New ‘Swamps’ draft chapters

        For anyone interested. earlier draft chapters are on this site. Together, they provide the sweep of the story.

                                                         Chapter 8

                                                       Lauren Fox

Attached to the first  page was a yellow sticky note.

“Hi. I wrote most of this while still on the job in Ironton. Hope it helps. Your ‘sweet girl,’  Lauren.”

In the margin, she wrote, “I had to do it this way, Frank. Sorry.”

I arrived in Ironton, New Jersey about four years ago. I was hired by the city with state funds to begin programs that would lead to more jobs and better housing.  I thought  I had better start writing down things about the third week I was in the job. There was so much going on, so many details to
organize, that I began to lose track of them. After I missed a meeting with the town manager and he scowled at me for about ten minutes, I began to get  organized.

At first I despaired over the condition of Ironton. I mean how could a city with such a history of success, a city with strong leaders and past economic strength fall so far? I saw homes that has not been repaired clearly for years and when I ask how the city could let the landlords get away with it, I was told that’s just the way it is. But children were being exposed to bedbugs and rats and filth. Blocks of houses were like that. Jiminy. Drugs were everywhere.  I looked up the Census data and almost twenty-five percent of the city’s population earned less than thirty  thousand dollars a year. The high school drop out rate was nearly fifty  percent. I learned the city was a destination for immigrants and maybe ten percent  of the homes  had three or more families living there. The newest immigrants were from South America and no one at city hall spoke Spanish. I know I didn’t!

I was overwhelmed. O-ver-whelmed. I called my mother and cried on the phone, and she’d listen because that what mothers do. But then my Dad would get on the phone and in that brusque Dad-way would tell me that I had to get past the fears and concentrate on the solutions. Then he’d say “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  He always said that. And it always made me feel better.

So I started to sort through the work, even though it took the city a month to get a computer into my office. I bought a lot of legal pads and kept hand-written notes. The state wanted to see three issues tackled: job creation, housing, and code violations. I wasn’t  sure what  the city officials wanted. Their attitude
seemed to be, the state told you want they want, so give it to them. But it wasn’t that easy. Most of the state grants  required some city money or labor. Mayor Richman said he would get the city council to set aside some funds and get the county to use inmate labor for some of the projects. But, you know, he didn’t really seem to care about the state funds or what could be done with them.

Later  I found out it was because he wanted to build a shopping center on the iron bog. I had spoken with Maria, my contact at  the state  about that project and she made it pretty clear that no state department would support it, and I was going to have to tell the mayor.

I thought I was going to be sick before that meeting.

Mayor Richman had already held his press conference about the shopping center plans and the big billboard had already been unveiled. Talk about being too big for his britches. I thought  he would have waited until he had done a study on the site to even see if it could support a shopping center.
I mean, it’s A SWAMP! It’s a big hole in the ground filled with water. Oh, dear. So, yeah, okay, the concerns professionally were the environmental
correctness of the thing, and the location and inability  to attract financing. But, jeez, it’s still a big swamp. What was he going to call it? Swamp City. Home of Discount Pricing?

He didn’t want to hear that the state was willing to support a project for the big parking lot along the river. The state would have paid for the studies and the engineering and we could have built a project that would put  jobs in the center of the city. Mayor Richman just muttered about how the state was trying to run Ironton again, that they had tried it in the past and they were the reason there was  a big, empty parking lot in the middle of downtown.

I told him, “the state won’t support the Iron Bog  project,”

“I don’t care,”  he said. “They can’t run my city. They tried that in the past  and we showed them. Ironton can stand on its own.”  He told me to get out.
And then he told me he was going to assign  Debbie  Glance to monitor my office. I had never even met her. I was a little scared. I wanted to quit,  but Maria said she would speak with the mayor and calm him down.

So I stayed. Debbie  Glance was not  assigned directly to my office, but she began to get involved more often.

I learned a lot  about Mayor Richman in those first days, not the least of which was how mercurial he was. It seemed like no one had told him “no” before because whenever  someone did, he grew cross and short; sometimes he left the room or called an end to the meeting. He reminded me of a little kid. I know he was the mayor and was used to leading and directing and generally bossing people around,…blah, blah, blah… but walking out of a public council meeting as he  did one time because the council asked questions about the bog plan, seemed juvenile to me, not mayoral. Even I knew he needed the council’s approval and I’m not political at all. I thought he would have been more polished, more professional, but even in meetings he would talk about how “they” were not going to stop him, that his family had a legacy of leading this city in hard times, that he would bring the city back to its glory days when his great-grandfather George Richman founded the modern Ironton.

No disrespect Mayor Richman, but what I learned about your great-grandfather was that he was nothing more than a robber baron. He was a rich industrialist who bought political power and turned city into  his own cash cow. I think what really gets the current Mayor Richman was that he is nowhere near as rich or skilled as his illustrious family member, and all the huffing and puffing is not going to make him so. Won’t be any Mayor Gabriel Richman statues anytime soon.

Then in the middle of all that, I met Frank Nagler.

Wow. Everything, I mean , everything,  changed.

I met him at a community meeting. He was the key speaker, discussing a new program from the police department aimed at connecting  a new division of community based police officers with neighborhoods groups. The response was somewhat predictable. The neighbors didn’t want more police in their neighborhood, they wanted the potholes filled, the street  lights repaired and the drug gangs evicted. It seemed to get pretty personal at one point but Detective  Nagler just calmly answered questions  and took suggestions. What I liked it that he made no promises, you know, like the gangs will be run out of town or some other John  Wayneism. He just told them straight out that there were problems and with their help the city could make progress.

But I noticed he seemed weighted down.  I didn’t think it  was his job. He seemed so much to enjoy the give-and-take with the neighbors. He laughed at their jokes and smiled at the grandmothers, strongly shook the hands of all the men, and once in awhile paused with a puzzled face, then grabbed the man’s shoulder and they smiled broadly as the connection was made: Maybe they went to high school together, lived on the same side of town, or they had common friends. More than once I heard him say, “Oh, right. I remember that.”

His eyes carried the weight of whatever it was. When he laughed they did not sparkle or share in the happy grin that spread across his face. They did  not light up when he recalled a person’s name and the  history between them  flooded in, but remained sunken and still; I wondered what could cause such pain.

The crowd filtered out of the room, and I didn’t hear any grumbling. I even saw some smiles and heard a few positive comments, as if they were glad someone finally noticed. I was walking against the crowd like a fish swimming upstream because I didn’t want Detective Nagler to leave without introducing myself. I heard a person I came to know later as Jimmy Dawson the reporter asking Detective Nagler why he thought it would work this time, and all heard
him say was, “because, Jimmy, it has to. We can’t give up.”

Finally I got to the front of the room and said, “Detective Nagler, I’m Lauren Fox.”

Even before he turned around, he said, “please, it’s Frank…”

How do you describe that moment when it feels like you fell off a cliff and you’re just floating in the air? Well, maybe that’s how you do it. All  I remember is that my heart was beating. I could barely speak. And I remember smiling. Later, when I became more rational, I mean he was sort of handsome, but pudgy, calm, very helpful but it seemed to me that he was like my father. And I thought, oh boy, you know how that goes.

 But as we began to work together, I figured out that Frank was as non-judgmental a person as I’d ever met. He gave everyone a chance to explain. He listened. In a place where everyone was at each other’s throats all the time, that was a welcome change. He was assigned to my office and it was through him that I came to understand Ironton. He took me below the surface of the bad houses, drug deals, empty factories and filled in the blanks with the history of the city. I learned to see how some residents were working to make their neighborhoods  better, to make their lives better.  I had been through such places, but where I grew up in the suburbs was so far from Ironton it might has well have been another country. I had read about poverty, studied the impact of generational welfare, had worked with poor families as an intern for my college degree. But until that moment, until I had walked with Frank Nagler into the smelly, filthy, smirky-smiley world of the truly needy, the undereducated, drug addled, drunken, the truly sunken, desperate world of the forgotten, I thought  I   had understood. That was the moment I grew up, and for that moment thought I (mistakenly) understood the pain in Frank’s eyes. At the point that I thought I had no friends in  the city, Frank arrived and gave me hope.

When did I fall in love with him? The first time he looked at me with those piercing blue eyes. He looked right through me,  but in a way that was asking questions, asking me what I wanted, asking me who I was, asking me to look inside myself and find what  I truly believed; asking me to stay.

Does love exist is such glances? Does it knit together such insignificant things, take form in messages left on phones, waves from passing cars or just
an occasional smile? It must, because we had so little time to work at what there was between us before the trouble landed that it seemed to me that
nothing would ever come of it.

Then I saw the note. “Hey, sweet girl.” I don’t think I ever told him how that made me feel. I smiled. I tingled. I cried. I felt whole.

There was one more page, scribbled in Lauren’s wide handwriting, just a few lines and notes.

Something strange and bad is going on, Frank. I’ve been checking the records and something  is wrong,  but I can’t  try to figure it out
here. So I’m going to leave Ironton. Things have been changed in my accounts and some files are missing. I tried to ask Debbie Glance about it but she said
the computers were old and they have been losing files for a while,  but if I gave her a list, she would ask the technicians to search for back-up files.

I began to copy computer files and invoices. I started mailing them to you a while ago after I left Ironton hoping you’d be able to sort it out, but I had to stop copying the files after Captain Foley began to question me in relation to what he said was theft of city funds. I asked, and he denied that he was accusing me, but I felt he was lying. I had a feeling someone was following me, and  tried a couple of times  to go to the police station to tell you, but
you weren’t there and it seemed that everyone was looking at me. That’s why I left, Frank.  I hope you can make sense of the data I’ve mailed. I’m sorry.

They had copies of my files, Frank. How did they get those?

I think of you in the morning, remember sitting across the desk from you as we had coffee, sometimes saying nothing, but then you’d ask, “What?”
I think just to start a conversation… and I think about how when we were together at an event or just out somewhere, it seemed like a play, watching everyone watching us. ….. I miss the kindness of your touch, how sometimes you’d run a finger down my cheek and  across my mouth and I’d kiss it, how you’d
softly kiss each of my eyes,  and brush a hair from my forehead , and …… God I can’t do this….

Chapter 9

       Mayor Gabriel Richman seemed stunned by the number of people in meeting room when he opened the side door.  He had just pushed his
way through a line of city residents to get to the door. It seemed that every seat and spot along the walls was taken. Richman had hoped the crowd would be
calm, but there was a murmur building, a growl rising; he needed to head it off before it became a full-throated howl.

The fire at the stoveworks destroyed five buildings, four in the vacant complex, and  another in a cluster of smaller buildings where  two businesses had begun
renovations. Five firefighters had been injured and three people died. They had no identification and a search for information and potential family members had begun.

Chris Foley thought they were just three of the homeless  who had been living in the factory.

Richman reminded himself to make sure had a tone of concern in his voice when he spoke about the dead. He stared at the floor a moment before stepping to the microphone. Why had I never visited them?

“Thank you all for coming,” Richman said. “I ask you to join me in a moment of silence to honor the three people who died in the fire.”

The room was filled with a shuffling silence that held everyone in its breath as even the hardest hearts acknowledged the pain of three needless deaths; held until someone in the hallway yelled, “the bums probably set the fire. Isn’t that what the cops said?”

In a second, the lid was ripped off the anger. The room filled with loud voices  and  the hallway shouter  was punched and knocked down and laid in the floor covering his head until two police officers lifted him up  and led him out of the crowd. Richman yelled out, “Please, please, calm down. Please sit. Calm down, please.” But his voice was lost in the howl, his feet rooted where he stood. The room vibrated with the concussive, rising sound of wordless rage, the voices of the stricken given air; shook as faces howled into the night. Voices wept, screamed, cracked with rage as they tapped into the seam of anguish that flowed like a flood below the surface,  but now given an outlet, gushed to fill the room,  lifting the wicked and innocent alike to face a judgment  all were unprepared to meet.

“Please, please, please,” Richman yelled out as police tried to push through the doors filled with people unwilling to move.

But they didn’t hear him; didn’t want to hear him. They had swallowed their voices for years as the city lost jobs, factories closed and parks and street fell to disrepair. “When is the park near my house going to be fixed? My kids need a place to play.”  “The city hasn’t fixed my fence that was wrecked by a snow plow last December.” They had listened as politicians asked them to recall the glory of the past, when inventive men devised  machines that needed workers to operate, when Ironton’s workers carried the region on their broad shoulders  and prosperity spread out from the red brick mills of the city  on the river like
green streams of hope and changed the future of that section of the world. When generations of their fathers and grandfathers wiped their brows of hard-earned sweat and proudly held in their hands the product of their  labors; when they understood how their hard work had made someone else happy. But at the same time they understood the mathematical equation of their existence that all their hard work would never  erase all the  steep steps between themselves and the factory owners, never shorten the path of their children to success, or allow them to measure their happiness on the same scale as the bosses’ because a worker’s happiness depended on whether that new pair of shoes fit their child’s  feet and the bosses happiness depended on squeezing one more pair of shoes an hour from his workers and shaving three cents a pound off the price of leather. “Hey, Gabe, how’s that shopping center coming? Hey, Gabe, when am I going to get a job?”

And Gabriel Richman could not stifle that roar. All he could do was stand in its path as it rushed by.

It flashed by him, stripping away all the little constructs he had made in his mind, all the flimsy dreams he had foisted on  Ironton’s citizens in hopes they would believe him and give him one more chance to connect the random and poisonous imaginings to reality.

But they had seen the for sale signs grow on their street more numerous than new trees, had seen stores boarded up and their taxes rise even as the library closed on Saturdays, they had to pay for their kid to play football or take a school trip to New York City. They had seen their work hours shrink, their neighbors stare at the want ads knowing that as her age  no one would hire her; had seen the shouting newscasters say how one  hand unemployment was the biggest political issue the country  faced and on the other hand how much it was costing everyone else to have  all these people out of work at the same time
and how bad they felt that everyone was hurting at the same time, but those jobless masses had better find a way to get a job, even at some convenience
store, because everyone else was not going to pay for them to be out of work much longer.

In that instant when the roar awoke, when the formless tortured  cry rose from throats that finally had the stops removed, in  that moment Gabriel Richman knew that his moment had passed. All that was left was making sure  he survived.

Jimmy Dawson, standing in a corner of the room marveled at the rage. He caught the eye of Frank Nagler who was pinned to the wall  near the main
door, and raised an eyebrow as he thought: It’s about time.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I have written at least three complete novels, have three others started and on my website michaelstephendaigle.com is the draft chapter of the latest effort,"The Swamps of Jersey."
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