by Phyllis Martens
The Sunday after the fire was like a holiday, second only that year to the Children's Day picnic. People stopped on their way to church to gape at the smoking pit where buildings used to be. People drove in from Butterfield, Delft, Bingham Lake, as far away as Windom and St. James. They stood about exclaiming at the dreadful sight. They pointed at the unfamiliar view of the scorched side of Sukau's restaurant and at the blackened rolls of wire, old barrels, and piles of junk in the area behind the store, not meant for public view but now clearly visible beyond the ruins.
Rumors flew like crows in the wind. Half of every Sunday School class in every church was given over to discussing the fire. Those who had actually seen the fire were given preferred status. The chief argument was about how the fire had started. There were two factions. The first and larger faction declared that the fire had begun in Heppner's garage. Various stories were advanced. Some said the fire had suddenly flared up when Heppner foolishly threw water on some burning oil. Others maintained that Heppner's over-heated furnace had exploded. The third and most vehement group insisted that Ole Olafson had been smoking when he went to check on his car in Heppner's and dropped his cigarette on a pile of oily rags which went up like a torch, serve Heppner right for dealing with worldly people, let is be a lesson to all. The second faction, less vocal but stubborn, said the fire had started in the barber shop when old Olfert overstoked his stove to heat up some bath water...they knew it would happen some day with that cracked old range of his and him too stingy to buy a new one. Years later I heard both sides of the dispute when Anna and John, by then in their seventies or thereabouts, began arguing. Anna said the fire started in the barbershop. John, pooh-poohing that version as nonsense, knew for sure it was Heppner's, and Schroeder's fault.
A great many other details were relayed to horror-struck listeners. Helen's children had got out wearing only their clean Saturday night clothes under their coats. The kids had breathed so much smoke they were sent straight to the hospital. No, no, they got out in plenty of time and were staying with Helena's sister, Tante Auna Ratzlaff. What--all ten of them? Poor Tante Ratzlaff, already burdened with a retarded daughter and a husband never home. Johann had let his insurance lapse in January, two months before the fire. No, no, the week before. The cat had run into the fire three times hissing like the devil himself. Two men had nearly been trapped carrying Helena's expensive new player piano down the narrow front stairway and escaped only by letting it roll to the bottom and climbing out over it. Where did you hear that?--the piano fell straight down from the living room into the basement, white hot, like Lucifer falling from heaven.
Speculations were passed around as to the value of goods lost. Estimates varied wildly. The fire was a total loss, Johann wouldn't get a cent. Too bad, such a pity. Well, the Jungases would have to step down off their high horse now and work like everyone else.
The roles of Schroeder, the fire department, the weather, Heppner, and various heroic townspeople were thoroughly discussed. It was discovered, to the man's great surprise, that Sam Hempke had been the one who rescued the six loaves and family Bible.
The Jungas family were not around to hear the talk. "Let the children sleep," Tante Auna had said, setting out breakfast. "They don't need to go to Sunday School today."
Helena halted in her tracks. Church! "We have no clothes!" she exclaimed.
The children were already straggling in, wanting their Sunday clothes and something to eat. "Put on what you wore yesterday," Helena told them. "All our stuff is gone. Anna, eat breakfast now--you can look for your cat later."
"It probably got burned up," Al told his sister. She began to cry.
At ten o'clock, when most people were safely in church, Helena and Johann walked back to town, taking Al and Anna with them. Johann stood in the street and looked around at his new black ranges, covered with ashes, standing like a herd of forlorn strays in the muddy slush. Sewing machines and washing machines, abandoned buckets, his cash register, the tumbled shoe boxes--the street looked like a junkyard. The whole jumble would have to be moved tomorrow so that the town's business could carry on. "Where shall we go?" he asked aloud.
Anna was calling anxiously for the cat. Al, poking about, gave a sudden shout. He had stumbled across the girls' doll carriage with the new doll still in it--an expensive leather doll with a delicate china head, blue eyes that closed, and long flaxen curls. Anna snatched it up and temporarily forgot about the cat.
"Why not the hotel?" Helena said to Johann. Down the street from the burned-down garage was the Grand Hotel, empty, closed down for several years now. There were three floors of empty rooms. People said the beds were still standing in the rooms. "Go talk to Diemer, see how much he wants for it."
Johann walked up the porch steps and tried the door. It was locked. Helena rubbed frost off a window and peered in. "You could use the main floor for your store and we could live upstairs."
Johann thought it over. "Maybe so," he said at last, with a sigh.