A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 14

The Voyagers surveyed Saturn and its moons in 1980 and 1981. After that, the two spacecraft, like the Sprauling siblings, went their separate ways.

Voyager 1, which got there first, had in its sights the giant moon Titan, larger than Mercury and the only planetary satellite in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere. To get a close look at Titan, the craft had to be bent around Saturn and then follow a flyby course that took it out of the ecliptic plane, where the planets circle the sun. It continued away from the ecliptic toward interstellar space, visiting no more planets. The mission specialists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California curled Voyager 2 close to Saturn’s magnificent rings and set it on a course for Uranus and Neptune.

Joanie kissed Paula Murchison on the night of Paula’s graduation. It was an impromptu kiss at a sober graduation party, held at a doctor’s house out on Parker Point. The doctor had a son in the graduating class. Parents had begun hosting these parties since the year after Danny Allen’s death; not everybody went, but those who wanted to get drunk had to do it discreetly and in small numbers. The hosts provided food and punch and music and games, and everyone from the graduating class was invited. For some of the kids, it was the only time in their lives they had been inside one of the homes of Blue Hill’s upper crust. Joanie wondered if the doctor and her father had been friends. Certainly they had moved in the same circles. In her childhood she had been in many houses like this. For a time, she had lived in one. But she was a doctor’s daughter no longer.

In early May, Annabelle had dragged Joanie and Pilar and Everett to Jeremy’s college graduation in upstate New York. What a waste of time that had been. Jeremy had barely paid attention to them. Now he had some sort of a summer job near the campus, and he was living a in a college house with three other guys and apparently didn’t know what to do with himself. He had a girlfriend but acted indifferent to her, too. He was drinking a lot of beer and seemed, for someone who had just earned his degree and had the whole world laid out before him, strangely unhappy.

Gretchen, immersed in finals at the University of Maine, opted out of the trip, as did Madison, who had her hands full with a two-year-old. Joanie missed a week of school, which under normal circumstances she wouldn’t have minded, but Paula was graduating, and the weeks remaining were few. After high school people scattered, and not even the bonds of family could keep it from happening. What about the bonds of friendship, she wondered, or the even more complicated ties of love?

Paula had invited her to the party. A few other non-seniors were in attendance, mostly boyfriends or girlfriends or siblings of graduates. The doctor and his wife had four kids, including a junior and a freshman, and they had invited some of their friends. So it wasn’t a date, exactly. Ever since the end of basketball season, Joanie had wanted to tell Paula how she felt about her, and though the two girls had become friends, she hadn’t found the nerve. Now Paula was leaving in a week for a summer basketball camp, and Joanie feared she would never see her again.

The kiss happened on a screened-in back porch surrounded by tall trees, where Joanie and Paula sat on a porch swing by themselves as the party wound down. Most of the crowd was out front, either draped over the railing of the open wrap-around porch, or sitting on the wide front steps that led down to a well-kept lawn, which sloped toward the shore. The popular Paula had been surrounded by her classmates for most of the evening, leaving Joanie feeling like something of a wallflower. There was a lot of hugging and signing of yearbooks and promising to keep in touch, which Joanie, who had two years left, had little to do with. She had friends among the graduating class, but it was Paula’s pending absence she felt most keenly. Joanie had eaten a lot of pizza and snacks in between bits of conversation, and Paula had been good about circling back to her periodically to make sure she felt included. So sweet of her. Some boys from the basketball team had wanted Paula to leave with them, but she had borrowed her father’s car for the party and said that she had to drive Joanie home. Though she could have gotten a ride with any number of people, Joanie felt a surge of warmth at her friend’s loyalty. Paula would rather be with her than with a group of boys. That was good. It was more than good, actually. It made Joanie feel all warm inside. And it was why, when Paula began to talk about how much she would miss her family and friends and the safety of the life she’d always known on the Blue Hill peninsula, that Joanie finally found the courage to lean over and kiss her on the mouth.

Paula didn’t recoil. Her blue eyes looked into Joanie’s brown ones. “What was that for?” she whispered.

“I’m going to miss you, too, Paula,” Joanie said back just as softly. “More than you know.”

Paula touched the lips that Joanie had just kissed, as though confirming that the kiss had been real. “Joanie, I…”

“I absolutely adore you,” Joanie said, the words rushing out in a whispered torrent. “I have for a long time.”

“I… I don’t know what to say. I’ve never kissed a girl before.”

“Me either,” Joanie said, trying to breathe normally. “Did you like it?”

“A little, yeah.”

“Can I kiss you again?”


Their second kiss was as brief but not quite as tentative as the first one. Joanie kept her eyes open, and she saw that Paula did, too. They were wild and unreadable.

“I wish you weren’t going away,” Joanie said.

Paula started to cry. It wasn’t much, but water welled at the corner of one eye and streamed down the outside of her face. Joanie moved to kiss it away, but Paula stopped her.

“What’s wrong?” Joanie asked softly.

“We shouldn’t be doing this.”

Pain stabbed into Joanie. “What do you mean? You said you liked it.”

Paula wiped at her eyes. “I did,” she said. “And I like you. But Joanie, I have to go away. All my life I’ve been around my family, this town… You don’t know what it’s like. You’re not from here.”

“I was three when we moved,” Joanie protested. “I don’t remember living anywhere else. This is my home.”

“It’s not the same. You’ve always known there’s an anywhere else. I was born here, and my parents were born here, and their parents, too. It’s all I’ve ever known. I’m a pretty good basketball player, I guess, but I’ve only played against other girls from Maine. I don’t know if I’m smart enough for college. I don’t know if I like boys or girls. I don’t even know who I am. But I know that if I don’t get out of here while I’ve got the chance, I’ll never find out.”

Joanie felt the sting of her own tears. “You like boys?” she whispered.

“I don’t know, Joanie! You know I went to the prom with Nick Harrington, right?”

Joanie nodded but didn’t say anything.

“We went out to Collins Cove afterward,” Paula said. “We took off our shoes and walked on the beach. We… kissed. It was nice. But so was kissing you.”

Joanie had kissed boys before, and felt either repulsed or unmoved. “Did you do anything else?” she said.

“We sort of made out for awhile. He put his hand on my boobs. We didn’t take our clothes off or anything. And no, we didn’t have sex.” Paula paused, her hands in her lap next to Joanie on the swing. “I’m still a virgin.”

“Me, too,” Joanie said softly.

“Maybe I’ll meet somebody in college,” Paula said.

The words seared Joanie’s heart. “You’ve got someone right here, who loves you,” she said.

She leaned in to kiss her again, but Paula stopped her. “Joanie, no. We can’t.”

“Why can’t we?” Joanie whispered.

“It isn’t right. I don’t feel right about it.” She grasped Joanie’s hand in both of her own. “I love you, too. You’re my good friend. But I don’t think we should be more than that.”

The door to the back porch opened and a middle-aged woman appeared. Joanie and Paula jumped away from each other. If the woman noticed, she gave no indication. Joanie recognized Mrs. Mertz, the doctor’s wife. “There you two are,” she said. “I thought maybe you’d left. Some of the boys were asking about you.”

“We were just getting some fresh air, Mrs. Mertz,” Paula said quickly. “We were about to come back in and say our goodbyes. Thank you for the party. It was wonderful.”

“Yes, thank you,” Joanie managed, though her throat felt constricted to the size of a pencil lead.

“Well, you’re quite welcome. Everybody seems to have had a good time.”

“It’s a lovely house,” Paula said.

Mrs. Mertz beamed. “Isn’t it, though? Thank you for noticing.”

Paula drove Joanie home. It was only a few miles, and they said little. As she pulled into the driveway of the house across from the graveyard, Paula reached a hand out for Joanie’s. “We’ll see each other later in the summer,” she said. “I’ll be home for a little bit before school.”

“And then what?” Joanie said.

“Who knows? Life. Whatever course it takes.” Paula shut off the engine and the two young women looked at each other. “It’s what I have to do, Joanie. Otherwise I’ll end up working at some greasy spoon up on Route One and be old by the time I’m thirty.” She squeezed her hand and offered a small, sad smile.

Had she not thought someone might be looking out the window, she would have thrown herself across the front seat and kissed her friend’s mouth with all the passion she felt. Instead, she opened the car door and said, “Good luck at basketball camp. Show ’em what you’ve got.”

“I’ll call you,” Paula said.

Joanie slammed the door, waved to her friend, then watched her back out of the driveway and head back through town, toward her home. She watched until the taillights disappeared. She didn’t think she’d ever been so miserable in her life. So this is what it feels like to have your heart broken, she thought.

She stood in the driveway for a long time, looking up at the stars. She found the big and little dippers, and identified the summer triangle that Jeremy had pointed out to her years ago. She knew that Vega, the bright star nearly overhead, was 25 light-years away, and that it was one of the sun’s close neighbors in the galaxy. Jeremy had also told her that the Voyager spacecraft, which had made it to Saturn during her time in high school, would take tens of thousands of years to cover the distance to even the closest stars. The Earth was a lonely speck in a vast cosmos, he had told her, and tonight she knew what he meant.

Lights were on in the living room and in the bedrooms upstairs, but not in the back, where the older siblings stayed when they visited. That didn’t happen much any more. Jeremy was in upstate New York, and Gretchen had found a boyfriend at school and gone with him to southern Maine. Madison, of course, was the head of her own household, raising her daughter, and dating again, from what Joanie heard during their infrequent phone calls and even less frequent visits. The family’s falling apart, she thought, as she opened the door. Just like my life.

Paul Bremerton sat at the kitchen table, nursing a glass of whiskey over ice and watching a baseball game on the small TV at the end of the counter. Why wasn’t he in the living room, in a more comfortable chair in front of a bigger TV? Maybe Pilar and Everett were in there, watching something else. Or maybe he and Annabelle had had a disagreement, which happened often lately, and her mom had stormed upstairs, leaving him in the kitchen brooding. Joanie wasn’t in the mood to talk, and so she breezed through the room with only the barest of nods.

“Hey,” he called out.

“Hi,” she tossed over her shoulder.

“Hey!” he repeated, this time with feeling.

She turned.

“I’m not part of the furniture, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“All I do for you kids, you can at least have the courtesy to acknowledge my presence,” he said.

“I said hi, Paul.” She moved to go.

“Sit your ass down and talk to me,” he snarled.

“Paul, I’m tired,” she said. “And I don’t really like being talked to like that.”

He half-rose from the table, and she took an involuntary step backward. “You don’t like it?” he shouted. “Well, that’s too God-damned bad. You think I like being ignored in my own house?”

“I wasn’t ignoring you,” Joanie said, trying to sound as calm and reasonable as she could.

But calm and reasonable didn’t work with Paul when he’d been drinking. Joanie had already witnessed a few incidents between Paul and her mother. She guessed that Annabelle had retreated upstairs to avoid an argument she couldn’t win.

“The hell you weren’t!” he roared. “You come in like I’m not even here, to a house that I pay for, that I get up before the crack of dawn every morning to support, and you don’t give a second’s thought to who’s keeping a roof over your head. Not one of you kids has a dime’s worth of appreciation for what I do. Neither does your mother. And I’m getting pretty tired of it.”

Oh my God, this is the last thing I need tonight, Joanie thought. “Paul, if I didn’t say hi right away, it’s not because I was ignoring you. I’ve got something else on my mind, that’s all.”

“That’s all,” he mimicked cruelly. “What, some boy? Some little high school shit who wants to get into your pants? You gonna get knocked up like your sister? ’Cause don’t expect me to support you if you do.”

Tears welled up in Joanie’s eyes. Oh, Paul, she thought, you really don’t have a clue, do you? “I’m going upstairs now,” she said.

With surprising speed, he reached out and grabbed her wrist, and pulled her toward the table. “Sit the hell down and talk to your daddy,” he said.

She tried the jerk her arm away, but he held on. “Let go of me, Paul,” she cried. “You’re not my daddy.”

“That’s right,” he said, his tone flat. “Your daddy’s dead, isn’t he? And what did he ever do for you, anyway, except turn you all into a bunch of spoiled brats?” Abruptly, he let go of Joanie’s wrist. She stumbled backward into the wall.

“Joanie? What’s going on?” Pilar’s pixie frame appeared from the adjacent room. Her eyes quickly assessed the situation. Joanie cowered against the wall, rubbing the wrist Paul had grabbed. Paul glowered at them both.

“It’s nothing, Pilar,” Joanie said, her voice quavering. “Paul’s just being an asshole.”

“If your mother weren’t upstairs, I’d smack you across the room for saying that,” Paul said.

“If our mother wasn’t upstairs, you wouldn’t even be here,” Pilar retorted, her voice low, her eyes catlike. “And you know that’s true. Are you okay, Joanie?”

She nodded. Paul had never been physically violent with her, but for a moment she had been really scared.

“God damn ungrateful little bitches,” Paul muttered.

Pilar glared at him. “And you’re a mean, drunken bully,” she snapped back. “Suppose Joanie doesn’t want to talk to you? If I ever hear you threaten my sister like that again, or me or my mom or Everett, I’m calling the sheriff’s office.”

Joanie read retreat in Paul’s face. What Pilar lacked in size, she more than made up for in spirit. She wished she could stick up for herself like that. But perhaps Pilar’s smallness gave her an advantage. Even a bully would hesitate to hit someone who looked like a strong gust of wind could blow her away.

Paul sat back down heavily in his wooden kitchen chair. He reached for the bottle in the center of the table and splashed more whiskey over the ice in his glass. “Not one of you appreciates what I do around here,” he said to the tabletop.

“Oh, Paul, that isn’t true,” Pilar said. “You work hard, we all get that. You don’t have to remind us.”

“Seems I got to remind your mother.” He took a swig from the glass.

Pilar heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Mom appreciates you, too. She’s just… Well, you know how she is. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Come on, Joanie, I’m watching Late Night Movie Theater. They’re showing an old werewolf movie. It’s really bad.”

Everett was apparently in bed, and Annabelle was also upstairs, where four bedrooms surrounded the stairwell. The kitchen was separated from the living room by a dining room that the family seldom used.

“What’s wrong with him tonight?” Joanie asked her sister, when they were safely settled on the living room couch. On the television, a full moon rose over a castle and bare tree branches stirred in the wind.

“Oh, he and Mom got into it earlier,” Pilar said. “She keeps talking about wanting a bigger house, and he wants to live down on the point so he doesn’t have to drive half an hour to get to his boat, and then she said something like if he made more money they could afford to build a house down there, and that set him off. He called her a prissy-ass spoiled doctor’s wife. She yelled back at him, and stormed upstairs and shut the door. He drove off somewhere and came back, and he’s been sitting at that table talking to himself ever since.”

“It sounds like the same old argument,” Joanie said.

“Yeah, only it kept getting louder, and with more name-calling the more they drank,” Pilar sad.

“I remember her yelling at Dad a few times,” Joanie said. “But it seemed like he never yelled back. Paul gives it back to her.”

“They feed off each other,” Pilar said. “Everett and I were in here watching TV. We heard a glass break. I don’t know if one of them dropped it or if she threw it at him, but I went in to see what was wrong, and he was down on the floor cleaning it up.”

“She did that to Dad once, too.”


“Threw a glass at him. I don’t remember it; Gretchen told me. Missed his head by inches, she said.”

An actor in the black-and-white film on TV writhed on the floor of what looked like a dungeon, his face contorting as the transformation from human to werewolf took hold of him. Joanie snorted. “You’re right. This is really bad.”

“That’s Paul after a few drinks,” Pilar said.

Joanie laughed. Her younger sister could always cheer her up. She wanted to tell Pilar about kissing Paula and her sadness over saying goodbye to her friend. The confrontation with her stepfather had frightened her, it was true, but it had also momentarily distracted her from her loneliness. Now it came creeping back, like an encircling fog, and Pilar was the only person in the world who understood.

But she didn’t want to speak of these things with the rest of the family within earshot. So they watched as the werewolf escaped the dungeon and emerged into a moonlit landscape swept by ground fog. A small town lay in the distance, and the creature loped off in that direction.

“Somebody’s gonna get munched here pretty quickly,” Pilar said.

“You think?” Joanie replied.

“He who is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf,” Pilar said. “Maybe that’s what happened to Paul.”

The sisters laughed together, but Joanie sensed something dark beneath the joke. She would watch herself around Paul from now on. He was a werewolf and alcohol was his full moon. Sober, he could be considerate and kind. She had seen him trying to teach Everett how to tie knots, frustrated by Everett’s left-handedness but patiently demonstrating the loops and the imaginary rabbits going around imaginary trees, doing it backwards so Everett could follow, over and over again, never expressing the exasperation he must have felt. He had helped her with her math homework when her mother said she was too busy. He’d put in a garden, which Annabelle and the kids weeded and harvested, but it had been his initial work with the rototiller, over a series of Sundays – his one day off – that had caused food to spring from the ground where only grass had grown before. He had fixed Annabelle’s car many times, and he was handy around the house with things like leaking faucets and clogged drains. But put a few drinks in him, and that man disappeared. What replaced him was something not so different from the made-up beast on the television that was now approaching a house on the edge of the town. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

They heard him tromp upstairs a few minutes later. He did not look in on them to say good night, to Joanie’s relief. Let him stumble into bed and sleep it off. He would be nicer in the morning. He would probably have forgotten the whole scene he’d caused, or pretend he had forgotten. But Joanie would remember. She would never be so unguarded in her mother’s home again.

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