A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 42

Jeremy hadn’t offered Everett a ride, because Stella Weaver was playing at a pub in Bar Harbor, and he wanted to see her one more time before he left, without any ribbing from his younger brother or sisters. He had been distracted all through dinner, trying to work out what he would say to her, how he could manage a private word, and maybe ask her out for a drink or dinner in the days remaining to him. He realized he was giving her an easy out – she could very well say she was busy for the next four days – and really, the whole idea was foolishness, was it not? Still, he knew he would kick himself forever if he went home to California without making an attempt.

He had nothing to lose but his pride. And if she said no, well, that was what he expected anyway. But the real reason he had waited so long was that beautiful women intimidated him, and he hadn’t wanted Everett or anyone else in his family to witness his discomfort.

He wasn’t sure where the place was. Jeremy remembered trips to Bar Harbor in his youth. It had been a clusterfuck of tourist shops and crowded streets then, and it was worse now. Joanie and Carol lived on the near side of town, which meant that he hadn’t had to drive through it in order to get there, but now as he navigated the narrow streets thronged with after-dark pedestrians, he despaired of finding a place to park. Everett was right about cars. They were convenient as long as there weren’t too many of them in one place. But beyond a certain saturation point, cars became inconvenient; the vaunted freedom they offered became an encumbrance instead. Bar Harbor’s small commercial center was San Diego or Los Angeles in microcosm, minus the four lanes of stalled freeway traffic in either direction. Because the town wasn’t on the way to anywhere, cars piled up like cattle in a corral, filling every available parking area.

He navigated slowly along a crowded street, past the Criterion Theatre, which he remembered, and countless businesses that he did not. He turned left on Main Street and rolled down to its end at the public landing. Signs advertised whale watching trips and day sails on an old refurbished schooner. The parking spaces in the area above the docks were all occupied. He hadn’t seen much off-street parking. Both sides of the street along the waterfront were lined with hotels, some of which hadn’t been here the last time he had. But then again, Jeremy hadn’t visited Bar Harbor in years. Had he taken Nicolle to Acadia National Park on one of their tripss to Maine? He couldn’t remember.

Every member of his family except Joanie avoided Bar Harbor in the summertime. It wasn’t any more crowded than Ocean Beach in San Diego on a normal day, but after two months in Maine, Jeremy could sympathize. For much of the summer he had been looking for a reason not to go back west. He hadn’t found one. Nor was he likely to in Bar Harbor.

On his second circle of the downtown, he spotted the pub, or rather, a sign for it, above a stairwell leading down beneath the street. He stopped to scan for a place to park. Nothing. A horn behind him suggested that he look elsewhere. He continued down to the public landing, turned around, and slowly scanned the street in the other direction as he drove past the pub. Stella’s CD was in the car stereo; he’d been listening to it on the way to Joanie’s, and now it was cycling through the songs a second time. He turned the volume down and continued trolling.

He finally found a space far from the bar in the parking lot of a closed store and restaurant whose sign said they opened for breakfast at six in the morning. Another sign read: “Parking for Customers Only,” but if they were closed, how could they have any customers? He locked the car, figuring that if he got towed he could always call Joanie, and set out along the street on foot.

The tourist shops were wrapping up the business day, but the bars were just getting started. Small clouds of young people – younger than they seemed in Bangor, thought maybe just better dressed – hovered outside the entrance of each watering hole he passed. Jeremy didn’t remember Bar Harbor boasting so many drinking establishments. His father had told him that much of Mount Desert Island’s wealth was generated during Prohibition. “Booze built Bar Harbor,” Elliott Sprauling had said. At least that was how Jeremy reconstructed it.

Why was he thinking about his father at a time like this? For that matter, why did he waste time thinking about his father at all? What good did it do? What was learned? What was accomplished? What had he, Jeremy, accomplished this summer by coming back to Maine, a place he barely knew any more? A few weeks ago he had envisioned himself moving back here, reeling in the past thirty years and reclaiming his New England roots. What roots, though? If he had any, they weren’t deep; they ended with Annabelle and Everett, born in Blue Hill Hospital six months after their father’s death, the only Sprauling to spawn on Maine soil. Annabelle had taken root down there on the point and would never leave. Most of his sisters had managed to make lives here, but they were still outsiders among natives. Jeremy had nothing to hold onto in Maine, except a too-real apparition of a hospital floor that didn’t exist, and incomplete images of a father who didn’t exist any longer.

He had arrived in May and was leaving two weeks before Labor Day. He’d had the summer in Maine he’d wished for. He had been sailing; he’d eaten lobster and driven along rural roads flanked by low, hand-stacked stone walls that had been there before he was born and would remain long after he died. He’d breathed the moist Atlantic air and engaged in measured conversations. He hadn’t watched much television. He had seen his family.

And now he had seen enough.

He loved them all. Everett had opened his mind to living without a car. Pilar, with all her peculiarities and her willingness to believe anything, made him laugh, even at himself. Joanie was happy. Madison and Gretchen were survivors, like their mother. He would do anything for any of them, but there was nothing he couldn’t do from 3,000 miles away. He didn’t need to see them regularly for him to feel their love, or they his. He had a life in California. Not a great life, to be sure, but more than he had in Maine. He had stayed long enough to give himself a glimpse of what could have been, and now it was time to go.

But first he wanted to see Stella Weaver one more time.

The bar was half-buried beneath the street, behind an iron railing that led down to a heavy red door. The upper floor was a sit-down restaurant. He could see through the window that it was full. Jeremy descended the steps and pulled open the door. A wave of music and crowd noise spilled out. Every stool at the bar was occupied, as was every table; patrons stood elbow-to-elbow in the space between. The walls were covered with old license plates and road signs. At the far end of the room, on a raised stage, Stella and the band knocked out an old song from the eighties, the radio hit with the phone number in the chorus that had forced several people across the country to change their numbers to stop crank calls for Jenny. He hadn’t seen her with this group of musicians before. The six-piece band included a drummer and two backup girl singers playing maracas and a tambourine. Stella herself looked different. She was wearing stiletto heels and black stretch pants and a short little red number that bared her midriff. Her hair was piled on top of her head with two small strands left dangling. Several sets of silver hoops hung from her ears.

Jeremy wormed his way to the bar, eyes on the stage, hoping she’d turn and see him amid the crush. A dozen taps bristled atop the bar, most bearing the names of beers Jeremy had never heard of before May. Maine had joined the microbrew revolution. When he’d left the state, in his twenties, everybody had been drinking Budweiser or Nasty Gansett. Change happened slowly in Maine, but some changes were unmistakable improvements.

He had to stand on his tiptoes and wave to get the attention of the bartender, a thirtyish man in a black tee shirt with half-inch hair and an equally black beard that jutted forward from his chin. Jeremy cupped his hands and called out the name of a beer he’d enjoyed with Everett. The bartender shook his head and leaned closer. Not for the first time, Jeremy wished he’d been blessed with a big voice that could cut through crowd noise. Maybe if he’d had a bigger voice he would’ve been a singer, like his brother, and not spent so many nights alone gazing at the stars.

He pointed to the beer he wanted, only to have the bartender shout back at him, “Small or large?” Jeremy aimed his thumb at the ceiling, and the guy nodded.

They didn’t skimp on the beers, at any rate. Jeremy could barely get his hand around the glass. He handed the bartender a five, hoping that covered it; the guy turned to the cash register without another word to him. Jeremy sipped at the ocean of beer and started maneuvering through the bodies toward the front of the room.

What was she singing now? He recognized it, but was drawing a blank on the original artist and the name of the song. Disco, whatever it was. At Cornell he had joined a group of like-minded students called SAD, for Scientists Against Disco. But Stella was belting out the song with élan as the two backup singers danced and filled behind her. He inched closer to the stage.

Some of the pub’s patrons had spilled out onto a small deck, accessed via a side door, and were smoking cigarettes. He held his ground as people pushed and gyrated around him, jockeying for position. The next song was about working hard for the money, and Stella sang it with the same enthusiasm.

It was interesting, he thought, to see a white girl performing a song made famous by a black singer in front of a crowd of white people. He had seen few people of color since coming to Maine – that hadn’t changed much since Elliott Sprauling had moved them here from Philadelphia. Jeremy remembered his first day of fifth grade and his surprise at first, the utter lack of racial diversity and second, the level of racial prejudice among his classmates. In Southern California he saw people of every ethnicity. He rarely gave it much thought.

When the song ended, Stella called the crowd’s attention to a tip jar on a small table near the side of the stage, and said, “We’re all working hard up here, especially these people behind me. Brian here needs a new bass amp, and Mama needs a new pair of shoes.” She cast her eyes toward the bar and added, “And don’t forget your servers. They’re working harder than any of us.”

He tried to catch her eye, but even standing on his toes and craning his neck he was shorter than most of the people around him. Instead, he admired her legs, and the way she’d fixed her hair, and the million-dollar smile she flashed at the crowd as they applauded at the conclusion of each number. He recognized a few more of the songs: Madonna’s “Material Girl,” and a song he liked: “Crimson and Clover,” though her version hewed closer to Joan Jett’s than the original by Tommy James and the Shondells. His beer was almost empty by the time she said, “We’re gonna take a short break and come right back at you with some more funky tunes, so don’t go anywhere.”

There was a surge toward the bar, and a smaller one toward the door that led out to the deck. Stella replaced the microphone in its stand and retreated to a chair at the back of the stage. The two backup singers joined her in two adjacent chairs. Jeremy saw Stella pick up a wine glass from somewhere and hand it to the tall bass player. She apparently wasn’t going to go out and mingle with the crowd as he had seen her do at previous engagements. Could he blame her? The place was packed. A girl could be groped in such a throng and not know who was doing the groping. But how was he going to talk to her? He swallowed the last of his beer, and followed the path cleared by the bass player toward the bar. He was able to get another beer right away, simply by standing next to the bass player and inserting himself in front of the bartender when he returned with drink orders for the band: two glasses of red wine, a beer, and what looked like whiskey over ice, which the bass player transported to the stage on a tray held high over his head.

Jeremy found a spot by the far wall from which he had a clear line of sight to the stage. Stella was still deep in conversation with her backup singers. She accepted a glass of wine from the bass player and smiled at him and immediately resumed the conversation. Jeremy leaned back against a wooden sign advertising cigarettes for fifty cents a pack, sipped his beer, and waited for her to look in his direction.

She didn’t see him until the guitar player strapped on his axe and peeled off a riff, signaling the start of the next set. Stella set her wine glass down on a small table and stood up. She was taller than everyone in the band but the bass player. She glanced at a computer tablet on a music stand that Jeremy presumed contained her song list, or lyrics, or both. A few weeks ago he had attended an open mike night with Everett and watched a few singers use their cell phones onstage during their performances as a modern cheat sheet. Everett never had to do that. To Jeremy it seemed like bad form. If you couldn’t remember the words, how invested could you be in the song? Her eyes scanned the screen for a moment, and then suddenly looked up and directly into his.

He had come here to talk to her, and positioned himself so that she could see him, but the effect was still paralytic. How could one ever be properly prepared for the sudden attention of a pretty woman? Her eyes were blue like a glacier, like the ocean from an airplane, like mountains seen from a distance through a long line of atmosphere. His tongue felt like a fuselage; he couldn’t lift it without first building up momentum. But then she flashed the smile, and said, “Hi, Jeremy! It’s nice to see you again.”

“Nice to see you too,” he managed to croak. “You sound good.”

“Thank you,” she said. “What brings you to Bar Harbor?”

You, he thought – but he said, “My sister lives down here. I was visiting her before I go back to San Diego.” Idiot! Why did he tell her that first? She looked over her shoulder at the other members of the band. When she looked back at him, he saw that she had gobbed too much blue make-up around her eyes. They were arresting enough without it. “When I saw you were playing here, I had to come.”

“I’m glad you did.” She showed him an abbreviated version of the smile. “We go ’til one o’clock, or until they kick us out of here. You going to hang around?”

“Sure,” he said, wishing he could come up with something clever, but she was already moving toward the central microphone, the bass thumping and the two girls behind her working a tambourine and a pair of maracas, and her attention returned to the room as the song swung into gear. He had been holding himself upright, conscious of her height, but now he allowed himself to melt back against the wall and watch her move with the music, her arms at her sides, eyes cast downward, warming to the beat. The buzz of the crowd diminished. He admired her timing, her sense of how to work a room.

“How’s everyone doing out there?” she called, and into the foam of the response she belted out the first lines of another up-tempo disco number. Jeremy sipped his beer slowly, determined to make it last out the set. He wasn’t about to abandon his hard-won position and risk not being able to talk to her again.

But a few songs into the set, Jeremy had to admit to himself that this incarnation of Stella Weaver’s music wasn’t doing much for him. It was a younger crowd than had showed up for most of her other gigs he’d attended, and it was probably too much to ask that she cater to his antiquated musical tastes. He still didn’t know how old she was, and wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but it was a safe bet that she was closer to his daughter’s age than his own. So what? He had friends with much younger girlfriends. It was sort of a badge of honor among men.

Dream on, he admonished himself, as he methodically lowered the level in his glass until only a finger of beer remained. Still, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He remembered Everett’s crack: weren’t there any beautiful women in California? Corinne wasn’t a beauty, but she was pretty enough, and Everett seemed happy with her. The world was filled with attractive women, and sooner or later he’d find one. Why did he need someone who took his breath away? His own second marriage had been companionable and convenient, but Nicolle had sensed that he had settled. Was that so wrong? He’d had his passionate love affair, and had found it exhausting. A woman like Stella Weaver could break his heart any time she wanted to, and at his age, who needed that?

But he remained glued to the wall, watching the couples on the floor and the people at the bar and the members of the band but mostly watching her, through another set of unremarkable disco tunes. And when she came off the stage, after once again pointing out the tip jar and the CDs for sale and urging everyone to take care of their servers, wiping her forehead with a hand towel as red as her blouse, she saw him and smiled. “You’re still here.”

“Best seat in the house,” he said. She laughed, which encouraged him to add, “Even though I’m standing up.”

She laughed again, and said, “Standing room only up here.” Jeremy thought the crowd might have thinned a little. His eyes darted involuntarily down into his empty beer glass. He quickly looked up at her. “Can I buy you a drink?”

She gave him the brighter version of the smile. “That’s nice of you, but we get them for free,” she said. He followed her eyes toward the bar. “I try not to drink that much, anyway, until I’m done singing. But thank you.”

“Well, how about afterward?” Jeremy said.

“Afterward what? At one in the morning when we’re packing up?”

She looked at him directly. Her sudden undivided attention unnerved him. He might not ever have it again. “Dinner,” he blurted. “I’d like to take you out to dinner, before I go back to California.”

“Well, the only problem with that is my boyfriend.”

“Oh.” He tried to show no reaction. “And he might object?”

“Yeah. But I’ll tell you what – why don’t you friend me on Facebook? I know a few people in California. Maybe I’ll get out there someday. To sing, I mean.”

“And I can say I knew you when.” His heart had fallen into his shoes, but he struggled to keep his face impassive.

“Sure. Hang on a second.” She touched his arm, then moved off toward the rear of the stage where the members of the band stashed their instrument cases, and rummaged in a woven handbag until she came up with a piece of paper the size of a postcard. She returned to his side and handed it to him. On it was a picture of her, without the gaudy blue makeup but with the full set of hoop earrings, her hair arranged to show them off. “That’s my website there on the bottom,” she pointed out. “My upcoming dates are on the back. Here, take a couple of them.” She thrust three or four of the post cards into his hand.

“Thank you,” he managed to say.

“Thank you for coming to so many of my shows and supporting me,” she replied. “It never hurts to make a new friend.”

“No,” he said. He summoned the best smile he could. “I might be back next summer. You never know, with family and all. I’ve missed Maine. I like it here.”

He was blathering. He wasn’t going to get to take her out. In all likelihood he would never see her again. But a part of him had enjoyed the infatuation, however hopeless. And maybe she had enjoyed it a little bit, too, though he suspected he was flattering himself. She hadn’t even asked him how soon he was leaving.

“I just… you know… If the plane crashes, and I had never asked you out, I think I might have spent all eternity kicking myself.”

She laughed. “The plane’s not going to crash.”

“I admit it’s a remote possibility.” He had lost the fear of flying since turning fifty. In a few more years he might lose his fear of attractive women.

“I was in California maybe five or six years ago,” she said. “It was only for a couple of weeks. We drove the coast from San Francisco to L.A. It was beautiful.”

“That’s a beautiful part of the state,” he agreed.

“That road is amazing,” she said. “You can look right down over the edge of a cliff. It’s like the land falls right off into the ocean.”

“Well, they say California’s going to fall into the sea one day,” he said.

“Not for a while, I hope. I’d like to get out there again.”

Small talk, he supposed, was better than no talk, but inside, all he felt was despair. He didn’t want to make the long drive back to Bangor and his brother’s couch, any more than he wanted to go back west. But he had nothing else to do. “I’m sure you will, Stella,” he said to her. “And when you do, I’ll be in the front row.”

She smiled at him again, and he could see a hint of shyness there, too, as he had on the first night he’d seen her perform. But the rest of the band had huddled on stage around the music stand, and he saw the guitar player look over at her, and he sensed that their conversation was over. “I’d better go get ready,” she said.

“Your fans await,” he acknowledged.

“Thanks for coming out tonight.”

“Well, like I said, I was in the neighborhood.”

“Oh, right. Listen, have a safe trip.” She gave him a brief hug, and he thought he might melt right there.

“I’ll listen to your CD on the plane,” he said.

She clasped his hand, and said, “Thanks. It was really nice to meet you.”

And with one more smile she was gone, though not out of sight, only into her world and out of his. When the next set started, he grabbed his empty glass and headed for the bar.

He found a stool and sipped morosely at a third beer as he watched her from a distance. Of curse she had a boyfriend. Had he really expected anything else? In four days he’d be on a plane and he could begin the process of forgetting about her.

He finished the beer and was almost ready to leave, when the band segued into a funk version of “Hotel California.” That’s for me, he thought, and when the bartender nodded at his empty glass he nodded back, even though it was pushing midnight and he had an hour’s drive ahead of him. It was twelve-thirty when he finally settled up and slipped off the barstool, and with one last glance toward the stage, slunk toward the back of the room. Stella waved at him, which made him feel a little better, but he had said what he’d come to say, and sticking around after the show would only invite more heartache.

He found the car right where he’d left it. Her disc was still in the CD player; her voice greeted him when he turned the key. He ejected it, and rummaged in the space between the seats for the Bob Dylan CD he’d borrowed from Everett. There were times when only Bob would do, and this was one of them.

He didn’t feel drunk. He’d driven many times with more than four beers in him. And Maine did not have traffic. He kept to the speed limit as he passed College of the Atlantic. All the lights were off in Joanie’s house. Soon he was crossing over the small bridge onto the mainland. The tourist trap businesses were closed. The road was dark except for a few illuminated signs. Only a couple of cars passed in the other direction.

He was still thinking about Stella, re-imagining the timbre of her voice and the blue of her eyes and the way she moved onstage, when two deer lumbered out of the trees to his left and onto the road. The first one kept going into the woods on the other side, but the second one stopped and stared. Jeremy saw the flash of his headlights in the animal’s eyes. He swerved to avoid it.

He didn’t see the telephone pole until it jumped right out in front of him.

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