Rita warnings are up. There's powerful front coming through and flags are snapping in the wind.
“Well, hello, stranger. I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
Startled, Rick turned toward the voice just behind his left shoulder. He stopped in the wide hallway outside the wood-grained double doors of the lecture room at Eagle Lake High School where an extraordinary meeting of the School Board would soon convene.
He recognized his most recent customer, Debbie Beck smiling at him. Her husband was a few steps behind her, frowning at his cell phone. “Oh. Hiya, Debbie.”
“Did you even have any time for supper? It was pretty late when you left our house.”
“I managed to grab something after my shower.” Rick’s hair was still damp after his quick toweling off.
“How did – oh excuse me –” she stepped to one side to let another couple pass in the hallway. “How did you hear about this meeting?”
“Um, I was told by a friend.”
The woman nodded. “We got a phone call about it this morning. I had no idea this was going on.”
“What did the caller say?” Rick had no idea what either of the Becks knew, and he didn’t want to give Walter Heinemann away.
“Oh, nothing, just that the land behind our house was up for some massive development. I was out doing some research at the office when Peter called you.”
“That was before shopping?”
“Good lawyers can handle pressure and multitasking.” She grinned.
A stream of concerned citizens made their way past.
“Hello again,” said Peter Beck, coming up. “Thanks for your help this afternoon.”
While his words were cordial, his face betrayed a considerable reserve. Had the man found fault with his work in the basement?
Rick “No problem. I’m just sorry for the mess it all caused.”
“Don’t you think we’d better go in? If we wait much longer, there might not be a seat.” The man wanted to cut short the conversation with Rick. That was evident. Yet, even as he wondered if his clothes still smelled of basement, he recognized the man had a point.
Where did all these people come from?
From what Rick could recall, most School Board meetings were sparsely attended affairs.
As he filed into the room with Peter and Debbie Beck, the place looked packed. The lecture room had been built in raised tiers, with chairs arranged on each level to overlook the front of the room. There, several long tables had been put together, with most of the chairs occupied and facing the gathering.
Rick pointed out a pair of seats open in the second to last row of seats. Peter Beck nodded and guided his wife toward them. Rick figured he could stand against the back wall. Then he saw a hand waving at him at the other end of the last row.
What was Caroline Lee doing at this meeting? He made his way over to his neighbor. She wasn’t alone. Beside her sat Cheryl Guttmacher, stuffing something into her handbag. On her left was an empty seat piled with a couple of jackets and a wide brimmed hat.
“Rick, I’m so glad you made it.” The old woman had to raise her voice to be heard over the growing murmur of the crowd. “I tried calling you at the shop, but no one answered.”
“Irene has been taking a few days off.” He explained. “And I was working on a basement flood at Debbie Beck’s place for most of the afternoon.”
“It’s nice to see she and her new husband moved back to town. Why don’t you sit with us?”
“Aren’t you saving that seat for Jerry?”
“Cheryl won’t mind, will you dear?” The older woman turned to her left to inquire.
“Go ahead and take Jerry’s chair.” The rail thin brunette gestured. “It’ll serve him right for being late.”
“I’d hate to be a problem.”
“You’re never a problem,” said Cheryl with a wide smile. “Now sit.”
Rather than displace either of his friends, Rick clambered over the back of the chair, sitting down, just as its contents were whisked away, and stowed underneath the row.
“Sorry, I didn’t hit your shoulder, did I?” Rick asked. “I can be incredibly clumsy.”
“Nope. No casualties. I can’t believe there are so many people here tonight.” Even as the distaff Guttmacher spoke, more people filed into the already overcrowded room behind them.
Rick leaned forward to address Caroline. “How did you hear about this meeting?”
“Probably the same way you did. Walter Heinemann phoned me right after lunch. He asked me to call a list of other people.”
“That’s how I heard.” Cheryl chimed in. “Caroline passed the word to me, and I told Jerry to come.”
“Where is he now?”
“Hopefully, he’s looking for a parking place right now. I left him at home waiting for the sitter to arrive.”
Rick was about to ask something else, but the loud screech of a microphone being adjusted interrupted every conversation in the room.
“Can everyone hear me?” a voice boomed out over the loudspeakers.
Every eye turned to the source of the sound. The tables set up at the front of the room had filled in. A quick glance saw Rita seated far to the left, looking cool and crisp, in a tasteful plaid skirt and jacket ensemble. In contrast, the School Board President hunkered down uncomfortably in front of the mic; dressed in a lightweight blue suit and red tie, the man tapped the instrument several times. The loud, rasping noise indicated the sound system was indeed in working order.
Caroline Lee leaned over to Cheryl. “Dan Unser looks like he’s in the hot seat tonight.” She commented in a stage whisper audible across the back of the room.
“I guess he didn’t expect the crowd.”
“Will everyone please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance?” Unser’s voice grated through the speaker.
Over the hubbub of scraping chairs and subdued voices, the civic chorus began: “…allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic….”
Hand over his heart, Rick noted the broad spectrum of Eagle Lakers present. A chuckle almost interrupted his own recitation. Walter had done a great job of turning out concerned citizens, so much so, he had no idea which face in the crowd might belong to the liaison from the state legislature.
The School Board President waited for quiet afterward. “This, um, special meeting of the Eagle Lake Board of Education is now in session.” He intoned. “And, um, I’m glad to see so much interest on the part of, um, the community in the work of the Board.” He turned to his left, addressing a woman with dark hair tied back in a bun, at the far end of the table. “The Clerk has produced the minutes of the previous meeting, which you all should have. Are there any amendments?”
General head-shaking greeted the inquiry.
“Motion to accept the minutes as reported.” The grey-haired, stocky form of Bert Albrecht at Unser’s right hand mumbled the words at lightning speed.
“Second.” This came from somewhere on the left almost before the motion was completed.
“All those in favor?”
The chorus of affirmative votes sounded more like a collective groan.
Unser shuffled some papers in front of him. He looked out at the packed room and cleared his throat. “This, um, special meeting has been called to address an urgent matter concerning the possible sale of property owned by the Eagle Lake School District. As, um, this is a property matter, I’d, um, move that this meeting be called into executive session and the, um, room cleared of anyone not on the Board.”
“Second.” Again, Unser’s right-hand man, Bert Albrecht, chimed in.
Cheryl Guttmacher looked confused; Caroline Lee’s brow furrowed. Murmuring broke out amongst the many observers.
“Excuse me!” Another voice rang out over the rising noise. “Excuse me!” Debbie Beck stood, garnering the attention of the room. “A motion for Executive Session would be illegal at this time under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.”
Unser leaned forward over the microphone. “Um, you’re out of order. Please sit down.”
Undeterred, Beck stood her ground. “Respectfully, I’d point out that any decision you take in violation of the Open Meetings Law would be considered void. I’m happy to file suit in the Circuit Court first thing tomorrow morning to make the point.”
Members of the Board looked at one another.
“Um, counsel for the Board assures me that this property matter is covered under the statute for closed meetings…. ” Unser began, looking annoyed.
“But the statute also states that business must be conducted in open session if the value or disposition of the property in question is likely to change substantially from those determined in a closed session.” Debbie Beck was giving as good as she got.
“And just how do you know what property’s involved here?” Unser snapped.
“We won’t know unless you conduct business in open session, now will we?” She shot back, smirking.
Someone in the crowd hooted. A patter of applause broke out and blossomed.
Rick noticed Rita McKee sitting on the edge of her seat, eyes flashing between Unser and the crowd.
He leaned over to Cheryl, needing to raise his voice over the din. “I bet Rita didn’t count on making her pitch to a room full of skeptical neighbors.”
She nodded and grinned.
There was no mistaking the concerned glances exchanged by several Board members.
“This meeting will come to order!” The Board President struggled to maintain some semblance of decorum. When quiet was more or less restored, he went on. “Um. There is a motion, um, to go into closed executive session on the floor.”
A hand at the table shot up.
“Um, I haven’t asked for the vote yet.” Unser smiled at his weak joke.
“I wasn’t asking to vote. Isn’t there going to be any discussion?” The owner of the hand inquired.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I just think we ought to think about this. If what’s being proposed is in the interest of the town and the School District, then shouldn’t it be done in the open?”
A couple of heads at the table nodded.
“Who’s that?” Cheryl whispered to Rick.
“Sue Obringer. Retired professor. She moved back to her parents’ place the first year the Brewers won the Central Division.”
“Um, this is a sensitive matter.” Dan Unser was still speaking; the microphone picked up his voice easily. “There are, um, issues that could affect individuals and the District adversely if discussed in an open forum.”
“Don’t you think there should be public comment?”
“The Board counsel has advised against it,” Unser said with finality. “Anyway, the motion on the floor has been posed and seconded, so discussion is out of order.”
Frowns at the table greeted this exchange. The onlookers in the room began to buzz.
“All those in favor of the motion?” Unser called out over the rising crescendo. Clearly, he thought it best to get to a vote before the public could voice its opinion.
There was hesitation amongst the members of the School Board. Three hands out of the seven voting members raised their hand, Unser, Albrecht and farther down the table, Don Ingersoll, the manager at the bank.
The Board President frowned, waiting for another upraised hand to send the meeting in to closed session and the concerned citizens of Eagle Lake into the night.
The man waited in vain.
With a heavy voice, Unser announced. “Um, the motion to move to closed session fails, by a vote of three to, um, four.”
More cheers and applause, and it took a couple of minutes for order to be restored. But as Rick scanned the room, he noted quite a few people with stony faces, not enjoying Dan Unser’s discomfiture. Not everyone was present as a result of Walter Heinemann’s canvassing.
Steeling himself to a more public airing of the planned agenda, Unser began again.
“The, um, purpose of this meeting was to consider the um, sale of property belonging to the Eagle Lake School District to, um, Ms. Rita McKee, a resident of the district. The property under consideration consists of the land conveyed to the School District as part of the original Town Charter from the, um, State of Wisconsin, known generally as um, College Hill. In, um, a proposal before the board in your folders, the Board of Education is, um, being offered the sum of three million, five hundred thousand dollars for the, um, approximately four hundred acres comprising the original grant.”
Fresh murmurs started in the audience.
“Um, Ms. Rita McKee is here to outline her proposal to the board. Let me remind any, um, observers and guests to refrain from comment until a time for public input um, becomes appropriate.”
Rita stood. She smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle in her skirt. If she felt fazed by having to explain her plan to a full meeting room, she hid it well.
“Good evening, and thank you for letting me have this opportunity.” She addressed the Board. “In case any of you forgot your folders, I brought along a site map of the proposal.”
She turned and hoisted a very large version of the proposed development Rick had glimpsed before onto an easel. He squinted at the drawing, dark with the footprints of McMansions and winding asphalt streets.
Whispers in the audience were silenced by a glare from the Board Chair.
She continued. “As you can see, the development of the property will unify the neighborhoods on either side of College Hill; currently, they are isolated from one another. When fully complete, Eagle Lake will be a growing, unified and vibrant community, centered on its school complex. You can see that new roadways will access the area from four directions, reducing traffic concerns. Every effort has been made …”
Rick felt a chill as she motioned to the map, pointing out various key features of her plan to remake Eagle Lake in her image. Board members listened attentively. Dan Unser may not have been able to railroad this thing through in a closed meeting, but the Board seemed polite enough in an open one.
He tried to count how many lots the land was subdivided into.
“… and funds are in place to purchase the property from the School District immediately. Of course, no commissions will be charged in the sale.” Rita allowed herself a small smile. “Are there questions?”
Don Ingersoll, the bank manager, spoke up first. “Remind us of how many units you propose here?”
“Two hundred and twenty.”
“And the average value per unit?”
“That will be hard to guess at this moment. Prices are planned to start at three-ninety-nine, and top out around eight hundred. However,” Rita smiled coyly, “there might be some luxury homes selling for more. And the popularity of the new neighborhood may sustain higher prices, of course.”
“Property values on all sides of the project would rise.” Bert Albrecht commented.
But the woman wasn’t finished. “And of course, that means additional property tax revenues for the District.”
“Um, yes, well, those revenues might be significant.” Dan Unser interjected. “With the expansion of the tax base, we might even see a property tax cut.”
“Exactly. This is a win for both the School District and the community.”
Except that we lose College Hill.
Sue Obringer, the woman who dared question Dan Unser earlier, raised a hand. “Has an environmental and community impact statement been completed?”
“It’s under legal review right now,” Rita replied. “There’s nothing extraordinary in it, though, and I don’t anticipate any adverse findings.”
Dan Unser spoke up again. “Really, the results of an impact statement are Ms. McKee’s problem. What confronts us as a board is whether or not we grasp this opportunity for the District to offload this long-term liability and return a substantial sum to the taxpayer.”
Rick noticed a number of heads in the audience nodding in agreement.
“Motion for a brief recess.” Bert Albrecht interjected. “Point of personal privilege,” he was heard saying to Unser before muttering something to Unser that couldn’t be heard over the microphone.
The Board Chair looked a little put out, but seconded the motion, which passed without contention. “The meeting will be in recess for fifteen minutes.” He announced.
At once, chairs scraped, as observers stood and stretched; Caroline and Cheryl joined the surge for the exits and washrooms.
Rick felt drawn to the big map of the proposed development, which still stood on its easel at the front. He wandered down the wide aisle against the tide of observers going the other way.Standing before it, he gave the plan a close examination.Streets would cut graceful curves through the woods; chainsaws and bulldozers would clear lots on the slopes; half-million-dollar homes would look out over their neighbors toward the lake and river, or over the farmland to the south. Something tickled at his brain;. Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“I told you it was going to be big, Ricky. What do you think now?” Rita stood next to him, speaking loud enough to be heard over the noise of conversation.
“Well, it’s certainly grand enough. But I can’t say I like it very much.”
Rita shook her head. “I thought you’d say that.”
“Nice ring, by the way.” Rick observed.
She held it up with a grin, splaying her fingers. “Yes, indeed. Quite something.”
“Everyone in town seems to think I gave it to you. I’ve spent the last two days denying it.”
“Why bother? It’s not their business.” She dismissed the idea with a wave of her jeweled hand.
“Well, some people think it is. Heinrich Senior just about busted a blood vessel when I told him it wasn’t me.”
“Hah! Your father was such an easy mark.”
Rick frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, Ricky-Ticky, how do you think I put together the financing for this little project? It wasn’t all that hard to get your father to invest his millions with me.”
“His what?” Rick gaped.
“Six-point-three million dollars, invested in College Hill Estates, LLC. Heinrich is quite the thrifty saver. Didn’t he tell you about this? I think he cleaned out his accounts at the bank and mortgaged the family business – and all because I told him I’d have a ring on my finger by Sunday night.”
“That’s – that’s fraud!”
“Not at all. I never told him whose ring it would be.” She grinned. “Now his money’s committed, he can’t very well back out.”
“So you just went out and bought yourself a ring with Dad’s money?” He felt his temper fraying.
“Would I do a thing like that? I mean, it wasn’t hard to figure out you weren’t very interested. And anyway, you turned out to be such a gentleman, such a boy scout. Not that I’m objecting to that, don’t get me wrong. You’re just too much the complacent little church mouse; a good follower. One of the faithful, but hardly a man on the rise. You wouldn’t take even a safe bet if someone made it for you.”
“Whose damn ring is it, then?” He snapped, stung.
“Oh, this was the best part. I sealed a deal when I got engaged to one of the other investors, someone with old family money. Do you know Bill Kohler, the man who owned the Cedarcrest estate?”
Rick recoiled, eyes wide. He actually took half a step backward. “Willy Kohler? I’m so sorry.” The words just slipped out.
Rita’s brow furrowed, clouding over.
“You can’t seriously expect me to congratulate you,” he continued. “You took every penny from Heinrich Senior knowing full well it was a swindle. But you freely chose Willy Kohler? You have my pity, even if you don’t deserve it. You may be a witch, but that man’s a monster.”
Rita rolled her eyes. “That’s not like you to be so unpleasant, Ricky. Bill and I have an understanding. I needed his family money; he needs someone to manage his wealth, and to, shall we say, provide a cover of respectability. It’s convenient.” She allowed herself a coy smile before going on. “But I’m sure you understand, you’re as much a part of this as he is. Your father signeda personal guarantee when he became a member. If this project fails – not that it will, but if it does – your father, his business, your job and everything you have are all finished. Toast.”
He reeled. “But how?”
“It’s all part of the collateral for the project financing arranged through the banks in Madison.” She explained with a superior smirk. “If I go under, you all go under.”
At that moment, Dan Unser reappeared at Rita’s elbow. He nodded at Rick but deferred to her. “We’re about to begin again in a minute or two.”
“So nice to see you tonight, Ricky.” She smiled, but her eyes sparkled with a kind of predatory glee before she turned away.
Rick pressed his lips together, holding in shock and anger. He stumbled up the steps going back to his place, but he couldn’t let it go. I’ve been played. Hell, Rita’s played us all like a bunch of damn dime store fiddles. The taste of defeat, of having to knuckle under and like it, rose in his gullet, bitter and full of gall.
He made his way back to the back row to find his chair taken by Jerry, now sitting beside Cheryl.
“Hey, buddy, you mind standing for a little while?”
“No, you sit. It’s your place,” Rick replied, grimacing.
“Rick? Are you okay?” Cheryl Guttmacher turned as she settled again.
He shook his head. He could barely see her.
“Do you need something?”
Rick repeated the gesture, more emphatically, eyes squinted shut. “I’ll be fine.”
The room began to quiet.
How could Dad have agreed to that kind of deal? He pledged his money – my money, damn him, on a stupid proposal? Did he really think I’d go along with it if he forced the issue? What the hell gives him the right to make that kind of decision? He wanted to scream.
“Rico, your color doesn’t look so good. Should I call someone? Get you to a doctor?” Jerry’s voice got through.
“Please, no. Don’t.” He hissed. “I’ll be all right.”
“Order. The meeting will come to order.” The Chairman was behind the microphone again.
“I move to open the meeting on the special proposal before the Board to public comment for the period of forty-five minutes.” Ben Albrecht rattled off the words like bullets from an automatic weapon.
“Second!” The voice of the bank manager followed without pause.
“Is that reasonable?” Some other board member had the temerity to ask. “Seems like there might be quite a lot of discussion on this.”
Dan Unser cast a withering look in the offender’s direction. “If those with comments keep them brief, and avoid repetition, it should be ample time. All in favor?”
Three hands at the table shot up, followed by a fourth tentative soul sitting next to Albrecht.
“Members of the public wishing to comment should raise a hand and wait to be recognized. I’m sorry there isn’t a microphone, so it will be necessary to speak up.” A forest of hands in the audience rose before the Chairman had finished speaking.
The first speaker to catch the Chairman’s attention stood. “This is a great idea,” the grey-haired individual said. “We pay too much in property taxes as it is. Let’s get on with it, I say.”
Rick watched a number of heads nod.
The next person recognized had much the same thing to say.
When the Chairman recognized Fritz Werner, the onetime Chevy dealer, Rick knew the fix was in. Unser was going to ignore anyone he suspected of having a single word to say against Rita’s project.
He watched Walter Heinemann, sitting in the front row to the side, hands clenched tight in his lap. Cheryl must have seen the same thing. “Why doesn’t Walter speak up?” She asked Caroline Lee.
“Maybe he’s afraid.”
Rick turned his head to the older woman, eyebrow raised.
“He can see which way the wind is blowing.” She continued, as if explaining to a perplexed child. “He isn’t far from retirement. If he says anything objectionable, the Board can fire him. He loses his job and his pension.”
“They’d do that?” Cheryl whispered, astonished.
Mrs. Lee nodded in the direction of the School Board. “What do you think?”
Rick watched Unser call on another of his pals in the audience. Across the room, Debbie Beck wore a determined look on her face while keeping her hand raised. She had no chance of being recognized.
Dan Unser must have been reading minds, because his next choice fell on a tall, wiry figure with large glasses and salt-and-pepper hair. Hank Grunewald, a well-known character, whose criticisms of the Board appeared at least once a week in the local paper, rose from his chair.
“I can’t believe the Board is wasting its time on this issue. This is a distraction from the ongoing problem.” The speaker brayed. “For years, I’ve reminded you about duplication of services and the colossal waste that generates. If we could just work with neighboring districts to share ….”
Oh, geez. Here we go.
“… taking a moment to just look at the provision of textbooks alone …”
The Board Chair cast a smug smile in Rita McKee’s direction. Rick’s stomach wanted to heave.
“… I brought some figures with me that illustrate the savings …”
Rick wasn’t the only person in the room seething. A scan of the rows showed tight, pursed lips, fidgeting hands, and furrowed brows throughout.
He hated feeling powerless to stop this travesty, to derail Rita’s venture. He detested his own cowardice in the face of his father’s relentless badgering and fault finding.His rage flared again at Zoltan, who insisted he return to a quiescent half-life so that the impresario could continue to wring pennies out of Gus’ pianistic brilliance.
Unser let the crank meander on and on, wasting valuable minutes.
“… before the Education Act of 1972 changed procurement procedures and how expenditures …”
Someone down in front coughed, loudly. Someone to his left did the same. Debbie Beck cleared her throat with an almost theatrical flourish.
Grunewald droned on, unheeding. He’d never been granted this much time at a Board meeting before.
Rick decided enough was enough. He raised his hand.
Jerry turned at the gesture, surprised. Then he grinned, and coughed – a loud, barking sound, not unlike a similar performance that landed him in the principal’s office a few decades back.
Hank Grunewald ground to a halt.
The Board Chair squinted in their direction. “Um, yes, thank you for your comments. I believe we have time for one more.” He smiled. One last safe comment.
“Rick Ernst? The Chair recognizes you.”
Every eye in the room turned.
“First of all, I believe congratulations are in order for Ms. McKee.” Rick began as he stood up. “She recently got engaged, and I hope she’ll be happy.”
He tried not to show any emotion in response to the surprised expressions on his neighbor’s faces. Rita simpered and spread her fingers to show off the ring to those sitting nearby.
“I hate to spoil the party, but the Board really needs to take a pass on this project. It’s a boondoggle and a money-pit from the word go.”
Bert Albrecht’s face changed from complacency to annoyance in a flash.
Rick went on. “I know at least four members of the Board were present when the voters approved the capital bond a while back. How much was it? Seven million dollars? We built a fantastic athletic complex, bought the best equipment, laid down the only artificial turf for miles around – it was a big deal.”
“This project would let us retire some of that debt.” Unser snapped.
“Let him speak. It’s his turn now.” Jerry hollered.
Rick smiled. “I remember the work being done: most of us do. We have one of the finest facilities anywhere. We can be proud of it; we should be. This project may or may not generate jobs, or tax revenue, or progress, or whatever else you want from it. What I do know it that it’s going to generate wastewater: up to ten thousand cubic feet of it every day. The current municipal treatment plant isn’t built for that kind of increase. Those houses built on the south side of town have put a strain on the system already.”
A murmur rippled across the room.
“But that’s not the worst of it. What happens when we get a rainstorm – not a hurricane, just a normal summer downpour or spring gully-washer? How much water is that? An inch of rain means one-point-five million cubic feet of water falling on College Hill. Right now, the forest and the woodlands soak most of it up. But if it’s sold and cleared off, well, there’s nothing to keep all that water from running right downhill.”
Now he had everyone’s attention, especially from homeowners living in the south end of town.
“I may not be anyone special, but I know water: what it does and where it goes. I want you to think about this. It’s not uncommon for us to get an inch of rain in an afternoon thundershower. Imagine a million cubic feet of water – seven million gallons – falling on the north side of College Hill after all these houses get built. That water hits the roofs, and the mulches, and driveways, and the pavements, and heads straight down till it hits the old railroad embankment. That water collects and flows not west to the Eagle River, but east; it moves parallel to Cedar Street toward the High School, where seven million gallons of water flood out those beautiful athletic turf fields we spent all those dollars on just six years ago.”
“So? It’s artificial turf. Big deal.” Ben Albrecht piped up.
“Actually, it could be a pretty expensive cleanup, depending on the size and nature of the event. If it’s really bad, we’d have to completely re-do the fields. And we don’t have flood insurance, Ben.” Walter Heinemann had found his voice.
“This is silly.” Rita McKee’s voice interposed. “The College Hill properties would be fully connected to the Town of Eagle Lake storm sewers. There isn’t going to be any flood.”
Rick smiled inwardly. “It’s funny you should mention that. Back when the Board planned the athletic fields project, I pointed out that the storm drains for the north side of town were antiquated and might have trouble with a big weather event. Getting the fields tied into an upgraded storm line would have meant a big boost to the price tag, even if the Town shared part of the cost. Anybody remember? And who talked the Board out of it?
Don Ingersoll frowned. “You know darn well it was your own father, Rick. Heinrich Senior told us it was unnecessary to spend all that extra money, and we believed him.”
“So imagine all that water, flooding the athletic complex, and with no place to go, but slowly draining away over a couple of days. Of course, if Ms. McKee wants to split the cost of upgrading all the storm sewers on the north side of Eagle Lake with the Town and the School Board, you might get away with chipping in ten million dollars. Each. Where’s your tax cut? I’m sorry, I just don’t see how you make out that this is some kind of profit if we get four and a half million dollars now, so that we can spend ten million later. Seems like a bad deal to me.”
Rita McKee looked like she’d swallowed a rotten piece of fruit, sideways.
An angry buzz rose around Rick and spread across the assembled crowd.
“Order! Order!” Dan Unser cried out.
“Motion to table the proposed sale of College Hill!” One of the lesser lights on the Board raised her voice over the gathering tumult.
“Second.” It was unclear who had spoken. It wasn’t necessary to know. College Hill would be safe.
Later, Rick walked out in the parking lot with Jerry. He felt lighter, freer; a broad smile split his face. With his troubles forgotten,at that moment, it seemed to him he could do anything.
Knots of people talked together amongst the cars. Cheryl walked Caroline in another direction; she’d take the older woman home. The air felt cool and fresh after the close and stuffy meeting room.
“You staged one hell of an ambush, Rico. How long was that planned?” Jerry laughed.
“I didn’t plan it. It just came to me. Call it inspiration.”
“Inspired? That ain’t the word for it. And you managed to piss off your ex-girlfriend, too.”
“She was never my girlfriend, dipstick.”
“That’s right, that’s right. I remember now. Fine. But if that’s so, who have you been going out with?”
“Who says I’ve been going out with anyone?”
“So that’s some kind of rash on your neck? Come on, give.”
Rick stopped and turned to his friend, his grin fading to a smirk. “You don’t want to know.”
“What, you don’t trust your old friend with a deep, dark secret?” Jerry taunted him.
Rick hesitated, his innate caution rising to meet the elation coursing through his veins. The glaring light overhead hummed faintly.
“I’ve been seeing Gus. You remember him. The guy from –”
“Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. I missed something.” Jerry looked at him with a puzzled frown.
“I said: I’ve been seeing Gus. The Cedarcrest guy who –”
“The guy? You’ve been seeing a guy?”
Rick looked his best friend in the eye. “Yeah. I’m gay, Jerry.Is that a problem?”
Seconds ticked by as a slow smile spread across Jerry’s face. “You bastard. You low down, sneaky – how long has this been going on?”
“What, me being gay, or going out with Gus?”
“I guess Gus and I have been kind of seeing each other since Independence Day.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” His friend let out a low whistle. “And you waited how long to tell me this?”
“I don’t know, twenty-five, thirty years.”
“Bastard.” Now Jerry’s anger seemed real. “You couldn’t trust me?”
Rick shook his head and looked at his feet. “I haven’t trusted anyone. Not even myself, sometimes. But it isn’t easy, you know? I mean, everybody – even you – expect me to be one thing, and not myself.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Rick. Look at me.”
He raised his head. He met Jerry’s earnest stare.
“You’re my best friend. We’ve always been brothers. Nothing’s going to change that.”
Rick nodded.“I was afraid I might lose you.”
Jerry pulled him in for a hug. “Not getting rid of me that easy. But I’m sorry that you didn’t feel okay telling me about this. Now I understand why your love life was always a touchy subject. Can you forgive me for that?”
“Yeah. You’re forgiven.”
Jerry released him. “Well, this is kind of shocker. Can I ask how your old man took the news?”
“I haven’t told him.”
“You told me first? Wow.”
“And I don’t want to tell him.”
“You want me to keep it a secret from Heinrich Senior?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just seriously pissed at him right now. Honestly, I don’t give a shit how he finds out. After the stunts he’s pulled with Rita, he doesn’t deserve to know it from me.”
“Whoa, what did he donow?”
Rick shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you later.”
“So what are you going to do, email him?”
Rick had a sudden thought. “What time is it?”
Jerry pulled out his cell phone. “About eight thirty. Why?”
“Perfect. I’m gonna go pay a call on Irene Inksater.”
I can only repeat my thanks to @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday for their help with this story. Their help has improved it immensely, and I am very grateful. Leave a comment or reflection if you like. I always enjoy whatever anyone has to say.