A Sprauling Family Saga

By Hank All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Mystery

Chapter 17

Gretchen spent her final summer as a single woman in Old Orchard Beach, working for the weekly newspaper. She suspected that her fiancé’s father, a lawyer in town, had helped her get the job; he had certainly helped her get the apartment. Rents quadrupled in July and August, but Ted’s father had tentacles in the real estate community and secured her a place a block from the beach, at just eleven-fifty for the whole season. By September she would be married. They were already looking at houses.

To Ted’s family, it was axiomatic that Ted would go back to school eventually, and follow his father into the law. But Ted loved the job he had now. He sold surfing and diving equipment at a store that stayed open all year. Six months after dropping out of the University of Maine, he’d earned two raises and been promoted to assistant manager. On summer weekends he took paying customers on diving expeditions

Between their two jobs they would have enough to make the modest mortgage payments on whatever place Ted’s father – Theo Addington, her future father-in-law -- picked out for them, for she knew already that was how it would go. Ted’s family was loaded, and Theo had made it clear that he stood ready to help the young couple get started on the road to success.

If there was a pinprick of doubt in Gretchen’s mind that she was doing the right thing, it concerned the place they planned to live: Old Orchard Beach, or at least somewhere in the coastal towns south of Portland. Still Maine, but a different Maine than the one in which she grew up. People down here were loud and always in a hurry. She hadn’t passed a winter yet in Old Orchard, but Ted had told her that it became a fog-swept ghost town of shuttered summer businesses around a shrunken central core that included the grocery store, the hardware store, the liquor store, the post office, and of course, his father’s law office.

Theo (he was Theodore Senior; the son was Theodore Junior but insisted on “Ted”) had a larger office in Portland and had pressed his son to take a summer internship there, with pay. But Ted had stood up to his father; he had a good job, he said, one that he liked, and he was socking some of each paycheck into a savings account. This last bit had convinced his father. Gretchen was just happy that Ted had taken a stand. Though grateful for Theo’s benevolence, his looming presence in their lives disconcerted her.

She mused occasionally on the influence her own father might have exerted on her marriage had he lived. She would likely be getting married in East Blue Hill, at her grandparents’ summer house, rather than Paul Bremerton’s place at the point. Elliott Sprauling would give her away, and perhaps help set them up in a house in Blue Hill. But that was not how things had turned out, and Gretchen had trained her mind to pull back from unproductive speculation. She had a wedding to plan.

The newspaper job involved a lot of tedium and not much real writing. Gretchen was obligated to compile the crime reports each week, plus the obituaries, wedding announcements, birth notices, business briefs, and school news. She was sometimes sent to an evening meeting of the school committee or selectmen. Those meetings were boring, boring, boring, but they gave her a chance to write, and since she was on a forty-hour schedule, she could comp the time during the week and hit the beach on a sunny afternoon.

The paper published on Thursday, making Friday the laziest day of the week, even in late July, when the town was at its hoppingest. Gretchen got started on the Calendar of Events, planning to stay only until noon or so, for she already had 36 hours in. The newspaper occupied its own building, an adapted ranch house, on a small rise near the year-round core of town. Gretchen could walk to the beach on her lunch break, where she sometimes met her fiancé for fried clams and ice cream. The office was within walking distance of every essential business. This included Theo’s law office, and occasionally he popped in to say hi. Gretchen had a desk in the corner of the cozy newsroom, really a made-over living room with desks for her and the two full-time reporters, a photocopier, a file cabinet, and a long, low coffee table perpetually buried in papers. A former bedroom beyond this had been converted into the editor’s office.

Beatrice Mason’s powerful personality drove the newspaper and dominated the office whenever she was in. She was what Gretchen and her college friends called a BMW – big Maine woman – and she literally threw her weight around, in the office and in civic affairs. She wasn’t fat so much as stout, and tall, a good five-foot-ten. She had a loud voice that could turn abrasive when she thought someone was lying to her or evading a direct answer to a question. Her family had been in Old Orchard Beach for generations, She knew everyone in town. Beatrice was forty, unmarried, and childless, and Gretchen suspected, without any other evidence, that she was gay. Her septuagenarian father still owned the paper, and still contributed an occasional column.

But Beatrice wasn’t in the office this Friday. The boss came and went as she pleased. The two reporters, Albert and Andrea, were either off chasing stories or taking comp time of their own. Gretchen didn’t keep track of them. That was up to the office manager, Karen Finnegan, a rail-thin, fiftyish woman who wore black dresses and too much makeup and sat at the reception desk out front and collected everyone’s time sheets at the end of the week. Karen was married, with two grown children, and ran the office with quiet efficiency. On the opposite side of the house was the advertising department, staffed by two gossipy middle-aged women named Sharon and Cheryl – it took Gretchen two weeks to get their names straight, and to many of their customers they were interchangeable. They looked and dressed alike, in the skirt-and-blouse uniform of small town professionals; neither a beauty but each attractive enough to approach clients with confidence and close deals on the ads that kept the paper in business. Their similarities were an asset in their work, for one could step in for the other at any time, and the advertisers would barely notice the difference.

Most of the Calendar listings came in the old-fashioned way, through the U.S. Mail. One of Gretchen’s duties was to walk the two blocks to the post office every day. Friday was deadline for the Calendar. She had just finished sorting the mail and separating out the Calendar announcements when she heard some commotion near the door. A group of young people had entered the office, and through the babble of teenage voices, she heard her name.

A moment later, Karen’s gaunt figure appeared in the doorway. “Gretchen, there’s a young woman here with some of her friends. She says she’s your sister.”

Gretchen looked up from her work at the gaggle of kids who had invaded the office, all dressed for the beach. She beamed when she saw their short, long-haired ringleader, wearing flip-flops and a yellow bikini beneath an open white shirt. The suit didn’t cover much, but then Pilar, small all over, didn’t have much to cover. There were six of them, two girls and four boys. “Hey, sis,” Pilar said, breezing past the receptionist. The others streamed into the newsroom behind her.

“Well, this is a surprise,” Gretchen said, hugging her little sister. Pilar smelled of white wine; a glance at the group told her they’d all been drinking, though it was just past eleven in the morning. She was conscious of the difference in their attire. Gretchen wore dress shoes topped by a pair of conservative slacks and a light blue blouse. At least the boys, in bathing suits, had all donned shirts for this impromptu office visit, though a couple of them had them unbuttoned, showing off navels and the first few sprouts of chest and belly hair. The other girl was about five-six, with dark hair and almond eyes, a sultry beauty-to-be who appeared much older than Pilar. As for the boys, they all had the loose-limbed look of male adolescence. A tall kid with dark bangs and acne scars stood next to Pilar; his goofy grin reminded Gretchen, with a small pang, of Danny Allen. “What brings you down to these parts?” she said to her sister.

“The beach,” Pilar replied. “We all wanted to get out of Blue Hill for a while, and this seemed like as good place to go as any.” Her friends nodded behind her.

“Who’s driving?” Gretchen asked.

Pilar grabbed the arm of the gangly guy beside her. “Kevin is,” she said. “He’s got a car big enough to fit all of us. But don’t worry; we’re not driving back tonight. We all pitched in and got a room. It’s right on the beach, and they have outside grills. We’re gonna have a big cookout tonight, after we finish swimming and baking in the sun. You wanna come?”

Gretchen tried to reel in her imagination about what else might go on in a shared suite among six teenagers. Pilar was only fifteen. Was she doing this guy? Gretchen wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

He was probably a senior, to have his own car and license and the responsibility for five passengers, she thought, but to Gretchen everyone in the group looked impossibly young. She didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of high school kids. She did want to talk to her sister, though, so she said, “Tell you what. I’ve got some stuff to finish up here, but I should be done in an hour or so. You want to meet somewhere? I’ll buy you lunch.”

“Oh wow. Sure,” Pilar said. She glanced over her shoulder at her friends. The other girl scanned the newsroom, taking in the cluttered desks and the seascapes Beatrice Mason had hung on the walls. The boys just stood there.

“There’s a pretty good place to get fried clams, right by the pier,” Gretchen said. “It’s called Sonny’s Shack. Want to meet me there at say, one o’clock?”

“Okay.”

“What do you do here?” the almond-eyed girl asked.

Gretchen smiled at her. “I’m an editorial assistant,” she said. “That means I work on the editorial part of the newspaper, not the ads. I put together a lot of the small stuff, like the Calendar, which I’m doing now. Sometimes I write a story.” Gretchen indicated the stack of papers next to her word processor. “This is my desk right here.”

“So you’re like a reporter?”

“Sort of. Reporter in training is more like it. These other two desks belong to the full-time reporters. They…”

Before she could finish, the outside door opened and Albert Wise appeared, wearing a white shirt and dress slacks, with a 35-millimeter camera slung over one shoulder and a notebook in his other hand, so cliché that she almost laughed. “Well, speak of the devil,” she said. “Here’s one of our real reporters now. Hot on a story, Albert?”

“I don’t know how hot it is,” he said. “The Friends of the Library are having a book sale this weekend, and I took some pictures of them setting up. What’s going on here?”

Albert was in his late twenties, unmarried, attractive in a nerdy sort of way. He had flirted halfheartedly with Gretchen during her first week on the job until finding out that she was engaged. Now she caught his eyes darting toward Pilar’s nearly naked body and felt a flash of disgust.

“This is my sister, Pilar, Albert,” Gretchen said. “And these are some of her friends from Blue Hill. They came down to spend a day at the beach and dropped in to say hi.”

“Hi,” Pilar said.

“Nice to meet you,” Albert said. “Gretchen tells me you do some writing, too.”

She smiled at him. “What else has she told you about me?” Gretchen realized that Pilar had not missed Albert’s appreciative look. The guy beside her shifted on his feet uncomfortably.

“Let’s see,” Albert said, setting down the camera and turning over several pieces of paper on his cluttered desk. “You’re one of four sisters, right? Sandwiched between two brothers. Your father was a doctor. But he’s…”

“Dead,” Pilar finished for him. “It’s all right. You can say it.”

“I’m sorry,” the reporter said.

Pilar shrugged her small shoulders. “It’s been ten years. I would hope we’re all over it.”

“I don’t know,” Albert said, with a sideways glance at Gretchen. “The death of a parent… that’s heavy. Something like that can affect a family for a long time.”

Gretchen didn’t know what to make of this. She was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the entire situation. She didn’t want Pilar and her barely clad teenybopper friends in her office – the workspace she had so carefully cordoned off from the messiness of her biological family. Come to think of it, she didn’t even like it when Ted dropped by – which he had done fewer times than she could count on one hand – because it disrupted the carefully maintained separation between the personal and the professional. “So you want to have lunch, then?” she said to her sister, hoping it didn’t sound like the bum’s rush. “I’d really like to talk with you.”

“Sure,” Pilar said. “What’d you say – one o’clock? At the fried clam place near the pier, right?”

Gretchen nodded. “Sonny’s Shack,” she said.

Pilar repeated it, and turned to her friends. “Remember that, you guys, okay? Sonny’s Shack. I’m meeting my sister there at one.” A couple of the guys bobbed their bangs up and down in agreement; another kid mouthed the name like it was a difficult rule in algebra or a crucial line in a play. Cripes, how early had these kids started drinking? Gretchen thought back to her own time in high school. She and her friends had sometimes gone to school tripping on mescaline, and they had routinely smoked pot behind the gym before first period classes. Her entourage had included a few dubious characters. She’d made it through okay, and so would Pilar. But it was painful to watch her younger sister’s rites of passage and withhold judgment.

“Go stake out a spot on the beach, and I’ll meet you then,” Gretchen said, smiling at the whole group. But then she looked out the window, and her vision of a beautiful summer day on the shore was eclipsed by the sturdy frame of Beatrice Mason, clutching a large bouquet of fresh flowers in one hand and the Portland paper in the other, striding up the walkway.

Her entrances were never quiet. The outer door banged open. “Karen, be a dear and find a vase for these, will you? They’re from Grover at the town office, in thanks for the story we did on the citizen beach patrol.” Andrea had written the story, Gretchen recalled, but Beatrice was happy to accept the gratitude.

As Karen scurried off to find a container, Beatrice, sans flowers, entered the newsroom and found the pathway to her office blocked by the crowd of kids. “Well, well, this is a popular place this morning,” she said. She was smiling when she said this, but to Gretchen there was something feral and fake about her facial expression. Albert suddenly became fascinated by something on the top of his desk.

“Beatrice, this is my sister Pilar, and some of her friends from home,” Gretchen said quickly. “They just dropped in to say hi. They’re spending the day at the beach.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“Hello,” Pilar said. Gretchen tried not to squirm. Pilar introduced each of them by name, while the large editor nodded and maintained the plaster smile.

“It’s very nice to meet all of you,” she said. “And welcome to Old Orchard. It’s a beautiful day for the beach.” She turned to Gretchen. “I thought you were off today.”

“I had four more hours,” Gretchen said. “I’m just finishing up the Calendar, and then I’m going to take off for the afternoon.”

“Well, good. Your sister’s here, you should spend some time with her.”

“We’re having lunch,” Gretchen said.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Beatrice turned her smile on Pilar, who smiled back. Gretchen wondered if her boss could tell how tipsy the teenagers were. What kind of impression would this office visit make, and how would it affect her job going forward? Gretchen couldn’t stop herself from making this sort of calculation; she had thought this way since… well, since she could remember – at least since her father’s death. But maybe it had started even earlier. You think too much. How many times had she heard that from well-meaning friends? She did spend a lot of time considering consequences. She loved Ted and felt physical attraction for him, but she was marrying him not out of transcendent passion, but because the positives seemed to outweigh the negatives. That was how she approached every decision in her life. It was the only way she knew.

“So I’ll see you at one, okay?” she said to Pilar, hoping her sister would take the hint and lead her flock from the office.

“Sounds like a plan,” Pilar said. To Beatrice, she said, “It was a pleasure to meet you.” Tipsy or not, Gretchen’s youngest sister remembered her manners.

The teenagers trooped out. “I’m sorry about that,” Gretchen said to her boss.

“Sorry for what?” Beatrice said.

“The disruption.”

“Oh, bosh,” Beatrice said, flapping a hand. “If it had been deadline day, maybe it would have been disruptive. But I don’t think they disrupted anything Albert was doing, and I only stopped in for a few moments anyway. I’m having lunch with Henry Johnson – he’s the guy who built the new ballpark up by the school. He wants to bring a minor league team in here, and he just might pull it off. Can you imagine it? Professional baseball right here in Old Orchard Beach?”

“I’d go,” Albert said, looking up from his cluttered desk at Gretchen. “You like baseball?”

“Not particularly,” she said, and immediately regretted her honesty in front of her boss. But Beatrice shrugged it off.

“Plenty of people around here who do,” she said. “He’s negotiating with the Cleveland Indians, I believe, and he says they’re interested. I’ll find out more about it at lunch. Could be a story in it for you, Albert. I’ll keep you posted.” She glanced at a slim silver watch on her round wrist. “Oh, goodness, I’m running late.”

She ducked into her office, and a minute later came streaming back through the newsroom on her way out the door. “Have a good weekend, you two,” she said over her shoulder to Gretchen and Albert. And then she was gone.

At lunchtime, Pilar was waiting for her outside Sonny’s Shack on a wooden bench next to the kid she had identified as Kevin. Was he going to hang around? She really wanted to talk to Pilar alone. Her invitation to lunch hadn’t included Pilar’s maybe boyfriend, but how was she going to dismiss him without being rude and annoying her younger sister?

Fortunately, the kid excused himself with a “see you later” to Pilar, and headed back to the group on the beach, leaving the sisters by themselves. Once again, she had worried about nothing.

They ate fried clams and French fries and coleslaw at an outdoor table on the side of the pier. Gretchen ordered two Cokes, and was happy to see that her sister had apparently done no additional drinking. Pilar reported that the construction crew had poured the foundation at the point, and that the frame of their mother’s future home was rising into the sky. “It’ll make a nice backdrop to your wedding,” she said. “They’re hoping to have the roof on before the snow flies, so they can work on the inside over the winter. By this time next year, it should be done.”

“So they’re really doing it,” Gretchen said. “Mom’s moving out of Blue Hill.”

“Right after Joanie graduates,” Pilar affirmed. “That’s the plan. So I guess I’ll spend my senior year commuting to school, probably on the bus. Unless I buy a car, or find a friend down there who drives.”

“How’s Joanie doing, by the way?” Gretchen asked.

“Good,” Pilar said. “She’s got a job at the IGA, five days a week, mostly unloading produce and stuff. But sometimes she works the cash register.” She flashed a mischievous grin. “She lets me buy cigarettes.”

“Jesus, Pilar, you’re smoking?”

“Oh, don’t be such a big sister. I don’t smoke all the time. They stunt your growth.”

This got a laugh out of Gretchen. She had smoked in high school and at the University of Maine, but Ted hated it, and she had managed to give the habit up, not without some difficulty.

“Anyway, you still planning on having Paul walk you down the aisle?”

“Down the lawn, you mean? I can’t see any way out of it, can you? I mean, it’s either him or Jeremy.”

“Jeremy’s planning on sailing in to your wedding, did you know that?”

“What? No.”

“Yeah. He called Mom last week, says that camp he works for has given him permission to take the boat for the first week of September. I think he was going to go sailing with a girl he works with, but she has to go back to school, so now he’s planning to sail the boat over there by himself.”

“And make a grand entrance, no doubt,” Gretchen said sourly. Her older brother had scored a summer job that entailed taking teenagers out on the coastal waters of Maine, teaching them to sail, and helping them build character. What parents in their right minds, had they known, would entrust the development of their teenage kids to an entitled, self-absorbed first-born who still acted like an adolescent himself? She could only imagine the damaged psyches that would leave Islesboro at the end of the summer. “He’d better get there way before the ceremony starts,” she said. “If he tries to be the center of attention on my wedding day, I’ll kill him.”

“Well, maybe it’s a good idea to include him in the ceremony somehow,” Pilar said. “In a minor role.”

Gretchen had already enlisted her sisters as maids of honor and three-year-old Serena as a flower girl. Ted’s father had reserved all the rooms in the nearby Salt Farm Inn for the groom’s extended family and booked Blue Hill’s only expensive restaurant for the pre-wedding dinner, to which both entourages were invited. Surely Paul expected the father of the bride role, though she had not formally asked him. She felt hesitant after the previous Christmas, but she could see no way around it. Jeremy was the only alternative, but it would be awkward for her brother to supersede her stepfather on his own property.

“How many guests?” Pilar asked.

“Right now, about a hundred and fifty, plus the caterers and the band.”

“Wow. You getting nervous?”

Getting nervous?” Gretchen parried. “I’ve been nervous since Ted proposed.”

The two sisters laughed together. “How’s Mom?” Gretchen asked.

“She’s fine,” Pilar said. “I think she’s excited to see the house finally taking shape. You know how long she’s been talking about it.”

“Practically since she and Paul got married,” Gretchen said. Privately, she had often wondered if Paul’s place on the point was the primary reason her mother had married him. Putting up with his temper and his mood swings and his feelings of inferiority over not having a family of his own might be the price she was willing to pay for her dream. Elliott Sprauling had introduced her to the Maine Coast, and now her second husband was cementing her place on it.

“She says it’s the last house she’ll ever live in,” Pilar said.

“She could live another fifty years,” Gretchen replied. “She’s only forty-seven.”

“A year older than Dad was when he died. We’d probably still be living up on South Street if he hadn’t fallen down those stairs.”

“I still think about him a lot. More this summer than I have in a long time. I wonder what he’d think of Ted.”

“He’d probably like him,” Pilar said.

“He’d probably approve of me marrying a lawyer’s kid.”

“Yeah. You’ve done well.” Pilar smiled in that sly, quirky way of hers. “It’ll be good to have a lawyer in the family. If I ever get into trouble, I’ll call you first.”

Gretchen’s facial expression must have betrayed her, because Pilar burst out laughing. “Don’t worry, big sister. Although I know you always do.”

Her sister’s easy, off-the-cuff insight took Gretchen by surprise. “Is it that obvious?”

“Oh, yeah. You worry enough for the rest of us put together. It’s your role in the family.”

“It isn’t one I asked for,” Gretchen said.

“But you’ve always been the responsible one. You didn’t get knocked up, or run off with a married man, or anything like that. And you’ve got to admit things are working out okay. You’ve got a good job, you’re getting married, you’ll never be broke. So maybe you need to stop worrying so much.”

They spent the rest of lunch talking about inconsequential things: the weather, goings-on in Blue Hill among people they both knew, Gretchen’s job. When the fried clams were finished, Pilar said she should be rejoining her friends, and she invited Gretchen to come by their motel after sunset. Gretchen said she and Ted were going out to dinner, though in truth they had no plans; she would drop by the surf shop later in the afternoon to see what he was doing. She sensed relief in her little sister, who probably realized as well as she did how out of place she would be among a bunch of boozing high school kids. Those years seemed far away from Gretchen now – as distant as the death of their father.

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