A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 21

“I do love a parade,” Annabelle said. “It’s the Midwesterner in me, I guess. All those football parades, on autumn weekends…”

“It’s spring, Ma,” Jeremy said. “And that’s another reason baseball is the better sport.”

“What is?”

“No parades. Not until someone wins the World Series. In football there’s a parade every game. All that halftime hoo-ha. It’s ridiculous.”

“Well, you’re wrong, but it’s still shitty to be in the hospital on Memorial Day. Remember those parades in Blue Hill, when we lived across from the graveyard?”

Jeremy suppressed his surprise at his mother’s use of the word “shitty,” and nodded. The parade ended with a ceremony and speeches in the cemetery by the sea, not far from his father’s grave. The family had been able to watch the whole thing from the front lawn of the house on the corner.

“And Brooklin’s parade is so cute,” she went on. “People make their own floats, and there’s a cookout afterward. We go every year.” She sighed, and looked toward the window.

“Penobscot doesn’t have a parade,” Gretchen said. “Nobody can get it together. The rednecks are too drunk and the old hippies are too stoned.”

Annabelle ignored this. “Does Belfast have a Memorial Day parade, Billy?”

The kid shrugged. “Yeah. But Bangor’s is better.”

“Oh, well. You’d expect a bigger parade in a bigger city,” Annabelle said, with a playful glance at Jeremy. “But what makes it better?”

“They throw candy out on the street,” Billy said. He took a yellow Starburst square from a pants pocket, unwrapped it, and popped it in his mouth.

“Right here, by the bed,” Annabelle said, nodding toward a small wastebasket with a plastic liner. Billy dutifully dropped the wrapper into it.

Annabelle began to regale the boy with tales of Memorial Day parades passed, and Jeremy thought it a good time to duck out for a pee before driving his nephew back to Belfast. Everett had begged off of the trip.

He stepped out into the corridor. He remembered the house across from the graveyard only from sporadic visits home from college and elsewhere. He hadn’t ever been there for a Memorial Day parade.

He tried to remember where the bathroom was. When he found it, he was dismayed to also find a janitor’s bucket propping the door partially open and a handmade sign that read “Closed for cleaning.”

“Now what?” he said aloud. He supposed he could use the adjacent women’s bathroom, but he would be embarrassed to be caught.

The janitor poked his head out. He was a small man about Jeremy’s age, dark hair mostly gone to gray, his trim beard the same shade as the close-cropped hair on his head. He wore plastic-rimmed glasses and a navy blue work shirt with the hospital’s logo and motto embroidered into it in yellow and red. “I’ll be through in about ten minutes,” he said. “There’s another one on the second floor. It’s directly underneath us. Take the elevator.”

Jeremy saw that the bathrooms were within sight of the elevator, diagonally across the hall. He had an idea to wait, but he really did have to go, and the janitor looked at him with something close to expectation. “Thank you,” he said, and moved off down the corridor. He pushed the button for the second floor, and saw that the janitor was still watching him. The elevator arrived, and Jeremy stepped inside.

But the door didn’t close right away, leaving Jeremy and the janitor staring at one another. He’d be damned if he’d avert his eyes first. The janitor kept looking at him through his thick glasses. Jeremy pressed the button again. Still the door remained open.

“What’s wrong with this thing?” Jeremy muttered, and pressed the button again. Still nothing.

“Oh, she sticks sometimes,” the janitor said. Jeremy couldn’t read the man’s expression, but he seemed to be in no hurry to get back to cleaning the men’s room.

Jeremy was about to ask whether he meant the button or the elevator itself, when the door abruptly closed and the elevator plunged downward. It stopped, and the light for the second floor came on, but the doors did not reopen. Instead, the elevator rose again, and when the door opened, Jeremy found himself looking into a dimly-lit hallway he’d visited once before.

“Can I help you?” said a female voice from behind him. Jeremy turned. But the hallway was empty.

“Hello,” he called out tentatively.

No answer.

Frowning, he walked slowly down the hall, looking into the small windows in the few doors he passed. He saw nothing and nobody. But he had heard the voice, as though she had been standing next to him. Moreover, he thought he recognized it.

Most of the doors were closed and dark, and though the rest of the hospital was thoroughly modern, the style of this section was old-fashioned. The office doors featured opaque windows of clouded glass, with names and titles inscribed in old English lettering. The effect was almost gothic.

Mercifully, though, he came to a door that was open, and saw that a light was on. He glanced at the letters on the door: Bernadette Steele, Chief Executive Officer. All spelled out.

But the outer office was empty. A large desk of dark, polished wood lay neatly arranged and unoccupied. Two overstuffed chairs stood by the window; the dark green curtains were drawn. “Hello?” he called out again.

A heavy oak door at the side of the room swung open, and behind it stood the red-haired CEO Jeremy had met once before. She wore blue jeans and a dress white shirt. He noted again her high cheekbones, her Mediterranean eyes, the fair freckled skin above her collarbone.

“Well, hello again,” she said to him. He recognized the voice he had heard in the hall. But if she had been in here, how could he have heard her? She looked at him, neither smiling nor frowning. “What brings you to our floor this time? Jeremy, wasn’t it? From California?”

He nodded, momentarily unable to speak. So she remembered him. “I was looking for the men’s room,” he said.

The pretty CEO laughed. “Oh, there isn’t one,” she said.

“There isn’t?” he managed.

“No. But I’m on my way to the cafeteria. I’ll show you where one is.” She favored him with a strange smile, lips closed, hinting at mischief. “We’re all women on this floor,” she said. “So we really don’t have any need for a men’s restroom. It’s been closed for years. Follow me.”

Though Jeremy found this strange – surely men must visit this floor from time to time – he said nothing as he allowed her to lead him out into the hall. Her heels clicked against the linoleum and echoed in the emptiness as he hustled to keep up. “Bernadette,” he said, and she turned to look at him over her shoulder.

“Yes?” She arched an eyebrow but continued down the hall.

“Nothing,” he said. “I was just trying to remember your name.”

“It’s on the door,” she said.

And he hadn’t had any trouble remembering. He just liked hearing the sound of it out loud.

They arrived at a door that opened onto a stairwell; she held it open for him.

“How come you take the stairs instead of the elevator?” he asked.

“I like the exercise. Besides, it’s often quicker, depending on whether somebody’s using the elevator. You might have noticed that it’s kind of slow.”

“I’ve noticed that it seems to have a mind of its own,” he said, as they passed the landing for the third floor and continued downward.

“Yes, it’s sometimes more of a hassle than it’s worth.”

Though he wanted to ask her about the ghost to which Everett’s girlfriend had alluded, he sensed that he might not get a straight answer, at least not here and now. Worse, she might think him some kind of weirdo. Who went into a hospital and started talking about supernatural phenomena, with the CEO, no less? Jeremy was no fool, and he had no intention of making a fool of himself in front of this attractive woman.

“And your staff?” he asked. “They have the day off again?”

She paused on the steps and looked back at him. “It’s Memorial Day.”

“Oh. Right. So it is.”

Dork, he admonished himself. But what was she doing here, on a holiday?

The concrete stairs were wide enough for them to descend together. “What do you do in California?” she asked him.

“I’m an astronomer.”

She turned to look at him again, arching an eyebrow. “Really?” That must be fascinating.”

“Sometimes it is,” he acknowledged. “I worked on the Voyager program. Now I mostly teach.”

“The Voyager program? Those were the probes that went to the outer planets, rights? There were two of them, as I recall.”

“That’s right. They both flew by Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 went on to Uranus and Neptune. That’s when I worked for them.”

“How exciting.”

“Yeah, it was pretty exciting, I guess. It seems like a long time ago now.”

“And they’re still out there, aren’t they? Still in contact with Earth?”

“They are,” he said, pleased that she was at least passingly familiar with the expedition. “They’re still sending back data, from the edge of interstellar space. It’s one of the most successful missions in the history of science.”

They reached the second floor and she opened the door to the hall. “I’d love to hear about it sometime,” she said, and was there something strange, a little too familiar, in the way she looked at him? “You know, I’ve never met an astronomer before.”

“Well, like I say, I’m mostly a teacher now,” he said, embarrassed but also flattered by the attention. “I imagine what you do is much more difficult.”

“But not as interesting. Here’s the bathroom.”

He hesitated, and she tilted her head.

He’d never have a better moment. “I’m taking my nephew back to Belfast, but I’d love to have a cup of coffee sometime,” he said.

She smiled. “I’d like that.”

They stood there at the door to the men’s room for a moment, smiling awkwardly at each other. Jeremy had almost forgotten that he had to piss.

She reached into a pocket. “Here’s my card. The number on the bottom right rings straight through to my office.”

He glanced at the plain white business card with embossed blue lettering, the hospital’s logo at the top with the motto underneath it. He wondered if his father had had a card like this. It occurred to him that she might not know who he was. He hadn’t told her his last name, nor had she inquired about his mother and the reason for her hospitalization. Surely she was the same Bernadette that Corinne had mentioned over dinner on that strange night at the bar in Bangor. She appeared to be the right age. How many women named Bernadette could there be at the same small Maine hospital? And she wanted to have coffee with him.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do that.”

“Good.” She flashed him another smile and then turned quickly away, her hair swishing over one shoulder. He watched her back for a moment, until his bladder reminded him that he really did have to go. She did not turn back before he pushed the door open and slipped inside.

When he finished, he washed his hands and returned to the hall. He could just see the glass doors of the cafeteria and the sign out front – somewhere beyond those doors an attractive older woman with high cheekbones and light red hair sat having coffee alone. He had come back to Maine to reconnect with his family. But how strong were those blood connections, if the first pretty woman who came along could pull him away from them? He headed down the hall in the other direction, toward the elevator.

It took him directly to the third floor. The janitor was gone, the men’s room open for business. Annabelle and Billy and Gretchen were right where he had left them, Billy still sitting on the side of the bed, listening to his grandmother. “What are you smiling about?” Annabelle asked as he re-entered her room. “You look like the cat who swallowed the canary.”

“Nothing,” he said. “So when are they letting you out? You’ll be home for the Fourth of July parade, at least.”

“By God, I’d better be,” his mother said. “As soon as I can do the steps between the second floor and here, they’ll let me go home. So far I’ve managed four. But they’re convinced I can do the whole thing by Friday. If I can, they’ll let me go.”

“How many step are there? Gretchen asked.

“Seven steps to the landing, which is halfway up, so fourteen steps in all. I had to call Paul and ask how many steps at home. He didn’t know, either. He had to count them.”

When she didn’t say anything further, Jeremy said, “And? How many?”

“Eleven from the living room to the upstairs, ten down to the basement.”

“So,” Gretchen said brightly, “you’re almost halfway there.”

Annabelle smiled. “Thanks for the encouragement, sweetheart, but Jeremy was always better at math than you.”

Jeremy watched Gretchen’s face for a reaction, but his sister showed no outward sign of perturbation. A thought occurred to him suddenly. “So what do they do?” he asked. “Take you down to the second floor in the elevator, and then see if you can walk back up?”

“They take me down in a wheelchair,” Annabelle said. “They try to find a time when it’s not too busy. Then two therapists wheel me down, they stand me up, and they see how many steps I can do. They’re right at my sides the whole time. Usually I end up doing three or four steps, and then they lift me back down into the chair, and bring me back.”

“In the elevator,” Jeremy said.

“The service elevator,” Annabelle said. “Not the public one.”


Gretchen flashed him a curious glance, but Annabelle’s face had gone pale. “I don’t trust that elevator,” she said. “I don’t think it’s safe. Somebody cut corners in construction. Somebody slipped somebody something. Some day something’s going to snap, and somebody’s going to get killed.”

“What makes you think that, Mom? Gretchen asked.

“Haven’t you felt the way that thing shakes when it starts moving? Like it’s hanging by a thread.”

“I’m sure they inspect it every year,” Gretchen said.

Yes, Jeremy thought, but do they inspect it for ghosts?

He hadn’t felt any of the shaking that his mother described, but her theory was no more preposterous than the one Corinne had put forth on the night that he met Stella Weaver. And how long had it been, he wondered, since Annabelle had been in that elevator?

Jeremy had seen Stella that morning, from a distance, at the Bangor parade. She had been standing across the street as the floats rolled by, in front of the bar in which he’d first heard her sing, and he had caught her eye for a moment, and she had smiled at him. He picked out the head of dark hair, higher than most of the heads around her; he recognized the profile: the bubble chin, the slim aristocratic nose, the full and slightly amused mouth from which glorious sounds emanated… She stood next to a stocky guy an inch or two shorter, and Jeremy saw that the dude was balding on top and she could look right down into the clearing. But Stella had recognized him, and though it was only a small wave at a parade, there and gone in a moment, he had carried it with him all the way to Ellsworth.

He’d taken the kid to the parade that morning, without Everett, who said he’d seen so many parades in Bangor it wasn’t worth the trouble walking into town. And he didn’t want to go back to Belfast and face Jasmine again. So Jeremy, who’d never had a son, got to spend some quality time with his nephew.

He and Everett had taken Billy fishing, or tried to. They had started at K-Mart, where Jeremy had sprung for a couple of cheap rods and reels, and they spent most of the day driving around to various bodies of water within a 20-mile radius of Bangor. (The two brothers had not obtained fishing licenses. Everett said that if they ran into a warden Jeremy could show them his California driver’s license and plead From Away ignorance. But they had no encounters with the law.) Billy had to show them how to properly bait a hook, and none of them caught anything – zilch, nada. To compensate, Everett bought salmon steaks and cooked them on the grill, and everything was okay and Billy was starting to forget about his disappointment at not having caught a fish when Gretchen had called and asked what the plans were.

Jeremy had flung the fishing rods into the back seat of the rental car for the ride to Ellsworth and Belfast. “Maybe we’ll pass a good spot on the way,” he’d said, as they were leaving. “You see one, you let me know, and I’ll stop.”

Before Billy got into the car, Everett had handed him a small package. “It’s a G-harp,” he said. “You can play any country song in the world with this.” Billy had taken the small harmonica out of its package and turned it over slowly in his hands, finally remembering to thank his father. “Just don’t drive your mother crazy,” he said, with a wink at Jeremy.

Billy had blown into it a few times on the way down, but finally shrugged and said, “I can’t play this,” and put it away.

“Maybe your Dad will teach you,” Jeremy had said.

He had been in Maine for less than three weeks, and yet it seemed familiar as a glove. Aside from the time he had spent with Paul at the point, he had stayed in his brother Everett’s apartment. Though he had never lived in Bangor in his life – in his youth it had been a place to go Christmas shopping and to the orthodontist – he had grown comfortable there. It felt like he had been back for months.

Yet Maine seemed a different place to each of his siblings. To Everett it was Bangor and its music, young women to schmooze and sing to in bars, an apartment with a view and within walking distance of downtown. To Gretchen it was the peninsula and the extension of her youth into Subarus and organic farming and newspapers and community radio. To Madison it was the freedom of the back country and living athwart the boundaries of the law. To Joanie it was progressive politics in general, gay and lesbian rights in particular, and an environment that allowed the optimism behind those causes to bloom and bear fruit. As for Pilar, Jeremy sensed that her relationship with Maine was like his, distant and ambivalent.

“We were just trying to figure out a good date for the polka dot party,” Annabelle said, bringing his attention back into the room. “Jeremy do you have any ideas?”

“Ma, don’t you want to wait and see if you can walk first?”

“I’m going home on Saturday,” Annabelle said, holding her small chin high, her voice defiant, as though someone might be listening in from afar and must not mistake her meaning. “I’m going to climb those stairs, and then I’m going to home, and then we are going to have a party.”

“The matriarch has spoken.” Jeremy bowed, and Gretchen laughed softly. Billy looked out the window.

“Well, why not?” Annabelle said. “After five weeks in this place, don’t you think I deserve a party? And you’re all here, for however long that lasts.” She looked pointedly at Jeremy.

“We were thinking the weekend of the twenty-third,” Gretchen said. “Right after the solstice. I’ll have to find out if Everett has a gig, but Joanie can get any day off if she knows far enough ahead of time. I haven’t talked to Maddie and Pilar, but I’m pretty sure they’re flexible.”

“The camp’s not rented ’til the following weekend,” Annabelle said. “You all could have the run of the place, stay over if you want. We could set up the croquet set on the lawn. Maybe rent some kayaks from the place up the road, if people want to get out on the water. It’ll be fun.”

“Is that weekend good for you, Jeremy?” Gretchen asked him.

“Any time is good for me,” Jeremy said. “I have no schedule. I don’t know anybody in Maine any more, outside the family.” His mind flashed to the strawberry haired CEO in the cafeteria, with whom he had made tentative plans to have coffee, and he wondered if that would change the longer he stayed here. He had made no plans to return to California, and though he would have to double-check the dates of the conference in Colorado, he had been mentally preparing to write it off since shortly after his arrival.

Again he was struck by his family’s lack of curiosity about his life. No one had asked him when he was going home. He’d exchanged e-mails with Carl and checked on his Facebook account, but otherwise he hadn’t been in touch with anybody back in San Diego. He had his fall schedule of classes, but aside from that, would anyone care when, or even if, he went back? Yet what did Maine have to offer him, aside from memories and family ties? What would happen once Annabelle got better? Would his next trip East be to attend her funeral?

Jeremy was used to estimating travel times in California. But there was no freeway or Interstate or divided highway back to Belfast, only Route One and the first of the summer RV crowd, and Billy wanted to stop at the end of Toddy Pond and try his luck one more time with his rod and reel, and after twenty unsuccessful minutes and a stop for a snack, Jeremy was more than an hour late getting the kid back to his mom. But being with Billy felt good; he and the kid got along. He wondered what it would have been like to have a son.

Jasmine was cordial when he apologized for his lateness. “I didn’t expect anything else,” she said. “I just assumed it ran in the family.”

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