eware the ides of March
Shakespeare might have been onto something, Cam Flaherty mused. She and half the registered voters of Westbury had been sitting in the March fifteenth town meeting for seven hours on the first warmish Saturday since October. Instead of perching on a hard wooden chair listening to desperate townies and intransigent newcomers slug it out over priorities for the small semirural town, Cam could have been on her organic farm pruning the grapevines, blueberry bushes, and her one apple tree.
But she was trying to be a good citizen, and these were important issues, particularly the questions of open space and affordable housing. The newbies, almost all highly educated men and women with families, commuted the hour into Boston or Burlington to earn the kind of income that enabled them not only to buy expensive McMansions near the Merrimack River but also to live on one salary while the children were young. The locals were almost all hardworking folks holding down at least one job apiece. Their families had lived in town for generations but now could barely afford to pay the property taxes on their homes, and there was little affordable rental property available, either.
The current topic to be voted on had been under discussion for two hours, and it was now past three o'clock. The question on the table was what to do with a newly acquired parcel of land: preserve it as open space for walkers and wildlife, build soccer and baseball fields, or erect low-cost apartments. The air inside the hall was way too warm, and smelled of wood over a century old. The gray-haired woman next to Cam snoozed quietly in her seat, head on her chest, hands folded neatly on her ample midsection.
Wayne Laitinen stood patiently in line for the public microphone, his plaid flannel shirt tucked neatly into clean blue jeans, his thin blond hair combed straight back from his forehead. The slender woman in front of him, who'd expressed her view that an extreme injustice would be done to the children of the town if new state-of-the art soccer fields were not created, finally sat down.
“Wayne Laitinen, eighty-five Stone Mill Road. Madam Moderator, Selectmen, my Westbury neighbors.” He turned and waved behind him to the right, and did it again to the left. He returned his face toward the stage and the tables full of selectmen, school committee members, the town clerk and town counsel, and the petite moderator standing at the podium. “Most of you know I'm a farmer. My wife, Greta, and me own thirty-six acres for ourselves and our chickens. Lots of it is wooded, and the rest grows a new crop of rocks every spring.”
Spots of laughter broke out throughout the audience, although a young couple in front of Cam turned to each other with quizzical looks. Cam knew the effect the winter frost heaves produced. In about a month her land would appear very much as though the soil she'd carefully cleared of any stone bigger than her fingertip the summer before suddenly sprouted a new harvest of rocks, golf-ball sized and up. Cam glanced around for Greta Laitinen and spied her across the hall, plump arms folded, frizzy strawberry blond hair barely tamed, mouth clamped in a grim line.
Wayne went on. “We work hard for our livin'. Haven't had a vacation away since our honeymoon twenty-eight years ago. We love Westbury. Our family's been here a few generations. But my son can't afford to buy a house for his wife and his family. My daughter's a teacher at the Page School, and she can't rent in town, because there ain't no decent rental properties. Me and Greta barely make our taxes, neither. I ain't complainin, ' but if we have the chance to help our long-time residents stay right here in town, I think we should do it. Let's build housin' stock our kids can afford. Hell, that we can afford. Thank you.” He turned and made his way back to his seat amid a roar of applause. Not everyone clapped.
Why didn't Wayne offer a parcel of his own land to his son for building a house on? Cam assumed he had his reasons. Or maybe the son didn't want to live that close. Families were complicated.
The woman in line behind Wayne, a tall congenial real estate agent in her fifties, took the mike and identified herself. “Madam Moderator, I applaud Wayne's sentiment. But I feel strongly that open space should be left as just that. Our farmlands are being paved over and built on. Ball fields will require drainage work, constant lawn maintenance probably including herbicides and definitely power equipment, and will involve parking lots, trash removal, lights at night, and who knows what else? The natural habitat would be destroyed. Our bird population, our wild foxes and deer, all of it would be displaced. We need undeveloped open space so we can walk through it, ride along it, ski it in the winter, and appreciate what God gave us. I vote to keep the Danson parcel exactly as it is.”
A different portion of audience clapped this time. Cam had seen the woman riding her horse on the trails behind Mill Pond. Cam herself loved to cross-country ski on fresh snow but was lucky enough to be able to head out behind her farm on her own land. She took a second glance when she saw who the next speaker was, a man she'd debated in the winter at a forum on the topic of using pesticides and herbicides in farming. She'd taken the position of organic farming, obviously, and he had staunchly defended his employer, an agro-chemical giant. As he had during the debate, he wore an expensive-looking suit and a neatly knotted tie.
“I'm Paul Underwood, two Riverview Circle. Wayne knows me.” He glanced over at Wayne with an uneasy look, and then back to the front of the hall. He cleared his throat. “Most of you know me, since I also grew up right here in Westbury. I stayed here to raise my three sons, who are now four, six, and eight, and I work hard at what I do. I say our children need those ball fields.”
A man behind Cam muttered, “Yeah, and he'll be sure they get sprayed with every chemical around.”
“The few playing fields we have are in terrible condition and aren't anywhere near big enough,” Paul continued. “You all know the high school has the best fields, but it's way down Main Street on the Groveland line. Our children should be able to ride their bikes to Little League practice or a Saturday morning soccer game. My vote is with ball fields.” He garnered his own modicum of applause, almost all from folks in their twenties and thirties who likely were itching to get home, pay the babysitter, and use the rest of the sunny day to take their kids on a bike ride or start the spring yard cleanup.
Cam could see his side of the argument, but didn't think it had as much merit as the other two choices. She shifted on her seat. It could be hours before feeling returned to her butt. Checking the booklet, called a warrant, that included all the topics to be voted on, she groaned. This was only the eighteenth article. Nine more remained. They couldn't possibly try to finish it all today. Could they? The long-time moderator was a dean at a local college and knew how to control this group. She leaned over to speak with the lawyer who provided counsel to the town, and the murmur of conversation in the hall rose. The moderator straightened and rapped the gavel.
“Quiet, please. Does anyone have something
to offer? If not, I will entertain a motion to put this to a vote.” She shaded her eyes with her hand and scanned the crowd, then audibly sighed when she saw who stood at the public mike. She addressed the woman. “Do you have something that hasn't already been said in the last two hours?”
Being tall, Cam easily saw over the heads of those in front of her that the speaker was an older woman. Albert had told her she was not known for being either short-winded or particularly articulate.
“I just wanted to say that I support the public housing idea. We'll always have birds, we'll always have children who want to play sports. But we won't always have our long-time families.” Walking with a slow, painful-looking gait, the stocky woman returned to her seat. Cries and hoots of approval filled the hall until Cam expected the flaking paint on the arched ceiling to loosen and fall on their heads.
The moderator's eyebrows ascended nearly into her hairline. She opened her mouth to speak, but it took a couple of seconds before she smiled broadly. “Thank you for that brief message. Now, do I hear a motion?”
In short order, the move to vote was seconded and approved. The moderator took time to explain the mechanics of the unusual three-way vote, saying that voters would be approving or disapproving each option. “I'm quite sure we'll need a direct count.”
Her appointed monitors handed voting cards to each person seated in the hall. Cam thought each argument had merit, but she'd decided to vote for the affordable housing option. The woman who'd spoken last had a good point.
After the vote resulted in a near three-way tie, a motion was made to continue the article and the meeting until the following Wednesday at seven o'clock in the evening. Cam groaned inwardly at the thought of a long, drawn-out evening meeting, but she knew she'd go. The ayes had it when the motion to continue was seconded and put to a vote, and everyone trooped out. Greta Laitinen strolled out with a younger man who resembled her. Several dozen people stayed in small clutches conferring with like-looking friends, although Cam knew the lines between the groups were not clearly drawn. Townies and parents alike loved to hike the fields with their dogs. Woodsie types had grandchildren playing sports. Justice-minded bankers approved of public housing.
Cam stretched her arms to the sky after she reached her old Ford truck near the far end of the parking lot behind Old Town Hall. The sunny day continued, rapidly melting the few remaining patches of snow and ice. Woods bordered the far edge of the lot, and white clumps remained on the north side of the larger trees. The relentless progress toward spring wouldn't leave them there for long.
She was about to open the creaky door of the Ford when she heard voices from beyond the enormous Escalade to her left. She paused to listen. One was definitely Wayne Laitinen. The other voice was of a forthright woman, but Cam couldn't place whose it was. Which was no surprise, really, since she'd only lived in town for a year and a half.
“I'm making you a good offer, Wayne. You and Greta would never want for money again.”
“Ms. Patterson, how many times do I have to tell you? I'm not interested. It's my land. My family's land, my children's land. We'll figure out a way to pay for it. But I ain't sellin'.”
“Look, we're neighbors, Wayne. Our land abuts. My daughter wants to stable her horse at home, but we need more room. I simply want the portion of your property that abuts mine.”
“Nope. No deal.” A car door slammed and a moment later a dusty station wagon rattled away from the other side of the Escalade in a spray of gravel. Cam was pretty sure that was Wayne. Anybody with enough money to buy a few dozen acres would own a Cadillac SUV, not an old Subaru.
Cam eased her truck's door open and slid onto the seat, not keen to be spotted eavesdropping on such a touchy topic. She breathed out her relief when the Escalade backed out behind her and drove away in the opposite direction. So Ms. Patterson was Wayne's neighbor, and she wanted horse land for her daughter. Cam had never met this Patterson woman, but she knew and liked Wayne. Tough that he was having trouble making ends meet. She thought most of his cash came from his egg and meat-bird business, which must not have that big of a profit margin.
She had her own collection of hens, plus now the troublesome rooster named Ruffles some anonymous city dweller had dropped off at her farm in January. But Cam's niche was smaller and even less profitable. She gave the birds organic feed and sold their eggs to the members of her CSA, a community supported agriculture farm-share program. She was amazed that anyone would pay seven dollars a dozen for fresh eggs even though a number of the local food enthusiasts calling themselves locavores did exactly that. She didn't feel quite the pull to eat exclusively local foods that they did, but she was happy to grow the produce so they could. With the local eggs, though, even though she charged a high price, she lost money because of the expensive organic feed. And speaking of birds, she'd better get back to check on her new batch of chicks, which had come in the mail only a few days before. The little puff balls lived together in a box under a heating bulb for the time being and made her smile every time she saw them.
Pete Pappas made her smile, too, and she had a date with him this very night. Time to get out of here.
As Cam pulled into the driveway of her farm, she spied Preston lounging in a sunny spot of the herb garden. Her Norwegian Forest cat, a constant in her life, loved to nestle on the mulch among the sage, thyme, and rosemary. He raised his head, regarded her with his Arctic eyes, and then laid his cheek on his front paws and returned to his catnap. Cam turned off the ignition and sat for a moment. Longer days and warmer temperatures were on their way. She'd been sprung from her civic responsibility, for today, at least. Life was good.
And she was most of all blessed by owning Attic Hill Farm, where she'd grown up spending summers with Great-Uncle Albert and Great-Aunt Marie. Albert was now happily ensconced in a nearby assisted living residence. While he missed Marie since her death several years earlier, he'd recently taken up with Marilyn, a smart and caring senior at the place, also in her eighties. He'd offered the farm to Cam when she was laid off her job as a software engineer almost two years ago, and she'd decided to move to the countryside north of Boston and take the plunge. She'd converted the farm to organic practices and was two years into the three-year certification process. The local foods fanatics were members of a Locavore Club, and were some of her regular customers. Ellie, a high school Girl Scout, was a regular volunteer. She'd gotten started helping on the farm while she earned her Locavore badge, and now she and Cam were friends.