The metallic pecking of typewriter keys ricocheted off of the exposed-brick walls before escaping through an open window and out onto the sidewalk of Peachtree Street. Free of the building’s oppressive interior, it quickly evaporated amongst the passing chatter and noisy traffic of Atlanta’s bustling downtown district. The originator of the clacking, Ms. Doris Mitchell, sat with her plump ruby lips pursed and her brow furrowed, deep in concentration. On the desktop beside her chirping Royal, a small fan threatened to upend a few sheets of paper as it pushed the mid-summer air around the room, thick with humidity.
From an uncomfortable wooden chair opposite the desk—and near enough to smell Doris’ unfinished lunch of catfish and okra—Sam Sullivan looked around the room apprehensively while he waited.
“Did Jerry happen to mention what he wanted to see me about?” he asked over the clicks and lacks, trying his best to sound nonchalant.
Doris abruptly stopped typing with a final blast, as if to punctuate her displeasure at being interrupted.
“Mr. Bennet,” she started in her nasally voice, presuming the small-talk for insubordination, “just said to have you here at one o’clock. He didn’t make me a partner for god’s sakes.” With that, she adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses atop her pudgy cheeks and resumed the obnoxious clacking.
Nodding pleasantly, Sam drew a slow, deep breath. This woman is the biggest pain in the ass in all of the world, he thought to himself. What have I ever done to her? If she thinks her job is so damn hard she should try going out there and selling something in this mess.
Of the numerous real estate agencies in Atlanta, only two or three could compete on the level of Bennet & Associates—a source of both pride and consternation to Gerald “Jerry” Bennet. Specializing in downtown commercial properties, theirs was one of the few markets to successfully weather the economic crisis, even if those businesses did frequently change hands.
With lousy company and no hope for an inside scoop, Sam decided to pass the time by trying to fathom a reason for the impromptu meeting. At twenty-two, he wasn’t only the newest member of the agency, he was also the youngest. Even worse, with his dirty-blonde hair and youthful blue eyes, people often remarked that he looked as though he were fresh out of high school. In a business where the customer only trusted experience, it was a constant battle for him to be taken seriously.
In truth, it had been nothing short of a miracle for him to land a job at the prestigious agency soon after graduating from Emory, (an accomplishment that was due in larger part to his father’s choice in squash partners than his own GPA). That was why in an economic collapse so destructive that it was already being dubbed “The Great Depression,” getting fired now would—in his mind at least—be tantamount to a death sentence.
Just as Sam was dreading the thought of moving back into his parent’s house in Mableton, the frosted glass door beyond Doris’ half-eaten lunch swung wide open, further upsetting the nervous paperwork trembling before the fan. Standing in the threshold and still gripping the door handle, Mr. Bennet fixed Sam with his intense gaze before narrowing his eyes like a fox approaching a sleepy hen house.
“Sullivan. Inside. Now.” With that, he cocked his head towards the sunlit interior of the office and turned away.
While his boss wasn’t a very physically imposing man—standing only an inch or two taller than Sam but with a slightly thicker build—he was infamous for his foul temper and mercurial fits.
And he seems to be in a fine mood today, Sam thought wryly. Jumping to his feet, he fired off a reply so hasty that it came out as one long, barely-intelligible word: “Yes-sir-Mr.-Bennet-right-away!”
Doris didn’t bother to look up from her typing as Sam hustled past her desk—seemingly the one person in Atlanta who didn’t get rattled around their boss when his ire was raised. Following Mr. Bennet inside, he took his time in shutting the door behind him in the hopes that his pounding heart would settle. Before he turned around again, the company’s namesake was already leaned over the large conference table by the windows, propped aloft on splayed arms.
Overhead, the wide blades of the ceiling fan churned sluggishly in a vain attempt to dispel the muggy air from the spacious office suite. Indicative of their failure, fat beads of sweat had broken out across the patch of scalp left behind by Mr. Bennet’s retreating salt-and-pepper hair—now forming an Alamo in the redoubt above his ears. Standing upright to dab at the bald spot with his handkerchief, he jabbed a finger down at the table as if he were squishing picnic ants.
“This, Sullivan, is the future. Our future. Our only future. You, me, the other guys; hell—even Doris, cranky bitch that she is,” he said as his eyes darted to the door with a hint of trepidation. Sam released his breath in a quiet sigh of relief; it didn’t appear as though he would be fired just yet.
Dark patches of sweat had been steadily growing around Mr. Bennet’s armpits and collar, turning his baby-blue shirt a deep navy color in those spots. Hanging down at his sides like a bloodhound’s ears, his suspenders flopped around with every jerky movement. Without stepping further into the room, Sam craned his neck in order to peek at the intended target of the outstretched finger.
Strewn across the surface of the conference table, maps of every size and color depicting the state of Georgia lie in messy piles. Neatly manicured digit still jabbed down, Mr. Bennet’s eyes widened impatiently. “Well? Am I going to hold them up like a puppet show? Get over here, dammit.”
Sam scurried across the room and joined him at the table. Standing next to his boss, he could smell the traces of liquor seeping from his opened pores. Mr. Bennet’s penchant for drinking had been a poorly-kept secret within the company for quite some time, and lately things had only gotten worse. According to the office gossip that Sam was rarely included in, what had begun with just a splash mixed into his morning coffee had—over the course of the widening economic gulf—matured into a full-blown drinking problem.
“Dams,” said Mr. Bennet simply, his bloodshot eyes looking to Sam expectantly.
Waiting for more information before he could reply, Sam just arched his eyebrows.
Exasperated, his boss asked impatiently, “What do you know about the TVA?”
“The Tennessee Valley Authority? Not much sir, I guess. I know they’ve been going all through the south building dams on the rivers and such. They say it makes electricity, but honestly I don’t see how.”
“Those’re the pricks,” said Mr. Bennet, grinning and nodding enthusiastically. “Look at this.” Amongst the many others on the table, spread out before the two men was a large colored map of the state. In the region north of the city—where the Appalachian Mountain range seeped into Georgia from neighboring Tennessee—erratic-looking x’s, circles, and lines dotted the paper.
Sam leaned over the table, desperately hoping that something would jump out as being the obvious source of his bosses excitement. Beneath the persistent finger, and within shouting distance of the Tennessee border, the little town of Hazlehurst appeared to be under siege from an invading army of chicken-scratch shapes and doodles. More puzzled than ever, he stood upright again before looking over with an expression of neither confusion nor understanding.
“There. Right there.” Mr. Bennet’s finger jabbed up and down on the paper, leaving sweaty little smudge marks behind. “My idiot brother in-law up in Knoxville has finally been good for something. I wish it’d had been when I asked him to hold that money from the Portman deal in his account, but better late than never I suppose.”
From the other side of the window, a staccato of car horns and angry shouts suddenly rose up as traffic congealed at the busy intersection. Unsolicited, a shabby looking man in a threadbare straw hat stepped off the curb and waded into the quagmire, arms flailing overhead for attention. After a few arcing windmill motions, the pedestrian-turned-traffic-mediator quickly had things rolling again, and soon everyone went back to their busy and not-so-busy days.
Returning his attention to Mr. Bennet, Sam shrugged and said, “I’m afraid I still don’t understand sir.” The little scribbles and symbols on the map might mean something to his boss, but to him they were as good as ancient hieroglyphics.
“I didn’t think you would. Here, come on over here.” He turned away from the maps and walked over to the pair of matching leather chairs beside a Pecanwood coffee table. Plopping down with an airy sigh, his bedraggled appearance made it seem much later in the day than it was. Unlike the zeal that had started the meeting, his countenance had become more somber and detached.
Dutifully following, Sam stood by the adjacent chair until Mr. Bennet made an ambiguous gesture with his hand, after which he sat down apprehensively.
“I’m going to be honest with you Sullivan—I mean really honest.” Instead, clearing his throat, he leaned forward and opened the wide drawer on the front of the coffee table before withdrawing a brown cork-stoppered bottle. He held the bottle up to his ear, shook it, then removed the cork with his teeth and spat it onto the hardwood floor. After taking a long pull, he grimaced and shivered as though a chilly draft had crept up his spine.
“Things aren’t so good,” he said matter-of-factly, sweeping his arm through the air like he was presenting the room.
Sam waited for him to continue and, after another quick tip of the bottle, he did.
“People always wonder how we’ve managed to stay afloat through, well, you know—” he said, cocking his head towards the city beyond the window. “Truth is, for the past few years it’s mostly been a bluff. A scarecrow. A paper tiger. Not the Fuller account; not the Bradley account; none of them were really enough.” He chuckled out loud to no one in particular as his head rocked back and forth.
Sam was taken aback, and he said, “I don’t understand sir, we’ve been closing properties steadily for as long as I’ve been here. Just last—”
Mr. Bennet snorted loudly and the percussive ridicule bounced around the brick walls as it sought escape. “And how long has that been? Nine, ten months?”
“Seventeen, sir. Next Thursday, anyway,” he said sheepishly.
Mr. Bennet’s eyes widened momentarily and he gave his head a quick shake. “Right. Anyway, all our recent closings might have kept us from standing in those godawful lines at the soup kitchens, but we’ve been hemorrhaging green since Hoover parked his Quaker ass in Washington.”
Sam blurted out, “We’re broke?”
“Yes. No—well, almost. At least we very likely will be if you blow this.”
“’Blow this,’ sir?”
Without offering any to Sam, Mr. Bennet poured the remainder of the booze into his mouth and tossed the empty bottle back into the drawer before kicking it shut. He then sprang back to his feet and returned to the conference table. Trailing behind like a puppy, Sam wondered how many other bottles lay hidden around the office.
Back at the map, the two men stood side by side looking down at the besieged Hazlehurst. “Dr. High-and-Mighty up there in Tennessee claims that the TVA intends to build one of their hydro-electric dams on the Oostanaula,” said Mr. Bennet, pointing out the skinny blue line with his index finger. “You know how much them federal ninnies are paying landowners for their riverside acreage? A fortune.” Turning to look at Sam, the familiar spark of passion once again twinkled in his eyes. “A fortune I intend to share in,” he said with a tipsy smile.
Sam was nodding thoughtfully but in truth he still had no clue where exactly the conversation was heading. Hazlehurst was at least a three hour drive from Atlanta by automobile—far beyond the reach of his boss’ metropolitan influence. Even worse, he’d never heard of anyone trying to undercut a public works project before.
Mr. Bennet lifted the edges of a few maps on the table until he found a sheet of lined paper. Picking it up, he handed it to Sam and said, “Meet Ellie Garnett. Seventy-three. Widow. No children. No family—ah, ‘kin,’ they call it out there, you’ll want to keep that in mind—and owner of two hundred of the most pristine acres of land straddling the Oostanaula you’ve ever seen. Land that just happens to be the only feasible place to build one of those stupid hydro-electricity dams.”
Sam skimmed the page and read the ancillary details of the old woman living in the middle of nowhere. Slanted, messy handwriting divulged Ellie’s home address (Pine Hollow Road), which bank held the deed to her land (Rockingham Union), the manner of death her husband suffered (brain tumor)—even which grocer delivered her sundries (Harper’s).
Sam was confused. It wasn’t necessarily uncommon to gather useful private information when considering buying or selling a property, but it was uncommon to see such intrusive practices directed at an individual person, let alone an elderly widow living so far from the city.
“Is this what your brother gave you?” asked Sam.
“In-law. If that man were my brother I’d have pushed him down the steps as a baby. About told him as much to his face once, too. Now, don’t you worry about all that,” he said, tapping the paper in Sam’s hands, “you just worry about your piece.”
“Ellie, Sullivan. Get your powdered ass up to Hazlehurst and buy us that land. If she dies without leaving it to anyone the state is gonna claim it. I don’t know about you, but the government paying itself with its own money to do its own work seems pretty foolish to me. We’re going to get that old bird’s acreage and then sell it to the TVA for a fortune.”
Sam was mortified. “Me sir? Are you sure I’m the right one for this? Shouldn’t Dawson, or even Greer—both of those guys have tons more experience and’r way better at closing than me. If this is so important, wouldn’t you rather someone else handled it?”
“Nonsense, Sullivan. Where you from again, middle of shitsville-noplace, wasn’t it?”
“Uh, no sir, it’s Mableton.”
Mableton was just outside of the city to the west, but it was always fashionable to look down on someone less cosmopolitan—and, by extension, less sophisticated—than yourself.
“Same difference. Those are your people out there; you’re one of their own. Who better to charm the lace knickers off the old gal, huh? Besides, the other boys look too… old, and too… city. I don’t want Dawson’s greasy hair dripping on her front porch or Greer’s flashy suits and motor-mouth scaring her off. You have a trusting face, Sullivan. Now we’re gonna to use it to get rich.”
The gravity of the situation weighing down more and more, Sam made one last attempt to demure, saying, “Be that as it may, sir, I still don’t know as though you want me handling an account like this. If I were to screw it up—”
“You’ll what, get fired? Let me tell you something,” he said, putting a firm hand on Sam’s shoulder, “if you don’t go, I’ll do more than fire you, Sullivan.” Then, eyes flashing with predatory hunger, he said, “Don’t blow this, kid—we need this one.”
Withdrawing his hand, he gave Sam a puzzling wink before turning to walk over to his desk on the opposite side of the room. Halfway there, he stopped and called over his shoulder, “Doris has all the particulars, grab them on your way out.”
Lying bitch, thought Sam. “Um sir, when were you expecting me to leave?”
Taking a seat behind his desk and without look up, Mr. Bennet replied, “I wanted you gone five minutes ago.”
Still reeling as he struggled to process everything, Sam just nodded and turned for the frosted glass door. As he exited the office in a stupor, he could hear Mr. Bennet feverishly riffling through his desk drawers.
Click here for Part: II
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