A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 3

Sometimes she felt like aiming the car south and leaving it all behind: the house, the needy mother, the retarded kid, the temperamental ex-husband and his bimbo. The alignment was off on her Subaru again, thanks to the frost heaves and potholes that pockmarked the roads on the Blue Hill peninsula every spring. She would have to take it in the next time she visited Calvin. They could go to the pizza place next door while the car was being serviced. A pang of guilt rose within her. The group home was less than a mile from the hospital, but Gretchen had no plans to see her son today. He would want her to buy him a new CD, or a game, or a wrestling magazine, and she had neither the money to indulge him or the patience to explain why she couldn’t. Why oh why hadn’t she stopped after two kids? She would be a free woman now, instead of caring for an eight-year-old in a man’s body.

More guilt. Was it wrong to wish her son had never been born? She loved him, the big dumb galoot, but she sometimes fantasized about accidents, terminal illnesses, some sort of end to it all, and then she upbraided herself with deeper guilt. But no one else knew what it was like. No one else would ensure that Calvin clipped his nails, cleaned his room, and didn’t hide his soiled underwear in the recesses of his closet. The staff at the group home did their best, but they were paid ten dollars an hour to look after Calvin and seven other “consumers,” in the social-worker parlance. She had fought hard to get him in there, but she still had to kick a little ass from time to time when she caught them being less than conscientious. They were all a little bit afraid of her. They knew she wasn’t above calling the director of the organization if she found any element of Calvin’s care wanting. Ted wouldn’t do it. Every so often he made a grand gesture, like buying a pool table for the rec room in the home’s basement, or arranging for a catered Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings for staff and consumers. But no one in the home could play pool, and Gretchen thought that he’d done the Thanksgiving dinner out of spite, knowing that she had arranged for Calvin to spend the day with her and his siblings. But the staff loved him and feared her. It was the price she paid for being the last responsible person on Earth.

But what if one day she said, “Fuck it,” and drove away? Jeremy had gone to California and never looked back. Everett lived like a monk and played his music and seemed content with having no plan, nothing to fall back on, and nothing saved for his old age. And here she was, driving fifty miles out of her way so that her two brothers could see their ailing mother. She was not so blinded by her sense of duty to think that this was necessary – if her brothers wanted to visit Annabelle in the hospital without her help, they could surely find a way to do so – but it seemed like the right thing to do. The story of her life, she mused, as she turned onto Everett’s street. Always doing the right thing, whether anyone thanked her or not.

She pulled into the parking lot outside Everett’s apartment at five minutes to ten. Everett’s place faced away from the street so that he could not look out a window to see when visitors arrived. Four of the six spaces by the side of the building were occupied, one by a car that looked like it hadn’t moved for months. Didn’t people get up and go to work in the morning any more? She walked to the back entrance and knocked on her brother’s door.

“Just a minute,” Everett called from inside. When he answered the door, he was, predictably, barefoot. “You’re early,” he said.

Thank you for that penetrating glimpse into the obvious, she thought. But then she saw Jeremy standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, and her irritation lifted. He never seemed to age. She breezed past her younger brother. Jeremy set down his cup and they embraced.

“Nice to see you, too, Gretchen,” Everett cracked as he closed the door.

“Shut up,” Gretchen tossed back over her shoulder. “I haven’t seen him in three years.” She turned back to Jeremy. “How are you?”

“About the same as I was three years ago,” he deadpanned. “Single, footloose, fancy free, living the wild and crazy life in California. You know how it is, except for the California part.”

She took in the interior of the small apartment at a glance. Everett kept it clean, if cluttered. Two acoustic guitars stood in a corner of the kitchen, and an empty case lay open on the floor. The table was littered with papers and coffee cups and other detritus of her younger brother’s life, including a Frisbee full of coins, a harmonica holder and at least three harmonicas, a pair of maracas, a tambourine, and a couple of paperback books. In the small room beyond the kitchen she could see his shelves of record albums and his turntable. The door was propped open by a stereo speaker. An electric guitar and amplifier stood against another wall. Several pairs of shoes lay scattered about; Everett apparently had no designated place for them but simply left them where he took them off.

“You want coffee?” Everett asked her. Gretchen supposed he was trying to be polite, but his laid-back attitude toward time rankled her. Everett could be counted on to be late for any event, so much so that the other family members routinely lied to him about the scheduled time whenever their plans included him.

“Thanks, Everett, but Mom’s expecting us.”

“I’m sure her day isn’t completely booked,” Everett said. But he reached for a pair of sneakers, and seemed disinclined to argue.

Gretchen had cleaned out the back of her car and put up the seat. Everett, though taller, went immediately for the back and ceded the front to his older brother. Jeremy got into the front as if no other arrangement were possible.

She took the 395 Interstate spur out of town and across the river. Jeremy remarked that he’d never been on it before. “This bridge is 20 years old,” she told him. “Surely you’ve been to Bangor since then.”

But Jeremy shook his head. “I may have, but I usually come into Boston or Portland and drive up the coast. I can’t remember the last time I was in Bangor.”

“Bangor’s a happening place,” Everett said from the back.

“Has he talked your ear off on the evils of the automobile yet?” Gretchen asked Jeremy.

“Not yet,” Jeremy said. “But it’s only been a day. He did convince me to spend a week without a car, though. Just to see what it feels like.”

“I never said cars are evil,” Everett said. “I just choose not to own one.”

“You’re lucky to have a choice,” Gretchen said. “I’d like to see you get through my day without a car. Or anyone with an odd-hours job, or kids, or ailing parents.”

“Ellsworth was Mom’s idea,” Everett retorted. “Corinne says that hospital is a dump. Mom would get better care in Bangor, and I could visit her every day. There’s a whole world beyond the Blue Hill peninsula, whether she wants to acknowledge it or not.”

Gretchen suspected this barb was aimed at her as much as their mother. Why must her family always squabble? Still, she saw his point. Born in one of the largest cities in the country, she had lived on the coast of Maine since third grade, and she took it as axiomatic that the rural life was the path to happiness. That attitude had to have come from Annabelle, for Elliott Sprauling had surely made more money in Philadelphia. Everett, born late, had missed this family power struggle. But he had gravitated toward the only semi-urban community within a hundred miles of his hometown. Gretchen wondered if her brothers might have more in common than they thought.

Jeremy asked about her kids, and she gave him a short rundown on their lives, finishing with an update on Calvin and his adventures in the group home. When they neared the northern outskirts of Ellsworth, Jeremy remarked on several new stores that had sprouted over the past twenty years. This gave Gretchen an opportunity to talk about friends from high school who had stayed in the area and now owned their own businesses or taught in the schools or sat on local boards of selectmen or worked in health care. “You won’t recognize the hospital,” she said, as she turned off onto a shortcut known only by locals.

Gretchen’s favorite parking place (around to the side but a short walk for Calvin) was unoccupied. In the elevator off the spacious lobby, she pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator lurched but did not ascend right away. She pushed the button again. This time the elevator rose slowly but stopped at the second floor. The doors opened onto an empty corridor.

Gretchen pressed the button for the third floor once again. The doors closed, but the elevator went down, and opened up onto the lobby.

“What’s wrong with this thing?” She pushed the third floor button for the fourth time.

Behind a reception desk on the far side of the lobby, an elderly man in a bright yellow cardigan looked up at them. “Can I help?” he said

“Why don’t we take the stairs?” Everett suggested. “Or are you superstitious because of Dad?”

“Everett, they remodeled this place years ago. The stairs Dad fell down don’t exist any more. I don’t even know where the new stairs are.”

But just then the bell pinged, the doors closed, and the elevator rose. This time, it obediently took them to the third floor. They stepped out into the corridor.

“That was weird,” Everett said.

“Come on.” Gretchen didn’t have time to dwell on the idiosyncracies of an aging elevator. Her aging mother was far more unpredictable.

“She’s just about to have her lunch,” the nurse at the station informed them. She was young, freckled, and chubby. “Your other sister’s here.”

Gretchen suppressed a frown. Couldn’t Joanie have called her? Gretchen had made sure to let everyone know that Jeremy was flying in from the west coast, but Joanie couldn’t be bothered to coordinate a simple hospital visit? I’ve got to let go of trying to manage everything, she told herself, as she did several times each day. She was working on this in therapy. You can’t plan every detail of your life, Christine told her. But still she tried.

She took a deep breath to steel herself before she led her brothers toward their mother’s room. It was irrational for her to resent Joanie for her generosity; her sister couldn’t help it that she had more money than anyone in the family and no kids of her own to spend it on. Last week Gretchen had brought Annabelle a long pillow from her house to put behind her back when she sat up in bed reading, only to find that Joanie had gone out and bought four enormous, fluffy, colorful pillows that completely surrounded Annabelle’s tiny frame. If Gretchen brought food, Joanie brought better food. When Gretchen gave their mother dog-eared magazines she’d finished reading, Joanie gave her new hardcover books. And so on.

But the other sister wasn’t the one she expected. Madison had been gazing out the window. She brushed away a wisp of blonde hair that had escaped from her loose ponytail. “Hey, Gretch.” Her grin widened when she saw Everett and then Jeremy. “Well. The prodigal son returns.”

Annabelle sat amid Joanie’s pillows; Gretchen bent down to kiss her on the cheek. “Look,” she said, “I corralled both your sons at once.”

“Not easy to do,” Annabelle said. “One’s on the wrong coast, and the other one doesn’t drive. Come here, Jeremy, let me look at you.”

Gretchen expected this dismissal. She glanced quickly over at Everett, whom their mother hadn’t acknowledged, either. But neither of them had just blown in from California. Jeremy’s star power within the family derived from being offstage most of the time. She turned to her sister. Maddie enfolded her in a hug. She was a couple inches taller and more solid, and she always smelled slightly of the farm. “Surprised to see you here,” Gretchen said.

“I didn’t know I could come until yesterday,” Madison said. “Mike’s delivering a goat to a guy in Milbridge. He’ll pick me up on his way back through. Hi, Everett.”

“Maddie,” Everett said. “That kid of yours scored any hat tricks lately?”

“Season’s over. I’m hoping to get his butt up to the farm for a few weeks this summer, put him to work. But we’ll see. Now that he’s a professional athlete, farm work might be beneath him.”

The three younger siblings clustered by the foot of the bed while Annabelle fussed over Jeremy. “Tell me about your love life,” his mother asked. “Are you seeing anybody?”

“Nobody special, Ma,” Jeremy said. “I’ve been pretty busy with work.”

“You never ask me about my love life,” Gretchen protested.

“Oh, Gretchen, I see you all the time,” Annabelle said. “Besides, every time I talk to you, you tell me how shallow the dating pool is around here.”

Gretchen took a hard look at her mother. She sat propped up against the pillows, a faded, red-plaid shawl around her slim shoulders, the bed littered with magazines and sections of today’s newspaper, one folded open to a partially completed crossword puzzle. The TV remote lay to one side, but the television was off. The last time Gretchen had visited, Annabelle had launched into a diatribe on the vacuity of daytime TV. Her mother was a born critic, and her judgments had etched themselves into her face as she aged. Her body had no physical definition any more; her arms had lost whatever muscle tone they’d had, and her breasts had virtually disappeared. But her face had hardened. Gretchen tried to think kind thoughts about her mother. Her life had not been easy. But here she was still, past the age of fifty, seeking her mother’s approval. This came up often in therapy, too.

The overweight nurse brought in Annabelle’s lunch. Jeremy scared up some chairs for Gretchen, Maddie and Everett, while he took a perch on the windowsill. Annabelle picked at her food. “Isn’t this something?” she said. “Four of my children in the same room at the same time. Should we give Joan a call in Bar Harbor? She’s probably busy at work. And who knows what Pilar’s doing? When was the last time you were all together?”

“I don’t know, Ma, it’s been awhile,” Jeremy said. He was the only one who called her “Ma.” She was Mom to everyone else.

“God, the food in this place is terrible,” Annabelle said, probing a pile of mashed potatoes with her fork, already uninterested in the answer to her own question. Gretchen knew. She kept track of such things. It had been the Fourth of July three years ago. Pilar had not yet been living in Canada and Everett had still had a car. Jeremy had flown in and was making noises about fixing up that wreck of a sailboat. They had gathered on the shore and cooked lobsters and drank beer, and most of the grandkids had come, except Jeremy’s daughter and Everett’s son.

Calvin had spent most of the time inside playing video games, and Paul had instigated an argument with Ted about letting the kid waste a beautiful day hooked up to electronics. It was the last time Gretchen could remember taking her husband’s side in an argument, and the last time Ted had been down to the point.

“Got your garden in yet, Gretch?” Madison asked her. She’d never liked the clipped version of her name – it sounded too much like “retch,” or worse, “wretch” – and only her sisters were allowed to use it. But she was grateful for the change of subject, even if the garden plot beside her house, shrunken from previous years, still lay under the seaweed she’d had hauled in last fall. She’d ordered seeds and had started a few tomato plants on her south-facing porch, but the weather had been fickle, and time, uncharacteristically, kept getting away from her. Maddie probably had a good start on the corn and the cauliflower and the carrots and the cannabis. The thought of her sister’s life on the farm made her tired. It was hard enough to get up and out in the morning to her two part-time jobs. On Mondays and Tuesdays she composed ads and edited copy for the peninsula newspaper; Wednesday through Saturday she worked at a bookstore in Blue Hill that somehow eked out enough business to stay open all year.

“Not yet,” she said. “I’ll get to it this weekend, maybe. Though we could still get a frost.”

“Paul says we’re probably done with frost for the year,” Annabelle put in.

Right, Gretchen thought, and I’m going to plan my garden on the predictions of a drunken ex-lobsterman. She wished her thoughts were more charitable, and made a mental note to bring this up in her next session with Christine.

“How’s the camp season shaping up?” she asked her mother.

“Slowly,” Annabelle said. “We’ve got renters for the last week in June, but then nothing until after the Fourth, and there’s still a week available in August.” She turned to Jeremy. “You have any friends in California interested in spending a week on the Maine Coast?”

It was uncanny how all her attempts to engage her mother in conversation led back to Jeremy. She had urged her older brother to come east, and disrupted her schedule to bring him to Annabelle’s bedside, but here was that old childhood resentment again, like an almost-forgotten sprained ankle that still ached on a rainy day. She had spent years jumping through hoops trying to please her mother, and all Jeremy had to do was show up.

“I doubt it, Ma,” Jeremy said. “Maine might as well be a foreign country to most of the people I know.”

“Paul must be busy,” Gretchen said. “I was thinking of heading down there on Sunday, maybe bringing Jeremy with me. There’s always a lot to do before the first tenants arrive.”

“I’m hoping to be out of here by then,” Annabelle said. “Speaking of foreign countries, has anybody heard from Pilar lately?”

“I got an e-mail from her last week,” Everett spoke up. “We’re e-mailing instead of writing letters, now that she’s in Canada. It doesn’t make sense to pay international postage. She’s doing fine. Claude got a piece published in the Globe and Mail. I guess she wrote most of it.”

“I was thinking that since the camp’s not rented the first week in July, we should invite them to come stay,” Annabelle said. “We should have a party.”

“Mom, don’t you think you should concentrate on getting on your feet first?” Gretchen wanted the words back as soon as she’d uttered them. Her mother’s dark eyes flashed at her.

“If I’m not out of here by July, please shoot me,” she said.

“We’ll have to leave that up to Maddie,” Everett said. “She’s the only one of us with a gun.”

“I might have a hard time sneaking my deer rifle up here in the elevator.”

Gretchen glanced at Annabelle, who seemed to be staring at something in the middle distance that only she could see. “What is it, Mom?” she asked.

“Huh?” Annabelle returned to the room. “Oh, nothing. I’m all right. It’s just a little overwhelming to have you all here at once. Nice, though,” she added (Gretchen thought a little too hastily). “I’m glad you don’t fight the way you used to.”

It’s just changed, Gretchen thought, leavened by time and sprinkled with humor. But she would always be ten in her mother’s mind, the daughter thrust into the role of peacemaker when Jeremy savaged his younger sisters for not being boys.

They’d sent him away not because he was too smart for public high school (which perhaps he was) but because he’d been impossible to live with. His teachers had hated him because he got good grades without really trying and used his excess imagination to instigate pranks, like jamming coins into the milk machine in the lunchroom so it wouldn’t turn off, and convincing a majority of his eighth-grade classmates to vote for the most mentally challenged and socially awkward kid for class president. The academic sides of their report cards had been virtually identical, but the citizenship sides of hers had been perfect, while his had been pockmarked with minuses and increasingly frustrated comments. At home he cheated at board games, drew beards on the teen idols in his sisters’ fan magazines, and broke Maddie’s favorite Bobby Sherman 45 by using it as a Frisbee with his friends. Their father disciplined him but Annabelle never would. Nonetheless, when their dad died during Jeremy’s first fall in New Hampshire, their mother never suggested that he return to school in Blue Hill.

After the doctor’s death and Everett’s arrival, the harmony of the household was disrupted only by disagreements over who doted most dutifully on their baby brother, their mother’s dating choices, her insufficient attention to the problems of teenage girls, and Jeremy’s school vacations. Paul Bremerton had come into the picture in the summer between her sophomore and junior years. What a summer that had been. Jeremy had come home in the spring, taken a job at a boatyard, and fallen in love with the young wife of the boatyard’s owner. She was twenty-four to his seventeen, and when the affair came to light, he was not only fired from his job but run out of town, the husband making it clear that if he saw Jeremy around he would beat the shit out of him. The husband had friends, including the lobsterman in whom Annabelle had taken an interest, who, by coincidence, was seven years younger than she.

Every family has a history, thought Gretchen, but ours might be more twisted than most. Jeremy had charmed the young wife into leaving her husband and taking a road trip through New England, but at the end of that whirlwind summer he had heeded his mother’s pleading and returned for his senior year of school. The young woman had divorced her husband and disappeared, and nothing more was heard from her until Jeremy received a letter several years later, addressed care of his mother, with a California postmark.

Gretchen knew that the former boatyard owner still lived on the peninsula, that he had remarried and raised several children, now grown and part of the area’s work force. He was retired and probably pushing seventy. In the strange way of rural Maine life, she sometimes saw him around town, but he did not speak to her or she to him. The history hadn’t been forgotten – in Maine it never is. The boatyard owner must have heard that Jeremy and Bonnie had reunited on the west coast and married and had a daughter and divorced. But many years had passed, and everyone had moved on. The only person who ever talked about it was Annabelle, and only on holidays when she was in her cups.

The conversation in the room had lagged, but Gretchen could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t elicit a snarky response from her mother. Christine had taught her to observe her family’s interactions and listen.

“You watching the hockey playoffs?” Everett finally asked Maddie.

“Of course,” she replied. “It drives Mike out of his mind, but I don’t care. It’s too bad the Bruins went out so early.”

“But they won last year,” Jeremy said. “First time since Bobby Orr, right?”

“Right,” Madison said. “First time since the year Everett was born.”

Or the year after Dad died, Gretchen thought but did not say.

“I remember that,” Jeremy said. “I watched it at St. Paul’s. The dorm master let everyone stay up. I saw Gretzky play a couple times in L.A. But I still think Bobby Orr was better.”

“And I think they’ve got no business playing hockey this late in the spring,” Annabelle said from the bed. “Or in Los Angeles, for that matter.”

“Hockey’s good any time, anywhere, Mom,” Madison said. “Graham sometimes skates and goes to the beach the same day. He says it’s a little surreal. But Jeremy, I thought you were more of a baseball guy.”

“I like hockey too,” he said. “And now we’ve got a star in the family.”

“I don’t know that he’s a star yet,” Madison said. “But he’s sure as hell working on it.”

“He gets paid to play, though, right?”

Madison nodded. “He makes way more money than I do.”

“Then he’s a star,” Jeremy said.

“Will you please stop talking about hockey?” Annabelle implored. “Not that we’re not all proud of Graham, but I hear about hockey all winter. Jeremy, I wanted to ask you about something.”

“What, Ma?”

“The Voyager. It’s still out there, still sending signals back to Earth.”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I read that one of them is about to pass the boundary of the solar system. I thought it did that a long time ago. Back when you were working on it.”

Jeremy shook his head and smiled. “No, Ma,” he said. “I was let go after the Neptune encounter. There’s a lot of solar system beyond the planets.”

“Well, what’s this boundary they’re talking about? It sounds like there’s some kind of wall out there.”

Jeremy laughed. Gretchen tried not to roll her eyes. “The heliopause,” he said.

“The helio what?”

“Heliopause,” Jeremy repeated. “It’s the point in space where…” He stopped and started again. “The sun puts out a lot of radiation, like any star. You can’t see most of it, because it’s outside the visible spectrum. But Voyager can detect it. It streams outward from the sun in all directions. The heliopause is the place where that outward radiation is balanced by the radiation coming in from the rest of the galaxy. It isn’t really a hard and fast boundary. Think of it like the continental shelf in the ocean. It’s the place where the coastal waters end and the open ocean begins, but you can’t see it from the surface. Once Voyager passes the heliopause, by one definition it’s left the solar system and entered interstellar space.”

“Kind of like letting go of your children,” Annabelle said.

Jeremy laughed. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it. But the Voyagers aren’t ever coming back. And here we all are.”

Annabelle shook her head. “What I meant was that the boundary between childhood and adulthood is as vague as your heliopause,” she said. “No one knows precisely where it is. But at some point, you know you’ve passed it.”

Madison nudged her sister, and said in her ear, “Count on Mom to come up with a metaphor that puts her at the center of the universe.”

Gretchen had to step out into the hall to stifle her laughter. Jeremy, had he caught it, might have pointed out that the solar system is not the universe. But she thought it was the most accurate thing she had heard all day.

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