Authors: B.B. Cantwell
Cover design by Stevie Lennartson
Second edition, revised June 2013
Text copyright © 2013 Barbara and Brian Cantwell
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and
incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
businesses, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Bookmobile Mysteries at
Portland Bookmobile Mystery
chapter at the end of this book)
fond memory of Shirlee
“When I was your age, television
The Grandfather to his ill grandson,
Goldman’s screenplay for
If you grew up in an era when pay phones were how you
called home to say you’d be late, and vinyl records weren’t the in thing
because music sounded
but simply because there
, you may have grown up with a bookmobile.
These buses full of mystery novels, romance
paperbacks, Beverly Cleary children’s stories and swashbuckling pirate tales
would pull up and drop anchor in a neighborhood cul-de-sac or park every
Saturday or so, and
could just wander in and check out a book.
For children on summer break, it was like a magic
carpet to hours of imaginary wanderings when there wasn’t much else to do – or
anything better. It was how many of us got hooked on reading, and on libraries.
Some libraries still have bookmobiles – and Portland,
just brought the service back after a 20-year hiatus. But in many cities, bookmobiles
have gone the way of doctors who made house calls. Through most of the 20
century, Portland, Oregon, still had a bookmobile. And it really did venture up
into the Columbia River Gorge on the winding, historic highway. I was there.
What happened on board, you can only imagine.
B.B. Cantwell, April 2013
February 1996, Portland, Oregon
As the bookmobile shuddered
violently in the gale-force wind, Hester pulled her chocolate
greatcoat more snugly around her thin frame in a vain attempt to keep the
drafts at bay.
Hester McGarrigle was tall, with
thick, shoulder-length hair that her mother called auburn – Hester preferred “Katharine
Hepburn red” – and blue eyes that were
always ready to smile. She had
not intended to spend her library career on the magenta, motorized dinosaurs of
the Mobile Library Unit at the Portland City Library. She had envisioned a more
scholarly endeavor. But, she had to admit, the bookmobiles offered variety –
even if they also offered no heat in the winter and no air-conditioning in the
“Right now,” Hester muttered as a
thunderclap shocked the afternoon sky and sent new torrents drumming on the
metal roof, “I would give my pension for warm feet.”
The bookmobile was at its last
stop of the day. The circulation statistics were good for a rainy Friday in
February, and likely to get even better; the stop at the top of Skyline
Boulevard, offering a 360-degree view of forested hills, usually drew lots of
patrons. But Hester just wanted to go home, light a fire and get cozy with a
new mystery and a glass of good Oregon pinot noir.
“We're not going to get anyone
here today, Pim, I vote we go in,” Hester called down the length of the
bookmobile to Ethel Pimala, her driver. “Pim” was wearing one of her garishly
colored Hawaiian shirts. Today’s was turquoise, with bird-of-paradise flowers
competing for space with hula dancers and coconut palms. Pim’s shirt collection
would probably have been worth a lot of money if each wasn’t marked with at
least one mustard stain.
Pim was fiercely
her Hawaiian heritage. That she was just shy of 5 feet tall and somewhat
pineapple-shaped did nothing to diminish her dignity, even if she did have to
resort to wearing long johns under her Aloha-wear.
“I remember the Columbus Day
Storm back in '62. We did 200 circ here that day,” Pim called back as she
continued to set up the portable circulation computer. “I remember that storm.
Took me four hours to drive us back to the barn.”
Pim had been driving Portland’s bookmobiles
for 40 years – three years longer than Hester had been alive.
Hester shook her head. She should
have known. Nothing was ever going to compare with the Columbus Day Storm.
Hester had been 4 years old. The storm had wrecked the best tree house she and
her father ever built.
A brittle rat-a-tat-tat at the bookmobile
door roused Hester from her musings. With a strong push at the heavy door
Hester helped Mrs. Loman up and out of the storm.
Glad to have a customer, Hester
began checking in Mrs. Loman's large-print mysteries.
“We've got a new Dick Francis for
you, Mrs. Loman,” Hester shouted at her favorite patron.
Mrs. Loman was 85 years old,
stone deaf and as avid a reader as ever. She loved whodunits. Hester, against
library policy, always saved the new ones for her.
Beneath her dripping plastic rain
bonnet, Mrs. Loman’s face, wrinkled like fine parchment
lit up with the
thought of the treat ahead for her. She quickly slipped the volume into one of
the two huge plastic shopping bags she always carried.
Another gust of wind brought
aboard two more rain-soaked patrons: Mr. and Mrs. Westland. He read westerns,
she read movie-star biographies. Each thunderclap seemed to herald a new
arrival. Within 20 minutes the usual crowd of regulars had assembled.
Mrs. Barrymore, wearing her pink
wig today, was cornered with another regular, Jason Pablo, and emoting over
last week's dismal reports of the current flu epidemic. Pablo affected a
curious mix of artistic dishabille and Northwest comfort. In Portland, his gray
beret and goatee somehow seemed to work with the red-and-black-checked
The Donaldson sisters were over
at the paperback romances. Identical twins, each widowed after 40-year
marriages, they had recently taken an apartment together and begun dressing
alike. Mr. Fields, on whom the Donaldson sisters each had designs, was, as
always, carrying under his arm solid non-fiction – biographies of founding
fathers were his current pretense – while surreptitiously checking out the
latest science fiction.
Mrs. Kenyon and her grown son,
Paul, were over at the children’s section. They muttered to each other as they
perused titles on the picture-book shelves. Mrs. Kenyon’s tightly-belted gray
raincoat dripped a small puddle around her leather ankle boots. Paul (age 34,
according to his library card, Hester had noted) was conservatively dressed in
khaki pants and a cream fisherman’s sweater. Dark hair, artfully cut to hide a
slight thinning at his temples, framed TV-anchorman looks. He carried a leather-bound
memo pad and made conspicuous notes with a silver Cross ballpoint as he and his
mother combed the shelves.
Paul Kenyon was the type to go
into politics, Hester thought. There was something attractive about the way he
always seemed to really listen when you talked to him. Hester was sometimes
tempted to accept his offers to go out for coffee. Then she would remember his
mother, and the urge quickly passed. Mrs. Kenyon was the driving force behind
WWCAC – “Women Who Care About Children” – the local book-banning group. A large
woman with steel-gray hair cut in a neo-German-helmet style, Marge Kenyon was
not to be trifled with.
Not content to whittle away at
the local school libraries, WWCAC had recently turned its attention to the
Portland City Library.
Karen White and her three preteen
daughters were here today, too. Karen and Hester had gone to grade school
together. While Hester’s features had angles and curves that made her more
handsome than pretty, Karen was a moon-faced, curly brunette. As a child, she
had tended toward too cute and was always the teacher’s pet. She had married a
struggling architecture student and helped put him through graduate school. Now
that Steve was finally making it big, Karen – still perkier than anyone with
all her grown-up teeth had a right to be – enjoyed raising her girls full-time.
“Got any new Teri June books?”
called out Karen, who wore the flashy leather car-coat that Hester often teased
her about. In her newfound lifestyle of consumerism, Karen considered leather a
sign of opulence. To Hester’s eye, the coat was more Marin County than
Multnomah County, Oregon.
Hester was helping Miss Sara
Duffy – the “Miss” was her insistence – up the steep steps of the bookmobile.
At the name “Teri June,” Miss Duffy flung off Hester’s helping hands and
“That filth doesn't belong on the
bookmobile,” Miss Duffy stated boldly, directing a meaningful glare at Hester.
A trace of triumph played at the corners of Miss Duffy’s mouth. “Not once,
while I was head librarian, did I
order one of that woman's books.”
Sara Duffy was often dismissed as
just a frail old biddy. But she was not frail, merely tall and thin. Her tweed
skirt was a size 8, same as she had worn when she graduated from Portland Episcopal
School. She was inordinately pleased by this and often made reference to it.
With the constitution of a draft horse, she walked everywhere, today with
plastic rain boots tightly wrapping her sensible shoes.
Hester sent her friend Karen a
long, silent look. She reached behind the circulation desk and handed over two
of the latest Teri June “young adult” paperbacks. One bore the title “Cheerleader
Mom,” the other “Boy Krazy.” Karen read the titles out loud and handed them to
her eldest daughter, Heidi.
Miss Duffy was apoplectic. “When
I was head librarian we had standards. What is happening to my dear, dear
library? You,” she accused Hester, shaking with the intensity of her words, “are
a smut peddler!”
To Hester, the words had the same
mind-numbing effect as the afternoon storm. She knew better than to argue. The
battle rekindled every time Karen ordered more Teri June books for Heidi. Karen
always waited for Sara Duffy’s presence before shouting out her request.
Hester felt the familiar pangs of
a migraine coming on and silently cursed her friend.
The fracas went virtually
unnoticed by the regulars on board, but Miss Duffy's outburst seemed to have
impressed Zeus; the storm that had squalled all day began to ease in defeat. A
watery ray of sunlight smeared across the front windshield.
The patrons began to complete
their selections and file to the checkout counter. As they departed, the
Donaldson sisters managed to talk Mr. Fields into having tea – they promised
Earl Grey. Mrs. Loman, with her equally balanced bags of books, teetered off
across the park. As quickly as the bookmobile had filled, it emptied.
Hester watched the customarily
reserved Pim roll her eyes and silently flap her gums like a parrot behind the
still-fuming Miss Duffy, who gathered her carefully selected historical novels
and left in care of the Kenyons. Strong stuff for Madame Pim, Hester thought
Turning back to her old
schoolmate and recalling the scene she had just provoked, Hester groaned, “Why
do you always do that?”
“Because Sara Duffy has censored
the library holdings for long enough!” Karen's usually high coloring was
intensified as her cheeks still glowed with the heat of battle. “Don't you
remember how awful it was before? What’s it been, three years? Thank God the
library board forced her resignation. Not that she has let that stop her. You
heard her. ‘My dear, dear library,’ my foot hurts! She all but threatened to
fire you if you kept ordering contemporary novels. She makes me sick.”
Hester understood only too well
what Karen meant. The library had suffered from Miss Duffy's reign of terror
after she had been converted to the ultra-zealous group of book banners, Women
Who Care About Children, in the final years of her stewardship. Only her most
outrageous attempts to purge the library gallery of the historic McLoughlin
Collection’s voluptuous Rubenesque nudes had caused the library board to review
her record and note that she was old enough to be pensioned off with a “golden
She went kicking; Hester had to
give her credit for that. And, Hester thought ruefully, she has been kicking
me ever since.
Muttering “I know, I know,”
Hester showed Karen and her girls out, pulled up the step and said, “Pim, take
us back to the barn!”