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Chapter 02

As I write it this novel I am also testing the parameters of the “Long Tail” by marketing it here. Here’s the deal:

  1. You can order a paper copy of thisiting by going to Bookmooch and sending me a credit.  Don’t have a Bookmooch account?  Get one here.  Maybe I’ll order one of your books.  By the way, I chose Bookmooch instead of paperbackswap for this only because I have a large number of paperbackswap credits and very few Bookmooch ones right now. 
  2. When the novel is done (some time before December 1), I will bind it as a paperback book (using the method described at Achieve It), with a cover and everything, and ship it to you (I pay the postage) some time before the new year (hopefully in time for Christmas).  This offer is open to the first ten people to send me a Bookmooch credit (and any others who happen to send credits that day).

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up an account at Bookmooch, which is a really cool way to get stuff to read without having to pay so much for it, you can read this here, following through the chapters until your eyes burn and your screensaver comes on.  Your choice.

Chapter II

The Chancellor’s announcement was met at first with stunned silence. The fundraisers then sprang into action. Actually they sprang into what I was beginning to recognize as their dominant mode of thought—reaction.

“Thanks for coming by, Chancellor,” chirped one of them as he stepped down from the podium and began to evacuate the room. “Nice to see you,” barked another. The Exec walked over to him, gobsmacked and pale, and shook his hand. Since the Chancellor kept on moving, he struggled to remain facing the exit, finally deciding he might have to crush the Exec’s hand to make an escape. The Exec released him and settled for a hand on his back and then he was out the doors.

I pick at my bacon-stuffed chicken breast and tried not to look at anyone else. Mostly the others were quiet, too. They were thinking about how it was going to look asking alumni for money for digging a hole.

“You’re going to throw my money down a hole?”

But of course we’re in Massachusetts and holes have connotations here that are less pleasant and far less marketable. This was one of the summers of the unfolding fiasco that Massachusetts residents knew as the Big Dig. Boston’s Big Dig started as a remedy for the incredibly congested central artery, which warehoused bumper-to-bumper traffic for ten hours a day and became the most dangerous urban interstate in the United States. It was an ambitious project, a ten-lane underground highway through one of America’s oldest major cities. But it was much more ambitious than anyone realized when it was conceived.

Leaks plagued the tunnels for a time, closing some to traffic and terrifying the engineers in charge. At one point there were about 700 leaks in a 1000 foot section of tunnel. A thousand or more had to be investigated. And it cost considerably more than its planners ever dreamed it could. In 1985 the cost was estimated at $2.5 billion. It has now cost almost $15 billion. When the tunnel opened it became a national news story, an engineering feat to rival all others. Then the story went national again when the tunnel was closed this summer after a ceiling tile fell on a car and killed a woman inside. It may have contributed to another death, that of a heart attack victim delayed in an ambulance ride to the hospital. It has begun to topple bureaucrats and become an issue in political races. And here were a group of fundraisers who had just been told that they would have to sell the idea of cost overruns on a tunnel in post-Big Dig Massachusetts.

I looked to my left where one of the peppiest, bounciest fundraisers sat. Cami runs the phone program, calling alumni and asking them for small amounts of money. She doesn’t actually do much of the calling herself. She hired students to staff the phones and trained and motivated them—half cheerleader and half hockey coach. She was like Paul, the Exec, in that her face never looked cheerful, but her body ardently communicated optimism at all times. You can force your body to do stuff like that if you were athletic and well-trained from a young age. Young, in her early twenties still, she dressed a few years younger than that. Skirts as short as she could find them, heels as high as she could get them and still walk around, only the perkiest shades of lip gloss and the bounciest hairstyles. Clothes in color schemes that would have been difficult to achieve, just from a technological standpoint, before the mid-1970s all perfectly matched. Despite the heels she was pretty short and you always found her looking up, whether at people, her computer screen, or the huge jeep she climbed into after the day was done. When I look over she’s chewing her pencil after having written down “excavation celebration?” in her notebook.

Across from me are some others that are trying to smile and consider how the announcement changed their plans for the year. They didn’t want to say anything before Paul reentered the room, because he was dangerously weird and they obviously couldn’t handle any more cognitive dissonance. If they reoriented their plans even a little before he got back he could try to put them on yet a different course. That—they seemed to say with their stasis—would kill them dead.

He’s back soon, I imagine he’s not been seeing the Chancellor to his car so much as he’s been standing in the atrium composing himself. The look on his face as he enters the room says “that idiot knows nothing about fundraising.” But he doesn’t admit that thought to the room. No, he goes to the podium and says “you all heard what the Chancellor said. It will be a difficult year, but I think it’s obvious that we will have to work towards building resources for the dig while also conducting the fundraising activities that we have outlined in our strategic plans. Who’s the next to present?”

Always I am taken completely unaware by his tactics and, as always, they should have been completely predictable. There was no way he could let this “retreat” turn into an interactive discussion of some sort. He wouldn’t have had control over that. Plus, it might have devolved into a strange sort of circus, all of us sitting in a big circle attempting to find positive ways of saying “hole,” or “tunnel” or a million other unmarketable words. And maybe we would have eventually begun to combine them with the fact that there was a shortfall in funding for that project. “There is a hole gap,” someone might say, “a fissure in financing out hovel.” We would come up with slogans like “Name the new excavation so that you can say ‘It’s Mine.” “Can you dig it?” might headline our phone campaign. It’s the one with the nooks and crannies. Donors might shoot back at us “Why don’t you borrow for the burrow?”

All that stuff would be out of Paul’s control, and he can’t have that. He is not quick-witted enough to laugh along or join in the joking, no matter that it would ease some of the tension flowing through the place and making us all miserable.

Another couple of presentations go by. I don’t have to give one because I have a couple of weeks to learn more about the place before giving my plan at a special staff meeting organized just for that purpose. So, knowing that Sid will keep things going in the question and answer portion, and knowing that others are too stunned to do much of anything except log little reminders in their PDAs that they need to update their resumes, I tune the whole thing out and am alone with my thoughts.

First thing I think is that I am doomed. Not because anyone is honestly going to expect me to attempt to find foundation money for cost overruns on a tunnel project. No, the problem is that I’m going to be expected to act like I am trying to. It is the act that really terrifies me. I hate faking it because I know that if anyone comes to me and says “hey, you’re just faking it,” I’ll start nodding my head. And if anyone on campus asks me what I’m doing I’ll tell them the truth, too. And eventually it will get back to the big boss, who will have no choice but to . . .

I don’t know what he’ll do. I can’t predict this guy except after the fact. It’s the uncertainty that eats at me maybe.

I think about my family, and how they are genuinely wishing me the best in this job. I want to make them proud. I want them to stop worrying about me for a little while, too. Things have been so difficult this year, a year when I find out that I am wholly unsuited to the role of house-husband despite the fact that I am a pretty good spouse and father both. I am simply too insecure and dependent on what other people think of me to handle all of the things I need to do all day alone.

And this is a state, Massachusetts, where it is extremely difficult to find a job. Out west there are always entry-level openings for positions that in the east are filled by a friend of a friend. In the west too many people move into cities every year to depend upon only people you know to fill positions. This job has benefits and pays pretty well and I thought that it had relative security until a few minutes ago.

How are we going to pay off this mountain of debt, one larger than my annual salary?

But gradually my thoughts turn in a really weird direction. The funny thing about all of this, I begin to realize, is that my strategy for these things, for these weird requests for assistance with funding something, is to make sure I understand all of the circumstances as well as possible. Then I attempt to understand the position that the prospective funder brings to the table as well as I can. And then I beat my head against the un-fundability of the thing for a while, getting really cynical, and suddenly, in a weird sort of epiphany, I see a way to make the case logically.

Now not all of my proposals get funded, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes there are circumstances I didn’t foresee, or the foundation has run out of money for the year, or they are making their decisions based on things like personal relationships that I didn’t know about, or something else. The point is that I can make almost anything look like it makes sense logically. It is quite a skill, if it is a skill, that is. It could be that I am just persistent enough to luck out repeatedly. So even though the thing looks really dark at the moment, and even though I am a very pessimistic person, there is something that will drive me on in my pursuit to find them some money for this. And so it won’t be faking it. So I can live with myself.

Some of the staff are going out for drinks after the day is over, and they ask me to join them. It would mean riding into Boston, because it is still 4:00 in the afternoon, and presumably there’s nowhere to get drinks outside of I-495. I excuse myself, explaining that I have to get home and take care of the baby for a while so my wife can work. I make my way to the parking lot thinking that I wish I could listen in on their conversations at the bar. But that I’m glad I have an excuse not to actually go there with them.

The day is warm and bright. Summers can be so unpleasant here because of the humidity, but today it is just warm enough. I am traveling against the commute and I find my way back home much more easily than I found the hotel. Entering town I see something really odd, though. There is a bunch of some sort of four-legged road kill along the center line of the highway. The more recognizable ones have big, dark eyes, pink noses and rat-like tails. But they are much larger than rats and their hair is fluffy, not slicked down like a rat’s would be. And its ears are bigger. There are six of these bloody lumps that I don’t recognize at all. And they are all bunched together like some sort of toy-dog sized pack animal, creamed by the same eighteen-wheeler.

I keep thinking about the rest of the way home, and about the owls Sid saw. The whole time I lived in Idaho I only saw two owls. I don’t even know if it was the same year but it was winter time both times. Both, though, stared at me as I drove by. They were, if I remember correctly, sitting on fence posts disemboweling some creature, probably a mouse. They looked like solitary creatures, though, not the kind of thing that would want to hang out near a lot of competition. Maybe the prey was spread out a little more in the west, though. Not bunched together on the center line of the highway like it is here.

Go to Chapter III




1. NaNoWriMo–Day Three « Sure as a Blog Returns to its Vomit - November 3, 2006

[…]  Anyway, I completed 2,090 words and started a new chapter.  If I do 4,000-word chapters that means that there will be about 26 chapters in the novel.  I don’t know whether that feels right or not.  Online, though, the chapters seem too long as it is.  Whatever. […]

2. Nannette in Fantasticland - November 8, 2006

I have been laughing out loud. Your ability to capture character is great. The way you weave together fact and fiction (Big Dig and fictional tunnel) is wonderful. I am enjoying this book!

The black background, though, makes this hard for me to read….

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