Whenever she thought of her first flight of 2021—after fifteen months as a bird with clipped wings—Nessa Fielder thought of her father. About the last time, in the early nineties, that William had invited her into his private office in the little guest cabin, with its red wooden walls and green metal roof. Seven miles south of Red Lodge, surrounded by Custer National Forest.
The guest cabin and main family cabin had been built by William’s father, who died in 1961 the night he hammered in the final nail. The cabins were only steps from cold fast Rock Creek, its rainbow trout hiding by golden boulders under an iron footbridge.
It hadn’t been easy for Nessa to convince Ira to accompany her on that 2021 trip, the first time they would be visiting the cabins in almost two years. Ira had become complacent with months of isolation. He had enough money to sit out the pandemic, and not missed non-familial interaction. But at the end of the day, Ira would not allow Nessa to fly alone . . . because that’s the sort of thing a mensch does for his wife of three decades. Masked.
They pulled in around midday the second Monday of June, having driven there from Nessa’s sister’s home in Gallatin Gateway. They had borrowed her silver Ford Explorer because car rentals had spiked to almost $500 per day. Ira parked the SUV in the usual spot, between two pine trees.
While Ira carried bags into the family cabin, Nessa strolled around the property and inspected its deterioration since the last time there. “Scooper,” she said, “would you come out here, please?”
Ira stepped back into the sun-splashed parched area between the cabins, listening for the white-framed screen back door (no one could recall anyone’s ever having used the front door) to slam shut behind him. Nessa was pointing to the skeletal trunk of a fallen cottonwood, suspended parallel to the ground at waist height. Propping up the trunk, and wrapped around it like two mambas, were two power lines tethered to the tops of the two cabins: the black line was intact but sagging, the silver one was severed at its midpoint, frayed, and dangling curlicues at the cut.
“Keep away from there,” said Ira, “and do not turn on the power: you could get electrocuted or start a forest fire.”
“I’m going inside to call Beartooth Electric,” said Nessa. “This certainly qualifies as an emergency.”
Within a half hour, a couple of thirty-something lineworkers drove up in a pickup. While the senior lineman (who evoked Tom Hiddleston) talked to Ira, his partner uncoiled the lines from around the dead trunk so that the black line buoyed higher.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” said Ira, perhaps a tad too loudly.
“Well, it would be if we weren’t wearing these,” said ‘Tom’. He was holding up to his face his big bright-yellow gloved hands, palms towards Ira, and flashing straight white teeth. “I wouldn’t recommend you gripping the two ends of the sliced line; that wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“But isn’t it still a fire hazard?”
“Just keep the power off that line, and you’ll be okay.”
“When will you guys fix it?” said Ira.
“Well, you have to call an electrician for that. And good luck getting hold of one of them right now.”
“How about this line?” said Nessa. She was pointing to a solo sagging black wire, about five feet at its nadir, that was also attached to the main cabin, on the outside the older twin of the guest cabin.
“That’s your phone line,” said Tom. “You have to call the phone company in to deal with that one. But those guys don’t give a damn about how their line looks, or where it hangs, so long as it’s working.”
Nessa turned on the power to the family cabin; she left the guest cabin’s power switch off. The phone line was scratchy, but working.
Several hours later she prepared her cast-iron menagerie: an invention combining chicken, pasta, spinach, cabbage, celery, peppers, mushrooms, green olives, and corn. Beginning sharp at five, and continuing over dinner, Nessa and Ira shared a chilled bottle of Butter Chardonnay.
In spite of two irate calls to DirecTV, the satellite dish wasn’t working. So Ira and Nessa began watching on YouTube, for the umpteenth time, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley. Their Internet access was courtesy of Nessa’s niece Mac, who had lent them an at&t wireless black box.
Cool mountain air carried into the living room a soupçon of pine and the somnolence of Rock Creek’s current. While Ira was giving her a foot massage, Nessa fell asleep on the flowered chesterfield.
For some reason, the stars weren’t visible that night.
Almost three decades before, over a Labour Day weekend, Nessa and Ira were visiting her parents at the same spot; by then, Nessa feared there wouldn’t be many more visits with her father there: the altitude was bothering him.
One afternoon, while Ira was fishing Rock Creek, William asked Nessa to join him in the little cabin. Where William kept a tiny keyhole desk and bookshelf to the left of the door. Where Nessa’s mother had wanted Ira to sleep the several years before Ira was their son-in-law, under the beady eyes of deer heads mounted next to the guest bed.
“So tell me, Li’l Pat,” William said, “how are you really feeling?”
“Great, Dad,” said Nessa, “now that the morning sickness is behind me. I do miss running, though.”
“He’s gonna arrive right around Election Day, won’t he? You gonna call him William Jefferson?”
“No, Dad,” said Nessa. “We’ve already picked out an Irish name, for Mom. And one that honours Ira’s grandmother. It’s not that easy to pick a name that appeals to both Catholics and Jews.”
“That’s fine: whatever makes the two of you happy.
“I wanted to talk to you alone about a couple of things. First, the cabins. Your grandpa gave his life for them. I’m hoping you and your sister will take care of them long after I’m gone. And then after that, Mac and your son will inherit them.”
“Of course, Dad. Don’t worry about that.”
“The second is the business. Right now, both plazas are doing fine. You and your sister will eventually own 20%. Not a large return—certainly not as much money as you and Ira are used to making—but it will be an annuity. You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, though. The properties have to be maintained, and the vacancies have to be filled.
“I don’t think your Mom is up to it. And your sister doesn’t have a background in finance. You’re the one who needs to take charge. Take care of the business, and it will take care of Mac and your son.”
“Of course, Dad. You needn’t worry about that either.”
“That’s all I had, honey. Except to say I love you, and I’ve always been proud of you. I want you to have a healthy, happy, and long life.”
“I love you too, Dad.” Nessa was alarmed by the pitch of her own voice; she didn’t recognise it. “Very, very, much.
“And I promise to take care of the business . . . and of the cabins too.”
Nessa didn’t want to distress her father, who was an emotional man; glancing down at the silver oxygen tank tucked under his desk, she understood he was saying goodbye. Over the next year or so, he would do so again, from time to time, by phone and in person. But William and Nessa were never again alone with each other in the little cabin.
When Ira woke the morning of the third Tuesday of June 2021, he was alone in the master bedroom. He recalled that Nessa had mentioned something about going into town to renew the post office box and to buy some gifts and groceries. So, after showering, checking his San Francisco office voicemail for messages, and pouring a cup of coffee, he stepped onto the screened-in back porch and continued reading Hugh Hood’s Around the Mountain: Scenes from Montreal Life.
A few minutes after noon, Ira heard the screen door slam shut. “Everything go okay in town?”
“Well, no-oh,” said Nessa. “Dad’s footstone is missing.”
“What about your Mom’s?” said Ira.
“Hers is still there.”
“Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“Hooliganism,” said Nessa. “Anyway, I bought some French bread; it’s still warm. Do you want some?”
While they ate on the back porch, Nessa surfed on her MacBook Air; Mac’s black box was working like a charm. “Scooper,” she said, “listen to this email:
Dear Ms. Bumgarner,
I am sending you this email regarding a variety of items concerning my client’s 17% investment in WRB Plaza South. I suggest a Zoom meeting, at the earliest opportunity, including all the partners, to become more familiar with the operations and to offer input on the variety of operational and reporting requests listed below:
I put these matters forward to you not as criticism, but rather as genuine concern for the stability and profitability of my client’s investment.”
The too-long email was signed by someone who shared the name of a famous Jeopardy champion.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” said Nessa.
For two decades, ever since the death of her Mom Patty, Nessa had shepherded her father’s business like a vocation. William had built the business from scratch (just like William’s father had built the cabins from scratch) after selling his farm equipment franchise in Montana and moving the four Bumgarners to California.
Nessa had protected the partners—a ragtag band scattered all over the country—from liability by transforming the business’s ownership structure into an LLC. She had handpicked as Property Manager a close friend of William’s. One who had deep important contacts in local commercial real estate and construction circles, as well as with government inspectors. And over the years Nessa had cultivated her relationship with that Property Manager; she had almost cured him of his male chauvinism. Ira referred to him as Mungojerrie to Nessa’s Rumpleteazer.
And now this. This fiduciary was poking his head out of his rat hole to jeopardise the whole thing. He was challenging Nessa as Managing Member of the LLC and he was attacking Mungojerrie as Property Manager, implying that they were both negligent, or worse.
“A little passive-aggressive, no?” said Ira. “Just forward it to Mungo.”
“This guy wants to take us both down,” said Nessa.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Ira. “No one else is complaining, and he speaks for only 17%. He just wants some attention.”
Nessa was stressed out. And what Nessa usually did in that state of mind was spring into action. For the next several hours, while Ira made progress with Hood’s short stories, she watered the wild surroundings with the new sprinkler she had bought that morning, vacuumed the golden shag carpets, scrubbed the shower stall and bath tub with rust remover and bleach, cleared off the beds in the second bedroom so that Mac’s toddler would have room to play and sleep there, and made phone calls to the phone company and local electricians.
As five o’clock approached, Nessa hollered out to Ira, who was with a clear conscience still reading on the back porch. “White? . . . Red? . . . Bee—”
There was a sharp rap on the screen door’s frame.
“This is an evacuation order,” said the fire rescue chief, in yellow vest.
“What?” said Nessa.
“The fire is just on the other side of the Crick. Someone stopped by this morning with a notice, but nobody answered. She left this.” The chief handed Nessa a folded sheet of paper, which had been tacked to the front door.
“I’m so sorry,” said Nessa. “I was in town earlier. I guess my husband didn’t hear.”
“Well, you have thirty minutes to evacuate.”
“Oh, dear. Can we possibly have longer?”
“Well, no more than an hour.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much. Please stay safe.”
The front of the folded sheet was entitled EVACUATION NOTICE; it displayed the logo of the Sheriff of Carbon County, although the logo’s u was missing. The back of the sheet comprised two sections, the first highlighted in yellow: EVACUATION WARNING (A situation exists in a defined area which people should monitor closely. People in the area should prepare for evacuation) and EVACUATION ORDER (A situation exists where it is not safe for people to remain in the area. People in the area should leave immediately). Each section listed ‘Recommended Actions’. But Ira and Nessa hadn’t done any of these.
“Scooper, there’s a fire. We’ve got to get out of here now.”
They harvested into a canvas tote the memorabilia of sixty years. Knick-knacks. Snapshots. Nessa’s grandfather astride a horse reminding Ira of W.C. Heinz’s story ‘Death of a Racehorse’. William as a Navy lieutenant in the Pacific during the Second World War. Nessa at nine. William on the La-Z-Boy, entranced by his green-corduroyed grandson: the latter eight months after birth, the former five months before death.
Nessa called her sister, and imparted the news. Her sister asked her to retrieve the oil painting of the family cabin hanging near the wood-burning cook stove.
Ira loaded up the SUV.
And Nessa wept.
They backed out of their parking spot less than an hour after the fire chief’s rap on the door.
This was the Robertson Draw Fire, the year’s then largest fire in Montana. During the next two weeks, it would burn thirty thousand acres south of Red Lodge, and require almost four hundred firefighters.
An arrest warrant was issued to its fifty-five-year-old perpetrator for negligent arson and criminal mischief. A parolee, he had been riding his dirt bike in the mountains the morning of June 13. The trail was off-limits to motorised vehicles. His engine flooded, he tested the spark plug, and that’s all she wrote.
Ira drove north on Broadway; yellow and orange flames were in the rear view mirror. The smoke choked their throats. Ira turned left at the edge of town, up 3rd Street towards Red Lodge Cemetery, where William and Patty were buried. Where William’s footstone was no longer. They were heading back to Gallatin Gateway, less than three hours away.
Driving past the cemetery on his left, Ira glanced right. As he had expected, Nessa was reading one of the Novenas that she carried in a pink and white flowered zippered canvas wallet. In her right hand the Rosary, her thumb halfway through a decade. Her emerald eyes glistened. “Are you okay?” he said.
“Turn back, Scooper.”
“What? Are you out of your mind?”
“I made a promise. A promise, Scooper. Reneging would be a sin of omission. It’s like in The Boss’s song: a broken promise steals something from down in your soul. ”
Ira shook his head, and pulled the SUV over to the side of Highway 212. He made a U-turn, and headed back towards Red Lodge.
They wouldn’t violate the Sheriff’s evacuation order, not that night at least. But if there was just one room left in town, in a motel or B&B, Ira knew Nessa would find it. After all, tomorrow was another day. They would drive back, those seven miles, if for no other reason than to promise to the Creek, deer, trees, and trout—and to all the lovely late spirits—Au revoir.