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HOWL MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINAFALL 1952
The machine started at dusk, headlights slashing their way down the old switchbacks that ribbed the mountain’s slopes, thunder and echo of thunder vaulting through the ridges and hollers on every side. The road sawed down out of the high country, angling against valleys welled with darkness, past ridges hewn by dynamite, at times following the pale sinews of logging roads that lashed these hills half a century before. It poured ever east, the motor thrumming long miles through the darkening country of the foothills, the machine leaving in its wake a ghost of dust that settled on mailboxes and ranging cattle and tobacco fields already reaped. The road fell and fell again, surrendering to the speed of the machine, the fire of the engine, while stars wheeled out over the land.
The long bends unwound before the car’s nose, the roadside produce stands and billboards and barns big enough to hide the cars of badged men. The road crested a rise and the land lay nearly naked against the sky, vast and blue. The ragged lights of the mill town burned in the distance, borne up on the swells of the Piedmont. The town of Gumtree. Soon the road was humming, paved, plunging through great stands of hardwoods. The mills rose long and hulking on their bluff over the town, pouring black smoke from their many stacks, like ocean liners on a sea of earth. Window after window brightly lit, as if people were having fun in there, a party or a ball. Men and women came down out of the mountains to toil all hours in the heat of those lint-blown rooms, making socks and hose. Second shift ended at ten o’clock. The workers would emerge coughing and white-dusted from those brick bowels like ghost-people, ready for a nip of the hot.
The machine crossed the dam into town. The valley had been flooded for power two decades before; the dam discharged its row of flat white waterfalls under the moon. The car rounded the town square, the big motor rattling the darkened storefronts like man-brought thunder. There was the grocery, the pharmacy, the five-and-dime. The jeweler, the shoe shop, the hardware store. The places where the mill-hands bought on credit, the payments deducted from their wages. The machine drove on, the working neighborhoods assembling before its hood, the low little mill-owned houses huddled close with square, close-cropped yards. Homes so narrow a man could shoot a shotgun and hit every room. Some had. The car drove between them and past them, out into the edges of town where the road descended slowly, gradually, toward the lake.
End-of-the-Road, they called it. The last vestige of town before it was swallowed underwater. Shothouses and bawdyhouses reared out of the bottomland trees, houses for anything a body might want. Their windows a sickly yellow, flickering with shadows. A place for a drink and a fight, a strange bed, strange stars shooting through strange skies if a man dared look. Past that, the road daggered into the depths. Down there was the valley of old, where people had lived so long before the mills came, hungry for power. There were cabins down there, it was said, open-doored to the fishes, their heart-pine floors drowned and cold. There were trees, stunted and lifeless, wavering in the depths as if brushed by slow-motion wind. The bones of land creatures riddled the depths, inhabitants given no warning of the coming flood. The clap of axes and stammer of engines did not carry the weight of thunder or bruised skies. Not yet. Some mean-tempered old tobacco croppers were said to have stayed on their lands when the water came, to spite the government, but most doubted it. It was easy to doubt it all, the lake so flat and calm, a thing whose secrets would never surface.
The first order of the night was a broken-down bungalow with barred windows, the siding curly-cued as if someone had taken a putty knife to it. An indention in the roof housed a dark pool of old rainwater. The lawn was red-churned with tire tracks. Beat-up sedans sat willy-nilly in the grass. Slouching figures stood in line before the kitchen window, their shoulders showered in what looked like flour. Coins glinted in their hands.
Twenty-five cents a shot.
Their eyes were wide when the machine—a Ford coupe—rumbled past them, heading to the back of the house. It parked and the driver climbed out, his face hidden beneath an ancient black bowler hat. He knocked on the door and heard them unbarring it from the inside, the clack after clack of deadbolts unlocked.
The door opened. A white man in a stained apron stepped out. Fat. His face and hair had an unwholesome sheen. The stoop trembled beneath him as he descended.
“Thought you weren’t coming,” he said. “Revenuers?”
“None tonight,” said Rory.
The man shrugged and handed him a wad of bills. Rory unlocked the trunk.
With each stop the lake drew closer, the road ever sliding toward the blank darkness beyond the trees. With each stop the patrons were drunker, meaner. Some of them who got this deep down the road, they didn’t come back.
Copyright © 2018 by Taylor Brown