Mayor Jim Anderson stood behind the podium in the stuffy, large conference room in the basement of City Hall, watching his friends, neighbors, constituents, and a couple of news- paper reporters stream in. By the time he cleared his throat at 7:04 PM, the sixty seats were filled and another twenty or so men and women stood in the back. Yes, even women, though men were sitting down, comfortable as can be. Jim shook his head at the sight. True, he had come of age in the 60s—he had even made the trek to Woodstock at twenty years old, with long hair and a guitar on a Greyhound bus—but he was old-fashioned enough to think that Fred, who was only in his thirties and clearly still had good knees, should give his seat up for poor old Peggy, who weighed three hundred pounds and had a dying mama back home.
“Eminent Domain,” the mayor said into the mic. The room suddenly became silent, as if he had pulled a switch. It was the words themselves, in part, he knew—powerful, mysterious words—but it was also his voice. At sixty-four, he was still sometimes asked to sing in the town’s spring musical. Roosevelt in “Annie,” the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”—nothing like the youngish middle-aged leads, but he had a smooth baritone and could still belt a good show tune—or command a crowd in a conference room. “Eminent Domain,” he repeated for good measure, and then glanced at his notes. “The right of a government or its agency to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.”
The room buzzed with words and boos. Above it all, Mayor Anderson could hear some- one shout that the government could go do something to itself that was physically impossible for it to do.
“We’ll have none of that!” yelled Sean O’Grady, the police chief, standing and eyeing the crowd. He wasn’t in uniform but he didn’t need to be. He had an authority about him that made you always feel like he had a gun in his pocket, loaded and ready to use.
The room became quiet again. Jim nodded to Sean and continued. “Basically, the gov- ernment has said it’s going to build a highway from Spirit Lake to the city. It’s going to change County Z from two lanes to four, and any businesses, buildings, farms, what have you, will be torn down, BUT”—the room was buzzing again, and he held up his right hand, palm toward the crowd, to bestow order—“anyone affected will be justly compensated.”
That was Father Martin, the old priest with his Catholic church right on the highway. Poor guy. Most parishioners were now flocking to the big mega church on the outskirts of the
big city anyway. Mayor Anderson was a Lutheran himself and went to church every Sunday— as mayor, you had to set a good example—and he did not see the appeal of a church as big as a convention center with video monitors everywhere. But to each his own.
“The church, too,” said Jim more quietly. “However, if people want to preserve their buildings, they can of course pay to have them moved—”
“How the hell am I supposed to move my whole farm?” asked Spencer, a farmer and skydiving instructor whose place abutted the municipal airport.
“—or the government will demolish them. Either way, you will be compensated.” “How much?”
“Forty-five thousand per building and three thousand an acre.”
The mayor paused while husbands and wives planned and neighbors schemed and ar- gued. He could hear some murmurs of approval—surely Randy Randell wouldn’t mind getting compensated for his house and land; he hadn’t worked the farm in years; the landlord who man- aged that run-down student dump owned by that couple in Florida would surely be glad to get that time-sucker off his hands—and groans of discord. What were a few thousand bucks to George and Clara, whose bed-and-breakfast must be worth five times what they’d get for it? Or his old card buddy Rich’s daughter, poor Lorna, close to thirty and orphaned?—that house was the last connection to her parents she had. Or Miss Maggie, whose beauty shop—and whose beauty—attracted every man in town for a haircut? (Not Mayor Anderson, of course. Miss Maggie or no, he couldn’t be seen in a beauty shop. He drove to the next town over, which still had a barber shop with a real striped pole and eight-dollar trims.)
He wiped his brow with a handkerchief, which he always carried in his back pocket. He wasn’t a small man, never had been, and the room was warm and airless; it didn’t do for people to watch him perspire. This “eminent domain” wouldn’t affect him personally. He lived in an old Victorian near the square and owned a Culver’s on Main Street, both places miles from County Z, but it affected him as steward of this town. More people would flee to the big city. More young people would find more vibrant places after college rather than return to their dy- ing hometown. New families would choose other towns over theirs, ones with more charm, less development, ones that still had concerts in the summertime and parades in the winter, a city park instead of a run-down shopping center. But what could he do? It was so-called progress, and he knew he couldn’t fight if he tried.
By the time everyone asked questions, the newspaper reporters got their stories, and the last remaining stragglers filed out to go to Maxi’s bar for a beer (that place would also be torn down), it was after ten o’clock.
The mayor locked up, got in his car, and drove the five blocks home. The house was dark, of course. His daughter was in graduate school, studying to be a history professor, and he couldn’t have been more proud of her, even if she was dating a boy in a rock band who had a toddler with a previous girlfriend. His son had already moved to the big city with his wife and two kids, where he made good money at a foreign auto repair shop as a mechanic, working on Toyotas and Volvos and even the occasional Ferrari, a car nobody in Spirit Lake—as far as he knew, and he knew a lot—had ever owned. His first wife was long gone, a high-heeled, big- haired blonde beauty who had taken a walk one warm night in 1985 to buy a pack of cigarettes and had never returned; his second wife had died of cancer just a couple of years before. She had been blonde too—once natural, then dyed, to hide the grays—and sometimes, still, he got them confused in his dreams.
He had lived in this town, in this house, all his life. He had seen County Z go from a dirt road to a paved highway. He had seen a Wal-Mart come to the other side of town and had seen the hardware store and the grocery store close. He had lived through it all, and he would live through this.
He went to the fridge, opened it, and stared, waiting for something other than leftover Chinese food and lunch meat to emerge. Finally he grabbed a cold beer and then a bag of Ruf- fles from the cupboard. He sat on the couch, turned on the news, and drank his beer and ate his chips. He thought of all those businesses, all those people, whose lives would be uprooted. He would have to take care of them somehow. He was the mayor of Spirit Lake, after all. That was his job.