Let’s take a break from the poetry and have a story, shall we? Welcome to Sucky Story Sunday, where my goal is to prove Ray Bradbury wrong and write 52 bad stories.
A City Planner
Must make a hard sacrifice
The Good Ol’ Boys are Gone
There is a reason they call the night before the workweek the Sunday Scaries.
The New York Times crossword puzzle was kicking my butt that evening, and my roommate Katie wasn’t helping any.
“This isn’t good, Beth.” She sat cross-legged on the floor, piles of colorful cards on the soft gray carpet in front of her. She flipped another one and drew in a breath. “You should just plan to call in sick all week.”
“Right, that will go over.” I clicked my mechanical pencil. Sapphos and others? “‘Hey, my roommate’s tarot cards say I should take the week off.’ Just what every boss wants to hear your second week of work.”
“I’m serious. If you don’t take the week off, you won’t have a job. Or you may not have a job anyway. Maybe you should leave this one off your resume and start looking again?” Katie shook her head. “It’s only your second week, there won’t be a gap to explain.”
“I am glad you found a hobby, but I am not really a believer in Tarot Cards.” Beat here.”You know, there is a new guy where Levi works. He’s on the city desk. Really nice. Maybe we can double?”
Katie turned another card and sat up. “Yes, that is a great idea.”
“Really?” The last time I tried this, she wasn’t ready. Maybe two years after breaking up with her fiance was the magic number.
“The cards say we will have new people in our lives to help mitigate the damage.”
Yikes. Maybe a double date with the city desk guy was not a good idea. “Do they say what damage they’re mitigating?”
Katie got up and went to the kitchen. “Want some wine?”
Wine? What kind of damage were the cards predicting? “No. I have to pick a contractor for the new park tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t those just go to the low bidder? I thought that was how the government worked.”
“Usually, but there are other considerations.” Yes, I would much rather talk about my new job as City Planner than those stupid cards. “You have to look at company histories. Did they put in a low bid, but have never done a project this size before? That’s a red flag. Or did they put in the low bid, but are related to someone on the council? Another red flag.”
“Whew.” Katie sat back down with her wine and the Tarot. “Glad you have that much excitement tomorrow. Hope it all works out for you.”
I hung a picture on my office wall the next morning. I stood back to check if it was level when someone knocked on my door. I turned, and there was the Mayor. Her pale yellow pants suit screamed “retired grandma.” But she won by a landslide precisely because she was a retired grandma and not a member of the good ol’ boys’ network that ran this small Texas town since it was incorporated in 1876.
“Love that picture,” she said as she walked into the office. She pointed at another piece of framed art, a watercolor of a field of bluebonnets. “That one is Naomi Caraway, right? The local woman who does the wildflowers?”
“Yes, it is. I didn’t realize you were a patron of the local artists.”
“I left that off the campaign literature. Didn’t want to scare off the ranchers.” She laughed and sat down on a chair in front of my desk. “Clyde tells me you’re working on the Myers Park project.”
“Yes ma’am. It’s my first and I am excited to be able to get this park built for the families in that area.” It was a lower-income area of town with poorly maintained parks and playgrounds. The voters approved the bond for this project, providing a pool, skateboard park, and other structures to help the neighborhood children have something to do.
“You have the list of contractor bids?”
“Can I take a peek?” She reached into her pocket for some reading glasses and put them on.
I pulled out the file and handed it to her. “Of course. Looks like Longoria got the low bid. They did a great job with the Yorktown pool and splash pad, so…”
“Yeah, no. Don’tt award to Longoria.” She flipped through the pages, then handed the file back to me. “Go with Cavendar.” She stood up and rearranged her suit jacket. “They did the Main Street Plaza so nicely. People love that place.”
“Ma’am, they are the most expensive, three times Longoria’s bid. I’m not sure I can justify that to Clyde.” And I did not want to get between the City Manager and the Mayor. Not my second week of work.
“Make it work. That’s your job. If you want to keep it, Longoria will not get the bid.” And those were her parting words.
I sat at my desk, thinking about Katie’s Tarot cards. No, that was ridiculous. It was the frequency illusion like when you buy a new car, every car on the road seems to be the same model. This was a bad thing, but if my lunch were stolen from the break room fridge, I would think that as a result of Katie’s reading.
I needed to see the City Manager. So I made my way down the hall and stopped at Angie’s desk. “He in?”
She looked up from the romance novel she was reading. “Just back from lunch.” She picked up the intercom and told him I was here. “Go on in.”
Clyde’s office was spacious, but you wouldn’t know it. Plans and blue prints covered his conference table.. The credenza behind his desk held a mountain of bound computer printouts, the green and white striped kind from thirty years ago. He looked up from his computer screen as I came in. “You just saw the Mayor.”
“Um, yes, how did you know?”
“You might think Angie is just sitting there reading romance novels, but really, she knows everything.” Clyde took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“I should bring her baked goods?”
Clyde laughed. “She was here before I started and she will outlast us all. But yeah, stay on her good side.” He got up and cleared a pile of papers from a chair. “So what did Madam Mayor want?”
“She was asking about the Meyer park contractors.”
“Who are you thinking?”
“Well, Longoria got the low bid, and they did the Yorktown park really well.”
Clyde nodded. “They sure did.”
“The mayor doesn’t want them to get the contract.”
“Longoria’s son knocked up her daughter back in the day.. I don’t even know why they bid.”
I could taste a smidge of bile in the back of my throat. I wanted to be a city planner, not play politics. “I get they have a past, but that’s not reason enough to not pick them.”
Clyde smiled and moved some papers around his desk. “I just love idealistic college graduates here for their first job.”
“This isn’t being idealistic. She ran a year ago on a platform of ridding the city of the good ol’ boys.”
“Well, she replaced the good ol’ boys with the vindictive old bitches. Look at the city council. They were all PTA moms with the mayor ten years ago. They will back her, not the brand new city planner.”
“But Clyde, what if there is some audit? It doesn’t matter what the mayor wants, you and I are responsible for the decision.” Katie’s damn Tarot cards flashed in my head.
“True, but in reality, while I am responsible, I have no problem throwing you under the bus should things go south. I have two kids in college. Morals are a luxury I can’t afford right now.” He moved more papers.
“So, what do I do?”
“You do what the Mayor said, and hope it just goes away.” Clyde’s phone rang. He picked it up, then hung up. “My meeting is here. The new city desk guy at the newspaper. Wants to be friendly. We will see how long that lasts.”
I left Clyde’s office, and a guy with a Houston Astros polo and khakis took my place. That had to be Levi’s new co-worker. I stopped in the break room to get some water, then got back to my office. I had just opened up the Outlook app when Angie appeared at my door. I waved her in.
“Can I close this?” she said, closing the door without waiting for an answer. She sat down and leaned toward my desk. “Do you know who that guy is in Clyde’s office?”
“Tthe new reporter on the city beat at the Trib?” I wasn’t sure how much I should tell Angie.
“He was asking someone about Cavendar’s giving kickbacks to the council after the Main Street Plaza.” She looked around my office.
“Really? Why would he ask that?”
“Because several members of the council suddenly built new swimming pools in their backyards.” Angie gave me a wink. “They didn’t start out as rich people.”
“You’re kidding right? This is one of those “new kid at work” jokes, right?” It was starting to seem like a setup, and we would all have a laugh, Mayor included, at some happy hour later in the month about how poor Beth thought she would have to choose between quitting her job or doing something illegal.
Angie shook her head. “I have to get back to my desk. Think about it.”
Think about it? How could I think of anything else? Levi, I had to talk to Levi. I texted him:
You free to talk?
For a minute or two. Leaving for the baseball game in a few.
Okay, I will talk to you tomorrow. I can’t talk in the office.
It’s true then?
City desk has a big story – City Hall taking kickbacks.
Now I really did want to throw up. Even Levi knew, and he was on the sports desk. My office phone rang. It was Joe Longoria, saying he heard about the kickbacks and that he knew he was low bid, and if he didn’t get the contract, he would sue the city.
Angie was back at the door before I could even wrap my head around that. “They want you in the Council Chamber. Now.”
I looked at my watch. It was three-thirty. The weekly council meeting didn’t start until four. What on earth could they want early from me? I got my calendar and took a breath. If they asked me anything about the Meyer Park project, I would say I was still evaluating the proposals. I held onto that thought as I walked down the hall, through the public foyer, and into the council chambers.
A small square table sat in the middle of the room with a sheet cake. As I got a bit close, the words were clear. “WELCOME BETH.” The mayor was smiling and standing with Levi, Katie, Clyde, and the new city desk reporter.
Katie came over and gave me a hug. “You were right, I would like Levi’s new coworker.”