If I wanted to be hot,” I said to Leo Walsh, “I’d go to hell in a handcart. There’s no reason why it should be ninety-four degrees in Alpine, even in August.”
Leo gave me his off-center grin. “You could always take a couple of weeks off and visit Adam in Alaska. I’ll bet it’s not ninety-four at St. Mary’s Igloo.”
“I’ll bet it isn’t, either,” I grumbled from across the desk in the cubbyhole that was my office but felt more like a pizza oven even at eleven in the morning. To think I was sorry for my son, Adam, when his first assignment as a priest sent him up to the Frozen North. Now I envy him. “When will it ever rain? Everything is tinder-dry, Leo. It’s a wonder the woods don’t explode.”
“They did,” my ad manager said in his usual wry manner. “Or haven’t you been checking the AP wire this morning?”
“I have,” I retorted. “I mean all the woods, not the ones burning up in eastern Washington and other parts of the West. Grass fires, too. Not to mention that water and power rates are going to skyrocket because we haven’t had enough rain, let alone snow.”
“Why don’t you write an editorial taking a tough stand against hot weather?” Leo inquired reasonably. “Maybe you can change it.”
I glared at him. “That’s not funny. Nothing’s funny in this heat.”
“Come on, Emma,” Leo said, no longer smiling. “At least western Washington’s not humid like the Midwest or the eastern seaboard. Dry heat’s not as bad. I worked on a newspaper in Palm Desert where it was over a hundred and twenty degrees for a week.”
“No wonder you drank,” I snarled. “Besides, people from southern California deserve to be hot. Native Pacific Northwesterners like me don’t.”
Leo took no offense at my remark. We’d known each other too long and too well not to be able to speak candidly. He merely sighed. His well-worn face showed the ravages of his former bouts with the bottle. In my heat-crazed state, I decided that he’d also spent too much time in the sun. “Mad dogs and Californians . . . ,” I muttered.
“Quit bitching and just look at the ad layout,” Leo finally said, tapping the Grocery Basket’s mock-up on my desk. “Jake O’Toole went over it with a fine-toothed thesaurus. What gets into that guy, wanting to use all those big words that half the time aren’t what he really means?”
“Heat,” I said. “He’s a native, too.”
“Knock it off,” Leo retorted, temporarily forgetting that I was the boss. “Jake’s been doing it forever when he talks, but he started in with the grocery ads back in April. Unsullied for fresh tomatoes? Temperate for tender pork chops? Un- skeletal for boneless chicken breasts? I’m not even sure unskeletal is a word.”
At last, I scanned the layout. “You’re right. It’s stupid. Jake should stop trying to show off, especially when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It might be a midlife crisis. Maybe I’ll talk to Betsy. His wife’s a sensible woman.”
“Go for it,” Leo urged, standing up. “I’m changing this damned thing.” He cocked his head. “With your approval, of course.”
“Of course.” Leo knew he didn’t need my approval, which, I suppose, was why he occasionally forgot that I was The Alpine Advocate’s editor and publisher. He did an excellent job, about fifty rungs above the lugubrious and lazy Ed Bronsky, a leftover ad manager from Marius Vandeventer’s ownership.
“Lugubrious,” I said, and managed a smile.
“Huh?” Layout in hand, Leo turned around to look back at me.
“The header for the grocery ad is ‘Lazy Days of Summer.’ It’s a wonder Jake didn’t ask you to put in lugubrious.”
Leo grinned again. “He did—sort of. Only, he wanted to use lubricious.”
I nodded. “He would.”
“Would what?” Vida Runkel inquired. Leo made way for her semimajestic passage into my cubbyhole, then left. “Oh, goodness, it’s even warmer in here than it is in the newsroom! Why didn’t Kip put a vent in this low ceiling when he repaired the roof after the big storm?”
I remembered the punishing rain and windstorm of eighteen months ago with nostalgia. “Because I’m an idiot,” I told my House & Home editor.
Vida, who was wearing a sleeveless red and white print dress that resembled a bedspread, eased her imposing body into one of the two visitor chairs. “Would what?” she repeated.
I recounted Leo’s misadventures with Jake O’Toole.
Vida shook her head. The unruly gray curls were already damp around the edges. “Jake hasn’t been himself lately,” she declared. “It’s much more than his pretentious—if often inaccurate—language. He and Betsy have stopped fighting in public.”
“Really?” I was surprised. The O’Tooles, who had been married forever, were famous for bickering in front of other people. But in fact, they were a devoted couple who used their often heated exchanges as a sort of lovemaking. “Do you think they’re having problems?” Vida would know. She knew everything that went on in Alpine.
She gave me a quizzical look from behind her big-framed glasses. “I don’t really think so. It has more to do with the store. Staff, I’d guess. Jake’s had to fire at least two of his courtesy clerks in the past month. High school students, you know, and quite irresponsible. And of course there’s always Buzzy.”
Buzzy was Jake’s younger brother who had had a somewhat checkered career until he finally went to work for the Grocery Basket as the produce manager. “What’s wrong with Buzzy now?” I asked.
“Now?” Vida pursed her lips. “I honestly don’t know. It might be trouble at home with Laura. The only thing I’ve heard for certain is that Buzzy had a row with their peach supplier, and that he ordered Ugli fruit, which no one in Alpine would dream of eating because it’s so . . . ugly. It all rotted in the bins. I was tempted to mention it in my column, but I didn’t want to hurt the O’Tooles’ feelings.”
I was dubious. Vida didn’t usually worry about hurting other people’s feelings, being extremely outspoken in her criticism of fellow Alpiners. The O’Tooles, however, were big advertisers, buying a two-page color insert to compete with the regionally produced ads of their archrival, Safeway.
“Which reminds me,” Vida went on, “have you a ‘Scene’ item? I only need two more for this week’s edition.”
I tried to put my heat-hazed brain to work. “Scene Around Town” was Vida’s popular front-page column fea- turing snippets of local happenings, involving usually nonnewsworthy events such as Dutch Bamberg’s lawn mower accidentally executing a hapless frog, Edna Mae Dalrymple discovering fudge smudges on a cookbook that had been returned to the local library, or Darla Puckett’s zany adventures at the Home Depot’s faucet fixtures section in Monroe.
“Rip Ridley’s growing a beard,” I finally said. “I saw him at the Alpine Mall yesterday.”
Vida gaped at me. “Impossible! The high school would never allow a faculty member to have facial hair. Except,” she added more softly, “for Effie Trews, but she can’t help it.”
“School hasn’t started,” I pointed out. “Rip swears he won’t shave until the football team wins its first game this season.”
“Oh, dear.” Vida sighed. “He could end up looking like Santa Claus. Principal Freeman will make the coach shave before school starts. Which reminds me—I saw Old Nick Saturday morning. Imagine!”
For a moment, I was puzzled. “Old Nick?” Then, before Vida could respond, I remembered. “You mean that hermit who lives someplace near Sawyer Creek?”
“Some place,” Vida said wryly. “No one has ever been certain. I don’t think he’s been seen in town for several years. Frankly, I thought he was dead.”
Hermits weren’t uncommon in the forests of western Washington. Most were harmless, though some could be dangerous. They’d fled civilization for various reasons, like monks going off to the desert. A few would show up in town a couple of times a year to buy, beg, or steal supplies. But Old Nick was rarely seen. Indeed, in all of my thirteen years of Alpine residence, I’d never sighted him.
“I’ll put him in ‘Scene,’ ” Vida declared. “That should fill up the column. Unless something more gossip-worthy comes up between now and tomorrow’s deadline.”
My eyes had strayed into the newsroom. “Something just came in,” I groaned. “Ed Bronsky.”
“Oh, dear!” Vida exclaimed. “We’re trapped.”
“You’re not,” I whispered as Ed rumbled toward my office. “Go, or else there won’t be enough air in here for the three of us to breathe.”
“Plenty of hot air,” Vida murmured, hurriedly getting out of the chair. “Why, Ed! What a surprise! I was just leaving. So was Emma.”
Bless Vida. “Bad timing,” I said, forcing a smile. “Is there something you’d like to drop off, Ed?” Like about a hundred pounds of excess weight?
“Hey, hey, hey,” Ed enthused, “it’s more than a news brief. It’s front-page stuff. You’d better hold up, Vida. You won’t want to miss this.”
Vida frowned at her watch. “I’m afraid I’ll have to. I’m already running late for my eleven-thirty appointment. Emma can fill me in later.” With a pitying glance in my direction, Vida exited my office in her splayfooted manner.
Ed plopped down in the chair next to the one that Vida had vacated. He was wearing a yellow tank top and khaki shorts, a most unflattering look. But the only thing that would have covered Ed’s rotund form was a Quonset hut.
“Who’s reporting on tonight’s county commissioners’ meeting?” he asked, removing a folder from his leather briefcase.
“Scott Chamoud,” I replied, referring to my only news reporter. “He always does.”
Ed shook his head. “You’d better do it, Emma. Huge news.” He placed the folder on my desk and tapped it three times. “I’m going for a county bond issue.”
“You’re what?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Alpine Recluse by Mary Daheim. Copyright © 2006 by Mary Daheim. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.