The woman, her makeup as thick as icing on a cupcake, and looking as if applied in the same manner, lumbered to the checkout stand. Though she was not necessarily heavy, the ancient floorboards creaked and groaned as she made each step.
Dropping her basket on the countertop with a ker-plunk, she dug into her purse for a hankie, which, when found, she quickly put to use dabbing her forehead. “Why is it so hot? Good lord, it is November here like everywhere else, isn’t it?”
Standing behind the cash register–small and plasticky, one might think it had been purchased off the shelves of the former Toys R Us–Doug, whose rounded face looked as though it was designed specifically to accommodate his never-ending smile, gave her a light chuckle. You’d almost expect a “ho, ho, ho,” as his overall appearance, and most certainly his personality, remind you of a younger Santa Claus, but maybe one who spent a few days at Woodstock. He winked as he pulled a pack of organic strawberries from the basket. “You know, it might be a bit warmer than normal,” he said, tapping on the register. “But this is pretty close to being typical November weather for us. We could sure use some rain, though.”
“Well, if I’d known it was going to be like this, I’d have never moved here.” There was a huff in her voice as she once again sifted through her purse, this time pulling out a handful of bills and coins. She counted out the exact change, then grabbed her bag and hurried out the door.
As she slammed the door on her Mercedes, safely back in the comfort of her air conditioning, I made my way to the counter.
“Seasonal deprivation,” Doug said, still smiling.
“You know. Out from the east coast, used to the turn of the leaves, the chill in the air, that first dusting of snow.” He leaned forward with his elbows to the counter and gave a hearty chuckle. “They think they want to live in California, soak up the tropical sunshine. Until winter comes along, that is, and suddenly they miss it all. You know, they feel deprived.”
I nodded. “Seasonal deprivation…that somethin’ you made up?”
The chuckle became a genuine laugh. “Nah, it’s real. Read some study about it. Guess people get all depressed and everything.”
“Well, they get grumpy, that’s for sure.”
As I sat my selection of fruits and veggies on the counter, a shorter, stocky gentleman walked through the open doorway. I noted him to be older, not that I, or Doug, for that matter, were spring chickens. But he wore his age as though he picked it up at the second-hand store. His thinning hair looked more like a gray bird’s nest, and his skin was leathery, both in color and texture, from too much time in the sun.
“Afternoon, Marcus.” Doug greeted him with the same tone he passed out to all his customers, most of which, over time had become friends.
But the name rang familiar and as the man neared the counter, I recognized him as the owner of Garrett Farms and the land on which Doug’s rickety stand sat.
“Afternoon, Doug. Hot one out there today, eh?”
Doug smiled and nodded, but I noticed a couple of cracks in the gracious façade he wore.
“Just wanted to remind you that we’ll be takin’ a few weeks off around the holidays again this year, so make sure you begin shutting down just before the twentieth.”
“Yup, just thinkin’ about that,” Doug replied. “If I recall correctly, this year we opened back up around the ninth of January, right?”
Garrett, not able to look Doug in the eye, nodded. “Yeah, about that. I’m thinkin’ we might take a bit longer of a holiday this time around. Let’s count on the seventeenth.”
Doug’s face dropped, the temperature in the room seeming to do the same. “That’s darn near four weeks, Marcus. Lose a lot of business being closed that long, not to say what it does for the customers.”
The man tried to hide a smile, but wasn’t very good at it. “I know, but they’ll find their way back. You seem to draw them over here by the bushel. And you don’t have to guess what that does to my store.” He started to turn, head for the door, but swung back around at the last moment. “By the way, Doug, expenses being what they are, looks like we’ll be havin’ to up the rent next year. I’m thinkin’ it could double.”
That caught the ear of Josh, Doug’s oldest son, who’d just stepped in from the room to the rear. “Double? Geesh, Marcus, we’re paying a king’s ransom as it is. And you still haven’t fixed the floor OR this thing over our heads, which is more of a colander than a roof.”
The words hit Garrett like a bat. With stiffened shoulders he turned his gaze back to Doug. “I’ll try and get someone to have a look at that. Though, as you know, this being a Historical Landmark, gots to be careful what we do to the place. We’re obligated to keep its original charm.”
Josh took a step forward, but before he or Doug could get out a word, the man slipped out the doorway and into his pickup. With a crunch of gravel, the truck shot out the driveway, quickly becoming one with the traffic on busy Homestead Avenue.
“Just great,” said Josh, tossing his arms into the air. “Do you even realize how much we’re already paying in rent?”
I could tell Doug wanted to nod in the affirmative. He wanted to open his mouth, shout out the word “yes” strong and clear. But instead his lips formed a smiley seal, not a single sound able to leak through.
He had no freakin’ idea.
“$12,000 last month,” said Josh. “And look at this place. Termite poop is the only thing holding the walls together.” He huffed, shook his head, and then turned again to face his father. “And he wants to double the rent?”
I watched as Doug’s ever present smile faded from his face while his shoulders dropped into a slump.
I broke the uncomfortable silence. “Historical Landmark?”
Doug gave a shrug, but Josh took a couple steps our way.
“Yeah, he did that a few years back. Supposed to be some sort of plaque out front, but he’s too cheap to put out the money. The whole’s things a guise.” Josh’s round face—something definitely handed down the genetic conveyor belt–had reddened, the tint showing even through his thick beard. “It’s all about taxes. The bum gets some sort of deal on his taxes. I mean he’s already getting something because this is ag land, yet the historical thing gets him an even better deal.” He turned, throwing his arms into the air. “We should move.”
That obviously caught Doug by surprise. “Move? What are you talking about? Where would we go? We’ve been here nearly twelve years. What about all our customers who’ve come to know this place?”
“For that kind of rent, we could almost afford the mall.” With a huff, Josh spun toward the rear door. But he only took a couple of steps before turning and stomping back to the counter. “Our customers will follow. And, if we can find a good place, we may even win over new ones.”
Doug, still facing the parking lot, his eyes glazed, shook his head. “Move?”
“And, now that I think about it, having that four weeks off would give us time to get things going. You know, set up the new place and all.”
“But what about the money? Deposits, shelves, signs? We can’t afford to do that.”
Josh let go a long sigh of disappointed agreement. “Yeah, but at the same time, we can’t afford not to. Look, Dad, I know it’s not going to be easy. I mean, we’ll have to find a place with a walk-in frig, maybe a kitchen…and hopefully close by…”
“That’s a pretty tall order.” Doug said, giving his head another shake.
Two weeks earlier…
Under most circumstances, a knock on the door would be something better ignored, but since my wife stood in the middle of the hall, a towel wrapped around her head as she dried her hair after some sort of deep conditioning, the dreaded task of being the greeter fell upon me.
“Hello,” I said, swinging it open. A nicely dressed woman, probably in her late-thirties with thick long black hair, held a clipboard and a stack of manila folders. She was actually looking the other way—probably ready to give up, thinking no one was home as long as it was taking me to answer the door—and turned in surprise at my howdy.
“Oh, hi. I’m Joyce—” She stopped, her eyes filling with recognition and a smile breaking across her face. “Goodness…my husband and I live just around the corner on Pueblo and we see you guys walking your dog past the house all the time.”
I smiled. “Yeah, we walk the little loop around Peppermint and that older church.” I stuck out my hand. “Jack Odin. My wife is Molly.” Even as I said it, Molly, dressed and towel removed, damp hair somewhat combed, was stepping up behind me, our golden retriever right on her heels. “And this is Missy.”
“Nice to finally meet you.”
“What’cha got there?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Back to business. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the sign in front of the Garrett acreage, where they usually raise all the corn.”
“Yeah, right in front of Doug’s old place.”
“That’s the organic fruit stand?”
“Used to be.”
“Oh. Now that you mention it, I did notice the doors and windows have been boarded up for a while. I kept saying to myself I was going to stop by. I guess I didn’t even realize they were closed.”
“Yeah, they wanted to raise his rent, so he packed up and moved to the corner of Homestead and Peterson. Been there a good three months now.”
“Whoa. Well, I guess that sort of plays into why I’m here. Garrett is trying to sell the front 100 acres of that farm to Tobias Development.”
“Tobias?” I noticed my voice had amped up a bit. “Those guys would build a nuclear waste disposal site right next to a school.”
Joyce smiled. “Oh, I’m sure they’d put a lead coated chain-link fence around it.” She winked, then pulled out one of her papers. “Well, here, next to our little high school, they only want to put up three-story condos…like 1000 or 1200 units. Anyway, the sign is notice that there’s an application for a zoning change.”
“Yikes! Not only would that be ugly, but can you imagine what that would do to Tucker Boulevard? You can barely crawl up it on a school morning now.”
“Exactly. It’s only going to get worse.”
My wife stepped closer. “I thought we were under some sort of moratorium. You know, with the water situation.”
“He’s applied for a variance. The state says our county doesn’t have enough low-income housing, so part of the deal is he’ll put another 500 units to the back that meet that criteria.”
“What? So it could be as many as 1700 condos?”
“Yep.” Joyce offered one of the folders, a sort of mish-mash of spreadsheets and articles and such that laid out some of the downsides of the project. Tucking the rest under the clipboard, she then turned it toward us. “There’s a planning commission meeting to discuss the proposal, and I’m trying to organize some neighbors to flood the audience and give statements. Since the variance allows him to sneak by a lot of the regulations, and we just want him to meet the same requirements as you or I might be required to do should we undertake such a project. You know, traffic, water, sewage, and the impact on the schools. Of course, more selfishly, I hate to see the land filled with more development. Open space is becoming more and more a rarity here in our community.”
“Wow, sounds like we might have our hands full. Doesn’t Tobias own the Planning Commission?” I asked.
Joyce smiled. “Yeah, and probably a couple of county supervisors as well. But we have to try.”
“We’ll be there,” said Molly.
“You don’t know how much we appreciate it,” said Joyce. She passed us her pamphlets and data sheets along with the date for the next meeting as we made some more small talk about the neighborhood before bidding us farewell.
Molly, flipping through the paperwork, worked her comb as she headed for the kitchen. But just as she stepped in, she stopped, turning back toward me. “Well this is interesting. The entrance to the development will have to be right where Doug’s old stand is. That grove of Eucalyptus trees between the edge of his driveway and the phone company building is considered a monarch butterfly sanctuary.”
“Interesting? That’s an understatement. That sounds downright fishy. I bet Garrett raising his rent was all a guise to get Doug to either quit or move on.”
Molly shook her head in disgust, then tossed the folder on the table. “He wins twice. His only competition in the veggie business is long gone, and he makes a mint off the sale of the land.”
The Tobias corporate attorney, Franklin Pence, stands at the Planning Commission’s leftmost lectern glancing over the last couple of pages from a stack of papers. He flips through them over and over again, fingering lines here and there as though he is sure he’s forgotten some important point.
“What more can he need?” whispers Doug, sitting to Molly’s side. “That last bit was pretty the coup de grâce.”
He shakes his head and we all look back toward the attorney. With his perfect posture, Armani suit, $100 haircut, and shoes with a shine that requires sunglasses, it almost feels as if we are in a Manhattan courtroom rather than the chambers of the Planning Commission in a laid back beach town.
It’s not until my eyes wander to the other side of the room, to the rightmost lectern, does the sense of our little town come into play, as the neighborhood committee’s attorney, Carol Garrasi, with her 60’s hair showing some early gray and a tie-dyed t-shirt peeking through her vest, provides the needed dichotomy.
As Pence continues through his motions, she rolls her eyes and gives her head a shake. It’s not until a good huff from Garrasi, does Pence finally look back up to the five-member board, who sit behind a long curved bench that faces the capacity crowd.
“In conclusion, I would remind the Commission that the state of California’s most recent study has shown that our county, while making great efforts, is still more than 400 units below what is necessary to meet our low income housing needs. Mr. Tobias’s proposal, with 520 units, far exceeds those requirements.”
“And what about the ‘requirements’ for the added burden on our schools? Or the roads? Water and sewage?” Garrasi spreads her arms and raises her open hands as she questions Pence. “Not to mention—”
“This is not a forum for debate, Ms. Garrasi,” one of the commissioners interrupts. A tall slender man, he sits in the middle of the group, and even as he speaks, seems to be keeping eye contact with Mr. Pence rather than meeting Ms. Garrasi’s. “At this hearing we are simply providing an open discussion on the project, allowing both the project applicant and the general public an open mic. You’ve had your say. Allow Mr. Pence his.”
The Chairperson, Dr. Kathy Slattery, as so indicated on her name placard, leans over to look at the commissioner. She pulls on the wool sweater that rests over her shoulders and stares, or maybe glares, over a set of wire rim glasses—obviously reading–set on the end of her nose. “True enough, Mr. McDonald, but the openness of this discussion does allow for the public, or in this case, their representative, Ms. Garrasi, to address the applicant’s presentation. Or even question specific points that may give rise to unforeseen consequences. I might remind you that this forum is an integral part of the process in that we, even in our years of service and even with our wide range of experience, may not be aware of a localized issue. An environmental anomaly.”
“So noted, Ms. Chairperson,” replies Commissioner McDonald, obviously not pleased. Though he addresses Dr. Slattery, his eyes remain locked with the Tobias’s attorney.
“I would like to once again repeat that the butterfly sanctuary in itself should be enough justification for a more thorough environmental impact report, but having the single point of entry into the complex off of Homestead Avenue is complete traffic insanity.” Ms. Garrasi points an angry finger at the attorney and then turns to face the audience, who, for the third or fourth time break into applause.
Dr. Slattery taps her gavel, then rises, albeit slightly. “I must remind those attending these proceedings to refrain from clapping, cheering or, as has also been the case, booing. While not a courtroom, this is a place of official governmental business, not a game show.”
As she once again sits, she holds up large sheet of paper, what I guess to be the project plan, with her focus primarily toward the lower end. “Mr. Pence, I see nothing here with regard to the current building at this proposed entrance. However, as I look to the current layout of the property, that building, a former stagecoach stop, is designated as a historical landmark. What are your client’s intentions here?”
“If you look to page 74, I believe paragraph 2, you’ll see that we intend to place a curbside commemorative marker.”
“But the building will be demolished, is that correct?”
“Yes. Necessary for the entrance, I’m afraid.”
Dr. Slattery opens a manila folder, pulling out a single document. “Mr. Garrett, could you please stand?”
Garrett, situated closer to Ms. Garrasi, rises from his seat, a distinct rosy glow upon his face.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Garrett, but it appears that at the time you filed the Historical Site requisition…let’s see, that must have been a little more than a decade ago…you went to great lengths to fulfill the requirements of the application. And in that effort, with the cooperation of both the county and state Historical Societies, it was discovered that this building was once a stopping point for stagecoach traffic as it moved up and down the coast. Significant enough it was given consideration as a railroad depot later on in the 1800s. Isn’t that true?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s correct. And it was indeed quite a process.”
“Yet now, even with that history, not to mention the tax savings that you’ve benefited from all these years, we’re fine with toppling the building such that an entrance to a condo development can be established?”
“Madam Chairperson,” Commissioner Mr. McDonald, begins, “time marches on. Our job here is not to judge how or why the soon-to-be former owner of this property sought historical significance to a rotted building, but rather to oversee whether or not proposed projects can be beneficial to our community, our businesses, our budgetary constraints, and our infrastructure. I think Mr. Pence has proven his point on all of these matters. The sentimental value placed on this wooden shed should not weigh against a project that helps our county meet state requirements while adding homes to a market where vacancy and availability rates are at an all-time low. Surely you can see the value here and its benefits.”
The Chairperson smiles and nods. “I think some of the previously unnoticed benefits are now coming to light, Mr. McDonald.” She taps her gavel and stands facing the audience. “I tend to believe, as old-fashioned as it may seem, that we still learn from our past. That reminders left along the way tend to help us keep from once again tripping on stumbling blocks that we somehow missed the first time around, thus allowing us to focus on making our way forward. Both in time, and in life.” She nods to the attorneys. “Mr. Pence and Ms. Garrasi, you may be seated. And I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your time, consideration, and your detailed arguments.” As they make their way back into the crowd, Dr. Slattery turns to the commissioners. “At this juncture I would like to call for a vote of the Board. Based on what we have heard here, and how that will affect this community and its resources, are we as an oversight commission willing to show disregard for the preservation of an established historical site to allow a singular access to this massive development thus allowing this project to move forth?” She takes in a long breath. “All in favor say ‘Aye.’”
There’s a long pause before McDonald and another commissioner—an older woman at the end of the bench—raise their hands and say, “Aye,” together.
Dr. Slattery, along with the two remaining commissioners raise their hands and in unison call out, “Nay.”
“The project as it stands is denied by a vote of 3 – 2, Mr. Pence. The stagecoach, as it seems, has made one last stop.”
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.