What the fuck was he singing now – “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Everett was doing all the parts himself, and he knew all the words. That was the blessing and the curse of being with a musician. Everything reminded him of a song. Every time he showered at her place she was treated to a medley of whatever tunes popped into his head. In the twenty minutes he’d been in there, he had so far sampled the catalogs of the Beatles, the Dave Matthews Band, Steely Dan, and Alanis Morissette, and those were just the songs and song fragments she recognized. When he started in that life had just begun and now he’d gone and thrown it all away, Corinne feared he would work through the whole song while the shampoo soaked into his brain – and banged on the door.
“Everett, for God’s sake, wrap it up. We’re late as it is, and I don’t want to take any more shit from your family than I have to.”
The song stopped. “Sorry,” he called over the pouring water. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
She walked back into the kitchen, heard him start up again. “We are family… My brother and my sisters and me…”
Corinne smiled despite herself. “Christ on a crutch,” she muttered aloud. “In most relationships, it’s the chick who keeps the dude waiting.”
But as exasperating as he could sometimes be, Everett made her laugh. She supposed that was why she was going to this “polka-dot” party at his parents’ place, where she had been but once.
She had met most of his immediate family but not the whole crew at the same time. It would be interesting to watch them in their natural habitat, to see the underlying rivalries and alliances. She had experienced little of that as the only child of a mill worker and his schoolteacher wife. Everett’s older sisters doted on him, but he was also the butt of easy family jokes, mostly about his habitual lateness. It didn’t seem to bother Everett. “That’s just how my family is,” he said.
She wondered if it would be different with Jeremy there. Though she had not met him before this spring, she had known what he looked like, for his picture hung in Annabelle’s living room and in the stairwell and on the front of the refrigerator, alongside pictures of his siblings but always in a prominent position. Corinne noticed that Annabelle managed to bring up the exploits of her older son at every opportunity, especially when the talk turned to Everett and anything he might have going on – a new job, a song he’d written. The only thing in Everett’s life Annabelle expressed interest in was his son, Billy. But Jeremy was discovering new planets and unlocking the secrets of the universe and probably curing cancer while he was at it, according to his mother. It grated on her, but Everett didn’t seem to mind.
She heard the shower shut off. Everett hadn’t stopped singing. Now it was “Mama sang bass and Daddy sang tenor,” and he was making up alternate words as he went along: “Cousin Bobby played alto sax,” he proclaimed, emitting a series of sounds he imagined an alto saxophone might make.
It was almost noon, and the drive to the point took most of two hours. Annabelle wanted everybody there by one, she had told Corinne on the phone, and no, that didn’t mean two, as Everett would interpret it. Corinne was tempted to call a couple of the sisters and ask what time their mother had told them to arrive. But she didn’t. And two was looking more likely by the minute.
Everett would laugh this off like he always did. It was a good thing he didn’t work in a hospital. He had once told her, “If a job has a time clock and I get paid by the hour, I know right away it’s not going to work out.”
She’d gotten pissed at him, and they’d had a tremendous argument. “I punch a time clock,” she had said to him. “I’m paid by the hour. What makes you so fucking special?”
Still, she liked his artistic streak, even as she envied his freedom. He was largely broke, but she had a good job, and when he got paid he was generous. She liked going out to bars with him and meeting his friends. She liked his sense of humor, and she loved his hair, long and dark with a sprinkling of gray, and thicker than her own blonde bob, which just sat there despite her hairdresser’s best efforts.
He emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist and his hair splayed in all directions. He grinned at her. “It’s all right. My mother expects me to be late. Gives her something to complain about.”
He leaned over to kiss her cheek. She squirmed away. “Go get dressed,” she told him. “I’m leaving in ten minutes, whether you’re ready or not.”
He laughed, and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Ten minutes is plenty,” he said.
She disentangled herself from him. “Maybe for you,” she said, “but women like men who take their time. And you don’t have time to take your time.” She yanked on the towel and it came away, leaving him naked. She saw that he was flaccid but interested. It was tempting…
But her cooler head prevailed. “For Christ’s sake, Everett, you’ve had all morning,” she muttered. “Now find a pair of pants and let’s get the fuck out of here. Maybe we can sneak off later.”
Fat chance of that, she thought. Once he got wrapped up with his family, he would forget all about sex. She would become the fifth sister. She had seen it happen before. Though he was free with his hands when they were alone together, he never touched her in front of his sisters. What had it been like for him, to grow up in a house full of women he couldn’t fuck? They were all older than he was; they would have had boyfriends while he was still a kid. Well, except for Joanie – she liked girls. Everett liked girls, too (thank goodness), and girls certainly seemed to like him, but when he was around his family he turned into a monk.
She slapped his bare bottom and pointed him toward the bedroom. She had cleared out a bottom dresser drawer for him. One drawer was all he needed, for he wore the same pair of blue jeans every day; the drawer was filled with tee shirts and boxer shorts. In the summer he eschewed socks; his sneakers stank but he preferred sandals anyway. Everett wasn’t much interested in fashion, unless he had a gig, and not even really then, though he owned a couple of colorful shirts he favored. She bought him clothes because he was a good-looking man and she wanted him to look good when they went out together, but the only time she sensed vanity in him was when he was onstage in front of an audience. She took great care in her clothing; didn’t he want to look good for her? Down deep, she feared she wasn’t inspiration enough for him. He liked to hang out with her; he seemed to like her in bed, but she sensed that he was always looking, keeping an eye open for the next opportunity.
“He has his father’s wandering eye,” Annabelle had confided at the end of a long dinner and three bottles of wine. Everett’s mother had said this to her three months ago, on her previous visit to the point, while Everett and Paul and Madison and Mike Murphy had been engaged in some political argument at the other end of the table. Corinne had thought this a strange thing for a mother to say to a woman dating her son. She had wanted to ask Annabelle to elaborate, but Paul had raised his voice at that moment and declared that feminism had been, on balance, bad for women, and Annabelle had turned her head and snapped, “Now, wait a minute,” and jumped with both feet into the argument.
Everett popped out of the bedroom, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved pullover shirt with red and white stripes reminiscent of Where’s Waldo? His battered denim jacket hung on a peg next to the door; his sandals hung loosely from his right hand. “Let’s boogie,” he said.
“I gotta stop at the bank,” she said.
He grabbed his coat. “What for?”
“You do want beer, don’t you?”
“I got money, honey,” he said. “Besides, there’s enough beer down there to drown the crew and passengers of the Titanic.”
She laughed at this, and said, “We should still bring some of our own. Besides, it’s a long way down there.”
“Good point,” he conceded. “But I’ll buy.”
“Okay, but I still want to get some cash. We’re wasting time arguing about it. Can you grab the deviled eggs? It’s that big round thing on the bottom of the fridge wrapped in aluminum foil. Be careful with it.”
She got him out the door and into the front seat of her car, the large plate of deviled eggs wedged in on the back seat between two boxes of books she intended to take to the donation bin at the supermarket, with only, as far as she could tell, one egg purloined from under the foil. She looked over at Everett and sighed; he grinned back at her in all innocence.
They were across the bridge into Brewer when Everett said, “Shit. We’ve got to go to my apartment. I forgot my guitar.”
Her shoulders sagged and her head fell back against the headrest as the light in front of her turned yellow. She had been preparing to bull through it; now she came to a sudden stop. “Oh, Everett, do you really need to bring it this time? We’re late already.”
“Someone always wants me to play. If I don’t bring it, they’ll ask me why not. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
“Jesus, I wish you’d thought of this when were still in town.”
“We practically are,” he said.
But she was in the middle lane, and had to wait until the light changed in order to turn around. He didn’t care because he didn’t drive. Now he had another excuse to be late. Sighing, and relinquishing all remaining hope of arriving at the polka-dot party on time, she scanned the traffic behind her in the rear view mirror. When the light turned green, she bolted ahead of the driver to her right, flashed her turn signal and cut in front of him. He honked and she resisted the urge to give him the finger. It was Everett’s fault, after all.
Her annoyance with him eased only when he sprung for a twelve-pack of Amstel Light (her favorite) and a big bag of Cheetos at the convenience store they always stopped at, and twenty dollars worth of gas.
He popped two of the beers before they were out of sight of the store. She took a large swig of hers. Best to steel herself before a visit to the boyfriend’s family. Food helped, too, for Paul and Annabelle preferred drinking to eating, but this was a family gathering and everyone had been asked to bring something. Hence the deviled eggs on the back seat. Which she had made, without any help from Everett. She guessed the guitar was his contribution, and couldn’t help thinking it didn’t require much – any – preparation on his part.
“Who all’s coming to this shindig?” she asked, as they took turns dipping into the bag of Cheetos.
“Lets’ see, well there’s Mom and Paul, of course…”
“And your sisters, and Jeremy, yes, I know, but who else?”
“Well, Serena will be there, with her kids,” Everett said. “That’s Maddie’s daughter and granddaughters. I can’t believe I’ve got a sister who’s a grandmother twice over already. Oh, Graham’s in Maine. He’ll be there. Maddie’s son. The hockey player.”
“The one who played at UMO?”
“At UMaine,” he said. “It’s UMaine now. You know, the place I work at.”
She scowled. She hated it when he corrected her. It was the University of Maine at Orono, U-M-fucking-O; she had called it that her entire life, and so hadn’t everybody in her family, even her relatives who thought the place was a socialist indoctrination mill. She didn’t think that, and she was happier than anyone when Everett got a decent part-time job there, but it would always be UMO to her. She tamped down her irritation. It wasn’t Everett’s fault that he came from a family of critics. If she was going to spend the next few hours with them without going crazy, she was going to have to let little insults – like being corrected on minor things that didn’t matter by a bunch of elitists from Away – roll off her back.
“I think one or both of Gretchen’s kids might be coming up. She said something about it the last time I saw her. I don’t know if she’s bringing Calvin. She usually doesn’t. There isn’t much for him to do down there. But Mom wants every blood relative within a five hundred mile radius to be there, so she may guilt Gretchen into bringing him.” He paused. Corinne knew he was thinking about his own son. He had not been able to spring Billy from the fishing derby Jasmine had entered him in; he had told her it was okay and that the kid would probably rather fish than hang out with his relatives, but she knew it bothered him.
“Oh, and Carol,” he said “Joanie’s girlfriend. She’ll be there.”
“Sounds like a lot more girls than guys,” Corinne said.
“Well, babe, women sort of run in my family. My whole life, I’ve been surrounded by women. I never thought I’d say this, but thank God for Jeremy.”
They fell mostly silent after that, though he pointed out, as she knew he would, the house in Blue Hill that was now a restaurant where his family had lived when he was born. The day was clear and moderately windy, and a handful of sailboats were out on Blue Hill Bay. When they passed the Falls, she saw that the tide was in.
Eight beers remained when they rolled down the dirt road to the point at a quarter of three, the empty bottles clinking in the opened carton against their full brethren. “Jesus Christ, look at all the cars,” he said. Six vehicles crowded the area in front of the garage, leaving no place for her to park. “Better go down the hill,” he said. She could see three more cars parked beneath the trees down by the cabin, and people out on the grass and the beach beyond. She pulled in behind a Honda with Quebec plates, blocking it in.
She recognized Gretchen, the oldest of Everett’s sisters, standing next to a much larger young man with broad shoulders and a shock of reddish hair. They stood barefoot on the near side of the cabin’s deck, closest to the parking area. They were drinking from identical cans of beer and seemed to be engaged in animated conversation. “Uncle Everett!” the young man exclaimed when he saw him, stepping down onto the grass.
“Hey, killer,” Everett responded. “Staying out of the penalty box?” Corinne saw when the two men shook hands and then embraced that not only was the kid more muscled than Everett, he was also a couple inches taller. The kid – he was probably twenty-four or thereabouts – was big all over.
“About time you got here,” Gretchen said. “Paul’s about to start cooking the lobsters. Hi Corinne.”
“Well, then, we’re just in time,” Everett said, embracing his sister. He introduced Corinne to the young man, Graham, Madison’s hockey playing son. A game of badminton was in progress on the lawn, Joanie and her girlfriend against a younger man and woman around Graham’s age whom she did not recognize. She saw Annabelle, her head covered by a floppy sun hat, seated in an Adirondack chair on the deck, positioned so that she could see the lawn and the beach. It resembled nothing so much as a throne. Everett’s mother wore a loose-fitting Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt over a pair of khaki shorts, from which her legs poked out like two pale bent straws. She couldn’t have more than a hundred pounds on her. A bottle of Heineken, wet on the outside with condensation, perched on one of the chair’s wide arms.
Everett leaned down to kiss his mother’s cheek. “You’re late,” she said. Corinne got a brief glance and a “Hello.”
“Things got away from me,” Everett said, his usual vague explanation. “Anyway, here we are. Good day for a party. How’re you getting around?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Annabelle told him, as if the question were unnecessary, perhaps even absurd. “I’ve been walking all over the place, even on the beach. I just came up here to get out of the wind.”
“I’ll put these inside,” Corinne offered, holding up the plate of deviled eggs. A wooden picnic table on the deck held bowls of chips, dip and salsa, but she knew if she put the eggs out now they’d be gone in minutes. She could hear activity inside the cabin. Everett opened a large cooler on the deck and began putting beers into it.
“Corinne, are those your famous deviled eggs?” Annabelle asked, perking up. “Can I have one now, before everyone descends on them?”
Corinne experienced a flash of satisfaction at this thaw in relations. She peeled back the aluminum foil on the same side Everett had, and held out the plate to her. “I made them for you, Annabelle,” she said. “By all means, have one. Have two.”
Annabelle’s bony fingers picked out the nearest egg, the whipped center a deep mustard-yellow, topped by orange paprika. “Thank you,” she said through the first bite. “These are delicious.”
“Better put them away before Jeremy sees them,” Everett advised. “He’ll eat the whole plate himself.”
“Not likely,” Annabelle said. “He’s out there.” She pointed toward the water. Out by one of the islands, a small sailboat scooted in front of an unbroken line of evergreen trees.
Everett followed his mother’s finger. “He’s sailing? Where’d he get a boat?”
“You didn’t notice anything different up by the house?”
“I noticed that your driveway’s turned into a parking lot,” Everett said.
“Yes, but did you notice what wasn’t there?”
Everett looked from his mother’s face, to the boat out by the island, and back again. “That old thing? He actually got it floating?”
“He and Paul launched her Wednesday,” Annabelle said proudly. “He and Pilar are out there now.”
Corinne watched as the sailboat reached a gap between two islands and heeled over in the breeze. She took in the million-dollar view. This was the Maine of postcards and tourist magazines – and as far from her Millinocket childhood as Annabelle’s Wisconsin. She had been seven the first time she had seen the ocean, on a family trip to Old Orchard Beach. She had never been in a sailboat. Though Everett eked through each month, he came from wealth, the youngest child of a prosperous doctor from a prominent family. That, perhaps, explained some of their differences.
“I hope he remembers where the ledge is,” Gretchen quipped. “Here, I’ll take those off your hands.” Corinne handed her the plate of deviled eggs; Everett handed Corinne a freshly opened bottle of Amstel Light.
“Remember, no glass on the beach,” Annabelle said.
A sensible rule, Corinne thought, especially since Annabelle had to remind them. As if her children were still children.
She returned her attention to the badminton game, where the two women were getting the better of their younger, mixed doubles opponents. Joanie had waved to her already; and the girlfriend whose name she did not remember had favored her with a nod, but she asked Everett who the other two were. “Gretchen’s kids,” he told her. “Trey and Lily. I’ll introduce you around.”
“It’s a shame you couldn’t bring Billy,” Annabelle said to Everett, but to Corinne it seemed that the comment was aimed at least partially at her – as if she had any influence on the whims of Everett’s former girlfriend and was somehow to blame for the kid’s absence. Let it go, she silently admonished herself.
“How are you getting along?” she asked Annabelle. “You’ve been home, what? Two weeks? You’re able to get around okay?”
“Oh, heavens, yes,” Annabelle said, though Corinne could not imagine those skinny legs propelling her very far or keeping her upright for long. “Thirteen days, and I’m walking a little more each day. Paul and I go for walks on the beach. I have to go to physical therapy twice a week, but that’s only in Blue Hill. And Paul helps me with the stairs. But as for regular walking, I’m fine. My physical therapist says I have the body of a fifty-year-old.”
Your physical therapist is blowing smoke up your ass, Corinne thought. She wondered if Annabelle was eating more than one meal a day.
“Everett, dear, would you be so kind as to get me another beer?” his mother said.
Corinne was closer and fished a Heineken from the cooler. Everett produced his keychain, which, he liked to point out, had a bottle opener but no car key. The screen door opened and Gretchen re-emerged, next to a smallish, thirtyish woman with wavy dark hair and a worried expression.
“And this is Serena,” Everett said to her. “Madison’s daughter. This is my girlfriend, Corinne.” The two women shook hands and exchanged hellos. A young girl in a pink dress stood just inside the door, peering out. “And I forget, is this Ashleigh or Mariah?”
“Ashleigh,” Serena said. “Mariah’s down on the beach, hanging out with Grandma and the guys. Mike’s here.”
“Really?” Everett said, his voice betraying his surprise. “So he and your mom are back together?”
“On a trial basis. At least that’s what she says. He’s been helping her out around the farm, and I guess he talked her into letting him move back in. We’ll see what happens.”
“Maddie’s trying to out-redneck the rednecks, and Gretchen and Joanie are trying to out-snob the snobs,” Everett had told her once. Madison hunted, and burned brush in old metal barrels, and listened to Willie Nelson; Gretchen drove a Subaru and worked in a bookstore. Corinne didn’t know much more about Joanie than she was gay and involved in all the politics surrounding her sexual orientation, but her girlfriend taught at College of The Atlantic, and that cemented Joanie’s snob cred right there – plus she lived on Mount Desert Island and did not have to commute to her job in an old car from one of the less beautiful towns on the mainland.
“That’s game,” Joanie cried, as the shuttlecock landed just beyond the young woman’s reach.
The tall blond youth dropped his arms to his sides, his racquet hanging from one hand, and looked askance at his sister. “I can’t believe we lost to a pair of…”
“Don’t say it,” Joanie said.
“Middle-aged women,” the young man finished, flashing a half-hearted smile.
“Now you know how Bobby Riggs felt,” Gretchen said from the deck.
“Who’s Bobby Riggs?” her son said.
“Never mind. You’re too young.”
Corinne was forty-four, and she didn’t know who Bobby Riggs was, either. It was a sure bet she wasn’t going to ask.
“Well, now that the game’s over, you all can help carry stuff down to the beach,” Annabelle said. “I think it’s time we start moving in that direction.”
The sailboat had drawn closer and was approaching a dinghy that bobbed on a mooring between the shore and the nearest island. Corinne made out two figures on board, busy with lines and sails. Pilar went forward to grab the dinghy; she could hear Jeremy yelling something, and then the larger of the two sails came down. Gretchen pulled her attention from the water by introducing her to her two grown children. Trey was blond and almost as tall as Everett, loose-limbed and all arms and legs in a long pair of shorts and a tee shirt; Lily, half a foot shorter, had something of her mother’s wariness in her hazel eyes. Trey offered a handshake and a ready grin; Lily murmured a restrained hello.
In the cabin, Madison directed traffic, handing out items from the refrigerator and telling those who did not receive a foil-covered food dish to carry a folding chair from the deck to the beach. Corinne retrieved the plate of deviled eggs (several of which had by this time disappeared), and Everett hefted two chairs, one under each arm. “Why don’t you help your mother?” she said to him.
“I’m fine,” Annabelle insisted. She pushed herself up from the chair. Her legs looked as rickety as the stilts that buckled under beach houses in hurricanes, but they held her up, and she took a few steps toward the edge of the deck. “Trey, give me your arm,” she said to Gretchen’s son. Corinne nudged Everett. He set the chairs aside. With the two men at her side, Annabelle negotiated the step down to the lawn. “There,” she said. “For goodness sake, I’ve been walking down to the beach every day. There’s no need to fuss over me so.”
But Corinne was glad to see Everett stay beside his mother while Trey went back for the chairs. It took two trips to get everything down to the beach. Corinne watched Annabelle without letting the old woman know she was watching. Though she moved slowly, she seemed steady and confident as she negotiated the gentle grass downslope. She steadied herself on Everett’s arm at the lip of the lawn where land gave way to shore, but then made her way easily to where a second chair, a plastic duplicate of the wooden one she had commanded on the porch, had been set up for her just above the high tide line. Some beach chairs, a wooden picnic table, and two large coolers had been brought down earlier.
Because the tide was in, they were using a propane camp stove instead of a fire pit to cook the lobsters. The picnic table had been positioned near Annabelle’s throne, and all the potato salads, green salads, rolls, chips, deviled eggs, cornbread, carrots and celery, napkins and paper towels, plates and utensils were laid out upon it.
A huge lobster pot perched precariously atop the propane burner, which sat in a patch of sand a few feet away. Steam rose from underneath the lid. Paul lifted it and began plunging the first of the condemned lobsters head first into the boiling water. It was a quick and merciful death, and Corinne could not work up empathy for a bottom-feeder that resembled nothing so much as a cockroach, but the young girl in the pink dress (whose name Corinne could not remember) squealed as the flailing crustaceans met their doom. “Ashleigh won’t eat lobster,” Serena said, to no one in particular. “She thinks we’re torturing them.”
Though Paul was clearly in charge, another bearded man holding an identical can of beer stood nearby, fishing live lobsters from a wooden crate and handing them to Paul. “Good,” he said. “More for the rest of us.” Corinne recognized him as Mike Murphy, Madison’s husband, whom she had met once. At last report, Madison had booted his adulterous ass out of the house, but here he was. Madison hovered near her mother, in Annabelle’s orbit but talking with Gretchen and Lily. It got hard sometimes to keep track of the connections. A list would help – a cross-referenced guide to the Sprauling family for outsiders, like a program at a baseball game, or a play. A set of instructions, what not to say to whom in what circumstances, wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
Corinne watched as the family arranged itself in clumps all along the narrow stretch of shore above the tide line. Paul hauled the first six red steaming lobsters from the pot and dropped them into a metal bowl; Mike Murphy transferred them to plastic plates. Joanie and Carol and Gretchen and Lily claimed a flat piece of ledge farthest from the fire. Madison sat in a chair near her mother, and Ashleigh pulled up a chair to sit beside them. Serena sat on the sand with her other daughter. Trey and Graham stood ankle-deep in the water, drinking beers and shooting the breeze about hockey or girls or something of mutual interest. Jeremy and Pilar beached the dinghy beside them and jumped out. Graham started to pull it up the beach, but Jeremy said, “No need to do that right now. Tide’s going out.”
“Your timing is excellent,” Annabelle called out. “You’re just in time for the first batch of lobsters.”
“I’ll wait,” Jeremy said, lifting a small blue cooler from the dinghy. He fished into it and came out with a can of Miller High Life. “We had to come back in. This is the last beer.”
Corinne was content to observe, as the party progressed and the beer flowed and the lobsters marched in shifts to their deaths. Everett settled on a rock next to Jeremy and Pilar, and she half-listened as he asked his older brother about the boat and what he had done to make it seaworthy again. Paul drifted over, leaving her and Mike Murphy staring awkwardly at one another. They barely knew each other, but though he had a dot on the calendar and she did not, they both occupied outer orbits in Annabelle’s solar system.
“Good party,” she said to him.
“Not too bad,” he agreed. He sipped his beer. “You still working up there at Eastern Maine?”
“Still stitching up bodies and handing out knives,” she replied cheerfully. “How about you? Back on the farm?” She wanted to say “back in the saddle,” but stopped herself.
“So long as she’ll have me,” he said, and tipped up his beer.
She glanced over at Madison, engaged in conversation with Annabelle, and decided not to pursue it. “Well, you couldn’t have asked for a better day,” she said.
He tossed the can into a cardboard box brought to the beach for that purpose, and moved toward the cooler for a fresh one. “You due?” he asked her.
She swirled the inch of beer in the bottom of her can. “Oh, why not?” She would switch to water a couple hours before it was time to drive home, but a good beer buzz boosted her confidence in dealing with this boisterous bunch. She didn’t care about the state of Mike’s and Madison’s marriage, and she surely didn’t give a shit about Jeremy’s success in fixing up the sailboat, but she listened in anyway, for every little snippet of talk gave her insight into the man in her life, the tall eccentric musician who couldn’t keep a schedule, the baby of this comic, complicated and confusing family.
More lobsters were pulled from the pot. The deviled eggs disappeared, as did the potato salad (one batch with onions and one without, because Gretchen and Trey and Serena and Ashleigh didn’t like them), but the garden salad and cornbread and some jello-and-fruit thing (to which the afternoon sun was not being kind) had fewer takers. Rocks emerged as the tide fell. One half-tide ledge directly in front of them encircled a modest tide pool, the water knee-deep in places, tempting for kids to play in, and convenient for washing one’s hands after eating lobster on the beach.
Annabelle sat eating hers, on a plate perched atop a flat piece of driftwood someone had found for her. She picked at it meticulously, first sucking out the meat from the legs, then extracting and eating one claw at a time. Then she turned her attention to the knuckles, which she fussed over, pushing the meat from the shell with a bony pinkie finger. The tail she shared around, with Paul or whoever else was nearby. Finally, she went to work on the body, picking it patiently, pulling out tiny pockets of lobster meat and savoring each morsel.
As the meal wound down and appetites waned, the clumps of people stirred and re-formed and the family spread out along the shorefront. Everett discovered that Trey had also brought a guitar; the two of them disappeared to find out if they had any songs in common. Graham grabbed three cans of PBR from the cooler and trailed after them. Corinne found herself sitting with Joanie, Carol, Gretchen, Jeremy and Pilar. Gretchen had the torsos of three lobsters on a plate in front of her, and picked away at one of them, in unconscious imitation of her mother. Joanie leaned back on her hands and gazed out at the water. “I must say, Jeremy, this place looks a lot better with a sailboat moored out in front of it. You and Pilar made a pretty picture on the way in.”
“And you didn’t even hit anything,” Gretchen said.
“I may have been gone for thirty years,” Jeremy said, “but I still know where the rocks are.”
“Now,” Gretchen said.
Corinne thought she caught a flash of annoyance on Jeremy’s face, but he didn’t say anything. It was Joanie who spoke up again. “What do you think they could get for this place?” she said. “One million? Two?”
“What makes you think they want to sell it?” Pilar asked.
“I’m not sure that they do,” Joanie said. “But there’ve been rumblings. Mom’s not getting any younger. And they aren’t exactly rich.”
“Two million, easily,” Carol said.
“Come on, Carol, this isn’t Mount Desert Island,” Gretchen said.
“In many ways it’s better,” Carol countered. “I mean, look at the privacy you have. It hasn’t been discovered.”
“Hah. You haven’t tried to go grocery shopping in Blue Hill on a Saturday morning in the summer,” Gretchen said.
“I know, what a pain in the ass the tourists are, right?” Joanie said.
“Just think what a nice summer home this would make for some rich person from New York,” Carol said.
“Or California,” Jeremy added.
“What is all this talk about selling the place?” Pilar protested. “You all know none of us will ever be able to buy a place like this. It’s got to stay in the family.”
“I’m afraid that’s up to Mom and Paul,” Joanie said. “Don’t forget, this was his place to begin with.”
“I know that,” Pilar said. “But we lost the place in East Blue Hill. We lost the house on South Street. I was barely old enough to enjoy either. If we lose this place, we’ll be…”
Just like any other Maine family, Corinne wanted to say, with a little more money and perhaps a little more sense of entitlement. But she held her tongue. She could hear music coming from up by the cabin: guitars, and Everett’s familiar voice.
“The place is looking a little ragged around the edges,” Joanie said. “And they can barely keep up with the taxes. We had to help them out last year. Don’t tell Mom I told you that. But it gets harder for them every year.”
“A writers’ retreat,” Pilar said.
“What?” Gretchen and Joanie said in unison.
“Sure, they’re popping up all over the country,” Pilar said. “You get, like, some school to sponsor it, and a moderately well-known writer to sign on, and advertise it in writers’ magazines – you’d be surprised at how many wannabe writers will pay good money to come to a place like this for a week.”
“That’s what they do with the place now,” Jeremy deadpanned, “except for the writing part.”
Corinne let a little laugh escape. She couldn’t help it.
“Yeah, but you could charge a lot more if you added value to the experience,” Pilar persisted. “Jeremy, you could take people sailing. Joanie and Carol, you could give nature talks, and… and… serve your jam at breakfast, which would be included in the package price. Gretchen, you could manage the whole operation, keep the books, do payroll, all that stuff you’re good at. Everett could be in charge of entertainment…”
“And Maddie,” Gretchen said, “could supply the pot all these happy-go-lucky rich people will want to smoke while enjoying this ‘value-added experience’.” She made quote marks with her hands. “Pilar, that’s a nice fantasy, but it assumes that we’re all going to drop what we’re doing in our lives to keep this place afloat.”
“Oh, go fuck yourself.” Madison’s voice rose above their laughter.
It was not directed at them, for she was too far down the beach to hear their conversation. It was directed at Mike Murphy, who had apparently just said something not to her liking. The couple stood nose-to-nose, arguing, until Mike slammed his beer can into the sand and stomped off down the beach, away from the family gathering.
“Well, I wondered how long that was going hold up,” Joanie said.
Annabelle said something Corinne couldn’t catch, and Paul said, “I’ll talk to him.” Madison turned away, but Paul loped off down the rocky shore after Mike.
“That’s all right, Mom,” she heard Madison say. “I can get a ride home with Graham, or Pilar. As for Mike, I don’t give a flying fuck where he goes orwhat he does or who he does it with.”
“I know you’re upset, dear, but I wish you wouldn’t use that language,” Annabelle said.
“And I wish my family would stick up for me.” She fished a beer out of the cooler and announced that she was going to go see what the boys were up to. Then she stalked off toward the cabin and the music.
Just then another cluster erupted, as one of the little girls – the one wearing the dress – screamed and pushed the other one down onto the sand. “Mom!” the girl wailed. “Mariah got mud all over me!”
Serena tried to intervene, but both girls only screamed louder, at her and each other. The smaller girl tried to hit the larger one; Serena grabbed each one by the collar and held them apart. She told them to calm down. She told them several times. Corinne admired her patience.
“Ashleigh, there’s a change of clothes in the back seat of the car, in the blue bag. You can change in the cabin. Mariah, come with me. Let’s wash up.” She led the girl over the rocks toward the tide pool.
“You sure about not adopting kids?” Gretchen said to Joanie and Carol. “You’re missing these moments of pure, unadulterated joy.”
Corinne couldn’t believe how fast the peaceful family reunion scene on the shore had cascaded into chaos. In the confusion, no one noticed that Annabelle had finished picking at the body of her lobster and set her plate aside on the arm of the Adirondack chair. “I need to wash up, too,” she said to no one. Then she wobbled to her feet.
It all happened as if in slow motion. Wrapped up in their own squabbles, Annabelle’s children and grandchildren made no move to assist her as she minced down the beach. Corinne didn’t get to her feet until Annabelle reached the ledge that contained the tide pool where Serena was helping Mariah clean up. Annabelle took a tentative step up onto the rock, then another. Serena looked up, just as Annabelle started to lose her balance. Serena reached for her, but it was too late. Annabelle held her arms out to her sides to steady herself, but Corinne could see it wasn’t going to work. , With a faint cry that Corinne heard but the arguing siblings around her did not, the family matriarch wobbled in place, and then toppled sideways onto the rocks.
Serena was closest. “Grandma!” she cried, and rushed to the old woman’s side. Corinne got there seconds later. “Don’t move her,” she barked at the young woman. She knelt beside Annabelle. The family gathering went suddenly silent. Everyone on the beach stood and stared at the fallen figure of the family matriarch. In the quiet, Corinne could hear the music from up by the cabin. Everett, as usual, had managed to be absent at the moment of crisis.
One look at Annabelle’s right leg told her most of what she needed to know. Her ankle protruded from her pant leg at an unnatural angle, toward the outside of her foot. Corinne took her head in her hands and looked into her eyes. “Annabelle, can you hear me?”
The eyes were clear, and she was able to turn toward Corinne and look at her. She was shaking. But she apparently hadn’t hit her head. Thank God for small favors.
“Oh, dear,” she said, in a small voice. “I think I may have hurt myself.”
Corinne saw the small figures of Paul and Mike far down the beach; they hadn’t seen Annabelle fall and were too far away to do anything. “Someone go get them,” she said. She was not used to giving this family orders, but she had quickly taken charge. She would worry about the fallout later. Gretchen went without a word. Annabelle’s face was contorted in pain. But the old woman remained composed.
“This is a mess, isn’t it?” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Corinne waved everybody away. “Give her room,” she called. “Annabelle, lie still. It’s gonna be okay.”
“What happened?” someone – she thought it was Joanie – asked.
But she was in full medical mode now. “We’re going to need a flat board. Who’s got a cell phone? Someone’s got to call 911. And get those cars moved out of the way so the ambulance can get down here.”
Pilar already had her cell phone out, but Joanie said, “Good luck getting reception down here. Better go up to the cabin and use the land line.”
Jeremy knelt beside his mother and offered an arm to help her sit up. But Corinne said, “Don’t move her any more than you have to. And for God’s sake don’t touch that ankle. I’m pretty sure it’s broken.”
“I’m cold,” Annabelle said, in a small, weak voice. Corinne saw that she was shivering. The rocks, recently covered by water, were wet and clammy. But Corinne didn’t dare move her.
“Bring a blanket from the cabin,” she called after Carol, who had started up the beach. “Any luck with that phone?”
Pilar shook her head. “I’ve got one bar,” she said.
“Fucking boonies,” she muttered, and then turned back to Annabelle. “It’s going to be okay,” she said again, though privately she thought the woman might go into shock at any minute. But Annabelle evinced little pain. Serena brought the board that Annabelle had been using as a table; though it was too small, Corinne managed to slide it underneath Annabelle’s backside so she wasn’t lying completely on the wet rocks. The music ended abruptly. Gretchen returned with Paul and Mike. Soon the whole Sprauling clan encircled its fallen leader.
Pilar came back from the cabin and announced that an ambulance was on its way, and the movement of cars began.
Corinne did not relax until she had made Annabelle as comfortable as she could. She would not leave Annabelle’s side until the ambulance arrived. Family members hovered around them, but it was Corinne who sat beside her, talked to her, and monitored her condition. And in the middle of the crowd, they shared a private moment, when Annabelle looked up and out at the islands and the sea, and then at her. “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.
Corinne nodded, and squeezed the old woman’s hand. “Yes it is,” she said.
Annabelle didn’t say anything more, but her eyes said plenty. Corinne knew she was wondering when she would see this place again.