‘That’s where they’d find our bodies,’ Wortman said to his wife as they drove along Route 118, a slender ribbon of asphalt that cut through the floodplains of Arkansas. There were no other vehicles on the road. No signs of people, until they pulled into the gas station. Behind the counter was a woman with scratchy gray hair, sagging sunburnt skin, and a few miserable teeth. To her right was a display case of knifes, suitable for hunting small animals, sacrificing virgins, and eviscerating Jews. Wortman put down forty dollars, walked to the pump, then filled the tank. As they drove away, his wife said, “Headline: Mutilated Bodies ID’ed As Missing Vacationers.”
Reaching Main Street, they turned onto Chickasaw, and parked alongside a small brick building. They walked to the front. It felt like a movie set — sparkling clean shop windows with crisp white serif lettering — ‘Bank of Tyronza, Poinsett County,’ ‘Cleaning, Dyeing, Suits Made To Order $22.50’ — and no people. The entrance was marked with a small sign. Air conditioning greeted them as they entered the store-front museum. There was no one inside. They turned towards the door just as a middle-aged woman appeared from a back room, apologizing for having been napping.
“First time in Tyronza?”
‘We’re from New York.’
“Ever heard about the Southern Tenant Farmers Union?”
They shook their heads.
She spoke about the Alabama floods, the Great Depression, and FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Act. The AAA provided money to farmers who were to share it with their tenant farmers. But in Alabama and other hard-hit states, greed sprouted where there were once crops. Tenant farmers, black and white, were thrown off the land. Destitute, they wandered the backroads in search of work, food, and a place to sleep. Circumstance helped them see beyond Jim Crow. In 1934, they banded together to fight a common enemy, creating the interracial Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
Eighty years and one thousand miles away, black and white again worked side-by-side against a common enemy.
‘I don’t want you visiting customers. I want you in the office.’
The Jock paused, then grinned.
‘You’re like me.’
‘A people person.’
Wortman nodded, the only safe response to an idiot with power.
‘You can’t go to people’s desks and start asking what they’re working on. It’s distracting.’
‘I need you at your desk, managing the people and the projects. Understand?’
And he didn’t.
“What the hell happened? I was only gone a week,” Wortman said.
Mad Scientist and Delegator looked up. No response. With a desperate gaze, Wortman turned to the Delegator who, intentionally or by disposition, kept himself outside of office politics. This outsider’s perch made it possible for him to provide a brilliant analysis of a situation on the rare occasion that he was willing to share his thoughts. This was not one of those occasions. Mad Scientist filled the anguished silence.
‘We knew you weren’t happy so we changed things to take the pressure off of you.’
Who said he was unhappy? It wasn’t Wortman.
* * *
That afternoon, Wortman sat patiently in the empty conference room. He found someone who would talk, who would explain what happened. That someone walked into the conference room, sat opposite him, and laid out the events of the previous week, the discussions that had taken place while Wortman was on vacation. Wortman listened, holding back anger, confusion, indignation, hanging onto every word, parsing and interpreting everything he was being told.
‘The Jock asked what are we going to do with Jeff. Do we still need him?’ The response was yes. He knows how to write proposals and he can keep projects moving along.
They stood up and shook hands. Wortman expressed his appreciation for the explanation, even though he still didn’t understand why it happened.
“I have to call my wife,” he said.
The Snake closed the door as he left the conference room.