Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 9—Cooks, Heats and Makes Ice

“Superman don’t need no seat belt.”

—Muhammad Ali

After the final pea was pursued and harpooned, the last gravy-soaked dumpling and turkey shaving swallowed, Tad Needy folded his napkin flat and square and pushed back from the table. “Clean plate club.” Dorothy Needy, Mrs. Tad Two looked on, beaming; things had come out even. Her husband suppressed a burp. “So he really flew, Superman. That’s the only answer. Even Jesus couldn’t fly; special effects were limited back then. Superman: The Movie and Superman II—this was the early eighties; special effects weren’t digital yet.” Dorothy Needy swept Sarah’s plate away from under her nose. Tad had brought Sarah home to meet his wife. “I want to take you home for the wife,” Tad had said.

“Clark Kent,” said Mrs. Tad Two. “Superman.”

“OK. I’ll take Superman for 400 points,” said Sarah.

Mrs. Tad Two replied with a welcoming smile. “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Tad nodded an assent. He leaned in conspiratorially, “I can fly, you know.” He waited for Sarah’s response.

“I do too, when I have to. It’s the airline food; it’s addictive.”

“I mean fly like Superman. But then you think I’m delusional.”

“Yes.”

“Sorry, but no. To the world I am only Tad Needy, the Electrolux Man, and plenty proud of it too. You’re probably asking yourself why I’m not trying to sell you one. Hell, I’d give you one but I can’t afford it, and that’s the God’s truth. I rent them out, sell them and fix them. I get the regular maintenance calls—a new hose, lube job, cord and switch. I sell a line of bags and attachments. They can spray paint, but not too well. Don’t ever tell you heard me say that, but it’s true all the same. Word gets around and the Electrolux Man’s gotta cover his ass.” Dorothy frowned at the allusion. Tad put a conspiratorial finger to the side of his nose, like the old-time Coca-Cola Santa Claus, Sarah thought.

“Yes. Oh yes, thank you,” Sarah looked up appreciatively. Dorothy had produced coffee and hot apple pie with ice cream. Dorothy beamed down on her husband. “He can fly, you know.”

Tad beamed back and tucked into his pie. “The year was 1958 and I was a 17-year-old who had just graduated from high school in June. I didn’t think that I could fly then. Oops.” He patted at an ice cream chin-dribble. “After spending months following up on my applications for college I realized that what with all the returning vets from Korea getting in was going to be impossible. I tried to get my parents to let me join the navy, but no soap. September rolled around and I had to look for a job. A neighbor had been working for Union Carbide for several years and felt that Carbide was a good company to work for. So, I boarded the train at Ayres Junction and headed into the big city. From Maine to New York took the better part of a day, so I made sure to hop the last train out the night before. I slept on a bench in Pennsylvania Station. There was this railroad cop—yard bulls, we called them then—he’d whack me on the soles of my feet every hour to show he was doing his job, but otherwise he let me be. I woke up without a crease or a wrinkle. Needless to say I was dressed in my Sunday best and appreciated his keeping me from falling off the bench.

“I had no trouble finding Carbide’s headquarters building at 30 East 42nd Street; a stone’s throw from Grand Central Terminal. I asked a man in a snappy brown uniform with gold braid where they were hiring. The elevator starter—that’s who he was I found out later—pointed me to the Employee Relations Department where I completed the necessary paperwork. I was told to see Harry Newman, office manager for an outfit titled Pyrofax Gas. Up I went to the 9th floor, which was occupied by the Chemicals Division of which Pyrofax was a part. The interview with Mr. Newman went well and on the spot I was offered the job of office boy at a starting salary of $137 per month. Later I found out that also resident on this floor was the administrative office of the Manhattan Project which later became the Nuclear Division at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I never actually got to Union Carbide.

“I was floating on cloud nine when I got on the train back to Maine later that afternoon. Upon arriving home I told Mom and Dad the good news. One of the first questions I was asked was where I would be working. I could not remember the name Pyrofax or what it was they made or sold. However, the thing that stood out in my mind was a sign hanging on the wall of Mr. Newman’s office which had a picture of a blue flame with the words above it in a semicircle ‘Cooks Heats and Makes Ice.’ Not even Superman or Jesus claimed to do that.

“I would shortly find out that Pyrofax sold LP gas and at the time was the second largest LP gas franchiser in the US next to Suburban Propane. I also found out that I was the first office boy to be hired by Pyrofax since prior to the war.”

“Did you...?”

“Jump off the roof to see if I could fly? No. I never test my delusions. I have them and that is enough.”

*  *  *

Lucy still harbored a grudge against Billy’s great-grandfather who had come when he was ten years old and ordered Old Doxology’s ever-flowing spring plugged. This gave succeeding generations—the fruit of his, Lucy’s, loins and Lucy too, who lived on in aggravating health and against all good sense long after he should have been properly dead—regular flooding of their cellars. And to the great-grandchild of Billy Bradshaw, also named Billy Bradshaw, proprietor of Sunrise Septic and a future county engineer, an ever-flowing source of income.

Mechanics and not artists, the county engineers were content to get privies out of the yard and water through the pipes if not up the stairs. The latest bearer of the Bradshaw name was not a city planner and had likewise not read of the brighter future Better Homes and Gardens had mapped out for its subscribers. When one’s final illness left one confined watercressless to an upstairs bedroom, it was assumed there would be a dutiful child to do the grocery shopping and empty bedpans. In the pounding heat of high Augusts yet to come, watercresses, pulled cold and wet from the spring, would become a distant regret. Eggs boiled and peeled for picnic salads, last year’s elderberry wine extracted from the root cellar became the stuff of legend—and only lunch without the watercresses.

As an afterthought a dike had been poured with marine cement, between the plugged freshet and the Hobart cellar walls. The underground spring, its flow diverted, dug a gully one hundred yards from the house. Each September the gully deepened and widened, covering the state road with silt and runoff from the vegetable garden. An apple tree—a Northern Spy—had toppled in, its roots exposed to the sky. The expanding gully eventually ate away at the septic leaching field and Lucy’s sewage now flowed down the gully and into the road. Sunrise Septic was called and Billy Bradshaw clucked and scribbled on his clipboard. There would have to be a pump. Billy Bradshaw’s reputation for lavish septic surveys had preceded him. “Christ, doesn’t he just love pumping shit uphill,” rumbled Lucian Hobart, Old Doxology’s son.

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