A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 11

Voyager 1 soared into space to join its sister ship on September 5, 1977, which happened to be Labor Day, which struck Madison as funny, because it was the day she knew for sure she was pregnant. I’m launching a little voyage of my own, she thought, when Annabelle mentioned the mission at the breakfast table. Her mom kept up on all the space news – a private vigil for Jeremy, Madison supposed. She made a piece of toast with jam and poured a cup of coffee and reached for a section of the newspaper less to read it than to fend off her mother’s chatter. Annabelle had made scrambled eggs, but the thought of a big breakfast made Madison want to throw up again.

Instead, she planned to throw herself into rearranging her room. Finally, a room to herself, after a year of sleeping across a small patch of floor from her older sister. Gretchen, now blessedly off to college, would come home for vacations, so the second bed could not entirely go, but there was no reason Madison couldn’t pile it high with clothes and stuffed animals and magazines and other junk, and leave it there for Gretchen to move, so that Gretchen would understand that from now on she would be a guest in her room.

But that delicious fantasy was fast dissolving in the face of the new reality that now confronted her. She had moved a few clothes into Gretchen’s vacated closet, turned her desk so that she could see out the window, shoved the extra bed into a corner, and turned her own bed ninety degrees. Big deal. It was just a room, in her mother’s house. She understood why her mother had moved them. No doctor’s pay to support their spacious home, and with Jeremy gone and Gretchen going, how spacious did it have to be? The clear implication was that she would go next. Well, Madison thought, lying in her own room in her mother’s house and staring up at the ceiling, sometimes things happen faster than you think.

On South Street they had lived in a huge house on the edge of the woods. Madison had loved the space inside the house (and a room all her own), but she had loved the woods more. And the animals: the raccoons, the foxes, the skunks, the owls, the porcupines. She had not even panicked the night a bat got into Gretchen’s room and sent everyone else chasing it through the house screaming. Maddie had simply opened a window, and out it flew.

She was only now getting used to living in town, in closer quarters not only with her own family but the general public too. On South Street she could walk out the door and into the woods and have total solitude in sixty seconds. Not here. Here the only quiet place was the graveyard across the street, and that could sometimes seem awfully crowded.

But living in town had its advantages. For one thing, she could now walk to school – or not. Madison was beginning her senior year. But on the day after Labor Day, as Voyager streaked past the moon and chased its twin toward Jupiter, Maddie skipped the first half of the first day of school to go see her doctor, who confirmed what she had suspected for several weeks. She knew when it had happened: the day in late July when she and Kyle had dropped mescaline and hiked out to their favorite spot on Toddy Pond, where the rocks sloped down to the water and you could jump in and be over your head a few strokes from shore and nobody was around to catch you swimming naked. They’d had the place to themselves and one thing had led to another and soon to a moss-covered ledge where they had coupled and maybe Kyle had lost himself in the heat of passion and not pulled out quite in time. She’d washed and douched afterwards and had been hoping against hope ever since, through one missed period and creeping toward another. But now she knew.

She knew she would keep it, too, no matter what Kyle or Annabelle said.

How could she kill a life growing within her, when it had broken her heart to let her mother flush the baby mice she had found in her underwear drawer? How would snuffing out a potential human life sit with a girl who loved almost every living thing? Who wanted to adopt every lonely puppy and shelter kitten she saw? Who had cried and cried over a pet hamster when the cats had pried open its cage and hunted it down? Of course it should be her choice, but to her that only meant that she was free to choose the only humane course of action she was willing to consider: to have the baby and raise it as her own.

She went to school, arriving in time for third period classes, clutching a vaguely worded note from her doctor. She did not tell any of her friends. Kyle had the right to know first. Strangely, she did not feel scared or helpless or victimized. If her friends noticed anything out of the ordinary they did not speak of it. She went out behind the gym at noon with a few of them and did a couple of bong hits, feeling a twinge of guilt for the life form growing inside her and vowing to cut out the drugs and the drinking, though she didn’t see how a little pot would hurt the baby at this stage. There was a Jackie Kennedy picture in one of the family albums of Annabelle, pregnant with Jeremy in the cockpit of their father’s sailboat, cigarette in one hand and drink in the other. Annabelle had smoked while carrying all of them except Everett. Their mother had quit smoking several years before the doctor died, but in the months after Everett’s birth she had secretly taken it up again, though it was no secret from Gretchen and Madison, who could smell it on her breath. But Madison told herself she’d stop smoking weed when she started to show, if only to avoid the stares and comments from people who should mind their own business.

She had always known that she wanted kids eventually; the timing was inconvenient, that was all. She wondered how Annabelle’s vanity would handle impending grandmotherhood, and realized she didn’t care. She was strong enough to face down her mother, whose battles with Jeremy over his older, married lover had left her weakened for future face-offs with her daughters. Gretchen had given her little cause for concern, breezing through school with good grades and the usual series of boyfriends and dates, but never a hint of trouble. Her older sister had smoked as much dope and popped as many pills as anyone else – well, maybe not anyone else – but none of it ever seemed to affect her or her reputation. She surely would never have been guilty of such poor planning as to get knocked up at sixteen.

An autumn baby, Madison was young for her class. She would not turn seventeen until October, and she would be seventeen when she graduated and gave birth, likely in reverse order. But she would graduate – of that she was as certain as she was of carrying the baby to term. Despite the drugs, she had made the honor roll every semester of high school, and she was not going to be one of those girls who dropped out in her senior year and disappeared into motherhood and middle age without even a diploma to show for the struggles of youth. She could work ahead over the fall and get all her credits in order so she could coast through the months leading up to the birth. Spring of senior year was cake, anyway. And she wouldn’t mind missing the graduation party – after last spring, it was bound to be something of a downer anyway.

So she sailed through the school day holding her new knowledge close and guarding it carefully, riding the buzz from the bong hits through a French class and a boring history lecture, finally freeing herself from her friends by the flagpole where they had gathered after the final buzzer to plan another pot-smoking expedition, and instead headed purposefully through town. Kyle had graduated the year before and already worked as assistant floor manager at his father’s hardware store. He lived above the store in an apartment he and his father had constructed last year.

Kyle was alone in the store when she entered. Mornings were his busiest times, when contractors came in for supplies and home improvement hobbyists showed up to jaw about their projects and dither about what they might or might not need. The store opened at seven and closed at five, and Kyle sometimes had to stay late to do the books and close up shop. The hours were long but not hard, he said, and he always had money for dope and other entertainment. He had a car, too, which was convenient, as he couldn’t smoke pot in his apartment for fear that the smell might seep to the store below. Kyle’s father had no idea that his son did drugs; he made Kyle keep his hair short for the job, and he seemed to think of them as a cute young small-town couple. Which is maybe what we are, after all, Madison thought, as she opened the door to the hardware store. How would he react to the news, this kindly man of approximately the same age as her own dead father? Did he even know they were having sex? How would Elliott Sprauling have reacted? She would never know.

But her immediate concern was her boyfriend, the father of her baby-to-be. Kyle was sweet and kind and good-looking, and though he was no intellectual ball of fire, he wasn’t stupid. He had to know how hard it would be to raise a child at their ages, and how much harder it would be for Madison alone if he decided he wasn’t ready for fatherhood. The luxury of being male, Madison thought, was that one could make such a decision dispassionately.

He smiled when he saw her, and came out from around the counter, and since there was no one else in the store Madison dropped her book bag and threw her arms around him, pressing her body against his, kissing him hard on the mouth. “I have news,” she said, before he could recover.

“It must be good news,” Kyle said, taking a step back and smoothing his short hair into place. He was wearing a red pinstriped shirt and a purple tie. He looked good. Kyle’s father wore mostly blues and whites and sometimes chided his son for his choice of bright colors, but Kyle said that as long as he dressed up his father was happy. In high school he had worn blue jeans and tie-dyed tee shirts and let his hair grow bushy and long, but Madison had to admit he looked better like this.

She took his hands in hers. No sense in tap dancing around the subject. “I’m going to have a baby,” she said. She had meant to say, “We’re going to have a baby,” but at the last second she chickened out, unsure of how much “we” there would be going forward.

And indeed Kyle looked stunned for a moment, a long, suspenseful moment in which the future hung in the balance. Then, slowly, tentatively, he began to smile, though his smile was fraught with uncertainty.

“Well,” he said. “That is news, all right.”

“Are you happy?” What a dumb question to ask. But the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“I… don’t know.” Kyle ran his hands through his hair again, his go-to gesture when he was nervous. “You seem happy.”

“I don’t want to force you into anything, Kyle.”

“You want to keep it, then.” Madison listened hard for the rising inflection that would make this a question, with more than one possible answer. She didn’t hear it, and her heart soared. Kyle might not be the most perceptive guy in the world, but he knew her. He hugged her, and she leaned against him.


He held her close, and she felt like she would burst into tears right there in the store. She’d done such a good job of keeping it together these past two days, but Kyle’s kindness, so uncharacteristic of most boys she knew, had her on the verge of falling to pieces.

She was saved when the door opened and a customer, an older man in work clothes and a faded Boston Red Sox cap, entered. Kyle dropped his arms and stepped away from her in embarrassment. “Now, Kyle,” the man drawled, “I know your daddy told you to be friendly to your customers, but you hug me like that and I’ll pop you one.”

“Hello, Mr. Curtis,” Kyle muttered. “Sorry.”

The old man laughed. “Hell, son, I was young once.” Madison had slunk back among the garden tools, but he caught her eye and winked at her. She wanted to disappear.

Mr. Curtis worked at the gas station across the street. He knew her by sight, though he might not be able to remember her first name. But he knew she was a Sprauling, a daughter of the dead doctor. Everyone knew everyone else in this little town, and Maddie wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

Mr. Curtis wanted some drill bits, so Kyle got them for him and chatted him up about cars and baseball and the weather all through a leisurely five-dollar sale that lasted a good fifteen minutes. Madison remained among the rakes and weed killers the whole time, where Kyle found her after Mr. Curtis finally left the store.

“I guess we’ll have to get married,” he said.

She looked at his young, earnest face, and burst out laughing.

His serious expression became a puzzled frown. “I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

“Just like that? You’re proposing to me in a hardware store, among the shovels and rakes and implements of destruction? I’d imagined something more romantic.”

Kyle’s face softened. “Maddie, I love you. I was going to wait until you graduated to ask you, but… well, having a baby changes things, doesn’t it? The kid deserves to have a mother and a father.”

“Oh, Kyle.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder.

“When do you want to do it?” he said softly.

She raised her head. “I haven’t said yes yet.”

“Maddie, it’s the right thing to do. You could move in with me upstairs. There’s plenty of room.”

This she knew from many visits. Kyle was handy with things like plumbing and wiring and home construction. The apartment that he and his dad had created out of an abandoned attic gleamed with modern materials and amenities. Though the ceilings were low the layout was generous. Kyle sprawled in the place by himself, but there were two bedrooms and a large family room. Family room? Just day ago she had been happy to have a room to herself in her mother’s house, and now she was envisioning starting a family and a home of her own.

“I think we should think about it,” she said. “You don’t have to marry me if you don’t want to.”

“But I do want to,” he said.

“I don’t have a daddy with a shotgun,” she reminded him.

He laughed, and Madison’s heart surged. It was going to be okay.

Kyle was only her second lover. Few of her friends who had boyfriends were still virgins. Gretchen had slept with her high school sweetheart before dumping him the day after the prom. She didn’t want to be weighed down with baggage from home when she went to college, she had explained to Maddie one night in the darkness of their side-by-side beds.

Surely Elliott Sprauling would have disapproved – of not only premarital sex but her contemplation of marriage before graduating from high school, of Kyle and his family and his limited ambitions, perhaps even of her decision to keep the baby. Who knows how he might have reacted? Madison remembered her father as a loving presence but a stern disciplinarian who believed in rules and the necessity of obeying them without question. Annabelle might mouth some of the same disapproval, but Madison was not afraid of her mother.

She would say yes to Kyle, though not right away, and not until after several weepy conversations in which Annabelle told Madison that she was throwing away her future. She would live at home through the winter, in her newly won but briefly enjoyed private bedroom, and marry Kyle in the Congregational Church on Easter Sunday, 1978. He was twenty and she was seventeen. Serena was born in Blue Hill Hospital four weeks later.

Annabelle and Paul Bremerton tied the knot in June in the office of the justice of the peace, overlooking Main Street in Ellsworth, with Gretchen and a friend from the University as witnesses. And though that marriage would see the two Voyagers approach interstellar space, Maddie and Kyle would not even make it to the first Jupiter encounter, by Voyager 1, which overtook its sister ship somewhere in the asteroid belt, in March of 1979.

Madison would think years later that the first summer had doomed their marriage. She chafed at being inside all day, with an infant that seemed to need her at every waking moment. Kyle said the baby’s cries could be heard down below in the store. A heat wave hit in early July, and despite the fans, the low-ceilinged apartment sweltered. She began to carp at Kyle for little things, and he began finding excuses to go out with his friends, often coming home stoned, drunk, tripping, or some combination of all three. He started selling mescaline to supplement his salary and bought an air conditioner from his father, but it wasn’t enough. She thought back to their ledge at Toddy Pond, where Serena had been conceived, but they did not go there once all summer, because she would have had to carry in the baby and the basket and the changes of diapers and the creams and powders and bottles and pacifiers and all the other stuff that made each trip out of the apartment an ordeal. They took Serena to the Blue Hill Fair on Labor Day weekend, and had a screaming fight in the middle of the midway when Kyle wanted to duck out into the woods and get high with his friends. By her eighteenth birthday they were fighting more or less constantly, and in early December, after the first big snowfall, when Kyle asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she replied, “A divorce.”

She moved back into Annabelle’s house in February, forcing Joanie and Pilar to double up again. Her once-private bedroom became a nursery. Paul got up before dawn to drive down to the point where he kept his boat, and had not bargained for a baby on the other side of his bedroom wall. Tensions mounted. The only one who seemed unaffected by it all was Everett, an uncle at the age of six, who loved playing with the baby but was too young to babysit.

That task fell instead to Madison’s younger sisters. Madison reconnected with those of her friends who were still around. She started up with drugs again. She even found a boyfriend briefly, a guy she wouldn’t have looked at twice in high school, and sometimes she stayed out late and let Joanie and Pilar deal with the shitty diapers and the wailing. Annabelle and Paul grew increasingly frazzled. As summer came on they began talking about winterizing the camp down at the point, or possibly even building a new house. Though the Voyagers would be well past Saturn before those plans were realized, Madison came to believe that her irresponsible post-divorce behavior was what drove Annabelle out of Blue Hill.

It also drove Madison out of her mother’s house for good. Near the end of Serena’s second summer, Paul came home with a beat-up but serviceable Volkswagen Beetle and a wad of cash and told Madison he’d found her a trailer in Ellsworth, close to a daycare center and the High Street commercial strip. The money represented the deposit and rent for the first two months. After that, she was on her own. Annabelle stood silently in a corner of the kitchen as her husband delivered the news, her eyes evasive but dry. Madison would be welcome on holidays and other family occasions, but she and Serena could no longer live there. In a final act of decency, Kyle borrowed his father’s pickup truck and helped her move. They dropped a hit of mescaline and made love on the trailer’s pale green carpet after putting their daughter to bed, and before he left he told her that he’d found a new girlfriend but that he wanted to keep seeing Serena. Their divorce had been official for six months, but she had yet to see her first child support payment. By October she was working at a local diner, subsisting on the food that augmented her paltry paycheck and lousy tips. Kyle’s first check didn’t come until Christmas, and most of it went to the daycare center to pay what she owed.

Years later, Madison marveled that any of the three oldest Sprauling siblings survived the seventies. The decade had begun with the death of their father. Jeremy had taken up with a married woman and brought the wrath of the whole town down around him. Gretchen had bottled up any emotions she had felt for her lost father and become a kind of super-Annabelle, ever vigilant about everything in life that could possibly rise up to hurt her. Madison had had a kid at seventeen. And they had all indulged in the drug culture rooted in the sixties that had, just in time for their adolescence, spread downward and outward to the high schools and elementary schools of even safe rural havens like Blue Hill, Maine.

But survive they did, as the Voyagers survived their encounters with the radiation belts of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. They sailed onward into space, into the uncharted territory of adulthood.

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