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Authors: Mary Daheim

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BOOK: The Alpine Christmas
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“… how fussy some people can be,” Henry was saying in his flat delivery. I realized I was wool-gathering, thinking not only of the Dithers Sisters, but admiring Evan Singer’s art work. “And don’t I know it, running a resort. But what I say is that Video-to-Go’s loss is my gain.”

Hastily, I tried to reconstruct the conversation. “Evan was there … how long?” I took a wild guess.

“Just a month,” said Henry, initialing the mock-up with his silver ballpoint pen. “He came to Alpine in October, one of those city boys who thinks the grass is greener in a small town.” The glance Henry shot me implied that such beliefs were quite right. I could have argued the point, but didn’t.

“Dutch Bamberg fired Evan, but he gave him a recommendation anyway,” Henry went on earnestly, as if he needed to justify the hired help with me. “Dutch said Evan not only knew movies backwards and forwards, but that he’d waited tables, driven a cab, done some retail, and worked at
a riding stable near Issaquah. That was good enough for me. Then I found out he could draw, too.”

I gave Henry an encouraging smile. “Evan sounds like a real Renaissance man. Who did Dutch get to replace him at Video-to-Go?”

“He hasn’t found anybody yet,” replied Henry, looking troubled. Even though it appeared that Evan Singer had been dismissed for reasons I hadn’t quite grasped, Henry, in his typical self-flagellating manner, seemed to blame himself. “By the time Dutch let Evan go, most of the folks around here had taken seasonal jobs. The only people out of work right now are loggers, and they wouldn’t fit in at Video-to-Go.” Henry looked very somber, as if the idea of a former logger discerning between Woody Allen and Woody Woodpecker was impossible.

Henry lingered long enough to grouse about the Forest Service’s recent decision to reject expansion plans for the White Pass ski area near Mount Rainier. Supposedly, the project would endanger the habitat of the spotted owl, the grizzly bear, and the gray wolf. “I’ve been considering adding two downhill runs and a warming hut below Mount Sawyer, but I’ll never get approval now. If one of those grizzlies ate a couple of environmentalists, I wonder if they’d change their tune?”

Still grumbling, Henry left just as Vida returned with Bridget Nyquist in tow. It might seem coincidental that I could run into two Nyquists in less than two hours, but Alpine was small enough to make such occurrences unremarkable. Indeed, I had seen Bridget the previous afternoon at the Grocery Basket, and on Sunday she had passed me in her cream-colored Mercedes on the bridge over the Skykomish River as I headed for Sea-Tac to meet Ben.

Vida shrugged out of her tweed coat, yanked off her kid-skin gloves, and adjusted the ties of her black gaucho hat. “Bridget has volunteered to be Santa’s Little Helper for the Lutheran Retirement Home’s Christmas party,” said Vida,
shoving her spare chair at our visitor. “Fuzzy Baugh is going to be Santa.”

Gingerly sitting down, Bridget gave me a charming smile. She was in her early twenties, tall, slim, auburn-haired and blue-eyed. Her skin was flawless and her clothes were expensive, if casual. A russet fox-lined raincoat was worn over a cashmere sweater and wool slacks. Her hand-tooled boots came almost to the knee and matched her shoulder bag.

“This will be fun,” said Bridget in a breathy little voice. “I used to visit old folks’ homes when I was a Girl Scout in Seattle.”

“Then you’ve had lots of practice,” said Vida, whipping out a ballpoint pen. “Just remember: you’ll never run out of old people, but someday you’ll be one of them. Now—give me the program, in order of events.”

As usual, Vida seemed to have the situation well in hand. I returned to my office just as the phone rang. This time it was Teresa McHale, the parish housekeeper. She went straight to the point, expressing her displeasure over Ben’s decision to move into the rectory.

“It was one thing with Father Fitz being almost ninety,” she asserted. “But this is quite different. People will talk. Your brother is very close to my age.”

I figured Ben was probably a good ten years younger than Teresa McHale, but if she wanted to kid herself, that was okay with me. It wasn’t okay for her to interfere with the clergy, however.

“Sorry, Mrs. McHale,” I said cheerfully, “but this isn’t the Chancery. Ben’s a big boy, and while I’d just as soon have him stay on with me, I understand why there ought to be a priest available at the rectory. As I’m sure you realize, people undergo more spiritual crises at this time of year. They need to know somebody’s there to help.”

Teresa McHale emitted a snort of contempt, probably aimed at me rather than the spiritually depressed. “So what if he’s six blocks away? You live on Fir Street, don’t you?”

I acknowledged that I did, then started to say that the distance between my home and St. Mildred’s was beside the point.

Teresa interrupted: “Have it your way.” She huffed as if I were indeed a Chancery official rather than merely the sister of a visiting priest. “But don’t blame me if something happens.”

I gave a little sniff of my own as she banged down the phone.
Dream on, kiddo
, I thought to myself. If anything happened, it wouldn’t be Ben’s fault. Women weren’t a weakness with my brother, at least not one that he hadn’t been able to overcome. Teresa McHale was looking for trouble that didn’t exist.

But of course it was already there.

Cha
p
ter Three

Ben had borrowed Father Fitz’s aging but still reliable Volvo to transport his few belongings up to the rectory. He had come and gone while I was at work, but left a message on my answering machine asking me to pick him up after seven o’clock mass. It seemed that Teresa McHale, who had no car of her own, had commandeered the Volvo so that she could visit Father Fitz in the hospital.

Ben and I had a leisurely dinner, prefaced with two bourbons apiece. The steaks were excellent, the conversation mellow, and the Viennese torte divine. The Upper Crust, along with the rest of downtown Alpine, had gotten its power restored just after lunch.

Ben talked at length about the challenges of his assignment in Tuba City, how tough it was for the Navajos to keep their pride, to pass on their culture, to not lose their children to the wider world while at the same time preventing them from falling into poverty and alcoholism. I talked about the differences between general assignment reporting in a metropolitan area such as Portland and running a weekly in an isolated community like Alpine. My problems seemed trifling compared to Ben’s. As usual, I came away from our one-on-one session feeling as if his role in life far surpassed my own. He, of course, always insisted that this was not so.

“You’re the community’s conscience,” he told me over coffee. “You not only inform, you serve by example. A
newspaper is a watchdog, a catalyst. Especially in a small town. Don’t shortchange yourself, Sluggly.”

I appreciated his words. Indeed, they were mine, too. But I still felt trivial by comparison. Circulation was up by a small percentage in Alpine, yet elsewhere it was generally down, and newspapers were dying across the country. People didn’t read any more; they relied on TV. The print media might go the way of the dinosaur, but there would always be souls to save. If I hadn’t had to drive Ben back to the rectory, I’d have poured us a double brandy.

Ironically, the only business that is more precarious than print journalism is logging. While Alpine hasn’t been a one-industry town since Carl Clemans’s original mill closed in 1929, forest products still provide a major source of income. There are three mills, two of them on the small side, and several independent logging companies. The threat of the spotted owl looms large over the entire Pacific Northwest, but nowhere does it flap its wings more ominously than in towns like Alpine. Ironically, the ski lodge, which had saved the local economy during the Depression, was beginning to suffer from the endangered species fallout. Sooner or later, I had to come to editorial grips with the issue. As a city girl, I tended to side with the environmentalists. But since moving to Alpine, I was beginning to realize that simplistic solutions don’t solve multifaceted questions. Ben agreed, citing the differences he had discovered not only on the Delta, but also on the reservation. Issues, like people, were never simple. And, as my brother pointed out, I was the community’s conscience.

By morning, we had another six inches of snow. The plows were out early, while a sanding crew blemished the pristine new fall along Front Street, Alpine Way, and the third main artery in town, Highway 187. I crept down Fir Street to Alpine Way, taking the long route to work. The current issue of
The Advocate
had been hauled off to the printer in Monroe, but there was a good chance it would come out late. Our
driver, Kip MacDuff, had broken his chains on the newly-laid gravel and had gotten off to a bad start.

Vida, however, was beginning the day with a burst of creative energy. “I think I’ll do a feature on Bridget Nyquist,” she announced after I’d poured a cup of coffee. “For a young bride, she’s done oodles of charitable work since she came to Alpine. I doubt that she has a brain in her head, but I ought to give her credit for a kind heart. Besides, this old folks’ home story is a dud unless I perk it up with something personal. I’ll be a sap six times over if I write another word about that old blowhard, Fuzzy Baugh. He refused to carry a pack because of his lumbago and wouldn’t pad his stomach because he wanted to show off the ten pounds he lost at TOPS. Take Off Pounds Sensibly, my foot! They should have drained Fuzzy’s brain!”

Having dismissed our mayor’s role as Santa with a slashing gesture of one hand, Vida turned to her battered typewriter. “I got the impression you weren’t wildly warm about Bridget,” I commented, perching on Carla’s desk.

Vida shot me a look over her shoulder. “I’m not, but you know I like to be fair. The girl hasn’t had an easy time of it, I gather. Don’t you remember the wedding?”

I didn’t. Vida swiveled around, took off her glasses, and rubbed furiously at her eyes. “Of course you don’t, you weren’t here. It was last November—a year ago, I mean—when you went to Portland for the weekend to visit your friends.”

I recalled the trip, to a former
Oregonian
colleague’s home in suburban Tigard. Mavis Marley Fulkerston had worked on the editorial page while I toiled as a reporter. She had married a sportswriter from the paper, given birth to three children, won a Pulitzer, survived cancer of the cervix, and retired early. I had attended her fiftieth birthday party the previous November, a gala affair at the Benson Hotel.

“Bridget didn’t have anybody on her side.” Vida was gazing at me without her glasses. Her face always looked so
naked, yet never really vulnerable, without those big tortoiseshell frames. “Doesn’t that beat all?”

“You mean—no family or friends of the bride?” In Alpine, wedding etiquette was still observed to the letter.

Vida nodded solemnly. “That’s right. Oh, the Lutheran church was packed—the Nyquists know everybody in Skykomish County—but there was nobody there for Bridget.”

Ed was lumbering into the office, shaking snow off his overcoat. “There’s no end to it,” he grumbled. “Some of those dopey merchants in the mall want to have a pre-Christmas sale. Imagine!” Under the brim of his wool cap, Ed rolled his eyes.

“I guess there’s no stopping them,” I noted in mock sympathy. It was a wonder Ed hadn’t tried to persuade the local retailers that they didn’t need to advertise in the paper because people would shop for Christmas anyway. As Ed heaved himself out of his overcoat and muttered under his breath, I turned back to Vida. “I thought Bridget was from Seattle. Why didn’t anybody come up for the wedding?”

Vida gave a shrug of wide shoulders covered with a print blouse, a suede vest, and a plaid muffler. Apparently she wasn’t taking any chances on the heat going out again. “There wasn’t anybody to come. That’s why they had the wedding in Alpine, instead of Seattle. She’s an only child,” Vida continued, settling into one of her favorite sports, Family History. “Her father died about six years ago of a heart attack. He owned a small trucking company. Her mother committed suicide shortly before the wedding. As for friends, I couldn’t say.” Vida made a little face, as if she were disowning responsibility for Bridget’s lack of sociability.

“Poor Bridget,” I remarked, watching Ed discover we were out of coffee. His galoshes made dark marks on the floor as he went out to give Ginny the bad news. “Has she made friends since she got to Alpine?”

“I don’t know,” Vida admitted. “She’s trying, I’d guess. I think that’s why she does so much charity work. But let’s
face it, Emma, there aren’t very many young women in her age group who have much in common with her. More to the point, she’d make them feel inferior with her lovely home and beautiful clothes. I suppose that’s why I feel sorry for her.”

It was, I reflected, typical of Vida to lament the plight of someone who appeared to have everything. A successful husband, material possessions, financial security—on the surface, envy would be the emotion Bridget would elicit in most people. But Vida would go straight to the heart of the matter and see that somebody like Bridget was lacking a lot.

“Why did her mother commit suicide?” I had worked with Vida long enough not to question her sources. Bridget’s background could have come from any number of Vida’s friends or relations.

“She had cancer, poor thing,” Vida replied as Ginny tended to the coffee maker while Ed watched. “I heard that she didn’t want to do something embarrassing—like die-about the same time Bridget got married. So she threw herself off the Bainbridge Island ferry.”

I winced. “Poor Bridget!”

Vida inclined her head, then flipped open her phone book. “I think I’ll set up an interview at her house. I wonder how they’ve decorated the place. The Lovells went Amish.”

The Lovells were, of course, the previous owners of the house on Stump Hill. I suppressed a smile, wondering if Vida’s desire to do the story on Bridget wasn’t motivated as much by curiosity as by sympathy. It didn’t matter; Vida would turn out a first-rate profile. In the process of talking to her subject, she’d also dig up material that she wouldn’t be able to use in the paper. Vida had a knack for unearthing the darkest secrets, which she usually kept to herself.

BOOK: The Alpine Christmas
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