A Sprauling Family Saga

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(Part One) Chapter 1

When his phone rang just after dawn one morning in 2012, Jeremy looked at the caller ID and groaned. It was Gretchen, the oldest of his four younger sisters. Why did people on the east coast assume that Californians all got up early to check the New York Stock Exchange or the soccer scores from Europe? His mother still called him every time an earthquake anywhere in the state measured high enough on the Richter scale to make the Bangor Daily News, sometimes before he was even aware that the quake had occurred. He reached for his glasses. His books were still on their shelves, and his model of the Enterprise – not the original but the one from The Next Generation, which separated into two sections – sat motionless on its clear plastic pyramid. Jeremy had gotten good at estimating the strength of San Diego’s minor quakes by the wobble of the small metal starship. It took at least a 5.5 to topple it.

They talked to each other more than they used to, now that both were single, but Gretchen seldom called him just to chat. So what did she want?

“Mom’s in the hospital,” his sister said, after the briefest of formalities.

“For what?”

“She fell in the shower back in February,” Gretchen reported, her tone so matter-of-fact that Jeremy sensed from three thousand miles away that she had expected something like this to happen sooner or later. “At first she thought it was just a bruise. She kept waiting for it to get better, but it’s gotten worse.”

“How much worse?” Jeremy wanted to know.

“Well, it isn’t life-threatening, but she can barely walk, much less get up and down the stairs.”

“That’s a problem.” Their mother had insisted upon building vertically, for the view, with bedroom and bathroom upstairs, guest rooms in the basement, and the kitchen on the ground floor. Paul had gone along with this, as he went along with everything Annabelle suggested, and in any case he could not have built the house without the money she had brought to the marriage. In her forties and fifties and even sixties it had worked gloriously. She could sit upstairs with a cup of tea watching for his boat to come around Green Ledge on the way home; from her bed on late-summer mornings she could see Orion rising when Paul got up to go to work; she could watch the seals sunning themselves on the bar between two nearby islands from the shower, surely the most scenic shower in the world. But now she and the house were both deteriorating. Annabelle had always been small, but in her seventies she had become birdlike. She had broken an ankle two winters ago on ice in the driveway, and Paul had carried her meals upstairs to her for two months. Gretchen, only half in jest, had told him it was the most enjoyable winter their mother had passed in years. Paul had only grumbled a little.

“She’d love to see you,” Gretchen said. “And Paul could use some help getting the camp ready. Not that he’d ask for it, but he is getting on.”

“What month is it?” he mumbled.

“Excuse me, Jeremy, did you just ask me what month it is?”

He looked out the window at the cloudless sky. “Gretchen, I’m kidding,” he said. “But I’m in Southern California. The weather never changes. And I haven’t had my coffee yet.”

It had to be May, for his classes had ended the week before. He made his living mostly as a teacher now, adjuncting because he’d never gone back to get his doctorate as he had intended ever since the heady days of Voyager. It was, in fact, May 4, the anniversary of the Kent State shootings, and also International Star Wars day: “May the fourth be with you.” Jeremy detested the Star Wars franchise. At least Star Trek gave lip service to science, if mostly inaccurate.

May meant that he had no real schedule until August, though he had two articles due and tentatively planned to attend a conference in Colorado in June.

But May on the Maine Coast tempted him. He might enjoy getting out of San Diego for a while, away from the crowds, the traffic, the same circle of professional friends, the same conversations. He hadn’t had a date in months. Nor had he heard much from his grown daughter, up in the Bay Area with her boyfriend and her busy life. He didn’t want to find himself alone at home on sultry summer nights watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory. He had enough money in his checking account to get him through the summer and still pay the rent on his apartment. He was fifty-four and free, twice divorced, with a decent job and no debts. Not a rich man, but solvent, content with the daily rituals of his life, the fires of his interests warm enough to ward off the creeping chill of loneliness. He hadn’t spent time in Maine – real time, not counting holidays or a week or two in summer – since coming to California in 1982 sight unseen on a one-way plane ticket from Boston.

He took the phone into the kitchen and started coffee while Gretchen filled him in on their mother. “It turns out she had a hairline fracture of her pelvis,” she said. “Now the doctors think it’s infected. She’ll be off her feet for a good long while.”

“Where is she?”

“Ellsworth. There was talk of transferring her to Eastern Maine in Bangor, but Mom put her foot down. She didn’t want to be that far from home. Although I don’t know what difference it makes, since she obviously can’t go home any time soon. Less distance for Paul to drive, I guess. Blue Hill’s closer, but they don’t have the space or the specialists.”

“Gretchen, isn’t that the same hospital where Dad… worked?”

“The very one. But it’s twice the size it was when Dad was there.”

“Still large enough to serve and small enough to care, though.”

Gretchen laughed. “You remember. I’m impressed.”

“It was on Dad’s badge.”

“And it’s still on the badge of everyone who works there, right down to the janitors. Ah, Jeremy, I wish you’d come out. Everyone would love to see you. Mom especially. You always were her favorite, you know.”

Bonus of being first born, he thought. You get to star in the family photo albums. You get the good education denied your younger siblings when your father suddenly dies. You get special meals when you come home for vacations while your sisters and brother carp that they’ve been living on noodle casseroles and roast beef hash for months. You also get great expectations, coupled with willful indifference to what you actually do for a living. The price of lobsters or the remodeling of a basement generated more animated holiday conversation than the discovery of nitrogen geysers on Triton or Pluto-sized objects in the Kuiper Belt.

His last trip home had been three summers ago, following the dissolution of his second marriage. He had flown out for a week in July, enjoyed whirlwind visits with his sisters and brother, and spoken with Paul about fixing the old sailboat that lived under a tarp behind the garage. Annabelle had been after her husband to get rid of it, but Jeremy saw a project that could bring him to Maine each year and help him reconnect with his past.

Neither Paul nor Annabelle nor any of his siblings sailed, but Elliott Sprauling had owned a small sloop and taught his son the basics. Jeremy still loved sailboats. When the America’s Cup came to San Diego, he took time off and paid his way onto a spectator boat. He’d been out on the Pacific a handful of times in thirty years, but it was nothing like Maine – the boats seemed large and mechanized, and the sailing was boring: just a big expanse of bold, blue ocean with no islands to duck behind and no narrow passages to tack through. Paul had offered to keep the boat and even put in a mooring. Jeremy said he’d come back the next summer. But he had allowed three years to pass without following up.

He could wrap up his grades in a day or two, arrange for his friend Carl to check on his place periodically, and inform everybody else of his impending absence by e-mail. As for the conference, he could play it by ear. Maybe his mother would be better by then.

His thoughts turned to logistics: to fly, drive, or take the train? Flying was fastest and cheapest, when you added everything up. The train was enjoyable, but slow and indirect, and he didn’t want to drive across the country alone. He could rent a car in Maine. What would he do with his Audi? He liked his neighborhood, but a car sitting in a driveway for weeks on end was an invitation to vandalism and theft. Maybe Carl could park it at his place. The car was six years old and overdue for an oil change. In the last couple of years he’d grown lax about things like that.

Who could meet him? Who could he stay with? He inventoried his immediate family. Gretchen, only fifteen months his junior, divorced after a long marriage and three kids, still lived on the Blue Hill peninsula, twelve miles from their mother, and still served as the nexus of the loose network that kept everybody in the extended family in the loop. She had stepped in for him as the de facto oldest child when he defected to California. (His years away at boarding school had left her well rehearsed for the role.) If any members of the family were feuding or involved in anything embarrassing, terrifying or titillating, Gretchen heard about it and spread the word. She knew everybody on the peninsula, because she had never moved away, but Jeremy sensed that Maine at long last was making her restless. She had a son in Austin and a daughter in Boston, both with good jobs and guest bedrooms.

But her third kid anchored her to Maine. Calvin lived in a group home in Ellsworth with several other mentally challenged adults, his care jointly overseen by Gretchen and her ex-husband, who had left her for a younger woman when the other two kids went off to college. They still squabbled over who should pay for what. She had confided to Jeremy a year ago that she was looking up group homes in Texas and Massachusetts but she didn’t think Ted would let her take Calvin out of state. Something about social security disability benefits. But Jeremy had every confidence that his oldest sister was studying the problem and could, if she wanted to, find a way around it. He was sure she’d put him up if he asked, but he hesitated. Gretchen liked things organized, and the last thing he wanted was a schedule.

Jeremy liked to send cards and letters to his next-oldest sister, because he loved writing “Madison Murphy, Maple Mountain Road, Madison, Maine” on the envelope. Madison really did live in Madison, on some acres of land carved out of the woods that she shared with her third husband. Mike Murphy was often marginally employed, but they raised pigs and goats and chickens, grew and canned vegetables, and she kept the whole thing afloat with an above-the-table job at a store in town. Madison, a mill town on the Kennebec River surrounded by farmland and forest, was close to the center of Maine’s marijuana culture; there was a huge annual festival in the next town over, and Jeremy had heard through the family grapevine that Mike and Maddie made out well in the area’s underground economy. Madison had a grown daughter from her first marriage who had two daughters of her own, making Maddie a grandma and Jeremy feel old. It could happen to him any day.

She also had a son, by her second husband, a Canadian woodsman, who had apparently passed some hockey genes to the boy. When Graham was in his early teens, Madison moved so that he could star for a high school hockey powerhouse. He went on to an up-and-down career at the University of Maine. Now, at twenty-four, he was playing in a semi-pro league in Florida, hoping for a remote shot at the big time. Madison had been down to several of his games.

After popping out three babies during Eisenhower’s second term, Annabelle took the Kennedy years off. The family lived comfortably in suburban Philadelphia and spent a month every summer in Maine, where Elliott Sprauling’s parents owned a summer home on the water.

The third sister, Joan, was born nine months after the assassination. Jeremy, who had been praying hard for a brother, burst into tears at the news. Pilar doubled his disappointment a year later.

The two girls were different from the start. Joan, named for Joan Baez, Annabelle’s favorite singer, grew into her adolescent body as a chunky girl more inclined toward athletics than music. Annabelle still called her Joan, but she was Joanie to most of the people in her life, including her siblings and her partner, Carol, with whom she had lived for the past fifteen years on Mount Desert Island. Joanie liked physical work and the outdoors, and after stabs at several different careers she found steady work at Acadia National Park. Carol was a whale biologist at the nearby College of the Atlantic who volunteered one day for a trail project supervised by Joanie. They became friends and then lovers and then live-in lovers, and then partners in a series of side businesses that kept them busy and happy and flush. They contracted with an alpaca farm on the island and Carol turned the wool into sweaters, mittens and scarves while Joanie handled the books. Every autumn Joanie put up jar after jar of jam made from blueberries harvested on land owned by Carol’s relatives; it sold for five dollars a jar in the tourist shops. In what spare time they made for themselves, they kayaked and bicycled and cross-country skied and went out to dinner or down to Portland for weekends. They always sent out Christmas cards on time and gave the best holiday gifts.

Pilar was small and slight, like her mother, and grew her hair long. She floated, waiflike, through family gatherings and jobs and relationships and places to live. She was named for a college classmate of Annabelle’s who had died of a brain aneurism shortly before their tenth reunion, which Annabelle had attended. Though the two women hadn’t been all that close, Annabelle had insisted on the offbeat name, and the conservative Elliott Sprauling hadn’t objected. Pilar painted and sculpted and wrote short stories and poems, some of which had been published over the years in small magazines. There were whispers among family members of an unpublished novel she wouldn’t let anybody read, but privately Jeremy doubted it – his youngest sister was unlikely to commit to anything so time-consuming as a novel. Pilar had traveled: she’d been to Greece and Cuba, with different boyfriends, and in the 1990s she had even tried living in California for a few years. Jeremy had loaned her a shoulder to cry on during one particularly bad breakup and money whenever she needed it.

Pilar had managed to cobble together a college education, accumulating credits from several institutions along the paths of her wanderings. She finally convinced the University of Maine, which she had attended for one year after high school, to give her a degree in English in exchange for writing a senior thesis and accepting a low-paying job mentoring ill-prepared freshman. She kept that job for a year. Then it was off to some college in Vermont to pursue a master of fine arts in creative writing. There she met a man from Quebec, and she was now living across the border, in a small town with the incongruously English name of North Hatley, brushing up on her French and helping her lover write fiery letters on Quebec independence to Anglophone members of Canada’s parliament.

And then there was Everett, the brother Jeremy had long wished for and finally received, at the expense of losing his father. Seven years younger than Pilar and fourteen and a half years younger than Jeremy, Everett was Annabelle’s only Nixon baby, and the only Maine native among the six siblings, born five years after the family left Philadelphia and moved to Blue Hill year-round. Jeremy barely knew him.

Everett lived in Bangor, he recalled, not far from the airport. Thus it was Everett he called first after he made his decision. By the time he’d showered, dressed and eaten, it was nine o’clock, noon in Maine, and even amateur musicians were usually up by noon. Everett wasn’t always good at answering his phone or returning calls; Jeremy wanted to make sure that his brother’s phone hadn’t been disconnected and that he could, in fact, meet him and provide a place to sleep, at least for the first night.

He let it ring seven times, and was just about to hang up when Everett burst onto the line. “Jeremy! Dude! To what do I owe this belated honor?”

“Belated?” Jeremy supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised; everybody had caller ID now, even his financially challenged little brother.

“You missed my birthday, dude. Isn’t that what you’re calling about?”

“Happy birthday,” Jeremy said.

“Only took you three weeks, but thanks.”

“I’ve been kind of busy, Everett. I forgot.”

“The big four-oh, man. The whole town turned out. We partied all weekend.”

“Sounds like a good time was had by all. Wish I’d been there.”

“I’m lying,” Everett deadpanned. “A few friends took me out for a few beers. Maddie came by, and I got phone calls from Joanie and Gretchen and Mom.” A pause. “I suppose you’ve heard about Mom.”

“That’s why I’m calling, actually.”

“You bastard. I knew it wasn’t about my birthday.”

“I said happy birthday, Everett.” It was only just past noon out there, Jeremy thought; had he been into the weed already?

“What’s up?” Everett asked, still friendly, but cutting to the business at hand. Everyone in the family was somewhat brusque on the phone, but Everett had honed it to a fine point.

“I’m coming out,” Jeremy said.

“Really? Jeremy, Mom’s fine. She’s just laid up – she’s not dying.”

Not exactly welcoming, but Jeremy let it slide. “Yeah, well, Gretchen sort of asked me to,” he said. “And it’s been awhile. I’d like to see everybody. I miss you guys.”

“We’re all still here,” Everett said.

“How’s Bobby?”

“Billy,” Everett corrected him. “Jesus, Jeremy, I know you live in California, but at least get your nephew’s name right.”

“Sorry,” Jeremy said, and he was. He really should be better at keeping in touch. Billy was Everett’s son from a relationship that had ended two years after the kid was born. Everett never married the mother, and Jeremy gathered through his sisters that visitation was a loose arrangement contingent on whether or not Everett sent any money her way. Jeremy had met the boy only once, some five years ago, when Everett had pried him away for a holiday gathering. Billy must be eight or nine by now. He had his mother’s last name, which Jeremy likewise could not remember.

“He’s good,” Everett said. “Maybe someday I’ll send him out to California to visit his rich and famous uncle.”

“I’m neither rich nor famous,” Jeremy said. He was growing annoyed with Everett’s prickly manner. “Look, Everett, I’m coming out. I was hoping you could meet me at the airport and put me up for a night or two.”

“You’ll have to sleep on the couch,” Everett said.

“I don’t mind. I’ll probably stay at Gretchen’s or down at the point most of the time. I just need a place to land.”

“It’ a pretty comfortable couch,” Everett allowed.

A week later, Jeremy boarded an overnight flight from San Diego to Philadelphia, where he spent three hours in the city of his birth without leaving the secure passenger area of the airport. His connecting flight arrived in Bangor, Maine at quarter past ten. Jeremy looked around as he emerged into the tiny terminal. His little brother was nowhere to be seen.

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