Dr. Chong gazed above Archie to Napoleon Crossing the Alps and her map of the solar system. True, she conceded, the adage the selectman had just cited half worked. But as a tweet typhoon would be happy to remind her, the town’s real credo was simply “Don’t fix it.” Especially, it seemed, where her high school was concerned.
“But it is broke,” she pressed him. “This is plywood!” She knocked the wall and a splinter glided in. “Ow. Look at these windows: you can’t see out of them. They’re all frosted, bottom to top.”
“I know, but what’s broken to you? Ask your average Penny, they’ll say it’s a matter of opinion.”
“Sounds like we need to change some opinions.”
“That’s what I need your help with. What’s that smell?”
Her office had a distinctive waxy cleaner smell that only sharpened after school when the day’s buzz had died. The odor sometimes made her feel more lonely and confined than she would have thought possible outside an Idaho supermax. AJMHS had first opened its steel doors in 1945, and five other principals had occupied this office before Dr. Chong. She wondered how long the odor had been around and if it’d had the same wilting effect on her predecessors.
She swatted a mosquito on her neck and her palm came away wet and bloody. She wiped it on a napkin from her take-out lunch from Bounty Bag. It was mid-September, 2013. School was back in session, yet summer tarried like a pointless and tiresome houseguest.
“Love it. Smells like school.”
Wrapped tightly and taped, the Bounty Bag chicken-salad sub sat on her desk. At 4 p.m., this was to be a late, late lunch, deferred by a fist-fight and three rounds of bracing interrogations.
She touched her sub. “Mind if I?”
“Bounty Bag? Best subs,” Archie said with a grin.
So endearing at times, his almost canine enthusiasm could be rather taxing at others.
This was a special meeting, granted at Selectman Archie Simmons’s request. Long ago, a line item in Pennacook’s budget had been dedicated to the purchase of an ordinary digging shovel, a length of red ribbon, and a giant pair of cardboard scissors. These were to be brought out for the grand opening of the new high-school building. But while Pennacook’s town-meeting reps favored the project, they disfavored paying for it. The reps were agreeable enough, just wholly inconsistent. Whole town meetings trotted round in circles. So here was Archie for a chin-wag on the upcoming tax-cap-override (“TCO”) initiative. A majority of the board of selectmen opposed the TCO but had authorized a popular referendum as a buck-passing gambit. If the voters passed it, the TCO would unlock the funds they needed. Power to the people! Except . . . they’d tried this before.
She said a little prayer for Bounty Bag, unwrapped the sub, and started eating while Archie, always solicitous of her, quietly scanned local news on his phone.
The octagonal shield with “Bounty Bag” and the chain’s motto was stamped on the sub’s wrapper. “Stretch your buck” was right! Without Bounty Bag’s revenue, Dr. Chong would need more than an override to fund a new school. Or current operations, for that matter.
It was an old story. When real estate was cheap in Pennacook, Massachusetts — it was always cheap but back in 1938 when it was extremely cheap — Antonio N. Martini, then-owner of the Bounty Bag stores, was seized by a vision of free-roaming veal and lambs (destined to be served fresh for a bargain) and ran all over buying up the town. When the farm didn’t pan out, his son Ralph sold the livestock but kept the land, constructing a state-of-the-art warehouse on one enormous parcel along the Pennacook River. At first peripheral, it had become the main warehouse after the one at HQ burned down in the ’70s. For some reason — speculations abounded of a wild-eyed supermarket theme park — Bounty Bag kept the remaining land too.
Two stores followed the land grab. A small one near the border served nearby Eaton’s budget-minded few. The second, in Truble Cove Plaza, considered itself the flagship, staking its claim on location and size. Close to the warehouse, it was the largest in a chain of 74 stores, and its customer base fanned out from Pennacook, with its sparse and ever-shrinking population, to all of greater Leominster. The rest of the town’s economy — the shoe and potato-chip factories, the small family storefronts, finally most of the mall — up and blew away, but this store’s footprint grew. Viewed from Booth Hill against the dim backdrop of Pennacook-by-night, the store’s lamps resembled a short string of pearls.
Today, Bounty Bag employed a remarkable one in three adult Pennies. It stood to follow that her high school, which property taxes in large part funded, heavily depended on the chain. But with Bounty Bag deeper in the black each year, it was a happy, happy equation for Pennacook.
She finished her sub and tossed the mess.
“You eat fast!”
From Archie, somehow, this wasn’t an insult.
Archie heaved up a large black case, popped the two latches — snap-bang — and slipped in his fingers, removing a large tablet.
“Data-crunching whiz at The Beat, kid named Graham Bundt, tapped this out. M.I.T. grad who drove off a cliff into a linguistics degree. Then regretted it and started night school for stats.”
She scanned the graphs and multi-layered curves. They confirmed her worst fears.
Penny voter turnout was at the low end for county, state, and nation. So her strategy up to now had been simple: discreetly court their narrow base — teachers, parents, young new arrivals — and hope others stayed home. History buttressed this lay-low strategy. It showed that if you gave an override too much attention, Pennies might pass an underride instead. This would reduce levy limits below the normal cap, not only emptying the till but drilling a hole in the till’s bottom and placing Jesse James’s hand under that hole.
But through an admixture of demographics and past TCO results, coupled with anecdotal evidence sourced to the juice bar at Jack’s Four Lounge, the whiz kid had conjured a prophecy of doom. He set chances of TCO passage at a piddling 27%. Failure, in contrast, he pegged at 90%, the additional 17% factoring in that even if the petition passed, T.A.P.S. (Taxpayers Alliance of Pennacook Seniors) might corral the equity courts to enjoin it. Sound in theory, their whisper campaign would fail.
Lost matching funds made this all the more vexing. Bounty Bag, for one, had promised a major gift should the town break ground. Far more substantial, the state offered eye-popping grants that covered almost half the measly $14 million cost. Dr. Chong had done weeks of research to press the price tag down that far, ultimately settling on prefab architectural plans drafted by an Alabama firm for a Mississippi middle school. No frills, but all new systems and real windows (ornamental azalea trails excluded).
So different, this town, from where Dr. Chong lived. Each night after school she shuttled her Mini between Pennacook and Eaton through a dark tunneling road that only she seemed to travel. The very first thing she’d see as she emerged from Pennacook’s gnarly brush onto the smooth moonlit pavement of the Eaton leg was the glittering spot-lit campus of the German-architect-designed Eaton High School. A monument to the town’s school-lusting tax base, the $200-million palace was lavished with extras. An indoor-outdoor room, an eight-story climbing wall, a pro mechanics’ garage. Rorsch School, at the town’s other end, was a prestigious boarding school of global reach, managing an endowment even larger than Eaton High’s final tally. When Dr. Chong first moved to Eaton the town also had: a ninety-year-old cheese shop; a bookstore; a one-screen artsy movie theater; a French-milled soap shop where Dr. Chong had purchased a new kind of rocky soap that was almost a sex act to apply (no kidding!); a small hardware store, Griggs Hardware, with a Japanese-garden-aproned hand-pumping proprietor; and a graveyard stocked with Transcendentalist corpses. Of these, only the cheese and the corpses remained. The others had flickered out one by one amid the double scourge of the Great Recession and Web 2.0, Griggs dragging his precious push-mowers off to a stand next to pumpkins on Rte. 2-W. In their place rose The Eaton of Tomorrow. Glass-walled banks; a hedge fund sharing downtown cottage frontage with a cupcake “creator”; two S.E.C.-registered investment advisers; a fresh rash of realtors; bland fine art galleries touting Picasso’s café-napkin detritus; a The Wall Fitness System; a cosmetic-surgery outpost from La Jolla; and in a condoized chunk of scandal-sapped St. Mary’s, the Li’l Jack Harvard Admissions Salon at Hawthorne Corner, a made-up place. No one exactly cheered the Great Change but like some colossal Europan cryogeyser these places spewed rent and taxes. Meanwhile, the remaining pretentious older places, like the Eaton Bistro with its cold food and oddly angled tables that seemed to say, “Please, just . . . go,” now unexpectedly drew Dr. Chong’s sympathy.
“So they normally don’t vote.”
“Except when they vote against money for school.”
“Right again. Now I get why they call you doctor.”
“So what am I supposed to do with this info?”
“I want you to campaign for the override.”
“I mean on Election Day — rather, the day before. Dec 17th.”
She flipped her blotter forward to December. As it always did for special elections that threatened to boost revenue, the crafty town clerk’s office had scheduled voting for a ridiculously inauspicious day for turnout: mid-week, mid-December. Looking up, she noticed that Archie was once more directing a hot stare at her legs. Admittedly as a power play Dr. Chong typically left these exposed — but that didn’t make her a window-dangling rib rack! Of course . . . there was more to it. She’d had her eye on this handsome widower for years, and last Halloween she had agreed to a costume-party date. It had ended horribly with the selectman, clad in hard plastic as a Lego figurine, swinging wildly for a kiss on Dr. Chong’s couch, before departing sad and empty-handed. She should have seen disaster coming because she had broken a cardinal rule in saying yes to Archie’s invite: Never date a man from Pennacook. And during “Monster Mash” she had slipped her moorings and started grabbing Archie all over, potentially triggering the Lego-couch approach and breaking yet another cardinal rule of Dr. Chong’s: Control everything. She’d given him the cold shoulder ever since but she wasn’t surprised he was checking her out again today. When he first floated this meeting, Archie’s over-eager subconscious taking a not-so-sly peek over the hedges, he had e-mailed asking to “meat” her after school.
“I work. That’s a school day.”
“It is now.”
“You want me to cancel school?”
“Not cancel. A walkout. Low turnout won’t work. We need to shoot for high turnout now. Very high. The kind that only controversy can stir.”
“And if I get fired you’ll pay my salary to walk your Yorkie?”
This was disingenuous. In point of fact, she adored his Yorkie. Cornelius, a three-pound runt, traveled everywhere with Archie in his camper van.
“Think about it. Please. I’ll be your biggest champion on the board. It’ll be just like the ’60s!”
“We were nine in the ’60s. Do I look that old?”
She walked him to the door, noting once more his brisk, energetic step. Archie was in great shape due to his relentless pavement-pounding in support of various doomed Pennacook initiatives. She realized with a touch of admiration that true idealism (or else undiagnosed blood poisoning of the sort that undid poor Napoleon on St. Helena) motivated Archie’s walk-out scheme. Recent redistricting by the board’s then-tenuous pro-austerity majority had splattered the old Oakhurst, leaving Archie astride an ink-blot enclave that packed in the lefties. His seat safe, if politically quarantined, he had nothing personal to gain here. On the other hand, like most Pennies, he also had very little to lose.
Archie paused at the threshold and whispered some advice. “I know it doesn’t come natural sometimes, mingling with Pennies. But I hope that you’ll give it the old college try. We need you.”
“I do try!”
Archie’s words still stung at the end of the day as Dr. Chong exited Andrew Johnson onto Mediterranean Avenue, turning left on Baltic, then right on Oriental, pausing there to let a wild boar cross. At the end of Oriental (Pennacook had begun naming its streets after
Monopoly properties, but its signage budget expired on light blue) she hit the state road and steered her Mini into the Pennacook-Eaton wormhole. Tonight the wormhole was a brilliant green canopy, but she’d noticed that somehow even in winter alien fingers industriously patched over any light-seeping cracks, if not with swaying boughs and leaves then with snow, wind, and blotting fog screens.
Voters notwithstanding, Dr. Chong did not quite grasp why she had not yet won a new school because, above all else, Dr. Chong had faith in Dr. Chong. She considered herself administrative magic, with powers far greater than Archie’s. The tricks in her hat, alien to the flesh-pressing selectman, leaned toward clever maneuvers — regulatory appeals to deep-pocketed state agencies, grant applications to string-attaching philanthropists, parliamentary legerdemain — that sidestepped altogether the Pennies and their elected representatives, or else made it more work for them to say “no” than to say “yes.” In eight short years she had pulled rabbit after rabbit from that hat. State funds for Elmo projectors. Water-pipe-repair schematic and a preliminary budget for same. To everyone’s surprise, she had also won an asbestos-and-radon pledge from the cagey school committee, even though this could spike their insurance. If her magic hat had produced all of this, surely somewhere in its red-velvet lining she’d find a new school. Perhaps Archie Simmons’s walk-out proposal — kooky though it seemed on the surface — was just the spell to wake up these Pennies.
She switched her Mini to sport mode and revved the engine like a blender. Moonlight flickered in the wormhole’s exit. “I do try,” she said again, with greater force, as if Archie were there to hear and believe her.