September 1927—Outside Gilbert, Alabama
Paralyzed with fear, the man breathed in short, quick, shallow pants as he witnessed the proceedings. The oppressive night air raised large beads of sweat on his black skin giving it a blistered appearance punctuated by crimson gashes from his having been dragged to the meeting behind a cantering horse. This went unnoticed by the two large men on either side of him. They held him so tightly that were he not riveted with terror he would have screamed in pain. Their white robes and hooded caps were in stark contrast to the naked, filthy, and bloodied body suspended between them.
Not twenty feet away, on a four-foot-tall wooden platform overlooking a large clearing, stood the region’s exalted cyclops. His immense, sheeted frame was lighted by a large burning cross and the torches held by each of the forty hooded men standing in an arc before him. No one dared speak while the cyclops was delivering his judgment. It would determine not the guilt or innocence of the accused, only the means of his execution. What the black man was hearing propelled him to the edge of unconsciousness.
As the exalted cyclops concluded his description of what was to take place, he brandished a new, custom-made whip that would be the proceeding’s instrument of torture and death. As he cracked the weapon, its portent of violence signified that the talking was over.
At that moment, even the frenzied, impatient clamor of the mob was unable to penetrate the catatonic state of the victim. Twenty-seven-year-old Emo Crumley was about to suffer what only a monster could ever have conceived.
From all outward appearances, Jed Haiger was destined to continue to live out the rest of his life as a hot-headed, poorly schooled, white bigot. The sultry Alabama climate often sparked his frenzied and brutal anger, which was always lurking barely below the surface. Everyone he knew at one time or another had fallen victim to it.
His deepest passions, however, were reserved for the “coloreds” with whom he was forced to work and live. No greater scourge existed for him than his black neighbors who, by their very proximity and oppressive similarity of circumstance, tortured him with the evidence of his personal failure.
On his last day on earth, Jed was immersed in a cacophony of chainsaws, the crashing of falling timber, and the relentless clanks and squeaks of toiling heavy machinery. The oppressive sun filled each lens of the pitch black glasses that he wore primarily to shield his fragile self-esteem from the prying eyes of his co-workers. The routine and experience of the mill workers under his hand maintained a work rhythm of which Jed could scarcely have been less aware. Instead, he was absorbed in what had become a growing preoccupation, the loss of his job in the midst of a recession.
“Jed . . . Jed" finally intruded into his awareness as Daniel Becker, a co-worker, tried to grab his attention.
“Yeah, yeah. Shore. Just thinkin’ ’bout things, that’s all. What d’ya want?"
“We’ve got to get that big Hollister order to them before five, and we’ll need another crew fast if we’re gonna make it.
“I’ll take care of it," sighed Jed as he dragged himself back to being a timber mill foreman.
He knew all too well how important the Hollister contract was to Masontown Timber, his employer for the past seven years. It had become common knowledge that Masontown was hanging on by a sliver trying to survive a regional lumber recession that had lasted over two years. The contract with Hollister Lumber was the only business saving Masontown from making radical cutbacks in its workforce, if not from failing altogether. If there were any further layoffs, Jed knew he would be at the front of the line to suffer the ax’s cutting edge.
As he headed to the mill manager’s ramshackle office to request the additional crew, Jed felt his fears welling up inside him as they had been doing with increasing frequency recently. The rumor of Masontown Timber’s worsening financial situation had been growing for weeks. Worse, the fear that Hollister might soon cancel its life-sustaining contract anyway was now adding to everyone’s anxiety. The pressure had been building a tinderbox inside Jed. Only a spark was missing.
Preoccupied with his work related stresses, he realized with a start that his autopilot had brought him to the office door of the mill manager, Bill Harris. Bill was a friend at work and at the poker table, but their relationship had actually centered on lifelong bigotry and shared hatreds. Jed’s boss had earned his respect early in their seven-year friendship when he confided to Jed that he was finally standing up for what he believed. He had put his honor on the table; he had joined the Klan. At the time, this had profoundly impressed Jed since their beliefs were similar but Jed’s courage was lacking—Bill had conviction—he was the mill manager. Jed looked up to him and wished he had the guts Bill did.
“Yeah. What’s up, Jed?” said Bill, as he responded to Jed’s knock and entrance into his office.
“We gotta problem, Bill. We need another crew fast to meet the Hollister deadline,” he said apprehensively, knowing that this was not what his friend wanted to hear.
“Now’s one hell of a time to find this out, Jed. We’re so thin, who we gonna get on such short notice? . . . Wait a minute. Use Clayton.”
Jed’s head pounded at the mention of the black man’s name.
“You know I hate that smart-ass nigger and he ain’t worth shit.”
Bill Harris’s heavy facial features fixed on Jed. “Look, it makes me puke to be obliged to some nigger, but he’s the only one here who can do it, and that job’s gotta get done and outta here, or we’re as dead as last week’s newspaper. Use him. I’ll get him to your area right away."
At that moment, Harris’s frown softened as he squinted through the glare in his small office and asked if Jed felt all right.
“Shore, just real worried ’bout what the hell I’m gonna do if I lose my job.”
“Then you better watch yourself with that nigger Clayton. If you ain’t feelin’ good, he’s liable to set you off again.”
Jed had gotten into a bloody fight with Howard Clayton several months before when Clayton had directed some of Jed’s men to help his own crew. While most foremen would often cooperate, Clayton’s skill and presumptiveness and Jed’s natural hatreds had mixed like gunpowder and a lit match until both limped away with bruises and humiliation in front of their crews. Jed had been mortified at his public drubbing at the hands of a black man and would never forgive him.
Jed arrived at his work area to see Howard Clayton not wasting any precious time. The black foreman had seen the need and was already directing both his and Jed’s men on the urgent Hollister project. Clayton was a capable foreman able to orchestrate the effort of his men quickly and decisively. He knew his job and was constantly mindful of the lethal danger ever-present in his and his men’s work.
Jed found himself furious with what he saw as Clayton’s usurpation of his authority, but an idea was emerging that managed to bridle his anger so that his reaction to Clayton was merely cold and curt. Jed then did something that the other men did not expect: he told Clayton to take the lead. Clayton was surprised by this sudden surrender of authority, but Jed’s icy manner made the black man suspicious and even more determined to perform flawlessly. If he didn’t, he knew Jed would find some way to replace his own head with Clayton’s on the corporate chopping block that everyone feared was coming soon.
Howard Clayton directed both his and Jed’s men expediently and with more apparent respect than Jed had ever commanded. As Jed saw the black man’s obviously superior deftness with both teams of men, the spark to detonate his emotional tinder box was struck. Jed’s explosive hatred for Clayton suddenly deranged his thinking so seriously that he was now temporarily blind to his concerns for his job and the Hollister contract. Instead, he became consumed with foiling his black competitor’s efforts and thrusting Clayton into the path of the merciless cutbacks now so menacingly close to both of them. Jed vowed to himself that no matter what, Clayton would go first.
In a moment of obsessed, self-destructive mindlessness, Jed suddenly pulled one of his more obsequious men aside and threatened him with a layoff or worse unless he followed his instructions exactly without ever breathing a word. The frightened worker immediately agreed and was ordered to sabotage the last truckload of lumber by not securing one of the main chains that restrained the immense logs. Despite his misgivings, his fear of Jed’s anger prevailed and the logger found his chance as the final load was being placed on the huge trailer.
As the last wood giant was hoisted on the truck and seemingly secured, the men who had worked doubly hard to meet the deadline took off their gloves and started to head for the office to punch out. Jed was one of the first to reach the parking lot when a deafening snap ricocheted against Masontown Timber’s buildings and the surrounding forest. Instantly, the thundering rumble of immense logs toppling from their perch atop the logging trailer was mixed with a horrific shriek that was silenced as the wooden giants finally came to rest, dust swirling in the muggy, still, midafternoon air. Having rushed to see what had happened, a stunned and disbelieving group of men stood motionless, trying to absorb what lay before them.
Howard Clayton, a black Masontown foreman, had just been crushed under the behemoths and was now a flat patch of shapeless, bloody flesh devoid of organs that had suddenly ceased to be internal. Seconds before the snap he had been confident that he had saved Masontown’s life-sustaining contract with Hollister Lumber by assuring his employer’s timely fulfillment of a critical order. This had been the beleaguered mill’s last chance of survival. Instead, in a matter of seconds, both Clayton and Masontown Timber were dead.
Jed’s first reaction was that he had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. It would still be several minutes before the full dimension of this tragedy and its impact on him and everyone else would pierce the ironclad shell of his hatred. For the moment, Jed felt only triumph and vindication which represented an immense relief from the relentless stresses with which he had been contending.
His perverted joy was struck down the instant Bill Harris flew onto the scene and shouted the orders that Jed’s reverie of triumph had preempted. Yelling for the hoist and directing others to call an ambulance, Harris looked at Jed incredulously while spitting out, “Goddammit, Jed! Get with it—what the hell you waitin’ for? I’ll have someone’s head for this!"
Finally, the enormity of Jed’s crime arrested his consciousness. His hated rival was not only sabotaged, he was also dead, as dead as the Hollister contract, his employer, and his job. In a frenzy, Jed began shouting at men almost incoherently, shoving others, and blaming everyone. His fervor was born not of remorse or guilt, only fear for his own skin.
The minute the local authorities arrived and started questioning witnesses, Jed’s already elevated anxiety mushroomed. Everyone was required to stay until they were officially released, which gave Jed far too much time to imagine the ever increasing certainty of his arrest and punishment. Rather than displacing his earlier work-related fears, his behavior had compounded them, making Jed physically shake as he contemplated what lay ahead.
It was hours before Jed was finally told he was free to leave the traumatized mill and head for the small hovel he called home. It was a terror-filled drive. As he contemplated his vulnerabilities, Jed felt his neck and spine turn to ice. He would seek refuge in a bottle, a place where he could deaden his fears, at least temporarily.
Despite having once been handsome, Jed Haiger now had a leathery face, downcast expression, and a slightly stooped stance that betrayed an existence of prolonged hardship. Born in Alabama thirty-eight years before, he was part of a family that had always been poor and was ultimately destroyed by a combination of forces.
Tall and good-looking, Jed’s father had been an able farmer whose impoverished circumstances left him with a desperate need for respect. Unfortunately, his father’s darker side would be uncorked when too much liquor invited violence to accompany it. This was especially true in his later years or when Jed’s mother was readily at hand. A tattered soul who had once been pretty, she had long since resigned herself to suffering as a way of life. Her body was tattooed with scars, evidencing the price she had paid attempting to shelter young Jed and his younger sister Anna from their father’s drunken rampages over the lifetime of a failed marriage. Needing to protect herself from the hopelessness and desolation of her circumstances, she had long ago retreated into herself and was perpetually in a sort of waking coma, shuffling from one household chore to another. Over time, tenderness, sympathy, and even the ability to feel and show love to her son and daughter had given way to despair.
Jed’s and Anna’s life suddenly and dramatically changed not long after Jed turned sixteen. He and Anna had come into their house late one afternoon to find their father, their partially nude mother, and a black drifter all dead of gunshot wounds in their parents’ bedroom. The police report later indicated that it appeared that their father had barged in on their mother and a young black stranger getting ready for sex, no doubt one of the few pleasures left for both. In the scuffle that ensued, all three were killed, but there was a suspicion that their father had survived, only to finally shoot himself in a blind drunk.
At fourteen years old, Anna’s reaction to this horrific experience was complex and formative. She resolved never to allow herself to become the helpless, tragically victimized person her mother had been. To achieve this, she would seek to harness her emotions and maintain a vigilant sensitivity to everything around her. Out of this crucible, then, the teenager would emerge as someone who was determined to control her destiny rather than be dominated by it.
In contrast to Anna, Jed’s emotional scar from this watershed event became a prism through which he would see everything from then on. He saw himself as doomed to a life of violence, humiliation, and injustice that was inescapable in the world into which he had been born. A ferocious temper was the only relief valve for his ever-present feeling of abject hopelessness.
Now, twenty-two years later, Jed was barely aware of entering his rented shack; his compounding fears had consumed his consciousness. The frayed screen door clattered behind him as a stark light bulb pierced the darkness with the click of a soiled switch. He shuffled into his bathroom where the only coolness he felt was the porcelain sink. Another filthy light switch snapped in the silence and he gazed into the eyes of a middle-aged, terrified, and haunted man who stared back at him through the framed reflection; his teeth gritted and his stomach flexed. He splashed some tepid water on his face to relieve the heat, if only for a second. A few steps and minutes away was his bed, silence, and, thanks to a bottle, escape to a drunken oblivion.
A broken chain of fitful naps left him awake, the oppressive, hot dampness forcing the sweat from his skin which glistened in the reflected moonlight. Jed seemed suspended between the languor of sleep and the ache of fatigued wakefulness. His frame throbbed at each joint while his muscles felt swollen and stretched. “Oh God, not now,” he thought as a blast of pent-up breath billowed his cheeks and brushed his lips. “What a helluva time to get sick,” he moaned.
His agitation and discomfort forced him out of bed and into the next room to heat a cup of caffeine and sugar. He cursed as his assaulted joints struggled with the instant coffee jar and spoon. His skin seemed numb; he was barely aware that he had accidentally splashed some hot water on it as he filled his stained mug. “You’ll be OK, just keep movin’,” he reassured himself hollowly as he dragged himself off to his bathroom.
“My God. It’s gotta be cheap shit booze,” he concluded, gazing into his bathroom mirror. His face was subtly splotched and his nose seemed swollen. The density of his facial hair made his cheeks and chin appear uncommonly dark, but he reassured himself that this would disappear with a shave. Then he shook with a start. His skin tingled while panic pierced his gut. “Wha’the? . . . My eyes! What the hell’s wrong with my eyes?!” Jed’s light blue irises had become dark and empty gray moons, surrounded by jagged red lines enveloping his milky white-yellow orbs.
Amidst his growing tension, he was unaware of hot drops of sweat racing down his chest and a cramp in his back and legs. His terrified fascination drew him just inches from the bathroom mirror. “Wha’the? . . . What . . . in . . . the . . . hell?” he heard himself shout, while pushing back from the bizarre reflection. A flush of scorching fever suddenly shot through his torso to his face as his pulse seemed to explode through every vessel of his body.
In mindless desperation, Jed mechanically retreated to a routine that ordinarily he found comforting. But this time, his longer than usual shower provided no respite from what had become a terrorizing obsession. Still dripping wet and grasping at a wispy hope that shaving might erase his terror, Jed’s desperation grew as he sensed his razor being held by an exceptionally taut hand that ached by the time he washed the last lather down the sink. Again, he pushed his face to the mirror. To his horror, his three-day growth had actually hidden the blotched and singed skin he now saw slowly spreading across the rest of his body. “What the hell is this? Goddammit! What is this?!”
The baffling physical changes he was undergoing, the growing stress Jed had been living under the last several weeks, and now the weight of having to pay for the horror at Masontown Timber finally collided inside Jed all at once. In his semi-sobriety, his fears exploded in a full blown panic that left his parched mouth virtually cemented shut. Jed’s head pounded and his torso effused with a clammy sweat as he felt his soul free-falling into an abyss.
In a mindless, frenzied rush to escape, Jed quickly threw some clothes and basics into an old duffle bag. His clunker peeled out of the dirt driveway and onto the two-lane interstate highway. Still unaware of where he was going, his blind terror was forcing him to flee as if he were being pursued by some titanic beast in the darkness.
As Jed tore down the deserted two-lane road in the middle of the night, two hours of solitary driving had done nothing to ease his steadily rising fear and physical discomfort, when desperation made him recall a nearby place where he had once felt completely isolated. It was an abandoned shack he had stumbled upon the previous summer during a visit with his sister. As he approached the turnoff, his terrifying condition was now racking his entire body with excruciating pain. As it intensified, he became obsessed with escaping into the dark, remote place he was now approaching.
As he came to a clearing at the end of the overgrown road and neared the derelict hovel, his pain was becoming so severe that even the total seclusion enveloping him was now offering little relief. The shack had obviously not been inhabited for years; it was an ideal refuge for someone desperately needing to vanish. Jed stumbled into the single room that offered a sink, mirror, toilet, and mattress on the floor as its sole concessions to domestic convenience. They were filthy, to be sure, but they were there. The water worked, the electricity did not. He would make do.
He saw through the darkness only with the limited help of a flashlight he had long ago stolen from Masontown’s supply shed. It would now give him sight where he would soon wish to be blind. The mirror hung on the far wall of the denuded room, far enough away so that Jed could not see himself from the doorway where he stood. Training the light on the mirror, he walked the few steps to examine what he had been afraid to see since getting into his truck—his face.
At first, he felt the flashlight was aimed improperly because he could not see himself clearly. The reflection was badly obscured, clouded by the mirror’s age and damage done long ago by the ever-present humidity. As Jed brushed at the mirror’s surface, he was less and less aware of his aching body, while becoming more and more consumed with what his reflection might reveal.
The image was still unclear as he shifted the flashlight impatiently to see his face. He could see only what he thought were small portions of it clearly, which required him to visualize a composite of the hints he was able to detect. As the seconds passed, his breathing became halted, his neck pulsated and he felt as if his entire skin was being singed. Strangely coarse arm hair rose as if it were a slow time-lapse film of growing grass, while his temples began to pound. What was happening was beginning to sink in.
Frantically, Jed clawed at his skin, as if he could somehow strip it from his body, leaving deep red gashes in his flesh. Suddenly blood seemed to race from his head, and his legs shuddered; he was being pressed by an invisible, mighty hand onto the barren board floor, his unconsciousness becoming a brief, merciful respite from his unbearable reality.
As he lay alone in the flashlit darkness partially paralyzed, he recovered his senses several minutes later, but the transformation of his bare arms was as vivid as the second he had passed out. What was happening to him was unfathomable: Jed was struck by the horror that he was fast becoming what he hated above all—a black man. Only partially metamorphosed, he was now a dark mulatto, with the characteristics of a blended white and black genealogy.
Before long, the process would run its course.
Bill Harris, Jed Haiger’s boss, was coming to the end of his final mill manager job interview with Tarenton Lumber Mill, located just outside of Gilbert, Alabama. He had quietly decided the month before that Masontown Timber was probably in too much financial trouble to pull out of it and started looking for another job. He had been right; Howard Clayton’s death had merely hastened the inevitable. Coincidentally, this interview was on the same day that Masontown declared bankruptcy. In an attempt to stand out from any competitors for the mill manager’s job, Harris had indicated in his first interview that he could probably persuade Hollister, Masontown’s lifeline customer, to award its lucrative, long-term contract to his new prospective employer.
“I know the others have probably gone over this already, but it says here that your present job is with Masontown Timber. Weren’t you the mill manager when that Negro was killed there a week or so ago?” queried Steven Choate, the senior personnel manager.
“Yeah, but it turned out to be sabotage. One of the foremen forced one of his men to monkey with the chains on one of our trucks. God knows why. You can bet your life, with all the people out of work and the dead colored’s family an’ all, people are gunnin’ for him, that’s for sure. There was hell to pay when that happened, and I caught most of the heat; that’s somethin’ I didn’t take to kindly and won’t soon forget. When we discovered it was a crank employee behind the accident, senior management cleared me of responsibility, not that it did much good. We all lost our jobs and I’m still lookin’ for the asshole, sorry, I mean, the bastard who did it.”
“Well, I’m impressed with your credentials and experience. It looks as if we could use someone like you as our mill manager. Of course, I don’t have the final say, but my senior management will look favorably on your record. I know that for sure, and I will personally recommend you. Of course, your bein’ such a help in gettin’ us that long-term contract that Masontown had with Hollister is a big plus for you.”
Bill Harris’s gambit worked. He would start as the new mill manager for Tarenton Lumber Mill the following week.
Barely able to stifle the revulsion he felt at his bizarre condition, it would be a long two days before Jed was fully released from his prison of partial paralysis. Now, necessity forced him to break out of his endless fits of panic enough to begin concentrating on what he had to do to survive in his new world. He had some food he had brought with him, but not enough to last much more than a week. He needed money but, despite his disguise, he feared going anywhere near Masontown lest he be recognized and arrested for Howard Clayton’s murder: “There’s no way that little shit who fixed the securin’ chain ain’t already ratted on me,” he concluded.
Despite his financial straits, with the all but assured cancellation of the Hollis contract, there wouldn’t be any money for him at Masontown. His last paycheck would have been negligible due to all the advances he had taken. A brief flash of yearning came with the memory of what now appeared to have been better times. But now those were gone—vanished into another world to which he knew he no longer belonged.
Jed knew his friends would never understand, even if he could magically get close enough to tell them what had happened. He knew their violent prejudices precluded the remotest chance of even hearing his story, let alone accepting it. He also knew he couldn’t find a doctor willing to see him except if the doctor were black. “Now there’s some real shit right there that I ain’t even gonna think about,” he hissed to himself. Jed need not have been concerned. There was barely a handful of black doctors in the entire state.
One week after he arrived at his newly adopted residence, Jed was able to take his first tentative steps outside to face his new world. He squinted with the glare of the sun but now felt free of the physical pain he had been enduring. He was also hungry and forced to come to grips with meeting other people. “Fortunately,” he thought, “nobody knows me ’round here.” To the contrary, he would discover that they thought they knew him all too well.
“Down the road, nigga. You got balls comin’ ’round my store. That could be bad for your health, boy,” said the nearby storekeeper as he introduced Jed to his new station in life. At first, Jed felt furious but ashamed, and hesitant to venture further. However, the need to survive soon overtook these feelings. He was browbeaten at several more white-only stores until he relented and entered a black store near the edge of Tory, Alabama, a tiny town poor by any standard. Tory was not far from the largest town in the area, Gilbert, where Jed’s sister, Anna, lived.
“Guess I’ll be needin’ some beans and hamburger. Where are they, boy?” Jed told the black storekeeper with palpable disgust.
“Where you from, nigga? You don’t sound like you comes from ’round here,” volunteered the powerful, young black man, attempting to calm his obviously agitated customer.
“Keep your nose where it belongs, boy,” replied Jed antagonistically.
“I takes that shit from whitey all night long at my job at the plant, I ain’t takin’ it from you. How d’you come off soundin’ so high and mighty? You ain’t no better ’n me.” The young black was obviously tender near the surface and fighting a battle that Jed now recognized to be hauntingly similar to his own. While Jed was short on sympathy, it was clear even to him that he needed the food more than a fight. His noblest attribute, his ability to be expedient, cooled the conversation and got him his humble provisions.
What Jed could no longer postpone was finding a job. He needed to buy time to figure out what to do. It was little consolation to him that his new disguise kept him a million miles away from anyone trying to track down Jed Haiger. In the course of looking for work, he would run headlong into the monster which afflicted so many of Alabama’s small, country businesses: institutionalized white bigotry. After several “Get your black ass outta here!” and “Don’t you dare think ’bout comin’ back here!” and more abusive responses had been spat in his face, he reluctantly applied for a job with another lumber mill on the outskirts of Gilbert, one of the largest mills in the region. Despite his vast problems, Jed reasoned, perhaps there was a chance he could land a job that he knew a good deal about or at least one nobody else had been willing to take.
The Tarenton Lumber Mill had never hired a black foreman and was not about to start despite Jed’s protests of having years of experience. When asked for proof of his background, his fear of being found out forced him to lie that he had none. At least for the time being, he would assume the role of a drifter who had worked here and there with no roots. He was aided by the infant state of government documentation in 1928 Alabama; the state’s first driver’s license would not exist for years. Even the federal government helped him to protect his anonymity, IRS withholding would not be introduced for fifteen years. Despite this fortuitous governmental assistance, this was the beginning of a life of duplicity that would ultimately turn on him savagely.
In the end, Jed was presented with the remarkable availability of a single menial position at rock bottom pay. Rather than be kicked out the door, Jed quit arguing and took the job. Considering his demonstrated knowledge but unverifiable experience, his new superintendent figured that this new man’s mysterious history did not warrant turning away what appeared to be a real bargain. He was to start right away and, under the circumstances, Jed felt a begrudging sense of relief at having gotten work at all.
To avoid the law and who knows what other suspicion, he signed on as Bob Brown and soon became known to his fellow workers as a short-fused, conniving, but very knowledgeable lumber mill hand. For all practical purposes, the white Jed Haiger had ceased to exist.
As the days passed, Bob Brown developed a routine but still struggled to come to terms with his new self. Ironically, this would be made slightly easier for him at work by being surrounded by other black men who would eventually accept him, but not just yet. For the first week and a half, Bob had been high-handed and feeling vastly superior until a few of his heftier co-workers decided to level his playing field.
“Hey, Brown. Come here a minute. Wanna talk to ya,” taunted the bait, a large black man named Earl Bender, just as the whistle blew ending the work day. His friends were milling around close by.
“Stay outta my face,” was Bob’s standard reply.
“I can’t seem to get you outta my face and it hurts bad, real bad. You gotta be somethin’ ugly, Brown,” continued Earl.
More than usual, his appearance was Bob’s tenderest area at the moment, and the remark hit him like a white-hot spear in the gut. “It’s gonna hurt a lot worse, nigger,” as he flew at the hefty black man.
The skirmish lasted barely two minutes and left Bob in a heap with eyes swollen shut, lots of cuts and bruises, and enough aches in his chest and belly to force him to reconsider his manner of interaction with his co-workers. His hatred was still virulent, but he was gradually developing a survivalist’s good sense to control it and get along. Something else he was developing was a smidgen of respect for these men, although it was born of fear rather than admiration.
During his first few weeks at Tarenton Bob saw no one outside of work. Still trying to comprehend what had happened to him, he felt ever more bitter, lonely, and depressed. After his first month at his new job, he was barely able to buy gas and food; rent would have been out of the question. He couldn’t even afford to buy bootlegged booze, and this made his life exquisitely miserable. “How’d these niggers live on this money? How’d they put up with this shit?” were some of the troubling thoughts continuing to preoccupy Bob as he attempted to come to terms with his new world.
Over time, however, he spent so many hours thinking about such things that he began experiencing something new for him, a mellowing self-exploration. For the first time, despite his freakish conversion, he was feeling a flickering sense of comfort that came with taking charge of his life.
In the coming weeks, despite his ever-present simmering rage and hatred of what he had become, another unexpected metamorphosis was emerging. Bob now found that his latent hostility was being aimed increasingly at his oppressive white superiors, whether it was at work or any other place he went. He was increasingly mystified as his habitual fury with people’s black skins was slowly being overshadowed by this new white target for his anger. He also felt the uncomfortable stirrings of some sort of bond forming with his black co-workers as he witnessed their seemingly endless ability to somehow cope.
While these internal changes were unfolding, his new relationship with his black coworkers and his desperate need for more money fostered a gradual, increasingly serious relationship with his work. To his surprise, he actually began to develop some pride in doing it, as menial as it was. This was a completely new experience for Bob, and in it, he found a small sense of accomplishment, something he had never known.
While still being far from the model worker, however, he was making important advances when a strong arm suddenly pulled the rug out from under him. One evening, after having worked at Tarenton for nearly two months, Bob returned to his rent-free abode. Looking forward to putting his feet up, he stepped out of his truck and turned to walk towards the shack. Suddenly, he looked up to see the formidable presence of Marengo County Sheriff Enis Gatlin, arms folded, standing in front of his few belongings that had been thrown on the ground.
“Just what you think you pullin’, nigger? Who gave you permission to stay in this place, huh? My brother, Joe, wouldn’t like some nigger holed up on his property, and since I just discovered what’s goin’ on, I think it’s overdue I give you a goin’ away party.”