The New Deal
by Taylor Dowd
The chill of winter lingered in the crest of the Tennessee Valley, its breath heavy and cruel against the crusted earth. But Annette could not be disheartened by the cold that seeped through the soles of her shoes and the worn threads of her clothes. Even now, she could see the buds forming on the tips of the Dogwood and Cherry trees, their colors hidden beneath protective sheaths. Annette closed her eyes and envisioned the buds bursting open in warm victory, the grays of winter suddenly transformed into a blaze of pinks, yellows, and reds. A gust of icy wind whipping around the west end of the porch rushed the balmy daydream from her mind, and as she lifted her hand to pull the sweater tighter against her slight frame, she remembered the letter already knotted in her closed fist. There was no need to un-wad the paper. She could not forget its words. Printed on expensive stationary with a presidential seal, they addressed her as “the Norris Basin resident at 118 Polk lane” and spoke of optimism, hope and progress. They were written by a people who would never understand.
Tossing the crumpled notice into the withered remains of her flower bed, Annette made her way down the worn path toward Jackson Manor. The title, though still applied to the ruinous home, was more for the sake of nostalgia. It had once been the envy of those who lived on this side of the river, but that was before all was lost in the Crash. Annette paused at the foot of the steps leading up to the once grand entry way. She was old enough to remember the days of wealth and luxury, when the Jackson family filled their home with music and dancing. The early 20’s had been extravagant and carefree, a final celebration before the nation’s fall. She took the steps one at a time, leading with her stronger leg until she reached the front door. Annette didn’t stop to raise the heavy, lion’s head knocker; there were no formalities anymore and no servant to receive her. Inside, the walnut floors and ornate architecture told the story of a comfortable, lavish past, but eight years after the start of the depression, these items existed as preserved artifacts of a forgotten history. Annette was the only remaining tenant farmer for the Jackson family. Old and widowed, she had nowhere to go and no hope of making a sustainable living alone. Annette was not ignorant of the family’s charity, and she accepted the position with quiet dignity, remembering the many years that she and her husband had been faithful tenants.
Annette made her way down the long corridor toward the kitchen where she planned to begin the day’s chores, minuscule tasks she hoped would prove that there was still worth in her old bones. As she approached the door to the kitchen, she was startled to hear chatter and the clanking of tin pans. Pushing open the door with the familiar squeal of rusty hinges, Annette found Mrs. Jackson and her daughters Joy and Faye busy at work, tossing kitchen tools and the preserves from last year’s harvest into baskets and bins strewn about the floor. Annette froze in the doorway, her presence unnoticed as she observed the chaos and unusual intensity with which the women moved about the room. Cabinets stood open and bare, and the skillet with which Annette planned to cook breakfast was at the bottom of a teetering pile of pots and pans. Panic gripped at the aged woman’s fluttering heart as the reality of the moment set in. They had given up. The Jackson family, the last prominent, influential family in Norris Basin, had accepted a deal. It wouldn’t be long now before the remaining Basin residents would follow suit, ending the long months of protest. Annette reached for the back of a near-by chair to steady herself, dizzied by the thought of a life separated from her home and the memories of this place. The sound of Annette’s staggered breath alarmed the women who turned, noticing their tenant slumped over the back of a kitchen chair. Rushing to her aid, Mrs. Jackson commanded Annette to sit and relax her breathing. A glass of water was fetched as Joy and Faye hovered about the old lady with concern. As sips of water slid down her chalky throat, Annette regained clarity and composure. The faces of the two young ladies were pressed closely to her own. They were beautiful and innocent, just as they had been when they were children. Annette’s eyes moved between Faye and Joy, so similar in their features that she could hardly discern the older from the younger. Mrs. Jackson bent toward the old woman’s ear, her hand placed maternally on her left shoulder.
“Annette, dear, are you ill this morning?” The question seemed so casual, so expected, as if it had simply been the morning air that had stolen the strength from her body. Annette was uncomfortable with the care and attention given to her by her employer, and she sought to lift herself from the chair.
“A frightfully cold morning, Mrs. Jackson. The air is so thin,” she murmured, eyes still fixated on the belongings piled in bins.
“A Redbud winter,” Mrs. Jackson responded mechanically as her eyes drifted to a spot on the wall behind Annette’s head. Her lips were pressed into a thin line, brow furrowed in indecision. Turning her back to the old woman, Mrs. Jackson began with an ache in her voice, “we’re headed up north, Annette. Rick thinks he’d like to try his hand at business. There’s no money to be made in farming anymore, no good soil left to produce a decent yield.” Annette nodded at Mrs. Jackson’s back, unable to speak for fear of releasing the sob aching in her chest. She had considered this area home since marrying John at sixteen. This was where she had loved and buried her husband, where she found joy and acceptance. But for the Jacksons, this place had history. Their family legacy was built in these foothills, and now they were preparing to leave their beloved homestead. Not just leave, but watch it drown, letting the memory of ancestors buried on this land drown along with it.
“When?” Annette managed to whisper through her constricting throat.
“Tomorrow.” Mrs. Jackson’s tone was final, her eyes avoiding Annette’s pained face. “They say they’ll help you to relocate. There are some farms northwest of here and maybe —” Mrs. Jackson’s voice faded as Annette moved toward the door. “These people aren’t that bad, Annette. I know what Rick and I said before, but maybe it’s for the greater good, maybe our sacrifice can revive the country.” Mrs. Jackson’s eyes shifted to the floor as she made her last confession, one that she knew Annette already guessed. “They offered us a fair price for the land, enough to relocate and start fresh. There’s nothing for us here anymore; we need to move on. You need to move on.” She could make no response, and with a polite smile and nod, Annette made her way toward home, her stride slow and defeated.
. . .
The sound of tread against gravel warned of their coming, but Annette was ready for them. She sat on the porch, jaw set, hands folded in her lap. The basin was nearly empty now. Annette hadn’t seen anyone since the Jacksons drove away from the manor, never to see it again. She passed the home every evening during her walk. For Annette, the home still stood proud and tall, awaiting its death with noble dignity. Sometimes, she pretended to be a stranger passing the home for the first time. As she approached the house, she would gasp and awe over its enormous size, the acres of rolling pastures, and the glass windows that captured the light of the setting sun. In those moments, she didn’t know that the manor was only a shell, discarded by those whose lives she held for so long.
When the men rounded the bend of the dirt road, Annette’s head didn’t turn, her eyes stayed focused on the mountain peaks in the distance. A car door slammed, then another. She could hear the shuffle of shoes approaching her right side, two pair, maybe three. A man rapped his fist against one of the porch’s support beams three times.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” the voice slurred with a fake southern drawl. Annette inhaled, filling her lungs to capacity, before turning to face the men. There were three. The first was a cocky, thin man, his hand still pressed against the porch beam. The smile on his face was like that of a traveling sales man, and she hated him. The second stood directly to his left, hands dug deep in the pockets of his slacks. His eyes fell increasingly to his shiny black shoes, which were accumulating dirt with every move against the crackled ground. Annette guessed that he would be a practical man and not waste her time or his. The third had ventured toward the left of the house, inspecting the grounds with a false air of authority. After all, what did it matter if they were going to destroy the place? Annette began to sense the men’s impatience as the corner of the first man’s smile twitched with the effort to remain charming.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“Well, Ma’am,” began the first man again, “don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems all your neighbor folk have done the wise thing and up and left. You’d be the only one left in these parts.”
“I reckon that’s so.”
“Well, well, it’s likely a poor ol’ lady like you may not have gotten a letter way out here in the wilderness.” He stretched his arms out in reference to the surrounding countryside, revealing the dark sweat stains widening beneath his arms. Without a word, Annette motioned toward the flowerbed where the notice still laid crumpled among the weeds and dirt. The second man moved toward the item before glancing down at his shoes and the dusty earth “I see,” was all the first man could say. A long pause ensued before the second man took control of the conversation.
“Mrs. —” He drew out the word in expectation of the woman filling in the blank.
“And is there a Mr. Hatcher?”
“He’s buried beneath the sugar maple at the back of the house.”
“Oh, I see. Children?”
“No, sir. I am what you see.”
“Now, Mrs. Hatcher,” began the second man, speaking as if to a child. “You’re a smart woman, right? And smart women don’t want to be fiddling about on a porch when we close the gates to the new dam downstream. You see, once those men close the gates, all of this land will be underwater. And none of us want to see you trapped here when that happens.”
“This is my home. You have no right to —”
“Actually Mrs. Hatcher,” his voice now low and gruff, “this is our home now, purchased from the Jackson family, and you, ma’am, are trespassing on government property.” Annette’s mouth parted slightly at his threatening words. “Henry,” called the second man to his companion who was now investigating the spring house. The young man turned and rushed across the yard, his legs a gangly mess beneath his stump-like upper body.
“Yes, sir, I’m here,” the young man stated between gasps of air.
“Right, right. Papers.” He reached in his coat pocket and removed an official looking packet. Still panting from his sprint across the lawn, he handed his trust over to his superior.
“This, Mrs. Hatcher, is a court order to be off our land before two tomorrow, at which time the dam officials will receive their orders to close the gates. The government will not be held liable for individuals who wish to endanger themselves by remaining on government property.”
“Mrs. Hatcher,” the first man began in a lighter tone, hoping to appeal to Annette with a more gentle approach. “I admire your courage, I truly do, and you should be proud that Norris Basin held out longer than most. But the protesting is over. You’re the only one left, and I’m afraid that one lone tenant isn’t going to dissuade those who support the project. I’m pleading for you to see reason here. Surely there’s somewhere you could go.” Annette looked again toward the mountains on the horizon, twisting and folding into themselves. She would be the last to look up at their face, to witness their beauty from the depth of the valley. “Mrs. Hatcher,” the first man began again, his tone low and serious. “Tell me how I can help. Is there someone I can contact? Can I give you a lift?”
Annette closed her eyes and imagined herself kneeling at the lake’s edge. The mountains stood to her east, their form gaunt and unfamiliar. She bent closer to the rippling surface, her hands sinking into wet clay, the tips of her hair floating about her in a darkened halo. She searched the liquid for her home, for Jackson manor, and her husband’s grave. But there was only her reflection, her own face fading into the gray, sinking toward the home where she knew she belonged.
“Thank you gentlemen,” Annette whispered, her eyes still closed, “but I can make my own arrangements.” The men turned to leave in silence, and as the engine of the car rumbled beneath his feet, the first man shifted to look out the back window, finding Annette seated on the porch, eyes still closed, her hair golden as the sun glinted off of her peppered locks. And as the car pulled away from the old farmhouse, forming a haze of dust, the man thought that Annette looked young and beautiful, and before the porch fell from his sight, a smile passed across Annette’s gentle face.
Taylor Dowd is a lifetime resident of the South and grew up in the foothills of East Tennessee. “With its deep history and idiosyncrasies, it is no wonder that the influences of the South have found their way into my writing,” she says. Dowd is a recent college graduate with a major in English and concentration in Creative Writing. She’s also a staff member for the Cumberland River Review.
Christy Farmer / November 9, 2012
The New Deal is an excellent story, Taylor. I love stories connected with historical settings.