You wouldn’t think it would be that big a deal, your wife coming home from the hospital after a broken ankle and several weeks of rehab. But you would be wrong – at least if your wife had six grown children, all with different ideas of what was best for her, and none of them predisposed to listen to you.
“It’s not like I own the place, or anything,” Paul grumbled to himself, gazing out from the seat of his ride-on mower toward the little sailboat on its mooring. He had momentarily forgotten the boat’s original name. Jeremy had rechristened it after his daughter, but Jeremy was headed back to California soon, leaving Paul to haul the boat and put it away for the winter.
It was only the first week of August, but in Maine August augers autumn, and Paul’s mood anticipated the change of the season. They had renters right up through Labor Day, and another couple coming two weeks after that, but soon it would be time to drain the pipes at the camp, put away the lawn furniture, set traps inside for any squirrels tempted to winter over, and replace the screens with storm windows and shutters. A lot of work, but nothing he hadn’t been doing for years. So why did he have to keep fending off offers of help from Annabelle’s well-meaning offspring? He’d been running the show himself since she’d been laid up this last time, keeping the grass cut and the wood shed stocked, seeing to the needs of their tenants and answering their questions about things to do in the area. Annabelle usually took care of the inside of the cabin, changing out the linens and towels and such, but Gretchen had filled in seamlessly, and Joanie was here, too. Right at this moment, in fact, Joanie was up at the house helping her mother settle in to her revamped living space and rearranging the refrigerator and cupboards so Annabelle could get to everything easily. He could see Pilar and Gretchen out on the sailboat, sitting in the cockpit in the early morning absence of wind. Pilar had taken to sailing after going out a few times with Jeremy, and seemed to be interested in this fellow she’d met out on the island, but Paul had never been able to keep track of Pilar’s personal life. He was glad she’d gotten Gretchen involved, though. Gretchen needed a distraction. Annabelle’s oldest daughter worried too much. She didn’t count much on his capacity to care for her mother and the place at the same time. Better to have her focused on helping Pilar sail the boat than hovering over Annabelle and second-guessing his every decision.
Now, the grass mowed, the newspaper read, and the tenants just stirring inside the cabin, he wondered what to do with the rest of the day. Joanie could wait on Annabelle, sparing him a trip up and down the stairs every time she thought of something. Madison and Serena and her kids would be coming for the weekend. Jeremy was off in Bangor with Everett, but he had promised to stay over for a couple of nights before flying back to his life in California. Everett was the kid he saw the least, because he didn’t drive, which was too bad. He could use some male company around here occasionally. Daughters were devoted, but they could also be a pain in the ass with their mothering instincts, now turned on their head but still steeped in family history.
The mainsail went up on the sailboat, a gesture of hope more than anything else, for it was still flat calm. Paul had taken the boat over to a nearby yard and had the spreaders replaced; Jeremy, to his pleased surprise, had paid the bill. Perhaps Pilar would be the next member of the family to take an interest in the boat. Or maybe he should take up sailing himself. As a getaway it could be even more effective than yard work.
But what Paul really wanted was not a getaway but to get away, not just to the lawn or the nearby patch of ocean. He wanted to see more of the world before he died. He had never been south of the equator, or to Alaska or Hawaii, or Greece or Turkey or Rome. Now he wondered if he would ever see any of those places. His wife was eighty and not likely to again be fully mobile. Any traveling they might do from here on in would involve wheelchairs and special accommodations.
Glumly, taking his time, he aimed the mower up the hill toward the main house. At the top, he turned at looked out at the water again. Gretchen and Pilar were still on the mooring, the single sail hanging listless in the non-breeze.
Joanie emerged from the house.
“Mom needs one of us to go up to the store and pick up some blueberries,” she announced. “She says they run out if you don’t get there early. You want to go, or should I?”
Joanie was dressed simply in jeans and a turquoise College of the Atlantic tee shirt with a whale on the front. Since her arrival, she had thrown herself into the household chores with cheerful determination, and Paul had to admit he enjoyed a clean house, washed and folded laundry, meals that neither he nor Annabelle had to prepare, and a fresh roll of paper towels always on the dispenser. But it also felt a bit antiseptic. It was too tidy. He found himself afraid to touch things in his own home, and that was a strange feeling
“I’ll go,” he said. Annabelle liked her blueberries on cereal in the morning and ice cream at night, or just by themselves with a little milk and sugar. Paul ate them too. In season the local store carried berries from a local grower, and supplies often ran out by noon. “How many does she want?”
“She said to get two quarts, but I was going to get three, and make a pie with one of ’em.”
“I like the sound of that,” he said, and he did. Joanie made excellent blueberry pie. “Maybe I’ll get four quarts, and you can make two.”
Joanie’s cherubic face broke into a smile. “All right,” she said. “Why not? We can share it with Jeremy and Everett when they come down. Oh, and Mom wants a Sunday New York Times, too. There’s an article about the Voyager that she wanted to show Jeremy.”
Why was he always the last to know what was going on? “How’s your mother doing this morning?”
“Oh, fine,” Joanie said. “She’s been up and down a couple of times. We’re going to walk out to the road a little later. “
Annabelle was supposed to walk a short distance every day. The driveway was flat, and though unpaved, it presented no serious obstacles. Joanie had taken over this task as well. Annabelle walked slowly and deliberately, with a metal cane on one side and Joanie on the other, and it took her a long time to get to the end of the driveway and back.
He drove unhurriedly to the store, slowing down for the inevitable summer walkers who tended to meander down the middle of the narrow country road. He should be one of those walkers himself – his doctor had told him that a regimen of modest daily exercise would do wonders for his weight and blood pressure, and the store was only three miles away. But he couldn’t see the sense in walking six miles for a few quarts of blueberries and a newspaper. Since the end of his fishing days he’d grown used to being available for Annabelle whenever she needed him. They had tried walking together in the years before her health problems, but the round trip to the store had been too much even then.
The store was the center of social activity in town. A bulletin board outside the door bore notices of public meetings, items for sale, baked bean suppers, yard sales, boat launchings, and all manner of small-town commerce, from people looking for work to home-based businesses advertising their services. Inside, a small deli and lunch counter served sandwiches and sodas, and off to the side, another counter displayed baked goods and local produce. The Sunday Times had previously been available only in summer, but so many retirees had moved up in recent years that the store now carried it year-round. Annabelle liked the crossword puzzle and the book review; Paul enjoyed the editorial section. On a slow day at the point – and most of them were that – the paper could occupy them for hours.
The store was modestly busy for a weekday morning, a combination of Japanese cars and American pickup trucks parked outside. He swung open the screen door and saw Gaspar Buchman, another former lobsterman, hunched over a cup of coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie. Gaspar was a few years older than Paul, and since getting off the water he’d put on a bit of weight. Probably eating desserts for breakfast didn’t help, Paul thought, but Gaspar was a widower and had no one at home to cook for him. He might be up here doing the same thing if not for Annabelle.
He acknowledged Gaspar with a wave as he picked out four quarts of blueberries and took them to the cash register. “Hey, Paul,” the old man called, “that your little sailboat I seen out on the mooring in front of your place? The one you’ve always been talking about fixing up?”
Paul nodded. “Annabelle’s kids finally shamed me into to doing it,” he said. “It gives ’em something to do when they come down.”
“How is that little wife of yours, anyway? Heard she’s home again.”
Paul nodded his thanks. “She’s getting around better,” he said. “Still has to be careful on that ankle, but the kids have been around, helping her out.”
“That’s gotta be good, havin’ family around.”
It has its ups and downs, he thought, but to Gaspar he said simply, “Yup.”
“Here’s your paper, Mr. Bremerton.” The girl at the cash register – he could never remember her name, though she was the daughter of another lobsterman and probably closer to thirty than eighteen – produced the Times from underneath the counter. He mumbled his thanks, and wished her name would come to him so he could tell her to call him Paul. She hadn’t been working there long. Word was she’d left the state after high school, married and had a kid, and come back to Maine with her school-age daughter after the divorce. Annabelle would know the details. Damn, why couldn’t he remember her name? She wasn’t what you’d call pretty, and he was much to old to flirt with her, but nobody else in town called him “Mr. Bremerton.” He didn’t like it.
He paid up and thanked her, then sat and bantered briefly with Gaspar about the state of the lobster business and the weather and preparations for winter. The girl came over and asked him if he’d like a cup of coffee. He said no, thank you, and was just about to take his leave when he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Bob Massey’s unmistakable voice. “How you doing there, young feller?” Massey was ten years younger, taller, broader, and thicker through the middle than Paul, with a bushy red beard halfway turned to gray. He ran the lobster pound and restaurant he’d inherited from his father and done well for himself and had about six kids, all of whom worked for him at one time or another, and every year he hosted a party for the whole town on his 60-acre spread over on the other side of the point. Paul and Annabelle hadn’t attended the last couple of years, though they had once been regulars.
“Hello, Mr. Massey,” the girl behind the counter chirped.
“Well, hello, Joey,” Bob Massey beamed back at her. “I’d like to get a dozen of those delicious blueberry muffins of yours, when you get a chance.” Joey. A boy’s name for a girl, Paul thought. But that was how he’d remember it from now on.
“And the croissants,” his wife, at his elbow, reminded him. Cindy Massey made a ghostly counterpoint to her husband’s ruddy bulk. Her wispy blonde hair, pale blue eyes, slight stature and pancake makeup combined to give her the appearance of having no appearance at all. You could almost see through her. Maybe a man like Massey enjoyed having an almost invisible wife.
“And a half-dozen croissants, Joey, if you will, darling.”
“Sure, Mr. Massey.” She was already bagging the blueberry muffins.
“Thanks. You’re a sweetheart. Say, Gaspar, you old dog, when’re you gonna get back out on the water?”
“When it freezes,” Gaspar growled.
Naturally they wanted to know about Annabelle, and naturally they all had a cup of coffee, and when Joey asked Paul if he wanted anything else, he allowed that he might like one of those cinnamon rolls in the display case. The talk moved on to lobsters, local gossip, and national politics before Paul was able to extricate himself.
Forty-five minutes after setting out on his brief errand, Paul aimed the car for home. As he came around the last curve in the road, he looked out at the water and saw that Gretchen and Pilar had left the mooring and that a slight breeze had come up to fill their sails. He pulled to the side and watched them for a bit. The two sisters seemed to have the boat under control as it slid past the trees of Harbor Island, away from the submerged rocks in the middle of the channel and out toward the more open waters of Jericho Bay. Plenty of rocks out there for them to hit, still, but also plenty of other boaters, both working and recreational, to come to their aid if they got in trouble. Too bad they hadn’t been much interested in boats when he’d been lobstering, because there had been times he could have used an extra pair of hands. But some boat savvy had to have rubbed off. He decided not to worry. Annabelle’s kids were survivors. All six had managed to carve out at least marginally successful adult lives, and mostly left them in peace – until recently. Now they had it in their heads that Annabelle needed their help on a more or less daily basis. He hoped their concern would abate as their mother healed and winter set in.
When he pulled into their dooryard, another surprise awaited him. At first he didn’t recognize the battered green Buick parked beside the garage. But then he saw the Boston Bruins bumper sticker and remembered that he’d seen the car on one of Madison’s visits to her mother in the hospital. What was she doing here now?
She was sitting at the kitchen table having coffee with Joanie and Annabelle. He said a brief hello and set the Times down on the table, then moved to put the berries away. When he opened the refrigerator, he saw that Madison had brought a six-pack of good beer, not the usual Pabst or Miller. Something was afoot.
“Honey, you should hear what Madison’s come up with,” Annabelle said. He fished the editorial section from the paper and scanned it. Nothing jumped off the page at him – it was mostly columns on the coming election. “By the way,” his wife continued, “Jeremy and Everett are coming down tonight. So unless those two out on the water have other plans, it’s all eight of us for dinner tonight. When was the last time that happened? Joan’s offered to spring for pizza.”
“And I brought all kinds of vegetables,” Madison said.
“And I told Jeremy to bring more beer,” Annabelle added.
“Good,” he said. The emergency supply was down to about three warm cases, in the basement, near the furnace. The six Sprauling siblings could make a fair-sized dent in that if they knew about it.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Annabelle said. “A family gathering happening by accident. It isn’t often I get to see all six of my children at the same time.”
And a good thing, too, he thought but did not say. The last time it happened, you were carried out of here in an ambulance. How much non-emergency beer did they have? It could be a long evening.
“Madison’s got a proposal for us,” Annabelle added.
He glanced at the clock. Quarter past eleven. Not too early… “Do you mind if I open one of those beers?”
“What I brought ’em for,” Madison replied cheerfully. “Matter of fact, bring me one, too. I’ve been up since four.”
When Paul heard what she had in mind, he was at first astonished, then aghast, and finally angry. As she laid it out, with asides from Annabelle and Joanie, and as it became increasingly clear that the two sisters, at least, had discussed it before, he felt the back of his neck warming. This was his grandfather’s land they were talking about, his birthright. Whatever happened to it after he and Annabelle were gone – and certainly while they remained above the ground, active and able to make their own decisions – was up to him. Madison was proposing nothing short of a bloodless coup.
The gist of it was this: things weren’t working out with Mike. He had proposed buying her out of her half of the farm, which covered the buildings and the land but not the equipment, most of which was registered in her name. Madison laid out a plan whereby Paul and Annabelle would retain nominal ownership of the land while she converted it into a working farm. The tax breaks would save the family thousands, she said. A barn would have to be built, for the animals, and she had already planned out the spots for the various vegetable gardens. She spoke in grand terms of adding an educational component to this working farm and offering tourist packages to visitors who wanted to do more than simply relax. Pilar had offered to help. And Joanie and Gretchen and even Everett could be tangentially involved, and Serena, too, if she was interested. In time they could build a single-level house out by the road for the two of them when Annabelle could no longer negotiate stairs. In this way she could stay in her own home as long as she wanted, with her daughter always available whenever she needed assistance. Paul wouldn’t have to work as hard, either, she pointed out. “For one thing, you wouldn’t have to mow all that grass,” she said. “A few goats cold keep it trimmed all year long.”
The whole idea was outlandish, but he gave it a listen, out of respect for his wife, if nothing else. But this last bit was too much. Goats? He got up and opened another beer. He did not immediately return to the table. Instead, he slipped out through the garage and onto the back lawn. It still smelled fresh. He was tempted for a moment to take off his shoes and wriggle his toes in it. God dammit, he liked mowing the grass. It looked damn good, too, when it was all cut.
He squinted into the sun and tried to imagine it. All Paul knew about goats was that they ate virtually everything, and they were prolific shitters, too. The whole place would stink of goat poop, along with the combined leavings of chickens, pigs, and whatever other creatures Madison might fancy. She could even get it into her head to take in exotic animals, like elephants or water buffalo. Paul had nothing against animals. He was fine with Annabelle’s two tabby cats. They sometimes rubbed up against his ankles underneath the kitchen table or curled up on the foot of the bed, but disappeared whenever they had company. He had thought about getting a dog. His desire to travel and Annabelle’s lack of enthusiasm for the daily care and companionship a dog required had so far stopped him. But if Madison was so fired up about moving her menagerie to the point, why didn’t she buy the place from them? He had no desire to live out the last of his years waking to the smell of goat shit.
In the back of his mind he knew he was trapped. None of Annabelle’s kids could afford this place – probably combined they couldn’t afford it. He remembered a time when most lobstermen lived on the coast, within sight of their boats, before real estate prices had rendered that lifestyle exotic and driven working fishermen inland, where they had to drive to public landings that were also disappearing. He could simply cash in – sell the place for a couple million, and to hell with the Sprauling family. But wouldn’t he be betraying his own heritage as well? Maybe Maddie’s idea made some sense. That didn’t mean he had to like it.
He stewed all day, staying out of the house as much as he could, drinking beers from the battered old refrigerator in the garage while he split and stacked firewood, oiled and sharpened his chainsaw, filled the bird feeders, trimmed back the bushes on the side of the house – anything to keep busy. Madison made a big salad for lunch, topped with slices of hard-boiled eggs and cooked chicken, and Paul, though he didn’t say so, admitted to himself that it was better fare than his wife served him daily. Okay, so there would be upsides, he thought, during the mostly silent meal. But he was still in a cantankerous mood later in the afternoon when Jeremy pulled up in his rented car, with Everett riding shotgun.
“Where’s the boat?” was the first thing Jeremy wanted to know.
He had been running the weed whacker alongside the garage, where the boat had once sat, and hadn’t noticed how long Gretchen and Pilar had been gone. Now he gazed out at the water and the dinghy on the mooring, saw that the tide was in, and that the girls had not returned. He looked at his watch. Four o’clock. They’d been out for several hours. The afternoon southerly had filled in, and he could see a few whitecaps out beyond the islands, but no sign of Andromeda.
Everett raised an eyebrow when Paul told them, but Jeremy said that Pilar was perfectly capable of handling the boat and reading a chart, and Gretchen had done some sailing in her youth with their father. The mention of Elliott Sprauling prickled Paul for a moment, but he let it go when he spied the twin twelve-packs of Maine microbrew that the two brothers pulled from the back seat of the car.
Buoyed by the arrival of male company, Paul put aside work for the day and joined the others for beers around the table. Joanie jotted down pizza preferences and prepared to call in an order. Brooklin had fewer than a thousand residents but three outlets for take-out pizza, including the store. After trying each of them, Paul and Annabelle had ascertained that the one farthest away offered the best product. They would deliver, too, but the high school kids they hired could not be depended upon to find the place before the pizza got cold. It was too bad, Paul thought, that they didn’t make deliveries by boat. It might have been faster and more efficient.
Jeremy announced that the he had booked a flight to California next week. His classes started soon, he said, and he needed to get back and prepare for them. Annabelle misted up at this news and grew maudlin, wondering when she’d see him again, but Jeremy observed that she was getting around well and didn’t need his help any more. He could come back out in October, he said, if he could find a cheap flight, and help Paul haul the boat. He said he could probably take care of it himself. He tried to conceal his relief. Now if the rest of them could remember that they had lives to get back to…
But the talk soon swung back to Madison and her plans for turning the point into a farm. Everett thought it was a great idea. “Imagine all the pot you could grow out here,” he said.
“Now wait a minute,” Annabelle interjected.
“Everett, you’re not helping,” Madison said.
“Good way to lose the property,” Paul growled.
“Why?” Everett argued. “It’s practically legal already. You could start out growing it for the medicinal market. Then when full-on legalization does happen, you’d be perfectly positioned. This place could pay for itself in a year.”
Paul was tempted to tell him to take a hike. This was worse than the goats. Annabelle’s kids seemed to have no shortage of harebrained plans for his property.
By six o’clock, the sailing sisters still had not returned. Joanie’s pies cooled on the countertop. Annabelle exuded calm, working a crossword puzzle and listening to Madison pour out the troubles of her marriage. Paul couldn’t sit still. He paced the living room, fished beers from the garage, wandered outside and then in again. The days were growing shorter. They had little more than two hours of daylight left. He could call any number of fishermen to go out and look for them, but he did not relish the thought of doing so, and drawing unwanted attention to his adopted family.
“Maybe we should call them,” Everett suggested.
“Good luck with cell phone coverage,” Paul said.
Everett made the attempt, but Pilar was either not answering, not receiving a signal, or had her phone turned off. He tried Gretchen’s number with the same result.
“Joan, why don’t you go get the pizza,” Annabelle suggested. “You can look out from the road and see if you can see them.”
“No need,” Jeremy said. He had gotten up for a beer and now stood by the kitchen window. “There they are, coming around the island.”
“Are you sure?” Annabelle asked, as they all looked. “That boat looks too small.”
“They’ve got the mainsail reefed,” Jeremy said. “Good for them. The wind came up, and they knew what to do.”
The boat heeled over in a gust of wind, but whichever one was at the helm kept it on course. “I’m going,” Joanie said. “By the time I get back they should be ashore.”
As the sailboat drew closer, Paul could see Pilar at the tiller, her long hair streaming behind her. She brought the boat into the wind at the mooring and let the sail flap as Gretchen, kneeling on the foredeck, grabbed the stick-up buoy. A moment later the mainsail dropped, followed by the jib. He looked over at Jeremy. The kid didn’t say a thing. Pilar had executed the maneuver perfectly.
He continued to watch as the girls furled and stowed the sails with the same efficiency, closed up the boat, and climbed into the dinghy, Gretchen at the oars. Soon they were in the house, talking excitedly over each other about their sail.
“Jesus, you were gone a long time,” Paul said. “Your mother was getting worried.”
“Sorry,” Pilar said. “We lost track of the time. Cyrus made us leave when he saw how high the tide was getting.”
“Who is Cyrus?” Annabelle said.
A silence fell, unusual in any gathering of three or more Spraulings. Madison was over at the counter, cutting vegetables, and for several seconds the thwonk of the knife was the only sound in the kitchen. Paul saw Pilar sneak a glance at Jeremy, who quickly looked down. Then she and Gretchen exchanged a look.
“He’s the caretaker of Solomon Island,” Gretchen said.
“You should have told us where you were going,” Paul said.
“We didn’t plan it,” Pilar said. “When we were sitting out there on the mooring, we thought we’d just go for a short sail, but then the wind came up, and we decided to go for it.” She flashed a pixie grin. “And we made it back before dark. Besides, there’s a full moon tonight. Plenty of visibility.”
“But you don’t have running lights,” Paul pointed out. “It’s illegal to be out at night without them.”
“Well, it’s a moot point, anyway, because here we are,” Pilar said brightly.
“And Joan should be back with pizza any minute,” Annabelle added.
“Good, ’cause I’m starving,” Pilar said. She drifted over toward Madison, snagged a piece of broccoli from the cutting board.
“Why did you go see the caretaker of Solomon Island?” Annabelle asked.
“Pilar’s sweet on him,” Gretchen said.
Pilar had been about to pop the piece of broccoli in her mouth. But now she threw it at her older sister.
“Children, stop that,” Annabelle snapped.
Like high school all over again. Paul guessed this meant that the guy in Quebec was history. He wasn’t surprised, and he was even less surprised to be the last to know.
“Wait a minute,” Everett said. “Isn’t Cyrus that writer guy you were talking about?”
“The one who wrote about the hospital,” Pilar said softly, nodding. “And our father’s death.”
Paul saw a cloud cross Annabelle’s features. “He must be awfully old,” she said. “Your father’s been gone for a very long time.”
Pilar turned to face her. “And I’ve never really had a clear picture of how it happened.” She looked around the room at her siblings. “We all seem to remember it differently.”
“It was an accident.” Annabelle’s voice was a monotone, devoid of emotion. “He fell down the stairs and fractured his skull.”
“But he lived for three days,” Pilar said. “What happened at the end? Were you with him?”
Annabelle pressed her lips together and said nothing.
“Pilar, maybe now isn’t the best time,” Jeremy suggested.
“Cyrus thinks it’s him in the elevator, doesn’t he?” Everett said.
“Which is where the staircase was,” Pilar said. “And which maybe explains why the elevator acts so funny.”
“It doesn’t explain anything,” Jeremy said. “It’s superstition and myth and wishful thinking all rolled into one.”
Pilar turned back to her mother. “Joanie said you wouldn’t go in that elevator when she tried to take you to therapy,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you? Is something in there, or are we all imagining things?”
Annabelle appeared to be on the verge of tears. “Stop it,” she said. “What is the point of all these questions? It’s been forty years. What possible difference can it make now?”
“I’d just like to know the truth,” Pilar said.
“About what?” Annabelle cried. “He fell down the stairs and hit his head, and fell into a coma and died.”
“Were we with him?” Pilar asked. “When he died?”
“No,” Gretchen said, from the side of the room. “I remember we were in a waiting room, because Mom had gone to pick up Jeremy.”
“When I got to the hospital he was already dead,” Jeremy said.
“I wasn’t there,” Annabelle murmured. “I’d gone to meet Jeremy’s bus.” Paul saw a solitary tear slide down his wife’s wrinkled face. He had to stop this.
“And they made us stay in a waiting room,” Gretchen remembered. “The nurses wouldn’t tell us what was going on. They called you in when you got back. And then you came out and told us.”
“So you weren’t with him, either,” Pilar said.
Annabelle shook her head. “No,” she whispered.
“Was Bernadette there?” Jeremy said.
Annabelle snapped her head around. “What has that woman said to you?” she demanded.
“Nothing, Ma. We went out a couple times. She said she knew Dad, and I was curious to know more about him, that’s all.”
“Well, you stay away from her. She’s not to be trusted.”
“I probably won’t see her again before I go back, anyway,” Jeremy said. “She’s on vacation.”
“Maybe he had something he wanted to tell you,” Pilar suggested to her mother. “And he was prevented from doing it. So he’s been hanging around, all these years, waiting for another chance.”
Paul had been listening with growing incredulity. Whoever this Cyrus was, he was tempted to go out to Solomon Island and kick his ass. “I’ve been in that elevator a hundred times,” he said. “That hospital’s taken good care of your mother. Some fool writer making up a story doesn’t…”
The sound of tires on gravel cut him off. “Pizza’s here,” Annabelle announced, with obvious relief. Joanie breezed in with the boxes.
“What’s going on?” she said.
“Nothing,” Jeremy said. “We were just waiting for you.”
“You all look so serious, that’s all. Here, dig in.” She set the pizzas on the kitchen table. “What were you talking about?” Like seagulls over a lobster boat, the Spraulings descended on the food. Paul took down plates from the cupboard; Madison tore paper towels from the roll for napkins. Only Annabelle remained seated.
“Ma, what kind would you like?” Jeremy asked her.
“I’ll start with a small piece of the sausage and onion,” she said. “And another beer.”
Jeremy started toward the refrigerator, but Paul said, “I’ll get it.” He needed another one, too.
“We went to see Cyrus,” Pilar said to Joanie. “We were talking about Dad.”
“And now we can talk about something else,” Annabelle said. “He’s not here, and we all are. Let’s be thankful for the family we still have.”
They dug into the pizza, and for several minutes nobody said anything. Paul hoped Pilar would let it go. It turned out to be too much to hope for.
“I’m curious,” Everett said. “Do you think he knows about me?”
“He knew I was pregnant,” Annabelle said.
“That’s not what I meant.” He looked at Pilar. “Do you think he knows about me? Because if it’s possible, I’d really like to talk to him.”
“Oh, Everett,” Annabelle scoffed. But her voice shook when she said it.
“He died without being able to say goodbye,” Pilar said. “I think maybe that’s why he’s trying to communicate with all of us.”
“Oh, come on, Pilar…”
“All I know is something wasn’t right about his death. Cyrus said when he tried to talk to anyone at the hospital about it, they shut up real fast and looked over their shoulders, like they were scared of something It was all hushed up.” She looked again at Annabelle. “The day he fell – you were out, weren’t you? You heard about it from someone at the store. And then you came home to get us. Isn’t that right?”
Paul saw that Annabelle hadn’t taken a bite of her pizza. She looked like a draft through the door could knock her over.
Paul felt his ears getting red. Here she was, just home from the second of two stints in the hospital that had robbed her of most of her summer, and they couldn’t leave her alone about a man who had died four decades ago. How was she supposed to remember the details of that day? He couldn’t remember where he took off his shoes the previous evening. And why did they insist on grilling her about it?
“I want you all out of here,” he said, as calmly as he could.
Joanie looked at him from behind a slice of spinach and feta pizza. “Excuse me?”
“Finish your pizza and go. Or better yet, take it with you. I don’t care. I won’t have you badgering your mother.”
“No, Paul, it’s all right,” Annabelle said.
He banged his plate down on the table. “No, goddammit, it isn’t all right. The man’s been dead for forty years, and you all can’t let go of him. You have to grasp at stories and dredge it all up over and over again. He died. It’s tough, but that’s the way of the world sometimes. You grieve, you pick up, and you move on. You don’t pick at a scab for forty years. I’m sick of the lot of you. Take your pizza and your privilege and your noblesse-fucking-oblige and get out of my house. Leave me and my wife alone.”
“Paul, listen…” Pilar began.
But he was in no mood to listen. Usually Pilar was the one who could calm him down, but this was her doing. “I don’t know what this Cyrus character told you,” he said, “or who he is or why he’s even involved, but you can tell him the next time you see him to mind his own fucking business.”
Annabelle sat silently next to her untouched piece of pizza, her lips drawn together in a narrow line. Jeremy whispered something to Gretchen. Joanie gathered the leftover pizza. “I guess I missed something,” she said
“I’m sorry,” Pilar said, looking first at Paul and then at Annabelle. “I just want to know the truth about our father.”
Paul was still steaming, but he saw that all the fight had gone out of Annabelle. “What difference does it make?” she said again, weakly. “It won’t make him any less dead.”