A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 30

Supposedly you could see a dinner plate a hundred feet down in the cold, clear water of Lake Tahoe. Bernadette Steele was determined to swim in it, even though it was still May and the water was likely as frigid as the ocean waters off Mount Desert Island. Most of the other nurses at the convention happily stuck to the pool, where they could swim from Nevada into California and back again, over the state line clearly painted on the pool’s bottom.

But the Cal-Neva had a beach, a short walk down a path and a set of well-kept steps, and the water looked clear and inviting. She was a good swimmer. She went to Sand Beach several times a year, where she contended with the cold water but also the waves from the Atlantic. Though big and deep, Tahoe was still a lake, rainwater in a bowl, with a warm spring sun above it.

“Do you think anyone will hear us if we scream?” said Sharon St. Onge, the small round woman by her side. Sharon was a few years younger than Bernadette, from Madawaska, in northernmost Maine, and wore her dark hair in a pageboy style that emphasized her circular, cheerful face. She had been working in the OR with Bernadette for the past seven years.

“We’re nurses,” said Bernadette. “We can take care of each other.”

Sharon laughed at this. She laughed easily – one reason Bernadette liked her. They had a good relationship at work but had avoided becoming friends outside the hospital. Bernadette was married and Sharon was not and they moved in different social circles. But they had both come from humble beginnings, and Bernadette admired the younger woman’s gumption and positive attitude. When she had suggested this swim, Sharon hadn’t hesitated.

Bernadette had never lived at altitude, and she had never seen mountains like the ones that surrounded the lake, which dwarfed the northern Appalachians. Until this trip she had never been west of Chicago, though her doctor husband had taken her twice to the Caribbean and once to England. But this was an all-expenses paid trip courtesy of the hospital, a chance to compare notes with other operating room supervisors from around the country. Paul Ferguson, the CEO of the hospital and good friends with her husband, had presented the tickets to her several months ago and told her she could take along an assistant of her choice. She had picked Sharon, because the other nurses she worked with were either older women with no supervisory ambitions, or clueless young damsels like Sherry Oliver, whose career trajectory depended on keeping her liaisons with doctors from becoming public knowledge.

So far, though, the convention had offered little new knowledge and lots of opportunity to drink and misbehave away from spouses. She didn’t mind not seeing Ben for a week – their marriage could maybe benefit from a little down time, she thought – but she wasn’t a big drinker, and she had no desire for a fling with any of the male nurses in attendance, who were outnumbered by the women and thus in great demand. So far she had attended a couple of interesting seminars and several boring ones. She did not want to spend another free afternoon sitting around the pool sipping salty margaritas with the same people she had seen for the past three days. Hence the swim.

Both women wore modest one-piece swimsuits. Bernadette’s was lavender, and cut high on her legs; Sharon’s was black and covered more. Bernadette couldn’t help thinking that her friend looked a bit like a bowling ball.

Bernadette waded out calf-deep into the lake. “My God, that’s cold!”

“Only one way to do it,” Sharon said.

She walked to the top of the small beach, and then, pumping her short legs as fast as she could, she ran into the lake and plunged headlong into the water. She took several short strokes under water, and came up gasping. “Come on,” she called to Bernadette. She stood in water up to her chest, and waved her arms. “It’s not so bad once you’re wet all over.”

Bernadette felt gooseflesh on her legs and arms. “I can’t believe you did that,” she said. But she took two more tentative steps into deeper water, her arms crossed across her breasts and rigid nipples.

“I’ve… swum in colder ponds… in Aroostook County,” Sharon said. But Bernadette could see that she was shivering.

“What’d you do, chip a hole in the ice?”

“Come on, chicken. This whole thing was your idea, remember?” She held her nose and submerged herself again, swam toward Bernadette, grabbed for her legs. Bernadette stepped away.

Sharon stood up and shook her hair, spraying Bernadette with freezing droplets. She splashed more water at her with her hands.

“Stop it,” Bernadette cried, making a feeble attempt to shield herself.

“Chicken,” Sharon taunted. She tucked her hands in her armpits and flapped her elbows and made chicken sounds.

Bernadette cupped a handful of cold water and threw it at her. Before Sharon could retaliate, Bernadette dove under the surface. She executed several powerful strokes before coming up for air, and yes, the water was cold, but she had always loved swimming, and Sharon was right – it was tolerable once you got your whole body into it. Just like Sand Beach or Seal Harbor. She dove down and opened her eyes under water, marveling at its blue clarity. It didn’t sting the way ocean water did. She surfaced again and turned on to her back, her feet toward shore. She was already in water over her head. She looked back at Sharon, still standing near the shore. “You’re right,” she called. “It’s beautiful.”

When they walked back up past the pool forty-five minutes later, the other nurses were astonished that they had been swimming in the lake. Cocktail hour had started early and extended well beyond sixty minutes. “Kee-rist,” said Carol, a big brunette nurse from Texas (who pronounced her husband’s name, “Ken,” in three syllables), “y’all could have drowned.”

“You see Fredo out there anywhere?” said Mindy, a small freckled woman from New Jersey.

A few of the nurses around the pool laughed, but Sharon gave Bernadette a blank look.

“The Godfather, Part Two,” she said.

“Oh. Never saw it.”

“One of the great films of all time,” said Russell, a nurse from Sacramento, a decent-looking single guy of about thirty, with carefully cropped blond hair and a small spare tire around the waist of his red bathing trunks. “I wish you girls would have told me you were going to brave the lake. I might’ve joined you.” He grinned at Bernadette and hoisted a half-finished bottle of Heineken.

Some two hundred nurses were attending this convention, and on this late afternoon in late May, Bernadette guessed that a third of them occupied lounge chairs and tables around the pool and the remaining two-thirds were in the casino, on the Nevada side of the resort. The evening promised dinner, then a lecture by a prominent surgeon from France who had developed a device for use in pediatric cancer patients that could replace a leg bone and be made to grow, like a healthy child’s leg would, with the use of magnets. Bernadette had been in on a few amputations; they were gruesome affairs involving large saws and lots of blood. But the lecture sounded interesting. The device was still experimental, but Bernadette imagined a day when the procedure might be done in Maine. She was still a young woman. What advancements in surgery might she witness and participate in during her working life? The possibilities excited her.

She was not excited by any of the men near her own age attending the convention, and had no intention of fooling around on her husband. Perhaps that was what one did at these sorts of things, because more than one married nurse had ended up in a room belonging to someone who was married to somebody else. Carol had spent the previous two evenings drinking and gambling with a tall surgical nurse from Chicago named Gary (“Gay-a-ree” in Texan). What her husband didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, Carol said, and besides, he had several women on the side back home. Bernadette wondered if Ben was faithful to her. She had heard him chatting up the younger nurses and seen the way they looked at him. Had he been perhaps a little too enthusiastic about sending her off on this working vacation? Her absence, and Sharon’s, meant that the ever-flirtatious Sherry Oliver would get more hours in the operating room, and she was among the worst when it came to kissing up to the doctors.

He had seemed cool and uninterested of late, but she told herself that he had been working hard and was, admittedly, getting up into the years when a man’s sex drive began to wane. But her husband was still an attractive man, and she did her best to make herself desirable for him. She had gone into the marriage with her eyes open. They had not had children, and that had disappointed her, though it was more a vague emptiness than an acute longing. It was almost certainly too late. But she had everything else a woman could want: a nice home, a secure job, money to travel, a circle of professional friends, and a man. She had made her trade-offs willingly and accepted the price for them.

Theirs was not the only professional gathering at the Cal-Neva that week. The dining hall and casino filled each evening with well-dressed strangers. After dinner, she and Sharon wandered past several large ballrooms, looking for the surgeon’s lecture. A sign outside one of them announced a poetry reading and discussion; fifteen minutes before the reading’s scheduled start, the only people in the room were six or seven older women wearing shawls. Another ballroom welcomed a group of astronomers to a presentation on planetary atmospheres. Bernadette had seen some of the scientists milling around the resort over the past few days, serious men carrying thick notebooks who nonetheless liked to cut loose at the casino and bar.

“It’s too bad we’re not going to that one,” Sharon said. “That’s where all the men are.”

“Not all of them,” Bernadette said, nodding at a cluster across the hall. “Come on, we’re over here. Let’s go grab a good seat.”

An elevator door near them opened, disgorging more well-dressed bodies. As Bernadette and Sharon made their way through the crowd, she saw two young men exit the elevator, in earnest discussion. The taller of the two made no impression on her; he was big, with a southern accent, and seemed to be doing most of the talking, something about methane in its liquid state, and the possibility of life at colder temperatures. She didn’t catch much of it, and she had no context – she didn’t know much about astronomy. But the second man had been about to say something when he turned his head and their eyes met. He looked at her with no inkling of recognition. His eyes were brown and inscrutable; he had a full head of hair atop a head not substantially higher than hers. She was sure she had never seen him before in her life, and yet the sense of familiarity was so strong it stopped her where she stood.

Their eyes held each other’s for maybe a second, and then his friend said something else to him and he turned to reply. They continued on into the room for the astronomy lecture. Bernadette didn’t move.

“Hey,” Sharon said, nudging her. “Thought you wanted to get a good seat.”

She came back to herself. “Right,” she said. “We better get in there.”

“He’s cute,” Sharon said.

“Who?”

“The guy you were looking at,” Sharon said. “Maybe a bit young, but who cares?”

Bernadette laughed. “Sharon, I’m a married woman. I don’t look at other men.”

“Yeah, right. That’s why you were staring a hole in his pocket protector.”

“He wasn’t wearing a pocket protector. His friend was, but he wasn’t.”

“Said the woman who wasn’t looking at him. Come on. Maybe he’ll be at the bar later.”

“If he is, you’re welcome to him,” Bernadette said. “He just looked familiar, that’s all. He reminded me of someone – I don’t remember who.”

They did go to the casino for drinks afterward, and she did see a group of men (and one woman) nerdy enough to be astronomers seated around a large round table. But the man she had seen earlier was not among them. Sharon wanted to play roulette; Bernadette gamely accompanied her to the table. They drew the passing interest of a couple of men, and Sharon broke even for about half an hour, which Bernadette, not a gambler, would have considered a moral victory. But she soon grew tired of the scene. She thought about calling Ben; it was after eight o’clock on the east coast coat and he would likely be home. She tapped Sharon on the shoulder and said, “I’m going up.”

“Hang on, I’ll go with you,” Sharon said. “I want to change my clothes.”

Sharon had brought along two suitcases to Bernadette’s one. None of her clothes particularly flattered her, but Bernadette admired her friend for trying.

She followed Sharon into the mirrored elevator and pressed the button for the second floor. The elevator groaned and started upward. Then it shook, stopped, and reversed. The door opened onto the lobby they had just left.

“What the hell?” She pushed the second-floor button again. Nothing happened. She pushed the button again. The box shimmied and rose again, but only briefly. It stopped, and for a moment Bernadette feared that they would be stuck between floors. But slowly the elevator sank, until it rested on the first floor again, and the door opened once more onto the lobby.

“You sure you pushed the right button?” Sharon said.

“Of course I’m sure,” Bernadette said. “Here, let’s try it again. Third time’s the charm, right?” She pressed the button again. The door remained open.

“Damn,” Sharon said. “This reminds me of the elevator at work.”

Bernadette looked at her. “What do you know about that?”

But before Sharon could answer, the door closed, and the elevator shot quickly upward, throwing them both off balance. It stopped. The door opened. They looked at each other. “Weird,” Sharon said.

The two women left the elevator quickly, and walked down the hall toward their room. Bernadette noticed that Sharon had not answered her question.

While Sharon went out on the balcony and smoked a cigarette, Bernadette placed a call to her husband. She let it ring seven or eight times before hanging up with a frown. They had recently gotten an answering machine, but Ben apparently had forgotten to turn it on again. She looked at the digital clock on her bedside table. Nearly midnight. Nine o’clock in Maine. Well, maybe he was working late, or maybe he’d gone out for a drink with a few of his fellow doctors. She shrugged it off, but she had been feeling uneasy all afternoon and evening, and would have welcomed talking with him.

Sharon came in from outside and noticed her troubled expression. “What’s the matter?” the younger woman said.

“Nothing.” But her anxiety was real. She had not felt relaxed since swimming in the lake that afternoon. “You said something about the elevator at work. What did you mean by that?”

“Just that it sometimes doesn’t work the way it should,” Sharon said. “Have you noticed that?”

“Mm-hmm.” She paused, uncertain whether she should continue. “Did anyone at work ever tell you about the doctor who died?”

“The one who fell down the stairs?”

“You do know,” Bernadette said.

“I don’t know anything except that there was a doctor who fell down the stairs and hit his head and died,” Sharon said.

“Do you know where the stairs were?” Bernadette asked her.

“I don’t know which set of stairs he fell down,” Sharon replied. “I only came on eight years ago. Somebody mentioned it once – somebody who knew him, I think. I don’t even know his name.”

“Doctor Sprauling,” Bernadette said.

Sharon laughed, then covered her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But that’s rich. Doctor Sprawling went sprawling.”

“Not spelled the same,” Bernadette said. “It was Sprauling, with a U. And the stairs aren’t there any more.”

“They’re not?”

“Nope. When they built the new wing, they tore out that stairwell. And put in an elevator.”

Comprehension dawned on Sharon’s round face. “So he died… where that elevator is now.”

“That’s right.” She stopped, unsure whether she should continue. But they were three thousand miles from the hospital. “I was there,” she said slowly. “When he died. I got to him right after he fell. His eyes were still open. He held on for three days, but he never regained consciousness. My face might have been the last thing he ever saw.”

“Wow,” Sharon said. “So you think his ghost is in the elevator?”

Bernadette shook her head. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said. “And neither should you.”

“But what’s wrong with the elevator?”

“I don’t know. I’m a nurse.” But she had avoided the elevator for the past two years, ever since that weekend she had been on call, and it had refused to descend to the first floor. After several attempts, she had given up and walked to the nearest stairwell – and found it covered with dark brown bloodstains. The hospital had been nearly empty, and no one had heard her scream.

On Monday morning, she had gone directly to the stairs. The stains were gone, as if they had never been there. But she had seen them – as surely as she had seen the doctor’s dying face on that awful day in 1971.

“You’d think they would have had it fixed by now,” Sharon said.

“Not my department,” Bernadette said. “And I wouldn’t talk about ghosts at work, if I were you. Hospital administrations don’t take kindly to that kind of stuff. It hurts their bottom line to spook patients.”

“I won’t say anything,” Sharon said. “But why did you tell me?”

A good question, Bernadette thought. Perhaps she should have kept her mouth shut. But something had jogged her memory, even before they had gotten into the elevator.

Sharon changed her clothes and returned to the casino. Bernadette tried Ben one more time, but again there was no answer. She undressed and slid between the covers with the book she had brought on the plane, a medical thriller that wasn’t all that thrilling. When her eyelids began to droop, she closed the book and turned out the light. She didn’t hear Sharon come in.

She slept fitfully. In the early hours she woke and went into the bathroom. In the other bed, Sharon snored lightly. The day’s first light was in the window.

She dozed again, but any chance of deep sleep was over, and she stirred when she heard Sharon in the shower. A glance at the bedside clock told her she had missed breakfast. They had three more days here, then a day of shopping and gambling in Reno before flying home. She told herself that missing a presentation on colon polyp removal wasn’t that big a deal; besides, it wasn’t something she wanted to discuss on an empty stomach.

She slipped on her bathing suit and shoes, threw on a light jacket, grabbed a towel, made sure she had her key, and left the room while Sharon was still in the bathroom. She headed down the hall, intending to take a dip in the lake to clear the leftovers of her dreams. She hesitated when she reached the elevator, her finger hovering near the call button. That elevator was the reason she had slept so badly. Had it simply taken them to their floor on the first try, she would not have been thinking about the dead doctor, and she would not have said anything to her junior colleague. They would never have conversed about ghosts – and Bernadette hoped that wouldn’t get around after she and Sharon returned to Maine. She should have kept her mouth shut.

But that wasn’t it, was it? She had been thinking about the doctor even before she and Sharon had gone up to their room. Something else had reminded her of him. There was no one at the beach at this hour. She took off her jacket, kicked off her shoes, and ran headlong into the water, as Sharon had done the day before. She took several long strokes, kicking her legs, powering out into the lake. The exercise and the cold invigorated her, and after a few minutes of swimming back and forth parallel to the shore, the dreams faded, leaving only the water, the trees, the roofline of the resort, and the mountains behind it.

When her arms and legs began to grow numb, she swam back to shore, toweled off, and headed back up to the lodge, intent on a hot shower followed by a leisurely lunch to make up for the missed breakfast. The morning seminars were still in progress. The room where the lecture on the planets had taken place the previous evening was empty, but the sign remained outside the door.

She walked over to the reception desk. “Excuse me,” she said to the woman behind it, “but can you tell me where that group is meeting today – the people who were in that room last night?”

The woman looked up at her with tired eyes set deeply into a thin, angular face beneath dark hair, streaked with gray, pulled tightly behind her neck.

“You mean the astronomy group?” the woman asked. Her tired expression did not change.

“Yes,” Bernadette replied. “I was… interested in learning more. I’m here for the nurses’ convention but…”

“They’re gone,” the woman said, glancing down at the desk in front of her. “They checked out this morning.” She looked up again. “I guess they whooped it up pretty good last night, according to the poor girls who had to clean their rooms. You never saw so many bottles, is what they said.”

“They’ve all checked out?” Bernadette said.

“Unless one or two of ’em are passed out somewhere,” the woman said. “I didn’t know scientists were such big drinkers.” She returned her attention to something on her desk.

“Neither did I,” Bernadette muttered, to the top of the woman’s head. “But thank you.”

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