A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 9

California boasts swaths of sun-splashed beaches, cliffs that plunge spectacularly into the sea, rugged mountain ranges dotted with lakes and streams, forests of imposing trees hundreds of years old, expanses of desert populated by cat-sized foxes and sure-footed bighorn sheep, tracts of fertile farmland groaning with crops. But it has nothing like the Maine Coast, with its coves and bays and archipelago of islands. In thirty years away, Jeremy had never quite stopped missing it.

When he wasn’t splitting wood or helping Paul shore up the porch or painting windows or working on the boats, Jeremy spent time strolling along the shore, picking up interesting-looking rocks and shells, discarding most of them, and gazing out at the ocean. The rhythm of the days here revolved around the cycles of sun and tide rather than the clock. The lobstermen went out at first light. Jeremy, down at the cabin, heard their engines; by the second day he was getting up at dawn, making coffee, and ambling barefoot over the wet grass to the shore. This was the Maine he remembered from his childhood; the rocky shorefront, the cold clear water, the coming and going of the tides, the silent pull of solitude.

“Thanks for all your help this week,” Paul said, as he aimed the car up the side of the peninsula. “And thanks for bringing a stretch of good weather with you.”

“A present from Southern California,” Jeremy said, and that was how the conversation went, all the way to Ellsworth.

Paul pulled in next to a fiery red Fiat with Quebec plates. “What do you bet that car belongs to a Canadian doctor making three times what he could make at home?” Paul said. Jeremy shrugged. He saw high-end cars all the time in California.

They attempted to take the elevator up to Annabelle’s floor, but the elevator had other ideas. The first time Jeremy pressed the button, it didn’t move. The door remained open, and they stood there staring out into the lobby. Jeremy pressed the button again. Same result. He stepped out to push the button on the wall. The second he did so, the door closed, and Jeremy heard the elevator surge upward, with Paul inside. He frowned, and looked around. The only other person in the lobby was an elderly man at the reception desk. “Do you know what’s wrong with this thing?” he asked.

The old man looked up from his newspaper. “I don’t know. It acts up sometimes. There’s a set of stairs at the end of the hall.” He pointed a bony finger toward an exit sign.

“Thanks.” Jeremy thought about seeking out the stairs, but just then the elevator returned to the lobby and the door opened on an empty interior. A Star Trek episode popped into his mind, the one in which two planets fought a war with computers and designated “casualties” had 24 hours to report to disintegration chambers. “They go in,” Spock observed, “but they do not come out.” Stop it, he told himself. It’s just a fucked-up elevator, likely overdue for maintenance. He entered and pressed the button for the third floor.

The door closed and the elevator rose, as if making up for lost time. When the door opened, he stepped out into the hall before he realized that he was not on Annabelle’s floor. The door closed behind him and he heard the elevator descend. “Now what?” he said aloud.

The hall was dimly lit, as if some of the lights had been shut off to conserve energy. He concluded that he must be on the top floor of the hospital, for there was only a down button on the wall beside the elevator. Jeremy pushed it, but nothing happened.

“Can I help you?”

He turned to see a woman approaching him in the otherwise deserted hallway. She wore a pale blue skirt that reached just below her knees and a white blouse open at the neck. Her red-blond hair hung loose at her shoulders; it framed high cheekbones and hazel eyes with flecks of gold in them. Jeremy saw crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes and faint lines around her mouth and guessed her to be around Bonnie’s age, which would make her sixty-one. She was nice-looking, maybe two inches shorter than he was and slim, though showing a hint of cleavage in the V of the blouse, where she wore a small silver cross on a thin chain. She was altogether an attractive older woman. That was his first impression.

“I was, uh, trying to get to my mother’s room, on the third floor,” Jeremy said. “Is there something wrong with this elevator?”

“Oh, that thing hasn’t worked right ever since they installed it,” the woman said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “There’s nothing on this floor but offices, anyway. They moved all the administration here when they built the new wing.”

She flowed down the hall and Jeremy followed, watching her skirt sway as she walked. They passed a couple of unoccupied offices. The quiet of this floor seeped into his awareness – no beeping monitors, no gurney wheels, no footsteps other than their own. “It almost seems like you have this floor to yourself,” he said, sounding stupid in his own ears.

“Downsizing,” she said. “Or consolidation, to use the company’s word. The accounting department used to be at the other end of the hall,” she said. “But that’s all down in Kittery now.”

“Kittery?” Jeremy said.

She stopped, and turned to look at him. “Last year, this hospital got bought out by a big medical conglomerate in New Hampshire. They bought us, and a hospital further down east, and one in southern Maine, and they do all the business stuff from Kittery, but the company headquarters is in Manchester. This end of the hall is all administration. A lot of that’s been consolidated, too. My secretary and I are about the last of the old guard left, and she called in sick this morning.”

“Your secretary? What do you do?”

“I’m Bernadette Steele,” she said, extending a thin hand. “I’m the CEO here. The big boss, as they say, at least in this hospital. Though for how much longer and in what capacity is anybody’s guess. But you… you look like someone I used to know.”

“Not likely,” Jeremy said. “I live in California.”

“Oh.” She looked into his eyes, and he considered asking her to join him for a cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria. But then he thought about his mother. She was probably wondering where he was, and Paul, too. The chief executive officer of a hospital had better things to do than hobnob with visitors in the cafeteria. He let the thought go as she led him to the end of the hall. She opened a heavy door onto a gray stairwell. “Here we are,” she said brightly. “Just go down one flight, and turn left.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Don’t mention it.” Why was she looking at him like that, as though trying to place him? He was sure he had never seen this woman before in his life. He had only met her now because the elevator had taken him to the wrong floor. But she looked at him with interest or curiosity or both. He clasped her hand again briefly. She wore a thin silver bracelet on her right wrist and what looked like an emerald ring on the middle finger of her right hand, but he saw that her left hand was unadorned.

“It was nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m Jeremy.”

“And I’m pleased to meet you, too. Are we taking good care of your mother?”

“She seems to think so.” He thought suddenly of Everett’s girlfriend.

The CEO flashed a warm smile. “Well, you let me know if she needs anything, anything at all,” she said. “Now that you know where to find me.”

“Thanks again.” He almost said her name: Bernadette. Unusual name. The only other Bernadette he knew of was Bernadette Peters, the actress. He’d always found her attractive, too.

He descended the stairs and emerged at the opposite end of the busy third floor hall from his mother’s room. What a strange encounter, he thought. Almost as though she had been waiting for him to step out of the elevator. Almost as though she had been expecting him.

He wasn’t expecting to see his youngest sister, but Pilar perched on the end of Annabelle’s bed, chatting with her mother. “There you are,” Annabelle exclaimed. “Paul was wondering what happened to you.” Paul sat in the room’s only chair, near Annabelle’s head. Madison and Everett stood by the window.

“I got sidetracked,” Jeremy said. For some reason he didn’t want to tell his family about meeting the CEO of the hospital, not yet, anyway. He wondered if he would see her again.

“That’s an understatement,” Annabelle said. “I never imagined that a son of mine would wind up living thirty years in California.”

“That’s not what I meant, Ma.” But he let it go. “We’re all back now, I guess,” he said. “How are you, Pilar?”

She jumped off the bed and gave him a hug, tiny in his arms. “I’m on the run from my old man,” she told him. “It’s good to see you.”

“Do I want to hear about this?” he asked.

“She stole his car,” Madison said. “You’ll get to ride in it, though it could be a little cramped.”

“I’m going back tomorrow. But Mom insists I come down again when she gets out of here so we can have a big family blowout at the point.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to all get together at once?” Annabelle said. “It happens so rarely any more. Joan was here earlier. I don’t know what Gretchen’s doing today. But a hospital is a dreary place for a reunion. Jeremy, Paul tells me you’ve been a great help.”

“Wasn’t much.”

She held out a paper bag toward him. “Do you want one of these cookies? Madison made them. They’re delicious.”

“I made them for you, Mom,” Madison said.

“Oh, I know, dear, but you made plenty, and Paul won’t eat sweets. Here, Jeremy, help yourself.”

He thought he saw a look pass between Madison and Pilar, but he took a cookie from the bag and bit into it. “Good,” he said, nodding at Madison. Pilar looked at Everett. What was going on? He sometimes felt like a stranger in his own family.

He munched the cookie and eased into the conversation, listening to Pilar’s account of her boyfriend’s fight for Quebec independence and his penchant for mixing politics and romance. Annabelle expressed approval at her plan to teach in Vermont in the fall. “At least you’ll be in the same country,” she said. He asked his mother about her progress and she gave them all a rundown of her daily physical therapy regimen. He watched as Everett fished a cookie from the bag, broke it in half, and handed the other half to Madison. They laughed together at some private joke.

When the attendant brought in Annabelle’s dinner, she oohed and aahed over generic chicken and limp vegetables and lumpy mashed potatoes with gravy like it was the Last Supper. She ate enthusiastically. “You were right, Maddie,” Pilar said, and again they laughed. But it was good to see his mother eating. The last time he’d been here, he had worried that she would wither away to nothing.

Paul left after Annabelle finished her meal, saying he wanted to get back to the point before dark. Shortly afterward Madison said that she had better get going, too. They said their goodbyes to Annabelle. Jeremy bent down to kiss his mother’s cheek and felt a surge of disorientation. The drab room seemed somehow more colorful than it had when he arrived, and the sounds outside in the corridor blended into a noise that was almost musical. It could have passed for music, in some venues in Southern California, he thought – something between rap and electronica. Boy, was his imagination veering in unusual directions today. Perhaps the chance encounter with the pretty CEO had stimulated an underutilized part of his brain.

“I’m serious about this party,” Annabelle said as they prepared to leave. “When I get out of here, I want you all to come down to the point. We’ll get some lobsters. I won’t take no for an answer.”

“She won’t, either,” Madison said, as they walked down the corridor. “In a couple of weeks, we’ll all get a phone call or an e-mail from Gretchen, trying to pin us down to a date. She’ll make Gretchen plan the whole thing. Which is only natural, I guess. Everett, make sure you bring your guitar.”

Jeremy paused as they all piled into the elevator, but it took them down to the lobby without a hitch, and they walked out into the parking lot and the cool of the evening. The sun was behind the trees, glittering through the gaps in the new leaves. The sky seemed especially blue.

“Just make sure you bring plenty of those cookies,” Everett said, and his two sisters burst into laughter.

“How are you feeling, Jeremy?” Pilar asked him.

“A little strange,” he said. “And thirsty.”

They all laughed again. Understanding dawned. “Maddie, were those magic cookies?”

“No magic,” she said. “Just medicine.”

He hadn’t been high in years. It wasn’t that he disliked marijuana; he had indulged plenty in his youth. But none of his professional friends and acquaintances used it, or admitted to doing so, and gradually it had ceased to be part of his world. But now that he knew what was going on, he found himself enjoying the sensory stimulation. It would be fun, he thought, to eat a couple of those cookies down on the point and go rowing among the islands.

“There’s some wine in the car,” Pilar said.

They stopped at the red Fiat Paul had parked next to, and Jeremy said, “This is your car?”

“Well, to be technically accurate, no,” Pilar said. “But it’s what I’m driving. And don’t worry – Madison wouldn’t let me have a cookie.”

“How’re we going to all fit?”

“Everett, you get in front,” Madison directed. “You’ve got the longest legs. I’ll sit in back with Jeremy. Whew, I only had half a cookie, but I can feel it kicking in.”

He was unused to sitting in the back seat of a vehicle, but the logic of the arrangement made sense, and he shoehorned in next to Madison. Pilar passed the bottle of wine back with two paper birthday cups, and Madison poured them each half a cupful before handing the bottle forward. With the front windows down and Pilar hitting seventy on the straight stretches, the air whooshing past his ears discouraged conversation. He was content to sit squeezed beside his sister and sip wine and watch the scenery whiz by. They were about halfway back to Bangor when Everett said, “Hey, let’s all go out to dinner. Who knows when we’ll be together like this again? Whaddya say?”

Pilar was all for it, and Jeremy felt sufficiently mellow to go with the flow, whether it turned out to be a meandering stream or a whitewater rapid. Madison said she had to work in the morning, but what the hell, a late night wouldn’t kill her and Mike wouldn’t care. “I’ll call Corinne, see if she wants to put up with this wayward bunch,” Everett said. “I know a good place.”

They spilled out of the car on Bangor’s Main Street, and followed Everett into a bar with two rooms: the bar itself, and a dining/lounge area off to the side, filled with tables and comfortable chairs and couches. He led them to a large round table near the window. At the opposite end of the room, a microphone had been set up next to two guitars on stands, a small drum kit, and an upright piano. Jeremy took a seat from which he could see out the window onto the street. If he turned his head slightly, he could see the stage area, which at the moment was vacant. A young man in black slacks, a black tee shirt and red suspenders came to their table to take drink orders. Jeremy glanced down the list of draft beers and was surprised to see Anchor Steam, from California. Most of the other selections on the menu he didn’t recognize.

“They specialize in craft beers,” Everett told him. “The list changes every week. I can usually find something I’ve never had before. If I like the name, I’ll try it.”

Jeremy scanned down the menu. “I’ll have an Ugly Ostrich.”

“Gee, that sounds appealing,” Madison said.

“It’s actually really good,” the waiter told them. “It’s a darker, full-bodied IPA, with hints of hickory.”

“Do you have to bury your head in the sand after drinking it?” Jeremy asked him. It was Maddie’s fault, for getting him stoned without his knowledge.

“I suppose that depends on how many you have,” the young man said.

“I always stop after seventeen,” Everett said.

“Good rule,” said the waiter.

“But rules are meant to be broken,” Pilar put in.

“We’re gonna order some food, too,” Everett told the waiter. “But bring the beer first.”

They each ordered a different kind, and passed them around the table in an informal taste test. They were thus engaged when Corinne arrived, straight from work and full of energy. “God, I need a drink,” she said. “We just got done cutting about sixteen warts out of this old guy’s foot. Man, I hate foot cases. Give me bowel surgery any day of the week. I’d rather scrape shit off the ceiling than dig out fucking wart roots. You have to go in really deep to make sure you get ’em all, or else they grow back. Guy’s got half a foot left. Just a bloody stump keeping his leg from fraying at the end.”

“Well, it’s a good thing we haven’t ordered yet,” Madison said, “because I think I just lost my appetite.”

“I’m starving,” Corinne said, taking the seat next to Everett. “Buy me a beer, will you, lover?”

Everett slid his glass to her. He introduced Corinne to Pilar; Jeremy deduced that she and Madison had previously met. “How many more sisters are you going to come up with?” Corinne asked him.

“How many you want?” Everett said. “I told you I had a large family.”

The waiter reappeared. “Looks like another round is in order,” he said.

“That’s what Muhammad Ali said to Joe Frazier,” Jeremy quipped.

“Man, that is one lame joke,” the waiter replied. “Dated as hell, too.”

“Don’t mind us,” Everett said. “We’re family.”

“Speak for yourself, buckaroo.” Corinne turned to the waiter. “I’m just attached to one appendage of it,” she said, grabbing Everett’s arm. “Whatever they’ve been subjecting you to ain’t my fault.”

“It’s been pretty much nonstop abuse since we walked in,” Everett said. “But I will buy this lovely lady a beer, and whatever she wants to eat.”

The waiter took their orders and returned with a fresh round of beers, and soon after that, a bread and cheese plate, a platter of wings, and a flatbread pizza. He distributed plates and silverware among them.

“How’s your mom?” Corinne asked Everett, as they all dug in.

“She’s good,” he replied. “Making noises about getting out of there. As soon as she can negotiate the stairs, they’ll let her go home. Probably a couple of weeks.”

“I think she enjoys being the center of attention,” Madison said. “Did you see her today, sitting up in her bed, with all of us gathered around her? Like the queen bee. And we all run to her bedside, like the dutiful daughters and sons we are.”

“She does the same thing at home,” Everett pointed out. “This big family reunion she wants to have – she’s summoned us from near and far. I guess she’s earned the right to be the matriarch.”

“Just get her out of there safely, as soon as you can,” Corinne said. “I worked at that hospital. Place gives me the creeps.”

“You said that before,” Jeremy said. “Why?”

“It’s filled with doctors and nurses who can’t cut it in Bangor, or anywhere but some rural town where the patients don’t know the difference. Unfortunately, it’s the patients who suffer.”

“Our mother doesn’t seem to be suffering,” Jeremy said. “I mean, any more than anyone else who’s in the hospital with an infection.”

“That place is famous for making infections worse,” Corinne said. “People who go in there for minor surgeries end up with staph and MERSA and all kinds of ugly shit.”

“She’ll be home as soon as she can walk up and down stairs,” Everett said. “Hopefully she’ll live until then.”

“And hopefully she won’t get stuck in that damn elevator,” Jeremy added.

“Oh, yes, the elevator,” Corinne said, nodding.

Jeremy looked at her. “What do you know about it?”

“It’s not just the elevator,” Corinne said. “But that elevator seems to be the center of things.”

“The center of what things?” Jeremy said.

Corinne took a quick look around the room. “Listen,” she said, “you didn’t hear this from me, but that hospital’s haunted.”

This stopped the conversation at the table.

The four siblings looked at one another. Finally Everett said, “You never told me that before.”

“You never asked. What? You guys look like – pardon the expression – like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Our dad died at that hospital,” Madison said quietly. “He was a doctor there.”

Corinne turned back to Everett. “You didn’t tell me your father worked there,” she said.

You never asked,” he said.

“You told me he was a doctor, and that he died before you were born,” Corinne said. “But you never told me much else about him.”

“That’s because nobody ever told me much about him,” Everett said. “He’s always been The Father Who Wasn’t There. I only know him through his absence.”

“Our father’s ghost is haunting the hospital?” Pilar said.

“I don’t know about that,” Corinne replied. “But I know a number of people who’ve seen weird things – doors opening and closing when there’s nobody there, phantom readings on instruments, that sort of stuff.”

“Oh, come on,” Jeremy interjected. “There are no such things as ghosts.”

“Tell that to the people who’ve seen one.” Corinne said. “Listen, I had no idea about your father.” She looked pointedly at Everett, whose face was blank. “But ever since they built that new wing, stuff’s been happening that nobody can explain.”

“Just because nobody can explain it doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation,” Jeremy said. “A rational explanation.”

“Jeremy’s a scientist,” Madison explained, for Corinne’s benefit.

“And medicine is a scientific profession,” he said. “Otherwise, we’d do just as well to send Ma to a faith healer.”

“It’s an art, too,” Corinne pointed out. “You’ve never heard the expression ‘the medical arts’? Doctors don’t know everything, although a fair number of them think they do.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not buying this,” Jeremy said. “If the hospital is haunted, why haven’t people spoken up about it?”

“Because they’d get fired,” Corinne said. “It’s a taboo subject, in any hospital. Think about it. Hospitals traffic in death. Everyone in the medical profession works on the edge of the abyss.” She lifted her beer to her lips. “It’s probably why most of us drink.”

Up near the stage, bodies were moving around, shuffling amps and instruments. The band was getting ready to start. But Jeremy, shaken by this turn in the conversation, turned toward Corinne. “When you worked there, did you see anything?”

“Nothing definite. But you might feel a cold draft in the middle of summer, or the lights in the OR would dim momentarily for no apparent reason. But people who’d been there for a while knew, though it wasn’t talked about. I’ll tell you who probably knows the most about it. There’s a nurse named Bernadette who’s been there forever. She started when she was like twenty. She’s in administration now, I think. She knows where all the bodies are buried – figuratively speaking, of course.”

“I met her today,” Jeremy said.

“You did?” Pilar piped up. “When?”

“When Paul and I first got there. The elevator got stuck, and then it took me to the wrong floor. She showed me the way to the stairs. Seemed like a nice lady.”

“That elevator,” Corinne said, “has had problems for years. Some people wouldn’t use it. There’s someone, or something, in there.”

“This is preposterous,” Jeremy scoffed.

“How many elevators take you to the wrong floor?” Corinne asked him.

“I don’t know. It’s probably a short circuit or something.”

“Or something,” Corinne said.

He turned to his sisters. “Do any of you believe this?”

“I don’t know, Jeremy, there might be something to it,” Pilar said.

“Science can’t explain everything,” Madison added.

He sagged back into his chair. “How about you, Everett? What do you think?”

Everett paused before he answered. “I never knew our father. And like I said, the whole time I was growing up, no one really talked about him. Oh, I remember looking through Mom’s old photo albums, but she kept them out of sight and would only bring them out when I asked about him. I don’t know – if it is his ghost haunting that hospital, maybe I’ll finally get a chance to meet him.”

“This is nuts,” Jeremy said. “Maybe next time we go see Ma, we should bring some candles, or a Ouija board, and hold a seance in the corridor. You can’t seriously believe any of this.”

The band had begun to play while they’d been arguing: three male musicians fronted by a female singer. Jeremy had been turned away and not paying attention, immersed in the argument. But the woman’s voice edged its way into his awareness, and when the band moved into a new number, it took him only seconds to recognize the song: “Stormy Monday,” an old blues tune covered by the Allman Brothers on one of the albums he’d rediscovered in his brother’s record collection. He turned his chair for a better view. The singer was dark-haired and tall, wearing a strapless flower-print dress that was mostly purple, over black tights. And she was singing the shit out of the song. Jeremy could see both sets of teeth when she stretched out the vowels on the line about the eagle flying on Friday. Perturbed though he was at Corinne’s pronouncements, he stopped to watch and listen, sipping at his beer and forgetting, momentarily, about his father.

When the song ended, he clapped vigorously, so much so that he imagined she heard his applause over the rest of the audience, for she flashed a look at their table and a smile that combined serious wattage with a whiff of mystery. Her hair, thick and with just a touch of curl, was partially pulled back so that the free ends fell over her bare shoulders. She had the tiniest hint of a double chin. “Thank you so much,” she murmured into the mike. The band kicked into the next song, a faster, bass-driven number that Jeremy didn’t recognize, and she moved easily with the beat of the intro before she started to sing.

Jeremy wished they were closer to the stage, although this would have discouraged conversation. He looked at Everett and said, “She’s got a good voice.” He had to raise his own voice a little to be heard across the table.

“Hey, we should call Gretchen and Joanie,” Pilar shouted. “Maybe they want to come out.” She pulled out her cell phone.

“Pilar, they’re miles away,” Madison said. “It’d take them an hour to get here.”

“So? It’s like Mom said – how often are we all in the same place at the same time? What else are they doing on a Wednesday night?”

“I dunno, living their lives?” Madison said. “Joanie’s always got something going on, and Gretchen won’t do anything unless it’s planned at least a week ahead of time.”

But Pilar already had the phone to her ear, her pinkie in the other one. Her face brightened. “Joanie? Oh, hi Carol. It’s Pilar. I’m good. How are the whales? Put Joanie on, will you?”

The singer finished the song with a flourish, and more applause. One of the musicians behind the singer picked up an acoustic guitar and began noodling out a melody. Jeremy recognized the opening of “Hotel California.”

“Hey, Joanie!” Pilar said. “I’m in Bangor, with Jeremy, Maddie and Everett.” She listened for a moment, then turned to Everett. “What’s the name of this place?” He told her and she repeated it into the phone. “No, I’m going back tomorrow. I’ve got to take Maddie home tonight.”

Pilar paused to listen. “No, that’s okay,” she said. “Mom’s talking about having us all down to the point when she gets out.” Another pause. She handed the phone to Madison. “She’s not coming out,” she said. “But she wants to talk to you.”

Madison took the phone, but Jeremy was no longer listening. He was fixated on the singer. “She’s singing my song,” he said to Everett.

“I hate the Eagles,” Everett responded.

“Yeah, but Don Henley never sang it like this. Do you know her?”

“We’re acquainted. You play music in Bangor, you kind of get to know everyone else who does. It’s not that big a town. She plays out a lot. Her name’s Stella Weaver.”

“Stella Weaver,” Jeremy repeated. “Star weaver. Even her name is pretty. Will you introduce me to her?”

“Sure. But Jesus, Jeremy, she’s too young for me, let alone you. Besides, I’m pretty sure she’s got a boyfriend.”

“It’d be kind of amazing if she didn’t,” Jeremy conceded. “But I still want to meet her. She’s rather… striking.”

Everett laughed. “How long have you been single? They don’t have any beautiful women in California?”

Jeremy didn’t answer. Stella Weaver was tall and solid, but she had long, delicate fingers, like a painter’s. At times she gripped the mike stand with both hands; at others they hung loose at her sides, the fingers wiggling in time to the music. When the song finished, she smiled at the applause, and then pulled the top of the dress up, an adorable mixture of shyness and confidence. Of course the world was filled with attractive women. But she was the second one who had moved him today. He hadn’t expected that when he flew out to see his family.

He barely noticed that Madison had handed the phone back to Pilar and quickly excused herself to go to the bathroom. Pilar punched up another number. “Gretchen? What’s up, girl? It’s your littlest sister. What? No, I’m in Bangor, hanging out at a bar with Jeremy and Maddie and Everett. Everett’s girlfriend’s here too. Jeremy’s in the process of falling in love.”

“I am not,” Jeremy protested, his attention momentarily diverted from the stage.

“He’s got the hots for this girl singer half his age,” Pilar said. “What? Here, listen.” She held up the phone. Stella Weaver caught the gesture and flashed a smile. He could see that she was used to being looked at, and he was momentarily embarrassed. She might be thirty.

But when the band took a break, Everett caught the singer’s attention and waved her over to their table. Madison had returned and Pilar had hung up with Gretchen, who had declined the invitation to drive up to Bangor and join them. The three women were deep in conversation; Jeremy had no idea what they were talking about, but thought it might have something to do with the supposedly haunted hospital. Ridiculous. He dismissed the thought when the singer approached the table and said hello to Everett.

“This is my brother Jeremy,” Everett said. “He’s visiting from the west coast.”

Jeremy stood, and offered his hand, which she grasped softly and briefly. He noted that she was taller than he was, and that her eyes were blue. “I admire the way you sing ‘Hotel California,’” he said. “That’s a song I’ve lived.”

“Oh?” She tilted her head and looked at him, and he felt a little dizzy at having her undivided attention.

He nodded. “There was a woman who lit up a candle and showed me the way,” he said. “She had dark hair like you. It was heaven and it was hell.”

She laughed, showing teeth. He felt himself go gooey inside. “How long are you out here for?” she asked him.

“I’m not sure. Our mother’s in the hospital.”

“Oh. Is it serious?”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s a mobility issue. You have a beautiful voice.”

“Thank you.” She was already looking over her shoulder. Maybe it was a mistake to allude to an ex-wife in their first conversation. The bass player emerged from the crowd near the bar with a beer in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other, which he raised in her direction.

“Are you going to stick around?” she said. “We’ve got two more sets.”

“Absolutely,” he said. But he’d lost momentum. He could come up with nothing else.

“It was nice to meet you.” She flashed the smile again, though this time it struck him as automatic. Really, what more could he expect? She moved off and rejoined her band mates, and he sat down.

Everett looked at him with unconcealed amusement. “I was waiting for you to ask for her phone number.”

“Yeah, right.”

“My older brother is shy with girls,” Everett said, still grinning. “I never would have guessed, you being married twice and all.”

“Give me a break, will you, Everett? I need another beer.”

He had three more beers, and they stayed until the end of the show. Stella Weaver sang a mix of newer material and stuff that had been popular when he was in high school and even earlier. Where had she learned those songs? From her parents? Older siblings? Or maybe an older man she’d been involved with? His imagination, fueled by alcohol and the aftereffects of the pot cookie, was running away with him, like in the old Temptations song that she covered in her third set.

He was too drunk to pay much attention to the mood change that had come over Madison, who had sat quietly through the last two sets. Everett left with Corinne, and his sisters dropped him off at his brother’s apartment. He fumbled with the key, stumbled to the bathroom, pissed about a gallon, and collapsed on the couch. But sleep did not come easily. What a day. His mind swirled with images: of sailboats and the Maine Coast, of his mother in her hospital bed surrounded by her children, of two women he’d just met, one some thirty years older than the other. The last image before unconsciousness claimed him was of his father, whose face he had almost forgotten, but whose presence, according to Everett’s whacky girlfriend, still prowled the corridors of the hospital where he had met his untimely death so many years ago

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