After its brief encounter with Uranus and its moons, overshadowed in the news by the Challenger disaster, Voyager 2 sailed on into the deepest recesses of the Solar System, ignored by all but the most ardent space enthusiasts on the home world. The journey to Neptune would take another three years and eight months. Everett Sprauling would be entering his senior year in high school by then, but in the fall of 1986 he was a lowly freshman, riding the school bus into Blue Hill each morning and home again in the afternoon, a fifteen-mile trip twice a day. If he wanted to stay in town after the end of the school day, he had to arrange a ride with a friend or call Paul and Annabelle, who invariably grumbled about picking him up. Like most fourteen-year-olds, he couldn’t wait to get his license and his first car. But that was two years away, and to Everett two years seemed like forever.
If he had his license, he could have stayed home, rather than accompanying his parents to this pointless reunion, the weekend before Thanksgiving, to celebrate his grandfather’s eightieth birthday. They were staying right through the holiday. He had spent an uncomfortable night in a train seat, another uncomfortable night in a twin bed in a shared room with his brother Jeremy, and now, an uncomfortable Saturday afternoon surrounded by his family in the immense football stadium at his mother’s and grandfather’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, where the Badgers were suffering through another loss in another dismal season.
His grandfather had been grumpy since the start of the second half, when it became obvious that an upset was not in the making. Though this did not deter the drunks in the student section from their rowdy and off-color cheers, the fans around the family had grown quiet. Ohio State led by two touchdowns, and the Buckeyes had the ball. They were eating up time with a series of running plays, and Everett was becoming seriously and increasingly bored.
“I hate Ohio State worse than any of the teams we play,” his grandfather grumbled. Everett rolled his eyes. He had heard his grandfather disparage the football factories of Ohio State and Michigan – who beat up on the Badgers every season – his whole life. The Wisconsin football team never won championships, but on occasion they knocked off one of the big boys, and Harold Sanderson lived for those times.
“Me too,” Annabelle said. “The least they could do is throw the ball, and make it interesting.”
“It’s Ohio State, honey,” her father said. “They’ll always be good, but they’ll never be interesting.”
“Three things can happen when you throw the ball,” Paul Bremerton piped up, “and two of them are bad. Some coach said that.”
“Paul, don’t bait him,” Annabelle admonished.
“Four things,” Grampa growled. “A complete pass, an incomplete pass, an interception, and a coach punching a player on the other team.”
Annabelle laughed dutifully. Father and daughter shared a love of college football and a hatred of Woody Hayes, the highly successful but now disgraced Ohio State head coach. She was the senior of Harold Sanderson’s two children, seven years older than Uncle Byron, who sat on the other side of the old man, next to Madison and Wayne Waggaman and Serena. Red-bearded Uncle Byron had never married, and had bounced around the Midwest from one academic job to another before settling in as a professor of history at Beloit College, a small liberal arts school ninety miles south on the Interstate. He visited Maine from time to time and liked to drink beer with Paul and Annabelle and talk about politics. He didn’t seem gay, but Everett had never heard him talk about a girlfriend.
“That’s why baseball is the better sport,” Jeremy volunteered, from his seat next to Joanie, in the row in front of Uncle Byron. “You can’t run out the clock. You can’t sit on a lead. You’ve got to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team its licks.”
“Baseball is boring,” Madison said.
“Can’t be much more boring than this,” Jeremy replied, as the Buckeyes ran another running play. All Everett could see was a bunch of players falling on top of each other, but it was good for five yards and another first down.
Jeremy had flown out for the week without his wife and daughter, and though he talked more about his work with the Voyager program than he did about Bonnie or Andromeda, Everett got the impression that all was not right at home. His older brother was still full of himself, unafraid to express an opinion on any subject, but he sometimes fell into uncharacteristic silences where his thoughts seemed to turn inward. All it took to get him out of it, though, Everett had noticed, was an argument, no matter how trivial, with someone in the family.
“Football is like life,” Harold Sanderson said. “It’s about gains and losses in small increments, and every so often taking a chance and letting one fly.”
“Or a trick play, like a reverse, or a quarterback draw,” Annabelle said. “It’s about outsmarting the other team, too.”
“And out-hitting ’em,” said the old man.
“And most of the team is meat,” Jeremy replied. “You know the names of the quarterback, the running back, and maybe a wide receiver or two. Everyone else is nameless. Whereas in baseball, a whole season can come down to an at-bat by some scrubeenie shortstop you’ve never heard of and might never hear of again. Anyone can be a star at any time.”
“Anyone can recover a fumble and run it back for a touchdown,” Annabelle argued.
“Not the same thing,” Jeremy replied “Might happen once in a player’s career. Might never happen. In baseball, when a player comes up to bat, his name’s announced over the PA and put up on the scoreboard, and on TV if the game is televised. It’s his moment. And every player gets several of those moments, every game. Every player matters.”
“It’s the same with football,” his grandfather objected. “Every player has a role to play, a task to carry out. They can’t all be generals.”
“My point exactly,” Jeremy said. “Quick, who’s playing left tackle for the home team?”
“On offense or defense?” the old man asked.
Harold Sanderson rattled off two names. Annabelle laughed. So did Everett. He didn’t care about football, but he always enjoyed seeing his older brother shown up.
“Well, okay,” Jeremy said. “But how many Wisconsin football fans are as deeply into it as you are?”
The old man’s only answer was a small smile and a wave to the stands, where most of the fans remained in their seats despite the obvious outcome. Jeremy had no comeback for this. Everett glowed inside.
“Baseball, football – they’re both slow as molasses,” Wayne Waggaman said, though no one had solicited his opinion. “You Americans can have ’em. Give me a good hockey game any day of the week.”
“I agree,” Madison said.
“Too much fighting,” Annabelle said.
“In football, every play’s a fight,” Jeremy put in. “The game depends on violence.”
“Whereas in baseball there might be a play every five minutes, if you’re lucky,” Everett said. He half expected Joanie to put in a plug for basketball, just to round out the argument. But Joanie kept her mouth shut. A wise choice, Everett thought, in this opinionated family.
“Baseball has artistry,” Jeremy said. “Football has thuggery. Hockey has both.”
“Oh, please, Jeremy,” Annabelle said. “Football has a lot of artistry. You just don’t appreciate it. There’s a lot of strategy in calling plays, and a lot of artistry in carrying them out.”
“But you have to have the thugs in the line to push people out of the way,” Jeremy said.
“Some of those thugs,” the old man said, “have better grade-point averages than you ever did.”
Jeremy had no comeback for this. Everett loved it.
Ohio State scored again, and some in the crowd, whether or not they knew the names of the Wisconsin linemen, began heading for the exits. Wayne Waggaman stood up and stretched. “What do you think?” he said to his wife and stepdaughter. “Had enough punishment for one afternoon?”
“You can’t leave,” Annabelle said. “The game’s not over.”
“Yes it is,” Jeremy said.
“There are two and a half minutes left,” Annabelle said. “A touchdown, and an onside kick, and they’re right back in it.”
“Ma, they’d have to score three times to win,” Jeremy said.
“That doesn’t matter,” Annabelle insisted. “Anything can happen. You never leave a game before the final gun. Right, Pop?”
Harold Sanderson nodded. “Like that game against Minnesota, ’36 or ’37, somewhere around then,” he said. “Three touchdowns in the last four minutes.”
“Ain’t gonna happen today, I don’t think,” Paul Bremerton said.
“It isn’t likely,” Annabelle conceded. “But you never know.”
“Might as well sit down, Wayne,” Madison said. “Mom’s not moving, and apparently neither are we.” Wayne sat down.
“It’s too bad Pilar didn’t get here in time for the game,” Annabelle said. “I do hope she’s alright.”
The youngest Sprauling sister was driving up from Louisiana with her new musician boyfriend. The two of them apparently intended to stay with friends of friends on the University campus. She had called that morning from somewhere in downstate Illinois; they would try to make the game, depending on traffic in and around Chicago. But pinning down Pilar to the particulars of time and place was always problematic. They had planned to meet at the stadium, but with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the two empty seats remained empty
Around them, the exodus from the stadium continued. “Maybe Wayne’s right, Pop,” Uncle Byron piped up. “The hockey team’s supposed to be pretty good this year. Maybe you should switch sports.”
“Never,” the old man growled. “Football is America’s game. We don’t need to import our sports from foreign countries.”
“Baseball is the national pastime,” Jeremy said.
“Yes, and that’s what you do – pass the time,” his grandfather replied. “Which is fine if you don’t have roads to build and a wilderness to tame and a continent to conquer. Football expresses our national character.”
Oh, dear God, would this game ever end? They had arrived the previous afternoon, and Everett was already sick of the family squabbles. Who cared whether one sport or another represented authentic American values? They were games, for God’s sake, overgrown boys throwing a ball (or slapping a puck) around and banging into one another. What was the point? In the scheme of things, did it matter who won or who lost? In grade school he had been on the basketball team, drafted on account of his height, but his indifference had so exasperated the coach that he spent most of his eighth-grade season on the bench. In high school he hadn’t even bothered to try out.
Gretchen and her brood were due to arrive Wednesday, by air from Portland, and the whole family would be together for Thanksgiving. Everett wondered how he would keep from being bored out of his mind between now and then. His grandfather lived in the same modest two-story home in which Annabelle and Uncle Byron had grown up, and which, until her death in 1976, he had shared with the grandmother Everett barely remembered. Lucy Sanderson had knit him sweaters and read to him whenever she and Harold visited Maine, and she had perpetually smelled of the cigarettes that had killed her at sixty-two. Harold’s yearly visits had continued; he spent a week or two at the point each summer and sometimes came for Christmas. But this was the first time Everett had ever been to Wisconsin.
He understood why his mother seldom returned to the home of her childhood. The Midwest was butt-ugly: long stretches of corn interrupted by cities full of factories and prefab housing. Madison, Wisconsin was built on an isthmus between two lakes, but without any surrounding hills to define them they looked like two giant mud puddles. Everett couldn’t get over how flat it was, and how one town looked like another. He wondered if the inhabitants’ lives were as dull as the landscape.
The Wisconsin football team’s offense wasn’t up to rewarding the perseverance of its diehard fans this Saturday. Three incomplete passes and an attempted reverse on fourth down gave the ball back to the Buckeyes with a minute left – plenty of time to try for another score. But the Ohio State quarterback took the ball and fell down, and after he did this twice the gun sounded, putting the home team out of its misery. Good, Everett thought. Maybe they’d go out to eat afterward. He was starving.
In the stadium parking lot they searched for the vehicles they had arrived in: Harold Sanderson’s Mercedes, Uncle Byron’s Toyota Celica, Joanie’s park service Jeep, and the van-turned camper in which Everett had ridden to the game with Madison, Wayne and Serena. They had arrived early enough to park together and partake in some of the pre-game festivities (which involved beer and small grills and a kind of sausage called bratwurst). Many of the surrounding vehicles had already departed, leaving in their wake a sea of paper plates, cups, game programs, and beer cans. Everett spotted their own cluster of vehicles, alone in the row where they had all parked. Well, not quite alone. Beside the camper was a car Everett was pretty sure hadn’t been there at the beginning of the game: an old Chevrolet painted in psychedelic swirls and colors. Though he didn’t recognize the car or the bearded guy leaning against it, the petite, longhaired woman by his side waved to them, and Everett broke into a grin. Pilar added an element of unpredictability to any family gathering, She had made it, and he was happy to see her.
Everybody wanted to meet Mitch, the mysterious musician boyfriend. He wore dark glasses and a porkpie hat and a chestnut brown goatee that had taken some effort to shape. He had hair under the hat, too: a curly mop that tickled the collar of his leather jacket. Everett saw two guitar cases among the junk piled high in the Chevy’s back seat. Mitch was short, no more than about five-four, though he looked taller next to Pilar. But Jeremy and Paul and Joanie and maybe even Madison were taller. Wayne nearly lifted him off the pavement with a handshake. Harold Sanderson hugged his granddaughter and shook hands with the boyfriend. Annabelle supplied the only negative note. “Well, it’s too bad you didn’t make it in time for the game,” she said.
“Sounds like we didn’t miss much,” Pilar said. “We got here about an hour ago, and people were already leaving.”
“Not one of their better efforts,” the old man conceded.
“We almost went in,” Pilar said. “But then we saw Maddie’s van, and figured it’d be easier to wait out here than to look for you in that huge stadium. Besides, the people coming out told us they were getting the shit beat out of them.”
Everett laughed, but he caught his mother’s look of disapproval and stifled it.
“We’re all going over to Gerry’s for a drink and a bite to eat,” Annabelle said. No such plans had been articulated before or during the game, but Everett’s empty stomach rejoiced at the news. “It isn’t far. You could follow us.”
Gerry’s turned out to be a popular pub less than a mile from the stadium, where students, fans and alumni gathered after home games to dissect the action, and today to bemoan another loss at the hands of one of the football powerhouses. “You want to ride with us, Everett?” Pilar said. “I can squeeze in back with the stuff. Here, you sit up front next to Mitch.”
Everett accepted. The car smelled funky, a bit like the back entrance of his high school. As they fell into line behind the family’s other vehicles, Mitch reached into the ashtray and pulled out half of what had once been a bomber joint, and punched the cigarette lighter. “You the sort that indulges in this stuff?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah,” Everett said. In fact, his experience with marijuana was limited. He had first tried it in sixth grade, but after a bust at the school and a lecture from Paul and Annabelle, he hadn’t smoked again until this fall, his first in high school, where weed was widely available.
By the time they arrived at the pub Everett had taken three tokes and was higher than he had ever been in his life.
“They’ve got some good weed down on the Delta,” Pilar said to him as they shuffled in. The family took two pushed-together tables in a back room; Everett sat as far away from Paul and Annabelle as he could. He caught a knowing look from Madison but he didn’t care. His mind replayed a blues riff that had been playing on the tape deck in the car. The bar was boisterous despite the home team’s loss. Everett ordered a burger and fries and a vanilla milkshake. Two pitchers of beer and a tray full of glasses appeared. Annabelle poured glasses and passed them around, to everyone but Everett and Serena, who were under age, and Joanie, who didn’t like beer. Everett sat back with his shake and waited for his hamburger and allowed the conversation at the table and in the surrounding room to wash over him. The riff wouldn’t leave his head.
Everett ate enormously. He noticed that Mitch, for a little guy, could pack it in, too; he demolished two brats, sides of sauerkraut and potato salad, and half of Pilar’s turkey sandwich, washing down the works with two draft beers. Afterwards, they excused themselves to go find their friends, but not before Annabelle insisted that they come over for Sunday dinner, and Harold’s official birthday celebration, the following afternoon.
“Mitch seems nice,” Annabelle said, after the pair had left.
“How could you tell?” Joanie asked. “He didn’t say ten words the whole time.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know anything about football,” Madison suggested.
“Maybe he’s a baseball fan,” Jeremy said, not missing an opportunity to needle his mother.
Or maybe, Everett thought, he has the good sense to keep his opinions to himself around the bunch of critics that comprised his girlfriend’s family.
But Pilar and the boyfriend showed up right on time for Sunday dinner, which wasn’t served until the Green Bay Packers game on TV ended. Though Mitch still didn’t talk much (and Annabelle’s probing questions at the dinner table made him even more reticent), he came out of his shell to lend his sturdy tenor to a round of “Happy Birthday” to the old man. And afterward, at Pilar’s urging, he brought out his guitar.
The Spraulings had owned an old grand piano, a gift from someone on Elliot Sprauling’s side of the family, which the doctor had occasionally played in the house on South Street, and Annabelle had dutifully signed each of the first five kids up for lessons with a local teacher. But none of them ever took to it, and she sold the piano when she made the move to the smaller house across the street from the graveyard, when Everett was four. He had never had a lesson in his life. But he had learned enough in music classes at school to work out melodies when he encountered a keyboard, and he had once surprised his mother by picking up an alto recorder at a friend’s house and playing it credibly within a couple of minutes. He had seen people play guitars and wondered what it would be like to learn, but his laziness and his left-handedness worked against him. Every time he had ever picked up a guitar he had been told he was holding it upside down.
Too many amateur guitarists he’d heard favored the whiny sort of music sung by men Jeremy’s age in misguided attempts to sound sensitive and get girls: “Heart of Gold” and “Please Come to Boston” and all that other namby-pamby bullshit. When the family gathered in the living room after dinner, and Pilar asked Mitch if he wanted to play a couple of songs, Everett feared the worst.
But then Mitch launched into some sort of swampy rhythm and blues thing complete with growling vocals, Pilar contributing reedy vocal harmonies. Everett was transfixed. He looked around at the faces of the other family members, but saw little of the same raw pleasure he felt.
Halfway through the second song he noticed something else.
“You’re left-handed!” he said.
Mitch smiled, showing yellowed teeth beneath his moustache. He and Pilar finished the song. “You a lefty, too?” he asked Everett.
“Here.” He handed Everett his guitar.
Everett held it in his lap, afraid of dropping it. “I can’t play this.”
“Neither could I, when I was your age. Worst piece of advice my dad ever gave me – he said I should learn to play right-handed, so I could play other people’s guitars. I’ve got friends who do that, but I just couldn’t. Got another friend who flips the guitar upside down and plays all the chords backwards. But I learned the chords right-handed, so I couldn’t do that, either. I re-strung a couple of guitars, but they don’t sound right unless you reverse the bridge and the nut, too. Finally I went out and bought a real left-handed guitar for my twentieth birthday.”
This was the longest speech Mitch had delivered since meeting the family. Everett wondered how old he was now. Pilar was twenty. Mitch had to be at least a few years older; surely it had taken some time to learn to play as well as he did.
“Is it hard to find guitars?” Everett asked. He was still holding Mitch’s guitar, like an egg.
Pilar laughed. “We stopped at every music store we saw on the way up here. He goes in, asks if they have any lefties, and sometimes walks right back out again.”
“Go ahead,” Mitch said to Everett. “You won’t hurt it.”
“But I don’t know how to play anything,” Everett said. He tentatively plucked at the thickest string. He didn’t know what to do with his right hand at all.
“Neither did I,” Mitch said. “But at least it didn’t feel like patting a cat backwards, you know what I mean?”
Mitch reached over and grabbed Everett’s right hand. Instinctively, he pulled it away. “Relax,” Mitch said. “I’m just gonna show you how to hold down the strings. Don’t press down too hard. Now this here is a G chord…”
By the time Mitch and Pilar left, the old man was asleep upstairs, Madison and Wayne had retreated to their camper, Joanie and Serena and Jeremy were watching TV, Annabelle and Uncle Byron matched each other beer for beer across the kitchen table while Paul listened to their recollections of youth, and Everett had learned the three basic chords in the key of G and was able to strum “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with his sister and her new boyfriend sang along. They invited him to come over to the campus and learn more chords. Everett had never thought of himself as musical; he had always liked and responded to music, but no one had ever told him he might have an aptitude for it.
His mother and father had indulged Jeremy’s every expression of interest in astronomy. They bought him a telescope and subscribed to science magazines and sent him to prep school. What would happen if he asked Annabelle and Paul to give him a guitar for Christmas? Would they dismiss the idea as a passing fancy? Would they tell him that if he wanted a guitar he would have to earn the money himself? Would Paul offer, for the zillionth time, to take him on as a stern man during school vacations? Everett wanted a guitar, but he didn’t know if he wanted one badly enough to get up at four in the morning. It wasn’t in his DNA.
But he did want one. His biological father, dead before he was born, had played the piano. He remembered his sisters gamely plunking away at it, practicing for their weekly lessons. He did not remember being curious about it. But perhaps the old man had left him something, after all.