Road to Nowhere
- 2008 10 Apr
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Road to Nowhere by Paul Robertson (Bethany House Publishers).
January 2, Monday
Time to start. Bang the fool gavel.
"Come to order." Dead quiet anyway. "Go ahead, Patsy."
"Here," Joe said, and he hated that he was. Wicked, evil business.
"Miss? ... Gulotsky?"
"Please. Just Eliza. I am here."
"Everyone's here, Joe."
"Thank you, Patsy," he said. "Jefferson County North Carolina Board of Supervisors is now in session."
So many names over the years. Thirty, maybe, or forty. It wouldn't be easy to remember them all. "Motion to accept last month's minutes?"
"I'll move that we accept last month's minutes."
"I'll second that."
He didn't even listen to who said which. It was usually Louise Brown, then Randy McCoy. Now that the meeting was started, he just wanted to be done.
"Motion and second," he said. "Go ahead, Patsy."
"... Miss ... Eliza?"
"Just Eliza. I vote no."
"You what?" Wade Harris said, beside her. "You're voting against the minutes?"
"Well, she wasn't even here last month." That was Louise, from the other end of the table. "It's her first meeting."
"Go on, Patsy," Joe said.
"I vote yes. For Pete's sake."
"Four in favor, one opposed," Patsy said.
"Motion carries," Joe said. "Minutes are accepted." Just be done, that was all. "Next is receiving public comment." He raised his voice to talk to the audience. "Any of you have anything you'd like to say to us?"
Nothing. There were only three people sitting in the rows of chairs. The newspaper reporter was sleeping in his corner, and the two others were each there for a reason of their own, and not this.
Those three. Five board members. Patsy, the clerk, at her desk, and Lyle, the county manager, quivering beside her. Just ten people in the whole big fancy room.
And not Mort. Joe couldn't bring himself to look to his left, past Wade Harris, where Mort Walker should have been. Where Mort had been for thirty-two years.
It didn't seem worth it anymore and he was tired of it. There was no purpose to the bickering and anger. Tonight there'd be plenty of that. He looked down at the pages on the table in front of him, a letter as wicked and full of trouble as anything he'd ever seen.
He set his other papers on top of it.
"We'll get on with the agenda. Everyone's got a copy?"
"Left mine at home."
That was Wade Harris. The man could just barely be bothered to come to the meetings. And likely as not, he had some hand in the letter and its trouble.
Patsy handed Wade a copy of the agenda.
"First item," Joe said. "Contract to pave five miles of Marker Highway. Winning bid was Smoky Mountain Paving. We need a motion to award the contract."
"Second." Louise and Randy again.
"Motion and second. Any discussion?"
"Wait." Wade again, of course. "Which road?"
"Marker Highway," Randy McCoy said. "From Wardsville to past the interstate."
"What happened to Gold River Highway? I thought that was next."
"That's next on the list. It's not funded yet."
"So when does Gold River Highway get paved?" Wade asked.
"Whenever it gets funded," Randy said.
"Any more discussion?" Joe asked. The little there'd been had been more than enough. He didn't know Wade enough to trust him, and he didn't much care to know him better anyway. And tonight he was trusting him even less.
"Voting to award the contract," he said. He wanted the meeting to be over, more than he ever had. "Go ahead, Patsy."
"I vote no."
"What if we all vote no?" Wade asked.
Randy answered, "I'll be voting yes."
"I mean, what if the board votes no?" Wade said. "The road doesn't get paved?"
"Lyle," Joe said, and Lyle startled. The poor county manager was as jumpy as a rabbit, anyway. "Explain what happens if we don't award the contract."
"Uh ... Joe, when we sent out the request for bids, we said the contract would be awarded to the qualified low bidder. If you don't award it, they could bring a lawsuit."
"So why do we even vote?" Wade asked.
"The county can't enter into a contract without the supervisors voting," Lyle said.
"So we have to vote, but we have to vote yes. Whatever. I vote yes."
"Mr. McCoy?" Patsy said.
"Yes," Randy said.
"Four in favor, one opposed."
"The motion passes," Joe said.
Why was she voting that way? Every vote she'd be reminding him that Mort wasn't here.
The reporter was awake and scribbling.
Keep going. "Next item." There'd be more bickering about this one, too. "Nomination to a county board. Mr. Stephen Carter has agreed to serve on the Planning Commission, to fill the open seat." Joe checked his watch again. He'd give them five minutes for their squabble. "You see his qualifications. Is there a motion to appoint him?"
Wade Harris stifled a yawn. "I move we appoint him."
Louise. "I'll second."
"Motion and second," Joe said. "Any discussion?"
"Joe." Randy McCoy was shaking his head. "I'm not sure about it. Mr. Carter certainly seems to be a nice man, and real smart, and I appreciate his willingness. But I just think someone should live here in the county for a while before we appoint him to the Planning Commission."
Carter himself was in the audience. "How long have you lived here, Mr. Carter?"
"Five years, sir."
"How long do you think he should have to live here?" Wade asked.
Randy frowned. "Well, maybe longer than that. Especially if he doesn't live
right here in town."
Wade frowned back at him. "Now, that's your real problem, isn't it? He doesn't live right here in town. Your problem is that he lives in Gold Valley." He held up five fingers. "We've got five places on the Planning Commission. One's empty, that we're filling, and one's Duane Fowler, and he lives in Marker." He folded down two fingers. "And the other three are Ed Fiddler, who's your next-door neighbor, and Humphrey King, who's your cousin, and you." He pointed right at Randy. "Well, I think it's about time there was someone from Gold Valley on the commission. It's as much a part of the county as Wardsville."
Joe just watched and waited.
With Mort and Louise on the board, there'd been three of them with a lick of
sense and they'd get done what they needed. Without Mort it would be different. But even just the two of them would most often be enough. It would be tonight for appointing Carter.
"Now, Wade," Randy was saying, "it's not that he lives there in Gold Valley, which I know is part of the county, that's not what I'm saying. I'm only worried that, if he hasn't lived here but a couple years ..."
"... that he might not really have a good feel for how people do things here."
Joe checked his watch. He knew Randy plenty well and didn't trust him, either. Three more minutes.
And after this, they'd take up the letter.
Wade was getting hot. "And since I've only lived here four years, what's that supposed to mean exactly? None of the rest of you has ever lived in Gold Valley for a week, and it's as much a part of the county as Wardsville. In Raleigh the Planning Commission was divided by districts so everyone had a representative...."
"You aren't in Raleigh anymore, Wade," Randy said.
"You don't need to remind me. It is really obvious...."
"And you really don't need to remind us about Gold Valley being part of the county, because like I just said—"
"As long as we just pay our taxes and shut up—"
That was enough. Joe tapped his gavel. "As there is no further discussion, I think we're ready to vote." He'd have given them two more minutes if they'd stayed civil.
Louise patted Randy's arm. "It's only fair," she said.
The reporter wasn't even looking up, just writing. He'd have his article finished before the meeting was. Always sat in the back corner.
"Go ahead, Patsy," Joe said.
"I vote no."
"Yes, yes, yes. Yes!"
"Well ... yes. But I still don't think he's necessarily the best person."
"We couldn't find anyone else, anyway," Louise said. "Thank you, Mr. Carter. We really do appreciate that you're willing."
"I'm glad to, Mrs. Brown."
"That's four in favor, one opposed," Patsy said.
"Motion carries," Joe said. Louise was right. Taken two months to find someone willing. "Next item."
This was the one.
If he'd felt like it, and if he'd had time, he'd have called someone in Raleigh to ask a couple of questions. Or he might have just ignored the letter and never said a thing about it. But there was a chance good might come of it. It was likely evil already had.
He took the letter out from his pile, as wicked evil as anything he'd ever seen.
It was about a road.
There was no trouble like there was with a road. A whole year of strife in one letter from Raleigh, and that would be for any road. This one would be worse.
"'North Carolina Department of Transportation has announced a limited one-time grant program to complete highway projects meeting certain criteria.'" He was reading the first page. "'The program is intended for high-priority projects of long standing.'" He glanced at Wade, but the man looked as ignorant as ever. "We would need to vote to apply."
"I'll move," Louise said.
Randy was frowning. "What project would we be applying for?"
"I'm sorry," Louise said. "Does that have to be in the motion?"
"It does," Joe said. "There's a pile of rules. We only have one project on the county plan that qualifies."
"What would that be?" Wade asked.
Joe leaned back and said the words. "To bring Gold River Highway over the mountain into Wardsville."
And that did it.
Everyone acted up together, even Louise. Even Patsy and Lyle. Right away there was a hubbub and people sitting up straight and the few of them in the room sounding more like twenty, like a chicken coop with a snake at the door. And that's what it was, anyway.
"Where did you get that?"
It was the reporter, from the audience, shouting over everyone else. Joe tapped
"We need that road," Wade said.
"Read it again," the reporter called.
"Patsy will make copies after the meeting," Joe said.
"Good gravy," Randy said. "You don't mean they actually might build it?"
"Why not?" Wade said, turning on Randy.
"Well, that's not what I'm saying," Randy was saying, "not that it shouldn't, it's just that I don't think we've ever really expected it. Joe, wasn't that on the plan even before you were on the board?"
"No, it wasn't." Even Gold River Highway wasn't that old. He could remember the hand-drawn maps and the engineer up from Asheville presenting them. "It was added in 1967."
"Lot has changed in thirty-nine years," Randy said.
"You bet it has," Wade said. "Like four hundred houses built in Gold Valley. I'll second that motion."
"Her motion didn't count," the reporter said.
"I don't think it did," Louise said.
"Then I'll do it," Wade said. "I move that we apply for this grant, whatever it is, to get Gold River Highway put over the mountain."
"Second?" Joe said.
"I'll second," Louise said.
"Now we can discuss it."
The reporter had moved up to the front row.
"What's to discuss?" Wade said. "That road is the most important project in Jefferson County."
"Well, now, I think we should discuss it," Randy said. "Like I said, a lot has changed in thirty-nine years. You know, that road would come over Ayawisgi Mountain right into Hemlock Street, and there's a lot of houses in there, too."
"Does it have to come in right there?" Louise asked.
"We've been over it on the Planning Commission a dozen times. The only place it can get over the mountain is through the gap, along where the dirt road is now, and right into Hemlock. The high school's on one side and the furniture factory's on the other side. That's the only place it can go."
"That's where it should go," Wade said.
"That is a residential neighborhood," Randy said, "and it's no place for a big highway."
"But that's where the road needs to go, for Pete's sake." Wade was practically yelling. "That's the point! So people in Gold Valley can get to the school and the factory and into town at all without having to go all the way out to the interstate."
"I don't think any of the city people with their vacation houses in Gold Valley are wanting to get to the furniture factory, or even the high school," Randy said.
"The furniture trucks might want a better way out to the interstate than right through Wardsville." If Wade had been surprised by all this, he was sure recovering fast. "And I've got a daughter at the high school who rides a bus forty minutes each way. Look, this has been the plan all along. And all that development in Gold Valley has been based on the plan."
"Maybe it's the plan, but nobody ever expected it to happen."
"That's what a plan is, Randy." Wade was about as exasperated as a man could be. "A plan is what you're expecting to happen. Everybody in Gold Valley sure has been expecting it."
"Joe," Louise said, giving people a chance to calm down, "I thought the state didn't have any money for new roads this year."
"It says there's twenty-five million dollars here in this program."
"Twenty-five million?" Randy said. "That's nothing."
"It's enough to build Gold River Highway," Wade said.
"But every county in the state is competing for it. Our share wouldn't be enough to put in a traffic light."
"We can still apply," Wade said.
"Is there a deadline, Joe?"
"That's three weeks," Randy said. "We don't even have time."
"Four weeks," Wade said. "And how long does it take to vote on a resolution? Two
"But there'll be forms to fill out and engineering drawings to be made. We
couldn't do all that in three weeks."
"We only need the resolution," Joe said. "If we get approved, the state will do
"Is this the only vote we'd have?" Louise asked.
"What's the timetable?" It was the reporter again.
Joe ignored him. "We'd vote again. What we're doing now is not the final vote. If our application is approved, we'd vote again when we saw the plans."
"Yeah, what is the timetable, anyway?" Wade asked.
Joe found the page of the letter. " 'Application, February first.' "
"Wait a minute." The fool reporter again. He'd dropped his notebook and was on the floor getting it. "Okay, go ahead."
"Announcement of projects approved, April board meeting," Joe said. "Presentation of engineering concept drawings, July board meeting. Public comment period following. Final county board approval by January first of next year. Detailed engineering and putting out for bids, approximately one more year. Construction begins after that." He handed the page to Wade. "If we were approved, we'd vote in December. They'd start work about a year and a half later."
"There is no way we'll get accepted," Randy said. "Now, in my opinion, I don't think we should apply if we're not even going to be approved. Those folks in Raleigh have plenty to do as it is without going through a bunch of papers from us way out here that don't have any chance of being accepted anyway."
Wade was staring at him, full flabbergasted.
"Are you flat crazy?" he finally said.
Joe tapped his gavel. "Any more discussion?"
Louise had a question. "Joe, why only four weeks? I've never heard of such a short deadline."
"The letter came back in October."
"Nobody saw it?" she asked.
"It came to Mort," Joe said. Then he had to wait a minute. "He was the county contact for the Department of Transportation. It was out at his house. I only saw it yesterday." He glanced out at the audience, at the one person who hadn't yet said a word. "I think we'll vote now. Go ahead, Patsy."
"Wait a minute!"
Joe was already plenty angry without the fool reporter interrupting every two minutes. "The board is not accepting public comment," he said.
"You can't just vote!" the reporter said. "Nobody even knows what you're doing!" "There's no requirement to schedule public hearings before we apply. Go ahead."
"Mrs. Brown?" Patsy said.
"Joe, you're sure we'd vote again if it's approved?" Louise said.
"That's what it says."
"Well ... I'd want to think more about it. But to apply, I'll say yes."
"I vote no."
"Yes, so it passes. Good."
"Well, it's already passed, so it doesn't matter."
Patsy waited. "Are you abstaining?"
"What? Oh. Well, I really don't think we should apply, and even more I don't think we should build a road, but I hate to vote no and seem contrary when something's already passed."
"What are you voting?" Wade asked.
"I suppose I'll say yes, since it doesn't matter anyway. But I know it won't get approved."
"That's four in favor, one opposed," Patsy said.
"Motion carries," Joe said. "Lyle, you'll make sure someone in the office fills in the forms?"
"I will, Joe." Lyle would probably do it himself. He was about all the engineering staff the county had. Patsy would check it over to make sure it was done right.
"And if it does get approved, somehow," Randy was saying, "I think a lot of people will have a lot to say about it."
"You bet they will," Wade said.
"There will be time for public comment," Joe said. "Everybody will have plenty of opportunity to say their piece."
"But it won't get accepted," Randy said. "So it doesn't really matter."
They'd know soon enough. Joe put the papers back in the envelope and handed it to Lyle. He might still call Raleigh, or he might just wait. There was nothing he could do to head off the fight they'd surely just started.
Roads were a mess, and this one would be like nothing any of them had ever seen. The reporter would stir it up even worse. That's what the man thrived on. He already had another page filled with his scrawls.
And it wasn't just that people here in the county could fight with each other. This would have people outside fighting, too. That made Wade worth watching.
Or maybe it wasn't worth anything, not anymore. Just let the lot of them have their way and do what they wanted.
He was still hating being here. Because now was time for the last item, and the hardest one. Not hard for the others—just for him, and maybe for Louise. "Final item. Proposal to put up a suitable monument in the flower bed outside the courthouse in honor of Morton Walker and his service to the county."
Silence. For this, not one of them dared to say anything. None of them had any right to say a word, even Louise. For thirty-two years Mort had been on this board, a better man than these two schoolchildren arguing over every blame thing.
Everyone in the county had known him, and not a one would have even run against him for respect of what an upright man he was. Not a one, but her.
Who knew how the idea had got into her head ten years ago. She'd run in every election she could since then, and never gotten more than a dozen votes. She'd run last November against Mort, an insult to the whole county, but nothing to even take notice of.
Then Mort had died three days before the election.
Joe forced himself to look to his left, past Wade, and there she was, sitting where Mort should have been sitting right now. She'd gotten her usual ten votes in the election, but there was no else who'd got any, because Mort, his friend, was dead.
He hated it.
"Go ahead, Patsy."
"Yes. Of course."
He didn't want to hear her even speak. What right did she, of all people, have to be here voting on this, of all things?
"I vote no."
"Keep going," Joe said.
"Four in favor, one opposed," Patsy said.
"Motion carries," Joe said. "Any other business?"
He waited just long enough for it to be a wait. "This meeting is adjourned." He stood and walked to his right, behind Randy and Louise.
"Joe?" That was Minnie Walker. The one other person in the audience. "Thank you. Mort would appreciate it."
"The least we could do."
"I hope that letter doesn't cause any trouble. I'd have brought it before but I kept forgetting."
"It doesn't make a difference," he said.
He tried to leave the room before anyone would say anything else, but Wade Harris was talking to Louise. He tried not to hear it but he did.
"Mort would have voted for the road," Wade was saying. "Bad luck he died right when he did."
Excerpted from: Road to Nowhere by Paul Robertson. Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764203251 Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.