Read Miranda's War Online

Authors: Howard; Foster

Miranda's War

Miranda's War:

A Novel of the Upzone

Howard Foster

Chapter One

Miranda Dalton drove her hunter green Range Rover to the football field behind Waltham High School and parked it on the side of the lot where the more expensive cars congregated. On the other side were the Buicks, Subarus and Suburbans belonging to the parents of the local kids. Nine-year-old Asa's soccer team was playing next-door Waltham, and she would watch the final period and then take him home. She made her way over to the cluster of parents from Buckingham Brown & Nichols, her boys' private school, and chatted with those she knew. Normally her husband, Archer, would pick them up on his way home from M.I.T. But today she was in Cambridge herself doing some research for tonight's meeting of the Lincoln Conservation Commission. So here she was, feigning interest in the game while reading a project summary for the repair of the Pierce House Museum owned by the Commission.

Some of the men glanced at Miranda. Her hair was starting to gray, but at forty-five, her skin was unlined, her body toned and her cheekbones pronounced in a classical sort of way. She had done some modeling to make extra money in her first year out of college while working as an assistant editor at
The Atlantic
magazine. She got stares wherever she went, which was just fine with her.

When the game was over Asa changed and came over to her with his duffle bag. He was tall for his age, and had his father's dirty blonde hair.

“You did great, a 3–1 win.”

“I gave up a goal,” he corrected her, “and it was 3–2.”

“Well, you still won. And when you win you're supposed to tell the other side they played well, even if they didn't. Did you say that?”

“No, they called me a preppy and a fairy.”

“That's because they're jealous. It's not about you. BB&N is a school for smart kids, not fairies.”

“I don't like it here,” he said when they were in the car.

“Waltham isn't a nice place,” she said. “The people here have much less than we do. The houses are small. Tacky, very tacky.”

“What's tacky?”

“A cheap attempt to do something well. But we can't say that to them. And if they call you names, it's just seething resentment, that's all. We have to live with it.”

“Why?”

“Because we're civilized. Civilized people plan their criticism of others very carefully. You do it with subtlety and not when they expect it. So if you saw the kid who called you a fairy again on the field, and he made a good play, you could say, ‘That was very graceful.' ‘Graceful' is not a word that is usually applied to a boy. So you're calling him a fairy without saying it.”

“Did I act like a fairy?”

“Of course not!”

In ten minutes they were on Trapelo Road, which crossed the Cambridge Reservoir separating Waltham and Lincoln. And as soon as they were on the other side, the terrain changed. The ranch houses gave way to stretches of woods interspersed with old Victorians and brick Federalist mansions behind long unpaved driveways. The sidewalks, streetlights, and aboveground swimming pools were gone. There were more horses than swimming pools in Lincoln. Much of it was occupied by academics with inherited wealth who taught at Harvard and M.I.T., like Archer. They chose to live here, in one of the richest enclaves in the state, but seemed to do everything they could to import the problems of the outside world. They had allowed the construction of 125 units of “affordable housing,” they had ten black children from Boston bused into their public school system every day, and here on Trapelo Road was a barn with a giant peace sign painted on the side, as Lincoln's politicized welcome sign. It had graced magazines all over the country in the '60s, and since then epitomized everything she disliked about her neighbors and the whole state of Massachusetts. Every time she drove by it her blood pressure jumped. Tonight she would get her revenge.

At the geographic center of town there was a Romanesque public library, an austere, white Unitarian church that they attended a few times a year, and a flowerpot in a small island at the intersection with Bedford Road. The Conservation Commission kept the pot stocked with fresh flowers.

She turned onto Bedford, and a half mile down was the rural road mailbox with the wood carving of “Dalton” her older son, Cody, had made in fifth grade. The gravel driveway led past a small pond and three modern sculptures on marble obelisks to a fork near the giant Victorian house. The way to the left led to the front door, and to the right, the barn, which they had converted into a three-car garage. She parked there and they walked through the back door and into the mudroom.

Asa took off his shoes while Miranda went ahead to the kitchen, pulled out a few things from the freezer, and then went down the hall to her study. A few emails had come in about her plan for tonight's Commission meeting. She responded: “I have to do this tonight.
The Art of War
says the element of surprise is the second most important aspect of a successful attack.”

Chapter Two

Miranda and Archer Dalton walked into the Lincoln Town Hall, a small but stately building, at 6:45, fifteen minutes before the swearing-in. She greeted the three men and one woman that were about to be her colleagues. Archer had wanted to bring the boys, but Miranda thought that would give Karl Anderson the satisfaction of knowing what a momentous occasion this was for her.

Karl, the chairman, had been a prominent member of the Harvard Law School faculty, author of the most widely used textbook on administrative law, and then a federal judge until his retirement two years ago at age seventy-three. At six foot three with short gray hair and a nine-page CV, he was respected by everyone in town except Miranda. For years he had blocked her appointment to the town's powerful Conservation Commission. But they always maintained the appearance of congeniality when they were together in public. When she shook his hand tonight, she looked him in the eye, not at his narrow bow tie, as she had always done before.

“Mr. Chairman.”

“It's very nice to see you, Mrs. Dalton,” Karl replied, with a slightly pained expression on his aged but handsome face. He had never called her by her first name, and she was sure he never would. She had heard him call Commissioners Julia Nickerson and Henry Gerstenzang by their first names when she had seen them together at the post office or even making joint presentations at the annual town meeting. He shook Archer's hand, addressed him as “Professor Dalton” and inquired about Milton Chafee, one of his M.I.T. colleagues.

“He's just published another book, his ninth, I believe.”

“What's it called?”


Reflections on Boston's Third Great Experiment
. It's about the construction of the Back Bay.”

“Good for him. I'll go over to the Coop on Saturday and pick it up.”

Karl and Miranda did not exchange another word until precisely 7:00, when the Commissioners took their seats on the dais, the stenographer fiddled with her keyboard and the meeting got underway.

Miranda and Archer sat in the first row. She glanced around at the paintings of some of Lincoln's most memorable vistas: Flint's Pond at sunrise, the DeCordova Museum, Drumlin Farm and, of course, the execrable peace sign barn. Miranda would have preferred portraits of the town's 1955 Board of Selectmen, who had wisely enacted two-acre zoning, to preserve the town's rural character. They had anticipated the onslaught of sprawl when Route 128 was built just a mile away.

Lincoln preserved its semi-rural environment. But the cost of a house on two acres priced out the middle class. The latest response of the Conservation Commission: at Karl's urging they had downzoned a strip along Route 2 to “light commercial” to allow what they hoped would be tasteful retail stores like Starbucks to be built to make the town a bit less rural. The Commission said the move was intended to raise more tax revenue. But that was a lie. They didn't need the $100,000 in projected revenue. It was yet another in a never-ending series of compromises to assuage the town's guilt.

Miranda secretly, or maybe not so secretly, despised her soon-to-be-colleagues. She wanted to push the Commission in the other direction, to upzone the Route 2 land and to strictly enforce the Zoning Ordinance. They should be as uncomfortable in their psyches as possible about living here, even if she would never be. In one way or another, these people were no different from Archer, who had lived his entire life in the rarified settings of Beacon Hill, then Back Bay, then at the Fly Club at Harvard, then at graduate school at Princeton, then when they got married, in the coach house of a mansion on Brattle Street in Cambridge, and now here.

Karl opened the meeting, noting three pieces of business on the agenda. Then he asked Miranda to stand. She did and looked directly into his eyes.

“I have the honor, once again, of swearing in a new member of this Commission. It seems like just as I learn everybody's name, there is a resignation, or in this case, an untimely death. But tonight I shall not have to fumble through my mental Rolodex, because Mrs. Dalton is known to us all from her involvement in our work. She is a public-spirited member of our community, and she has graciously offered her services to this body. Mrs. Dalton, please raise your right hand.”

He administered the oath, and she swore to uphold the laws of the Commission and the town. She took that oath in the spirit in which it was administered, a formality that one had to endure in order to obtain power. Formalism annoyed her. She had always taken liberties with, and violated, many rules and managed to avoid any serious consequences.

“Now,” Karl continued, “would you please step up here and take your seat as a member of the Commission?”

She took the open seat, carefully placed her laptop in front of her and opened it.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for this great honor. I'm ready to proceed,” she said into her microphone.

“Congratulations, you made it, Mrs. Dalton.”

Miranda seethed in silence as Karl turned to the Commission's agenda. After completing most of it an hour later, when he reached the “New Business” item, she asked the Commission to take up the question of “enforcement of section 41(A) of the Zoning Ordinance.”

“That's an awfully broad request. I need to know how much time to allot to the discussion,” said Karl.

“Well, Mr. Chairman, there are some structures that are not in compliance with this provision, and I want the Commission to issue notices to cure to the owners.”

“Let me see, section 41(A),” said Karl as he fumbled through his loose-leaf binder.

Miranda touched a key and opened her copy on her laptop.

“This is the section that forbids non-neutral external colors and there is a detailed color guide,” he said. “Is this a general concern you have, Commissioner, or are there specific properties you want us to take up?”

“Both.”

She looked at Archer. His eyes widened, and he leaned forward with concern.

“Well, I think if we're to proceed we need a detailed list of the properties you believe are in non-compliance so that the owners can be notified before the meeting.”

“Mr. Chairman, the owners are not entitled to notice of a meeting where we are just discussing it. Section 1.4 requires notice before an adverse action is taken.”

“Point taken. But we also operate by tradition here, Mrs. Dalton. And it is customary to notify anyone whose property is the subject of discussion beforehand so they can be heard. And that's what we're going to do now. So I'm directing you to produce the list of properties you want taken up by tomorrow at noon. I'll have the police serve the notices on Thursday. When they are properly served, I'll put the item on the agenda.”

“That will be fine, Mr. Chairman. You'll have my list first thing in the morning. But I'd like the Commission to know the first one is 101 Trapelo Road, which we all know as the peace sign barn.”

The barn was the oldest structure in town, built in 1688 when Lincoln was still part of Concord. During the Vietnam War era the owner had painted a huge peace sign on the side facing the road. It had become an iconic image and appeared in
Time
magazine and the
New York Times
, putting Lincoln into the public consciousness for the first time and was now even featured on the town website. Miranda had loathed it at first sight 14 years ago when Archer was showing her around town. It reminded her that many of her neighbors were ex-hippies, which was depressing enough, but also that they were now running Harvard and M.I.T., which was worse.

“Surely you don't mean that,” Karl said in utter disbelief, pulling off his black half glasses to stare at her.

“I do. It's not in compliance. It's two shades too bright.”

He sighed and whispered in the ear of Commissioner Nathan Griswold.

Griswold scribbled something on his yellow pad, slid it in front of Karl, and Karl nodded.

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