of sound Religion and just Government. A New Town in the State of Massachusetts having done me the honour of naming itself after me and proposing to build a Steeple to their meeting-house if I would give them a Bell, I have advis’d the sparing themselves the Expence of a Steeple, for the present, and that they would accept of Books instead of a Bell, Sense being preferable to Sound. These are therefore intended as the Commencement of a little Parochial Library for the Use of a Society of intelligent, respectable Farmers, such as our Country People generally consist of.
The town fathers gladly accepted Franklin’s books, and his advice. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The Franklin Collection is still on display in the present-day Franklin Public Library, sealed in a large four-shelf antique bookcase in the circulation department.
Wesley Rice began working at the library sixteen years ago, after teaching U.S. History at Franklin High had lost its tenuous appeal. Twelve years later he’d risen to the rank of assistant director, and during his first week in the role a teenager, engaged in horseplay with a classmate, fell into the Franklin Collection display case and shattered the glass doors. Wesley stayed late that night, methodically inspecting the books for damage, secretly hoping he’d find a torn or bloodstained cover so he’d have a perfect excuse for billing the careless little bastard out of his college education.
That was when he found the secret of the Franklin Collection: four sheets of yellowed rag pulp paper, folded in quarters, fell out of Samuel Stennett’s Discourses on Personal Religion and landed at Wesley’s feet. He abandoned his labors and took the papers into his office, where he spent the next six hours crawling through the chicken-scratch handwriting. The author never identified himself. Wesley’s best guess was that it was one of the town founders, recording the proceedings for posterity, perhaps his personal memoirs.
The name change from Exeter, the author claimed, was a calculated attempt to curry favor with Franklin, a bold-faced play to his ego before soliciting the donation. That much came as no surprise.
The rest, however…
The unknown author then described a hastily called town meeting following the arrival of Franklin’s gift. The townsfolk, while disappointed, were prepared to take the replacement gift in stride, but the town fathers — to a fault, proud men all — were not. They hotly debated whether the best course of action would be to sell the books and purchase the bell they asked for in the first place; burn them and send the ashes back to Franklin, along with a letter expressing in the most severe terms their profound disappointment; or send the books back intact, in the company of an emissary whose job would be to throw each and every one in Franklin’s pudgy face.
All of those responses, in Wesley’s estimation, were perfectly justifiable. Ask for what you expect and expect what you ask for. That’s not unreasonable, is it?
But none of those plans ever became reality, as is often the case with plots crafted in the heat of anger. Pique subsided and rational thought returned, and with a resigned collective shrug, the books took their place in town history.
Its written history, that is.
Wesley Rice alone knows the secret history of Franklin. He knows the secret history of many things.
There is only one true witch in the city of Salem.
Popular opinion says otherwise, but popular opinion in this case is based on widespread self-delusion and ignorance. More than 40,000 people call Salem home and several hundred of those call themselves witches, and since the one person who knows better is not inclined to correct them, they’re allowed go about their lives believing the lie.
False witches are easily identified. For starters, they live in Salem.
Colorful assumed names — false witches call them their True Names without irony — are another dead giveaway. They dedicate absurd amounts of time crafting names that reflect their alleged inner selves, and the results range from the laughably festive to the pretentiously grim, from Moonglow Forestdance to Lucius Abyss. They do not choose mundane names like Sara Foreman — precisely the kind of name Sara Foreman would have chosen for herself had she not already acquired it through conventional means (i.e., unimaginative parents). It’s a name that stands in the corner and keeps to itself while the other names get drunk and dance with lampshades on their heads. False witches crave attention; true witches know better.
To be precise: Sara Foreman, a true witch, knows better. She wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else.
Sara can’t help but think about the false witches and their need to stand out in a crowd whose raison d’etre is to stand out in a crowd, like books trying to stand out in a library. It saddens her. It annoys her. On rare occasion it makes her laugh, but bitterly. They are poseurs, pretenders.
They don’t know what power is.
It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It can, in fact, be a downright pain in the ass.
But that doesn’t stop the wannabes from attempting to acquire power through such time-honored methods as burning incense, invoking the elements, and dancing naked beneath the full moon. Luckily for them and for the world at large, Sara thinks to herself on a daily basis, none of that shit works.
She wouldn’t tell them that, though. No, she spends forty hours a week — fifty or more the week before Halloween — in one of the many, many New Age shops littering downtown Salem perpetuating the many, many myths of magic. It’s safer for them. For everyone, really, but especially for them.
Magic is dangerous business. Such knowledge is best left in the hands of dedicated professionals.
In the course of her lifetime, Ray had become quite the connoisseur of jail cells.
At last count she’d been the guest of police departments in sixty municipalities, give or take — mostly in Boston and the greater metropolitan area, a number on the North Shore, as far west as Worcester, as far south as Plymouth, mostly on charges of public intoxication, with a few being a disorderly persons and disturbing the peaces thrown in.
Ah, and one charge — later dismissed upon payment of court fees — of open and gross lewdness, filed by Officer Derek Hammond of the Danvers Police Department, who caught Ray jerking off a guy in a back alley in July 1999. It was a necessary evil, nothing personal — not that Ray’s partner hadn’t enjoyed it, but cheap thrills had nothing to do with why she was milking his cock.
…which ended with Ray getting tossed into a Danvers PD jail cell, one of the nicer cells in which she’d spent time. No more or less roomy than any others, about as stark — most jail cell walls favored the same dreary shade of cold gray — but the obligatory steel toilet had been very clean inside and out, and the bunk had a new pad, reasonably fluffy and not a stain to be found. Even better, the officers had been exceedingly pleasant. They hadn’t talked down to her or made smart-ass remarks or put on their hard guy You best watch your step missy game face, pleases and thank-yous all around, do you want to call anybody, if you need something knock on the cell door and someone will be right over. Top-notch service. Yes, I enjoyed my stay, thank you, the staff was very professional and friendly, I would recommend this police department to my friends.
Stations in mid-sized towns were, as a rule, the least objectionable. Small departments had more cordial officers but so-so cells; budgets tended toward the lean and cell maintenance was low on the list of priorities. Cops in the larger departments were no-nonsense types who had neither the time nor patience for insolent suspects. Their cells were heavily trafficked and predictably gruesome.
Roxbury fell into the latter category. The cops here weren’t assholes but they didn’t take any shit; they expected yessirs and nosirs and straight answers to every question, and they were not timid about expressing their displeasure when suspects failed to play ball. The holding cells were dim and melancholy, their walls glistening with an oily sheen of indeterminate origin. The water in the toilets could only be improved by introducing vomit.
There was an earthquake in Ray’s chest and the cell suddenly felt a thousand degrees too hot. She curled up into a ball to await the inevitable.
She absently fingered a rust-colored spot on the worn bunk pad — an ancient bloodstain, she guessed, refusing to be scrubbed or bleached out of existence. Stubborn stuff, blood. Not terribly versatile or powerful, contrary to popular belief — a distant second to semen on the list of puissant bodily fluids — but stubborn.
Ray’s temples throbbed violently and she stifled a grunt. She was coming down, hard and fast. Soon she’d be shivering and crying and sweating the junk out of every pore and asking why she keeps putting herself through this shit.
Because it’s her price to pay.
Because power doesn’t come cheap or easy.
Because crystal meth is still the best way to fire up an acceleration spell.
The house looked like a palace.
In a sense it was, as were many of the homes in Wellesley, a town as rich as T’s home town of Brockton was poor. People here put their money on display through their cars and their clothes, spent it on brand names he knew by reputation only, purchased at stores he’d heard of but never patronized. They used their wealth to segregate themselves from the mundane nuisances of the real world; they never deigned to pump their own gas or mow their own lawns or clean their own homes. They paid people like T to do all that.
Their children, who received exorbitant allowances for no discernable reason, paid people like T to hook them up with weed or E or — for the less daring — a six-pack. The rich kids liked to venture into the wilds of Brockton to score their goodies, adding an element of forbidden adventure to their subsidized lives. They’d drive around in fancy cars their two-income six-figure parents bought them for some minimal accomplishment like scoring a B on a math test, toeing the line between casual and confident, trying to act like they belonged. Sometimes they’d leave with their delusion intact, getting in and out without a cop sending them home with no score and a big scare. They’d stop at one of T’s regular corners and greet him with a cheery Yo, G, whassap? and slide into their none-too-subtle inquiry, replete with street slang that was six months old by the time MTV got its hands on it. They’d slip him a crisp c-note via an awkward preacher’s handshake and receive in exchange a sandwich bag corner sealed with a rubber band. They’d engage in some pointless small talk, act like they weren’t too eager to get the hell out of there — wouldn’t want to offend their gracious host — then drive off to party as only pampered white kids can party.
T had built up a regular clientele of well-to-do teens with too much money and not enough supervision. The little white tabs of E did well, especially around prom time, but it was his weed that kept them coming back. He got his supply from a guy out of New Bedford he knew only as Skoal — the dude was never without a pinch between his cheek and gum — and he got it from some other guy “down south.” Until it hit The Whaling City it was everyday low-grade cannabis, but Skoal’s hippie-chick girlfriend gave it The Magic Touch before he divvied up the brick for distribution. Skoal never defined exactly what The Magic Touch was but insisted it was swear-to-God-real-no-shit-magic; the Witch Bitch, as Skoal called her without any affection, claimed to have picked up a minor charm in California that gave marijuana some extra jazz. T never bought into the story. Lots of people claimed to work magic but he’d never seen a remotely convincing display — yet he couldn’t deny his product’s popularity. He once thought about trying it himself, so he could give his buyers an accurate and honest sales pitch, but thought better of it lest he become his own best customer.
(That proved a wise move. His young patrons came to call his product Dorito because “You can’t smoke just one.” Some of them made weekly visits to buy what would pass as a month’s supply for a more casual user.)
A month ago a regular named Chad — no shit, Chad — bought a couple joints’ worth and asked what T would charge to bring a party bag to his house. Parents gone for the weekend, friends coming over Friday night, need some “party favors,” too scared to cart a felony’s worth of weed in his precious Jag, Can you set me up?
I ain’t a fuckin’ Domino’s, cracker. You buy, you fly, T had said, but the kid persisted, upping his price in fifty-dollar increments without batting an eye and even offering a one hundred dollar good-faith deposit. When Chad hit four digits, T cracked.
Now here he was, in his buddy Bushy’s Honda P.O.S. — a guy like him in a nice car would have attracted cops like he was driving a giant powdered doughnut — with his enchanted contraband in front of the opulent Casa de Chad. It was a white three-story affair with a broad portico flanked on either side by a trio of high white columns and solid-looking double front doors. T thought the place looked like a museum or an old library. An attached two-car garage spoiled that illusion, as did the dozen or so SUVs and sports cars parked haphazardly in the driveway, along the side of the road, on the country club-caliber front lawn. T parked behind a red Nissan boasting a preposterous add-on spoiler that unfurled and swooped like gull wings. The license plate proclaimed SOXRUL.
He wiggled the triple-wrapped Ziploc out of the hollow in the headrest — Bushy’s personal modification. He’d boasted he’d been stopped and searched on no less than ten occasions and not once had the cops found his stash. T killed the engine and felt rather than heard the low thrum of music. Images of pissed-off neighbors tipping off police to the wild party next door filled his head, and halfway to the front door it hit in earnest, a sensation old and forgotten, practically alien, chewing at his bowels with icicle teeth. For an instant he was twelve years old again, standing on a street corner with Deezy selling dime bags for the first time.
It’s not too late, a voice said. You can turn back.
T shook his head: No, I can’t. No balls, no bills.
Something moved behind the doors, eclipsing the pinpoint of light twinkling in the peephole. The door swung open and throbbing gangsta rap punched the night air like a surprise thunderstorm. Chad, eyes like marbles, breath like a brewery, cheered in greeting and whisked T inside, into a living room packed solid with teenagers well on their way toward one or more regrettable acts of youthful indiscretion. They sat, slumped, and sprawled across a five-piece matching furniture ensemble, waving at T and hooting in approval. Brown glass bottles were the accessory of choice.
Chad led T to the back of the house, onto an open rear porch that had been designated as the smoking lounge. A back yard large enough for a herd of monster trucks to frolic in stretched off into the darkness and a high wall of shrubbery, trimmed with surgical precision, blocked any neighborly prying eyes. Two boys — football players both, judging by their brick shithouse physiques — and a girl maybe fifteen years old were on the porch, seated at a sea-blue glass-top table, each of them sucking on a Camel, their shared greenish pallor indicating that none of them much enjoyed it. T presented the bag of Dorito with a small flourish. The smokers hastily stubbed out their cigarettes with one hand and reached for the bag with the other.
“Yo, don’t smoke it all,” Chad said, guiding T back into the house. “Come on up, man, I got your pay in my room.”
Yeah, you better, boy, T thought.
Chad’s room was on the third floor. It was teenager tidy, which is to say a complete mess: clothes strewn on the floor as a second carpet, bed unmade, the odd dirty dish playing hide-and-seek among the furniture. A framed picture of Chad with his very WASPy parents stood out incongruously amidst a mosaic of posters of bikini-clad models and bands T had never heard of. Dad, as white and as stiff as T might have expected, stood two full heads taller than mom, who looked like she might have been quite the honey back in the day, before childbirth wrecked her figure. The photo hid a wall safe with a small electronic keypad. Chad punched in his code four times, muttering “Shit” after each failure. He produced a thin wad of bills, which he handed to T with the explanation, “I told everyone you were doin’ us a special favor.”
T flipped through the stack. All c-notes. Pleasure doing business with you, Chad.
Chad relocked the safe and replaced the photo. “Hey, feel free to hang around for a while and party, a’ight? Check the place out,” Chad said with a tripping step toward the door. “See how the other half lives,” he added, making a smooth transition from cordial young host to rich white asshole kid.
T wrestled with himself over whether to ransack the little prick’s room and steal anything of value or just get out while he was ahead. He settled on a compromise and opted to poke around for something he could pocket easily, something that wouldn’t be missed right away. He wandered the house freely, marveling at how every single stick of furniture in every single room matched. Out of simple curiosity he went so far as to compare the dishes of blue and green seashell-shaped soap in all four bathrooms — identical, every set. In his travels he stumbled across two adolescent couples in mid-coitus, one in a spare bedroom, another tussling upright in a linen closet.
He found the master bedroom on the second floor. The centerpiece was an ornate canopy bed of dark wood, flanked by matching nightstands. A dressing table in the same style as the nightstands was tucked into a private alcove at the far end of the bedroom, and atop this table sat a wooden jewelry box stained a deep and rich russet. T felt as though he’d discovered a pirate’s buried treasure within: there were rings enough to armor every inch of every finger on one hand, strings of pearls cohabitating with gold chains, many of which ended in large gemstones in vibrant hues — there was enough money in this one box to last a lifetime.
No. Get greedy and you get stupid, Deezy had always told him. Get stupid and you get caught.
T ran his fingers through the rings and settled on a gold band boasting twin diamonds, figuring Leif could set him up with a decent price.
He resumed his self-guided tour of the home and was testing a set of locked double doors on the second floor when a girl staggered into the hallway, a baby-faced blonde wearing a hot pink halter-top and a garment that was a skirt only in the sense that it was made of cloth and hung around her waist. She told T she was searching for an unoccupied bathroom. They found one together. She claimed to be eighteen and T guessed her age was more in the ballpark of sixteen, but her mouth was as skilled as a woman twice her age (whichever age that may have been).
He lost all further motivation to play sneak-thief after that. T took the first floor stairs on trembling legs and tried to make a quiet exit, but Chad caught him at the front door.
“You leavin’, blood?”
“Yeah, man.” Blood? “Got shit to do, y’know?”
“Yeah, right, you’re a businessman an’ shit,” Chad said with a girlish titter. T caught a whiff of his product wafting off the teen. “Hey, hey, uh, hey…yeah, uh, I wanna thank you…you…y’know, for the special delivery.”
“Ain’t no thang.”
“Yeah, cool, but, uh, hey…hey. Y’think we could get another? In, like, a couple weeks? Y’know?”
Something clicked in T’s brain. “Havin’ another party?”
“Oh, yeah, we, uh…”
Chad had another giggling fit and, eventually, explained that his parents were out a lot, went out of town a few times a month on business, leaving him free to host his adolescent bacchanals. He offered T the same deal of plentiful cash and, hey, anytime he wants to hang and party, feel free.
T agreed and left Chad and his friends to their busy night of frying brain cells and flirting with unwanted pregnancy. He climbed into his car, smiling, almost laughing to himself. He paused to admire the palace one last time before pulling away.
Show you how my half lives, motherfucker.
The job always starts with the same question: What makes you suspect your partner is having an affair?
(Dwight’s been careful to use the gender-neutral partner ever since that one woman screamed him stupid for assuming his quarry was a man.)
The answer varies in the details from client to client, but the broad basics are always the same: he (or she) recently changed his (or her) regular schedule and now returns home much later than usual, almost always after midnight, and gets very defensive when asked about it.
Anything else? Dwight will ask.
Like what? the client will ask.
Does (s)he come home looking or smelling like (s)he just showered? You know, smelling of freshly shampooed hair, or like (s)he recently applied deodorant?
Sometimes clients can answer that one — if they were, say, awoken by the significant other’s return in the wee hours — and if they can, the answer is almost always yes.
Hm, he’ll say with a grave nod. This is when the suspicious spouse will sigh heavily as if to say, Oh, you poor blind idiot, how did you miss that one?
Then he’ll ask the key question: does (s)he seem tired?
This is the point when the accuser confronts that last high hurdle, the one (s)he must clear before (s)he can accept the truth, and snaps as if jumping to the spouse’s defense, Of course (s)he’s tired! (S)he’s been out late every night!
And he’ll say No, I mean, does (s)he seem tired all the time? Like (s)he has no energy whatsoever? Does (s)he seem drained? he’ll ask, placing a subtle but deliberate emphasis on that last word.
If the answer is no, and often it is, he’ll nod and Hm again, then formally accept the job and get to work. If the answer is yes, the clients’ eyes will, without exception, drop to the floor. They know what he is intimating, but they can’t bring themselves to consider it. Turning their back on their matrimonial vows to dally with a common hooker is bad enough, but with one of the Dark Ladies?
Monica Scanlan’s eyes find the floor.
“Would you still like me to follow your husband?” Dwight asks gently.
Monica nods. She then presses the heel of her hand against her lips as a dam against the wail building inside her.
Wesley pinched the sad, soaked copy of Go Ask Alice between his thumb and forefinger as if holding a dead rat by the tail, and held it up for inspection, grimacing sourly, more so than he might were he dealing with vermin. An amoeba of rainwater shifted under the crinkled cellophane dust jacket. Go Ask Alice had dripped onto at least three other books in the return bin; an unabridged edition of The Stand had a few droplets on its cover but was undamaged, as was a thin hardcover edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. An Encyclopedia Brown softcover had not fared as well and sat in the bin like a bloated tick. Wesley gazed out into the rain-soaked parking lot and wondered which puddle had aided and abetted in this heinous crime.
“Diane,” he said in a tight voice, “kindly pull up the records and find me the careless twit who last borrowed this book. I wish to send him or her a carefully worded note expressing my boundless contempt for their utter lack of responsibility. And a bill for the damage.”
“You can buy a copy of the book on-line for five bucks, Wes,” Diane said.
Wesley opened to the inside back cover and beheld the final insult, stamped in deep purple ink: the card was marked May 25, 2004 — more than three months overdue. He peered at Diane over his bifocals. “Then he or she should be able to replace this item without undue financial strain, correct?”
“Correct,” she sighed. A low rumble of thunder hummed through the front lobby and the lights fluttered ever so slightly.
Wesley passed her the book. “Here,” he grunted, leaving Diane to her task.
There was a short line at the circulation desk: four people, each clutching two or three books. Wesley nodded to himself, the closest thing to a smile he could muster; the American reader was alive and well, though they no longer roamed the land in great numbers as they once did, swayed from literacy by the Internet and the home theater and the Nintendo — godless creations all.
Wesley disappeared into his office.
Diane had laid the day’s mail in the center of his desk. Junk. Junk. More junk. Trade magazine. Boston Globe. A communiqué from the town warning of possible mid-year budget cuts, advising department heads to review their budgets to identify area for reduction that would not affect critical services…in other words, Wesley would be asked to lay off staff and scale back hours so the high school could avoid eliminating any of its two dozen sports teams.
“As usual,” Wesley muttered as someone rapped on the door. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, what –?”
A head, dripping with fresh rain, peered in. “Hi, Uncle Wes.”
“Peter!” Wesley, his irritation forgotten. “This is unexpected.”
“Pleasant surprise, I hope.” Peter shook the water off his overcoat before he entered, speckling the dreary beige carpet.
“Don’t be stupid, boy.”
“Sorry.” He said it with a glowing smile, followed by a hug for his uncle.
“It’s good to see you in the general public again. I was starting to think the governor had chained you to your desk.”
“Darn close,” Peter said. “I’m using a personal day.”
“Not just to see me.”
“I had a lot of backed-up life stuff I needed to take care of…but I did have lunch with you penciled in,” he added hopefully. “You haven’t eaten yet, have you?”
“I’ve not,” Wesley said, “and the sandwich I brought from home is not so compelling I can’t leave it for tomorrow.”
“Let’s go, then.”
Peter drove them to a new place down on Sylvan Street. The shell and guts were the old Grille, which used to offer cheap if unremarkable all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets on the weekends. Those had been replaced by a proper brunch while the daily bill of fare had been upgraded from casual family to upscale American, which Wesley interpreted as a marketing-friendly way of saying the prices had gone up two dollars for such perks as seasoned French fries and real cheddar on the burgers. It also meant the waitstaff was less tolerant of patrons in cut-off shorts and children playing Tag in-between the tables. Wesley, a dutiful Grumpy Old Man, wholeheartedly approved of these changes.
Peter insisted on covering the bill and urged Wesley to splurge. An infrequent restaurant customer, Wesley obliged and ordered the fifteen-dollar steak.
“Have a beer too, if you want,” Peter said.
“I’m going to back to work afterwards, you know.”
“Then have two.”
“Does the governor appreciate that sass of yours, Peter?”
“I still have my job, don’t I?”
“I would assume so, considering how infrequently I see you.”
Wesley did not mean to sound accusatory, but Peter shrank into himself nevertheless. “Yeah. About that.”
“No. You’re right,” Peter said. “You deserve better than that.”
“You’re a busy man. I understand that. You have greater priorities than your old uncle. Am I right?”
Peter nodded. “We really weren’t ready for twins. God knows Nici wasn’t.”
Nici was not built for childbearing; she was a petite woman by any estimation and her build was that of a prepubescent boy, nary a curve to be found. The cost of bearing Max and Nick, even at a modest five pounds two ounces each, had been more than her pelvis could handle. Her right pubis had split during labor, requiring surgery and several weeks of traction in what Nici had taken to calling her ass hammock. Peter’s generous government health insurance covered most of the bills and Nici’s maternity leave took care of the first sixteen weeks of recovery, but not her extended convalescence. She could do some light telecommuting from home, but not enough to warrant more than one-third her normal high-five-figure salary.
“So. What does His Excellency have you so very busy with these days, hm?”
“The Big Dig.”
Wesley winced. “Dare I ask what you did to offend Governor Leroy so to warrant that sort of punishment?”
It was Wesley’s esteemed opinion that the so-called Big Dig epitomized the theory that, sometimes, the cure can be infinitely worse than the disease. The project was the city’s well-intentioned solution to its previous grievous error in judgment: the Central Artery, six lanes of alternately elevated and subterranean highway that cut a concrete swath between the North End and downtown Boston, displacing tens of thousands of residents and business owners in the process. The city fathers assured concerned citizens that these were necessary growing pains, that the Artery would permit Boston to thrive and grow and retain its place among the great American cities.
The Artery did its job too well. Travel along I-93 averaged 75,000 vehicles per day when the Artery opened in 1959. That number had grown to 200,000 a day by the turn of the 21st century, though the traffic back-ups that kept commuters stuck on the road for hours at a time first manifested in the 1970s.
“It’s not a punishment,” Peter said unconvincingly. “He wouldn’t have given such an important job to just anyone.”
“I never said it was a punishment.”
“You did, actually.”
“Funny, I could have sworn I taught you all about sarcasm.”
The proposed solution to the Artery mess was so simple in concept it would have caused Occam to fumble his razor: streamline the spider web of on- and off-ramps, straighten out the severe curves, and add a few lanes.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Planning for the Big Dig began in 1982. The federal government, after a great deal of contentious debate and some not-so gentle nudging from the late great Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., relented to the city’s pleas for financial assistance in 1987. Construction began in 1991. It was scheduled to end in 1998.
Its deadline was now six years old and still unmet, its predicted $2.6 billion price tag had grown sevenfold, and its promised relief to the city’s ever-growing commuter population was nowhere in sight, leaving drivers to suffer under-publicized off-ramp closures shunting them onto poorly signed detours through an already labyrinthine city, to crawl along at single-digit speeds thanks to three and four lanes of highway crushed down to one, all so union workers could stand around and bloat their bank accounts on Golden Overtime while sweating out their three-beer lunches.
“Oh. Almost forgot.” Peter reached into his jacket and removed a small package wrapped in brown paper. He handed the parcel to Wesley with an unusual reverence. “Found this in my travels.”
It was a book — no, not a mere book. It had that wonderful dusty scent that only the age of generations could produce. The leather cover was worn from constant handling and felt dry to the touch, like skin weathered by a bitter winter, but in otherwise excellent condition.
“Peter, where –?”
“It’s an old journal. I saw that and thought you could add that to your collection of antique books,” Peter said. “I think you’ll that one really interesting.”
“Not that I’m not grateful, but this must have cost you…you have so many more pressing needs,” Wesley said apologetically, but Peter waved it away.
“Just my way of, well, saying thank you for all you’ve done for me. I know I don’t say that enough…”
The waitress arrived with their drinks. Peter intercepted his glass before it could land.
“Interesting-looking beverage,” Wesley said, glad to redirect the conversation toward less sentimental topics.
“Black and tan,” Peter explained before chugging the black in a single swallow. “Friend of mine turned me onto them at a pub in Southie. Bartender there, he could actually make a beer parfait. Damnedest thing. You have to know which beers will float on which beers, I guess…”
Half the tan disappeared.
One project director once made the astute remark that working the Big Dig was akin to performing open-heart surgery on a patient that continued to work and play tennis. He failed to remark upon the quality of the surgeons involved but the general public did not share his restraint, nor did the city’s media pundits who dedicated weekly editorial space to open condemnation of the project and all involved.
Governor Leroy, drowning in a flood of angry communiqués from irate motorists, swiftly assembled a twenty-one-person task force to examine the problem. Eight months later, the task force released a phone book-sized report that summarized the issue thus:
The people running the Big Dig are incompetent buffoons.
It took the first fifty pages to say this and another two hundred to explain why. The last dozen pages outlined an action plan. Recommendation three was to assign a team of gubernatorial liaisons to stalk the contractors, engineers, construction workers, union reps, site supervisors, accountants, suppliers, mayor’s office, the Joint Legislative Committee on Transportation, the Mass. Turnpike Authority, and the State Police, scrutinize everything they did, and report back to the governor no less frequently than once a week. Peter’s job was, in his words, to stalk the liaisons and collect, read, and summarize their reports into one easily digested mini-report Governor Leroy could read in the limo on his way to a photo op. It was no wonder, Wesley thought, his once robust nephew now looked so haggard.
“Peter, I believe that’s our food,” Wesley said, nodding toward their approaching waitress, her arms crooked like the arms of a scale and ending in plates of steaming food. “If you have something to say, I suggest you do it now, before our mouths become otherwise occupied.”
“Can’t I just take you out to lunch?” Peter paused, the pint glass hovering at his lips. He chuckled and took a lazy sip. “Nothing to say, Uncle Wes. Really. Things are just a little rough now is all,” he said with a shrug. “Long hours, tight budgets, wife and kids to take care of…it’s just life.”
The waitress slid their meals under their noses with the obligatory Careful, hot plate warning. Peter, a weak smile flickering on his lips, looked at his open-faced roast beef sandwich as if it were the most glorious thing he’d seen in forever.
“Just life,” he whispered.
Copyright 2005 Michael Bailey