Authors: Mary Daheim
Of the other board members, Jonathan Sibley was also an attorney, though in private practice. Jack Blackwell represented the timber industry, and Donald Nielsen was the pastor at Faith Lutheran Church.
“The current chairperson,” Nat went on, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, “is Rita Patricelli. She and Hans are very close friends.” He paused, undoubtedly noting my quizzical expression. But Nat didn’t elaborate. “As head of the chamber, Rita has a great deal of influence. Kermit—or Stilts, as I believe he’s called—along with Jack Blackwell, Mary Jane Bourgette, and Reverend Nielsen would probably follow her lead. They’re all great civic boosters. I can’t speak for the others.”
Nor could I. I hardly knew Jonathan Sibley. My limited legal business had been with his partner, Marisa Foxx. As an attorney, Jonathan would literally keep his own counsel. I’d known Doc Dewey ever since I arrived in Alpine. He was a fine man and an excellent physician who’d do what he felt was best for the college and the community. My experiences with Reverend Nielsen were limited. Vida considered him a ninny, but she lacked religious tolerance for anyone except her fellow Presbyterians and considered some of them ninnies, too.
“But,” I pointed out, “this is all irrelevant if you decide to stay on.”
“Yes.” Nat looked up as our waitress refilled our coffee cups. “Dessert?” he asked me.
I shook my head. A rich finale would put me asleep at my desk. Nat also abstained and requested the bill.
“My treat,” he insisted. “You’re right about my staying on. There are other reasons than loyalty why that could be the right decision. On the other hand, there are also considerations for leaving other than the obvious.”
“How does Justine feel about a move?” I inquired, wondering if my query was a touchy subject.
Nat didn’t elude my gaze. “My wife is basically a city person.” He smiled slightly. “I’m sure you can understand that, coming from the city yourself.”
His reply struck me as somewhat vague. “So you’re saying she’s for it?”
Nat accepted the faux leather folder from the waitress and slipped his credit card inside. “I’m saying she wouldn’t mind. But she insists that I have to do what’s best for both of us.”
“I see,” I remarked, though I felt as if I were sitting in fog. “How soon do you have to make up your mind?”
“March twelfth,” Nat replied. “That is, I have to let the people in upstate New York know by then. I have until April first to respond to the California offer.”
I nodded. “In other words, your suitor schools want things settled by spring break.”
“Yes.” Nat looked up as the waitress made another stop at our table, this time with the credit card and the receipt. My host added on the tip and scribbled his name before thanking the young woman who was a Burleson or an Olsen or the possessor of some other Scandinavian surname. “I know,” Nat continued after the waitress had again departed, “you’ll keep this to yourself for the time being. But I felt obligated to inform you that there may be some news coming out of the college fairly soon.”
Nat was right. But the big news that was coming from the campus turned out to be very different.
∗ ∗ ∗
A few flakes were fluttering down when I left the office just after five. The rehearsal was slated for six-thirty. I’d just have time to eat, change, and call my son, Adam, in Alaska, where he was serving as pastor to an Inuit community near Nome.
I was proud of Adam for following in his uncle’s footsteps. The two of them had been close during the years that my son had grown into manhood. With his father
, it had been only natural for Adam to look up to Ben as his role model. Tom had his own two children to raise. When I’d discovered that his wife and I had both gotten pregnant about the same time, I’d cut Tom out of my life. My son and his father didn’t meet until Adam was in college. They’d gotten along quite well, all things considered, and Adam had been so pleased that his parents were finally going to get married that he’d asked us to wait until after his ordination so that he and Ben could concelebrate the ceremony. It had seemed like a fairy tale—until it turned into a nightmare.
Erk. Squawk. Ping. Zlezlezle. Buzzz.
The radio-relayed connection between Alpine and Mary’s Igloo was worse than usual. Just as I thought I was going to suffer a hearing loss, I heard Adam’s very faint “Hello?”
“Mom here!” I shouted.
Then came the usual delay. “. . . can’t . . . you,” he said.
“I can’t hear you, either,” I replied, guessing at what he meant. “Later?”
Ten, fifteen seconds passed, with more odd noises interjected. “Tomorrow night?” said Adam.
“Yes. You okay?”
I waited. Adam spoke, but all I could catch was sporadic monosyllables.
Since he was alive and able to answer the phone, I assumed he hadn’t been attacked by a walrus or swallowed by a whale.
“Love you!” I yelled, and hung up.
While waiting for my chicken breast and rice to cook, I sorted through the mail, which yielded nothing but ads and a couple of bills. I considered fortifying myself with a bourbon and water but decided it was unwise to show up for the rehearsal with liquor on my breath. Feeling virtuous, I decided my reward would be not staying for more than one act. It was a public relations appearance, after all, since the real news would be the performance and its reception by the audience. I didn’t dare play drama critic if I wanted to remain alive and well in Alpine.
Exchanging one pair of slacks and a heavy sweater for another, I ventured out into the night. There were still a few flakes fluttering down, but no sign of a serious snowfall as yet. That was another good reason to leave early. I didn’t want to get snowed in.
A private parking area had been roped off by what was known as the Thyra Rasmussen Theater. There were several cars already parked in the lot. I pulled in across from Ed’s Range Rover. He used to have two Mercedes sedans but had traded one in for the Rover the previous fall. Ed claimed that he and Shirley wanted a different kind of vehicle, but my theory was that the Bronskys had trashed the other Mercedes so thoroughly that no one in the overweight family could fit inside. It was easier to sell it than to clean it.
Discreetly, I made my way into the auditorium and stood about halfway down the side aisle. A dozen people milled around onstage, while another dozen sat in the first and second rows. The set was a diner, complete with a view into the kitchen, a half-dozen stools at the counter, and four tables with a requisite number of chairs. A green neon sign above the open kitchen spelled out
. The floor was yellow. I was beginning to get the idea.
I’d only been in the theater twice, for the O’Neill play and for commencement. The seats were covered in serviceable red fabric and fairly comfortable. There was a small balcony and a much smaller orchestra pit. Dark blue draperies had been hung on the walls and the curtain matched the red seats. The ambience was simple but serviceable.
I recognized most of the people who were involved in the production. My not-so-good neighbor, Destiny Parsons, had her long prematurely gray hair haphazardly tucked into a bun. Hans Berenger’s tall, thin frame looked as rigid as ever, and his comb-over didn’t enhance his appearance. Rita Patricelli paced nervously at one side of the stage. Deputy Dustin Fong stood off to the other side, looking as if he wished he were somewhere else. Mayor Baugh, who appeared to be campaigning, was shaking hands with several of the other participants, including Dr. Jim Medved, the Reverend Poole, Coach Rip Ridley, and Clea Bhuj, the head of the Humanities Division, who had the lead role of Dorothy Oz. I barely knew Clea, a dark-haired woman who was inclined to wear large quantities of gold bangles and, upon occasion, a sari.
“A Who’s Who of Alpine,” murmured a mellow voice behind me.
I gave a start, then turned to face Spencer Fleetwood. “You scared me. I was concentrating on who really is who—in the play.”
“It’s more like a Whose Zoo,” Spence said, still in his soft, mellow radio mode. “How were you spared? I’m not sure how I got roped into this.”
“You’ve got the voice to be the narrator,” I replied. “I have no dramatic talent.”
Spence chuckled. There had been a time when I’d thought of him as my archenemy. There had also been a time—though brief—when I thought he was the incarnation of evil. And though we remained rivals, we’d called a truce. In fact, we had tried some joint promotional ventures, including an on-line Web site that had begun to show dividends for both the
“I’d rather see you playing the waitress part than Rita,” Spence remarked. “You’re a lot better-looking, and she can’t act, either.”
“Who can in this bunch?” I inquired, not immune to the compliment but unwilling to acknowledge it.
“Well . . .” Spence studied the figures both onstage and in the front rows. Like most radio personalities, he knew a few things about drama. “Clea’s not too bad, though she doesn’t project well. If Nat Cardenas would let go a little, he’d be okay. At least he knows his lines. Fuzzy, of course, hams it up, but that’s not all bad, because he’ll get some laughs, intentional and otherwise. The best of the bunch is Rey Fernandez. It’s not just because he looks the part of an itinerant worker, but he’s actually got some talent.”
I didn’t know Rey Fernandez. He was an older student who’d enrolled at SCC for fall quarter. I could spot him easily, however, if only because I knew the others. Rey was maybe thirty, average height, but with a muscular build and a dark mustache that gave him a rakish look.
“I should introduce myself,” I noted. “By the way, how’s Roger doing?”
Spence’s hawklike features grew enigmatic. “That depends.”
“On what?” I asked, fruitlessly scanning the auditorium for my favorite future candidate for the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Spence winced. “I hate to say it, but the kid may have talent. He’s undisciplined, of course.”
“You’re telling me,” I murmured, as the cast appeared to be assembling for the rehearsal’s start. “How come they’re not in costume? Or are they?”
“Some of the wardrobe got held up by the snow,” Spence replied as we moved closer to the front. “Several characters—like Ed and Dustin—can wear their own clothes. It saves on production costs. Excuse me, Emma. I have to get up on that stool at the side of the stage and become the narrator.”
A certain amount of scrambling for places ensued. The curtain closed, the houselights dimmed, and Destiny Parsons strode into the orchestra pit. A spotlight lurched around the front of the stage, apparently trying to find Spence. Finally, he was revealed, sitting on the stool, reading from a large green- and gold-covered book, and wearing his usual garb of slacks, open shirt, and V-necked cashmere sweater.
“There once was a small town called Evergreen,” Spence began in his mellifluous voice, “a close-knit community high on a mountainside and deep in the forest.”
So far, so good. I sat in the second row, three seats from the aisle. The rest of the auditorium was deserted. Or so I thought until I heard a voice in my ear:
“Goodness!” Vida exclaimed. “I thought I was going to be late. Buck called from Palm Springs. He talked my ear off.”
Buck Bardeen was Vida’s longtime companion. He spent part of the winter in the California desert, where he golfed and got together with his children and grandchildren. Vida and Buck had been through some rough turf recently but appeared to have made up. While Vida might interrogate everybody else about their personal lives, she was reticent when it came to her own.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” I said under my breath, hoping Vida would take the hint and tone down her customary stage whisper, which probably could be heard out in the parking lot.
Holding on to her faux sable pillbox, she plopped down next to me. “I didn’t want to miss Roger in rehearsal,” she said, still loud enough to block out Spence’s narration and evoke a sharp “Shush!” from Destiny Parsons.
“Twaddle,” Vida responded, though she did drop her voice. “The curtain’s not even up yet.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when Spence stopped reading. The spotlight on him went down, and the curtain rose slowly, revealing Hans Berenger in the kitchen, an unlighted cigar in his mouth, a spatula in his left hand, and a chef’s hat covering his comb-over. Rita Patricelli was trying to look harried—and not doing a bad job of it, since she often seemed that way at the Chamber of Commerce. Rita was taking orders from Fuzzy Baugh and Jim Medved, who sat at a table to the left of the stage. Two of the counter stools were occupied by Ed and Rip. They had their backs to the house, and their backsides were pretty amazing. Coach Ridley’s rear was part muscle, since he had played pro football for the Chicago Bears. Ed, however, was just plain fat, since the only muscle he seemed to exercise was his mouth.
The opening line belonged to Fuzzy, who laid it on thick with his original Louisiana accent.
“Ah don’t know ’bout this new bidness, Dane,” he declared. “Evahgreen sure can use some ec-o-nom-ic in-put, but more timbah cuttin’ isn’t the way.”
“Oh, good grief!” Vida gasped, fortunately to herself.
“You’re right, Leroy,” our town veterinarian responded. “I’ve fought against any kind of development that . . .” Jim stopped. “That would . . .” He stopped again, looking helplessly at Destiny. “I’m sorry. I blanked on what comes next.”
“ ‘. . . development that would hurt the environment,’ ” Destiny said from the pit.
Jim nodded. “Got it.” He paused before continuing with his lines. “You’re one of the few builders around here with a conscience, Leroy. You care about people. You care about animals.”
“Like you say,” Fuzzy replied with three big nods, “animals got rights, too.”
Coach Ridley swerved around on the stool. “Like getting shot with my .22 every fall. That’s the only right those critters have as far as I’m concerned. What else has an out-of-work logger got to do around here?”
Ed didn’t budge. He appeared to be eating. He probably was.
“Hey!” Jim jumped up from his chair, accidentally knocking it over. “Sorry,” he apologized to Destiny. “I’ll try that again.” He sat back down, got up again, and repeated his line: “Hey!” The chair stayed put.