Read an Excerpt
The Bend News, July, 1888
Four people perished in a fire that destroyed the Warden House last week in the town of Brindle. Dead in the fire were Mrs. Michael Hilliard, Mr. Joe Warden, the original founder of the historic inn, Mr. Harold Ivers, a traveling salesman, and Miss Dorothy Conway, an employee at the inn. Surviving the blaze was Mr. Michael Hilliard, and Daniel Warden, aged eight. The cause of the fire is unknown.
The fire bell woke me up that night. I ran to Ma’s room, but they weren’t there, and I ran outside. Ma was in the street, and across the way I could see the fire. The flames were shooting up high, with great showers of sparks. People were running everywhere, dipping water from the creek, throwing it on, other people were screaming and yelling. Horses were going crazy, plunging into the creek, up the other side. I stood next to Ma and she put her arm around my shoulders and held me tight. I wanted to get nearer, but she wouldn’t let me go.
The roof crashed down and made a geyser of ashes and sparks. The smell was terrible and the smoke made my eyes tear and I felt I was choking. Mostly I remember how afraid I was.
Pa came and when he saw me, he told me to get back in bed. He sounded mad and I ran back in and got in bed. But in a little while I got up again and listened to what they were saying. Pa said Brother McNulty would keep Daniel Warden with him, raise him with his own children. But Joe Warden, Janey, one of the girls and a traveling man had been in the building. "Gone," he said. "God’s judgment, His punishment."
I ran back to bed before they saw me. I knew Pa would give me a whipping if he found me up again. And I thought about Janey and another girl burning up. I had never heard of Janey, and I hadn’t known another girl lived right there in that house.
The next day Ma kept me in the kitchen with her most of the time. Because of the revival, and Reverend McNulty and his family, we were feeding a lot of people every day, and I peeled potatoes until I thought my fingers would fall off. It was so hot with the fire in the stove all day, my hair was sticking to my head, and my skirt sticking to my legs. I asked Ma who Janey was and she pinched my arm and said I must never mention that name again.
After we ate dinner and washed the dishes there was the tent revival and Reverend McNulty talked about sinful women and hellfire and brimstone. He was red-faced and yelled a lot, gesturing while he preached. He scared me. And it was so hot in the tent, it was like we were getting a taste of hellfire.
The day of the funeral everyone from town went, and folks came in from the countryside and even Bend. Pa talked about Joe Warden first, then Reverend McNulty talked a long time and Pa said a long prayer. Men lowered the coffin all the way and Pa threw in a handful of dirt and said, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
No one had much to say over the traveling man, just things like God rest his soul.
I thought they’d go on to the other two graves already dug, but Pa told me to get back in the wagon. I waited until he went to talk to somebody else and asked Ma if they were going to bury Janey and the other girl, and she pinched my arm harder than she ever did before. She said, "I told you never to say that name. Now get yourself to the wagon and wait."
I climbed up in the back of the wagon and waited a long time. A hot wind kept blowing grit and dust everywhere, and there wasn’t any shade. Just the dry dirt and sage and rocks. I was itchy all over and so dried out I couldn’t have cried even if I’d wanted to. Since Pa was the regular preacher, it always seemed like everyone wanted a word with him, and we were almost the last ones to leave. The horse had just started to walk when I saw Mr. Hilliard standing by one of the other open graves. The men brought the coffin and put it in and began to shovel dirt on top. Mr. Hilliard just stood there. I don’t think anyone said a thing. At least no preacher said anything.
At first I thought Mr. Hilliard looked funny in his long black coat and a stovepipe hat, but then I felt sorry for him because he looked lonesome all by himself by the men shoveling dirt. I didn’t know whose grave was being filled in.
Our house was crowded again all afternoon until dinner time, and then there was the revival in the tent that was like an oven. I was glad enough to get to bed that night, and Ma said she was ready to drop.
But I woke up again, freezing cold. All the feather beds were put away for the summer and I went to ask Ma for a cover, but they weren’t in their bed, and I heard Pa’s voice in the sitting room. They were on their knees and he was praying about God’s judgment, but Ma was crying. She had on her robe with a blanket around her, but she was shivering and crying, and I started to cry too. I ran to Ma and she pulled me under the blanket with her. She was shaking all over and I was, too. I never had been so cold in my life, even in the winter, and I thought we were dying.
I must have cried myself to sleep, sitting on the floor with Ma, wrapped in the blanket. When I woke up again, I was in bed and it was already hot.
I didn’t get an answer to my question about Janey until I was a grown woman and married. My friend Eliza whispered that Janey had been married to Mr. Hilliard, but she was one of the bad girls at that House, and she either drowned her own baby, or else she was with a man when the baby wandered out to the creek and fell in.
I can’t remember that anyone ever said her name out loud, and I know I never did after that.
This is what I remember about the fire and the days after. Annabelle Bolton. November 5, 1943.
Todd drove into the parking lot behind her town-house apartment building that sweltering afternoon in August and braced herself for the next few minutes. She knew Barney was already home; she had spotted his truck parked back in the separate section reserved for oversize vehicles. He would greet her, hope lightening his face, and she would shake her head. Then he would try to cheer her up. They spent a great deal of time trying to cheer each other up these days, and that was about as futile as her going out for yet another job interview.
Overqualified, today’s idiot had said; they could start her at nine dollars an hour at best. But, he had added with the perfected personnel director’s smile she had come to loathe, they would keep her résumé on file for a possible future opening.
She pulled away from the back of the seat, where her blouse was plastered to the leather. Neither of them was using air-conditioning, not in the car and truck, not in the apartment. Trudging up the flight of stairs to their apartment, she drew in a deep breath and straightened her back, ready to smile and wave away the disappointing interview as inconsequential, just like the others.
The apartment was as hot as outside, the only sound was that of a whirring fan. She took off her shoes and, carrying them, walked to the door of the second bedroom, Barney’s studio. He had fallen asleep in a chair, his notebook and pen on the floor, a book on his chest. With his curly hair stuck to his fore-head with sweat, he looked like a little boy worn out from soft-ball practice.
"It isn’t fair," she whispered, backing away from the door. Barney had worked his way through college, taking summer jobs, odd jobs, whatever he could find, and now, with his dissertation to write in the next two years, they were two weeks away from real desperation. In two weeks her unemployment would run out, and they couldn’t survive on Barney’s job in a book distributor’s warehouse -- exhausting work that paid very little and left him too tired to work on the dissertation when he came home.
It wasn’t fair, she thought again, as she went through the spacious and beautiful apartment to the master bedroom. There were scant furnishings, not because they had been unwilling or unable to buy furniture, but because neither of them had wanted to take the time to shop. A bed, a chest of drawers, a few other pieces from Goodwill that they had bought when they first married three years earlier. Now she was more than grateful that they were such poor shoppers. What few new pieces they had acquired had gone on credit cards -- an over-priced sofa, a good chair, Barney’s desk . . . She could admit that they had been like kids in a candy store with a dollar to spend, buying on impulse with no thought of tomorrow.
When they rented the town house, sixteen months earlier, they had given little heed to the price. Her job had paid too well to consider cost. They had bought her Acura and his truck, and now owed more on both than they could realize by selling them. In February her company had been taken over, and she had not worked since.
But they had a great view of Mount Hood, she thought, eyeing it out the bedroom window as she stripped off her sodden interview clothes, and put on shorts and a tank top. Silent with feet bare, she wandered out to the kitchen to make iced tea. Barney had brought in the mail and she glanced at it listlessly as she waited for the water to boil. Bills, pleas for money, offers for credit cards . . . She picked up an envelope addressed to G. Todd Fielding, the name she used on her résumés, and frowned at the return address: The Brindle Times. From Brindle, Oregon.
"Where the hell is Brindle, Oregon?" she muttered, opening the envelope. She had sent her last résumé to a box number. She sat down at the kitchen table and read the enclosed letter, then read it again.
"The person we are looking for must have editorial skills, computer skills, and the ability to lay out a newspaper as well as periodicals. From your résumé and the journal you submitted it appears that you have the necessary skills. You would have to relocate, however. If you are interested, call any afternoon and we can arrange for a telephone interview."
The letter practically quoted her own résumé, she thought in wonder. That was exactly the kind of work she had done for nearly three years. Her hand was shaking as she reached for the telephone, but she drew back. Where the hell was Brindle?
She located the town on the state road map, and had to fight back tears. On the other side of the mountains, south of Bend. Barney had to teach two classes during the coming year. It was bad enough to have to drive from Portland to Corvallis, as he had been doing this past year, but across the mountains?
She finished making tea, then sat and read the letter one more time. It was her job, she thought, exactly right for her, made to order for her.
She considered the alternatives. She could not support them on the kind of money she had been offered in her job search. If Barney had to work even part-time while teaching his classes, he would not be able to finish the dissertation in the next two years. His adviser would retire, and, university politics being what they were, he might be stranded.
They had already cut frills, everything that could be cut, and were still left with car payments, student loans, health insurance, rent, utilities, food. They could not afford the town house, but neither could they afford to move with first and last months’ rent payable in advance, plus a cleaning deposit. She knew to the penny how much they had to have each month, and even if both of them worked at entry-level jobs they probably couldn’t make it.
All right, she thought angrily, don’t go down that road again. She had traveled it so often, she could do it sound asleep, and frequently did. No more recriminations about past stupidity, she and Barney had agreed, think alternatives instead.
If Barney could arrange his two classes for consecutive days, go over one day, come back the next . . . One long commute a week . . . He could stay in a motel one night a week . . . Have the rest of the week free . . . What he needed was access to a library -- their apartment was crammed with the library books he needed for his research -- and time. A lot of time without exhaustion from menial labor and, more important, without worry about money.
She picked up the letter and went to the bedroom, closed the door softly, then sat on the edge of the bed and dialed.
In the office of The Brindle Times, Johnny Colonna was glaring at his mother, who was holding the weekly edition of the newspaper and shaking it furiously.
"It’s a shambles, a mess, a loathsome unholy mess!" she said again. "I won’t have it, Johnny. I’m telling you, I won’t have it! I’ll shut down before I let a mess like this go out again!"
He looked relieved when the phone rang. "Yes," he snapped. "Who?" He held his hand over the mouthpiece. "It’s that woman, Fielding, the one who sent her résumé last week."
"Tell her we’ll call back in five minutes. And I’ll do the talking."
He repeated the message and hung up. "Mother, I thought we decided on Stan Beacham. Why bother talking to this one?"
"I haven’t decided on anyone," she said. "That man’s a twit. He’d stay just as long as it took to find something better. And he doesn’t know any more about computers than you do. I’ll get her résumé and make the call in here."
Ignoring the sullen look that crossed her son’s face, Ruth Ann marched from his office, crossed the outer office to her own and picked up Todd Fielding’s folder. None of the three women in the outer office dared glance at her on her first trip across their space, nor on her return. When Ruth Ann was in a snit, it was best to look very busy.
Ruth Ann was eighty, and from the time of her father’s death when she was twenty-one, she had published, edited and, for much of the time, written every word in the newspaper. And, she had decided that morning, reading the latest edition, she would be damned if she would see it become a piece of crap. Crap, she repeated to herself. That was what it was turning into. Ungrammatical, words misspelled, one story cut off in mid-section, strings of gibberish . . . Crap!
She placed the call herself, seated at Johnny’s desk, while he took up a stance of martyrdom at the window. He blamed it all on the computer system he had installed the previous year. They would get the hang of it, he had said more than once. It just took time. Everyone knew it took time. Well, time had just run out, she thought as Todd Fielding answered the phone on the first ring.
"Ms. Fielding, my name is Ruth Ann Colonna and I’m the publisher of The Brindle Times. I was quite impressed by your résumé. And by the quality of the trade journal you provided. I have to tell you up front that we could not pay you the kind of salary you were receiving previously, however there is a house available rent-free through another party, therefore not to be considered part of your pay package. You would be responsible for property taxes and insurance, roughly a thousand or a little more annually. We offer excellent health benefits."
Ruth Ann watched Johnny stiffen, wheel about and shake his head. She ignored him. "I’d like to ask you a few questions about the journal," she said.
* * *
It was a long interview. Ruth Ann asked questions, and Todd answered in a straightforward way. When Ruth Ann asked what Barney’s dissertation was, Todd said, "The Cultural, Political and Religious Movements that Account for the Fluctuations in the Ascendancy of Rationalistic Belief Systems."
Ruth Ann laughed. "My God! That’s a mouthful. A philosopher, for goodness sake! I didn’t know anyone studied philosophy these days."
When Ruth Ann finally hung up, she regarded Johnny thoughtfully. "She’ll do," she said.
"Mother, be reasonable. You can’t hire someone you never even met on the basis of a phone call. And whose house are you offering a stranger?"
"As for the first part, I believe I just did," Ruth Ann said. "And the house is Mattie and Hal Tilden’s. Mattie begged me to put someone in it. Their insurance has quadrupled since it’s been empty, and she knows an empty house invites trouble. But you’re right about strangers. The Fieldings will come over on Friday to meet in person. And, Johnny, I suppose you haven’t even glanced at that journal, or paid much attention to her résumé. I suggest you look them over carefully. She’s had art training, and studied all sorts of computer technology, software and hardware, whatever that means. You don’t know a pixel from a pixie, and neither do I, but she does. She can edit, and she’s a good writer. She has excellent recommendations. If you take the press in the direction you’re thinking of, you’ll need someone just like her."
She walked to the door, paused and said, "I want to see every word, every paragraph, every ad on paper before you go to press next week. Every goddamn word."