Read The Alpine Christmas Online
Authors: Mary Daheim
Vida nodded. “It’s taken some doing. But when she isn’t subbing, Louise keeps busy as a homemaker and does her share for the Lutheran church. She and Arnie take trips now and then. Arnie’s always asking me to write them up, but they never go anywhere interesting. Arizona, Palm Springs, Hawaii—you know, all the places that everybody else goes and is sick to death of hearing about. Do you really think we need to run a photo of Louise Nyquist standing next to a cactus? Or Arnie cavorting around Konopali Beach in Bermuda shorts? Ugh!”
I smiled agreement, then again studied the Nyquist family tree. “They sure stick to their own,” I noted. “These are all Scandinavian names except for Bridget. I see she was a Dunne.” Irish, maybe. And, if she had graduated from Blanchet, possibly Catholic.
Vida picked up on my wavelength. “If Bridget was R.C., she gave it up. She married Travis in the Lutheran church, remember? Don’t think the Nyquists would permit anything else. In college, Arnie was crazy about some Catholic girl. Oscar put a stop to that, I can tell you!” To my dismay, Vida didn’t look entirely disapproving. I was still having trouble adjusting to the narrow-mindedness of Alpiners when it came to people of different races and creeds. Alpine might be only
seventy miles from Seattle, but it was seventy years behind the times in terms of social integration.
“So he got stuck with the mouse?” I remarked innocently. “Or is Louise a pigeon? I forget.”
“She’s both,” Vida replied, a bit testily. “So was Arnie’s first love, for all I know. I never met her. He wanted to bring her home from the University of Washington to meet his family, but you can imagine how Oscar reacted to that. And old Lars, too. He was still alive then. Karen’s first husband was killed early on in World War II. She married again,” Vida noted, pointing to Oscar’s sister on the makeshift genealogy. “He was Jewish. You can imagine how
stuck in the family’s craw!”
Vida exited my office just as Ben came through the outer door. He greeted my House & Home editor warmly, but I could tell from the drawn expression on his face that he was upset. Either as a measure of trust in Vida or an acknowledgment of my friendship with her, Ben didn’t bother to shut the door behind him. Vida, however, appeared to be absorbed in her typing. I knew better. Vida could have overheard whispers on game day in the Kingdome.
“Dr. Flake is sending Father Fitz to Everett for tests,” Ben announced, sitting down in one of my two visitors’ chairs. “He’s not responding as well as he should. His speech is impaired and he’s partially paralyzed on one side. Flake thinks he may have had a second stroke.”
“Oh, dear.” I wasn’t sure who I felt more sorry for—my pastor or my brother. “Are you stuck at St. Mildred’s for the duration?”
Ben grimaced. “I can’t be. I’ve got my own parish. I have to be back in Tuba City on January second. You know that.”
“I mean are you going to have to take over for the holidays?” I gave Ben a look of genuine sympathy.
He sighed, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a huge cigar. “I suppose so. Dr. Flake went over to Everett to see Father Fitz. The poor old guy has been trying to give Flake
instructions to pass on to me. He’s sure St. Mildred’s will collapse without his guidance, I guess. He can’t speak very well and he can’t write, so it’s very frustrating. All I can do is have Flake tell him everything is under control. Technically, I’m not under this archdiocese’s jurisdiction, but my conscience wouldn’t let me walk away. With the shortage of priests, I doubt very much if the arch can spare anybody, especially during Advent and Christmas.”
For a moment, we were silent. Ben was lighting the cigar; I was trying to make the best of a disruption. St. Mildred’s was a self-sustaining entity. The parish council, the school faculty, the various committees would hold the parochial fabric together. Given Father Fitz’s advanced age, he wasn’t the most active priest in the archdiocese. Ben would be stuck for daily and weekend masses, a couple of weddings, maybe a baptism, and, if he had time, visits to the sick. Except for the fact that he’d probably have to stay on at the rectory, he’d still have plenty of free hours to spend with Adam and me.
“Where’d you get that cigar?” I inquired as my office grew hazy with smoke. “Your old drinking buddy, Milo?”
Ben shook his head. “Peyton Flake. He says they taste even better over a fifth of Wild Turkey. Ever see a Desert Eagle?”
“I’ve got enough problems with the spotted owl. Does the Desert Eagle hang out with the Wild Turkey?”
“You got it, Sluggly.” Ben grinned, clenching the cigar in his teeth. Apparently, he’d faced up to his unexpected responsibilities, acknowledged his pastoral duties, and made peace with himself. Ben was like that—he went through agonies of indecision, but once he’d made up his mind, he put all doubts behind him. “A Desert Eagle is a gun, in this case, a .357 Magnum. They’re made in Israel. Dr. Flake just bought one. He may be able to solve the spotted owl controversy single-handedly. Right now he’s threatening to practice on the religious statuary up at St. Mildred’s. I told him he’d
better not, or I wouldn’t lend him my Browning high-power nine-millimeter semiautomatic.”
“You’ve got a
?” I shrieked. Vida, I noticed, paused in her typing, but briefly.
Ben gave me a disgusted look. “Of course I’ve got a gun. Do you think I’d wander all over the Mississippi Delta or the Arizona desert without a gun?”
I was flabbergasted. Of course our dad had owned guns, and had done some hunting before he decided that too many of his fellow hunters couldn’t tell a cow from a deer—or each other. “What are you afraid of,” I demanded, “the Ku Klux Klan and the Mormons going after your parishioners?”
“I’m more afraid of my parishioners.” Ben chuckled, then shook his head. “No, it’s not people that worry me so much as animals. Snakes, mainly, in Arizona. Anyway, Dr. Flake asked me to go shooting with him. He’s quite a guy. Not what I’d expect to find in Alpine.”
I’d met Peyton Flake twice, and had to agree with Ben. The new doctor in town was not much over thirty, and a graduate of the University of Chicago’s medical school. Flake was a lanky six foot three with a ponytail, rimless glasses, and a careless beard. His professional uniform seemed to consist of faded blue jeans and a rumpled denim work shirt. His untidy appearance, not to mention his somewhat flamboyant personal habits, had aroused a good deal of criticism, but his medical expertise was slowly starting to win people over. Doc Dewey sang his new partner’s praises.
I was still reeling from my brother’s revelation that he roamed the reservation with a cocked and loaded handgun when I saw Ginny and Carla come into the outer office carrying a couple of cartons. I recognized them as containing
’s official Christmas decorations. They were, I recalled from my previous Alpine Yuletides, a pathetic lot. Marius Vandeventer, who had founded the newspaper almost sixty years ago, had been many things. Most of them were admirable, but he hadn’t been overly keen on Christmas. I
cringed as Ginny pulled out a two-foot-high tree made from aluminum foil.
The phone rang. It was Mrs. Hoffman, calling from the Blanchet attendance office in Seattle. As we caught up with each other over a gap of almost twenty-five years, I scrawled a note to Ben.
He nodded, then made a notation of his own:
BHS chaplain—Bill Crowley—fellow seminarian
Mrs. Hoffman and I finally got down to business. Offhand, she recalled two or three Carols in the class of ’87. I could hear pages turning. Maybe it was easier to look through the yearbook than to rely on computer records.
“Here’s Carol Addams, tall, blond girl—it helps to look at their senior pictures—got a scholarship to some school back east, graduated in biology, got married last summer, and lives in Maine. Or is it Vermont? It’s so hard to keep track of these kids, but her youngest brother is a junior this year.…”
It occurred to me that—at least as far as Blanchet High School was concerned—Clarice Hoffman was almost as valuable a resource as Vida was for Alpine. But of course it was Mrs. Hoffman’s job to keep track of students, at least while they were attending the school. It was she who took the calls from parents reporting on sick, tardy, or otherwise absent teenagers, and she who had read—and heard—every excuse in the book.
“Janovitz,” she was saying, “but she spelled it Carole, with an
. You said this one doesn’t?”
“Uh … right.” I hadn’t told Mrs. Hoffman why I was trying to track down a 1987 graduate named Carol. If there was no connection between Blanchet and the body by the river, then there was no need to unduly alarm the attendance office or the rest of the faculty and staff.
“Neal,” she said. “Let me think … Carol Neal … Her parents weren’t as well-off as some.” Which, I assumed, meant that they were often behind in their tuition payments.
“St. John’s? Or St. Catherine’s? I can never remember home parishes. North end, though—she took the bus. That is, until she got a car in her junior year.” The sound of more pages being riffled came over the line. “Winters, but that’s Carolyn.” Mrs. Hoffman paused, presumably finishing up the alphabetical listings. “That’s it, Emma. Do you think you’re looking for Carol Neal or Carol Addams?”
“Neal,” I replied. “Addams doesn’t live around here, right? By the way, was that the same year Bridget Dunne graduated?”
“Bridget!” Mrs. Hoffman’s voice took on an edge. “Now there was a piece of work! I could never figure that kid out. Say, didn’t she marry somebody from up your way?”
“She did. A local named Travis Nyquist.” Ben was watching me closely through a cloud of cigar smoke. Ginny and Carla were putting cheap plastic ornaments on the aluminum-foil tree. Vida had given up all pretense of typing and was standing in the doorway of my office.
“Funny girl,” mused Mrs. Hoffman. “You never knew where you were with her. One minute, she’d be sweet as candy; the next, she’d be a real little snip. Of course she lost her father when she was a sophomore. And I heard Mrs. Dunne committed suicide. I guess I’d better go dig into my bag of Christian charity and spare a bit for Bridget.”
“Do you remember if Bridget and Carol Neal were friends?” I asked innocently.
Mrs. Hoffman hesitated. “That whole class was even more cliquish than some of the others. I’m not sure. They may have been. But it seems to me that Bridget in particular palled around with girls from other private schools. Holy Names. Forest Ridge. Even some of the non-Catholic ones. I told you: she was odd.”
I didn’t know if Mrs. Hoffman’s judgment of Bridget was based on the girl’s unpredictable personality or her choice of companions. It didn’t matter. I had a link between Bridget
Dunne Nyquist and Carol Neal. If, of course, that was Carol Neal’s body lying in Al Driggers’s mortuary.
“Have you got a mailing address for Carol Neal?” I asked, giving Vida and Ben a high sign.
“The alum office would have it. Should I transfer you?”
Briefly, Mrs. Hoffman exchanged pleasantries about our reunion via telephone. Just before she rang off, she wished me luck in finding Carol Neal. I mumbled my thanks.
I didn’t recognize the female voice that answered for the alumni association. She sounded young, eager, and efficient. Maybe she thought I wanted to give money. But she met my request with a buoyant spirit. As I waited for her to look up Carol Neal’s address, my gaze shifted from Ben to Vida and back again. Vida was waving both hands, not at me, but in an attempt to disperse Ben’s cigar smoke.
“Filthy,” she muttered. “What kind of vices do you priests have?”
The lively voice came back on the line. “We have an address for Carol Neal in the University District, on Fifteenth Northeast. But that was four years ago. She moved after that and apparently left no forwarding address. We have her listed as inactive.”
That, I thought, was an understatement.
The aluminum-foil tree with its plastic ornaments, the ragged red and green paper streamers, and the Styrofoam snowman with his missing nose and mangled top hat didn’t do much to cheer up the editorial office. I flinched when I remembered what Ginny had to work with in the reception area: three cardboard Magi, a Star of Bethlehem that had lost half of its pasted-on gold glitter, and a Holy Family fashioned from bread dough. The array was depressing.
“Nice decorations,” Ed Bronsky commented as he lumbered through the office. “I really like the tree. It’s like the one we have at home, only smaller. We put homemade stuff on it, like cranberries and popcorn and hard candy.”
Ben had left for the rectory and Vida had returned to her desk. “What a stupid idea,” she declared, narrowing her eyes at Ed. “I’ve seen your tree. By the day after Christmas, it’s bare. Your children have eaten all the decorations.” The accusing stare she gave Ed indicated that she thought he and his wife had probably helped.
I didn’t give Ed time to defend himself. “Here,” I said to Ginny and Carla. “I’m writing a check to Harvey’s Hardware and Sporting Goods Store. Go get something decent, and keep it under fifty bucks.”
Ed stopped removing his heavy overcoat. “Harvey Adcock! I was supposed to see him fifteen minutes ago! Wouldn’t you know it! He wants to double the size of his usual ad next week just because he thinks men like to get
tools and sports stuff for Christmas! Why can’t they be happy with a tie? I am.” He plodded out of the office behind Ginny and Carla.
Vida rolled her eyes. “Honestly,” she breathed. “It isn’t just that people are jackasses, Emma. It’s that there are so many
“I’m afraid so.” I poured a cup of coffee and sat down in Ed’s chair. “I’ve got to go see Milo and tell him about Carol Neal. Then he can start tracking her down and find out if she’s really missing.” I paused, waiting for Vida to respond. But Vida was doodling on a notepad. “If she’s the same Carol,” I went on, “then she must have known Bridget. Blanchet’s not that big—under a thousand students at the time, I’d guess.” Vida kept doodling. “I should have asked Mrs. Hoffman who Carol’s friends were, assuming she and Bridget weren’t buddies. Maybe Ben can call Bill Crowley. He’s been the chaplain there for almost ten years.”