A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 6

Paul was taking a break on the camp’s small porch, drinking a beer, when Gretchen pulled up at the end of the gravel driveway. Though the day was still cool, the porch offered protection from the northwest wind, and the midday spring sun took the chill off. Gretchen called hello as she and Jeremy got out of the car. She had been down here just two days ago, airing out the bedding and sweeping cobwebs from the corners of the camp’s three bedrooms. Paul had to admit she’d been invaluable in Annabelle’s absence.

“Hi, Gretchen,” he said back, and then, to Jeremy, “Boat’s still up behind the house, where you left it.”

“Place looks good, Paul.” Jeremy offered a half-hearted hug from which he instinctively recoiled. They touched shoulders briefly and awkwardly.

“You guys want a beer?”

“I’ll take one, thanks,” Jeremy said.

“So will I,” said his sister, surprising Paul a little. He went into the camp and pulled three cans of Molson from the half-empty case in the refrigerator. A twin case of Miller High Life, for when he was alone with no one to judge his taste in beer, sat beside it. The refrigerator contained nothing else. But he’d just gotten the place open. It was easier to go up to the house to eat.

“Water’s on,” he said, handing out the beers as Gretchen and Jeremy settled into green plastic Adirondack chairs on the porch. “Propane’s all hooked up, too. Jeremy, you can stay down here if you want.”

“Thanks,” Jeremy said. “Let me know what needs doing.”

“There’s plenty,” Paul said.

“When do your first tenants come?” Jeremy asked.

“Not ’til the last week of June,” he said. “Good thing, too. This deck’s falling apart. I’ve gotta shore up that soft spot.” He nodded at a rotted board, a lawsuit waiting to happen, if one of the Boston banker’s kids put a leg through it. “Getting a late start this year, what with your mother in the hospital.”

“That’s why we’re here, Paul,” Gretchen said.

Paul had kept the place up mostly by himself in the forty years since his father’s death. But routine maintenance took longer than it used to (though if he were to be entirely honest with himself, he would have to admit also that cocktail hour came earlier each year). The main house, still not thirty years old, was in worse shape than the camp. The observation deck on the roof that Annabelle had insisted on when they were designing the house was no longer safe, and he had never entirely solved the mildew problem in the basement, where the two guest bedrooms were. It stank down there, to the point where Annabelle’s kids preferred driving home on winter nights to staying over. But now that it was up and running, Jeremy could stay down at the camp.

He had an uneasy relationship with the kid, as he still thought of him, though they were now respectively in their seventies and fifties. What a brat he had been when he was younger. More than once Paul had been tempted to smack him around, and had only refrained from doing so for the sake of his wife. He wondered why Annabelle put up with him. An ass-kicking was what the kid had needed, and Paul had had the capacity to do it back then, for Jeremy was a couple of inches shorter, twenty pounds lighter, and averse to physical confrontation. Instead, to Paul’s relief, the kid had gone to California.

Now they were the same size, and Jeremy, twenty years younger, likely would get the better of a fight, had either of them had any fight left. Over the years and a series of widely spaced visits they had eased into something like mutual acceptance. Since Jeremy’s last divorce, Paul noted that he had become easier to get along with. But the two former antagonists had never been and likely would never be close. Still strangers, though the kid had known Paul longer than he had known his own father.

Paul was a native Mainer whose roots did not go deep. His grandfather, Arthur Bremerton, had been part of the circle of young socialists who had gathered in New York in the early part of the twentieth century and imagined, like the Beats and the hippies who followed them, that they could change the world. Among the grandfather’s acquaintances had been the playwright Eugene O’Neil and the journalist John Reed, and among Paul’s prized possessions was an autographed copy of Ten Days That Shook the World, with an inscription that read: “To my good friend Art, comrade in arms and brother in letters.” Neither man had ever taken up arms, but Arthur Bremerton had written a semi-successful and now forgotten novel, set in New York in the days before the United States entered the First World War. The book’s earnings had purchased the property on which Paul now lived. Arthur Bremerton had used the place as his summer writing retreat, penning periodic magazine pieces and essays in scholarly journals, but he never published another book. During the Depression he was able to buy a year-round home in Blue Hill for next to nothing, and he moved his wife and children, including Paul’s father William, then a teenager, permanently to Maine in 1935. William had a love of the ocean and a knack for building boats. It seemed natural that he would marry a Maine girl and make his life in Brooklin, at the end of the peninsula, and equally natural that his son would become a lobsterman. Paul was born in 1941, two years after his sister and six months before Pearl Harbor.

The war and its aftermath permanently separated William Bremerton from the politics of his father. By the late 1940s Arthur Bremerton was an old man, still clinging to the romantic notion of the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise even as the Russians gobbled up Eastern Europe. Paul’s grandfather died in 1956 as Soviet troops rolled into Hungary. William told his fifteen-year-old son that the old man’s heart could not handle his disillusionment.

Paul attended local schools and went off to college at Fordham, studying engineering, but neither city life nor academic life suited him, and he dropped out after his sophomore year to join the navy. His service time fell between Korea and Vietnam, but it took him to Europe, where he was stationed in Germany and had the chance to travel during furloughs. A year after the Berlin wall went up he was back in Maine, where he quickly obtained a lobster license and went to work, on a boat built by his father.

He loved the life. Working on the sea, on his own boat (bought from his dad on informal credit), appealed to his American sense of self-reliance. He married a local girl and bought a house a few miles from his father’s camp on the point. Then in 1968, shortly after the brutal conclusion to the Prague Spring, William dropped suddenly and unexpectedly dead from a heart attack, and the camp was his. That Christmas his wife announced that she was leaving him for another man. Paul’s reaction was to tear down the Christmas tree and thrust it out into the cold through an unopened window.

He began to drink more heavily after that, though he had always liked his booze. His ex-wife got the house; Paul moved briefly in with his widowed mother. In the summer he lived at the camp, and in the fall he rented a place in Blue Hill, a bit of a drive to his boat but cheap, just down the road from the Sprauling house on South Street. If he met Annabelle before the doctor’s death it was only in passing, in the store or the post office, as nodding acquaintances in a community where there were few real strangers.

How had he gotten involved with a woman with six kids? Well, she had been a fun date and drinking buddy. The first time he’d taken her out on his boat, the weather had been rough and she had reveled in it. They liked each other’s company. He liked her kids, mostly. But what had made him think he could be a substitute father to such a brood? It hadn’t been easy. Jeremy had tried his patience. Even now, sitting in the sunshine drinking a beer with the two oldest Sprauling siblings, he could recall annoying things Jeremy had said and done as a punk teenager, and he could still taste a bit of bile – buried deep, to be sure, but not forgotten. But at least Jeremy was male, and therefore comprehensible; Annabelle’s daughters were four separate mysteries. Gretchen was studious and quiet. He liked the boisterous Madison better. Once, long ago, he’d patted her butt a bit too affectionately; she’d taken it the wrong way and said something to her mother. He considered the incident forgotten. But she was cool to him now. He’d been more careful with Joanie and Pilar. But he was self-aware enough to notice that all of the girls were physically uncomfortable with him, though he had never laid a hand on any of them in anger. Well, except for that one time he’d whacked Joanie’s wrist when she reached across his place at the Christmas dinner table for a plate of cookies – and that had been blown out of proportion, too.

Paul drained the last of his beer. “Sorry Everett couldn’t have come down with you, Jeremy,” he said. “Get a lot done, with three of us instead of two.”

“He’s got a gig, I think,” Gretchen said.

“He’s playing guitar and doing backing vocals for some band fronted by a couple of chick singers,” Jeremy said, tipping back his own can. “He told me about it last night.”

“Lucky guy,” Paul said, rising. “You want another?” Jeremy nodded.

“Me too, “ Gretchen said, holding out her empty can.

He returned with three cold ones. “Everett’s a demon splitting wood, with that long swing of his,” Paul said. “If you could get him out of bed before ten in the morning, you might get an honest day’s work out of him.”

In truth, Everett had been Paul’s biggest disappointment. Here had been his chance to raise a son from scratch, for Everett was in preschool when Paul came into Annabelle’s life, and the kid knew no other father. But Everett called him Paul, as all his sisters did, never “Dad.” And despite days on the lobster boat and more hours tinkering with engines and machinery, Everett developed neither a love for the sea or an aptitude for mechanics. He liked music and books, and sleeping. “That kid,” he told Annabelle, “is as lazy as the day is long.”

“Mom seems to be making good progress in her physical therapy,” Gretchen said now. “She’s walking up and down the hall three times a day now.”

“Can’t do stairs yet, though,” Paul said. “Until she can, they won’t let her come home.” He tipped his beer. “Maybe we should move down here for the summer, and rent out the house. Now there’s an idea.”

He thought he caught a glance pass between Gretchen and Jeremy, a silent sibling communication in a language not his own. He wondered if they knew how close he was to selling this place, and moving into a one-level home in Ellsworth, or even Portland or North Carolina. He was tired of the seasons and the stairs and the isolation he had cherished for most of his adult life. Now it seemed like a prison – one with crystal walls, to be sure, but oh what it pain it was to keep them clean!

They had good years remaining. Wouldn’t Annabelle rather travel, or live somewhere warm, than gaze out at the familiar view as her final years fell away? He loved this place; it was his family’s place, not hers, not theirs. But maybe it was time to let it go, and enjoy what time they had.

* *

Before she left, Gretchen did a whirlwind cleaning of the inside of the cabin, concentrating on the three small bedrooms. She fetched fresh linens from the house and made up all the beds, and promised to come back on her next day off to scrub down the bathroom and wash all the windows. Jeremy helped Paul get the screens down from the crawl space under the roof and clean them off in preparation for painting. At about five o’clock Gretchen departed and Paul decided it was time to switch from beer to bourbon. “Let’s knock off for the day,” he suggested. “I’m not much for cooking, but there’s some hamburgers we could throw on the grill.”

Jeremy said this sounded good, and they closed up the camp and walked up the hill to the main house. Paul made drinks and Jeremy offered to cook the burgers. They sat outside in plastic chairs on the side of the house away from the sea breeze and talked, at first about inconsequential things like the weather and work and politics. Paul found himself enjoying the conversation and forgetting about the past; just two men outdoors on a sunny spring afternoon shooting the shit over drinks. Jeremy asked about the sailboat, and Paul said it was behind the garage, beneath a tarp. “If you want, we can uncover it tomorrow and see what has to be done.”

Jeremy got up to take a look, but there wasn’t much to see under the tarp. Paul had picked up the sloop some years ago from a man who owed him money for fixing a diesel engine on his lobster boat; he had thought he might teach himself to sail as a sort of retirement project, but so far it had not happened. When Jeremy had come East three years ago and expressed interest, Paul saw it a chance for them to salvage something of a familial relationship. Jeremy had been making noises about moving back to Maine then. But he had been hard on the heels of a divorce, and Paul understood that those are the times when men contemplate life changes without necessarily acting on them. Probably the same thing kept him in California that kept Paul on shore and the boat behind the garage: lethargy. It became harder and harder to launch new projects and follow new ambitions as the years slipped by.

When the burgers were done they shut off the grill and went inside to eat. Paul turned on the TV. “I like to watch the news,” he said. “I flip around the channels to see how the different newscasts are covering the same stories. It drives your mother nuts.” He laughed. “You want another drink?”

“I think I’ll switch back to beer,” Jeremy said.

“In the refrigerator. Help yourself.” Paul mixed another bourbon. They watched the news on three different channels until a clip from Quebec came up, and Jeremy said something about Pilar dating a separatist.

“Good old Pilar,” Paul said. “Always up to something interesting.”

“That’s her new cause,” Jeremy said. “She’s always needed a cause.”

“It’s a lost one,” Paul replied. “The whole world’s economy is getting more and more interconnected, and they want to split up a viable country like Canada to create a French-speaking socialist island in the middle of North America.”

“But isn’t Canada kind of socialist already?” Jeremy asked. “They’ve got socialized medicine, at least.”

Paul laughed. “Yeah, and Maine’s hospitals are filled with Canadian doctors and nurses. People will go where they can make the most money.”

He and Annabelle were both on Medicare, but they carried supplemental insurance for such things as long-term hospital stays, which was proving to be a prudent decision.

Jeremy turned in early. Paul had another bourbon, and fell asleep in front of the TV. He woke at one, turned it off, and stumbled upstairs to bed.

Over the next few days, they fell into a pattern of working together but separately. Jeremy split wood while Paul mowed the lawn, and painted screen frames while Paul puttered with the propane stove. In this way they passed the mornings and early afternoons without talking much. But after lunch the beers came out and their attention turned to the boats: the two dinghies and the small fiberglass sloop.

Paul knew boats. He pointed out to Jeremy the spots where the caulking needed to be re-done; he went around the sailboat’s fiberglass hull with a hammer, tapping gently and listening for soft spots that indicated de-lamination. “She’s pretty solid,” Paul said, after a preliminary inspection. The only real trouble spots were a soft section of the foredeck, and the rudder, constructed of a wooden slab encased in fiberglass, which was now peeling away, exposing the wood. Paul got out a power sander and ground it smooth, and together they mixed fiberglass resin and layered on sheets of the messy, tacky material to shore it up. Jeremy bunged it up at first, but Paul patiently smoothed out his mistakes and showed him how to lay the sheets and apply the resin evenly.

They were at their best with each other at these times, Jeremy soaking up lessons he’d never learned from his father. Paul was surprised at how little the kid knew about boat maintenance. Jeremy explained that Elliott Sprauling had taught him how to handle a boat on the water, but he thought it likely that the boatyard in Blue Hill had done most of the prep work.

Jeremy wanted to get the smaller of the two dinghies in the water so that he could go rowing. Paul helped him scrape it down and apply a fresh coat of paint. He shored up one spot where the wooden gunwale had broken away, and he had Jeremy sand and varnish the oars.

On his last full day at the point, they launched the dinghy and Jeremy went for a long row. He had already astonished Paul by swimming in the frigid water at high tide. By their last night together at the point, the screens were painted and in place and the small shed next to the camp was filled with split firewood, and the dinghy sat on an out-haul, floating at high tide, immobile in the mud at low. Summer was coming, and so were Annabelle’s children, whether or not he was ready.

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