Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 28—Ian calls Philomena. Francyann answers. Cat listens in.
Ian Emory once sends Alicia a postcard of a jackalope with a child’s face pasted over where its genitals would be if jackalopes had genitals. Alicia is unsure about this; she wonders at the jackalope, then puts it under a magnet on the kitchen refrigerator. She mistakes the postmark for Ohio—an easy mistake, four letters, macular degeneration, cataracts. Reno. That would be in Nevada, the Spanish word for snowy, an adjective stuck on a mountain range. Clear-eyed Alicia does not know this.
Three minutes have passed. She has forgotten the postcard, Ian Emory, jackalopes, Reno and all. She has never seen the Pacific Ocean. It had to be somewhere on the west coast. She would go there.
Bus stations and airports look much the same the world over—Tripoli; Tashkent; Toledo; Providence; Vancouver. There are the soft sculptures and molded fiberglass seating with bolted-on tiny TVs, the Coke and Pepsi machines, tile walls. Clear-eyed Alicia looks at the tile wall. A hospital. How have I come to be in a hospital? I must be visiting. She buys a basket of fruit to carry, just in case. A reedy voice, thin and amplified past recognition blatts from the directional horns of a loudspeaker system. Alicia admires the loudspeakers and cranes her neck for a better look. Like three-headed daylilies except for the crinkle-finish black of course, flowers. Echoes cross echoes mounting words upon words, an indistinguishable potpourri of numbers and destinations. They are paging a doctor, thinks Alicia Drye. Something has happened, a disaster.
It is I who have had the accident—scalded in the shower, a fall from a ladder, an explosion. A fiery farewell on her event horizon. An explosion, that has to be what has happened. The gas works; those great telescoping tanks of coal gas have blown up at long last. The coal gas had worried her since the gas works were built in 1946. The Midlothian gas conversion facility has long since become a repository for LNG, the liquefied natural gas brought across the lake from Canada and stored within her sight when she cares to look in that direction. Clear-eyed Alicia Drye keeps the curtains closed against an explosion. Old magazines fill the bathtub and shower stall as a charm against scalding.
Alicia cranes her neck at the three-headed daylilies and, overcome by a sudden vertigo, she slumps to the ground. Resounding as in a sports amphitheater, the voices began again. It is I. I am going to die. And in such a clean and tidy place. I am content.
“Long distance operator,” a disembodied female voice, unconcerned and robotic, rang in the earpiece. “Ian Emory Hobart calling Philomena Hobart, person-to-person collect. Do you accept the charges?”
“I don’t know,” said Francyann Kennealy. Francyann had been asked to make a decision. The conflict of being called to action without a trustworthy advisor drove a chill down her spine. She stammered, “Where’s he calling from?”
“Where are you, sir?”
“Hold on. Lemme have a look. Jim Dandy’s Family Sundries, Gas and Slots. Reno, Nevada.”
“If you accept the charges, press One now.”
Francyann pressed One. “Ian...”
“Francyann. You answering the phone, that’s a new experience. Almost a miracle: that Lucy lets you near the phone. I thought for sure I’d get The Mother. Awesome.”
“Oh my God. It’s little Ian.”
“I am only going to say this once so listen up. Write things down. Got that? Good. Alicia is dead. You’ll have to call an undertaker. A woman called me from Vancouver. They found my address on the body. An Asian woman, ‘You mother here. You come get her.’ By the accent, probably from Hong Kong and a new arrival; Canada is beaucoups multi-cultural. She died in the bus depot. Alicia, not the Chinawoman. Hong Kong women, very Asiatic, exotic—you see them in the Kung Fu movies. She probably has her PhD. Now she works in the bus depot, freight forwarding.”
“Ian, why that is simply terrible.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Vancouver has great weather, being in Canada and all, something about the ocean currents.”
“That is my old name; I have had a metamorphosis. R. U. Reddy. That’s me. I’m in Reno to be a super stud.” There was rustling; the talker was holding the receiver pressed against his chest to disguise his voice. A reedy nasality prevailed, with the bandwidth of a police radio or a Fender Telecaster guitar. The creamy baritone that was Ian Emory had withdrawn to a snuggery of Gore-Tex-covered Thinsulate, compressed, expanded and flattened by his safari vest, disappeared into pocketfuls of fried cherry pies with white, white frosting. “Dale. Hey, Dale. Gemme a coupla more them fried cherry pies, OK?”
Rustle, rustle and Ian was back. “I was talking to my driver. They sent a limo for me. Well, for us. There are five guys with me. We’re auditioning for Super Stud Ranch.”
“E-mails to Felicity Wolensky, the Modem Madam. Oh, the car. White on white. A stretch. The driver is black—burned all over like pit barbecue or grilled Cajun redfish, all pitted and scorched. Said his name was Dave; I call him Dale—get it? Dale Car-nigger cuz he’s so black. For Dale Carnegie. He helps me win friends and influence people.”
“Dale. That is this person’s name...”
“No. Dale is just what I call him. He says his name is Dave Peel and he’s got a Michigan driver’s license, says he’s a fallen angel. He’s over buying fried pies and Twinkies, lots of diet Pepsi, for the trip into the desert. I met a woman archaeologist at Starbucks. I’m calling from Reno; did I tell you that? I was digging for arrowheads and scouting petroglyphs in the desert with an archaeologist. Sex in a sleeping bag, Francyann. You should try it sometime.”
“Jesus Christ. Holy shit!” A woman’s voice—a squeal right out of a TV game show. A casual player had struck pay dirt on one of the nickel slots at Jim Dandy’s Family Sundries. Ding ding ding ding.
Ian spoke up over the dings and bells. “Gotta go. ‘Your mother’s ashes are in the mail,’ what a hoot. In Canada human remains are forbidden from Federal Express and first class mail handled by Canada Post. Poor Alicia—her last trip and she misses out on first class. It’s right there in the rules and regulations for Canada Post, just before lithium-ion batteries in the prohibited zone. Surface mail—what we call third class in the USA to get Alicia over from Vancouver.”
“You have met a woman. That’s nice, Ian.”
While not totally make-believe, Francyann Kennealy has made up a significant portion of herself. Genetically she was the daughter of Philomena’s half-sister, making her a quarter-sister she supposed. There was no Kennealy. It was a name she had seen on a bail-bondsman’s office after a luncheon of sauerkraut and frankfurters. This was one of those family funny stories. The Hobarts did not suffer humor gladly. The Hobarts prided themselves on being serious folk. The Hobarts looked inward and did not retail this anecdote outside the family circle.
This all has happened to her; in the interstices of her spongy mind it is still going on. Ian Emory was saying things, using words that Francyann Kennealy had not heard before, the utterances Lucy made, always under his breath. What Ian Emory was saying he could have learned from Lucy. “Is Lucy there with you?”
“No. He is there with you, Aunt Francy. He would want to know his grandson is a gigolo. He’ll get a kick out of it. Go tell him. Oh yes. Alicia is dead. She’s coming Federal Express. I couldn’t get her into the mail.”
“The Hobart males seemingly have no trouble getting into her.” Cat hiccoughed on gagged-back laughter.
Ian Emory and Francyann simultaneously stopped talking. “Cat?”
“Catherine, is that you?”
Silences from three separate handsets welled up. There was the hubbub of another winner at Jim Dandy’s Family Sundries.
Ian scratched his crotch. “Hi, Cat. You listening in? You always are so I will have to figure I am talking to you, too.” There was a long pause and the background at Ian’s end rose to intrude on the silences of empty wire. Cat could make out the activity of a service station, the bell of an air hose, a random babble of commerce. “My mother.”
“Oh, Philomena,” said Francyann. “Do you want to talk to Philomena?”
“No, God damn it, I do not want to talk to The Mother. You are just fine, Aunt Francy. You too, Cat. I have a message for Lucy. Call an undertaker.”
“Are you dying, Ian?”
“Alicia is dead. I told you that. I’ve got her here in a plastic box—green plastic, ‘Earth Friendly, Cremains.’ Can you believe that? Any way I gotta go the car-nigger is waiting. FedEx. Tell Lucy to have an undertaker ready to meet the truck. FedEx has a tight schedule so it shouldn’t cost too much. Alicia died in Canada, Philomena.”
“Ian. This is not your mother.” Cat fumbled the phone and it fell to the cabbage rose carpeting.
“Hiya, Cat. Did I tell you that I got a rock hammer? Archaeology is serious stuff. Anyway Alicia keeled over at the bus station and she had a nice Buddhist funeral. The woman at Vancouver FedEx called in her Buddhist temple guy. ‘You mother dead. Got her in a box. Wrap nice. Plastic. Want priest say words?’ Like that.”
“What.” Francyann Kennealy trembled with the weight of forbidden information. These were things she was not supposed to be hearing. “Ian...”
“So I try to tell her just mail it in. If they won’t send her first class, parcel post would be just fine and dandy. Know what? The US won’t accept Canadian parcel post. The US discontinued the service. Lucy has to get an undertaker to meet the FedEx plane at the airport.”
Felicity Wolensky, the notorious Modem Madam, decided to diversify. She had done sufficient time on a soliciting conviction and turned over her encrypted hard drives for a negotiated release. Her clients had been pissed-off at having their liaisons on view for their wives and little ones as they pushed their shopping carts past the gossip magazines and vowed to have her run out of town.
Felicity held press conferences and photo ops and moved to a deserted patch of desert scrub at an eighty mile remove from Reno. There she announced her stud farm during a photo op. Uncle Ian was at her side dressed in tight buckskin breeches and a big white cowboy hat.
“He’s what? Uncle Ian is working in a whorehouse? Sounds like a dream gig for any all-American boy.”
Ed Hobart had called Samantha to share the news about Clear-eyed Alicia’s death in Canada. That Samantha had never heard of Alicia was last week’s want-ads compared to a juicy hunk of family scandal. Families were about sharing.
“A procuress named the ‘Modem Madam,’ has opened a male brothel, most likely in Reno. Where Ian is at the moment. He sniffed it out. There’s an image for you.” This, plus an overwhelming desire to share and Samantha’s violet eyes, was what made Ed call. And Francyann would be quick to confirm the truth of any unflattering tales about scapegrace Uncle Ian. After all, she had beaten Cat and Philomena both to the phone and thus had first dibs on any hot gossip.
“A what? You mean a place where women go to get it on with guys? And what is a procuress? Is that really what I think it is? No, don’t tell me. This is in the papers? Cool.”
“Yes, the papers. The Modem Madam has been hot copy lately. Would I make this up?”
“Uncle Ian has got to be well over... well, older than you. Then, he always had a great body.”
How would she know? Ed thought. “Big forearms. From masturbating.” Ed hung up.
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