BOOK I CAPTAIN TRIPS Chapter 20
The Harborside was the oldest hotel in Ogunquit. The view was not so good since they had built the new yacht club over on the other side, but on an afternoon like this, when the sky had been poxed with intermittent thunderstorms, the view was good enough.
Frannie had been sitting by the window for almost three hours, trying to write a letter to Grace Duggan, a high school chum who was now going to Smith. It wasn't a confessional letter dealing with her pregnancy or the scene with her mother - writing about those things would do nothing but depress her, and she supposed Grace would hear soon enough from her own sources in town. She had only been trying to write a friendly letter. The bicycle trip Jesse and I took to Rangely in May with Sam Lothrop and Sally Wenscelas. The biology final I lucked out on. Peggy Tate's (another high school friend and mutual acquaintance) new job as a Senate page. The impending marriage of Amy Lauder.
The letter just wouldn't allow itself to be written. The interesting pyrotechnics of the day had played a part - how could you write while pocket thunderstorms kept coming and going over the water? More to the point, none of the news in the letter seemed precisely honest. It had twisted slightly, like a knife in the hand that gives you a superficial cut instead of peeling the potato as you had expected it to do. The bicycle trip had been jolly, but she and Jess were no longer on such jolly terms. She had indeed lucked out on her BY-7 final, but had not been lucky at all on the biology final that really counted. Neither she nor Grace had ever cared all that much for Peggy Tate, and Amy's forthcoming nuptials, in Fran's present state, seemed more like one of those ghastly sick jokes than an occasion of joy. Amy's getting married but I'm having the baby, hah-hah-hah.
Feeling that the letter had to be finished if only so she wouldn't have to wrestle with it anymore, she wrote:
I've got problems of my own, boy do I have problems, but I just don't have the heart to write them all down. Bad enough just having to think about them! But I expect to see you by the Fourth, unless your plans have changed since your last letter. (One letter in six weeks? I was beginning to think someone had chopped your typing fingers off, kid!) When I see you I'll tell you all. I could sure use your advice.
Believe in me and I'll believe in you,
She signed her name with her customary flamboyant/comic scrawl, so it took up half of the remaining white space on the notesheet. Just doing that made her feel more like an imposter than ever. She folded it into the envelope and addressed it and put it against the mirror standing up. Finished business.
There. Now what?
The day was darkening again. She got up and walked restlessly around the room, thinking she ought to go out before it started to rain again, but where was there to go? A movie? She'd seen the only one in town. With Jesse. To Portland to look at clothes? No fun. The only clothes she could look at realistically these days were the ones with the elastic waistbands. Room for two.
She'd had three calls today, the first one good news, the second indifferent, the third bad. She wished they'd come in reverse order. Outside the rain had begun to fall, darkening the marina's pier again. She decided she'd go out and walk and to hell with the impending rain. The fresh air, the summer damp, might make her feel better. She might even stop somewhere and have a glass of beer. Happiness in a bottle. Equilibrium, anyway.
The first call had been from Debbie Smith, in Somersworth. Fran was more than welcome, Debbie said warmly. In fact, she was needed. One of the three girls who had been sharing the apartment had moved out in May, had gotten a job in a warehousing firm as a secretary. She and Rhoda couldn't swing the rent much longer without a third. "And we both come from big families," Debbie said. "Crying babies don't bother us."
Fran said she'd be ready to move in by the first of July, and when she hung up she found warm tears coursing down her cheeks. Relief tears. If she could get away from this town where she had grown up, she thought she would be all right. Away from her mother, away from her father, even. The fact of the baby and her singleness would then assume some sort of sane proportion in her life. A large factor, surely, but not the only one. There was some sort of animal, a bug or a frog, she thought, that swelled up to twice its normal size when it felt threatened. The predator, in theory at least, saw this, got scared, and slunk off. She felt a little like that bug, and it was this whole town, the total environment (gestalt was maybe an even better word), that made her feel that way. She knew that nobody was going to make her wear a scarlet letter, but she also knew that for her mind to finish convincing her nerves of that fact, a break with Ogunquit was necessary. When she went out on the street she could feel people, not looking at her, but getting ready to look at her. The year-round residents, of course, not the summer people. The year-round residents always had to have someone to look at - a tosspot, a welfare slacker, The Kid from a Good Family who had been picked up shoplifting in Portland or Old Orchard Beach... or the girl with the levitating belly.
The second call, the so-so one, had been from Jess Rider. He had called from Portland and he had tried the house first. Luckily, he had gotten Peter, who gave him Fran's telephone number at the Harborside with no editorial comment.
Still, almost the first thing he'd said was: "You got a lot of static at home, huh?"
"Well, I got some," she said cautiously, not wanting to go into it. That would make them conspirators of a kind.
"Why do you say that?"
"She looks like the type that might freak out. It's something in the eyes, Frannie. It says if you shoot my sacred cows, I'll shoot yours."
She was silent.
"I'm sorry. I don't want to offend you."
"You didn't," she said. His description was actually quite apt - surface-apt anyway - but she was still trying to get over the surprise of that verb, offend. It was a strange word to hear from him. Maybe there's a postulate here, she thought. When your lover begins to talk about "offending" you, he's not your lover anymore.
"Frannie, the offer still stands. If you say yes, I can get a couple of rings and be there this afternoon."
On your bike, she thought, and almost giggled. A giggle would be a horrible, unnecessary thing to do to him, and she covered the phone for a second just to be sure it wasn't going to escape. She had done more weeping and giggling in the last six days than she had done since she was fifteen and starting to date.
"No, Jess," she said, and her voice was quite calm.
"I mean it!" he said with startling vehemence, as if he had seen her struggling with laughter.
"I know you do," she said. "But I'm not ready to get married. I know that about me, Jess. It has nothing to do with you."
"What about the baby?"
"I'm going to have it."
"And give it up?"
"I haven't decided."
For a moment he was silent and she could hear other voices in other rooms. They had their own problems, she supposed. Baby, the world is a daytime drama. We love our lives, and so we look for the guiding light as we search for tomorrow.
"I wonder about that baby," Jesse said finally. She really doubted if he did, but it was maybe the only thing he could have said that would cut her. It did.
"Jess - "
"So where are you going?" he asked briskly. "You can't stay at the Harborside all summer. If you need a place, I can look around in Portland."
"I've got a place."
"Where, or am I not supposed to ask?"
"You're not supposed to," she said, and bit her tongue for not finding a more diplomatic way of saying it.
"Oh," he said. His voice was queerly flat. Finally he said cautiously, "Can I ask you something and not piss you off, Frannie? Because I really want to know. It's not a rhetorical question or anything."
"You can ask," she agreed warily. Mentally she did gird herself not to be pissed off, because when Jess prefaced something like that, it was usually just before he came out with some hideous and totally unaware piece of chauvinism.
"Don't I have any rights in this at all?" Jess asked. "Can't I share the responsibility and the decision?"
For a moment she was pissed off, and then the feeling was gone. Jess was just being Jess, trying to protect his image of himself to himself, the way all thinking people do so they can get to sleep at night. She had always liked him for his intelligence, but in a situation like this, intelligence could be a bore. People like Jess - and herself, too - had been taught all their lives that the good thing to do was commit and be active. Sometimes you had to hurt yourself - and badly - to find out it could be better to lie back in the tall weeds and procrastinate. His toils were kind, but they were still toils. He didn't want to let her get away.
"Jesse," she said, "neither of us wanted this baby. We agreed on the pill so the baby, wouldn't happen. You don't have any responsibility."
"But - "
"No, Jess," she said, quite firmly.
"Will you get in touch when you get settled?"
"I think so."
"Are you still planning to go back to school?"
"Eventually. I'm going to take the fall semester off. Maybe with something CED."
"If you need me, Frannie, you know where I'll be. I'm not running out."
"I know that, Jesse."
"If you need dough - "
"Get in touch. I won't press you, but... I'll want to see you."
"All right, Jess."
When she hung up the goodbyes had seemed too final, the conversation unfinished. It struck her why. They had not added "I love you," and that was a first. It made her sad and she told herself not to be, but the telling didn't help.
The last call had come around noon, and it was from her father. They had had lunch the day before yesterday, and he told her he was worried about the effect this was having on Carla. She hadn't come to bed last night; she had spent it in the parlor, poring over the old genealogical records. He had gone in around eleven-thirty to ask her when she was coming up. Her hair had been down, flowing over her shoulders and the bodice of her nightgown, and Peter said she looked wild and not strictly in touch with things. That heavy book was on her lap and she hadn't even looked up at him, only continued to turn the pages. She said she wasn't sleepy. She would be up in a while. She had a cold, Peter told her as they sat in a booth at the Corner Lunch, more looking at hamburgers than eating them. The sniffles. When Peter asked her if she would like a glass of hot milk, she didn't answer at all. He had found her yesterday morning asleep in the chair, the book on her lap.
When she finally woke up she had seemed better, more herself, but her cold was worse. She dismissed the idea of having Dr. Edmonton in, saying it was just a chest cold. She had put Vicks on her chest, and a flannel square of cloth, and she thought her sinuses were clearing already. But Peter hadn't cared for the way she looked, he told Frannie. Although she refused to let him take her temperature, he thought she was running a couple of degrees of fever.
He had called Fran today just after the first thunderstorm had begun. The clouds, purple and black, had piled up silently over the harbor, and the rain began, at first gentle and then torrential. As they talked she could look out her window and see the lightning stab down at the water beyond the breakwater, and each time it happened there would be a little scratching noise on the wire, like a phonograph needle digging a record.
"She's in bed today," Peter said. "She finally agreed to let Tom Edmonton take a look at her."
"Has he been yet?"
"He just left. He thinks she's got the flu."
"Oh, Lord," Frannie said, closing her eyes. "That's no joke for a woman her age."
"No, it isn't." He paused. "I told him everything, Frannie. About the baby, about the fight you and Carla had. Tom's taken care of you since you were a baby yourself, and he keeps his lip buttoned. I wanted to know if that could have caused this. He said no. Flu is flu."
"Flu made who," Fran said bleakly.
"Never mind," Fran said. Her father was amazingly broadminded, but an AC/DC fan he was not. "Go on."
"Well, there's not much further to go, hon. He said there's a lot of it around. A particularly nasty breed. It seems to have migrated out of the south, and New York is swamped with it."
"But sleeping in the parlor all night - " she began doubtfully.
"Actually, he said being in an upright position was probably better for her lungs and her bronchial tubes. He didn't say anything else, but Alberta Edmonton belongs to all the organizations Carla belongs to, so he didn't have to. Both of us knew she's been inviting something like this, Fran. She's president of the Town Historical Committee, she's spending twenty hours a week in the library, she's secretary of the Women's Club and the Lovers of Literature Club, she's been running the March of Dimes here in town since before Fred died, and last winter she took on the Heart Fund, for good measure. On top of all that she's been trying to drum up interest in a Southern Maine Genealogical Society. She's run down, worn out. And that's part of the reason she blew up at you. All Edmonton said was that she had the welcome mat out for the first evil germ that passed her way. That's all he had to say. Frannie, she's getting old and she doesn't want to. She's been working harder than I have."
"How sick is she, Daddy?"
"She's in bed, drinking juice and taking the pills that Tom prescribed. I took the day off, and Mrs. Halliday is going to come in and sit with her tomorrow. She wants Mrs. Halliday so they can work out an agenda for the July meeting of the Historical Society." He sighed windily and lightning scratched the wire again. "I sometimes think she wants to die in harness."
Timidly, Fran said: "Do you think she'd mind if I - "
"Right now she would. But give her time, Fran. She'll come around."
Now, four hours later, tying her rain scarf over her hair, she wondered if her mother would come around. Maybe if she gave up the baby, no one in town would ever get wind of it. That was unlikely, though. In small towns people scent the wind with noses of uncommon keenness. And of course if she kept the baby... but she wasn't really thinking of that, was she? Was she?
She could feel guilt working in her as she pulled on her light coat. Her mother was run down, of course she was. Fran had seen that when she came home from college and the two of them exchanged kisses on the cheek. Carla had bags under her eyes, her skin looked too yellow, and the gray in her hair, which was always beauty-shop-neat, had progressed visibly in spite of the thirty-dollar rinses. But still...
She had been hysterical, absolutely hysterical. And Frannie was left asking herself exactly how she was going to assess responsibility if her mother's flu developed into pneumonia, or if she had some kind of breakdown. Or even died. God, what an awful thought. That couldn't happen, please God no, of course not. The drugs she was taking would knock it out, and once Frannie was out of her line of visibility and incubating her little stranger quietly in Somersworth, her mother would recover from the knock she had been forced to take. She would -
The phone began to ring.
She looked at it blankly for a moment, and outside more lightning flickered, followed by a clap of thunder so close and vicious that she jumped, wincing.
Jangle, jangle, jangle.
But she had had her three calls, who else could it be? Debbie wouldn't need to call her back, and she didn't think Jess would, either. Maybe it was "Dialing for Dollars." Or a Saladmaster salesman. Maybe it was Jess after all, giving it the old college try.
As she went to pick it up, she felt sure it was her father and that the news would be worse. It's a pie, she told herself. Responsibility is a pie. Some of the responsibility goes with all the charity work she does, but you're only kidding if you think you're not going to have to cut a big, juicy, bitter piece for yourself. And eat every bite.
There was nothing but silence for a moment and she frowned, puzzled, and said hello again.
Then her father said, "Fran?" and made a strange, gulping sound. "Frannie?" That gulping sound again and Fran realized with dawning horror that her father was fighting back tears. One of her hands crept to her throat and clutched at the knot where the rain scarf was tied.
"Daddy? What is it? Is it Mom?"
"Frannie, I'll have to pick you up. I'll... just swing by and pick you up. That's what I'll do."
"Is Mom all right?" she screamed into the phone. Thunder whacked over the Harborside again and frightened her and she began to cry. "Tell me, Daddy!"
"She got worse, that's all I know," Peter said. "About an hour after I talked to you she got worse. Her fever went up. She started to rave. I tried to get Tom... and Rachel said he was out, that a lot of people were really sick... so I called the Sanford Hospital and they said their ambulances were out on calls, both of them, but they'd add Carla to the list. The list, Frannie, what the hell is this list, all of a sudden? I know Jim Warrington, he drives one of the Sanford ambulances, and unless there's a car wreck on 95 he sits around and plays gin rummy all day. What's this list?" He was nearly screaming.
"Calm down, Daddy. Calm down. Calm down." She burst into tears again and her hand left the knot in her scarf and went to her eyes. "If she's still there, you better take her yourself."
"No... no, they came about fifteen minutes ago. And Christ, Frannie, there were six people in the back of that ambulance. One of them was Will Ronson, the man who runs the drugstore. And Carla... your mother... she came out of it a little as they put her in and she just kept saying, 'I can't catch my breath, Peter, I can't catch my breath, why can't I breathe?' Oh, Christ," he finished in a breaking, childish voice that frightened her.
"Can you drive, Daddy? Can you drive over here?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes, sure." He seemed to be pulling himself together.
"I'll be on the front porch."
She hung up and went down the stairs quickly, her knees trembling. On the porch she saw that, although it was still raining, the clouds of this latest thundershower were already breaking up and late afternoon sun was beaming through. She looked automatically for the rainbow and saw it, far out over the water, a misty and mystic crescent. Guilt gnawed and worried at her, furry bodies inside her belly, in where that other thing was, and she began to cry again.
Eat your pie, she told herself as she waited for her father to come. It tastes terrible, so eat your pie. You can have seconds, even thirds. Eat your pie, Frannie, eat every bite.