A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 24

The phone call both surprised and pleased her, for Bernadette had not really expected the attractive astronomer to follow through. “It’s Jeremy,” he said. “From California? You showed me the way to the men’s room?” He inflected the statements like questions, unsure of himself.

“I was happy to help a man in need,” she said.

“Actually I was wondering if your invitation to coffee is still open.”

She glanced at the digital clock on her desk. She had a meeting in an hour with a burned-out surgeon from Phoenix who wanted to move to Maine, the kind of interview she’d done a hundred times or more. She could squeeze in a cup of coffee.

“Are you here at the hospital now?” she asked him.

“Well, no, but I’m coming into Ellsworth later.”

“Oh.”

He plunged on. “Actually, I was hoping I could take you out to hear my brother perform. He’s in a band, and they’re playing in Ellsworth tonight. Maybe we could have dinner before. What time do you get out of work?”

“Any time I want, Jeremy. I’m the boss, remember?”

His nervous laugh delighted her. “Is six-thirty okay? My brother’s gig doesn’t start till eight. Maybe you could recommend a decent restaurant. My treat.”

She thought for a few seconds, and then gave him the name of a moderately priced place on Main Street not likely to be frequented by hospital staff. They could meet there, she suggested. He said that would be fine, and hung up.

In the two years since her husband’s death, she had gone out on only a handful of dates. She had ruled out anyone who worked at the hospital, and she did not meet many available men in her age bracket. But something about this guy intrigued her. He seemed familiar and foreign at the same time, in a way she could not name but attributed to his west coast mannerisms: the cadence of his speech, the direct way in which he phrased things, the lack of preliminary small talk. She had never seen him before, but she couldn’t shake the sense that she should know him somehow.

She arrived at the restaurant at six thirty-five, and found Jeremy sitting in a booth halfway down the wall opposite the bar. He stood when he saw her. They shook hands briefly and she apologized for being late. “That’s okay, I just got here myself,” he said, and she slid into the opposite seat.

He was nursing a beer; a waiter materialized beside the booth and she ordered a glass of white wine.

He asked her how long she’d worked at the hospital and she told him. She inquired about his mother and he told her she was fine.

“So when did you decide to become an astronomer?”

“On the day I was born,” he said.

She laughed. “I’ve heard of precocious children,” she said, “but that’s ridiculous.”

“I was born on the day the Russians launched Sputnik,” he said.

It was a clever way of telling her his age. So he was still on the good side of sixty. And he was handsome – not a broken-down wreck like many men his age who had lived in Maine their whole lives. She thought herself fairly well-preserved, though she had become skilled at applying makeup around the corners of her eyes and mouth to camouflage the creases.

“There must have been thousands of babies born that day,” she said. “They didn’t all become astronomers.”

“No, but I bet I’m not the only one.”

The waiter returned with her wine. “Cheers,” she said.

“To new friends,” he said. They clinked glasses and sipped.

“So when did you decide, really?”

“Truthfully, I don’t remember. I can’t remember not being interested in the stars and planets. When I found out how big the universe was, and that we live on one little planet orbiting one ordinary star in an immense galaxy among billions of other galaxies, well, it just blew my mind. Plus we were sending people into space, going to the moon, launching probes to the planets. It was an exciting time.”

“Do you think we’ll ever make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization?”

“Assuming one exists, you mean? Assuming we’re not alone in the universe?”

“Well, I’m an optimist.”

The waiter returned to take their order. She decided on a tuna melt with a side salad; he went with the fish and chips. When the waiter left, they resumed their conversation.

“I just don’t see how,” she said, “given, as you say, the size of the Universe, that we could possibly be alone in it.”

“Well, even if we aren’t, we’re all still up against the speed of light and the spaces between the stars. Unless the aliens live in a nearby part of the galaxy, we’ll never make contact with them.”

“But we’ve only just begun to look.”

“True,” he said. “It’s way too soon to give up. And I’m an optimist, too. I still watch Star Trek.”

She stifled laughter. “I had the biggest crush on William Shatner,” she told him. “I still do. He may be eighty years old, but I still think he’s hot. Bad toupee and all.” She stopped, realizing that she was revealing more than she wanted to.

“I liked Yeoman Rand myself,” he said.

“Which one was she?”

“The blonde with the beehive hairdo.”

“The one who was always trying to get the captain to look at her legs.”

“Captain – look at my legs.”

They talked Star Trek until their food came. He made her laugh by quoting lines from the show in the voices of several characters.

During dinner, the conversation wandered, and she told Jeremy about her childhood in northern Maine, hunting deer with her father, watching the log drives on the rivers. She spoke of how women with career ambitions in those days had been steered into nursing or teaching. She heard herself say that she had gone into nursing not because of any great interest in medicine, but because she had needed a job, and that nonetheless she had grown to love it.

“So tell me about your job now,” he said. “How long have you been running the place?”

She laughed and turned partially away from him, her face warm. “I’ve been CEO officially for the past four years,” she said. “But between you and me, I’ve been running the place longer than that.”

“So you know where all the bodies are buried.”

A strange bit of banter, but she let it go. “I’ve worked at that hospital for a long time,” she said.

“You’re not married.” A quick glance down at her hands, then up again.

She shook her head. “Widowed. Two years ago.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. He was a much older man. We had a good life together.”

“Kids?”

She shook her head again. “I was never able to conceive. Barren, as the old New Englanders used to say.” She looked into her lap, and cleared her throat.

“I’m sorry if I’m asking too many personal questions,” he said.

“No, no, it’s all right. They’re legitimate questions. I don’t mind.” And she didn’t, not really. He had a gentle way about him, vaguely familiar, hesitant and yet confident at the same time. “Truth is, I’ve kept so busy in my work all my life I don’t know when I would have had the time to raise kids.” She looked up at him. “But how about you?” she asked. “Family out in California?”

“Two ex-wives and a daughter,” he told her. “Daughter’s twenty-five, has her own life. The exes don’t speak to me much.”

“How long have you been single?”

“About the same as you. Two years.”

He looked frankly into her eyes and she tried hard not to look away. His eyes were dark brown and gave away nothing. But a sense of recognition overwhelmed her. She had seen that look before, but where? When? In what forgotten face?

The waiter delivered the check; Jeremy broke their gaze and awkwardly scooped it up. She reached for her purse but he held up his hand. “I asked you,” he said. “Besides, once you hear my brother sing, you might be glad you at least got a free dinner out of the evening.”

“Oh, come on. He can’t be that bad.”

Jeremy laughed. “I’m kidding. He’s pretty good, actually. He gets paid to play music, which is no small thing.”

“What kind of music does he play?”

“A little of this, a little of that. Classic rock, mostly. Eighties and nineties stuff, too. He’s actually subbing for a regular member of the band, so I don’t know what all they play. He knows a lot of Dylan. Do you like Bob Dylan?”

“How can you not Bob Dylan?” she replied. “I don’t know his music as well as I should, but what a career he’s had. What a mark he’s left.”

“I knew you were a woman of taste,” he said. She noticed that he had dimples when he smiled. “Shall we take my car? It’s a rental. Completely devoid of clutter or personality.”

“Jeremy, it’s barely three blocks. We might as well walk.”

“Oh, okay. I don’t know my way around that well any more, obviously. It’s been a long time.”

A long time since what? His youth, she guessed, presumably spent on this coast. Hence his presence here, his presence at the hospital. To visit his mother.

It would be easy to check the patient register and see how many women of the right age were currently guests at the hospital. As CEO she did not routinely keep track of the comings and goings of individual patients. But she could find out who his mother was. Or she could ask him. He had to be connected to someone she knew. Moved away, long ago, now returning to the side of an aging parent.

But he was standing, and waiting for her to stand, ready for the next event on their schedule, and she was having a decent enough time not to spoil it with probing questions. Sooner or later, it would come to her.

The band was in mid-set when they arrived, with an earnest young male singer belting out what Bernadette recognized as a Tracy Chapman song. She tried to guess which of the quartet was Jeremy’s brother – maybe the tall guitar player over on the side? She had not been out much in the past two years, but Ellsworth had few watering holes, and this one hadn’t changed since the last time she’d been in: same Red Sox décor, same low ceiling, same baby blue ceramic mugs hanging behind the bar for the regulars, same small stage well away from the bar, same lousy acoustics. The place was about half full, the patrons divided between stools at the long bar and a handful of tables between bar and stage.

The guitar player shook aside shaggy salt and pepper hair and grinned at them. Jeremy raised a palm in recognition, and Bernadette stopped breathing for a moment. She looked at the guitar player for a resemblance to the man beside her. She supposed it was there, in the hairline and maybe something in the eyes, but she would not have readily identified the two as brothers.

A woman waved from a table down near the stage, one woman among three, and here was Jeremy waving back, saying “Aha,” and leading her toward them. The band launched into a new song. Two empty chairs appeared at the table. The woman who had waved stood up and shook Bernadette’s hand and shouted something she couldn’t make it out over the music. But Bernadette knew they had met before. She smiled, and nodded to the other two women at the table, one large and one small, the large one in jeans and the small one in a dress. Jeremy greeted each of them with a hug before he sat down beside her.

“Can I get you a drink?” he said into her ear.

“A light beer,” she shouted back. “Any kind. It doesn’t matter.”

The young woman serving drinks had already seen them, and a moment later she was at Jeremy’s elbow. She had long dark hair and a gaunt face with too much eye makeup. Bernadette noticed that Jeremy was the only man at the table, among, at the moment, five females.

She felt momentarily dizzy. She heard Jeremy say “Thank you,” to the returning barmaid and registered the glass of beer he pushed in front of her. The song crashed to a close and she found herself applauding.

And now Jeremy was making introductions: “…my sister Gretchen, and this is my sister Joanie, and Carol, her partner – still teaching at COA?” The small woman nodded, and Bernadette heard herself dropping the name of an acquaintance Carol recognized. Then Jeremy said, “This is Bernadette Steele; she runs the hospital that’s been taking care of Ma.”

They exchanged hellos all around. Beers arrived. Bernadette took a large gulp of hers. Between songs she tried to make small talk with the other women at the table. The chunky one, Joanie, was Jeremy’s younger sister, and the partner of the smaller, better-dressed Carol. When Joanie and Carol discovered that she lived on Mount Desert Island, they began asking her about her house: its age, its design, its history. Jeremy jumped in to ask Carol about a scene involving whales in one of the Star Trek movies, and Bernadette flashed him a look of thanks for the rescue. She sat back to watch the band.

The goofy-grinned guitarist sang backup on a few songs, but no leads, as the band wrapped a set with a Paul McCartney and Wings song. They announced a short break, and the guitar player approached their table.

“Hey, everyone,” he said, looking around the table. “Joanie, Carol…”

“Hey, Everett,” Joanie chirped. “Corinne couldn’t make it?”

“No, no, she had to work. Besides, she’s seen me play a zillion times. Hey, Gretchen. It’s cool you all came. Jeremy.” The guitarist put a hand on the shoulder of his shorter brother and flashed a smile at Bernadette. “Now it’s your turn to introduce me to a beautiful woman.”

“God, he’s slick, isn’t he?” Gretchen said to Joanie, who nodded. Bernadette hoped her face wasn’t red.

“Bernadette, this is my brother Everett,” Jeremy said.

He extended a hand. “Very pleased that you could come,” he said.

“You sound good up there.”

“Thanks.” He turned to Jeremy. “We’re gonna start the next set with ‘Hotel California.’ I talked ’em into letting me do it, just for you. I gotta go get a beer.”

She allowed herself to get drawn into a conversation about alpacas with Joanie and Carol, but when Everett returned, the same feeling of familiarity washed over her. And now as he talked to Jeremy, she could see the family resemblance. She should have noticed it sooner, but the difference in height had fooled her. Everett sat on Jeremy’s other side, and the noise in the bar prevented her from hearing what the two brothers had to say to each other, but suddenly Everett looked directly at her and said, “Say, are you the same Bernadette who’s worked at that hospital like, forever?”

Taken aback, she said the first thing that came to her. “What?”

“Bernadette. That’s your name, right?

“Yes.”

“And you’re a nurse.”

“Well, I was. I’m the CEO now.”

The other musicians were re-assembling on stage. “I’d like to talk to you later,” he said. “My girlfriend’s told me some funny things about that hospital, and she said you’d be the person to talk to.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bernadette declared.

“Stick around,” he said, standing up. “I’d like to talk.”

She watched as he loped onto the stage and strapped on his guitar. He said something to the bass player, and strummed a chord.

Bernadette saw that Gretchen was looking at her. And then Gretchen said, “I know who you are. We’ve met before, I think. A long time ago, when I was working for the American.”

On stage, Everett grinned at the audience and announced: “This one’s for my big brother Jeremy, who’s been in exile on the west coast for thirty years. He figures all the ghosts are gone by now, but you know, he could be wrong.” He flashed the grin. “It’s also for the lovely lady accompanying him tonight, who might know a little bit about ghosts herself.”

He strummed another chord, and another, and the lead guitarist played a few familiar notes, and that was all it took for half the people in the place to recognize the song. And then the drum kicked in and Everett began singing about a dark desert highway and cool wind and a light in the distance, and Bernadette knew she had wandered into dangerous territory.

“You took care of our father didn’t you?” Gretchen said.

The singer delivered the lyrics in a clipped, half-spoken style, emphasizing certain words – “my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim” – and swallowing others. She imagined that he smiled at his older brother when he sang the line about heaven and hell, but he seemed for all the world to be grinning at her, as though he had known all along something she had just figured out.

“Jeremy.” She touched his upper arm. He had been saying something to the woman from COA, but he turned to look at her.

“What’s your brother’s name?” she asked.

“Everett,” he said.

“No.” She shook her head, knowing the answer before she asked, compelled to ask nonetheless. “What’s his last name? What’s your last name?”

He hesitated for only the briefest moment. “Sprauling.”

The older brother. The one who had been away at school. It all made sense now. She had been a fool not to realize it sooner. He had his father’s good manners and smarts, but Everett had inherited the height and the grin. On stage, oblivious to what was going on at the table a few feet away, he sang about pretty boys and summer sweat and 1969. He had not yet been born in 1969; Bernadette knew this. That was the year she started working at the hospital, fresh out of high school and a two-year nursing program. The year she had met their father.

She hoped her mouth had not been open as she looked from one face to another around the table. “You’re… Dr. Sprauling’s kids,” she said, to all of them at once.

“Well, three of us are,” Gretchen said. “Me, Joanie, and Jeremy.” She nodded at the stage. “Plus Everett up there, though he wasn’t born until after our father died.”

“Yes, I remember,” she murmured.

“We have two more sisters,” Joanie said.

“Yes, I know.”

“Are you all right?” It was Jeremy, leaning in at her elbow.

Damn, this guitar solo went on forever. She had hated this song during its radio heyday, and still changed the station when it came on. Now it was making her nauseous.

“I think I need to get some air,” she said. “Will you excuse me?”

She stumbled to her feet. Her eyes found the exit and she moved her feet in that direction, feeling like she might throw up at any moment, staring at the tiny window in the door as one might fix on the horizon when seasick in a boat. Pushing past a group of baseball fans standing around the end of the bar to watch a silent game on TV, she felt the door against her hands. But another pair of hands pushed it open before she could.

“Bernadette, wait,” Jeremy said. “Stop. What’s the matter?”

Outside in the gathering darkness, in a small grassy area between pub and parking lot, she turned to face him. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

He held his hands out to his sides. “You never asked,” he said. “And I didn’t know who you were, either. I didn’t know you knew my father.”

“I worked with your father, Jeremy, when I was very young. It was tragic, what happened to him. Worse for you and your sisters, of course, but it was a huge loss for the hospital, too, and the whole community. We all cried. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.”

“It was a long time ago,” he said, his voice flat.

She took a deep breath and a step away from him. “I’m sorry, Jeremy, I can’t do this,” she said. “You’re nice, but I’m just not… feeling well all of a sudden. I think I’d better go. Please give my apologies to your sisters.” She stuck a hand into her purse, feeling for her keys.

“Bernadette…”

He stepped toward her, but she held up her hand. “Please, Jeremy. I have to go. I can’t… I have to process this.”

“Process what?” he said. “Look, take a couple minutes. Maybe it was something you ate. Want to walk around the block? Might make you feel better.”

“No, Jeremy, please. It wasn’t anything I ate. Look, I didn’t know…”

“Didn’t know what? Who my family was? Why does that upset you, to learn that? Is there something about my father I don’t know?”

She shook her head again, vaguely conscious that she was still trying to move away from him and he was following her, slowly, across the parking lot. “Jeremy, you ask too many questions,” she said. “Your father was a good doctor, and a good man. I’m sorry, but I’ve really got to go.”

“Does this have anything to do with the ghost in the elevator?” he called after her.

She stopped, and turned around. “Where did you hear that?”

“My brother’s girlfriend. That’s why he wanted to talk to you. She worked there, but didn’t know about my father. I dismissed her story as crap. I still mostly do. But it’s a little unnerving to hear that your father’s ghost might be haunting the hospital where he died.”

She looked at him hard. “The hospital isn’t haunted,” she said. “And I’d be careful who you talked to about that. Those kinds of rumors can be bad for business. People who spread them can be held liable for damages.” She continued to stare at him, making sure this sunk in.

It had the desired effect. “All right,” he said. His voice softened. “Are you sure you have to go?”

She nodded. “I’m sorry, Jeremy.”

“Well, could I see you again?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why?” he said. “Is it too weird that you knew my father? I’d like to hear about him.”

“I don’t know, Jeremy, it’s been so long. I don’t know what I remember any more. Look, this has all been a surprise, this whole thing, tonight. I need to go home and sort it all out.”

“Can I call you?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

His pained expression pained her. “Was it something I said?”

“No, Jeremy, nothing. Sometimes it’s best to leave the past alone.”

“Let me at least walk you to your car.” The wind had gone out of his sails, but he was making a show of being persistent.

She tried to be kind. Turning to face him, she said, “Jeremy, I’ve been around this town for forty years. I think I’ll be fine. But thank you, and thank you for the evening. You take care of yourself.” She extended her right hand, and he clasped it, not like a handshake but rather as if he were going to raise it to his lips, which he did not.

“I’d still like to talk with you about my father,” he said. But he released her hand.

“Your father has been dead a long, long time.” Before she could stop herself, she added, “I still miss him, too.” She turned from him to hide her face, and walked briskly away.

“Bernadette,” he called behind her.

“Go back to California,” she tossed over her shoulder. “Leave it alone.” But she did not know if he had heard her, for when she next looked back, he was still standing there, in front of the bar, staring into the night.

**

The hospital was quiet, her floor deserted. It took her no time at all to pull up the records of the hospital’s current patients. She cursed softly under her breath.

This spring she had spent less time at work than at any time in her recent memory, delegating many of the daily duties to her small, well-trained staff. She’d been arriving late and leaving early, coming in occasionally on weekends and holidays to catch up on things when she knew there would be no one around.

“Well, why not?” she asked herself, aloud in the space she commanded. Why not, indeed? Hadn’t it taken her forty years – her whole career – to get to this place? Why shouldn’t she take some time to tend to her personal affairs? Though she had enjoyed a long-term marriage to a successful doctor, Bernadette had always worked hard and advanced her career. She had played by the rules and played well, and now here she was, forty years later, running the show. So how had she allowed herself to lose track of what was happening at her own hospital?

She turned off the computer and looked around at the walls. A few favorite paintings – a Winslow Homer, an Andrew Wyeth – brightened an otherwise businesslike space. She took off her shoes and put her feet up on the mahogany desk, and leaned back in the large leather chair.

When she heard the outer door open and close and the first scratchy footsteps, far down the corridor, she allowed one corner of her mouth to twitch, but did not otherwise move. The person was approaching – a step with one foot, pause, bring the other to join it, pause, do the same thing again – with agonizing slowness. Bernadette watched the sweep second hand on the antique clock on the far wall.

She straightened in her chair but kept her feet on the desk, composing herself so that the visitor would see a woman both relaxed and in control.

She folded her hands in her lap and listened to the approaching footsteps, not moving except to inhale and exhale evenly, like she had learned in yoga class. An age passed, an epoch… but finally the woman, her hair now gone all to white and worn in a style that was sort of punk-Einstein, stood before her, silhouetted by the light from the hall against the lettering on her office door.

“Hello, Annabelle,” she said.

“Bernadette,” the old woman replied. “You’ve come up in the world.”

“Yes, I suppose I have.” She forced a smile. She waved toward an overstuffed chair at the side of the room. “Would you care to sit down?”

Annabelle leaned against the side of the door and shook her head. “I’ll not stay long,” she said. “Just long enough to say my piece, and then I’ll go.” She sucked in a breath and straightened her small frame. “I heard you had a date tonight.”

“Annabelle, I didn’t know.”

“You should have known,” the old woman snapped suddenly. “Jeremy was like a little rooster in here earlier, like a kid. When I figured out it was you he was excited about, I wondered how you could possibly fail to recognize him. Even after forty years.”

“To tell you the truth, Annabelle, I’ve been so busy I didn’t even know you were here.” She nodded at the computer screen. “According to this, you’ve received almost a month of our hospitality. I trust you’ve been treated well, as usual.”

“I don’t want you to see him again,” Annabelle said.

Bernadette swung her legs down off the desk and turned to face the smaller woman. “I hadn’t planned on it,” she said. “Though your son is a gentleman, I’ll give you that. But Annabelle, sooner or later you’re going to have to tell them.”

“That’s for me, not you, to decide,” Annabelle hissed. “We had an agreement, you and me. As far as I’m concerned it’s binding, even after my death, if I so choose. In the meantime, you stay away from Jeremy. From all my kids.”

“I told him to go back to California.” Bernadette glanced down at Annabelle’s feet. “You’re due to be discharged soon. This Saturday, in fact.”

“Jeremy’s going to stay awhile and help me get settled in,” Annabelle said. “After that, if and when he goes back to California is up to him. But I’m warning you to stay clear of him, Bernadette. If he calls you, hang up. If he asks you out again, say no. Do you understand me?”

I understand you’re an eighty-year-old woman clinging to what power you have left in the world, she thought. But with a straight face, she said, “Annabelle, you have nothing to worry about.”

“He has a curious mind,” Annabelle said, and Bernadette detected a slight softening in the eyes. It lasted only a moment. “You stay clear of him,” she repeated, and turned to go.

“It’s a moot point, anyway, isn’t it?” Bernadette said. “Since you’ll be leaving us, now that you’re walking so well?” Annabelle could likely have come to see her weeks ago, she thought, had she made up her mind to do it. “You can negotiate the stairs in both directions, can you not?”

Annabelle glared back at her. “Well, you know damn well I’m not going to use the elevator.”

As the older woman shuffled down the hall, Bernadette put her feet back up on the desk. She closed her eyes and listened to the receding footsteps, wondering how such a woman had ever wielded power over her, and how long secrets could be kept.

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