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Sam paused in the shade of the office building, clinging to the last few inches of protection before submitting to the abusive sunlight. Fishing his watch from a vest pocket, he tried to calculate how long it would take to drive up to Hazlehurst, nearly fifty miles to the northwest. Resigned to finding his supper along the road somewhere, he gave the tarnished dial a few unnecessary twists and tucked it away again. The ‘particulars’ that Mr. Bennet had claimed Doris would supply didn’t amount to much, and the anemic folder was currently pinned beneath his arm where it had already begun to absorb sweat from the early-afternoon humidity.
Wading into the insistent flow of foot traffic, he allowed the human current to carry him the three blocks to his Plymouth. Once there, he tossed the moist folder onto the seat through the open passenger window, stopping to glance at the address scribbled across the front.
Sam had been replaying the conversation with Mr. Bennet since leaving the office, dissecting and analyzing each nuanced word for any unspoken clues regarding the bizarre assignment. He must have been lost in thought—staring, as he was, at the automobiles and streetcars weaving and darting around one another; each no doubt blaming the other for the hectic traffic—when a man’s voice pulled him from his reverie. At first sounding as though coming from a great distance, the hazy words were soon quite loud and clear, mere inches from his face.
“Hey, pal, I said, ‘are you okay?’” The man’s breath smelled of cheap cigars, worsening the busy thoroughfare’s nauseating petroleum-tinged cloud of automobile exhaust.
Shaking his head to dispel both the earlier conversation and the presently unpleasant odor, Sam turned to look at the source of the mental intrusion. The man was older—the damp, pinkish skin around his neck and chin already beginning to lose its youthful tautness—and wore a well-tailored off-white linen suit and crème-colored fedora. Coupled with the soft features of a lifelong businessman, symmetric rows of shiny teeth peeked out from behind a smile that carried a mixture of pity and encouragement.
“Huh?” asked Sam, visibly confused.
“You look like a fella who’s just gotten some bad news. Keep your chin up though; things’ll get better soon, kid.” The man’s voice was thin and nasally, though it still bore the confidence of one that could legitimately divine the future.
‘Kid’. Again with the kid. Sam just took a step back and nodded agreeably, “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.” Tipping his hat kindly to the stranger, he walked around to the driver’s side of the car and climbed in before the man could reply. Then, as he aggressively stomped down onto the starter, he’d never been so relieved to hear the massive engine roar to life and muffle the din of the modern world.
I’m going to show every last one of ‘em. They’re gonna see just what this kid can do. Mr. Bennet, Doris, Greer, even this clown—still mooning at me from the sidewalk.
Avoiding any further eye-contact, Sam eased his car into traffic while pretending not to notice the patronizingly sympathetic grin on the man’s face. If you only knew, buddy, he thought to himself as the throng of humanity absorbed the would-be good Samaritan in the rear-view mirror.
A few miles to the west, Marietta Road would take him out of the city, leading further into the mountainous regions in the north of the state. As he drove along the crowded streets—bristling with men and women much too in a hurry to be bothered with courtesy—it was hard to imagine that so many Americans were struggling just to survive.
Unlike Georgia’s rural communities, Atlanta had not only persisted despite the collapse of the stock market, in some respects it had actually continued to grow in size and population. A large part of this growth was due to the invasion of the boll weevil two decades earlier. Prolific eaters and breeders, the weevil’s voracious appetite was responsible for destroying much of the state’s cotton fields. Combined with a plummeting demand and record droughts, for years before the depression there had already been a steady exodus out of the rural farming communities and into the bigger cities where work was easier to find and poverty easier to share in.
Now, on every corner and stuffed in-between, towering brick structures rose in constant competition with one another for sunlight and reputation alike. Previously undeveloped land—characterized by the many hills and fraught with rocky soil—was being painstakingly and enthusiastically cleared in order to make space for the newly homes and businesses that would no longer fit within the constraints of the traditional city limits.
Slowing as he approached the busy intersection, Sam studied the faces of his neighbors as they whisked by one another. Beyond the proud and stoic expressions, there was an intrinsic tint of hope lying just beneath the surface. These were a people accustomed to repairing, rebuilding, and enduring. Whatever the future might hold for Bennet and Associates, Atlanteans were determined that their city would emerge from the current global crisis stronger than it had previously been. Accelerating away from the resolute survivors, he wondered what his own future held. Perhaps the man with the cheap-cigar breath was right, and things would indeed improve.
A short time later, as the city’s ever-expanding skyline bid a silent farewell, Sam was finally able to turn his full attention to the job that lie ahead.
As brick and glass gave way to granite and pine, only a few wispy clouds shared the cobalt horizon with the looming peaks in the distance. Beyond the Plymouth’s passenger window to the northeast, the imposing Blue Ridge Mountains threatened to continue their southernly advance and swallow Atlanta whole at some unknown time of their choosing.
In contrast, straight ahead in the distance, the section of the Appalachian Mountain Range currently growing in Sam’s windshield only caught Georgia with a glancing blow—narrowly slashing across the state’s northwest corner like an errant paintbrush stroke. Beyond the soaring tops and jagged ridgelines, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee welcomed those willing to make the arduous trip.
In the shadows of both great ranges and scattered throughout the many foothills, dozens of little mountain towns dotted the map. Even in the best of times, life in these tight-knit communities carried its own unique brand of hardships, and these days many were further reduced to a primitive subsistence lifestyle.
Driving by shotgun houses and modest single-family shacks, malnourished and dirty-faced children rushed out to the road in order to see the big car thunder past, the innocence of youth temporarily shielding them from the harsh and inescapable reality that awaits. This far out from the city, there were still benefits to having large families—where many hands made for lighter lifting—and as such it wasn’t uncommon to pass four, five, even six or more children working and playing around the yard, unwitting apprentices to the craft of hard labor.
More often than not, the youngsters would run alongside the car, leaping over red ant piles and side-stepping the rhododendron bushes until they stopped, precious energy spent, and collapsed to the gravel in a satisfied huff, smiling as they waved goodbye to the stranger.
While the sun poured out its last drops of oppressive heat, Sam kept the nose of the Plymouth pointed deeper into the hills. Like a maroon schooner, both car and driver crested over top of lush, verdant waves, climbing higher and higher into the endless sapphire sky before plunging down again into the cooler depths of the valleys and draws.
With no need to dig his watch from his pocket, both Sam’s stomach and the Plymouth’s fuel gauge agreed that it was going to be time to stop soon. He’d been tracking his own noisy progress on a coffee-stained map sitting on the passenger seat beside him, stealing glances and tracing his finger along the curvy black line as he passed various signs and waypoints. If he was correct, Hazlehurst was only one—possibly two, if Rocky Point still existed—towns ahead, and he plead with his grumbling stomach and flagging fuel gauge to hold out just a bit longer.
After a few shallow hills, his resolve was rewarded with a collection of signs—some of which appeared crudely handmade, and thus of questionable legitimacy—heralding the arrival of Hazlehurst: “Just Five Miles Ahead.” Then it was four; and then finally three. Before being needlessly informed of the two-mile mark, on the left side of the road he saw the sun glinting off the cylindrical glass globe of a fuel pump, quietly supervising a trio of dusty utility vehicles in the gravel parking lot of a service station.
The once-relentless sun had at last begun to sag lower as Sam pulled his car alongside the lone pump. Switching the engine off to the relief of his ear drums, the ghost of the mechanical roar momentarily haunted him, wandering around the halls of his head before being driven away by the mountain songbirds and cicada bugs trilling in the treetops.
As far as service stations go—especially compared to Atlanta’s full-convenience marts—there was nothing remarkable about this one. A small, squat building with a flat roof and high façade proudly declared that they not only sold gasoline, but indeed that it was “Gulf” brand gasoline. The white-washed siding looked as if it received a fresh coat of paint at least every other year, and generations of thick, dried rivulets were visible all the way from the parking lot.
Guarding the customer entrance and a pair of large plate-glass windows, a row of log pillars supported the pitched roof over the building’s front porch. Scattered around the dusty planks, a mismatched assortment of chipped and sun-bleached wooden chairs sat empty in the pre-evening light; all except one.
As Sam climbed from the car—stretching his cramped legs and lower back with a stifled groan—a barefooted man in overalls stood up from a warped rocker and plucked his wide-brimmed straw hat off a nail on the service station wall. With a genial expression that looked grateful for the distraction, he walked out from underneath the shade and down the short flight of steps before ambling over with a gate as languid as the thick air.
“G’afternoon, sir. Well, p’haps I ought say ‘good evening’ instead,” said the man pleasantly, as he tugged a rag from his back pocket.
Taller than Sam by at least four inches, his muscular shoulders and broad upper-back looked as though they were carved from the surrounding mountains. Where it wasn’t hidden by the fabric of his sleeveless overalls, his burnished copper skin glistened with the sheen of a man who spent most of his daytime hours outdoors. Beneath the straw brim of his sunhat, curly black hair concealed stowaway drops of sweat, temporarily delaying their eye-stinging decent.
Meeting the man’s friendly look, Sam returned the greeting, “Hi there. Fill it to the top if you would. And be sure to mind the paint, please.”
Now that he was within spitting distance of Hazlehurst, Sam wanted to go through the information that Doris had given him before leaving one last time. While the hulking service attendant saw to the gas, oil, and bug-splattered windscreen, Sam re-read the gossipy details about Ellie Garnett’s simple country life. With any luck, it would be a quick negotiation and he’d soon be on his way back to Atlanta—and his hero welcome for single-handedly saving the company.
Just then a thought came to him. Even with the address, Sam could spend hours crisscrossing the hills and hollers looking for the widow’s place. This wasn’t the city, where roads and buildings were laid out according to the will of men. Here, seasonal weather patterns as much as falling rocks could determine which path a route took. Asking a local for some help might potentially save him untold hours’ in delays and frustration.
Turning first to the service building, an open side-door revealed a handful of locals kneeling or crouched on the floor in a semi-circular huddle. The focus of their attention, a man with mahogany colored hair and skin as tanned as boot leather, threw a pair of dice against an unseen target, triggering a raucous chorus of cheers and gripes. As pennies changed hands, the huddle rotated to allow a slightly younger looking man in a newsboy hat to throw.
Thinking better of it, Sam turned to the man currently wiping oil from the Plymouth’s engine dipstick with his greasy rag.
“Say there, pal, you lived here your whole life?”
The man, visibly surprised, looked around quickly as if Sam had been speaking to someone else. Confirming that it was just the two of them there, he shrugged to himself and said, “All ‘m life. Was born and raised by Cutler Pass.”
If Sam had been expected to know what or where Cutler Pass was, he didn’t. Not wanting to sound rude however, he simply nodded and went on, “Oh, right. Perfect then.” He glanced over to the open side-door, but the gambling locals had yet to even notice his presence. “Let me ask you something, you ever hear of an Ellie Garnett? Now, she’d be an older lady, in her 70’s as a matter of fact. And she’s a widow, so no—”
“Yes sir, I know her,” then, correcting himself, “well, what I mean to say is that I know of her. Her place is on the ‘Oos, upriver…” Pausing to do the math, he quickly abandoned the effort and finished, “Well, a few miles from here ah guess.”
Perfect, thought Sam triumphantly, though he choked down his excitement.
“Great, great,” he said nonchalantly, “say—think you could point out the shortest route there?”
When the question was put to him, the man’s almond eyes turned skyward, deep in thought again. Then after an uncomfortable amount of time, he said, “Yes sir, I think I could do that.”
Waiting expectantly, Sam urged him on with raised eyebrows. Catching the hint, the man continued, turning to point further up the very road that Sam had come in on.
“About… six or seven hills thatta’way,” he said, hand undulating as he pantomimed cresting the hill tops, “you’re gonna see three big magnolias in an open field on your left, like at Calvary.” He swung his arm down pointedly to demonstrate just which side of the road he meant. “Turn there, an’ then follow the road down t’ the ‘Oos. When you get to the ferry—”
Sam cut him off, “I’m sorry—what? Did you say ‘ferry’? Like a boat that goes back and forth from bank to bank?”
The service attendant looked perplexed, “… yes sir…”
“You mean to tell me there ain’t no bridges over the Oostanaula?”
“You ass’d the shortest way, the ferry the shortest way,” said the man, beginning to look worried at having offended the only customer in sight.
To his visible relief, Sam just chuckled out loud. “Right you are, and if taking a ferry gets me those two-hundred acres then I’ll ride every damn ferry in the state.”
The attendant cocked his head quickly, “Two hunned acres, sir?”
Sam’s eyes involuntarily widened. Shit, that’s no good, he thought to himself.
Recovering—and trying his best to downplay the flippant remark—Sam said, “Well now, maybe. There’s a lot of things to discuss with Miss Garett first, and these types of things can get very complicated…” He was getting anxious to get out of there now. The last thing he needed was a bunch of locals banding together to drive off a carpetbagger from the city.
His first conversation in town and he’d already been careless with his tongue. Thinking it unlikely for the service attendant to tell anyone, he still had every intention of being back on the road to Atlanta before it could matter much.
The service station attendant just nodded slowly and said, “Well uh, like I was sayin’, when you get to the magnolias—”
“Yes-yes, ‘turn left; down to the ferry,’ then where?” injected Sam, suddenly in a rush to get back on the road now that he’d tipped his hand.
“…Oh, uh,” the man stammered, flustered in the shadow of an ageless and cruel power imbalance, “at the far bank, follow the road up the hill. At the top, keep to your right an’ stay on that road. It’ll follow the ‘Oos a ways, then you’ll come to Miss Ellie’s gate. There’s a big pine stump right out by the drive.” The man spoke with his hands, the calloused palms bending and veering along with the description.
Flashing a gracious smile, Sam said, “Hey bud, I appreciate that. Say, what do I owe you?”
Turning to glance at the gauge on the pump, the man said, “Two and seventy-five, sir.”
Digging his billfold from his pocket, Sam asked, “While I’m at it, you got anything to eat around here? I’m just dying to try some local food.” Stealing a glance at the dice game still underway, he added, “I really don’t want to bust up their game just for a bite though.” In truth, he no longer trusted himself in the midst of so many Hazlehurst residents not to spill the beans. If he did, that lot wouldn’t be so easy to mollify.
Looking perplexed, the attendant gave a little shrug and said, “I still have half a chicken sandwich for my supper, if’n you’d like?”
Without pausing to consider it, Sam said, “That would be lovely in fact.”
The man disappeared into a small shed beside the service station before quickly emerging with a paper sack. With one last peek inside, as if to farewell to the food that he would no longer get to enjoy, he handed it over to Sam.
In return, Sam gave the man four dollars from his wallet and said, “No need for the change, get yourself another nice supper.”
The attendants eyes widened in alarm. “Oh gosh no, sir, I can’t keep all that. For half an old chicken sandwich? No sir, no sir. It wouldn’t be right.”
Sam held up a hand to stop him, “It’s fine, really, you’ve been very helpful.” What he didn’t say was that the money was from the Bennet Agency’s petty cash fund, used for incidentals such as this.
City or mountain town, a poor man with a large sum of money that he wasn’t able to easily explain could be a dangerous thing. With his only defense being that he sold half of a sandwich to an out-of-town stranger, the man’s concern was more than justified.
As if to quell his fears, Sam added, “If anyone gives you a hard time, just tell them to ring Jerry Bennet in Atlanta, the switchboard gals know the plug.”
There was a spark of understanding in the man’s eyes, and he said, “So that’s you sir, Mr. Jerry Bennet?”
Sam opened his mouth to correct him when a rowdy cheer burst from the little service building. He turned and witnessed a collection of hands materialize from the shadows and slap the back of a scrawny youth crouched down to his haunches. Just then, a thought came to him.
“Yep, that’s right. Jerry Bennet, at your service,” said Sam, flashing his best—albeit thus far only marginally successful—toothy salesman smile.
Nodding, the man tucked the money into his pocket, if not fully convinced then at least open to the possibility that he might get to keep the tip. “Israel, sir,” he said by way of post-scripted introduction.
Tipping the brim of his hat, Sam quipped, “Well Israel, it’s been mighty fine to meet you, and I thank you for the help.” With that, he tossed the paper sack onto the seat and climbed back into the car. Having no need to pull the choke out, he stomped on the starter and the big engine roared to life, scattering the chatty songbirds on the electricity line overhead. Momentarily reminded of the world beyond their dice game, a few of the local men inside the building glanced out at him, and Sam nodded back congenially.
Pulling away from the service station in a cloud of ochre colored dust, he glanced at the mirror several times to see Israel standing beside the gas pump like a rooted tree, his frozen stare watching the maroon Plymouth crest the little green waves of the surrounding hills until one final steep descent sealed off the view for good.
A short time later, as he passed more of the intermittently scattered houses and sprawling river valley fields, three distinct trees growing in a staggered row appeared in an open meadow on the left side of the road. The thick, dark emerald leaves with an almost waxy appearance told Sam without a doubt that this was the turn that Israel had mentioned. As he departed the main highway, pulling onto the packed-dirt road that ostensibly lead down to the ferry, Sam allowed himself a short moment of victory. I’m coming for you Mrs. Garret, like it not.
Click here for Part: III
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