Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 15—Retreat from Consciousness

Life leaks, this is a common failing of the human machine.

—Brother Clapstick’s Rules of Sacred Geometry

Sarah Drye came prepared for a long stay. There was the boyfriend question—keep the one she had or find one of the local men to wear on her sleeve as an accessory, a bring-along for church suppers and Beano. She thought long and hard about the question of why would she need a boyfriend just for show, to complete herself. Because I do.

Sarah imagines a chat with her mother. She would visit her, accuse her of a wrong with which she had nothing to do, then depart in a white rage, leaving her mother in tears. They had done this so often that in the repetitions Sarah found herself accepting the truth of it. These were conversations she and Clear-eyed Alicia had never had. What was it they said about finding truth? Eng. Lit. and she was a sophomore—the lecturer, brown tweed and leather elbow patches, was charming and available. “In my office...?” he told the class while staring at her. “Fiction. Read non-fiction for facts, information. For the truth, read fiction,” he said.

“How would it look if you didn’t have a gentleman friend, Sarah? People would talk,” her mother said in one figmentary tête-à-tête. “Not to your face, they never tell you to your face. Look at me.” Her mother’s face—mottled and splotched with white places where lurked the malignant melanomas of summer, brown spots that told of incipient keratoses. Clear-eyed Alicia’s face reminded Sarah Drye of a fruitcake fallen in the oven: too much brandy, sliced citron, too many candied walnuts, an overstatement.

These were conversations she and her mother had never had. Fiction, therefore true.

Did fruitcakes collapse? Sarah wondered. Fruitcakes were supposed to be nuts/have nuts; Lucy had said so. The corners of her mouth flickered briefly; she possibly smiled. “Pound cakes, angel food cakes fall in the oven,” she said.

“Of course they do, dear,” said her mother. Broken veins glowed under the thin skin of her cheeks, nose and ears. “You don’t want people saying you are a lesbian, do you?”

“I am a singer-songwriter, mother. They expect me to try everything.”

Alicia did not bat an eye. “Have you?”

A tiny thrill of discovery caught at Sarah’s belly. She had been caught out in a schoolgirl naughtiness. “No... well, not at any particular moment.”

“Whatever that means,” said Clear-eyed Alicia. She walked away, leaving Sarah with an open mouth, caught in mid-utterance. “Ahh...” Her mother went to the combination breakfront, her kitchen helper, where she began assembling the needed bits and pieces for a baking project. Vanilla, brown sugar, baking powder. “Your cakes fall in the oven because you slam the door. You are such an aggravation, I swear. Flour...” Clear-eyed Alicia’s fruitcake face went blank: a resolute vacuity that said to all who might be interested that this featureless lost look was intentional. Keep going right along with whatever you were doing, said the empty purposelessness that was her mother, and I’ll be right along. Going with the flow and wondering where the flow was going.

“Fruitcakes, mother,” said Sarah. “You are nutty as a fruitcake.”

“Thank you, dear,” said Clear-eyed Alicia. “We’ll make something nice for your gentleman friend.”

Fruitcakes were heavy and rich, loaded with alcohol. The orphans of Christmas, fruitcakes spent untold eons circling the globe—regifted was what the self-improvement shows, the magazines, Cosmo, Redbook, Family Circle—called it. Unwanted fruitcakes—never eaten, they just wore out with too much handling, dandling, gripping and fondling, their jaw-breaking bulk no match for the United States Postal Service. Charter flights and speeding trains moved them along to the next keeper over a relentless holiday season, never opened, never tasted, only remarked upon and put by for retransmission the following year.

“You told me you have become a Doodah,” Alicia said, her ashes flying high above the American heartland, safe in the cargo hold of a FedEx Express MD-11.

“Doula, mother. A midwife.” Alicia could not hear Sarah. Being dead, fiction failed her.

*  *  *

Aunt Grace’s Blue Balls. When Sarah Drye thought of her biological father and her biological father’s house she thought of the mysterious Aunt Grace. No one remembered Aunt Grace, but her name excused the presence of the Blue Balls that flourished just past the porch’s end. Sarah suppressed a giggle. Get a hold on yourself; this is serious stuff, girl. Grownup stuff.

Blue balls.

A daughter may be discarded, a mother may die, but an aunt is always with us. Aunt Grace.

That there was an aunt named Grace somewhere on an overlooked limb of the Hobart family tree she doubted. Blue Balls was Lucy’s pet name for the immense globe thistle that sprouted, blossomed, died and returned every year and had done so, if she could believe what Lucy said, since before he was born. The globe thistle—the blue balls—had jagged, serrate leaves with stickles and prickles and grew over six feet high by the fall. This year I will cut the blooms. The flower heads are Tyrrhenian purple, two inches across. A vase of them on the coffee table where I sit and type in the early morning. That would be nice, Sarah thinks.

Sarah found her father in the barn’s former tack room. He was seated on a three-legged stool and lifting a twenty-pound barbell in one hand, elbow braced against his knee. “Curls,” he said. “Concentration curls. Easier on the joints.” At his feet were a pair of spring-loaded grippers, the kind weightlifters used to increase strength in the hands. “You’re just in time for a set of crunches. There’s the slant board. Help yourself.”

“I wouldn’t have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. You are ninety-two for Christ’s sake. What the fuck are you doing lifting weights?”

“Keeping in shape.” Lucy rose to answer her. He made a grab at the handlebars of his walker to steady himself. “If this is the shape I’m in working out, then...” Motes of hay dust danced in a shaft of sunlight that pierced the murkiness through a cobwebbed window.

“Sure, I’m game.” Sarah mounted the slant board and, catching her ankles under the crossbar, performed ten quick half sit-ups. “Whoa.”

“You gotta keep at it. I do three sets of twenty. But then I’ve been doing them for sixty years.”

Sarah disentangled herself from the board and stood red-faced, getting her breath. “Remember the corpse-walkers? The Tibetan thing. We talked about it.”

“The song of the swan. You and I are going to play arts and crafts with a photo montage of the high points of my overlong and spirited life. I am to die, then. And to help me along on the path to extinction—my daughter, the death doula. You dizzy? Just sit down; it’ll pass. Does for me.” Lucy patted at the pockets of his overalls, a gesture of habit. “What piano players call ‘finger memory.’ My cigarettes,” he explained. “I quit.”

“Twenty years ago, Lucy.”

“There are times when I would kill for a cigarette.”

“You killed my father.” The accusation of a murder done had the comfortable feel of a well-worn family joke.

“Back to that, are we? I am your father. I put my turret gunner out of his misery.” Lucy straddled the slant board and lay down, his head against the barn floor. He gave a great exhalation, took a series of quick breaths—two short in, one long out—then filled his lings. “One...” his crunches commenced, Lucy called out the number of each from the top of its arc. “Twenty... Oof. See, Sarah, you do the full set and you get a free Oof.”

“So you are one robust walking dead man. No one is denying you your glowing good health. Considering.”

“Considering I’m going to die, Sarah. People die—one from column A; one from column B. You’re telling me what I’m going to get. Remember Pastor Phil leVoid at the 3rd Baptists? No, that was before you were born. He’s dead, too. Gave a rip-roaring sermon of a Sunday, Phil. Better than in the movies. He killed himself later on but not before pledging hell and damnation for all his congregation. The Jesus preachers never ask what you want, either. They tell you.”

“I’ve got the stuff. This not a joke, Lucy. This is the real thing. You have lived a full life...”

“So has Cat. She let her brains dribble out forty-five years ago. Even Cat doesn’t want to be dumped in a nursing home; she wants her grandchildren to care for her, the epicenter of self-absorption, incontinent and insane. Ed Hobart. What does he tell her? ‘Oh, Grammy, you’re not going to die.’ Shit yes, she’s going to die. And how do we know? Because she’s alive.”

Sarah’s eyes became wide and eager. “You and I are going to create a celebration of your life. Give you context. Mylar foil in the primary palette, colored papers, some Christmas wrapping. The old albums, the Hobart albums. All those family snapshots filed, forgotten, put away. There has to be a wealth of memories.”

Lucy paced a tight circle around the room. “What am I supposed to tell you, that I don’t expect to die but since it would help you be at peace we’ll play stuff-the-stiff with ol’ bio-degradable me?”

Interesting, thought Sarah. He is striking, this father I do not know. What is going on in that head of his; what must he think of me? She summoned up Alicia Drye from the hazy place of being not-being where she waited until Sarah had nothing to talk about. “Ask him,” said her mother.

“What?” said Sarah.

“The damned funeral,” said Lucy. “I don’t want a funeral. They will mutter fictions. Lucian Hobart: His Life and Works. What a crock of shit. I’m just making room for tomorrow, the new kid needs my place. The Chicken Wizard, they call me that, Samantha and the boy. I don’t want any ill will between him and me; he’s the next big thing.”

“This is not a funeral, but a celebration of your life. There is that group, Crystalline Sphere? I told you about them.” Lucy shook his head No. “So I didn’t. OK. Like Hospice. Only in parallel with the natural forces. You fear death. No, don’t give me that Lucy look. You’re scared shitless. Understandably. I believe we can all live our lives more fully when we are able to face the certainty of our own passing and have something planned—decorating or building the casket, creating a collage with photos, putting together a mix tape with your favorite music, reading something you love? The Retreat from Consciousness, we call it.”

“That’s the party line then, a full life. I have children—you and Elliot, grand, great-grand, and the occasional by-blow. Where are you all now? Hanging around waiting for something to happen, like Ian Emory and Ed Hobart. Bullshit. Zombies all but for you, Samantha and her kid. Look at yourself. You have looks, brains, a great figure and a résumé. What have you done with them? You babble inanities into the telephone and screw some guy who spells his name backwards. You start a thing and never finish it, but go zinging off on a tangent just when a normal person would think they’ve got a handle on the way things work. You call yourself Sarah Drye; I call you Sarah Drye, but ‘Sarah Drye’ is strung out behind you like a fairytale breadcrumb trail. Little birds are pecking away at your life.”

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