Somewhat to my surprise I discovered those who worked for the county in which I used to live were not government employees but members of a private club. One joined this club by filling out an application, taking a test and going to interviews. Once one was accepted (because “a slot opened up”) one received an employee number. I filled out the application and took the test because I needed money. I soon discovered, however, that even though I’d been accepted and had been given an employee number I was not yet a full-fledged member. Newcomers were regarded with suspicion, if not totally ignored.
Insiders called their club “the county.” The term, as they used it, had occult overtones. When speaking to newcomers, or outsiders, they would repeat, “The county issues warrants on Wednesdays…” or “The county does not loan heavy equipment…” or “the county charges .423 on a base rate of assessed value…” as though some secret inner spirit—of which they were the tangible extensions—breathed through everything that they did.
The longer one had “been with the county” I learned, the more one absorbed the county mystique. (Club members never said “I work for the county,” they said “I’m with the county” or “I’ve been with the county sixteen years” as though describing a marriage.) As a club member absorbed the secrets that defined his or her specific activity he or she became the sole authority on how that activity was to be performed. Although manuals and operating procedures were posted here and there they often were outdated or had been superseded by an authority’s ingenuity or experience.
A slot opening at a higher level triggered a game of musical chairs as lower level club members filled newly opened slots. For months—or even years—after these promotions the new slot-fillers were obliged to pry secrets of their position from its former possessors (who, in turn, were doing the same from those they’d replaced, thus creating a chain of dependency that remained unbroken except in cases of death or someone leaving the area). When that happened the new possessor simply was told, “Well, figure something out” and he or she usually did, even if what she or he figured out was inefficient, costly or illegal.
Most of the long-standing club members lived in the county seat, a debris strewn old industrial town that had waned economically as the agricultural towns surrounding it prospered. Although nepotism was discouraged many of those holding administrative and clerical jobs had fathers, wives, cousins and children who were “with the county.” Because hardly anyone ever was fired and only occasionally did someone retire or take a better job somewhere else turnover was slight.
The county complex typified what the club was about. It was built during my last year with the county on several acres of land across the river from the old downtown. The administration building, surrounded by parking lots, was partially hidden by a brick wall. The offices all faced an inner compound allowing the club members to turn their backs on the outside world. From the passageways one could look into offices where club members moved among identically styled cubicles but one had to give a password to guards (called receptionists) to gain admittance to the sacred territory.
I “was with the county” again briefly on a work-for-hire contract a few years after I left. I remember stepping outside the administration building, my brown-bag lunch in hand, only to discover that were no benches, no grass, no trees, no walkways, no paths, only the brick wall and the black-topped parking lots. A small sign warned against trespassing through the paupers’ cemetery on the other side of the entrance road. Past it I could see thistles sloping towards a swale where a few poplars stood and a road that curled past what once had been the county hospital towards juvenile hall and the jail. A rabbit burst from cover, raced down the road and veered into the underbrush again.
When I returned to work a long-time club member told me I could have come inside to the break room and eaten my lunch there. I thanked her and told “next time” I would. But “next time” never came.
Like the rabbit, I ran.
Robert Joe Stout’s poems and stories have appeared in The Tishman Review, Emrys Journal, Existere, Two-Thirds North and many other magazines and journals. He lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.