LARRY LOVED WORKING with City government, setting up conventions, purring through Exposition Hall’s vastness in a golf cart packed with movers and shakers from business interests all over the Midwest and South. He flung out an arm. “As you can see, we have more square feet of exhibit space than you’ll find in any city of comparable size.”
“What kind of crowds are you expecting for the show?” asked Ezekiel Tate, CEO of Home at Last Hotels. He’d driven in from Oklahoma.
“Thousands,” said Larry. “We’re going beyond regional. We’re going national. We want to show off Ellington’s schools, parks, business development, medical center.”
“What happened to the deal with Flag ’n Country?” asked Marilyn Bassinger of Bassinger & Daughters Modular Homes. Negotiations with gun manufacturer finally collapse, she’d read in the Ellington Daily News.
“No surprise. It was all about money.” Larry shrugged. “We couldn’t offer a big enough tax incentive.” Idling the golf cart for a moment, he added, “You’ll have high visibility in Ellington. Like Chub’s restaurant. Far Eastern Fusion is already pulling in the crowds.”
“We’re considering setting up food service right here at the trade show,” said Chub Jun.
“You could bring in a model hotel room,” Larry said to Sam Tate. He was about to suggest an entire modular home to Marilyn, but, soft-pedaling the salesmanship, he started up the golf cart again. In his imagination he saw booths, graphics, and electronic screens mounted everywhere. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. This was the beginning of a new era for the Visitors and Convention Bureau, for Ellington, for the entire region. The heart of the country was going to be a destination, no longer the sleep-through zone between coasts.
LARRY'S DAUGHTER AND SON-IN-LAW lived south of the river near Herndonville, the little town where he’d grown up. He put on sunglasses against the disk of sun flattening at the horizon. This section of the river road wound west before turning south again. During summer and fall it was a hard, glaring drive. If he were home in Ellington right now, he’d be mixing himself a Martini, but he was willing to sacrifice a cocktail for the pleasure of seeing Jennifer and John. Organic apple juice was a small price to pay.
“Daddy!” said Jennifer, coming out onto the porch as her father turned off the blacktop onto gravel. He got out of the car, climbed the three porch steps, and opened his arms.
“Hi, sweetie. How’s country life?”
Jennifer rested her head against his sports jacket, then held the screen door open. Inside, he shook hands with his son-in-law while his daughter went for the comfortable sweater always left hanging on its hook. John brought out apple juice, and the three sat down in front of the weather report.
“I suppose there’s a lot happening in Ellington these days,” said Jennifer, turning down the volume.
“As you would expect,” Larry said, resting his glass on the broad arm of the chair, “from the City of Tomorrow.” While the room slowly settled into absorbing twilight, his vision of Ellington’s future floated pleasantly above the faux wood paneling and linoleum floor.
“There’ll probably be some work in Exposition Hall for you and Sutton Construction before long,” Larry said to John when the broadcast was over.
“Sutton mentioned something about a trade show.”
“We’ll need walls. Booths. Display supports. It’ll be a big show. A lot of build-out.” John picked up the remote control and turned off the TV while his father-in-law ticked off materials, costs, and deadlines.
“When’s Sutton gonna realize he needs a partner?” Larry asked after Jennifer had left for the kitchen.
“He talks about a partnership,” said John, stretching his legs, “but I’m not interested. It’s nice to get the occasional paycheck, but Jennifer and I have a farm to run.”
Larry didn’t think of his daughter and son-in-law as farmers. They raised some chickens, tended a garden, watered a few fruit trees, but that wasn’t running a farm. As long as they were going to live off the land, he’d told them more than once, they should increase their acreage and sell on a large scale. Sure, people drove from Herndonville for eggs and herbs and fresh produce, but there wasn’t an adequate population base to support the so-called farm. Not taking Larry or the future seriously, they smiled tolerantly and listened with little interest.
Years ago, the summer Jennifer graduated from high school, Larry had shouted to his wife, “They’ve offered her an academic scholarship to Oberlin! She’s got lots of ability! She’ll be in a great college!”
But Jennifer’s mother, without imagination, without foresight, hadn’t wanted the girl to leave Herndonville. Decades of arguing finally came to a head, and he’d moved to an apartment in Ellington where he was already on the staff of the Visitors and Convention Bureau. His wife moved back in with her parents, and his daughter married her hometown boyfriend who grew a garden and worked part-time as a carpenter. And Jennifer herself? She’d gone to the nearest state college and now she was teaching two classes of remedial English at Herndonville High and helping her husband raise a few chickens and weed the garden. Larry had wanted so much for her.
“A spot is opening up at the Bureau,” he said to John when the three had migrated to the kitchen table and were halfway through Jennifer’s meatless spaghetti. John nodded politely.
Jennifer spoke up. “What kind of opening?”
“Assistant to the head of publicity.”
“That’s not up my alley,” said John.
Jennifer glanced at her husband before asking, “How much does it pay?”
“Depends on how many hours the person wants to work.”
“We could use some extra income,” said Jennifer.
“If you’re interested, go ahead and apply,” said John.
“Maybe a few hours a week,” said Jennifer.
Startled by how badly he hoped she would broaden her horizons and apply for the job, Larry said, “Talk to Hank Grisham.” By now it was dark. Large drops of rain hesitated at the kitchen windows.
“I’ll close up the truck,” said John, scraping his chair against the linoleum. “Be right back.” They heard the screen door close and his steps cross into the yard.
“You’d like the Bureau,” Larry said.
“Does it matter that I’m your daughter? Nepotism or something?”
“Don’t think so,” said Larry. “You’d be working with Hank in publicity.”
When John came back, he brought in weather and a sense of commotion from outside. “It’s going to storm,” he said. “You’d better stay the night.”
“Can’t do it,” said Larry. “Early appointments tomorrow.”
“If we ate an early breakfast, you could drive back in daylight,” said Jennifer. But Larry didn’t want to spend the night on the farm. Herndonville represented the past, and he was a man who lived in the present and future, which was Ellington. When their pie was finished and the table cleared, Jennifer and John walked him out to the steps. Holding hands, protected from rain by the roof line, they stood on the edge of the porch while he got in his Lincoln and circled around to the county road. Through the windshield wipers he glimpsed the kitchen garden, the enclosure for geese, the stand of sycamore. Once on the road, with house and mailbox receding through the bleary back window, he felt an unexpected pang for the kids and their acreage. Moving through the bottom lands, his headlights bringing up ditches alive with rain, he fought back the desire to drive on into Herndonville, turn in at the roadhouse, cruise down the main street with its swinging stop light, see the stained glass windows of the Methodist Church shining through the rain. You could always tell if there was choir practice or an evening service. As a kid, after singing hymns and listening to Bible verses, he would go to the roadhouse where the windows shone as brightly as they did in church.
WINDING DOWN A PHONE CALL with Marilyn Bassinger of Bassinger & Daughters, who sounded interested in the trade show but hadn’t yet committed to moving her modular home plant from Little Rock to Ellington, Larry leaned back in his chair and remembered the day he’d driven her through Exposition Hall. He’d been proud of the diversity in that golf cart, although to the locals who still formed the backbone of the City Council, the cosmopolitan aspect of Ellington’s development—the Marilyn Bassingers, female CEOs; the Chub Juns, immigrants; the Sam Tates, African-Americans—had to be minimized. The trick was to play the diversity card to elite newcomers who might be attracted from urban centers where there were universities and artistic shops. The other trick was to attract jobs for the average working guy. Elites coming to be near a college, a medical center, fine restaurants, would give Ellington polish and charm, but Larry knew prosperity needed blue-collar jobs and production plants. He sat for a few minutes, preoccupied. City Council members were mostly pro-development. Still, they restricted the Bureau’s budget. He needed a bigger staff.
“Maybe we can pair Jennifer up with 2-R’s,” Hank Grisham suggested a few weeks after he’d hired her. “She reads a lot, doesn’t she?”
“Oh, yeah. Jennifer’s a reader, and my son-in-law writes when he’s not playing farmer. You want to introduce her to the project?”
“Up to you,” said Hank.
“Let’s give her a little more time,” said Larry. “She’s a country girl. Doesn’t know much about the city yet.”
• • •
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MARLENE LEE, a 2010 graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program, is a writer and retired court reporter living in Columbia, Missouri. She has published poetry and short fiction in several literary journals as well as five works of fiction with Holland House Books of England.