The Dinner Debates

We slid into Dad’s truck, continuing the strangest evening of my twelve-year-old life. Mom scooted past the plans and papers to the middle seat and wiped at her skirt, fussing about all the red dirt and dust.

As for me, I’d managed to pass under her radar in a semi-wrinkled collared shirt and a pair of jeans that had been hanging in my closet since school let out. Between her flare up at dinner and this city council meeting, I think I could have gotten away with wearing a bathrobe and she wouldn’t have noticed.

At a stoplight, Dad took a break from his steering wheel tapping to crane his neck towards the mirror and adjust his necktie. Mom looked him over.

“I love that shirt on you, Ben. It really brings out your eyes,” she said and then he smiled, leaning over and kissing her on the cheek.

“Green light, Dad.”

We started down the road and I rolled my eyes, playing with the tape measure and making a silent vow never to get married.

After parking downtown, I watched my two well-dressed parents walking hand in hand, ready for battle—with each other. Dad with his rolled up plans under his arm and Mom carrying her manila folder with notes and legal paper scrawling.  It was one of those bizarre moments that I knew would be seared in my memory for the rest of my life.

Entering the lobby, an old, silver bearded man stood and nodded to my mom. Dad grinned at Mom.

“Part of your legal team?”

“This is where we part, hon. Good luck,” she said with a smile. Then she turned to me. “Marcus, just go through the double doors and find a seat in the back, okay, Sweetie?”

In the back, as though I might be hit with shrapnel or mortar shells. I nodded, watching as she and the old timer fell into a whispered discussion. He was kind of frail and bony, but his eyes burned like two searchlights. Dad put a hand on my back. “I hope you know that this is all business. And just remember, this is my job.”

“Good luck,” I said, and then headed for the chambers. The heavy doors echoed loudly as they closed, and the carpet was like a cushion under my sneakers as I slid into a spot along the empty row in the back.

Chambers was a perfect word. The floor sloped down to an enormous curved desk with five, and wing backed chairs, like a throwaway set from Star Trek.. Each chair had its own little spotlight and on the desk were five little microphones at each place. Above them hung the gold seal of East Ridge, with the plow sitting in the field and the mountains in the distance. To the left a state flag, to the right, the American flag.

Every movement and cough seemed to be amplified. I scanned the few heads in the rows. A bald guy with a roll of neck fat, an elderly lady, a couple men in suits in the front row, some college-aged kids. Other than that, the place was dead.

While I sat waiting for something to happen—for my parents to come in and argue for, and against, the building of a brand new Mega More Super Store, the one that my dad’s company was going to build—I thought how summer was already a month gone. And here I was at a city council meeting.

The door jolted me from my thoughts. Mom and the old guy walked in. She put a hand on the bench and gave me a bright smile that lit up the cavernous chamber. I nodded. People were starting to show up, trickling in here and there. By the time I saw Dad enter with a guy in a dark suit at his side, the place was half full. Dad glanced over at me but his eyes were jumpy and nervous.

Mom and Dad took their seats. Mom with the old man on her side of the aisle, and Dad with the rest of the suits on the other. From the corner, a hidden door opened and I got my first glimpse at our very undistinguished city council members.

Five grandpas took to their big spaceship chairs. Once they were all settled in, the guy in the middle slipped on some glasses and shuffled some papers. When he spoke, I knew I was in for a long ride. His nasally voice clawed my ears as he welcomed us to the special hearing. He droned on about taxing and planning, zoning and commercial use and other sleep inducing topics. I counted the tiles in the ceiling, and was well over one hundred before someone else finally spoke.

A small, confused looking man stood before the council and took the microphone—something about a license of some sort. The councilmen voted and the panel lit up like a video game. This happened several times until I was bored to exhaustion. Then at last, the middle man announced that it was time to address the special meeting in regards to the Mega More site. By now, the bleacher section was pretty crowded. And all but maybe three heads were on Dad’s side of the aisle.

About time. I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the back of the bench in front of me, wishing I was closer. The middle guy asked if anyone wanted to speak in favor, although he made sure to say that council had already voted in favor of the build back in November.

The parade started, as one after another, men and women behind dad, scooted out of the pews, took the microphone and basically all said the same thing: Mega More was great for the community. Jobs, taxes, resources, economical, and so on. It was like they were all reading from the same script.

Then Dad stood. He buttoned his blazer and carefully made his way to the podium. But the guy in the suit was more like a shell of my Dad. His movements were stiff and rigid. He cleared his throat and greeted the council members, his voice shaking as he mumbled through his notes and plans.

“Gentlemen….uh….I’m….Ben…..Hawthorne……Reynolds….Bros. Construction….Site has been zoned for commercial use.”

I winced as Dad stammered and sputtered, glad that I couldn’t hear most of it because his voice was so low. But still, it was hard to watch. He was like Frankenstein up there, a big oaf lumbering through his points, certainly nothing like the fun guy who tossed the ball around in the front yard. Near the end, with the councilmen’s encouragement, he found some sort of groove, or at least he was able to string some sentences together. His head fell back to his notes.

“Our estimates show that it would bring…”

He began spouting more numbers and I began to doze. The councilmen seemed to nod and agree with his estimates, though, and by the time he was through, they smiled and thanked him for his time. Dad wiped his forehead, grimaced and then marched back to his seat.

With no other speakers, the middle councilmember—who by then I’d gathered was our mayor—adjusted his glasses, turned to his notes, and then, with a hint of agitation in his voice, called “Ana Hawthorne.”

He checked his notes once again, his tiny chin lost somewhere in his wobbly cheeks. I think he was thrown by the last names. The bride of Frankenstein stood with a broad smile and strode to the podium. “Good evening, Councilmen,” she said, her voice clear and crisp and grabbing the attention of the room with its confidence.

“Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.”

She lowered the mike, her posture straight and impeccable. She tossed back her hair and cocked her head to the side. She was outnumbered, undermanned, and thoroughly unafraid. But I swallowed hard, craning my neck to see, because I knew that win or lose, things were about to get interesting.

“Preserving our history and the land that holds that history is a civic duty that we owe to ourselves and our future. Land was once a part of our lives, not something bought and sold to the highest bidder. One only has to look to Appalachia, at how the land was timbered and stripped and mined, then left ragged and in ashes, leaving the very people that lived there flooded and homeless.”

The mayor leaned into the microphone, “Mrs. Hawthorne, while we appreciate your—“

“Mayor Wainwright, I believe I have the floor.” Mom said, her voice still calm but a little sharp. Dad slid down in his chair. I couldn’t help the big fat grin that spread across my face.

“Uh, yes, very well then.”

She let them hang there for a moment, then it was back to business, “Tonight I’d like to address the council members in regards to the construction of the Mega More Super Store on Squabble Creek Road. While we’ve heard all of the wonderful benefits of having a monster chain store like Mega More in our community, and the low wage, non-unionized jobs it will bring with it,” she paused as Mayor Wainwright squirmed, firmly in her grasp. I didn’t need to see her face to know that she was staring him down, her steely blue eyes swimming with mischief. I’d seen it too many times at dinner. With her silent message sent, she resumed,

“But what we don’t know, is the environmental effects on the wild life, the river that has flowed through our town before we arrived, the traffic and pollution and the consecration of graves. That is why I’m urging you to do everything you can to halt the construction and take the time to find a more suitable location for the 50,000 square foot monstrosity. Now, let me end by saying that I do think there is a way for us to coexist, to embrace our natural history and move forward in our quest to bring businesses and tax revenue to our small community. Thank you for your time, Councilmen.”

Mom swept up her notes, offered Dad a shining smile as she marched back to her bench. The old man nodded and whispered into her ear. Mayor Wainwright clumsily gripped his microphone.

“Uh, yes. Thank you, Mrs. Hawthorne. Now, if there aren’t any other speakers, then I think we should vote. All in favor?”

All five hands rose. Mom’s shoulders dropped.

“Okay, this meeting is adjourned.”

 

–Pete Fanning/2014

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2 thoughts on “The Dinner Debates

  1. Fabulous short story! Like I said on the flash you shared, I really like seeing this story unfold through the boy’s perspective. The details are great, the tension. This would make a great book. When you wrote the description of the council chairs, I laughed! That must be true, as every council meeting I’ve been to has Star Trek seats and microphones. This line was my favorite: “Five grandpas took to their big spaceship chairs.” Love it!

    Liked by 1 person

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