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One angry heiress.

I may not be the world's lousiest lawyer, as old Miss Peak says I am, but any fair, frank, objective witness will agree I'm one of the worst. I won't cite all the reasons. One will do. I forget to tell our local stump jumpers to climb the stairs to my combination office and apartment over Scooch Schoonmaker's chicken-feed mart. Result: I give away my advice on the street free of charge. So it's open and shut that I'll drive a secondhand car all my days, at the end of which the town will bury me from a secondhand hearse, no doubt, with used flowers.

But there are compensations. One of them is the trout fishing in our ice-cold creeks.

Another is our mountains, which the Indians called Onteora, the Mountains in the Sky. When you've met our mountains, they adopt you into the family and never let you go.

Another is the rare comeuppance case that comes a lawyer's way once in a lifetime, like Burton Beal's. Burt is one of the finest young fellows ever to settle in Tongorville. An Air Force jet caught fire, and it was either ride it down or abandon it over a crowded city, so ride it down was what Burt chose to do. His back is one big scar. He has burns on his face, too--not that they bother his wife Dorothy, who is as pretty as a little pink dogwood in May.

It was in May of 57, with his savings and his disability pay, that Burt came to town and tramped up my dingy stairs. "Mr. Hasbrouch," he said, "I'm thinking of living here and buying the Bijou Theater, and I don't know much about contracts and stuff like that. Would you kind of sit in, sir, is what I want to know, and keep me from making goofs?"

"Don't you call it a goof," I asked, "to buy a movie house when theaters from one end of the country to the other are having their troubles?"

Maybe," he said, "but maybe not. The Catskills have a big summer population. People on vacation want something to do at night, and these are New York City people; I think if I give them first-run films, the same picture they'd see that night on Broadway, they'll drive in from the hotels and boarding houses. I don't want to get rich; I just want a healthy spot where my wife and I can have some kids."

"Do you fish?"

"Yes 11

"Then you can't be all fool," I said. O.K., I'll work for you for my usual stupendous fee."

The chain that owned the Bijou was glad to get rid of it for peanuts, or even the shells, so we made the deal. Burt and Dorothy cleaned and painted the place, refurbished the busted seats and put in a popcorn-and-candy counter. One of them was always in the box office after four in the afternoon to tell people who phoned in what the program was. They rented only first-rate films, although they had to borrow at the bank in order to pay for them, and they advertised with posters and throwaways. And to everybody's surprise except, I guess, their own, they made money. Not much, but enough. They wore jeans in summer and lumberjackets in winter, but so do we all here. They had a good summer in 57 and a better one in 58. Then, early this past spring, Burt came to me again.

Skunk," he said-we were fellow anglers and friends by this time, so he called me by my nickname--"do you realize how much business I lose because folks have to park their cars three or four blocks from the theater Friday and Saturday nights?" Our stores stay open Friday evenings.

Plenty," I said. "People seem to get lazier every year."

"Well," said Burt, "there's a perfectly good parking lot right behind the Bijou and, what's more, I own it. I've been looking at my deed."

It took me a minute to visualize what he was talking about. You couldn't see it from the street, but there was a kind of hollow square behind the theater building. The Bijou is on Front Street. The next street over is Mohonk. The Dutch Reformed Church, built at the time of the Revolution, stands at the corner of Mohonk and a cross avenue, with the graveyard next to it that is so pretty in the spring when the tulips bloom around the tilted old headstones; then on down the block on Mohonk there were stores-plumbing and heating, a barbershop, a delicatessen, a dry cleaner. Behind the stores, and behind the rear wall of the Bijou, was the space Burt was talking about, with nothing in it but some rubbish and old lumber.

"That's right, your lot is L-shaped," I said. "Originally it belonged to the church. Then it was a lumberyard, then the lumber company sold it to the theater people. But it's impossible to get in there," I pointed out. "You'd have to cut an alley through to it either from Front Street or Mohonk. Property on Front is too valuable. That only leaves-" It came to me. "You want to buy one of those little stores on Mohonk, and tear it down for your entrance?"

"The barbershop. It's been empty for years. Anyhow, it's nothing but a shack, and it's falling in. A couple of hours with a bulldozer and I'll have my free parking for Bijou patrons."

I hated to throw cold water, but lawyers live in cold water, like trout. "There's one snag," I said. "The title to that property along Mohonk is fouled up, and the only person who can give you the details is old Miss Peak. Do you know her?"

"Sure--the old lady in the wheelchair. She's my best customer. She comes to the show practically every night. If she likes a picture, she sees it over and over."

"I don't mean that kind of know," I said. "I mean do you know who she is. That little old lady's great-great-great-grandpa had a patroon grant, and that little old lady owns about every square inch of real estate in Tongorville, not to mention a few hundred thousand shares of goodies like Standard Oil and AT&T. If Miss Peak owns the barbershop, she'll hold onto it just to hold onto it; the land-rich don't sell land."

"I'll have a talk with her," said the boy.

"It's worth trying," I told him, "but don't let those innocent baby-blue eyes fool you. Her forebears skun the redskins out of their happiest hunting grounds, and she could do it today. Watch your wampum."

First, because he has manners, Burt called Miss Peak on the phone. (She has a phone. It's the only thing in her house manufactured after 1700, but she needs it to talk to her broker down in Wall Street.) Then he went to her little blue-stone cottage out in the clove, which is what we call a glen hereabouts, and simply plunked himself down in a Salem rocker and said, Ma'am, I want to buy the barbershop on Mohonk Street because I need the land. What do I have to do to et it?"

"Why on earth do you want that dinky little lot? It's only 18 feet 6 inches by 30 feet deep," she said. She knew. She has a brain like a honed harpoon.

Burt told her about the parking area.

"I see. Then I tell you what," said the old lady. "I'll make you a gift of the property."

Burt nearly fell off the rocker. "Why should you do that? It's worth a thousand dollars to me."

Because," said Ann Peak, movies are my greatest pleasure, and I'm in your debt for these fine ones you're bringing us. I've been wondering how to thank you."

"But, Miss Peak, I can't let you do this--"

"It seems to me I've heard you fought for your country, too, instead of buying a hundred sick pullets and asking for farm deferment like some of our local patriots," said the old lady. "Take the lot, Mr. Beal, and good luck to you."

Burt gave in. All right, I will," he agreed, "but let me say thank you to you and your companion, Miss--"

"Miss Whittemore."

"As of now you and Miss Whittemore have two lifetime passes to the Bijou."

The old lady was so pleased she got as fussed as a girl. "There's nothing I'd rather have," she said. "If I weren't so old and ugly, I do believe I'd kiss you. Yes-yes, I would!"

"You don't look old and ugly to me," said Burt. "I think you're a doll."

So he kissed her. Charm is a great thing. I could use some. Still, some female might marry me if I had it, and that's a horrible thought.

"I don't believe a word of it," I said to Burt, when he told me the next day. O.K., stop saying she's a sweet old darling, because she's an old conniver, and tell me what she said about the title to that property

Well," said Burt, "first of all she said she doubted if you were bright enough to untangle it, but it sounds simple enough to me. Somewhere around 1780 the Peaks donated land for the Dutch Reformed Church, the burial ground, a parsonage, and a carriage shed. The carriage shed used to stand where my parking lot is going to be; it burned down when lightning struck the parsonage in 1851."

"We know that."

"Then for quite a while the family did nothing with the rest of the land. It was pasture. But in 1900 Miss Peak's father, Silas, donated the rest of the property--it was when they were putting Mohonk Street through--to the town. He was supervisor at the time. So the town owns the rest of the block on the north side of the street, which includes the barbershop, but none of it can be sold unless the grantor or his heirs approve."

I nodded. "Well, Miss Peak is the heir, so you're all right. The town council will have to put the lot up at auction, but Mohonk Street has gone to seed and nobody wants the barbershop, so yours will be the only bid."

"How much will I have to bid?"

"We'll see to it that the council knows Miss Peak wants you to have the lot. Say $200."

"I've got it made," said my boy, tickled pink.

But he didn't. We petitioned the council to put the lot up at auction at the next council meeting, and a few days later Burt had a visitor, Ollie Hellenbarger. Ollie has a pale bluish face the color of skim milk, puffy eyes behind big round spectacles in aluminum frames, and hair and eyebrows so light they are almost white. He sweats like rat cheese on a warm day, oozing oil. He lives only for deals, and everybody admires him for them. Burt," said Hellenbarger, "I hear you're thinking of buying the old barbershop."

This happened in front of the Bijou in the afternoon.

Burt was up on a ladder changing the title on the marquee.

"It's a thought," said Burt. "My folks always told me to learn a trade."

"You're to have some competition," said Hellenbarger. "I want that lot myself. This is just a friendly warning to you."

"The place stands empty for 20 years, until the roof falls in, and now all of a sudden you want it just when I do," said Burt. "You're a friend? If you're a friend, what I need is more enemies."

Hellenbarger laughed his self-satisfied chuckle. "Coincidences will happen," he said. "I figure I can pick up that lot at auction for $300 or $400 dollars. I know a farmer'll give me twice that for it. He wants it for a stand, to sell fresh vegetables to the summer people."

"Corn, no doubt," said Burt, "because this is sure a corny story."

Lettuce," Hellenbarger corrected him, smirking. "Nice folding lettuce. I double my money in 24 hours."

"Why doesn't this alleged farmer just come to the auction and put in a bid?"

"Because he don't know there's going to be an auction, and I ain't going to tell him."

"You must be a good friend of his too," said Burt.

"Of course, now, if you were just to give me the $300," suggested Hellenbarger, it'd save me the bother, and I'd come out with the same profit."

"I don't believe in paying farmers not to plant," said Burt, "and I don't believe in paying chiselers not to chisel. You are cleared for take-off."

A few days went by. Then Burt had another caller.

This time it was Elmer Krom. Krom's salary as town assessor is only $1600 a year, so he finds ways to augment his income, as the saying goes, and some of the ways are going to put him in the penitentiary one day if I can arrange it. It will be a pleasure to augment his sentence.

"You hurt Ollie Hellenbarger's feelings when you tol' him he wa'n't a friendly feller," said Elmer to Burt. "He's not of a mind to say this to you hisself, you hurt his feelings so bad, but he tol' me ef I run into you I should say he won't bid on that there lot ef you want it so bad."

"Well, maybe I judged him too fast," said Burt. "Tell Ollie it's nice of him and I'm sorry for what I said."

"Yawp; you jest give Ollie a thousand," aid Elmer, "an' he won't show up to the auction, won't be there a-tall."

Burt gasped. "What kind of a holdup is this? You know the barbershop isn't worth any thousand!"

"Now I'll be honest with you," said Elmer. (This, I note, is a favorite phrase with liars.) "I'm town assessor, so I guess I know well's anybody the town has growed away f'm Mohonk, prop'ty there ain't wuth nawthin. Still, must be t' you. Elst you wouldn't be after it. Guess that's the way Ollie figgers."

Burt made a remark of the kind called unfortunate in diplomatic circles, stating that if Elmer did not hoist his tail out of there he, Burt, would boot it so high it would go into orbit. Two minutes later he came charging up my stairs.

Look," I said, when I got him calmed down enough to talk to, "you spent your youth in the armed forces, young fellow, protected from the harsher facts of life. The harsher facts of life are citizens like Ollie and Elmer. They have no salable talents, so they have to make their living as parasites."

"On me!"

"On anybody. They don't discriminate. They steal from Peter the same as Paul."

"But how did Hellenbarger find out I want the lot for a driveway? We didn't mention it in our petition. He sure acts as if he knows exactly why I have to have it."

"He does," I answered. "You told Ann Peak, and Ann Peak told Miss Whittemore, and Effie Whittemore has the biggest mouth south of the St. Lawrence River."

"So what am I supposed to do? You're my lawyer."

"You're supposed to pay off."

"A thousand dollars in graft?"

"Five hundred. No; say $550. Ollie has to slip Elmer $50, 1 imagine, for stepping in and reminding you Ollie has a pal on the council."

"I won't do it."

"You better," I said, "or Hellenbarger will outbid you at the auction and take the lot. Then you'll have to buy it back, and the price will go still higher."

"I won't pay blackmail," said Burt, stubborn. "Never."

"Pay it. I'll lend you the $500 if you're short."

Burt was fuming with plain, old-fashioned, righteous indignation, the kind that has gone out of style nowadays when we say there's no black or white and all cats are gray. "I'm a reputable businessman," he said, getting to his feet, "and I'll go to that auction and bid as much as I think the property is worth to me in a business way, but that's all I'll do."

"I admire you," I said. "I admire your principles. But you're a man, and these are mice, and mice have sharp little teeth when they smell plum cake. You're going to lose that parking area."

"I'll make an honest bid. I'll be darned if I do anything else."

That was what Burt said, that was what he meant, and that was the frame of mind in which he and I went to the meeting of the town council.

The council meets in the fire hall. We push out the pumper, which came off the production line in Detroit in 1934 and is still a fine old chuffer, if I say it--as I shouldn't, since I am fire chief. The council members are a couple of chicken farmers, a couple of businessmen and a couple of unemployables like Elmer, plus Scooch Schoonmaker, town supervisor, who sits as chairman. It was a night in late May, warm enough to have the windows open.

The minutes of the preceding meeting were, read, old business was disposed of, and we came down to new business.

"Now we have this letter from Ann Peak," said Scooch. He is a tiny, dried-up little gnome, tough as rawhide, who wears a blue denim jacket the year round. I've seen him out driving a snow plow at 30 below in that thin jacket. "Miss Peak has given us permission to sell off a piece of town property according to the terms of the original grant. The property was deeded to Tongorville by Silas Peak, and the deed is recorded in Liber 322 of Deeds at page 88. 1 see the interested parties are here, so let's get on with the sale." Scooch uses the English language surprisingly well for a man who got his education in a one-room schoolhouse.

I stood up. "Mr. Chairman," I said, "in behalf of my client, Mr. Beal, I'd like to make a statement for the record." This was my idea, not Burt's.

"Go ahead," said Scooch courteously.

"Mr. Beal," I said, "wants to buy this lot on Mohonk so he can put a parking area behind the Bijou, as I think the members of this council know. A parking lot will be good business not only for Burt but for every merchant in town. It's Ann Peak's intention that Burt should have the lot for this purpose. Therefore no offer, other than my client's, can be regarded as bona fide. Any other must, from the nature of the case, be speculative, will alter Miss Peak's intention, and will furthermore deprive the town of the parking area, since my client owns the vacant space behind the theater, and you can be good and sure he isn't going to hand it over to the rival bidder. I ask that this statement of mine be recorded in the minutes of the meeting, and I ask you to take it into consideration in auctioning off the property."

"It's in the minutes, if Patricia's shorthand kept up with you," said Scooch. "But we can't give you any special consideration, Skunk. You know that. The law calls for an auction. An auction it has to be, open to all comers."

"I just wanted to make a public statement so the town can compare the motives of the two bidders after the sale is concluded one way or the other,". I said, and sat down, and the chairman called for bids.

"One hundred dollars," Burt opened.

"Two hundred," came from Hellenbarger, from the rear row of folding chairs. If he felt any shame, it was certainly invisible to the naked eye. He had a big smile on his skim-milk face; as a matter of fact you might have thought he was buying watermelons for an orphans' picnic.

"Two-fifty."

"Three hundred," said Hellenbarger.

Burt tried to throw a scare into him. He lighted a cigarette, blew out smoke, leaned back on his chair and jumped the bid, "Five hundred."

Hellenbarger didn't scare. "Six."

Burt's knee was against mine; I could feel it shaking. "One thousand," he said.... Money in four figures he didn't have. There was going to be another loan taken out at the bank.

Burt's thousand-dollar bid did give Hellenbarger a surprise. After a moment a gleam came into his eyes, however, behind the big round spectacles. Say, he was telling himself, this guy wants the darned lot worse than I thought; he'll crawl to me for it no matter what I pay for it. "Two thousand," he said.

"Twenty-five hundred," said Burt, his upper lip tight against his teeth.

"Three thousand dollars," said Hellenbarger, sure of himself.

There was silence.

"Any more bids?" asked Scooch

"No more? I have $3,000. Going once at 3,000-going twice at 3,000-going three times, and sold to Oliver Hellenbarger for $3,000. Well, my friends, I guess the town can afford new shale on the roads this year."

I saw the newsreels of those marines in Korea when they had to retreat. Burt had the same sick expression on his face. He rose without a word and walked out of the firehouse, or rather marched out, his shoulders square and his chin up, and I followed.

We went down Front Street to the Onteora Tavern, where I bought him a double rye.

"Well," I said to my client, "you stuck him for 3,000 bucks, anyhow."

Correction," said Burt. "I stopped at 2,500 because that was the most the lot was worth to me. He stuck himself."

"You're sure you won't change your mind now, in a few weeks or months, and go to him?"

Burt laughed. The sick expression was gone. "That'll be the day," he said. "So I'll do less business. So what?"

"It just gripes me," I said, "to see the bad cowboy on the black horse win out over the good cowboy on the white horse. I hate to see a minus sign like Ollie put a cork in your bottle."

"It happens," replied Burt, cheerier every second. "A minus sign named John Wilkes Booth put a cork in Abraham Lincoln's bottle. That's why we have a big white-marble John Wilkes Booth Memorial in Washington, D.C., that all the school children visit. Not that I'm comparing myself with Abe Lincoln, but do I make my point?"

"You do," I said. "Let's have another round."

"We'll drink," said, Burt, "to my firstborn. He or she is on the way, Dorothy told me this afternoon."

Congratulations," I said. "Here's to Young Abe, may his tribe increase, for we sorely need it." I lifted my shot glass again. "And here's to the perennial perpetual poor. Us."

I was so sore, just the same, that I couldn't get to sleep. I lay awake multiplying 18 feet 6 inches by 30 feet, the depth of the barbershop lot, and dividing $3,000 by 555. Hellenbarger had paid better than five bucks a square foot for a piece of dirt that was never going to give him any comfort or sustenance. That was some satisfaction.

This was the last Thursday night in May, with the Yankees still in the cellar and Able and Baker, those poor mites, on their way home from their rocket ride to report to the other monkeys. Sunday morning at ten o'clock, or a little after, the phone extension in my apartment gave its feeble rattle. (I have the bells muffled with friction tape because I'm getting irritable in my old age.) Miss Peak was on the wire.

"Good morning, Skunk," she said. "I was wondering if you'd like to go to church with me."

Ann," I said, "you know I go fishing Sundays."

"Yes, and I know you go at dawn," she said. "Change your clothes, you dirty old bachelor, and I'll be by to pick you up."

My head is never good on Sunday mornings, due no doubt to something I drank, so I was halfway into my good blue suit before I remembered Ann Peak didn't own a car.

She picked me up, just the same. She picked me up in a four-wheeled, two-seated, open-top surrey that glistened with varnish, although it must have been sitting in the barn behind the Peak house for 60 years. Effie Whittemore was driving the horses, a pair of glossy chestnuts. Burt and Dorothy were on the rear seat, Burt holding the folded aluminum wheelchair across his knees. They were all dressed up for church too.

"Where in God's blue empyrean did you find carriage horses in this day and age, Ann Peak?" I asked. "What is this, a publicity stunt?"

"The horses came all the way from Virginia in their own trailer, and it isn't a publicity stunt," said Miss Peak. "We're going to church, that's all. You smell of fish, but climb in."

We bowled down Front Street, clippety-clop, with people on the sidewalks too openmouthed with astonishment even to laugh or make rude remarks, and turned over to Mohonk with half the town tagging after us.

"We have to stop a minute at the barbershop," said Miss Peak. "I told Scooch Schoonmaker to expect us there. And that Hellenbarger."

"What are you cooking up, you old demon?" I asked her.

Ann Peak said nothing.

"She's not talking, Skunk," said Burt. "We don't know any more about this than you do."

I thought Scooch might be waiting for us outside the barbershop, if Miss Peak had told him to meet us there, because she holds his mortgage. But I didn't expect to see Oliver Hellenbarger. There stood Ollie, though, looking bewildered.

"Pull up, Effie," ordered the old lady ...... Good morning, Mr. Schoonmaker.... Good morning, Hellenbarger. Hellenbarger, I understand you own this building."

"Yes-yes, that's right."

"Turn the horses onto the walk, Effie," said Miss Peak. "Don't mind the curbstone; it shouldn't be here. Hellenbarger, kindly remove this tumble-down ruin immediately. It's blocking the driveway."

Down at the corner the bell in the white steeple of the Dutch Reformed Church began to clang.

"Remove? Driveway? What driveway?" stammered Hellenbarger.

"Remove this obstruction at once, sir, or my friends and I will be late for church."

"Are you crazy?" asked Ollie.

That was the first time in her life, you can be good and sure, anybody ever asked Ann Peak if she was crazy. Two spots pink as carnations glowed in her cheeks. "You refuse?" she asked coldly.

"How can I move it? Why should I move it?"

"Why? Because this was the old entrance to the driveway to the carriage shed, until the town built on it." Miss Peak turned to Scooch. "Mr. Schoonmaker," she said, "you are my witness that this man denies us entry. May I call your attention to the terms on which this property was given to the town by my father? If at any time, the deed reads, entry shall be denied the carriages of church members wishing to enter church property, the said parcel reverts to the Peak family. This lot is no longer Hellenbarger's. It's mine."

"But I paid good money for it!" howled Hellenbarger.

"As they say in the movies," Miss Peak said to him, tough luck. No doubt the town will find good use for your money. You can deduct it from your income tax as a contribution your very first, I'm sure.... Back the team, Effie. We'll park on the street with the finny monsters

Later, in church, while we were all singing "Strange Are Thy Ways," with me sitting at the end of the Peak family pew and Ann Peak beside me in the aisle in her wheelchair, that she leaned over behind her hymnbook and told me I really must be the world's lousiest lawyer. At least I'm afraid that's what she said, although I tell myself maybe she said laziest.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Albee, George Sumner
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:4673
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