Gary Morton, 2008
A refreshing chill came with the late autumn breeze. The sun set in angelic bands of ginger behind Shady Meadows. Jeff gazed out his window, watching crisp red maple leaves float on the light breeze. They landed silently, creating soft mounds on the groomed front lawn.
Occasionally he’d hear a truck engine or distant passenger train passing the subdivision, but the community was empty. All of the people had abandoned this isolated pseudo village. Some willingly, though broken. Many others had left under the guns of the sheriff … foreclosed on by banks, having hung on until the end … with nowhere to go … tossed out of houses with no resale value. Jeff knew there was a shantytown down in Wildfire Valley, but he’d never worked up the courage to walk down and talk to his old neighbours. It was an idea that haunted him; he refused to end up there … this was a fight to the end … and perhaps the end had come.
No one had expected such a miserable conclusion to the American Dream. In the past housing prices had risen steadily across the nation. A home used to be a guaranteed investment. Now a man’s castle was his sinkhole as high mortgage payments, prices and negative equity brought the roof down.
Jeff was just another guy caught in the quicksand.
Most of his life he’d been a tenant. Sleazy places in the city where kids pissed in the hallways … three horrible divorces from unfaithful shrews. Children he couldn’t visit … a world gone wrong. Then came the great escape … after hurricane Katrina the President changed the rules. Before long, the big banks were giving everyone a home. You could buy a house with no money down, no income, no job, and no assets … at one percent interest. And that’s how Jeff bought his home and escaped the city for Shady Meadows.
Just after the move a union factory job came in … he was a man with his big friendly dog, escaping into quiet neo rural life.
The whole deal seemed too good to be true … he’d always felt that way deep inside. Then the manure hit the meadow breezes. His job ended in termination … as the factory joined many others in off shoring production to China. He became one of millions of people who lost out due to unregulated globalization, and like them, he became a number on the unemployment files.
His lifestyle became as bland as chewing on food stamps, but he had some money saved and invested. If it got worse, he could flip the house and use the gain to buy another. Then the markets collapsed in the credit crunch … his home lost value and like many others, he finally got around to reading the fine print in his mortgage papers. An ARMs deal, adjustable rate, meaning that this year and the next his payments would rise at an incredible rate. He couldn’t pay those rates. Nobody could. Then the markets sank and his investment portfolio became worthless.
Around that time, the neighbors started to disappear. Jeff investigated and was shocked at what he found. People wanting a home and a quiet community didn’t populate Shady Meadows or many other small places. Many of these fakers were flippers … buying houses … fixing them up, running up some bills at Home Depot and then selling for a profit as they moved on to the next home and deal.
They were gone now as were the factory workers. Jeff had no friends left, no job, and his dog Zero had been shot by the sheriff during the eviction of the Montero family next door.
He couldn’t go back to the old life … not at his age. And most Americans were aging like him. He’d be single, struggling with low wage part time jobs, for the glorious privilege of a drab apartment and empty nights watching the tube. He couldn’t go back so he was standing on a kitchen chair with a carefully constructed noose around his neck as he watched the last leaves fall.
Then … god damn it … his eyes flicked to the TV screen. Why in the hell hadn’t he turned it off? Even worse, it was a show on the foreclosure crisis … and super rich Donald Trump was tossing out his combed-back opinion to a talking head with permed lacquer hair. “When you're in a hole, keep digging as hard and as fast as you can,” Trump said. “Don’t let the foreclosure happen. Go back and make another deal with whoever holds the mortgage. If you work at it, they’ll give you a better deal. Believe me, the last thing the bank wants is your house. What can they do with it? They can't find anybody to buy it right now. It’s to their advantage to have you pay, even if it is much less than the original deal.”
Jeff felt thick hairs rising on the back of his neck. His house, it was all he wanted. “Damn it, I’ll do it,” he muttered. “I’ll renegotiate and they’ll have to deal.”
Determination set in the lines on his jaw, but in spite of that he slipped on the chair and the autumn sunset turned to blinding silver spots and a final black curtain as the noose bit in hard.
Jim Paulison was at the wheel of his Cadillac when the odious voice came again. “I want to renegotiate the ARMs deal, and you’re going to help or else.” This time it was on his cell phone and it disturbed him so much his hand slipped on the wheel as he yelled, “Or else what!”
Jim’s eyes popped as he watched a speeding cube mail van head straight for him while hearing the voice say, “Or else, you pay my price!”
He turned hard, back into his lane, then pulled off on a side street and parked at the curb. Bitterness showed on his thin lips … he watched dusty litter blow like ghosts up the gloomy road, then Don answered at the bank. Jim sighed, and began to bellow and threaten. Someone was definitely going to be terminated for giving that lunatic his cell number.
Don answered calmly. “I don’t know how he does it. He’s been phoning everyone at our bank. Says he’s been foreclosed on and wants to renegotiate. The whole thing is spooky. We called the police and they said the number we traced belongs to a dead guy. That line has been disconnected. Maybe I should look up our files on this jerk so I can talk to him personally and get rid of him.”
Paulison ran his hand through his thinning gray hair. “Do that. Just find him and erase him,” he said, and then he hung up.
Thirty minutes later Paulison was home and looking in his mirror. Sadly, he looked every bit the caricature of an evil banker … the well-worn suit, sparse gray hair, small potbelly and cruel blue lips. The hair transplant and laser work had done little for his face. The worry lines had been too deep to erase, the dark guilt sacks on his eyes of a mountainous magnitude. He looked evil because he was evil, but in spite of it he smiled, then he heard his ring tone.
It was Don calling back. “I’ve traced him and wow is this creep clever.”
“Give me the dope on him.”
“The dope is that we’re dopes. Jeff Connors is another one of those guys we never should have lent to … but of course, we did in order to repackage and sell his debt. At least that was the idea, but it didn’t happen…”
“Could you get to the fucking point here!”
“He lives in Shady Meadows.”
“Are you crazy, that’s a ghost town. We cleared the whole thing out with foreclosures. We have camera surveillance on the area to make sure squatters from the valley don’t move in or strip everything from the houses … no one lives there. That I know.”
“Well, the thing with Jeff Connors is that he hung himself. The body was taken out and the sheriff never arrived to move him out.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Fraud. He obviously faked his own death because the calls are coming from there and he’s still living there. He’s the lone resident of Shady Meadows. Ridiculously, he wants to talk to you to renegotiate his mortgage.”
“It’s a simple matter. Call the police. Have him arrested. Multiple charges. Maybe everything from fraud to terrorism.”
“Not that simple. The police won’t even go there. It appears Shady Meadows is not paying for policing, and their records show that Connors is dead.”
“Shit. Never mind then. I’ll take care of it personally.”
“You mean you’re going to negotiate with this nut?”
“No. I mean get rid of him. First I want to check the camera surveillance, then I’ll go in and deal with him.”
Jim Paulison’s refurbished luxury Cadillac drove speedily through a heavy fall of autumn leaves, a fast camera replay showing on his screen as he ran through the last few days of surveillance at Shady Meadows. Some movement appeared on the screen and he froze it; then a whirl of leaves blinded him, he heard the calls of blackbirds and saw a tall man blocking the road ahead.
He screeched to a stop; the thin shabbily dressed man approached him arrogantly. Paulison opened the window and watched the man leer.
“The toll is 10 dollars, or any cigarettes you may have,” he said.
A strong gust blew up a whirl of pine duff and leaves. Paulison batted away a shotgun twig and his eyes caught sight of the outlandish view over the embankment … the tent and shantytown below, some of the people moving about like lost scarecrows come to life in the wind.
“This isn’t a toll road!” he shouted. Then the man’s arm burst through the open the window. Paulison hit the gas and drove off, sending the man rolling along the side of the car and down to the hard asphalt.
The exit to Shady Meadows appeared ahead under glorious sky on the left … the ghost town resting quietly against a golden backing of autumn hills. Paulison seized a slip of paper with Jeff’s street address and cruised the quiet streets … pumping himself up for the showdown.
Then the phone rang. Don was on the other end. “Have you evicted him yet?”
“No, I’m just arriving.”
“Then don’t. We need to renegotiate.”
“What? Are you mad? Why would I negotiate with this crackpot? He’ll probably try to kill me, hold me hostage or something even worse.”
“It has to do with the President. He came through on his promise for a bill to help homeowners in default. At least some of them … not many. The way the fine print works is if we get even one person to sign for Shady Meadows, and can prove he still lives there … a financial relief package will come in for the whole place. We can allow Jeff Connors to keep his house; we pocket the rest and later sell Shady Meadows when we can get a price on it.”
“Damn, that’s good news. Are you sure of it?”
“Damn sure. I’ve got the full package and the legal advice on it.”
“Okay, it’s a go … I’ll just have to figure out how to deal with this lunatic.”
Paulison pulled in on Jeff Connor’s street and scanned for the address, finding it about halfway down. “Sure this is a ghost town,” he thought, “but does Connors' place have to look like the command centre of nowhereville.”
It was a nice house for the price … when it had a price. But Connors was the sort of owner everyone hates. In the midst of what had been a clean suburban type community he’d managed to create his own hillbilly heaven. Flowering weeds, grubby scrub and tall beaten grass growing to infinity in a medium size yard … a doghouse the size of a storage shed. The side garage collapsed with two wrecked and rusting autos poking out. Half the front lawn, the south side and the back yard were dumps … apparently Connors collected everything the evicted neighbours had left behind. And to add to the bizarre appearance was the neat portion of front yard outside the kitchen window … leaves raked into piles, grass and weeds trimmed, but only in that small rectangular area.
Paulison got out of the car, tripped over an empty paint can in the cracked weed grown driveway and cursed as he made his way through twilight and rubbish to the front door.
The whole place stank like garbage. It was getting dark and soon it would be murky. He wondered how Connors could survive in a dead community where the power had been cut. No lights were on in the house yet but he assumed the man had generators.
To his amazement, the doorbell lit up and rang. Moments later Jeff Connors appeared at the door. Darkness backed him. Paulison saw a big shock of blond hair and a wide grin set in an aging and sunken face.
“Ah, Mr. Paulison. I knew you’d see things my way. Come on in.”
Soft lights energized. Paulison followed the gangly and limping figure to the kitchen, thinking that the man resembled a bag of poorly clicking bones. “Perhaps he hasn’t eaten much in a while,” he thought. “Or he’s too eccentric to eat.”
Jeff gestured to the sparse kitchen table and Paulison followed his lead and sat reluctantly. He couldn’t see much in the dim light, other than that Connors was rather old and repellent; a sight which led him to the tendency of looking out the window as they conversed. There he could see twilight falling like beauty on that clean portion of lawn Connors kept; and it gave him an understanding of Connors. He kept that one clean place just for when he looked out his kitchen window. Probably for the morning when he was eating breakfast. The rest of his place was his slob’s paradise. He didn’t give a damn about the neighbours, and wouldn’t be missing them now that they were gone.
Clearing his throat, Paulison spoke. “Your message has come through loud and clear down at the bank. We took your case so seriously that we appealed to the President.”
“The President,” Jeff said, revealing a raft of decaying teeth. “He really cares about my home?”
Paulison grinned; his sucker’s grin. One he reserved for those lovely moments when the sucker was on the hook. “The President does care, and he’s come up with a plan to save your home here at Shady Meadows. It’s a done deal, just a matter of drawing up the paper work and getting your signature.”
Jeff’s mangy brows rose like dark clouds in a sudden storm, distrust crossed his pitted face like rare lightning. He knew the rain of lies would come as it always had. Then he glanced off into the darkness. He reached out, and when he pulled his hand back, he was holding a twisted rope.
In that moment, Paulision got a genuine look at Jeff’s eyes. He realized he’d fooled himself. There were no eyes there, only dark bloody holes and an evil that penetrated. He suddenly felt like screaming in his loudest and most humiliating voice, but his breath escaped him in an uncontrolled sigh.
“I hung myself with this rope,” Jeff said, hate nearly visible in his foul breath. “It was because of my home. Look out there … there’s nobody … just homeless people living in the valley. You made promises to them and you lied. Now you’re trying to lie to me again. You tore their hearts out and now you want mine.”
Rising with the look of slow death on his face, Jeff threw the table aside in a vicious motion. Paulison stood in the same moment and staggered back, watching Jeff’s hand reach for him. The hand bore no flesh, being nothing more than bones in the shape of a great claw. “Now it’s your turn,” he said, “because I’m going to tear out your heart.”
Blood flowed freely like a gusher of struck oil as the hand of revenge ripped into the electrified Paulison. His pale and shaking corpse slid down and went limp and the walking corpse that had been Jeff held up the fistful of flesh it had torn out.
The evil heart, but the heart wasn’t there, only empty clumps of bleeding flesh. And on the floor, the corpse began to rise.
Paulison got to his feet slowly and faced off with Jeff. His narrow eyes opened to slits and his purpling face gathered a knowing arrogance. He smiled and hissed. Yellowed fangs showed in his mouth. “I’m a banker. I’ve always been a banker, born into the system,” he said. “Surely you didn’t expect me to have a heart.”
Sunrise came again at Shady Meadows and Jeff emerged from his front door and wheezed deeply as he walked through tall thistles and rubbish. Across the road and throughout the rest of the village sprouting weeds were choking the prayers and dreams of Americans. He wondered about many things, about the powerful and the weak … he wondered about their God or god or gods that had abandoned them. He heard a car in the distance and knew it was Paulison’s engine. The banker was returning with the final paperwork.
God bless the President and God bless the bank. His home had been saved. Shady Meadows, at least for now, would be the property of Jeff Connors and the bank. If it came time to sell, it would be in the distant future when the price was right.
Of course, there were conditions. He’d have to maintain the grounds, keep the camera surveillance working and make sure those miserable squatters remained down in the valley where they could do no damage to Shady Meadows. But that was nothing new; it was a job that had always been done, by the bankers, the walking dead and the heartless.