Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 3—Paper or Plastic

The tiger on the wall above the bathtub was painted with the foreshortening of a heroic tableau. “The damned thing grows on you,” said Harriet Thwaite, just home from a cruise with Roger, Mr. Thwaite. “It’s sexy. You know... wet.” The rampaging tiger was painted with waterproof acrylics after the manner of Napoleon at Austerlitz, Wellington at Salamanca or the Annunciation Triptych.

“Tony the Tiger,” said Roger Thwaite. “The cereal box?” he added. Harriet looked at him strangely. The tiger was an orange- and black-striped Bengal with fangs that gleamed whiter-than-white, a Colgate smile. Tony slavered: lust, rage—indigestion, perhaps. Head-on he looked stumpy, but by a trompe l’oeil trick assumed his intended proportions when viewed from below.

Sarah departed quietly and right on time, packing her sewing machine, paints and swatches away to the next house-sitting job, leaving the key under the mat. Both Thwaites noted that Sarah had great legs. “All that dog-walking,” she volunteered. This was a lie—a white lie, to keep the conversation on topic, dogs and pets in general. Not on her.

By her mid-thirties Sarah Drye was scratching out a living as a house-sitter and dog-walker—her days full with colicky houseplants and the schnauzers of strangers. Sarah could strike up a conversation and wind up ten minutes later with a spare latchkey and rap sheets on the family turtles, goldfish and resident dogs. When absent families, the Thwaites for instance, returned from Europe, the Caribbean, the ashram in Kashmir, they found their pets’ water bowls topped-off, kibble freshly dipped, cuttings from houseplants brought back from death’s door rooted and potted. In the medicine chest prescriptions were arranged alphabetically and by date.

By her 40s Sarah would become a quilt designer, no longer a singer-songwriter or dog-walker. “I am finding myself,” she would say. Instead she found Lucy Hobart.

*  *  *

Lucy snaps on a rubber glove. “Mousetraps,” he confides saturninely. “Never know where the little fellas have been.” He lifts a levered spring from the back of a neck, extracts a limp brown body, drops the corpse into a bag from the supermarket. “Red and White,” says Lucy for any unseen listener. The barn cat looks on. She approves; he has given it his best shot.

“Paper or plastic?” asks the perky clerk at the Red and White. “They are dead and have no opinions,” says Lucy Hobart. The clerk, abruptly less perky, rewards him with a lift of an eyebrow. Another crazy old man, she thinks. “The mice,” he explains. The girl idly picks at a scab on her neck, where a new tattoo is healing.

Senex is the Latin for old man and the sign of Saturn, but applied even-handedly to women as well as men, the crone and the sage both. Astrologically the senex has its lighter side as a wise old man touched by the gods, a guide through the mysteries of the spirit-world. Lucy Hobart has seen the wonders of a life lived long while shaving. He approves of his face.

The Romans saw the Senex as a fool, or a wizard, or a wise man.

Lucy looks in on his wife to see if she is awake; she nods in her chair. That he can get around well enough without the ball-bearing red walker she is better off not knowing. He checks the hand brake. Squeeze, squeeze, a rubber grip engages the left front tire. Lucy sets the brake and walks away from his walker.

On Cat’s TV a bald man expounds afternoons to a studio chock-a-block with large women in pixie bob hairdos that make their heads look small. “Doctor Fool,” says Lucy.

“Today is going to be your changing day,” says the bald man. “No dog ever peed on a moving car.” From the screen he looks directly into Lucy’s eyes. “Well?”

Lucy recalls the perky clerk. “Paper or plastic?” he says. The bald man looks puzzled and changes the subject.

*  *  *

At a future time, near but not yet, Sarah Drye will swing lightly, legs dangling, in a tire swing that hung from a branch of a giant oak that overspread the Hobart house. At the top of her arc, an old man appeared, pulling his walker behind him up the hill, followed by a cat. “A well-thumbed book we are, daughter mine,” he called. “You are aging well.” These are the rivalries of a father and a daughter.

On the swing’s return to arc’s bottom, Lucy’s head disappeared behind the curve of the Earth. Sarah dug in her heels raising a cloud of dust, and waited for her father to reappear. Sarah and Lucy shared an understanding, two travelers passing in the fog—a fleeting nod, the blink of an eyelid to acknowledge a fellow wanderer, lost in time.

“You too,” Sarah said. “Looking fighting fit, all things considered. Have you ever thought of dying? I mean, just lying down and packing it in once and for all? Don’t answer right away; there’s no prize. Here’s some news—I saw the girl going into the post office today. Your grandson’s child. I thought you might be interested. Her name is Samantha.”

“Ian Emory might be her father just as some folks, Philomena mostly, say that I am his.” Lucy scratched the cat between her ears. She arched her back. “You have met Ian have you? His father fell off a ladder 45 years ago. People who fall off ladders are not entitled to offspring. They have already sprung off. It was a foolish thing, damned stroke or something. He was cleaning out his gutters. Stupid man.”

“What—for falling off the ladder or generating ‘offspring’ as you so quaintly put it.”

“I am quaint. Can’t put it any other way. You are my daughter, goddamit.”

“Cat’s son and she were almost the same age. Strange, from what little I know about motherhood and all. And if... No. Cat is supposed to be younger than you are. You have been married over eighty-three years, you evil old man. In all that time have you never wondered that Cat might be lying about her age? Or who the father was?”

“You are saying that I am not Elliot’s father.”

“Do the math. He was born in 1924, died in 1960. You would have to have been ten years old at the time of his conception.”

“Ahh... a miraculous insemination. I must have been out of town when Cat got knocked up, riding my balloon tired Schwinn if I was ten years old—a conundrum, not a condom. The seminarians, don’t they just love that shit. Suppose for a minute that I am lying about my age.”

“That would make you close to a hundred years old.”

“So what, I ask you, is ninety-two? A rain of frogs, omens and portents. Charles Fort. Ever hear of him?”

“I’m sure you have.”

“A chronicler of the unusual. Haunted the reading rooms of the New York Library back in the early 1900s. I met him there once. What am I? I am one carefree propagator; my generations are legion.” Lucy turned a precise quarter turn. He had the lined and wattled throat that happens with age. “And one hell of a good lay, if I do say so myself.” He arched his neck as if harkening to a remote deity.

“And so you do. Again and again.”

“Have you ever heard me say that?” Lucy smiled a lean wolfish smile of long, strong yellow teeth. He knew a joke you hadn’t heard, a good joke that he was not going to tell you.

“Hardly. That would be incest.”

“Family values. The gods do it all the time.” Smile. In another face this smile would have been a sneer. Lucy’s long, tapered jaws looked strong enough to bring down fleeing prey—a grim rictus softened by a wry turn of the lip. “The orthodontist calls it hypertrophy,” said Lucy. “Big muscles. Fifty years of Red Mule Plug Cut. Chewing tobacco—molasses and sugar.”

“It’s a wonder you have any teeth left,” said Sarah.

“All of them. Mostly.” The teeth were chipped, cracked and grown to black near the roots. “Count ’em. All there.”

“You see things.”

“I see things. I am seeing you.”

“Hallucinations. Schizophrenics are better adapted to not have hallucinations. Did you know that?”

“You are saying I am insane, a schizophrenic. Probably. Cat is plain crazy.”

The barn cat trotted out of tall grass at the river’s edge. She was pulling a mousetrap by its string. In the trap a small brown body twitched and bounced along behind her, an offering. “C’mon, Miss Molly. You will observe daughter mine that I am talking to a cat. If a cat talks to you, this is not abnormal—the cat is. You can simply ignore the cat’s advice and get along with things. The same goes for my wife.”

“It is the thought of water that fills the glass,” said Sarah Drye.

“How very Zen. Bullshit,” said Lucy. “If you’re, say... hypothetically now, a well turned out woman who in her forties is still seeking the meaning of life, the universe and everything based on what a cat is telling her, you’re as useless as French-fried spaghetti. At my age I get a pass.”

The 3-legged cat arrived. Her trip with the trap had been a difficult one. The trap became lodged in a protruding root at the stump of an ancient elm bleached silver white, dead to disease. The trapped mouse twitched and peeped a tiny high-pitched staccato of terror. Molly the cat gave it a series of blows and it was silent. She gently dislodged the trap from its tangle of rotting roots, picked it up and dropped it at Lucy’s feet.

Sarah maintained eye contact, not looking at the mouse. “I have come to help you die. I am a Doula, a death-midwife. It is time.”

“I am so happy for you, daughter mine, but I am fully capable of dying on my own. Without a push. No, it is not time. I sent you a letter.”

“When I was a kid. One letter. Thirty-five years ago.”

“It was a letter. Doula. Throughout my life I have made a rule never to do anything I can’t spell. The Tibetans have a doula thing—corpse walkers they call them. I saw it on Cat’s TV,” Lucy said, putting a remove to the immediate subject. But his daughter continued.

“They do. Taoist priests. They have done it for millennia. For people who die far from home. They chant and grip the corpse between them with their living bodies.”

“And they walk.”

“And they walk. One in front and one behind. Hoo-A! Hoo-A! They beat a cadence and swing their arms. The corpse’s arms swing. They march. Hundreds of miles. The motion prevents decomposition by keeping the body limber.”

“I get a picture of Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. Or the Three Stooges. Doulas do this? The Larry, Moe and Curly thing with a dead person?” Lucy said.

“I am aware of the Three Stooges. No, I do not do that. My skin hurts.” Sarah held herself by her elbows and rubbed her forearms. “Ow.” She looked to Lucy for sympathy.

“Welcome to Maine; it should hurt. Mortification of the flesh. It’s the wood stoves. You are a beautiful woman, Sarah. The angels are jealous. God is punishing you. Ever live with wood heat before?”

“No. Well, I went camping. I took Ulysses and went into the woods for a month and didn’t finish it. I had a campfire.”

“Not the same in the woods. It’s the low humidity indoors. You get dried out. Bag balm—picture of a cow’s tits on the can but don’t let that scare you off. Bag balm, but you can rub it all over. Or cream of aloe, any skin cream should fix it. A moisturizer. All over. I’d do it for you.”

“Thanks for the offer. Dry skin. I figured it for the onset of arthritis. You are telling me I am in pain from having dry skin from wood heat.”

“I am. Agenbite of inwit.”

“Remorse of conscience, Ulysses. I looked it up. When I got back to civilization I had notebooks stuffed with things I had to look up. Ulysses is a lifetime study. I am going to read it again.”

“Sure you have enough time? You are...”

“Forty-two. I have time. I have begun. I am reading it here. Agenbite of inwit. You, remorse? About what?”

“Everything. About you, mostly.”

“I am a Doula. I help you to die. The Doula assembles meaningful things—art, music, poetry—from your life. You help her. You decorate, hand paint your coffin. Cardboard is preferred, biodegradable.”

“I am already biodegradable.”

“There is a heart-opening bonding, a sense of spiritual intervention, angelic presence, a celebratory rite of passage into the next life, a memorial altar you have decorated yourself.” She touched her face. There were tears. “I cry at everything beautiful... But the big, predatory show business funeral directors don’t want that. They descend on the departed’s grieving family and sell them thousands of dollars of walnut, mahogany coffins with chrome handles, paid mourners, catered buffets.”

“Did I tell you about the time I blacked out and took the riding mower into town? In a dream; I was blind. What a hoot.”

A dream of being blind. Lucy Hobart shut his eyes and tried to recapture it. The noise of the mower got in the way. A bone-jarring impact transferred itself from the tiny tractor’s metal seat and up his spine to the base of his neck. Lucy saw stars, the silver showers the eye doctor had told him to watch out for—”Detached retina. We don’t want that, do we?” No, we didn’t. In the movies, on TV, the heroes—protagonists, rightly, for these people were known to do some nasty stuff—had dreams of running, pursuit. Then the dreams somehow translated into reality. There was a crunch and the riding mower stalled. “Shit.” Lucy had hit a mailbox. The post office had it set in cement footers where the library lawn met the sidewalk on Key Street, just past the Civil War cannon and the bronze infantryman commemorating Our Heroes. “Last stop.”

The truth be told, Lucy had never told anyone the dream of blindness and the riding mower, but this was not for a want of trying. Sarah’s dreams were the dreams of coming home.

Lucy opened his eyes. “Sarah. Sarah?” Sarah was still talking. Where a dream ended and actual consciousness began there should be a line, a cross-over point; she hadn’t noticed he was gone.

“Your grandson Ian visited me in Brooklyn once to scope it out. You know—some bonding and to borrow fifty bucks. Wanted to buy a pellet gun—‘You never know what you’re going to run into.’ My boyfriend prevailed on him to settle for a slingshot and a bag of balloons. ‘Think I’ll have any trouble with these at the border?’ he said. He was headed for Canada.”

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