A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 5

On his fifth day in Maine, Jeremy accepted Gretchen’s invitation to drive down to the point, stopping along the way to revisit a few sites of their childhood. He’d help Paul around the camp, and then hook a ride back to Bangor with Madison when she visited Annabelle a few days hence. Gretchen had worked it all out in advance.

She picked him up at Everett’s apartment first thing Sunday morning. Everett wasn’t home. The previous night Jeremy had allowed Everett to take him to one of the local bars, where three of his friends had a gig. Corinne, Everett’s spunky blonde girlfriend, came out, and they sat at a table near the front, and at one point Everett got up with his guitar and sang “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” without dropping a word. Jeremy was impressed. Corinne downed glasses of red wine as fast as the two brothers consumed beer, and she regaled them with tales of some of the more gruesome operations on which she’d scrubbed in. One emergency had involved cutting a shampoo bottle out of a guy’s lower intestine. “It’s amazing what people will shove up their butts,” she said. “We were all sitting there placing bets on what brand it was.”

Then she had surprised him by turning serious. “Everett, you’ve got get your mom out of that butcher shop down there. I worked at that hospital. Their scrubs are guys who got retrained after the sardine cannery closed. They may know how to gut a fish, but that’s about their level of sensitivity when it comes to dealing with a live human being.”

“Mom seems okay with it,” Everett had said, and she had dropped it. But Jeremy had picked up on the tension between them. Apparently it was a sore subject.

At the end of the gig Everett had presented him with a key to the apartment and told him not to leave the coffee maker on when he left. Then he had gone home with Corinne.

“I like that girl,” he told Gretchen on the way to the coast. “She’s got a mouth on her, but she’s funny and smart, and she likes Everett a lot. I’m happy for him.”

“She’s four years older than he is,” Gretchen said.

“So what? Bonnie was seven years older than me.”

“And how’d that work out?” she teased him.

“I don’t think that was the reason,” he said. “It was more the reality of trying to make a life once the dazzle of the romance wore off. Gravity pulled us down, and destiny broke us apart.”


“Never mind. It’s a Bob Dylan line. Everett would have gotten it.” He and Everett had dissimilar musical tastes, given the difference in their ages, but they had Dylan in common.

“You know I can’t stand Bob Dylan,” she said.

“Oh, right. You still do any radio work?”

She shook her head. “Not for years. It’s all young people now. But they did change the call letters. It’s a real community radio station now, not just one guy’s ego trip.”

“Hey, I found some of your old albums in Everett’s collection. The Partridge Family, and the Osmond Brothers.”

She made a face. “I did have crush on David Cassidy. The Osmond records were either Maddie’s or Joanie’s, though. I never liked those Mormon munchkins myself.”

“Did I ever tell you I saw Donny Osmond in concert in California?”

“No. What possessed you to go to a Donny Osmond show?”

“I was at the Del Mar fair, and he played the grandstand. It was back in the early 1990s. He wore a leather jacket and didn’t do any of the old songs. He must have been thirty-five – can you imagine him singing “Puppy Love”? The audience was almost all women between your age and Pilar’s.”

“Pilar never went in for many of those teen heartthrobs,” Gretchen said. “She liked the arty types. Still does, I guess.”

“You hear from her much?” Jeremy asked her.

“A little. She calls, I call. We send each other pictures on Facebook. I talked to her right after Mom went into the hospital.”

“Did you tell her to come back to Maine, too?”

“I tried,” Gretchen said. “And she might, at least for a weekend or something. She made some noises about it. But she’s harder to pin down than Everett. I don’t know what it is about coming later in the birth order. Maybe you just assume things will take care of themselves.”

Jeremy knew Gretchen had never assumed any such thing in her life. But hadn’t he flown off to California, sight unseen? And when things didn’t work out the way he thought they would, life went on anyway. Maybe if Gretchen let go of her need to plan everything, she would discover a different sort of security.

“It was good to see Joanie,” he said. “She seems busy, as always.”

“They’re going to get married next year if the referendum passes.”

“Why not?” Jeremy said. “They’ve been together forever. I’m surprised they haven’t run off to a state where it’s legal and done it already.”

Gretchen shook her head. “Joanie wants to get married in Maine. She’s even talking about having the wedding at the point. It’d be the first wedding down there since mine.”

“Which I fucked up,” Jeremy said.

“Yes. I remember.”

“I’m sorry about that, Gretchen.”

His sister laughed. “It’s a little late to apologize, isn’t it? I mean, it’s water waaay under the bridge at this point.”

“Or over the rocks.”

They shared a glance. A grimace at an inside joke. Blood.

“Joanie hasn’t said anything about it to Mom yet. I think she’s keeping her fingers crossed until we vote.”

“Do you think Ma and Paul will go for it? Hosting a gay wedding?”

“I don’t see why not. Mom’s gotten fairly liberal in her old age. And Paul will go along with anything she wants.” A pause. “Dad might do a couple of turns in his grave, though.”

“Yeah, somehow I don’t see dear old Dad as a big gay rights supporter. Joanie’s probably lucky she never had to come out to him. I can imagine how he would have reacted when I took up with a married woman.”

“He missed so much of our lives,” Gretchen said.

“All of Everett’s. And almost all of Joanie’s and Pilar’s. You, me and Maddie are the only ones who really remember him.”

“How much do you remember, Jeremy?”

They were turning down the road to Blue Hill as she asked this. To Jeremy it felt like the Star Trek episode in which Kirk and Spock went back in time to fix the future and Kirk fell in love with a social worker played by a young Joan Collins. It turned out that the social worker was supposed to have been killed in an accident in order to prevent her from founding a pacifist movement that inadvertently brought about a Nazi victory in World War II, and, by extension, a future without Star Fleet and the United Federation of Planets. But what he and Gretchen needed to do was the opposite. If they could just drive down this road back to 1971 and undo the doctor’s death and all its aftereffects, the pieces of their broken lives might fall back together.

Would he have still become involved with Bonnie had his father lived? Would he have gone to California? Would his father and mother be growing old together, hosting cocktail parties for doctors and hospital staff in a large, comfortable house in Blue Hill? Or would they have divorced and engaged in a bitter custody battle over their children? These were unanswerable questions. He had trained his scientist’s mind not to follow unproductive avenues of inquiry. But this road led to the land of underlying things, ledges in the forest, once visible but now buried under years of new growth.

“Remember how he used to make me get my hair cut really short? The last face-to-face conversation we had was a screaming match over a haircut before I went off to St. Paul’s.”

“And by the time he died it was over your ears,” Gretchen said. “By the next spring it was down to your shoulders.”

His hair was mostly gray now, but in his youth it had it had bleached out in the summer sun and sported streaks of red and blond. Bonnie had loved it. “Your hair is a million different colors,” she’d murmured, running her hands through it. He had grown it long in the years before he’d met her, in rebellion against his father’s ghost.

“It seems so ridiculous now, looking back – fathers fighting with their sons over the length of their hair,” he said. “But it was a big deal back then. It’s too bad it’s the last thing we ever talked about.”

They lapsed into silence until she guided the car over the top of the hill in North Penobscot where the church used to be. “There’s the mountain,” Jeremy said. “I always wondered why they called it ‘Blue Hill Mountain’. Isn’t that redundant? It’s either a hill or a mountain, not both.”

“Speaking of Dad,” Gretchen said.

“What does that mean?”

“He used to say the same thing, all the time. You’re more like him that you realize.”

“He bought me astronomy books,” Jeremy remembered. “He took us all to the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia, and he bought that telescope for the house in East Blue Hill. And that’s what I ended up doing. For better or worse.”

“I know what little I know about the stars and planets thanks to you and that telescope,” Gretchen said. “I remember looking at the rings of Saturn. They were edge-on the first time I saw them, just a straight line through the middle of the planet. And then a few years later when we looked at it again, they’d opened up. And you explained that Saturn was tilted on its axis, just like the Earth, and as it went around the sun the rings tilted toward us, and then away from us.”

“Whatever happened to that telescope?” Jeremy wondered.

“I don’t know. I think Mom probably sold it, during one of her purges.”

Their mother tended to keep things, anything that interested her, until house and garage became so overrun with stuff that she and Paul could barely walk around it all. Then, every couple of years, she had a giant yard sale at the point, usually in the spring, and carted everything that didn’t sell off to the thrift shop in Blue Hill or the dump in Surry. In a year or two a new collection accumulated. Annabelle loved books, but the built-in shelves in house and cabin had long ago reached capacity. Annabelle’s solution was to send them out as Christmas and birthday gifts. She did not keep track of which book went to which offspring, grandchild or in-law, and thus repeat gifts were common. One glorious Christmas Jeremy and his siblings had conspired to give their mother duplicate copies of books she had previously given them – all but Joanie and Carol, who had messed it up with a new silverware set and tickets for a whale-watching expedition.

“I’m sorry she got rid of the National Geographic collection,” Jeremy said.

“I’m not. I helped her get them out of the house. Do you know how much those things weigh?”

“A lot,” he said. “They’re printed on that heavy, glossy paper. And the whole archive’s available on DVD anyway. Still, there’s something cool about having the original magazines. Like Everett and his vinyl collection. He told me he’s got more than eight hundred records.”

“It’s strange that Everett turned out to be so musical. Remember that grand piano Mom and Dad had, and how they made us take lessons? Dad played a little, but he never seemed to be around to teach me anything.”

“He played for guests,” Jeremy said. “But I don’t think he had the patience to sit there and help a kid fumble through dumbed-down Beethoven, especially when the kid wasn’t all that interested. Speaking for myself, of course.”

“They had friends who could play,” Gretchen recalled, “and I remember it being played once or twice at one of their parties and being amazed that somebody could get that kind of sound out of it when all I could do was plink, plink, plink.”

“Did Everett take lessons? I was gone before he was really old enough.”

“I don’t remember. But he can pick up almost any instrument and get something out of it. It’s kind of remarkable.”

They were almost into Blue Hill. “Turn on the Mountain Road,” he said. “I want to see it from a distance first.”

Though it was the highest piece of land on the peninsula and visible for miles around, Blue Hill topped out at just under a thousand feet and would have been swallowed by the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, or even the Lagunas. Kids used come up here and tear around in the fields, open Jeeps and dirt bikes, drinking beer and setting off fireworks and raising hell. Now a sign identified the groups that managed the land, and enumerated prohibitions against vehicles, fires, camping, smoking and consumption of alcohol. A locked metal gate with a walking path around it reinforced the message.

The view spread out below them: first, clustered around the small inner harbor, the town itself, its low buildings punctuated by the exclamation points of the Baptist and Congregational churches. Then the outer harbor, the summer homes on Parker Point and along the opposite shore, and finally the bay, the green bulk of Long Island dividing it in two, the smaller outlying islands in the distance, and the hills (for Jeremy now thought of them as hills) of Mount Desert in the east. The day was clear, and Jeremy wanted to climb at least part way up the Mountain to get a better view. But they had other plans.

Did Gretchen get back into the car with similar reluctance? Neither spoke as she drove out the other end of the Mountain Road and turned right at the Blue Hill Fairgrounds. The years peeled away as they coasted into town. The house at the bottom of the hill, where the East Blue Hill road came in from the left, had been torn down to its foundation and rebuilt after Annabelle had sold it and moved with Paul to the point, and repainted nearly the same shade of yellow.

“You never lived there, did you?” Gretchen said.

“No. I was already in college.”

During his increasingly infrequent visits, Jeremy had camped out in the back room off the kitchen, normally used by his sisters as a hangout away from Annabelle and Paul. In the kitchen of this house, a few months after Gretchen’s wedding, he had announced his intention to move to California.

Across the intersection was a graveyard that sloped to the sea. Gretchen parked in front of the gate and they got out. Neither spoke as they walked through the gate and turned toward the resting place of their father.

Just inside the entrance, fresh flowers had been placed in two pots at the front corners of a marble monument the size of a small desk. “Danny Allen,” she said. “Still the best-kept grave in the place.”

Jeremy stopped to read the stone. It bore Danny’s name and the bookend years of his short life, 1959 and 1977, and below that, the words “Beloved Son” and the names of his parents, their dates uncompleted. Danny had been Gretchen’s classmate, killed in a drunken single-car accident the night of their graduation. The funeral had been attended by most of the town. Jeremy remembered kissing two of the sisters at separate school dances. How many of them had husbands now, and kids, even grandkids? Someone had recently brought fresh flowers for the teenager who had never grown up. Jeremy could still visualize his face.

But they had not come to see Danny.

They walked toward the creek that separated the cemetery from the boatyard where Dr. Elliott Sprauling had stored his sloop. Along this bank, facing the boatyard but away from the house across the street where his widow would later live, lay their father. The stone was a simple slab of white marble bearing nothing more than the doctor’s name and dates. Jeremy remembered the funeral, on a bitterly cold afternoon in late October, attended by a fraction of the crowd Danny Allen would draw six years later. He’d stayed on for a week and then gone back to school, spent a somber Thanksgiving in Philadelphia with his grandparents, and not returned to Maine until Christmas. He tried to remember how it had felt. Numb, he supposed.

Back at St. Paul’s he had plunged into his schoolwork, breezing through algebra and geometry and English even as he dabbled in the drugs that kids from city were bringing into the New Hampshire woods. He got high and he got good grades, and on short vacations he often went to visit the families of friends. But on Christmas and over the summer he had come back here, worked odd jobs, and squabbled with his sisters. And that was the way it went until he met Bonnie.

“I often wonder if Mom bought that house to be closer to Dad,” Gretchen said.

“I used to walk over here all the time, whenever I visited,” Jeremy said. “But I didn’t notice that she came over here much.”

“She didn’t,” Gretchen said. “At first it seemed strange, living across the street. But then I got used to it. Just like I got used to him being dead, I guess.”

He nodded. He’d gotten used to living in California a long time ago, and now he was getting used to living alone.

“Let’s go out to East Blue Hill,” he suggested.

Their grandparents’ old place was seven miles from town, but it existed in a different world, behind two wrought-iron gates at the ingress and egress of a driveway as wide as the road. In Jeremy’s youth the gates had opened once in the spring and closed once in the fall, but now both gates were chained and padlocked in the middle of May. Gretchen parked by the last one. “I don’t think we’ll get arrested,” she said. “And if we do, I’ll probably know the officer. We’ll just tell him who we are.”

The doctor’s parents had died within a year of each other in the early 1980s. The place had fallen to their surviving son and daughter, an aunt and uncle Jeremy had known sporadically before his father’s death and hardly at all thereafter. Both had grown children: a flock of cousins Jeremy had lost touch with decades ago. They had sold the place shortly after the elder Spraulings died. But Jeremy’s earliest memories of Maine revolved around his father’s family and this estate, where each summer they all had come here to enjoy a kind of leisurely vacation he had never experienced as an adult.

Jeremy and Gretchen edged around the gate and walked down the driveway, between stands of tall spruce trees that looked much as they had when they were children. “I haven’t been down here in years,” Gretchen said.

Jeremy knew every curve of the long driveway. When he was nine he had ridden his bicycle out here from the new house on South Street, a trip of a few miles that bridged the distance between two identities suddenly thrown into conflict. On the day after Labor Day, Jeremy and Gretchen and Maddie had lined up on the street outside the unfamiliar house on South Street and boarded a school bus full of local kids they did not yet know.

Visits to East Blue Hill from then on had been weekends or a few days at a time, not the lazy months of his earliest summers. Sometimes his grandparents let him bring school friends out, and they bunked in the boathouse, down by the shore. Jeremy’s earliest memories of the place included a building called the Club, which had contained a ping-pong table and an old crank-operated Edison phonograph and a pump organ on which they all dabbled without distinction. The building was infested with termites and had eventually been torn down. Now Jeremy saw as they came around the final bend that most of the other outbuildings were gone, too. The dock was still there, as was the boathouse, and moorings for two boats, but the float and ramp sat up on shore where they had been put for the winter. The main house loomed as large as ever; had someone built an addition on the back? At least they had kept the screened-in porch, where Jeremy remembered eating summer dinners looking out at the water.

The day was clear but breezy, the wind onshore and cold. Jeremy zipped his jacket as they walked down to the dock. The tide was half in (or half out; he couldn’t tell at a glance whether it was coming or going) and no boats appeared on the bay. The compound lay in a shallow cove from which no other homes were visible. The nearest place was a summer cottage about a quarter of a mile away around a small point. “You have to drive a long way out into the desert in California to find isolation like this,” Jeremy said.

“You miss it?” Gretchen asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived three different lives. One as a rich summer kid from Philadelphia, one as a fucked-up Maine teenager whose father died, and one as a Californian. I never could seem to reconcile any of them with the others.”

“Why have you stayed away so long, Jeremy? Thirty years is a long time.”

He shrugged in the cold wind. “I was at a park in San Diego a few years ago, watching an eclipse of the moon with a bunch of people from work. And this guy I’d never met, who was born out there, asked me how long I’d been in Southern California. When I told him twenty-five years, he said, ‘Oh, well, you count as a native then.’ I can’t imagine anyone in Maine saying that to me in a million years.”

“We’ve got a couple generations to go. My kids were born here, but they don’t seem to be in any hurry to come back and start families.”

“It’s overrated, anyway,” Jeremy said. “Roots. Where you’re from.”

“Mom always said that when she saw the coast of Maine, she knew she was home,” Gretchen said. “She said it was her dream to live on the water.”

“And she realized it.”

“Twice,” Gretchen said. “Once, here, with Dad, and then again when she met Paul and they built the place on the point.”

More silence passed between them as they stared out at the bay. Jeremy saw that there were whitecaps out in the middle. At length Gretchen spoke again. “It’s her dream, though, not ours. We didn’t ask for it.”

“Maine is pretty nice,” Jeremy offered.

“Except for the people who think their shit doesn’t stink.”

This pronouncement caught Jeremy off guard, for he thought that of all his siblings, Gretchen had most completely bought into small-town life. “I’m surprised to hear you so critical,” he said.

“Did you see any sign that said ‘Welcome to Blue Hill’?”

“No, but I can’t say I was really looking.”

“When we go down to the point you’ll see a sign that says ‘Welcome to Brooklin, boatbuilding capital of the world.’ But nowhere on any road into town will you find a sign that says ‘Welcome to Blue Hill.’ I know. I’ve been here long enough to know.”

“Ma couldn’t win,” Jeremy said, after another pause. “The locals treated her like a summer person, and Dad’s people probably thought of her as a rube. Where we fit into the picture is anybody’s guess.”

“You escaped all that, though,” Gretchen said. “You left.”

He looked out at the bay for several silent seconds. “Yeah, but no matter where you go, you’re still you. You have to accept who you are, warts and all, before can ever really be happy.”

Are you happy, Jeremy?”

They hadn’t talked like this in years, if ever. He thought about the question for a second, and said, “Most of the time, yeah. I am. I do work that means something to me. I have some good friends. I’d like to meet someone, I guess, but I’m not pining away. So all in all, I’d have to say yes.”

“You don’t ever feel overwhelmed by regrets?”

“I can’t do anything about Dad dying,” he said.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Come on Gretchen, it’s a beautiful day, and we’re both alive to enjoy it. Neither of us is starving or in prison or terminally ill or spending our days in drudgery. There’s a lot to be thankful for.”

“That’s happiness by subtraction,” she said. “We’re supposed to be happy because our lives aren’t awful? I suppose that’s better than nothing, but it’s still a negative definition of happiness. Avoidance of tragedy.”

“We got our share of that early,” he said. “This place got subtracted from our lives, along with our father.”

It was time to go. They both sensed it. Without another word, they turned and walked across the lawn past the shuttered house. Jeremy turned once to look back at the water. The tide was coming in. Soon it would reach the spot where his grandparents had anchored the small raft that they swam out to on hot summer days. He had wanted for nothing as a child. Neither he nor any of his siblings lived that way now.

They drove past their old house on South Street, now an inn and restaurant. “Want to stop?” Gretchen asked him.

“Is the food any good?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “They’ve done some interesting things with the interior, though. Your old bedroom is like the honeymoon suite now.”

It was nearly noon; several cars were parked in the dirt lot that had once been their lawn. They could have stopped for lunch, introduced themselves, asked to see the owner, and commented on the changes. But he was glad when she didn’t slow down.

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