A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 12

“Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, rind! Look at the scoreboard, and see who’s behind!”

Pilar shouted the rhyme, used often in the waning moments of won games, along with the rest of the student section. The parents and teachers hated it because it was unsportsmanlike, and the team’s official cheerleaders would never think of taking up a chant like that. Pilar had been invited to try out for cheerleading, but she wanted no part of the prissy girls with their pom-poms and short skirts and red panties that everyone could see when they turned cartwheels in the middle of the gym floor. She would rather sit in the stands in blue jeans with her friends and heckle the other team. Besides, she knew they only wanted her on the squad as the small girl they could throw into the air and catch in their most acrobatic routine, and Pilar didn’t trust anybody that much. Had someone told her that in not many more years, cheerleading would morph from something done at a sport into a sport in its own right, called “cheering,” with its own tournaments and championships and awards, she would have laughed and laughed.

The squad didn’t always show up for the girls’ games. They accompanied the boys’ team to away games, and Pilar had heard that the bus rides home were heavy make-out sessions. But on this day in the winter of 1980 both teams were home. The cheerleaders were using the girls’ game as a warm-up for the main event, though the boys would likely get stomped by their bigger and faster rivals from Ellsworth. The boys would be lucky to break even this season, but the girls had only lost once and were sure to make the state tournament in Bangor as one of the top seeds in their class. Even though Ellsworth was a larger school and played in a class above them, the home team had them by fifteen points with four minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The team’s success revolved around Paula Murchison, a tall, wiry girl with kinky blonde hair who could not only do it all on the basketball court but made the honor roll every semester and was in the running for class valedictorian. Paula was a senior, and had led the team to two near-misses in the past two tournaments. Followers of the team, which meant, in essence, the whole town, thought this year was their best chance at a championship. Opponents had attacked them by double-teaming Paula and forcing her to pass the ball to less talented teammates, but in previous years she had not had the powerful presence of Joanie Sprauling to set picks and provide muscle underneath both baskets. Joanie had made the varsity team as a sophomore, and though her athletic gifts were not on a par with Paula’s, by the third game of the season she was in the starting lineup. She scored most of her points on offensive rebounds and easy layups set up by Paula’s playmaking, and she also accumulated her share of fouls, even when she stood her ground in accordance with the rules, because the referees tended to call collisions against the larger girl. Joanie’s play was solid, not pretty or spectacular. But it produced results.

Pilar enjoyed coming to the games to cheer on her sister and bond with her classmates. Annabelle sometimes attended and sat with Everett on the other side of the court with the parents and little kids. Often Everett would disappear underneath the bleachers and surface with something gross, like a smelly athletic sock or a piece of a hot dog. Paul Bremerton, as far as she knew, had not been to a game all season.

As the clock wound down, the coach began sending substitutes in for her starters. Paula was the first to come out, to vigorous applause. A minute later, Joanie and another girl made their way to the bench. Pilar stood and cheered. Across the way, she saw Annabelle take Everett by the hand and descend the bleachers. Her mother caught her eye as she walked toward the exit at the end of the court and motioned to her. “Let me out for a sec,” Pilar said to Debbie, the girl at her side. “My mom wants to talk to me.”

“Do you want a ride home?” Annabelle asked, when she reached the floor. “Or are you staying for the boys’ game?”

“I’ll stay and wait for Joanie,” Pilar said. “We can walk home.”

“Well, make sure she dries her hair before she goes out,” Annabelle said. “It’s awfully cold outside. I’ve got to go home and make dinner. Call if you need a ride.”

“Okay, Mom. But I’m sure we’ll be fine. See you for dinner.”

“We’re having spaghetti,” Annabelle said. “I’m sure Joan will be hungry. She played almost the whole game.”

“She’s doing really well. I counted six baskets, plus two or three foul shots.”

“Come on, Mom, let’s go,” Everett said, tugging at her hand. At seven, he was already almost as tall as Pilar. He could be the next basketball player in the family.

“Okay, then,” her mother said. “See you at home.”

The game ended soon after Pilar rejoined her friends. Joanie and her teammates trailed off to the locker room. The boys’ junior varsity team came out and began warming up. Pilar accepted a piece of gum from Debbie as they sat and assessed the relative cuteness of the JV players. Pilar didn’t have a boyfriend, but she was partial to a short kid named Brian Pemberton whose shaggy dark hair fell into his face every time he took a shot or made a pass or scrambled after a loose ball. He had this way of flicking it back with a toss of his head that captivated her and probably drove his parents crazy. He was a sophomore, but they had a study hall together and had shared lunch a few times. He was sort of geeky and awkward, and not that good at basketball, but she liked him.

The Ellsworth JV team appeared, and Pilar and her friends booed. Several teachers cast reproving looks at them. Pilar and Debbie picked out a couple of boys on the opposing team, which on the whole was taller, bigger and better-looking than their own. “This isn’t going to be pretty,” Debbie said.

“I’m not staying,” Pilar said. “I’m just waiting for Joanie.”

The cheerleaders had left the court and did not return for the JV contest, which got started quickly and without fanfare. The visitors jumped out to a 10-2 lead in the first few minutes as a few of Joanie’s teammates, showered and dressed, re-entered the gym. By the end of the first quarter, it was 19-6. Pilar had seen enough. “I’m going to go find her,” she said, and stood. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“That Ellsworth center is kind of cute,” Debbie said.

“I dare you to ask him for his number,” Pilar said.

“I’m holding out for someone on the varsity,” Debbie replied. “Someone who’s old enough to drive.”

“You never know, he might have flunked a couple grades.”

Debbie thumbed her nose at her. Pilar laughed and stuck out her tongue as she left.

The locker rooms lay down a long corridor separated from the gym by a set of double doors and half a dozen concrete steps leading down to an older building to which the gym, constructed five years ago, had been attached. While the gym was thoroughly modern, the locker rooms were dark and dank, and in wet weather the walls sometimes wept. The corridor was windowless, lit by fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling, and had the feel of a dungeon. Pilar could hear the clanging of lockers and the sound of male voices from the boys’ locker rooms at the end of the hall, probably the varsity teams clowning around before their contest. She was just about to open the door to the girls’ locker room when it opened on its own, and Joanie came out, wearing her winter coat, followed by Paula Murchison.

“Hi, Pilar,” Paula said, and Pilar was surprised that the older girl knew her name, for seniors didn’t usually pay attention to freshmen. But the tall girl gave her a friendly smile that seemed genuine. Paula was popular without being stuck-up. She was friendly to everyone, without regard to class standing or social status, and in high school that was a rare thing.

The two girls were physical opposites. Paula was nearly six feet tall, with long legs and nearly nonexistent breasts and a thin face with high cheekbones. Joanie wasn’t short by any means, though Paula was taller, but she was much more solid, and rounder in both body and face. She wore her dark, straight hair in a longish pageboy cut with bangs. Pilar’s hair was already halfway down her back, and lighter and thicker than her sister’s. A casual observer would likely not have pegged them as siblings, though some of their facial features, particularly their eyes and jaw lines, were similar. But Pilar was much smaller. In the presence of these two female athletes she felt like a midget.

“Nice game, Paula,” Pilar said. “It’s fun to watch the two of you play together. You guys have a really good team this year.”

“Thanks,” Paula said. “Your sister gets better every game.” She smiled at Joanie, who looked at the floor. But Pilar could see that she was pleased by the compliment.

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” Pilar said. “I said I’d walk home with you. Unless you want to stay for the boys’ game. But I think they’re gonna get trounced. The JV’s getting killed right now.”

“No, I’m ready,” Joanie said, as the three of them walked back up the corridor toward the gym. “How about you, Paula? Are you going to stay?”

The tall girl looked at a wristwatch. “My mom’s picking me up at seven. So I guess I’ll stick around until she gets here.”

“I’m sorry she didn’t come,” Joanie ventured, and Pilar sensed that she wanted to say more. Her sister seemed shy in the older girl’s presence. Pilar knew Paula’s family lived in Penobscot, a smaller town a few miles away. She hadn’t attended elementary school in Blue Hill, and the Sprauling girls had not known her, though Gretchen had been a senior and Madison a junior the year Paula was a freshman. But Gretchen and Maddie had moved in different circles, and a lot had happened since then. They had moved from the big house on South Street to the small house across from the beer store, Paul had moved in and married their mother, and Jeremy, Gretchen, and Madison had left home. Joanie was the oldest now. It was like the last quarter of the basketball game when the substitutes came in, or the start of a new season after the previous year’s stars graduated.

“Oh, she’s seen me play lots of times,” Paula said, with an easy laugh. “She has to wait for my dad to get home from work. But they’ll be there for the tournament. Especially since we’re going to win.” She smiled at Joanie, and Pilar was surprised to see her sister’s eyes dart away, in embarrassment or shyness or both.

“Mom stayed ’til you came out,” Pilar said to Joanie.

“I know. I saw you talking to her.”

“Well, I’ll see you at practice tomorrow, then,” Paula said as they reached the double doors. “Good game.”

“Good game,” Joanie replied. Paula wandered off into the gym; Pilar glanced up at the scoreboard and saw that a minute remained in the first half and the JV boys were losing by twenty points. She pulled her hat and mittens from the pockets of her coat and put them on, and Joanie did the same, and they left the building.

Outside, the stars were out and the ground was covered with dirty, crunchy snow. They could see their breath. “It’s a shame that her mother doesn’t get to come to many games,” Joanie said. “Her dad works in Bucksport, and they only have one car. Do you know she’s got four sisters?”

“No, I didn’t know that,” Pilar said.

“The oldest one’s in eighth grade,” Joanie said. “The oldest one after Paula, I mean. She plays basketball, too.”

“Well, that’s kind of cool,” Pilar said. “Is she tall like Paula?”

“I don’t know. Paula said she’s pretty good, though. But Paula says nice things about everyone.”

“Paula’s nice,” Pilar agreed.

They were picking their way toward Main Street, down a sidewalk pockmarked with ice patches as they talked. The lights of the drug store at the corner were on. Though it was completely dark, it was still before six o’clock. “Let’s stop in for a hot fudge sundae,” Joanie suggested. “I’ll buy.”

“Joanie, Mom’s making dinner.”

“I know, but I’m hungry now,” Joanie said. “Besides, I want to talk to you about something.”

“I’ll split one with you,” Pilar offered.

“Okay.”

The drug store boasted an old-fashioned soda fountain behind a counter where people of all ages gathered during the day. Kids in town who came in for ice cream after school were frequently treated to cones by Arnie Andrews, the town drunk who campaigned every election for fire chief and could be counted on to show up to direct traffic and help out in every public emergency. A kindly soul who had fought in World War II, he subsisted by doing odd jobs around town and lived in a shack out on the Parker Point Road, halfway to the country club. Whatever he didn’t spend on booze he doled out in quarters to kids at the soda fountain. He was rumored to have had a wife once, but his only companion now was a mongrel dog he kept chained outside the house, who barked like mad every time some kid rode by on a bicycle. Arnie was in there now, at the far end of the counter, talking with a couple of old-timers and Peter Cousins, the store’s owner and pharmacist, who had been a friend of their father’s. Thirty years from now, this drug store would be a gift shop and art gallery, like most of the businesses on Main Street, but in 1980 Blue Hill was still a working-class town whose snootiness emerged only in tourist season. Joanie and Pilar considered themselves locals. They had been three and two when the family made the move from Philadelphia, and they did not remember living anywhere else.

Mr. Cousins greeted them by name as they took stools at the end of the counter closest to the door. He had slicked-back blond hair and a friendly face, and although he was the same age as their dead father, he looked younger. He took their order as Joanie counted out coins on the counter. Sure enough, Arnie Andrews caught their attention, and slid two quarters, one after the other, down the counter.

“Thank you,” Joanie said. He gave her a mock salute and a wink.

“How’d the game go?” Mr. Cousins asked, when her returned with a sundae and two spoons.

“We won,” Joanie said.

“By a lot,” Pilar added. “Joanie scored fifteen points.”

“Fourteen,” Joanie corrected her sister. “But it was a real team effort. I think we had three players in double figures.”

“Congratulations,” Cousins said. “What’s that, eight and one now?”

Joanie nodded through a mouthful of ice cream and syrup and nuts.

“We only lost to Sumner because Joanie wasn’t in the starting lineup then,” Pilar said. “But they’ve got to come down here and play us next week. I guarantee the result will be different.”

“Stop it, Pilar,” Joanie said. “You’ll jinx us, talking like that.”

“Nonsense,” Mr. Cousins said with a chuckle. “From what I’ve been hearing, you girls can play with anyone. It’s about talent and hard work, not jinxes. Say hello to your mother for me.” He moved off to rejoin his adult customers.

Pilar dipped a spoon into the sundae and took a small bite. “What did you want to talk to me about?” she asked her sister.

Joanie made sure the men weren’t listening, and turned so that her back was to them and she was facing Pilar. “Promise you won’t tell anyone?” she said softly.

“Sure,” Pilar said.

“Not Mom, not your friends, not anyone?”

“Joanie, you’re my sister. You can tell me anything.”

Joanie stirred her spoon in the sundae and fished out another gooey mouthful. Pilar waited for her to continue.

“You ever get a crush on someone?” she asked.

“Well sure. In fact, there’s this boy on the JV team I like a little bit, even though everyone else thinks he’s kind of a geek.”

“Brian,” Joanie said.

“How did you know?”

“I’ve seen you together a couple of times. And you’re right, he is kind of a geek. But if you like him…”

“It’s nothing serious, Joanie.”

“But you like him.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“I’ve got a crush, too,” Joanie said, after another long pause.

Pilar waited for her sister to continue. Instead, she took another spoonful of sundae and looked down at the counter. Pilar hadn’t ever known Joanie to have anything close to a boyfriend, though she had friends who were boys, but her size and body type didn’t mesh with the fantasies of most adolescent males. “Who is he?” she asked.

Joanie kept staring at the counter for several seconds. “That’s just it,” she said. She looked up and met her sister’s eyes. Pilar saw that her sister was near tears. “It’s not a he. It’s Paula.”

“Oh,” Pilar said. She didn’t know what, if anything, to add. “Oh, Joanie.”

“Do you think I’m perverted?” Joanie whispered.

Pilar put a hand over hers on the counter. “No,” she said. “Not at all. It’s perfectly normal.”

Joanie dabbed at her eyes with a napkin and managed a quick laugh. “I wouldn’t call it that, and neither would most of the kids in school,” she said. “It’s not my first girl crush, either. What I’m trying to tell you is, I think I might be, you know, queer.”

Pilar kept her hand where it was. “It’s all right,” she said softly.

“See why I didn’t want you to tell anyone?” Joanie scooped out more of the sundae, which was now three-quarters gone. Pilar had had two bites.

“Does Paula know?” Pilar asked.

“God, no,” Joanie said. “How could I tell her something like that? I’m nervous enough around her as it is. And I don’t even know if she…” Joanie wiped her eyes again, and Pilar wordlessly pushed her own napkin toward her. “Anyway, why would someone as nice as her be attracted to someone fat and dumpy like me?”

“You’re not fat and dumpy,” Pilar said.

“She doesn’t have a boyfriend,” Joanie said. “I mean, I’ve seen her with guys, but she doesn’t go with anyone, like most of the girls. She sat with me on the bus after our last away game, and we talked. Her family doesn’t have a lot of money. She wants to go to college, but the only way she can is if someone gives her a basketball scholarship.”

“So you’re friends. That’s a good thing.”

“We’re becoming friends,” Joanie said. “We share things. I told her about our dad dying when I was really young, and she took my hand and held it for a minute, and I went all tingly inside. That doesn’t happen with my other friends. I really like her, Pilar. I think about what it would be like to kiss her, to just hold each other. I think I’m attracted to girls. I know it’s wrong, but I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s not wrong,” Pilar said. “How can it be wrong to like someone?”

“But she’s beautiful, and she’s a girl,” Joanie said miserably, dipping her spoon into the sundae again. “Girls aren’t supposed to like girls that way.”

“There’s no ‘supposed to’ about it,” Pilar replied with some force. Then, more softly: “Joanie, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“You know what people will say.” She pushed the last bit of the sundae over to her sister. “Here, I’m being a pig with this.”

Pilar spooned up the last of the melting ice cream in the bottom of the glass. “I won’t say anything, and neither will the people who care about you. Maybe you should tell Paula how you feel about her, and see if she feels the same way.”

“I can’t do that,” Joanie said. “I mean, what if she’s, you know, normal? What if she’s grossed out? What if she tells her friends, and word gets around? I’d prefer not to spend my last two and half years of high school as the butt of a joke.”

“Joanie, it seems to me that if there’s one thing Paula is, it’s kind. Maybe growing up poor does that to you. If you’ve had a hard life, I think maybe that makes you more sympathetic to other people’s problems. But I don’t think there’s a mean bone in that girl’s body. Maybe she is, as you say, ‘normal.’ I don’t think she’ll be grossed out, and I don’t think she’ll make fun of you, or blab about you, or try to make you look bad. I think she likes you. Maybe not in the way you like her, but she likes you. Is that going to change if you tell her how you feel?”

“I don’t know,” Joanie said in a near-whisper. She covered her eyes with her hands and heaved a heavy sigh. “I don’t know why I can’t just be like other girls, and be all poised and wear nice dresses and swoon over boys. Why did I have to get a crush on a girl? And not just a girl, but a senior who’s smart and pretty and popular. What the fuck am I thinking?”

“I don’t think we have much control over who we become attracted to,” Pilar said. “Look at Jeremy and Bonnie. Everyone was pissed because she was married and so much older than him, but the bottom line is they loved each other, and that’s what mattered, more than anything. More than Mom’s fits, more than her husband threatening to kill him, more than their age difference. Do you think they chose to put themselves through all that? It’d be great if life worked out perfectly and people fell in love with the right people at the appropriate times. But that’s not the way it works, from what I can tell.”

Mr. Cousins came over and collected the empty glass and the spoons. The men at the other end of the counter were putting on their coats. “Time to close up, girls,” he said cheerfully. “Bundle up, it’s cold out there. Supposed to drop below zero tonight.”

“Thank you for the sundae,” Joanie said, as they put on their coats.

“Thank you for your business,” Mr. Cousins said, with a smile and a wink. “You make sure to get home safely now.”

Outside the store, the two older men walked separately to two parked cars, and Arnie Andrews stumbled off in the direction of Parker Point Road. Pilar supposed he would walk all the way home, a distance of more than a mile. Thankfully, their house was much closer, for the temperature was indeed dropping.

They walked down the sidewalk toward the other end of Main Street and home, and when the cars pulled off Joanie suddenly threw a large arm around her. “Thank you for listening,” she said. “You’re a good sister.”

Pilar returned the half-hug, engulfed in Joanie’s bulk. “So are you,” she said.

The girls’ basketball team won the class C Eastern Maine championship that year. Pilar, Annabelle and Everett drove up to Bangor for all three games, and even Paul attended the state championship game in Augusta, which they narrowly lost to a team from a town in the western mountains. It was the only state championship game in which Joanie would ever play – after Paula graduated and accepted a scholarship at a small school in Vermont, the team declined, though they made the tournament in Joanie’s senior year, but bowed out early. Paula’s younger sister Karen played on that team as a guard, but she did not have Paula’s level of talent.

Pilar never pressed her sister about her crush on her teammate, and true to her word, she never said anything to anyone, inside or outside the family.

Several years later, when she was living in Portland and working at an art gallery and trying to go to school part-time, she would receive a phone call from Joanie, who told her that she had introduced Annabelle and Paul to her new girlfriend, a co-worker at an Ellsworth landscaping business, and Annabelle had cried afterward and Paul had been avoiding her ever since. Everett, by then the only sibling still living in his mother’s house, had been completely cool about it, though, and even accepted an invitation to dinner with the two of them. The two sisters talked for a long time. Joanie said that she thought Gretchen knew, because Gretchen seemed to know everything, and she figured Madison would be fine with it, too. Joanie reminded Pilar of that long-ago conversation at the drug store soda fountain, and said that it had given her the courage to accept who she was.

As for Jeremy, who knew what he would think? No one had heard much from Jeremy since he’d upped and moved to California, a place none of them had ever been, because someone he had once loved and lost had contacted him again, and he had decided to follow his heart.

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