Tamar Myers - Penn Dutch Inn 01 - Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth
I knew at once that the screamer was Susannah. Hers is an exceptionally high-pitched scream, and while it won't break any glasses, it will curdle milk and put the hens off laying.
When I got there, Susannah was still standing just inside the bedroom door, but she had stopped screaming. Her mouth, however, continued to open and close with the regularity of a pump valve. Come to think of it, she could still have been screaming, but somewhere out of my decibel range.
I could see at once what the problem was. Sprawled across the sleigh bed, half-draped in Mama's best dresden plate quilt, was a corpse. A corpse, as opposed to a body. There is a difference, you know.
In my forty-three years I've seen a few dead bodies, but this was my first corpse. The bodies had all belonged to people who knew they were going to die, or who were at peace with themselves when their time came. Seeing them was hard enough.
A corpse is different because the remains belong to someone who has died in mental as well as physical agony. This is my own definition, of course, but I'm sure you'll agree.
Even from a distance it was clear that this was a corpse. These were not the vacantly staring eyes that one traditionally associates with death. The eyes of this corpse seemed to be focused in rage at the ceiling, although a quick glance in that direction revealed nothing more than a few wispy cobwebs Susannah's broom had missed.
The corpse's open mouth was a dead giveaway too. I know, most people die with their mouths open, but the lips on this one were pulled back, and there was something about their position that made me think their owner had died cursing. Perhaps those lips were still issuing silent curses, like Susannah's silent screams.
And take the hands. People usually die with their hands open too. I mean, when they die their muscles relax and they let go of whatever they've been holding. Not so with this corpse. This corpse was clutching Mama's dresden plate quilt so tightly, I was afraid we'd have to do some cutting to part corpse from quilt. Cut- ting fingers, I mean, not the quilt.
Not that the quilt was in such good shape anyway. Both my eyes and my nose told me there was at least one part of the corpse that had relaxed.
"Gosh darn!" I said. I swear, that is as bad as I can curse.
Susannah began to make some noises that were neither speech nor screams.
"Get a grip on it," I admonished her. "I'll call the police, but in the meantime, you run downstairs and see if we have any borax in the laundry room. If not, dash out and get some. If this quilt's been ruined, someone's going to pay.
I know that might sound a little callous to you, but you have to stand tough if you expect to succeed in the business world.
And I, for one, was succeeding remarkably well, all things considered.
We'd been farmers, you see. Mennonite farmers in the Allegheny Mountains of southern Pennsylvania. Ours was primarily a dairy farm, which Papa ran with the help of a kinsman, Mose Hostetler. Mama and Freni, Mose's wife, did the gardening and took care of the chickens. Some years Mama made more selling eggs that Papa did selling milk.
I'm sure I'd only confuse you if I said that Mose and Freni were third cousins, and that both of them were somehow related to Papa, and Freni was related to Mama as well. I suppose it would confuse you even more if I mentioned that Mose and Freni weren't even Mennonites, but Church Amish. Suffice it to say, the Hostetlers were family, as well as employees.
The routine of our farm, the love of our family, and the firm foundation of our church made me think that I would live my entire life feeling absolutely secure, if not a little bored. Then one day something tragic happened that turned my life upside down.
Papa and Mama were on their way west to Somerset when their car was rear-ended in the Allegheny Tunnel. The vehicle that did this was a semitrailer loaded to the gills with state-of-the-art running shoes. The driver of the truck was loaded to the gills with Mogen David 20/20. The authorities believe my parents might have survived this accident, had there been no one in front of them. Unfortunately, there was another truck in front of them, this one a shiny, silver tanker. Mama and Papa died needlessly in a mishmash of sneakers and pasteurized milk.
That was ten years ago, when I was thirty-three and my sister, Susannah, twenty-three. Fortunately for us, the farm had been paid for a generation earlier, but I still we had all those cows and chickens to contend with. The Hostetlers were, after all, nearing retirement age, and we couldn't stick them with all the work. Perhaps the four of us might have been able to make a go of it, but
Susannah, who never was much of a worker anyway, ran off and married a Presbyterian - something she never would have done had Mama and Papa been alive!
Then one day I picked up a magazine that had an article about bed-and-breakfast establishments, and cerebral lightning struck. Why not, I pondered, go two steps further and offer lunch and dinner as well? So, to make a long story short, that's how the PennDutch Inn was begun. : In retrospect, I am amazed at how quickly the pieces fell into place. Sure, Freni Hostetler was opposed to the idea, but she's just generally allergic to change. Mose, on the other hand, thought it was a great idea. Normally the
Amish, even the more liberal ones like Mose and Freni, don't like mixing the outsiders, but Mose liked the idea of milking all those cows by himself even less. In no time at all, we sold off all the cows but two, got the chickens down to a more manageable flock, and built an addition to the farmhouse.
With the exception of remodeling the kitchen to meet health codes and updating the plumbing, there was very little work needed on the existing house. I didn't even bother to redecorate. All of Mama's furnishings had been in the family for years, some for generations, and while they looked old and common-place to me, to the outside world they were antiques. Even Mama's hobby, quilt-making, finally paid off, because there were enough quilts by then to put one on each guest bed.
And while I don't really believe in luck, it was with me nonetheless. I had advertised in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia papers, and among my first guests was a yuppie reviewer who fancied herself a connoisseur of Americana, and of the
Pennsylvania Dutch in particular. Never mind that she thought our plain posture was all an act, and that Freni's blue broadcloth dresses and white net prayer bonnet were nothing more than a costume. What matters is that she gave us a rave review, and started a stampede of well-heeled, highfalutin customers who have kept right on coming. I have not advertised again.
Of course I did the sensible thing and jacked up the prices. Connoisseurs are only happy when paying a premium. Since that first, and fateful, review, I have jacked up my rates six times, and my waiting list keeps getting longer.
Another thing I did was to institute the old work ethic. On the parlor wall I hung a sampler with a verse from Corinthians:
"'We work hard with our own hands." That the verse is taken out of context does not matter - yuppies are not all that familiar with the Bible. The point is, my guests are expected to clean their own rooms every day, and even to help out with the common rooms.
This doesn't seem to bother them one whit, as long as they remain convinced that this is part of our culture. Most of them do. For those few who don't want to immerse themselves so thoroughly in the Amish-Mennonite heritage, Susannah and I are glad to take over. For an extra fee, of course. You'd be surprised how much people will pay for abuse, provided they can view it as a cultural experience.
At any rate, what with our low operating expenses and our astonishingly high income, we managed to pay off the new wing in no time at all, and start squirreling some of those greenbacks away. My goal is to someday travel to all those interesting places our guests hail from. In fact, I'd like to see the whole world, every bit of it - except those parts that are permanently covered by ice and snow.
But for now, at least until I can find a replacement more competent than Susannah (who divorced her Presbyterian and moved back home), I have to content myself with seeing the world through books, and the eyes of our guests. Since Mama and
Papa's tragic accident, my perspective has changed drastically. But then, when your world turns upside down, your perspective can't help but change.
So you can see now, can't you, why the corpse on the old sleigh bed was upsetting, but not quite as upsetting as the fact that it had soiled Mama's dresden plate quilt? Of course, it was probably all my fault to begin with. I had gotten too busy, and didn't take my usual care in selecting the guests that first weekend of deer-hunting season. What follows is exactly what happened.
They began to arrive on Sunday afternoon, the Sunday following Thanksgiving. Deer-hunting season was to begin at dawn the following day. Normally I try to pick deer hunters as my guests at that time, even though I am personally repulsed by the idea of shooting anything that isn't trying to mug you. My reason for welcoming hunters is very Biblical. Didn't the prophet Ezekiel say something about there being a time and season for everything? Although the PennDutch Inn is at least six miles from State Game
Land No. 48, every year our land gets overrun by hunters. I figure that if any of my patrons must risk an accidental bullet, it may as well be hunters.
I was particularly pleased with the lot I'd selected this year (you wouldn't believe how long my waiting list is, and don't think for a minute that it is first come, first served). Four of the week's guests were to be women. Women hunters, imagine that!
Not that women can't be hunters too, it's just this was the first time a woman had stated on her application that she was a hunter.
Well, with the exception of one woman, who it turned out was really a hunting groupie in search of two-legged bucks carrying a lot of green-backs. But that happened a long time ago, and is another story.
Anyway, I had just gotten home from church, and hadn't even had time to fix myself a bite of lunch, when the first of these four women showed up unexpectedly. Check-in time is three p.m., and it was only a couple of minutes past noon when this creature appeared at the front door, so can you blame me for being at least a little miffed?
And another thing, I hate being startled. People who sneak up behind you, even if it is not their intention to scare you, deserve a special place in hell. I know that's a terrible thing to think, especially on a Sunday, but ever since I was a child, and my cousin Sam sneaked up behind me and suddenly dangled a live blacksnake in my face, causing me to lose control of my bladder,
I've harbored a shameful hatred of sneaky people. Of course Susannah knows this and torments me with her knowledge. One night, just a year ago, I opened the door to my bedroom closet, only to find Susannah in there, behind my dresses, with her chin resting on the hanger bar, and the light of a flashlight shining up onto her face. She had her mouth open in a snarl, and was wearing those silly plastic teeth kids stick in their mouths on Halloween. Of course I screamed, and maybe dampened my bloomers just a little. Meanwhile Susannah howled with laughter. And this from a woman who will never see the sunny side of thirty again?
But back to the woman at the front door. If she had rung the bell, knocked, or even walked in loudly, I wouldn't have minded so much. But she just stood there, outside, like a giant moth pressed up against screen of the front door. She even looked like a moth. Everything about her was a grayish beige. Light ash brown, I think they call it. I call it mousy. If she'd been a larger woman, she could have gotten a job as a used sofa in the bargain basement of the Salvation Army store, or had she at least worn a large green hat, she might well have passed for a tree. You get the picture.
"What is it you want?" I said perhaps a little too sharply.
The giant moth did not flutter away. "I've come to register in your inn."
I was taken aback. Normally I put on a little show for my guests. Atmosphere is, after all, what most of them have come seeking. Obviously it was now too late to trot out the accent, or to put on plainer-looking duds. "Aren't you just a wee bit early,