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Authors: Mary Daheim

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“Destiny obviously doesn’t know what side her bread is buttered on,” Ed declared. “She’ll hear about this. She seems to have forgotten that I’m going to run for mayor in the off-year election this fall.” He slammed down the phone.

I seemed to have forgotten it, too. Recently Ed had made a couple of passing remarks about seeking office, but I had dismissed them as mere bluster. Fuzzy Baugh had been mayor since before I moved to Alpine. No serious candidate had ever challenged him. It wasn’t that Fuzzy was so effective in office, but that no one else seemed to want the job. The real power lay in the arthritic hands of the county commissioners.

Ginny Erlandson, her dazzling red hair in disarray, rushed into my cubbyhole. “Nat Cardenas has been on hold for five minutes. Didn’t you see the red light on your phone?”

I heaved a sigh. “No,” I admitted to our office manager. “I was too busy soothing Ed Bronsky’s ruffled feathers.”

I punched in the call and immediately apologized to the college president.

Nat, who rarely shows his human side, sounded almost meek. “I’d like to get together with you tomorrow or Friday,” he began. “I didn’t want to bother you on press day. Would lunch at the ski lodge work for you?”

If Nat wanted to see me, there must be a problem. I assumed it had nothing to do with his part in
The Outcast
. He was playing Sheriff John Brown, an apparently heroic figure, though it had surprised me when he took on the role. Nat Cardenas guarded his dignity closely.

“Tomorrow’s fine,” I said, “assuming we don’t get more snow and the road to the lodge is open.”

“Let’s hope for the best, despite the forecast,” Nat replied. “Would twelve-thirty be convenient?”

I said that it would. “Is there a crisis at the college?” I asked.

Nat didn’t answer right away, and when he did, his voice was very formal. “There are some challenges emerging. I’ll tell you about them tomorrow. Thanks for agreeing to meet me.”

The calls that followed included the usual irate readers, three of whom didn’t agree with my editorial advocating the flood control project. One of them was Rita Patricelli, the Chamber of Commerce secretary and a member of a large Italian family that had been in the area for years. I had first known her as Rita Haines, but she’d dumped both Mr. Haines and his last name some time ago.

“I’ve lived here all my life, more or less,” Rita declared in her brisk voice. “I’d write a letter to the editor, but I don’t want the merchants to think I’m speaking for all of them. You’ve been here for at least ten years, Emma. How many times has the Sky flooded?”

I thought back over the decade. “Twice.”

“How much damage?”

“Some of the businesses and homes along River Road got almost a foot of water the last time,” I said.

“Which they could bail out with a couple of buckets and a dishpan,” Rita retorted. “The Sky’s not big enough this close to the source. It’s a waste of money. The project wouldn’t even bring more jobs to Alpine. You know damned well the county would hire some outsider.”

“I appreciate your opinion,” I said, trying to be gracious even though I’d never been particularly fond of the abrasive Rita Patricelli. “You may be right. But I’m not backing down. In any event, it’s up to the county commissioners.”

“Those old slugs,” Rita sneered. “Maybe that’s a good thing. They’ll dither around until the river dries up. The three of them already have. Now if they’d only blow away.”

I wouldn’t admit to Rita that I agreed with her.

“And by the way,” she went on, “that picture of me in this week’s
Advocate
is god-awful. I look like I weigh four hundred pounds.”

Rita referred to the group photo of
The Outcast
troupe. She was playing a waitress at the Emerald Café. I wouldn’t exactly call Rita fat, but she had put on some weight in recent months.

“You look fine to me,” I said blithely.

“Speak for yourself,” Rita grumbled. “I still wish you’d visited Avezzano when you were in Italy. It’s not that far from Rome. I’d have liked a souvenir from my ancestral home.”

“You ought to go there yourself,” I said, aware that I had another call on hold. “Got to run, Rita. I think Fuzzy’s on the other line.”

“Good-bye.” Rita hung up.

∗ ∗ ∗

There hadn’t been time to visit the countryside that surrounded Rome. I’d never been there before, but my brother had made three previous visits, including a six-month stint several years earlier when he’d studied how to be a missionary priest. If he’d learned nothing else, he’d discovered that his vocation was not in the jungles of Papua New Guinea or the deserts of North Africa. Ben had opted for the home missions and had been sent to the Mississippi Delta, where I had gone when my son, Adam, was born.

Thus, Ben knew Rome fairly well, though he was surprised at the city’s expansion since his last visit seven years ago. While he attended meetings in the Vatican, I followed his instructions on where to go and what to see. I started at Piazza di Porta San Giovanni, where I visited the basilica dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist. The church, which frankly isn’t all that imposing on the outside, is also Rome’s cathedral. I stumbled over an uneven place in the floor and fell to one knee. If any onlookers saw me, they probably thought I was genuflecting and praying. Instead, I was wobbling and cussing.

If this was a pilgrimage, it had gotten off on the wrong foot.

∗ ∗ ∗

As Rita rang off abruptly, I knew it was because she wouldn’t want to keep the mayor waiting. But the call wasn’t from Fuzzy Baugh. Instead, it was from Sunny Rhodes, the mother of one of our carriers. Her son, Davin, had fallen off his bike and possibly broken his ankle. If he was laid up, could the family collect disability from the
Advocate
? I told her I’d have to check into it with our attorney, Marisa Foxx. I felt like telling Mom that her son should have been using snowshoes, not a bicycle.

Deputy Sam Heppner phoned in the name of the highway accident victim, a resident of Wenatchee, on the other side of the Cascades. Crass as it sounds, his lack of association with Alpine didn’t mean we’d missed a major story. Next week, the fatality would take up no more than two inches on the inside pages.

As it turned out, the mayor never called that afternoon. Apparently, he wasn’t upset over the omission of his formal portrait. Maybe he didn’t want to annoy me. Maybe he was taking Ed Bronsky’s electoral challenge seriously.

Despite the gloomy gray clouds, it was still light at five o’clock when I left the office. Spring was exactly a month away, but it was hard to believe with the snow piled high at the sidewalk’s edge. Not that it was unusual for Alpine to get snow even as late as April. We’d been spoiled the past few years by warmer weather that might have been easier to live with but hurt the winter sports industry. The lack of a sizable snowpack also kept the rivers low and caused a shortage of hydroelectric power.

Tire chains weren’t practical in town, since Front Street and Alpine Way were kept clear. But the moment I turned onto Fir Street and headed to my little log house, I had to rely on studded tires. After returning from my two-week vacation in Italy, I’d sold the Lexus that Tom Cavanaugh had virtually given me and replaced it with an almost-new Honda Accord. I couldn’t ever replace Tom and I had only sad memories of the Lexus. He’d been dead for going on two years. Yet I still awoke some mornings thinking he was alive.

“Time,” people kept telling me. “Time heals. You’ll get over the worst parts.”

I was feeling more stable. But I’d never heal completely. Tom was the father of my child, the only love of my life, the man I had been about to marry after waiting for almost thirty years. I was reminded of a song, something about the sea being wide and “. . . I cannot get over it.”

I would never get over Tom Cavanaugh.

TWO

There was no new snow on the ground Thursday morning. I’d almost hoped for a blizzard that would shut down the town and make it impossible for the show to go on.

“Well!” Vida exclaimed as she entered the newsroom almost fifteen minutes late. “Guess what?”

Leo, Scott, and I all looked up from the Grocery Basket layout we’d been studying.

“You skied to work,” Leo said. “That’s why you’re late. We were about to send Dodge out to look for you.”

Vida dismissed the remark with a wave of her hand and an amiable laugh. “Nothing of the sort. Amy called just as I was leaving. You’ll never guess what she had to say.”

Scott stared at Vida. “Your daughter won the lottery?”

“No, no, no.” Vida made another gesture of dismissal, as if a few million dollars wouldn’t cause such excitement. “Roger is in
The Outcast
!”

I wanted to say that Roger
was
the outcast. Vida’s spoiled grandson had been a thorn in my side ever since I arrived in Alpine. Now he was a teenager, a high school junior, and—in my mind—licensed to kill since he’d passed his driver’s test.

“Wait a minute,” I said, unable to hide my shock. “Roger’s not listed among the cast members. Did they add a part?”
Like Spawn of Satan?

“Of course not,” Vida replied. “Davin Rhodes was supposed to play the role of the runaway youth. Davin hurt himself yesterday. According to my niece, Marje Blatt at the clinic, he sprained an ankle, tripping over his own feet. Roger is taking his place.”

Sunny Rhodes hadn’t been entirely truthful in her report to me. Maybe she and her husband, Oren, were hoping they could sue the
Advocate
.

“How can Roger learn the part so fast?” I inquired, putting aside the evil thought that I didn’t think the kid had learned to read yet.

Vida was removing her hat, a gift I’d brought back from Rome. It was a replica of the headgear previously worn by the Italian
carabinieri
. The shape was reminiscent of an eighteenth-century tricorn, complete with the police force’s official red-and-white flame-shaped badge. I couldn’t decide if Vida looked like a Revolutionary War general or a Stealth bomber. But she adored the hat and patted it fondly before placing it on the windowsill above her desk. “The part of Jamie Jejune,” she explained, “doesn’t have a great many lines, though he’s onstage quite a bit. Roger will have no trouble. He’s been thinking about becoming an actor, you know.”

Leo cocked his head to one side. “Really.”

“Is that sarcasm I hear?” Vida demanded.

Leo had assumed his innocent expression. “No. I think it’d be great for him to become a good actor.”

As opposed to a bad actor,
I thought, and was certain that Leo had implied the same.

Vida, however, couldn’t lose her euphoria. “Roger has always enjoyed playing parts. His imitations of movie and TV actors absolutely astonish me. Of course I don’t know all the characters he mimics, but there’s one named AJ from a show called
The Sopranos
that’s just hilarious. I can’t wait for him to start singing some of the music. He has quite a good voice, you know.”

Scott shot me a look that indicated he felt it was a good thing that Vida had never watched
The Sopranos
. “It’s cool when teenagers have some idea of what they’d like to do with their lives,” he said, keeping his back to Vida as he went over to the coffeemaker for a refill. “Most kids don’t. I knew in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. One of these days I’m going to try to freelance as a photojournalist.”

“Don’t rush,” I urged. Scott was, in fact, a better photographer than he was a writer. At least his copy wasn’t prone to the typos that his predecessor had come up with on an almost weekly basis. Carla Steinmetz Talliaferro had written some pips, including her final issue, in which she referred to Grace Grundle as Grace Griddle, mentioned Justine Cardenas’s energy-efficient fishwasher, and reported that there was “. . . a new crook at the Venison Inn.” Fortunately, I had caught the mistakes when I proofread her copy.

The morning passed quickly, though the creaking of the tin roof over my office seemed to have gone up a decibel or two. Our production wizard, Kip MacDuff, had promised to remove the accumulation of snow from the building before it collapsed. But Kip, who is usually extremely competent, was recently married and seemed to have other things on his mind.

So did I. Scott’s hint of future departure wasn’t the first time I’d heard such an idea from one of my staffers. Every so often, Kip remarked that he’d like to find some greener pastures for his computer skills. I couldn’t blame either of them. They were both young, and their jobs on the
Advocate
were dead ends. As was my own. I wasn’t so young, but increasingly I felt the need for change. Maybe it was middle age. Maybe there were too many sad memories in Alpine. Maybe you can’t keep a girl down in a small town after she’s seen Rome.

At twelve-fifteen I headed off for the ski lodge. To my relief, the road had been plowed that morning, perhaps in preparation for weekend skiers. The restaurant, with its Norse mythology theme and a waterfall tumbling among artificial trees, was fairly full. There aren’t many choices when it comes to better dining in Alpine.

The fair-haired hostess, who looked vaguely familiar, informed me that Dr. Cardenas—as he preferred to be known to the public—hadn’t yet arrived. He’d made a reservation, however. Would I like to be seated?

I said I would. Unfortunately, she began leading me to a table next to Spencer Fleetwood and Rita Patricelli. Apparently Mr. Radio was buttering up the Chamber of Commerce—or vice versa. If Nat Cardenas wanted to speak to me privately, it wouldn’t be wise to sit so close to my news rival. I asked if we could be seated elsewhere. The hostess seemed surprised but cooperated and took me to a corner table next to two older women I also vaguely recognized. After over a decade in Alpine, I recognize almost everybody.

∗ ∗ ∗

I’d liked the anonymity of Rome. I didn’t have to worry about being accosted on the street by irate readers or getting stuck in the produce aisle at the Grocery Basket listening to somebody tell me what to write in my next editorial. I was free from the constant telephone calls, indignant letters to the editor, insulting E-mails, and boring meetings.

I moved about with caution, aware that tourists are prey to thieves, con artists, and, in the case of women, the occasional hands-on lecher. Yet, as the days passed by, I felt a nascent sense of freedom.

But I also thought about how much I would have enjoyed seeing Rome with Tom. We had planned to honeymoon in Paris, where the sights would have been equally magnificent. Still, standing outside the Farnese Palace on a sunny morning, I could hear his voice in my ear. “We won’t build that big a place in Alpine, Emma. It’d outshine Ed’s Casa de Bronska.” I’d laugh and nestle my head against Tom’s shoulder. He’d put his arm around me and we’d cross the square, heading for the market in the Campo de’ Fiori where executions had been held long ago.

Tom had been executed, though in today’s context his murder was termed an assassination. I suppose it didn’t matter what it was called. Tom was still dead. Yet I felt him beside me with every step I took on the city’s ancient cobbles.

∗ ∗ ∗

A minute or two after I sat down, I saw Nat entering the restaurant. He spotted me at once and strode in his purposeful way to our table.

“Am I late?” he asked, discreetly glancing around the dining area.

“No, I just got here.” I explained that we’d almost ended up next to Spencer Fleetwood and Rita Patricelli.

Nat frowned. “Requesting another table was wise. I prefer not to have eavesdroppers.” His black eyes shifted in the direction of the two older women. They were obviously absorbed in their own conversation, which seemed fairly heavy. During my brief wait, I’d caught the words
probate
,
gold digger
, and
criminal goings-on
. Maybe there was a better story there than what Nat was going to tell me.

We accepted ice water but abstained from alcoholic beverages. I’d rarely seen the college president drink in public. Initially, I’d wondered if he had a problem, but as time went on and his wife, Justine, remained aloof from all but the most important academic occasions, I speculated that she might be one who drank. Or who couldn’t drink anymore.

During our meal, we engaged in chitchat: state funding, scholarship donations, enrollment—nothing that hadn’t already been published in the
Advocate
.

At last, Nat began to speak of the subject that was on his mind. By coincidence, the two older women were toting up their bill and getting ready to leave.

“I’ve come to trust you,” Nat said, looking not at me but at his hands that were folded on the table. The admission was stated in a manner that indicated I should be thrilled to pieces. “You’ve treated the college fairly. You’ve also demonstrated good judgment and discretion.”

“Those things are all part of my job,” I declared in my most businesslike voice.

Nat finally raised his eyes. “That being said,” he continued, “I want to share a situation with you that isn’t for publication. At least not yet. It’s bound to leak out in a short time.”

The two old gals were still sorting out the bill, but at least it kept them occupied.

“So you want me to have the background?” I inquired, knowing that he also wanted to make sure I heard his side of the predicament first.

Nat nodded. He was a handsome man, aging better than most. His slightly wavy dark hair had silver streaks and the creases in his face made him look more mature rather than merely older.

“I’ve had two very interesting job offers recently,” he said, his hands still folded. “Over the years, I’ve had other opportunities, but none that really challenged me. Both of the current inquiries do. One is at a four-year college in California, and the other is for a two-year school in upstate New York.”

I could understand why the offers appealed to Nat Cardenas. His struggle to rise above the obstacles of his Hispanic ancestry and his impoverished youth was admirable. But I’d always sensed that he still felt he had more to prove.

“Congratulations,” I said. “I’ll file the job offers away until you decide if you’re going to accept one of them.”

Nat grimaced. “It’s not that simple.” He finally unclasped his hands and paused as the women at the next table finally rose from their chairs and departed. “Frankly, I’m not sure I intend to take either of them.”

I expressed surprise. “The offers seem like a step up the academic ladder,” I said.

“That’s true,” Nat allowed. “But there are other considerations.” He cleared his throat. It was obvious that confiding in others was difficult for him. “As the first president of SCC, it was my responsibility to make this a viable educational institution. I like to think I’ve done that. We’ve grown in enrollment, faculty, and staff by thirty percent since the college opened almost five years ago. We’ve established five new programs. We’ve received endowments of . . .” He stopped, looking embarrassed. “You know all this. My point is that I take great pride in what we’ve done. Not,” he added hastily, “that I did it alone. I’ve had a tremendous amount of help, from not only the personnel at the college, but the community itself.”

I was beginning to drift. As I got older, I noticed that after a large lunch—as opposed to my usual fare from the Burger Barn or the Venison Inn—I often became sleepy. Nat was droning away as my eyes started to glaze over. Educators tend to run on. There was a point to this meeting, I was sure of that, but I wished he’d get to it before I nodded off.

“. . . in good hands.” There was appeal in Nat’s dark eyes. “But once I’m gone, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s up to the Board of Trustees.”

I’d missed something. Frantically, I tried to retrieve a word or phrase from Nat that might give me a clue to what he’d been talking about. “In other words,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound as idiotic as I felt, “you lack confidence in your possible successor.” Had Nat mentioned a name? Clea Bhuj, head of the Humanities Department? Shawna Beresford-Hall, the registrar? Karl Freeman, the high school principal? Crazy Eights Neffle, our local loony?

Nat frowned again. “It’s a question of personality. It’s important in this job to present the right image, not to mention reaching out to the state legislature in Olympia. Hans has done a good job as dean of students. He’s an able administrator. But Hans doesn’t possess leadership qualities. I would think the Board of Trustees could see that.”

Hans. Hans Berenger. I’d omitted him from my quick list of potential candidates, probably for the very reason Nat didn’t think he’d make a good president. Hans was austere and seemingly humorless. He’d always struck me as an automaton, quietly and efficiently going about his business with all the personality of a boulder. He was easy to forget, effortless to ignore.

“Hans does seem a bit of an introvert,” I finally said. “How does he relate to students?”

Nat’s expression was wry. “He doesn’t. That is, he lets the counselors and the secretaries handle them. Remember,” he added, assuming a more serious look, “Hans is first and foremost an administrator. As I mentioned, he’s very good at it.”

Hans was good at delegating, too, I presumed. “If you decide to leave, what makes you think the board would appoint Hans to your job?”

“There are seven trustees,” Nat explained. “Kermit Cederberg from the bank, Doc Dewey, Jonathan Sibley, Jack Blackwell, Rita Patricelli from the chamber, Reverend Nielsen, and Mary Jane Bourgette.”

I nodded. Mary Jane had filled the vacancy left by her brother, Einar Rasmussen Jr., who had been murdered just before the student union building was officially opened. Named for Einar, the Rasmussen Union Building was unofficially known as the RUB. To further the Rasmussen legacy, Einar Jr.’s aged and ornery mother, Thyra, had donated money to build a theater on the campus, which was duly named in her honor.

As for Mary Jane Rasmussen Bourgette, she was active in many charitable causes, mainly through our parish church, St. Mildred’s. Her husband, Dick, had his own construction company and two of their sons owned a 1950s-style diner on River Road, while a daughter, Rosemary, was the county’s prosecuting attorney.

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