Mrs. Mockson, who according to the tax records was a Laverne with uncertain capitalization because their database apparently predates lowercase letters. Laverne Mockson lived on a 4.1 acre parcel of land near the boundaries of the town. In most cases, parcels of this size outside of the town were the last vestiges of large farmsteads that had been variously sliced up and sold off over the years. Indebtedness, drunkenness, or infidelity, it was hard to know which was the most common cause of dissolution, but upheaval in the family almost always meant the breaking up of the farm property. It would usually be sold off according to its productivity, with the most productive crop ground going to the biggest farmers in the area. Then, by turns, the woods and the creeks would be sold too, unless there was nothing left but an emerald green lawn where all of the buildings of a thriving farm were now concentrated. The huge machine sheds went unused, except to house the riding mower for the emerald swathe.
Apparently death put Chip in the mood of a melancholic real estate agent as he drove past slightly tangential old farmhouses and newer scatterings of swanky ranch house subdivisions. It was nice to distract himself with these maunderings as he drove because he didn’t really want to face the fact that he had no idea what he was going to do or say when he arrived at his destination. As the smooth voice informed him that his destination was on his left, he briefly panicked that he hadn’t used his drive time very wisely to plan his approach. Instead, he pulled into the grassy gravel driveway and pulled to a stop in blank readiness to see what happened.
The house was not yet in the leaning category, but it was an old farmhouse. It had grown by accretion over the course of decades, possibly hiding an original log cabin at the back under the white clapboard siding. Chip walked up onto the front porch past some frosty marigold remains and appreciated the little touches that must have made this porch something more festive in the summer that was long gone by now. He knocked gently on the door, too gently, for no one came even though he waited for an overly polite length of time before knocking again harder this time. Immediately upon his knock came a curt “Coming”, and eventually the actual coming itself.
Laverne Mockson was a small white-haired woman who had been crying too much for Chip to discern much else about her appearance. Her face seemed to be showing only damp splotchy cheeks and little else.
“Yes, what is it young man?” She was obviously not too excited for visitors at this juncture.
“I, uh, I was there.”
“You’ll have to give me more than that to go on. Where is there?”
“City Hall, I mean, that’s where, and when..” he trailed off.
Mrs. Mockson squinted closer at Chip and seemed to recognize his face from out of the fog of the rumors. “Yes, I guess you were,” she said opening the door wider and stepping back to let him in.
She led him down a hallway through a neatly trimmed doorway and into a sitting room. At least, it was originally a sitting room, but now it would probably just be a living room. No one needs a room just for sitting anymore, we’re apparently too busy living. She gestured for him to take a seat on an old pink velour sofa and Chip perched himself nervously on the front edge of the cushions.
Taking a seat on the ottoman of the chair across from Chip, Mrs. Mockson asked obliquely, “So, what brings you here today?”
“Well, you, uh, may have heard, well, that I was right there when your husband, uh, didn’t breathe any more.”
“Yes, well, uh, I just thought that I would like to meet you because he and I were, well, close. I mean, very briefly, but we were, very close for a very short time.”
She could only nod at this as her tears seemed to be returning to their usual place overflowing her eyelids.
He continued, “And I thought that it would be good for me to know, uh, how, you were, uh, doing. That is, how are you, uh, doing?”
She sniffed out “Fine,” as the tears began to overflow their lids and roll down her already damp cheeks. Fine was the default response to any inquiry of almost any kind in Chip’s home town, so she may as well have stayed silent for all the information that she had shared.
He tried to bring out a few more words with a more specific question. “Was your husband ill for some time?”
This question did not have the effect he desired. Instead of more words, he got more tears, flowing in rivulets now. But, as she dabbed with a large wad of Kleenex, she was able to answer “Not recently, no. He was doing fine after our scare last year.”
“What sort of scare?”
“Don’s doctor found a near obstruction of an artery in his heart at a routine checkup last year. After we went to see the cardiologist, he had a stent put in and he’s been fine ever since. He just had to take blood thinners, but otherwise he was back to normal.”
“Do they know yet if the blood thinners had anything to do with his, uh, not being here now?”
“The police said that they wouldn’t have anything to tell me about how he died for a couple days until they had the official report back from the state patrol.”
“Oh, I had heard from a, uh, friend, uh, that the police thought it might have been an aneurysm.”
She looked sharply at him while she cried some more tears before she was able to respond with a little nod, as if to acknowledge that she was in a position to hear the same rumors as he was.
“I, uh, I just got here, I mean, here to town, uh, just a few weeks, and I was, uh, wondering if you could tell me about what your husband was involved in at that meeting? What was going to happen last night if he hadn’t, uh, fallen down, uh, on me?”
“Don was the leader of a small group of activists who were trying to fight frac sand mining in the county. He was going to the meeting last night to present to the supervisors the plan that he and his group had developed to stop the mining company in their tracks.”
“He seemed awfully, uh, dramatic when he was presenting his plan last night.”
“Don was always good at that. He got his start demonstrating in the 70s and 80s in the anti-nuclear movement. He would be one of the people who cut through fences or walked through police lines. He was very good at making a scene when it was called for.”
“So, he had been doing this for a long time?”
“Not this issue, but Don always had something he was trying to change about the world and dramatic public action was one of his favorite ways of doing that.”
“Did your husband ever get angry at these kinds of things?”
“Maybe once, but he used to say that when you had been fighting for change as long as he had, you knew the things that never changed. He had argued with cops and corporate honchos before and had a good sense of what to expect.”
Chip was remembering how swayed he had felt by Buck Lemaire’s remarks and felt a bit ashamed that he had been so surprised to hear the case for mining made so plain and so slick. Don’s rebuttal now seemed less like a passionate denouncement made off the cuff and more like the response in a call and response song of abortive cultural progress.
“So you don’t think that your husband was angry when he was shouting, uh, what he was shouting?”
“Not very likely. He does like some of these new slogans a lot, but when you’ve chanted as many things as he had in his day, one more line isn’t going to make or break you.”
“Some of his, uh, compatriots seemed, uh, quite excited.”
“Oh yes, they always are. This group in particular is pretty fired up about the plan they’re hatching, so I can imagine they liked where Don was going with his act very much until…” She just tapered off instead of euphamizing.
Letting his curiosity have more rein than the dictates of propriety would strictly allow, Chip continued his questioning. Laverne seemed to be doing all right now that he had her talking and he didn’t relish what might happen if he stopped.
“What was the plan they had to stop the mining?”
“Have you ever heard the term ‘Community Rights’?”
Chip shook his head, “No.”
“It’s a legal way for communities to make their wishes known. A community passes a law that says plainly what they will and will not stand for. This forces the corporations to either go to court and argue that what the people of the community want is irrelevant, or else they have to go somewhere that doesn’t have a community rights law.”
Chip shook his head slightly, feeling that he didn’t really get it yet. “So, they just make a law that says ‘no mining’ and that’s it? I would think that would have been tried before.”
Laverne began to warm to the subject, “It’s actually illegal to make laws like that. A town or a county can’t contravene the laws that are made at the state level, just like the state can’t contravene the laws that are made at the federal level.”
Chip hadn’t expected a civics lesson when he was driving over here. He struggled to mobilize what little he had been taught at Fredrickton High on the subject of constitutional law, while also trying to dredge up the arguments he had seen in online forums on these topics. Trying to sound knowledgeable at the eighth grade level, Chip threw out “Aren’t there some constitutional amendments about this?”
Laverne didn’t shriek in disgust so this must have been good enough because she continued “Yes, the 10th amendment reserves for the states all of the powers not explicitly specified in the Constitution for the federal government. There isn’t a tenth amendment for cities and counties though, and the states perspective on the matter is that all law making power comes from them because they legally brought the towns into existence.”
“Iowa uber alles apparently.”
“Exactly, but there isn’t much left even for Iowa to do because one of the powers reserved for Congress is the so-called commerce clause of the constitution, which says that Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states. The Supreme Court has decided that means states can’t do anything to regulate commerce that happens between states because that power is completely reserved for Congress.”
“So that’s what they were chanting about. They were saying that the Commerce Clause has got to go.”
“Yes, that was always one of the group’s favorite slogans.”
“Your husband and you have been around a while, don’t you think this all seems really unlikely to work. If the law is illegal and the Supreme Court isn’t going to change their mind anytime soon about the Commerce Clause, and the state’s aren’t going to give up what little power they have left, then how can this community rights law really work to stop mining here, or to stop anything?”
“That’s the thing that has this group so worked up. It has been working. Communities have been passing these kinds of laws and corporations have been leaving them alone. Towns in other states have passed laws banning oil drilling and sewage dumping and all sorts of things and they mostly have been getting their way.”
Now Chip was sure he didn’t understand because she had just gotten done telling him how this community rights tactic shouldn’t work and then she tried to tell him that it did work. His curiosity was sated by his discomfort with being out of his intellectual depth and he tried gamely to extract himself politely from his visit.
“Thanks for the, uh, lesson, uh, about your husband and his work. I’ll, uh, keep an eye out for what his friends do about this law thing. I’m, uh, sorry for your loss,” Chip tried his stock grieving phrase again. This time, it brought the tears back into Mrs. Mockson’s eyes, but also a faint hint of a smile to her thin lips.
“Thank you for that. And thank you for coming. Don was a fine man and if he was going to go, at least it was while doing the work that he was dedicated to.” She stood with a slight teeter and led Chip back down the hall to the front door.
She stopped as she opened the door to rush out “If you want to see Don, he’s down at the hospital” before the tears spilled out again and she turned her head away to sob. Chip didn’t know what to say in response to her hurried suggestion and he just nodded a terse goodbye and went down the porch.