Though the house was not large, Gretchen still rattled around in it. In short order she had seen her two oldest kids leave for college and then lives, her younger son accepted into a group home for mentally challenged adults, and her perpetually adolescent husband divorce her for a younger woman whose idea of an intellectual challenge was solving the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune before the contestants could. Thus she was happy to have company. She put Jeremy in Trey’s old room, at the far end of the hall from hers. Her oldest hadn’t used the room in the two years since he’d moved to Texas. She heard from him mostly in e-mails, where he chatted about his computer job and his new girlfriend, whose name was Maria and whose parents had been born in Mexico. Occasionally she mused on what dear old Dad might think of that. She wondered if Elliott Sprauling had ever met a Mexican. Now the ATM at her bank offered services in Spanish. This surely would have puzzled her father, who had never met an ATM, either.
She used the room for the few overnight guests she’d had since the divorce, mostly girlfriends who drank one too many glasses of wine, once a couple she had known in Old Orchard Beach who came up for Thanksgiving. Trey (he was Theodore III but preferred the nickname, as did she) had left little in the room except for a stack of antiquated computer equipment piled atop a sturdy oak desk. She had been meaning to move both pile and desk out to the barn, with the eventual aim of getting rid of them and freeing up space, and now that Jeremy was here she planned to enlist his help.
Lily lived in Boston and sometimes came up; consequently Gretchen had left her daughter’s room alone. It was little changed since high school. The posters of the teen idols were gone, but the beaded curtains and the abstract paintings and the lava lamp remained. The easel still stood near the window, which overlooked the back yard and the woods beyond. Several half-completed canvases stood stacked against one another in the open closet. Lily didn’t paint much during her short, infrequent visits, but she had an in-house job as an illustrator at a small publishing house, a modest apartment from which she could walk to work, and she seemed happy in her life. She did not, as far as Gretchen knew, have a boyfriend, and Gretchen worried a bit about her daughter as a young single woman living alone in a large city. She bit her tongue about these things when Lily came up, but she worried nonetheless.
Calvin had the biggest room, the one next to the bathroom and closest to her own bedroom. His was the only bedroom in the house, including hers, with a TV. Trey and Lily had howled about the unfairness of it when she had had it installed; even Ted had given her shit. But she had put her foot down. “You try entertaining him all day,” she’d told them. Ted had eventually seen the logic in this, but the two older kids whined about it until the day they left home.
Calvin’s room was dominated by wrestling posters and memorabilia, comic books, and the videos, electronic games and DVDs he was always requesting and she bought to assuage her guilt and feed his short attention span. He spent a night or two every couple of weeks. She occupied herself cooking for him while he watched wrestling videos with the headphones on. The wrestlers spent more time taunting one another than they did grappling. Calvin ate it up. He may not have been able to tie his shoelaces or do simple arithmetic, but he knew the names and histories of all the wrestlers, male and female, and he kept notes that no one else could read on the pads of paper she supplied him. He had a young man’s libido, too. More than once she’d had to call the cable company to cancel the porn movies he had managed to order up on pay-per view. The kid was just smart enough to get her in trouble.
“Mom, I want more ice cream,” he shouted from the living room.
“Calvin, you wait a few minutes,” she called out. “I’m talking with your Uncle Jeremy.”
They sat at her kitchen table behind identical glasses of red wine. She’d made spaghetti, something all three of them would eat, and afterwards she and Jeremy remained at the table while Calvin captained the recliner Ted had left behind. She hated that chair. She wanted to get rid of it, but her son had claimed it for himself. It had been Ted’s seat for the Tour de France, the Masters, and the World Cup – any sport boring enough to drive her out of the room – and now Calvin commandeered it to watch WBC Wrestling, which she was not convinced was a sport at all. But that was her life, indulging the interests of immature men. At least Trey seemed to be growing up.
“Mom, get me this, get me that,” she said to Jeremy. “Ted takes him out on all these adventures. He took him down to Portland for a Sea Dogs game. He took him whale watching, for God’s sake. But do you think he’d take him to wrestling night in Bangor? The one thing the kid’s actually interested in? No – that’s too lowbrow for Ted. Never mind that his son might love it. Ted wouldn’t be seen at one of those events. So guess who gets to take him, and slum with the rednecks and half the intellectually challenged population of eastern Maine? Jesus, Jeremy, you ought to see the crowds that show up for those things. The circus is only half in the ring.”
Jeremy laughed, and Gretchen realized she was venting. “I’m sorry. It’s just that no one knows what it’s like. You can’t imagine the shit I took from Ted’s family when I started suggesting a group home. And Ted could never make up his mind about anything. So I’m the bad guy.”
“Gretchen, you’re neither bad nor a guy,” Jeremy said. “He’s got a good life.”
“Yeah he does,” Gretchen said. “They take them to all kinds of stuff. He goes bowling every Wednesday. On Thursday they go up to the antique auto show at Nicky’s Diner. He’s been to the observatory at the top of the new Bucksport bridge, which I haven’t even been to yet. He’s got a busier social life than I do.”
“So you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about.”
“Thanks.” She briefly touched his hand across the table. “But it’s easier said than done. Between Calvin in the group home and Mom in the hospital, some days I feel like a big guilt sandwich.”
“Well, she’s going home in a few days, and he’s where he needs to be, so I think you’re being a bit too hard on yourself. You can’t spend your whole life trying to please other people. What do you do for fun?”
“Fun? What’s that?” She laughed. “I don’t mean to whine, I really don’t. I’ve got a few good friends I see fairly often. There’s trivia night at the Blue Whale. In the summer I go kayaking and hiking and swimming, when the water’s warm enough. I don’t lack for stuff to do. It’s just…”
“Just what?” he prompted, when she trailed off.
“I never thought I’d say this, but this place is so damn small,” she said, gazing down into her wine glass. “It’s small in population, small in area, small in outlook. So many people here think this peninsula is paradise on Earth, and anyone who doesn’t see it that way simply isn’t enlightened enough. They have no conception of how unimportant they are, of how insignificant this place is, in the scheme of things.”
“Small-town snobbery,” Jeremy said. “I suppose it was instilled in us by our parents. You ever wonder how different our lives would have been if we’d stayed in Philadelphia?”
“Jeremy, do you know why we moved?”
“I always thought it was mostly Ma’s idea. She fell in love with Maine the first time he brought her here, she said. And she never was a city girl to begin with.”
Gretchen shook her head. “It was her idea,” she said, “but not for the reason you think. It turns out Dad was boinking one of the young surgical assistants at the hospital where he worked, and all the other doctors and a lot of the nurses knew about it. Mom found out and gave him an ultimatum: move to Maine and start over, or I’m taking the kids and leaving. She told me all this one drunken night about ten years ago. Apparently our father wasn’t above engaging in a little extracurricular activity from time to time.”
She watched Jeremy take this in. “You think she would have done it?” he said. “Left him, with five kids, if he hadn’t agreed to move to Maine?”
“I don’t know. But think how different our lives might have been. We might have been raised in Wisconsin.”
“And Everett would never have been born.”
“I won’t tell him if you won’t.”
They laughed together easily, but then, in one of those telepathic moments occasionally experienced by siblings, they stopped short and looked at one another.
“Yeah, I know,” Jeremy said. “Who knows what might have happened?”
“He might still be alive today,” Gretchen murmured.
“He might,” Jeremy said. “He’d be eighty-seven. Who knows? Maybe he’s living in some parallel universe. Like that Star Trek episode where everyone on the Enterprise is evil and Spock has a beard…”
“Yeah!” Calvin shouted suddenly from the other room. “Ray-Ray! I like that guy!” He had his headphones on and was unaware of the volume of his voice.
Gretchen shook her head. “I don’t know who lives in more of a fantasy world, you or him,” she said. What separated Star Trek from professional wrestling, after all, other than about eighty IQ points per average audience member?
Her phone rang. Like her kids and even some of her peers, she’d abandoned her landline a couple of years ago. She looked at the screen and answered.
“Hi, Everett. What’s the occasion?”
“I need an occasion to call you?”
“No, but you never do otherwise. Something must be up.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I’m playing a gig in Ellsworth tomorrow night, and it would be cool if you guys could come.”
He explained that a friend of his had fallen ill and asked him to substitute. The friend played rhythm guitar in a local band that performed mostly covers of radio hits from the 1960s and 1970s. They traded vocals, and Everett said he would likely get to sing a few leads. “Tell Jeremy I’ll do ‘Hotel California’ for him,” he said. “Though I can’t sing it like Stella Weaver can.”
“Who’s Stella Weaver?” Gretchen asked, and saw Jeremy’s eyes dart toward her for a moment and look quickly away again.
She heard Everett laugh softly on the other end of the line. “Never mind. She’s a singer Jeremy likes. Will you come?”
“Well, I’m supposed to take Calvin back, anyway, and I told Mom I’d drop by, so, yeah, I guess I should be able to make it.”
“Cool. I think Joanie and Carol might show up. I don’t know about Maddie and Pilar. It’s kind of a long drive for them.”
“Where’s the gig?”
He told her the name of the pub, which she recognized, and said the band would take the stage around eight, early because it was a weeknight. She said the time didn’t matter, because Jeremy had his own car and she would be responsible for no one but herself. Everett said he wouldn’t be offended if she wanted to leave early, since he knew she had to work in the morning. She thanked him and told him she’d see him tomorrow, but she put down the phone with a frown. How had she earned the reputation as the frump in the family? She liked to have a good time – it was just that life got in the way sometimes. Calvin hooted at the TV again, as if to punctuate the thought.
“That was Everett,” she said to Jeremy. “He’s playing in Ellsworth tomorrow night, wants us to come.”
“Well, we were just taking about fun,” he said.
“And it’s not in Blue Hill,” she replied, “though Ellsworth’s hardly what you’d call cosmopolitan. He said he’d sing ‘Hotel California’ for you.”
Jeremy laughed. “He told me he hated the Eagles.”
“Apparently he wants to impress his older brother.”
“He’s already impressed me,” Jeremy said. “I can’t sing to save my life. Or play the guitar, for that matter – let alone backwards.”
“He got the music gene from somewhere, that’s for sure,” Gretchen said. “And wasn’t Dad left-handed?”
“He was, but it’s not hereditary,” Jeremy said.
“Nope. It has to do with early development of the brain. I read a book about it not too long ago. Left-handedness is what scientists call a rare trait, like an extra long index finger, or albino coloring. Humans are designed to be right-handed, but if something happens to the left side of the brain, it’s adaptable enough to re-assign functions to the other hemisphere. The language center of the brain is on the left side, so right-handed people do better with words and what we think of as logical tasks: building houses, running machines, writing reports. The right side of the brain is more abstract – and more musical.”
“I sometimes forget you’re a scientist. “Is the left side of the brain responsible for time-management, too? If I know Everett, he’ll probably be late for his own gig.”
Jeremy laughed. “I would imagine someone in the band’s giving him a ride. He seems to get around pretty well for someone without a car. In a way I envy him.”
“He has no responsibilities,” Gretchen replied, glancing involuntarily toward the living room. She decided to change the subject. “Weren’t you going down to the point tomorrow, to help Paul?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I want to get started on the boat, too. Paul found the rigging and said it’s in pretty good shape. We could step the mast from the roof, and roll the whole cradle down the driveway on boards and pipes. He says we can probably get it in the water in a couple of weeks. Everett’s gig isn’t ’til evening anyway, right?”
Gretchen pushed back memories of her long-ago wedding and managed a smile. Typical Jeremy, thinking more about launching an old boat than helping to prepare the house for his mother’s homecoming. Some things changed; some stayed the same. “Eight o’clock,” she said.
“So I could go down during the day, work with Paul, and meet you guys in Ellsworth later. You don’t mind taking two cars, do you? I know it’s environmentally incorrect, but…”
“I don’t mind,” Gretchen said, happy that she didn’t have to suggest it.
“Mama, more ice cream,” Calvin shouted from the living room.
“All right, Calvin,” she called. She pushed back her chair and stood. “The kid’s not as dumb as he looks,” she said. “I mean, who’s got whom waiting on him hand and foot?”
She went to the living room and retrieved his empty bowl from the table beside Ted’s chair. She had to stop thinking of it as Ted’s chair. Such thoughts led to other thoughts. It was just a chair, and Calvin liked it. Inanimate objects could not hurt her unless she let them. Or so Christine had told her. Still, a part of her wanted to take the ugly thing out back and set it on fire.
Careful, said a little voice inside her head. You’re spiraling. Think about something else. She came back into the kitchen, fished the ice cream scoop out of the sink, and took the carton of ice cream out of the freezer. “So,” she said brightly to Jeremy, “who’s this singer?”
“Make admiring noises about a woman around this family and you never hear the end of it,” he replied. “I saw her in a bar in Bangor and asked Everett to introduce me to her. It’s nothing. She’s way young.”
“But you like her,” Gretchen teased, doling out ice cream into the bowl.
“I met her once,” Jeremy said. “She’s quite beautiful. But talk about out of my league. She couldn’t possibly be interested in an old fart like me.”
“You’re not old.” How could he be? She was only a year and four months younger, and if he was old, what did that make her? His hair was unapologetically gray; she dyed hers every two months. Men had it easy.
“In my book, fifty-four counts as old,” he said. “Besides, there’s another woman I might ask out to Everett’s show. Age appropriate. She said she wanted to have coffee sometime.”
“Oh? Who is she?”
“Tell you if she says yes,” Jeremy said. “I don’t want any more razzing from the family.”
Gretchen put the ice cream away. “For someone who’s been here less than a month, you’re sure working fast,” she said.
Jeremy took a large sip of wine and set his glass back down on the table with some emphasis. “I’m not ‘working’ on anything. She’s someone I met at the hospital.”
“What, a nurse or something?”
“Or something, yeah.”
“What’s her name?”
“Sorry, you’re not getting any more information. It’s probably nothing, too.”
“Well, nothing pretty well sums up my dating life,” she said.
“You’ll find someone, Gretchen.”
“Thanks. But I’m not really looking. Besides, anyone who wanted to date me would have to put up with himself out there. Know any guys in the market for a chick in her fifties with a twenty-something special-needs son? I’ve never seen that particular set of circumstances in a personal ad, have you?”
“Don’t sell yourself short.”
She snorted, and headed out into the living room with Calvin’s second helping of dessert. His diet at the group home was strictly regulated, and she had to admit he looked good – they made sure he exercised in addition to consuming nutritious meals – but she couldn’t resist spoiling him a little. “I love you, Mom,” he said when she set the bowl down beside him. Uh-huh, she thought, and will you buy me a new CD? But she loved to hear him say it, though it filled her with sadness. She rubbed his short-cropped hair and told him that she loved him, too.
Such a strange and inadequate word: Love. What did it mean, really? It was useful for ending e-mails to relatives and for writing songs. Love is strange. Love hurts. Love is all you need. We ask the word to do too much, she thought. We use it for friends and family and lovers and pets and even food. She loved him no more or less than her other two children, so why had she made a lifelong habit of saying “I love you” to Calvin, until he repeated it in every context? Did she tell her other two kids often enough that she loved them? What about her own mother? Did Annabelle ever say it to her? She could not remember the last time she had heard the words from anybody but Calvin.
Returning to the kitchen table, she poured more wine for herself and her brother. “What are you up to, Jeremy?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Why would someone who lives in California want to fish in a small pond like Maine?”
“Gretchen, I’m not fishing. I happened to meet two attractive women in the same day. That doesn’t happen to me often, even in California.”
“But you’re going back, aren’t you?”
“Sure. I’ve got classes lined up for the fall. But I don’t see a problem with asking someone out if I want to.”
“As he breaks hearts from coast to coast.”
“Stop it. I’m not sure I’ve ever broken anyone’s heart in my entire life. Usually it’s the other way around.”
Gretchen chuckled softly at this. She wondered if her older brother had truly loved anyone since Bonnie. She had met Nicolle, his second wife; had thought them unsuited for one another, and had been the least surprised member of the family when they divorced. Nicolle was a fast-talking California blonde who had managed to earn a doctorate in astrophysics without contaminating herself with anything resembling literature. She had never read Steinbeck, for God’s sake, despite having grown up on the Monterey peninsula, within spitting distance of the setting for Cannery Row. In Gretchen’s mind that was worse than living in Maine and being unfamiliar with the work of Stephen King. She had finished Jeremy’s sentences for him and corrected him whenever he got some small piece of factual information wrong, and Gretchen had watched him squirm when she did this. The woman had been good-looking in the generic way of women in TV commercials, and perhaps her shy older brother had married her to save himself the anguish of looking further. But he had never seemed particularly happy around her, and on the phone he had spoken about his second divorce with a mixture of resignation and relief.
Had she loved Ted? Unquestionably, and without reservation, though some of his childish indulgences had exasperated her. One year he had decided to take up bicycling. But he couldn’t buy a plain old bicycle like everyone else – oh, no, he had to have the two thousand-dollar carbon-composite professional racers’ model, plus the Spandex outfits and special bicycling shoes, all of which he financed by letting their health insurance lapse for a year. He couldn’t have known in advance, he had protested, that Trey would fall out of a tree that same year and break his arm. While Ted had professed to love her, he loved himself more. “Narcissist” was the word Christine used to describe him.
And what did that make her? A mirror? When in her life, she wondered, would she be able to do something entirely for herself, without feeling guilty about it? Perhaps she would have to move away from this place, and her family’s history, for that to happen.
“Well, maybe you should bring her to the polka-dot party,” Gretchen suggested, only half in jest.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Like I’d inflict that on a near-stranger,” he said. “I haven’t even asked her out for coffee yet. Don’t you think our family can be a little overwhelming?”
“I think our family can be a lot overwhelming,” she said. “But the poor girl ought to know what she’s getting into, don’t you think?”
“She’s not getting into anything, except maybe my rental car,” Jeremy replied. “Jeez, forget I even said anything. Maybe I won’t ask her out, after all.”
“Chicken,” she said.
“Bawk bawk bawk. You bringing him?” Jeremy nodded toward the living room, where Calvin continued to shout semi-articulately at the TV.
“Not a chance. He’d get bored within the first ten minutes. Lily might come up, though, and I might even pry Trey loose from his job. And Maddie said Graham’s been making noise about visiting. Serena will be there, with Ashleigh and Mariah. It’s going to be a multi-generational extravaganza.”
“I can’t wait,” Jeremy deadpanned.
“Neither can Mom,” Gretchen said. “It’s all she’s talked about lately. I think she senses it might be the last one.”
“Well, then, let’s make it one to remember,” Jeremy said. He lifted his glass. She lifted hers, and they clinked, drank, and looked at one another. Gretchen didn’t know, and didn’t care to ask, what exactly her older brother had in mind. Some things could not be planned. Her siblings had been trying to tell her this for years.