Whoever said that April was the cruelest month wasn't thinking of upstate New York, Ralph Baxter thought. There was nothing cruel about seeing the ground thaw and the buds sprout on the tree branches. And there was certainly nothing cruel about the warmer air, the bluer sky, the birds returning, and the cold shadows retreating to wherever the hell dark things dwelt. He stood on his large front porch and took a deep breath. He was seventy-four and widowed for three years. Five years before Jennie's death, he and she had terminated the Cherrywood Lodge, his family's old farmhouse that had been converted into a tourist rooming house twenty-eight years ago.
It was a long time to be in the hospitality business, he thought, and laughed at what he imagined his grandfather would have said had he lived to see his cornfields turned into a couple of tennis and handball courts, a baseball field, and a swimming pool. The pool had long since gone to disrepair, the cement cracking, the paint nearly completely faded and gone. Weeds grew profusely where the baseball infield once was.
During the heyday of the New York Catskill resort years, his guests would play in tournaments against the guests of other rooming houses and small hotels. They had great picnics with barbecued hamburgers and chicken, fresh corn on the cob, and a salad made with the vegetables from his own gardens. Their clientele was comprised from nice New York City families. The grounds were alive with children and noise. Jennie was like everyone's grandmother. Guests got used to calling him Pop and her Mother Baxter. Despite what his grandfather would say, running a tourist house was a lot easier than farming and, for quite a few years, a lot more profitable, Ralph thought. It gave them enough for a comfortable retirement, but not enough to keep up a property this size.
Now, of course, it was too much house for just him. He had shut down most of it, confining the heat to just the kitchen, small parlor, and one bedroom. The lobby was too big to keep warm in the winter. Paneling peeled, window casings expanded and contracted, the old rugs were worn thin, and the furniture, never really used anymore, looked like rejects from even the thrift stores. It pained him to see the property degenerate, but there wasn't much he could do. Tourists were long gone. Even the memory of them dwindled and was lost in the darkness of the forest that surrounded his home and property, shadows and voices drifting in the wind. Occasionally, something would creak and echo in the house and he would lift his eyes expecting to see a group of New Yorkers walking down the hallway, laughing, their faces tan and robust, children trailing behind them, giggling and shouting, their voices tinkling like cans tied to the back bumper of a car for Just Marrieds.
But there was no one there, no one's voice or laugh to hear but his own.
He dug out his pocket watch and checked the time. Henry Deutch was late. Unusual for that man to be late, he thought. From what he knew about the man, he worked like a Swiss timepiece: efficient, coldly methodical. Ralph didn't like him. The only reason he was interested in Henry's arrival was his curiosity as to what in hell that man wanted from him. He couldn't recall passing more than a handful of words between them all these years.
As if thinking about him produced him, Henry Deutch's Mercedes came around the bend, up from Sandburg. The old road wasn't traveled much anymore and the county rarely came by to clean or maintain it. The dust spiraled behind the car. From this perspective, it looked like the vehicle was on fire. Deutch pulled up the driveway and stopped. He seemed to wait for the dust to settle before stepping out.
"Sorry I'm late," he said without much remorse in his voice. One could easily see from his expression that he didn't think it mattered very much to a man like Ralph Baxter. What else did he have to do with his time but to wait for busier, more productive men?
"That's all right; that's all right," Ralph said. He extended his hand when Henry reached the porch. It was a quick, perfunctory greeting. Deutch already looked preoccupied, nervous, even tense. "How you been, Henry?"
"I've been better. Maybe you heard about my problem in town," he added, and looked up expectantly, perhaps searching for a face bathed in sympathy.
Ralph shook his head slowly.
"No sir. Don't get into town as much as I usta. What's goin' on?"
"It's that damn seamstress, the madwoman some people believe has supernatural powers...Anna Young."
"Yeah, I hear a lot about her. Heard she cured Simon Karachek's arthritis."
"Ridiculous. All of them, idiots, paying good money for her hocus-pocus."
"I wouldn't disregard all that out of hand, Henry. I remember when my father usta bring old lady Nussbaum up here to bless the soil with her charms. Rarely had a bad crop, too. 'Course, you probably don't remember her. I was barely five or six and you weren't even here yet. Railroad was just gettin' to be a big thing up here then and of course, later it would encourage all those city people to come up here for summer holidays. They published a magazine called Summer Homes. Why, I can remember -- "
"Right," Henry interrupted. "I don't remember any of that and the railroad's gone so why waste time talking about it?"
Ralph could see how Henry's impatience made him fidgety, that and whatever was going on in the village.
"Um. How's Anna Young a problem for you?"
"She's been harassing me," he said, his face reddening with the effort. "I've had to get the law on her, not that it does much good."
"That so? Now that you mention it, I do recall something about you having her and her mother evicted nearly a year ago. That was a bit of a mess, wasn't it?" Baxter asked with a twinkle in his eye. He knew the story, but pretended to be vague about it.
Conniving old fox, Henry thought, just like the rest of them.
"I had no lease with them. I was kind enough to give them a place to start, but I had to get them out of there."
"Why? Because they were both crazy, spooking people, especially prospective new tenants, that's why. How would you like someone smelling up your home with that stinky incense and burning candles in the windows while chanting gibberish all night?"
"Yeah, I remember it better now. That eviction was quite a mess, quite a mess, and didn't the old lady die soon after?"
"How's that my fault?"
"I guess the turmoil was too much for her. Stress can kill, Henry," Baxter said almost gleefully.
"A man should have a right to do what he wants with his own property, shouldn't he?" Henry practically screamed. His face looked like it was swelling as well as turning another shade of crimson.
Ain't he a time bomb, Ralph thought, but he enjoyed seeing Henry disturbed. He thought about his uncle Charlie, his father's brother, who was good at putting little digs and scratches into people, infuriating them with remarks and expressions just for the pleasure of seeing how easy it was to rile them up.
"I've got no argument with that, Henry," Baxter said. "However, there are some people you just don't want to cross. They have some sort of power."
"Nonsense," Henry Deutch said, but not with as much enthusiasm as he had before. Ralph wondered how much about Anna Young Henry didn't believe or didn't want to believe and how much he couldn't help believe. A woman like that could keep you up nights, for sure, he thought.
Deutch looked around.
"It's so dry out here, you can taste the dust in the air."
"Oh? Would you like something cold to drink? I got some lemonade I just made."
"No," Henry said sharply. "I'm not here long." He gazed about. "This place is sinking so fast, it won't be worth tearing down," he muttered.
"Tearin' down? Who'd want to do that? This is a historical property, Henry. My great-grandfather built the main part of this house in the early 1800s. The rest was completed before the turn of the century. We still got the field stone foundation. That there's a workin' well, one of the best around," he said, pointing to the well in the front. "Water's delicious. Upstairs, I got a lot of the antiques, including oil lamps. Some of those antique dealers would piss in their pants from excitement, they ever came around here."
"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen. I come to make an offer on the place, Ralph," Henry said quickly, and wiped his face with his handkerchief.
"I know you're struggling with the payments for all the improvements you mortgaged years ago," Henry said.
"I'm not struggling with them."
"I have it on good authority that you've missed some payments and been late. Someone could swoop in and buy up your debt," Henry threatened. "Bank would be glad to dump you."
"Is that right?"
"What you're paying every month doesn't leave you all that much for your retirement. What do you want with this big shack anyway?"
"You don't need all this. You don't use most of it. It's like hanging onto a sinking ship or something. Fact is, I bet it's a fire trap by now. Looks like the building's dry enough to blow away," Henry commented. "Someone tells the insurance company to take another look at it, they'll drop you like a hot coal. Someone could do that, too, Ralph," he added, his eyes dark and determined.
Ralph looked at it as if he'd never noticed.
"I've lived here all my life, Henry. My wife gave birth to one of my boys in this house. She's buried up there in the family cemetery along with my parents and grandparents," he said, nodding at the small hill to his right. "I wouldn't sell this place."
"What do you think your boys are going to do with it after you're gone, Ralph? They'll give it away. Neither of them live around here, right?"
"That's not important now. What's important is what I want," Ralph said. "You just said a man has a right to do what he wants with his own property."
"Well, I came up here to give you an opportunity few will give you. I'm willing to put down fifty-five thousand for this wreck," Henry said. "Get someone to invest it properly for you and it will provide you with some nice retirement income and you can live in a decent apartment."
"Sure. I could even rent you one of mine at a discount as part of the deal. How's that sound?"
"Pretty disgusting," Ralph said with a laugh.
"Well, that's my offer and it's final," Henry said.
"What would you want with this property anyway?" Ralph asked, still smiling.
"I have a developer I might talk into subdividing and building here. It's a gamble, but I think I can make it happen," Henry said. From the way he said it, Ralph sensed it wasn't such a gamble. They had probably already analyzed the property and its potential.
"Oh, no," Ralph said, gazing over the overgrown fields. "I couldn't stand to see this property cut up like that."
"I'm not going to take this crappy ride up here again," Henry said. "When you get some sense in your head, you'll have to call me, but I wouldn't wait too long. You'll miss your chance, your last chance," he said, heavy with threat. "There are other properties that will fit my needs."
"Then you should go seek them pronto," Ralph said. "You're looking at a man who doesn't change his mind about the important things."
"Too bad." Henry started toward his car.
"What made you think I'd even consider it?" Ralph asked, more out of curiosity than anything else.
Henry paused and gazed around.
"I guess I thought if I lived in a graveyard, I'd want to get the hell out."
"Graveyard?" Ralph gazed at his property. "I suppose to someone else it might be, but it's not that to me. No sir. To me, it's home."
Henry shook his head.
"I don't suppose you ever felt that way about a piece of property, did you, Henry?"
"Nope," Henry said, opening his car door.
"I don't suppose you felt that way about anything," Ralph muttered. He remained where he was, watching Henry Deutch drive away, the dust cloud lingering like a bad thought. Then he stepped down and walked up to the cemetery to confer with his loved ones and tell them about the most ridiculous thing that just happened. Even the dead would laugh.
Henry Deutch cursed under his breath most of the way down the side road. He had been so confident. Usually he got what he wanted when it came to property, especially old and useless property. Since that Anna Young had crossed paths with him during the past year, nothing he touched or thought to touch amounted to anything. If he was superstitious...
Ludicrous. And all those people in town who gave way to her were just buffoons. She was just a madwoman, that's all, who happened to be choking him like a chicken bone in his throat, he thought. In fact, he was positive he had heard her outside his window reciting some gibberish two nights ago. He went for his shot gun immediately. If she was on his property, he'd blow her head off, he thought, but there was no one there, or at least, she was gone by the time he came rushing out of the house. He had nearly stumbled and fallen on his face, too. He could have accidentally blown his own head off!
It raised the level of his ire as he recalled it all. Now, instead of heading back to Sandburg, he decided to drive into Centerville and go to the First National Bank. He knew they held the mortgage on Baxter's property. Those weren't idle threats he made back there. He had dealt with Sam Wuhl, the vice president, a number of times before, to their mutual satisfaction. This would be another instance of that, he thought. He intended to buy Baxter's loan from the bank, offer them a little more, and wait for his opportunity to foreclose. It was what he did, what he did best.
Just as he reached the corner and started accelerating into his left turn toward Centerville, however, feathers and blood exploded on Henry Deutch's vintage Mercedes windshield like cannon shot.
He hit his brakes as fast as he could and the car spun out of control on the macadam. It literally bounced over a rise in the road and the rear right wheel caught on the edge of the ditch, turning the car off the road. He held on as best he could and kept the entire vehicle from going over the side. It rumbled to a stop and he clutched his chest.
The angina raged. His first thought was to get out his nitroglycerin and put a pill under his tongue. As Doctor Bloom had explained, it should relax his heart muscle and get the blood there quickly. Recently, he had to take two, the second following the first after about three minutes. It wasn't that long ago that one worked rapidly and that was that. Now the doctor was telling him he was experiencing unstable angina.
No wonder, he had thought. Look at the hell I'm going through with that woman.
Henry waited nervously after taking the second pill. He tried to relax, sat back, and stared at the windshield. The bird's head had slammed into it so hard, some of it remained glued to the glass. The eyes peered in at him, maddening, furious, angry. A piece of the beak hung on some flesh and then began to slide along the stream of blood.
Slowly, so slowly he was closing in on taking a third pill this time, Henry's breathing returned to normal and his heart slowed to a safe rhythm. He reached over to turn on the windshield wipers and washer fluid. It moved the blood, feathers and parts of the bird's head to the side, but it just streaked the glass even more. Henry started the stalled engine again and tried to back the car out of the ditch. However, the wheels spun and then he heard a terrible grinding noise and took his foot off the accelerator.
What the hell now? he thought.
Fortuitously, George Echert was returning from giving someone roadside assistance. The mechanic had gone to boost a battery. He slowed the tow truck as he drew closer and came to a stop.
"Yeah," Henry Deutch said, lowering his window.
"You all right?"
"What the hell happened? Is that blood on the outside of your windshield?"
"A bird flew right into me."
George, forty, lean but muscular, with stringy black hair that reached the base of his neck, hopped out of his truck. He shook his head and smiled.
"Sure you weren't speeding along and caught it?"
"I never speed," Henry said.
"Birds don't usually do that," George said, nodding at the windshield.
"This one did."
George scratched his head and then shrugged.
"We got to get you out and make sure you didn't do any damage to the axle. I'll pull up and tack you on from behind. Unless you want to wait for Triple A."
"I don't belong. Get me outta here."
"Okay. Jesus," George said, looking at the windshield again. "A bird just flew into your windshield, huh? Just committed suicide?"
"I told you that's what happened," Henry snapped.
Echert shook his head and then turned to him. Henry could hear the words coming.
"Don't even start that stuff," Henry warned, but deep down, he was beginning to wonder.
Copyright © 2000 by Andrew Neiderman