Christopher Rowe

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UnCommonwealth: Jefferson County: Powers and Principles
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Powers and Principles

Because he was always getting lost, but was never late, Danny left his new apartment for his new job very early. He’d been interviewed, hired, and trained—after a fashion—at the cabinet’s Frankfort headquarters, so he’d never actually been to his new office.

The night before, he’d spread a map of downtown across his tiny kitchen table, carefully traced his route. Danny was Louisville born and raised, and so naturally knew almost nothing about downtown.

His apartment was in a part of Old Louisville populated mostly by university students. He’d chosen it because it reminded him of the Chicago neighborhood he’d lived in during college, and because it was a walker’s neighborhood.

So, a long, brisk walk north along Preston Street. He almost missed his turn onto unmarked Witherspoon, but seeing the river before him, he realized it had to be the street he was looking for. He was surprised to find that the intersection was surrounded by an old scrap yard. An apparatus of scaffolding and conveyor belts was noisily moving bricks of some metal—glittering and filthy at the same time—from one place to another to no obvious purpose. Silhouetted against the morning sky, it reminded Danny of dragons from the covers of his many paperbacks.

Something hard to know and harder to see had been laying fallow beneath the scrap yard for a few hundred years. It sniffed at Danny’s dragon thought and decided to rouse itself enough to follow him for awhile.

Danny turned down Witherspoon and followed the street into the grid of buildings that crowned the city. He circled and searched and consulted until he finally found the dull brick facade of the building that housed his new office. The lobby had old furniture covered in cracked vinyl, dirty linoleum floor tiles and faded paint chased with mildew, all in different shades of pale green. There was no one behind the receptionist’s desk. Danny looked at his watch. He was forty-five minutes early. He sat down to wait. He didn’t notice, but something sat down in him.


Around ten, a big, lumpy man came to find him. The man had a sheaf of papers clutched in the stained yellow fingers of one hand and was bracing a stack of folders against an ample gut with the other. “Daniel Cook?” he asked.

“Just ‘Danny’ is fine,” said Danny, standing and offering his hand. The lumpy man thrust his chin down, indicating the piles of folders and papers he held. Danny took a load of hanging green folders.

“Whatever,” said the man. “Only thing I need to know about your name is your initials, because that’s what I want to see on these files when you’re done with them.” By the time he finished his sentence he was talking over his shoulder, slamming through the swinging metal doors at the rear of the lobby as Danny struggled to snatch up his jacket and backpack before following.

“Come on, come on,” said the man. “They hooked up your terminal yesterday afternoon, so you can start processing cases right away. You read that binder they gave you in Frankfort, right?”

They were threading their way through a maze of hallways, past closed doors and beneath bare bulbed light fixtures.

“We found all these cases in Connie’s desk. Nobody cleaned it out when she retired and it turns out she was sitting on a bunch of work. First thing you do, you get these cleared out of the way. Then we’ll set you up with a regular case load, all right?”

The man—he still hadn’t said his name—was taller than Danny. He skin was a uniform unhealthy gray, except for a network of red veins on his nose.

“Am I supposed to process them as new incomings?” Danny had picked up the caseworker language from his trainers.

“Hell, no. You wish. Put the newest date you can find on them into the system as the start date, but that’ll still be a couple of months old. So you’re going to have to pend them, but the computer will make you put in a reason code. Put in double zero. That doesn’t show up as an option when you hit F4, but it works. It turns off the flags and keeps the batch from showing up on the supervisor’s backlog file.”

They’d arrived at a long, low room divided into cubicles. The fluorescent bulbs were dusty, and it seemed to Danny that most of the light came from the green letters on the computer terminals that sat on each desk. There were perhaps twenty people, all of them women, staring at the screens and typing far more rapidly than Danny could. The lumpy man steered Danny to an empty cube.

Remembering the last thing the man had said, Danny asked, “Won’t the supervisor be angry if he finds out I have backlogged files he doesn’t know about?” He set the stack of folders on the edge of what he assumed was now his desk.

“I am the supervisor, Danny, and I’m always pissed off about something. Just get these pended, okay? Then go through them all and separate out the ones you can send incomplete application letters to. Anything’s missing, even a middle initial, send an incomplete letter. Most of our clients are usually too high to read, so you’ll get almost zero callbacks. That’ll take care of most of them.”

He nodded at the frosted glass door nearby, stenciled with a name, Brandeis. “You need anything, ask one of these sweethearts out here, because I’m busy.” He looked at the papers he’d held back from Danny’s stack. “I’ve got to call this woman and tell her that her daughter—” He stopped, narrowed his eyes, then smiled.

“Hey, Sarah!” he called. If any of the women looked up, or even slowed their typing, Daniel couldn’t tell. Brandeis continued, though. “I’ve got a good one for you. Talaria!” He spelled it.

Brandeis showed the application to Daniel. It was for a complicated form of supplemental health insurance, funded by various federal grants but administered by the Commonwealth. One of the children’s names was listed as “Talaria Love Watterson.” Brandeis said, “Sarah keeps our list of all the fucked up names black people give their kids. There’s some real doozies on there.”

Daniel looked around the room again. Three quarters of the women were black, putting him solidly in the minority along with Brandeis and a handful of the others. “I think I’ve seen that, before, actually,” he told the supervisor. “It’s those shoes Mercury wore. That’s what talaria means, winged sandals. Kind of pretty actually.”

Brandeis rolled his eyes. “Great, a fucking scholar.” He tucked the file under his arm. “Look, I know who you are, okay? You’ve got a master's degree in social work and a rich daddy in the East End. You probably ride a bicycle. But I bet when you decided to get an apartment down where the real people live, you didn’t even think about looking anyplace west of Sixth Street. So get off the high horse and into that chair, and get those cases pended and the incomplete app letters in this afternoon’s mail. I’m going to go tell Talaria’s mama that she’d better use those flying shoes to wing her ass down to Burger King for a job, because I’m cutting her off state assistance.”

With that, he turned and walked into his office. Danny looked around the long, low room once more. Nobody looked back.


At precisely noon, the clattering of his coworkers typing stopped and the twenty or so women rose in a tightly choreographed scramble for lunch. Some of them smiled and nodded at him as they passed by Danny, and some of them even murmured his name. In less than three minutes, Danny found himself alone. He’d been working for less than two hours and wasn’t hungry. The door to Brandeis’ office hadn’t opened.

In the light spilling onto the dull floor at its base, though, Danny saw an unexpected swirl of dust. The room was heated by radiators, and he hadn’t felt a breath of movement in the air since he’d entered the building. The dust was definitely swirling however, undeniably swirling faster and faster until Danny suddenly felt an unfamiliar lurch in his heart and an almost ecstatic shudder passed through his arms and legs, leaving them feeling weighted down and exhausted.

The swirling cloud gathered more and more dust to itself, growing into a pillar of pitch black, then coalescing into a lumpy male shape—dark as coal and floating a few inches above the floor. It wore winged sandals and its body took on more and more definition as it spoke. The voice sounded like shearing metal, glittering and filthy at the same time.

Talaria, yes. There was a helmet, too.”

Danny hadn’t noticed his throat was paralyzed until it was released. He stared at the face hanging above him, which shifted from clarity to shrouded confusion with every syllable. He realized that it was asking him a question.

“The petasos, I think. Like the Golden Age Flash. Or on a florist’s van.” Danny’s throat was raspy dry.

The creature looked about the room, then gestured. A sheaf of papers flew into the space in front of its hands. The papers sculpted themselves into a sleek helmet with just the suggestions of wings at either side, darkening to the same black as the corded sandals on the creature’s feet, the robe gathered at one of its shoulders, its skin.

“Are you my priest?” it asked.

“,” said Danny. “No, I’m a social worker.”

Socialus? Companion worker? You work for your companions? Or they for you?”

“No. It just means we help people. Uh, anybody really.”

It laughed. “Ah.”

The creature floated up higher, slowly rotating as its helmet brushed the flaking plaster of the ceiling. Danny found that his limbs were less heavy as it moved further away from him. He called to it. “What are you?

The creature folded its arms tightly across its chest. “I am the same as I ever was,” it said, then collapsed downward and outward in a gentle cloud of dust and paperwork.

A thin patina of grime settled over every surface in the room. Danny wiped his desk and files as clean as he could, then hunched back over his keyboard, flailing away against an unchangeable world. •


Jefferson County was formed in 1780 by the same act of the Virginia legislature that led to the creation of Fayette and Lincoln Counties, and thus shares with those counties the honor of being the first in the Commonwealth. It was named for Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia. Today, Jefferson County cannot be discussed separately from Kentucky’s glittering civic jewel, Louisville, with which the county formed a merged government in 2003, ending two and a quarter centuries of often uneasy relations. Louisville, named for the French King Louis XVI, is the 16th largest city in the United States.

The county is geophysically comprised mostly of the riparian Louisville Lowland, with its eastern third marking the boundary of the Outer Bluegrass region, and with a spur of the Knobs region in the south providing a dramatic view of downtown from Iroquois Park, one of the many extraordinary public greenspaces designed for the city by Frederic Law Olmstead.

The county’s rich history is preserved and studied by the Filson Historical Society. Among the many other important events that occurred in Jefferson County, it should be especially noted in these bicentennial years that it was here, at the Falls of the Ohio, that Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark built their Corps of Discovery around “Nine Young Men From Kentucky.”

Jefferson County is famously home to Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby; to the Actor’s Theater of Louisville with its annual Humana Festival of New American Plays; and to the Speed Art Museum on the campus of the University of Louisville. Go Cardinals!

There really was a scrap yard dragon near the corner of Preston and Witherspoon, but it has since given way to the beautiful Louisville Slugger Field, named in honor of the famous Hillerich & Bradsby product and home of the Bats.

The invaluable Kentucky Atlas and Gazetteer has an entry on Jefferson County here.

Thanks to Maria Martin of the Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and to the staff of the Kentucky Room at the Lexington Public Library. As always I owe a great debt to the editors of the Kentucky Encyclopedia and to Robert M. Rennick for his Kentucky Place Names. Additionally, for this entry in the series I drew on John Kleber’s Encyclopedia of Louisville.

The “principality of the air” which Danny Cook encounters is based on my readings of chapter eight of René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and of the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians by Paul of Tarsus. My interpretation of these texts almost certainly diverges from auctorial intent in each case.

God save Jefferson County, and God save the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events are either fictitious or used fictitiously.

Copyright © December 2003 by Christopher Rowe. All rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced by any means without the author’s prior consent.

Earlier entries in the UnCommonwealth series can be found by following the links below:

Lincoln County: Not That Lincoln

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