A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 4

The goat was not Mike Murphy’s primary mission, though it made good cover. He transacted the deal as quickly as possible and sped back south along Route One, leftover straw blowing out the back of the brick-colored pickup. In the rearview mirror he could see several dents on the inside of the tailgate where the goat had used its hooves to express its displeasure. He hung a left onto the back road to Winter Harbor. His main order of business – a quarter pound of processed marijuana from last year’s harvest – lay bundled under the passenger seat in a burlap sack that smelled of the barn. He had two or three hours, he figured, before Madison would begin to wonder about his whereabouts.

Ordinarily he would not conceal his dealings from his wife, but this customer was special. He pulled into the driveway of her white ranch house, and dismounted, already half hard with anticipation. But Julie came running out to greet him, dressed in faded jeans torn at the knees, flip-flops, and a red and orange tie-dyed tee shirt nearly the same color as her hair, with a small black purse slung over her shoulder. After planting a wet kiss on his lips and playfully biting his earlobe, she said, “You’ve got to take me to the store, darling. I need a couple things. And there’s no beer in the house.”

“Oh, well, we can’t have that, can we?” he said, running a hand over her skinny bottom, worming his index finger into a bullet-sized hole just below a back pocket. The woman was younger and smaller than Maddie but every bit as married; her husband drove the household’s one vehicle to his construction job in Ellsworth, at which he toiled reliably from seven to three-thirty. As Madison also worked during the day, they managed to get together a few times every month, and so far Madison hadn’t noticed the extra mileage on the truck or the daytime calls on the cell phone bill. His wife wasn’t the type to check such things closely anyway, and besides, no woman was going to tell him where to drive or who to call. He supposed he felt a little guilty for cheating on her, but not guilty enough to stop.

Julie hopped into the passenger seat, and Mike got back behind the wheel and yanked the stick shift into reverse. As he drove the three miles to town she moved over close to him and dropped a hand into his lap, stroking what she found there through the material of his jeans. He laughed and said, “You better be careful. They just passed a new law against distracted driving.”

She responded by tonguing his ear. He loved how openly affectionate she was, the eagerness she expressed so freely. They had met at the annual cannabis convention the previous summer, and before the first day of the festival was over they had gone skinny-dipping in the creek and made it right there in the woods, aware of and aroused by the danger of discovery. She’d been a steady customer ever since, distributing his produce to her small network of pot-smoking friends on the Schoodic peninsula and combining pleasure with business every time Mike made a delivery. She paid regular price, too. Once, in bed, he’d offered her a discount, and she had taken offense. “This isn’t a transaction, Mike,” she’d told him. “I’m not a prostitute.”

He pulled up in front of the store, one of the mom-and-pop markets still common in Maine that Mike called “beer stores.” This one had a battered neon Budweiser sign out front that likely didn’t light up at night any more, for some kid had thrown a rock through it, leaving a jagged hole above the last three letters. He parked so that Julie was closest to the entrance. Several faded posters advertised events that had already happened; beside them, and closer to the door, a picture of a missing puppy gazed sadly out at him between a hand-printed caption and phone number. “Better wait here,” she told him. “I won’t be but a minute. Will a rack of Rolling Rock hold you?”

“Sure,” he said, admiring the way her small breasts jiggled beneath the tee shirt as she jumped out of the truck. Maddie was more amply endowed, but this younger woman’s childlike body turned him on almost as much as her unconcealed enthusiasm. He could lift her up and carry her around the house, something he could not do with his wife without risking a hernia. Maddie wasn’t fat, exactly, but she had widened over the years of their marriage, and no longer made much of an attempt to look sexy. Which was a bit beside the point on a farm, he realized, but not a half-bad rationalization for his bad behavior.

Besides, she was so wrapped up in her son’s hockey career that she barely had time for him. He was a little sorry to see hockey season end. Maddie had made three trips to Florida over the winter, which left him free to drive to Winter Harbor whenever he wanted. But spring brought more work on the farm, and Maddie was making noises about cutting back on her hours at her job, if they’d let her keep the health insurance. He tried to discourage such avenues of thought, though Maddie knew as well as he did that they could afford it. But the insurance and the taxable income left him free to work under the table and outside the law. Nonetheless, he would likely have to reduce his extracurricular activities over the summer.

He reached into the glove box for his tobacco and rolling papers and the stained road map he rolled on, as a car pulled in beside him. He dropped a generous pinch of tobacco into the paper, and was raising it to his lips to lick the glue when he heard his name.

“Mike? Is that you?”

He turned to look out the open window, and when he saw the round face under the Beatle bob haircut, he dropped half the tobacco into his lap. “Shit,” he said, before he could stop himself.

“That glad to see me, huh?” his sister-in-law said. “I thought I recognized the truck.”

She had come around to the passenger side of her car and extracted a cardboard box roughly the size and shape of a case of beer. Or maybe he just had beer on his mind. For sure, he needed one now.

“Hi, Joanie,” he said. He glanced involuntarily at the front door of the store, then back at his sister-in-law, who smiled at him, though not without a hint of puzzlement. She always had that half-faked smile for him, he thought, conveying the message that she didn’t really like him but would be pleasant because he was family. He mostly saw her at summer gatherings or over the holidays, and she was usually with her snooty, college professor girlfriend who drank white wine instead of beer and thought she was better than everybody else.

“What are you doing over on this side of the bay?” he said, because it was the first thing that popped into his head.

“Delivering jam.” She hefted the box. Joanie was strong, probably from all the trail work she did. She was the tallest of the four sisters, and also the largest. Joanie made Maddie look svelte. “I was about to ask you the same question.”

He fumbled for the spilled tobacco, but most of it had found its way between the cracks in the vinyl seat cover onto the protruding foam rubber, and the rest had fallen onto the floor to mix with the dirt and pebbles. “Had to take a goat to someone up the road,” he mumbled. “Maddie’s at the hospital, visiting your mom.”

“Oh? I was thinking of stopping in on my way back,” she said. “Got a few more deliveries to make first, though.” She was wearing denim overalls over a simple blue work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, open at the neck to reveal a small choker made of red and brown beads the size of deer droppings. Overalls, for God’s sake. What kind of woman wore overalls? He was the farmer.

He pinched more tobacco from the pouch and dropped it into the crumpled paper, trying to think of something to say. Joanie’s smile had faded, and now he had the impression that she was studying him. “Well, we’ll probably be gone by then,” he said, silently willing Julie to stay inside the store just a little bit longer. “Got to get home and feed the animals.”

But Joanie lingered by the side of the truck. “Yeah, it’s a busy time of year for all of us,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to do in the park before the tourists start pouring in. I’m using my one day off this week to get product out.”

“Well, good luck with that,” he said. Go away, he thought furiously, go inside the store, tell your story to the manager, just get away from my truck before she comes back.

But it was too late. The store door opened and Julie emerged, carrying a paper sack with a carton of milk peeking out over the top. She did not see Joanie at the driver’s side window. She opened the passenger door and slid the bag of groceries across the seat. “Okay, baby doll, we’re good to go,” she chirped, hoisting herself in after the bag. “Let’s rock and roll.”

Mike didn’t move. His eyes darted toward Joanie, still standing there with the box of jam propped against the side of his truck. Julie looked at him, and saw Joanie at the window. A moment of silence passed between the two women.

“Hi,” Julie said, finally.

“Hi,” Joanie said back.

Though he fervently wished he were somewhere else, Mike managed to recover. “Joanie, this is my friend Julie,” he said. “She needed a ride to the store, so I offered to help her out. Julie, this is Joanie.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Julie said, smiling across the groceries and the nervous man between them.

“Likewise,” Joanie said, without warmth. “Well, Mike I’d better get this jam delivered. The day’s not getting any younger.”

Mike thought she said this with a pointed look at Julie, but as she straightened and hefted the box the fake smile returned. “See you soon,” she said, and turned away before he could reply. He watched her carry the box to the store’s front door, balance it on one arm while she opened the door for herself with the other, and disappear inside. Only then did he turn the key.

“Shit,” he muttered.

“Mike, who was that?”

“Shit,” he said again. He lifted his lighter to the end of the cigarette, then backed out onto the road and shifted the truck into gear with more force than was perhaps necessary.

“Mike, who was that?”

He exhaled a cloud of smoke out the open window and hit the gas. “That,” he said, “was Maddie’s dyke sister.”

“Oh.” Julie pursed her lips.

“She lives in Bar Harbor, with her girlfriend. I had no idea I’d run into her over here.” He slapped the cracked dashboard. “Fuck. I’m sure she’ll tell Maddie.”

Julie fell silent for a minute, but then she said, “Tell Maddie what? That you gave a friend a ride to the store? It’ll be all right.”

He shook his head. “I told her I was taking a goat up to Milbridge,” he said. “Which I did. But usually I sit and drink a couple beers and shoot the shit with Eric and Avery for a while. This time I turned around quick as I could to come see you. Which she doesn’t know about.”

“Well, but she knows you deal pot, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So tell her you were selling me some dope, which is true enough. Jesus, Mike, you should have told her that to begin with. Now let’s go home and go to bed.”

At her house, he tore open a sixteen-ounce can of Rolling Rock and killed it as he paced the kitchen. Julie sat at the table, rolling a joint from the package he’d delivered. “I can’t stay long,” he said. “I’ve got to get back to the hospital before that fucking dyke bitch does.”

“I wish you wouldn’t use that word,” she said.

He reached for another beer. He’d used a lot of words. “Which one?”

“Dyke,” Julie said. “It’s offensive – to all women, not just lesbians.”

He cranked open the beer and stared at her. Then he began to laugh. He took a long pull from the can. “I’m about to get it up the ass, and you’re worried about my language?” he exclaimed, wiping beer foam off his beard with his sleeve. “About whether or not my language is offensive? You know what I think is offensive? That cunt-lapping, carpet-munching, muff-diving dyke bitch of a sister sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, and blabbing to my wife about it. And she will. Shit.”

Julie stood up, the finished joint between her fingers, and approached him, placing her other hand on his chest. “Mike, calm down.” The hand on his chest began to move in small, slow circles. “I can think of a better use for all that energy.” She removed the beer can from his fingers and took a small sip before giving it back to him. Then she kissed him on the lips, and placed the rolled joint between them. “I say we smoke this, and then go into the bedroom and forget all about your family.”

She inserted a hand into the front pocket of her jeans and produced a lighter. As she did so, her jeans pushed down, exposing a flash of stomach. Mike twirled a finger in her belly button and she giggled. He felt the first hint of arousal returning.

He inhaled as she lit the joint for him, and passed it back to her. “Okay, but I gotta pee first.”

He knew where the bathroom was, of course. After he’d closed the door he felt in his pants pocket for the small Altoids tin he carried whenever he came to Winter Harbor. If there was ever a day he could use some chemical assistance, this was it. He decided to take a whole pill. Better safe than sorry.

* *

An hour later, as he aimed the truck toward Ellsworth and popped the fourth of the six Rolling Rocks Julie had bought him, he considered his options. He would have to simply lie to Maddie, of course, and say that Julie had called him on his cell phone, wanting weed. But how would he have known to have it with him? No, he’d tell her she’d called the night before, and he had forgotten to tell her he’d planned a side trip to Winter Harbor. Either way, it looked bad. Maybe Maddie wouldn’t see her sister for a while, which would give him time to get his story straight. But there was no way he could stop them from talking. And sisters talk, as he well knew. Boy, did they talk. He could go to Christmas at Annabelle’s house and not say a word the whole time he was there, and no one would know the difference.

I’m just glad nobody in that crazed family of hers is a lawyer, he thought, as he goosed the truck to ten miles an hour over the speed limit. An astronomer, a newspaper writer, a whack job artist, and a starving musician. Plus a lesbian park ranger and entrepreneur with money and a smart girlfriend. Joanie was the only one who could cause him trouble. He swore out loud and sipped his beer and urged the truck on a little faster.

What would Joanie say? She’d gotten a good look at Julie, seen her slide into his truck, and heard her call him “baby doll.” He had little doubt she’d guessed what was going on. He supposed his anger at her was misplaced – the person he should be angry at was himself. He had reacted like a guilty man. If he had just played it cool, he might have gotten out of it without arousing Joanie’s suspicion.

And now Julie was unhappy with him too, because it had taken half an hour for the Viagra to kick in, and though he’d given her a good ride, he had left too soon afterward, violating the unwritten rule on the duration of post-coital cuddling. She had pouted when he left and asked when she would see him again, and he had told her he didn’t know.

He needed to get Madison away from her mother’s bedside before Joanie breezed in and took charge. The women in his wife’s family were pieces of work. Annabelle acted like the queen bee, ordering everyone around while dishing out little criticisms that even Maddie found hard to take. Gretchen was uptight all the time, and had inherited her mother’s penchant for telling other people what to do. He’d only met Pilar a couple of times, but his few conversations with her had convinced him she was crazy. And Joanie hated him because he was straight and she was gay and he smoked dope and she was straight. He was having trouble keeping his thoughts straight at the moment. He still had a good buzz on from the joint he’d smoked with Julie and the beers he’d been downing more or less constantly since they’d returned to her house.

He got along better with the men. Paul Bremerton was a blue-collar guy like himself, who liked his beer and his whiskey, and Mike liked both those things too. He wished he could get Paul interested in weed, because it might mellow him out a bit. Paul could be a mean drunk, and he could also forget who and where he was. Maddie had told him that once, years ago, he’d made a pass at her, and that she had told Annabelle and Annabelle hadn’t believed her. Mike swore that if he ever caught Paul touching his wife he’d deck him, family be damned, but nothing had happened since he’d come on the scene. He did notice that Maddie never wanted her daughter to spend time at the point unless she was there, and that Serena, now that she was a mother herself, rarely visited her grandmother.

He didn’t know Jeremy, the older brother, at all, but he liked Everett. Part of the reason was that Madison clearly adored him, and another part was that Everett could be counted on to buy several ounces a year. Plus the kid wasn’t a half-bad guitar player, and knew a bunch of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs that Mike liked. When Graham had played hockey at the University of Maine, Maddie had bought season tickets, and whenever Mike begged off a game – which got to be more and more often, during Graham’s junior and senior years – Everett accompanied her. Mike appreciated him for that, too.

He guessed that Maddie wouldn’t leave him even if she found out. She wanted nothing more than to quit her job and farm full-time. But she could kick him out – all the bills were in her name, after all, and she made the mortgage payment every month out of her small salary. But how would she farm without a man? She needed him more than he needed her. If the shit hit the fan, his brother could get him work on the new auditorium going up in Bangor. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He had a bad back that sometimes made him knock off before noon on the farm. When you got up at four that was a full day. Maddie often came home at five to find him getting high with a few of his friends, beer cans scattered around the outdoor sitting area upwind of the pig pen. In the winter they huddled in a heated garage. Maddie would uncomplainingly make dinner, and he would fall asleep in front of the television, stirring only when she woke him and sent him to bed. The next morning he would be up before daylight to tend to the animals and do it all over again. It wasn’t a bad life, and he lived it on his own terms. He was stupid to risk fucking that up. But Julie stirred something in him, an itch he couldn’t seem to leave alone. Sure, he was thinking with the wrong head. But did that make him different from any of the other men he knew? It did not.

Five miles out of Ellsworth, he turned onto an unmarked road that bypassed the commercial strip and came out right behind the hospital. The first person he saw when he got out of his truck was Paul Bremerton, emerging from his Jeep Cherokee. The two men exchanged monosyllabic greetings and shook hands. “Maddie’s inside,” Mike said. “Had to take a goat to a guy, and she came along to see her mom.”

Paul looked haggard and small, like he hadn’t been sleeping well lately. The former lobsterman’s strength had always been of the wiry rather than burly kind. After he’d stopped hauling traps he’d developed a bit of a belly, but Mike thought he looked thin. Maybe he was making a conscious effort to lose weight. Or maybe he wasn’t cooking for himself, with Annabelle in the hospital. He wasn’t shaving either; the on-again off again beard was on again, a month or so along and a uniform gray. Mike hadn’t shaved off his beard since the turn of the century, but it had been mostly black then. Now it looked like a longer version of Paul’s. The two men frequently found themselves together in a corner of the room at family gatherings while mother and sisters gossiped and gabbed. They’d both married into this complicated family, and though Paul had been around longer and seen more, they both occupied orbits well outside the inner circle.

“How many goats you got these days?” Paul asked him.

“Right now, five,” he said. “Why? You want one?”

Paul laughed and shook his head. “Don’t know what I’d do with a goat.”

“Milk and cheese,” Mike said. “Plus they’re great for keeping the grass short. Save you money on gas to mow it. So long as you don’t mind the shit.”

“Annabelle might mind,” Paul said, as the two men entered the hospital lobby. “Not to mention our renters.”

They crossed the lobby to the elevator, and Paul pressed the button. Nothing happened. A light went on over the door, and something above them in the shaft made a groaning noise. They waited. All Mike wanted to do was collect his wife and get the hell out of there before Joanie arrived. He tapped his foot on the carpet.

The door swished open, and Gretchen, Jeremy and Everett burst into the lobby. “Finally,” Gretchen growled, a beat before she recognized them. “Hey, Paul, we were just talking about you upstairs. Mom said you could use some help getting camp ready. Hi Mike. Maddie’s upstairs.”

He nodded to the second sister-in-law he’d seen that day. Paul and Jeremy greeted each other with a few awkward words of hello and a brief handshake. “Still keeping that boat for you,” Paul said.

“I’ll get down there soon,” Jeremy said. “In fact, Gretchen was talking about dragging me down there over the weekend.”

Mike extended a hand to Jeremy. “Been awhile,” he said. “Maybe four, five years ago, down on the point?”

“More like three,” Jeremy said. “Fourth of July. We cooked lobsters on the beach. How’ve you been?”

“Can’t complain,” Mike said. He’d only met Jeremy one other time, right after he and Maddie had gotten married, and he couldn’t remember a thing they’d said to each other on either occasion.

“I know you just got here, Paul, but we’re going to go get something to eat,” Gretchen said. “Mike, you and Maddie are welcome to join us.”

“Thanks, but we better get back to the farm.”

“Well, okay then,” Gretchen said. “Paul, I’ll call you about coming down.”

“Sounds good,” Paul said. The three siblings departed, leaving the two men standing in the lobby, deserted except for the elderly man at the front desk, whose nose had been buried in the Bangor Daily News since they had come in.

“Well, I guess we better go up,” Paul Bremerton said. “Our wives are waiting for us.”

They entered the elevator, and Paul pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator delivered them there without incident; they exited and walked down the corridor toward Annabelle’s room.

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