Michelle Miller Ibanez, at thirty-one, is already a success by any measure. A respected Baltimore attorney, she has a handsome husband and a beautiful child. She is surrounded by family and friends who adore her. Life is sweet and only getting better-that is, until she's handed House Bill 1664.
In this bill are the plans for a massive highway interchange, the construction of which is certain to destroy the quality of life in the historic neighborhood that she and her husband, Carlos, call home. When she reluctantly agrees to lead a coalition to fight the project, she unleashes an avalanche of change that threatens to destroy her seemingly perfect life.
The "new road" she embarks upon leads to danger, passion, deceit, and betrayal. Secrets are revealed that shake Michelle to her very core and cause her to question her most fundamental assumptions. She cannot foresee what her world will be like once the journey ends. She knows only one thing for certain-her life will never be the same.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
The New Road
By L.J. Hippler
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 L.J. Hippler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember 9-13, 2009 House Bill 1664
She already liked Vance Berg just a little less than when she'd first met him-twelve seconds earlier. Michelle Miller Ibanez put down the blue porcelain cup and eyed the short, fat man with the too big hair. "Yes, I guess I do have three names," she said. "Is that okay, Mr. Berg?"
"Whoa. Just makin' conversation." He pulled a brown file folder from a manila envelope, handed it to Michelle, and crumpled the envelope into a ball, which he dropped on the table as he sat down. "House bill 1664. We want to inform the neighborhood groups, and your name was given to me. It's an important piece of legislation, 1664."
"I'm sure it is. And thanks so much for bringing it down here."
Berg leaned back in one of the new chairs the Vitros had bought for their coffee shop and laid his index finger against his cheek. He saw himself as Michael Corleone, sizing her up. She was seeing Boss Hogg on meth. "You grow up in Canton?" he asked.
"No, I grew up in Catonsville. My husband and I moved here a year ago."
"I have to say this part of town never did much for me. They gentrified some of it. But it's still Canton."
"Gentrification's a part of it, sure. But Canton's about charm, recovering and honoring what came before. Maybe it's corny, but to me, it's all that."
"Charm? You're jokin', right?" The big man folded his hands on the table and leaned in. "These old factories need to go. They're like a hundred years old."
"Some are older than that. They go back to the Civil War. They made almost everything here, you know."
Vance Berg chuckled. "And those big guns on Federal Hill made sure that stuff got to the right army."
Michelle was sure she'd endured non sequiturs and conversations more irritating than this. But she couldn't remember where or when. "And you, Mr. Berg, where did you grow up?"
"Morrell Park. I never moved anywhere. Lived there all my life, in my Mom's house."
"Uh huh." She stuffed the folder into the side pocket of her bag. "I'll definitely be looking at this," Michelle said, glancing at her watch as she stood. "Thanks again for meeting me here." "Sixteen sixty-four. The bill's number 1664." The ombudsman stood up quickly but clumsily. "You want to look at it now so I can answer any questions?"
"I've got to be going. Thanks."
"You know, Jesus's wife had three names." He got it out quickly, like a car salesman whose customer was walking out of the showroom.
"Yeah, Mary Magdalene Christ-according to Dan Brown." He held out his hand and smiled a big Morrell Park homeboy smile.
Michelle stepped back to the table, picked up the crumpled envelope, and slapped it into the man's thick hand. "We don't litter here in Canton," she said.
"Michelle," Mrs. Vitro called from behind the counter, "you want to take a couple sugar cookies home for little Carlos?"
Vance Berg pushed past her toward the door without a word.
"Thanks, Agnes, but I don't think so. He's four but just getting into those terrible twos you hear about. The last thing he needs is sugar."
"You look great in that blue suit, Hon."
"Oh, this is my old-maid suit," Michelle said, buttoning the coat over her white blouse before she went out.
"No, ma'am." Mr. Vitro didn't look up from the cardboard case he was cutting open. "That's no old-maid suit."
"Flirt," she quipped, squeezing the older man's shoulder as she left.
* * *
Walking home at that time of the morning was both a novelty and a treat. She walked fast. The long brown ponytail bounced on her back. It felt good, somehow cleansing after the meeting with Vance Berg. In Michelle's mind the ponytail was the last vestige of her youth. She was proud of it, and other lawyers had told her it was becoming her trademark in the courthouse.
That it was still warm enough not to wear a heavy coat was a treat too. The chimes of St. Casmir's tolled the hour as they had for a century. Maybe it'll wear off, she thought, but this still feels like living in a movie set to me. Wrens chirped with excitement as they vied for nest space on the ivy-covered wall of a little brick house on O'Donnell Street, two blocks away from her own. Michelle thought it looked a lot like the Betsy Ross flag house and wondered if it was from the same era. She made a mental note to look it up and find out, someday, when she had time.
She took that route on purpose. Coming straight down Boston Street would have been quicker. But she loved the thrill of turning the corner and suddenly seeing The Moorings and their new house. It was ten o'clock, but at least a sense of the morning freshness still remained on the harbor's surface. She stood on the top step and breathed it in for a few seconds before opening the door.
She dropped her brown leather bag on the dining room chair. The folder Berg had given her poked out of it, seeming to call her back. "Yes, yes, I know. House Bill number 1664. How could I forget?"
Neferkitty, her striped, shorthair cat, spotted Michelle and zoomed from the hall to the kitchen like a furry streak, delighted to see her human home at such an odd time. The coffeemaker was still on in the kitchen, and dirty dishes cluttered the sink. Michelle put her hands on the sink edge and sighed, closing her eyes and blowing out her breath. I asked Carlos to not just leave dishes in the sink, she thought. And that's why he did it. "There's a woman in every little girl and a little boy in every man," she recited as she washed the egg-encrusted plates. Sometimes she worried about her Carlos. Sometimes it seemed the little boy in him could be a petty, stubborn little boy.
Michelle put away the dishes and saw she had twenty-five minutes before she had to pick up her son. At the dining room table, she sighed again as she opened the folder. Her anniversary card from Carlos had fallen. She propped it up, carefully, lovingly, leaning it back against the white vase of roses that had come with it.
The House bill began as they all did, with several paragraphs of archaic legalese gibberish that meant nothing to her or to anyone she'd ever met. Michelle pictured a tiny man in short sleeves and a clip-on tie deep in the basement of the state house in Annapolis who typed the stuff up day after day. Her fingertip glided through the arcane mess of words and she made another mental note to get her nails done soon. "Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah," she murmured.
Neferkitty, thinking she was being sung to, jumped onto the other chair, lay on her back and looked up. "Are you gonna' stare at me upside down now?" Michelle laughed. "You little nut. Ah, here we go, $404 million dollars. Million? That can't be right." The next page began: TWO 4 LANE INTERCHANGE-THOROUGHFARE. She half stood and stretched to retrieve the brown folder with the red string. "Did that jerk even give me the right package?" Neighborhood Group Secretary: M Ibanez, 46th District, the white tag said. She went back to the sheaf of paper and continued to read. There were whole paragraphs about tonnage, steel. An entire page listed grades of cement. "Whatever all that means."
It went on like that. Michelle scanned and flipped through the rest of the pages, looking for something that made sense to her. But, it all looked the same. On the very last page was a map of Canton, her neighborhood, her home. It was an old map. The lines were wavy and blurred. It was one of those maps that looked like it had been run off on a ditto machine from the roaring twenties. But the two thick, black magic marker lines on it looked fresh, purposeful. The lines slithered obscenely across her neighborhood and ended in a hand-printed note: Proposed Canton Thoroughfare Interchange.
She kept looking through the pages, hoping to spot something she'd missed, something, anything that would explain it away, make it right. "No," she whispered, shaking her head in disbelief. Her eyes were still fixed on the piece of paper as if she were watching a car wreck and couldn't turn away.
"No," she said more strongly as she creased the paper and jammed it back into the brown folder. She stood up and was very still, silently holding it, staring at the white tag. M Ibanez, Neighborhood Association Secretary.
Neferkitty seemed to mimic her, on the chair, with one paw up. The cat stayed there, statue-like, frozen in mid-leap. "No." Michelle said it again, speaking to the paper inside the folder as if it was an alien being that had invaded her home and her life. "Oh, hell no!"
* * *
Opening the bright red front door, Michelle called back over her shoulder: "I told you it would be him!" She grabbed her Uncle Jerry's arm and hugged him even as she led him into her living room. "He's going to bless our house."
"I love it already," Jerry said. "It's so airy and light."
"You remember Christine." Michelle led him from the hall into an equally bright, modern living room.
"Of course, little Carlos's godmother."
"And this is my new neighbor, law partner, and best friend, Joanne," she said, physically turning him to face a dark-haired, tanned young woman who looked like she should have been on the cover of Vogue. "We run together every day," Michelle proclaimed. "Okay, we run some days."
"Hi." Jerry shook the woman's hand. "You're in great shape if you can keep up with this one. I've tried."
* * *
"So, you really like the house?" She led him though the rooms and up the stairs. Jerry enjoyed the attention, the joyous, freshly painted and decorated space, and the weight of his niece on his arm.
"I do. I love it. You've done a lot of work here already. You're just like your dad that way."
"I hope he likes it too."
"He's never seen it?" She didn't answer. "I thought he'd be here doing an inspection the day you found it."
"Um, we don't see each other as much as we used to. Seems like he's always busy. Anyway, are you ready for this?" Again, the light was the first thing to strike him when she opened the door. "Our prayer space."
Blue sky filled slanting, oversized windows. It matched the pale blue of the walls. A mahogany kneeler faced the window under a crucifix of mahogany and brass. Two simple but fine mahogany chairs made the room complete. It was simple, pleasant space; the light made it elegant.
"Oh, it is beautiful. You've made your own chapel."
"You know, I think it makes some people uncomfortable, though, when they visit."
"We live in a secular world." Jerry shrugged. "If that was an exercise bike instead of a kneeler you'd get all smiles." He went to the window to look down at the harbor and out at South Baltimore. "Why don't you go get your husband and we'll do the blessing." Michelle started down the stairs. "God bless you for doing this room, Hon," he called after her.
Two minutes passed, and she returned with a little entourage. Carlos carried the four-year-old who pushed, rolled, and contorted in his father's muscular arms like a fifty pound Gumby. "Hi, Jerry," Carlos said, awkwardly positioning his hand where it could be shaken.
Jerry made the sign of the cross. Michelle, Carlos, and Christine followed him. "Peace be with this house and with all who live here. Blessed be the name of the Lord." They all muttered a tentative Amen.
"When Christ took flesh through the Blessed Virgin Mary, he made his home with us. Let us now pray that he will enter this home and bless it with his presence." Out of the corner of his eye, Jerry saw Carlos shift his son to Michelle's arms. The boy rested happily there.
"May he always be here among you; may he nurture your love for each other, share in your joys, comfort you in your sorrows. Seek to make this home a dwelling place of love, diffusing far and wide the goodness of Christ."
Another ragged chorus of Amen.
"You say it too," Michelle told her son.
"Close enough," Jerry chuckled, touching the boy's feathery, brown hair.
Michelle put little Carlos down. He took a handful of her black slacks and held tight. "Thank you, Uncle Jerr," she said, giving him a hug as the others trailed down the stairs.
"My pleasure. I really thought your father would be here."
"Oh, he is. They're down on the deck still. They didn't want to come up."
"Dad and his new girlfriend-Chlooooeeee."
Jerry had to laugh at the sight of a Maryland State officer of the court rolling her eyes like a twelve-year-old.
"You don't like her?"
"Oh, she's okay. She's just-I don't know."
"Well, it's a shame they wouldn't come up."
They started down the carpeted stairs. "Let me show you the kitchen. Then I have to get back to work."
"Yeah, I hope you can stop that road. I know what I-95 did to Arbutus."
"And this would be so much worse." Michelle moved slowly with little Carlos still attached to her leg. "There's lots of good, homemade food out on the deck."
"I heard that," Jerry said.
* * *
Outside, the boy squirmed and slid off Jerry's knee after a few uncomfortable seconds. He ran across the deck, took Chloe's hand, and led her to the edge of the pier where he wasn't allowed to go without an adult. "She really is good with kids," Buddy murmured. "When we met I thought she was just saying that."
"Nice girl." Carlos poured a Zima with surgical skill down the side of a glass and a shot of liquor into Buddy's empty one. "How did you meet her?"
Buddy retrieved his glass and dropped an extra shot of rum into it before adding the soda. "She answered my ad on Sugardaddie dot com," he said with a shrug.
The younger man snorted loudly into his beer, blowing it over the front of his tan shirt. "Buddy, you're hilarious," he laughed, wiping off his chin with a napkin. "Perfect delivery." He tried to dry his shirt with a second napkin. "No, seriously, how'd you guys meet?"
Buddy looked over his sunglasses at his son-in-law for a full two seconds before he pushed them back up on his nose and turned toward the table. "I should go talk to my brother," he said.
* * *
"Faaather Jerry," Buddy began, making his way just a little unsteadily across the new deck. He sat down with a thud. His fresh rum and Coke sloshed a spray of brown droplets onto the white tablecloth.
"So, what made you give Carlos that Jack Nicholson stare?" Jerry asked, smiling.
"You know, we haven't talked in eight years, and that's what you ask me?"
Jerry only looked at him and took another bite of peach cobbler.
"Hell, I don't know. I'm not feeling that good." Buddy sighed and rubbed the circular scar just below his collar on the back of his neck. "You're looking good. How'd you manage to hold on to all that hair?"
"I got mostly Mom's DNA."
"I think you did," Buddy said softly, without looking at him. "They're sending you away? After all those years at St. Mark's?"
"I'll have a parish in a place called Bentonville, on the eastern shore."
"But, you have to go? Aren't you like a cardinal or archbishop or something by now?"
"You're a funny guy, Buddy."
Buddy watched his son-in-law and Chloe lean over the rail and point to things on Carlos's sailboat like two teenagers on a field trip. "You're the second person to tell me that today." He sipped his drink and stared out at the harbor. "How's your life, Jerry?"
"Pretty good. Moving's kind of a pain ..."
"No. I mean overall, everything. What's it like?"
Jerry put down the fork and sat back in the chair. "It's a magnificent gift from God, the priesthood. I can't explain that to you. But there's no other life I'd trade it for." He braced himself for a string of expletives that never came.
"Well, I'm secure now. That's what money means to me. That's all it means."
"Where your treasure is, there your heart is also."
"Jesus. Don't you ever stop?"
"God's given you some wonderful gifts too, you know."
"Oh, I know," Buddy said, nodding and admiring the way the breeze made Chloe's yellow sun dress nestle into the curves of her body.
Excerpted from The New Road by L.J. Hippler Copyright © 2010 by L.J. Hippler. Excerpted by permission.
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