Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 46—The Quality of Grace
Breathing had become harder... when? He had to make two, three tries at the stairs now, resting red-faced on the landing and gasping for air. Hope no one ever catches me like this. Vulnerable. When had all this started?
“What a tremendous birthday present you are giving yourself. Happy seventy-second, Mr. Hobart. That’s a whole month’s worth.” Lucy was attached to a nicotine patch, given boxes of nicotine chewing gum, and told to drink lots of orange juice. This is twenty years ago. Next case, please.
“Hereinafter I am to have to live every day as if it was my last.”
“One day at a time,” smiled the pharmacist.
“You are telling me that every day will feel like it’s the last.” The pharmacist pretended to look busy, ringing up the sale. And they all feel like it, each and every day—this nicotine supplement is two weeks’ worth, not a month. Lucy went back to the doctor. “I get these cramps, pain in the joints—I feel like I’m falling apart, Doc. Could be there’s a connection between going off cigarettes and getting arthritis?” he prompted. Lucy suspected a causal relationship.
“There are over one hundred toxic elements... chemical compounds,” Doc Harmon corrected himself, “...released by burning tobacco. One of these is nicotine—highly addictive. The others, from benzene to arsenic and beyond do the dirty work. They kill you. Uh, yes... joint pain. The constituents of tobacco smoke do have an analgesic effect.” Lucy’s choice was to keep on smoking and the pain would retreat and he would die flopping like a fish out of water, an oxygen tank strapped to his back.
With exercise Lucy’s breathing improved almost immediately. He started working out in earnest. He sent away for a mail-order weight bench and a set of dumbbells which he set up in the barn where nobody went because of the smell. This was to be his secret.
And here I am again, Lucy thinks, ninety-two and full of piss and vinegar. And not leaking, yet. Genesis, huh—“And God saw that it was good enough...” Genesis sounded like a bladder disease.
The orthopedist Doc Harmon had sent him to knocked and entered. He carried a manila folder. “Lucian Hobart. Been a while since your last visit to your primary care provider, I see.” He sniffed. “Smoking again?”
“Figured.” He opened the fifth in a series of large taupe envelopes, Hospital x-rays. Do not remove—Lucy’s fluoroscopic roadmap. “The joints are shot. Have been since...” The doctor pushed a pair of half-frames into place on the end of his nose and peered at the faded writing on the edge of this particular folder. “You are riddled with arthritis, have been since 1973. I’m amazed you haven’t been in a nursing home for the last ten years.”
“Nursing home. That’s for my wife. She’s crazy, not me. You mean...”
Lucy was signaled to sit on the examination table. “Let your legs dangle. Go loose and limp.” The doctor tapped and probed. “Hmm... open up your Johnny and lie down.” Lucy did as he was told. More probing and tapping. “Excellent muscle tone. You still work the farm.” Lucian Hobart lived at an address with a rural route number. A farm. The orthopedist had him pegged as a lone holdout, the last of the rugged individualists.
“I play with the farm; other folks work it. I lift weights.” Lucy felt a chill of exposure. He was found out. After golf the doctor would talk over drinks, let slip the tale of his patient, this irascible old coot who wouldn’t just lie down and die like everyone else.
There was a certain chic to being thought as on one’s last legs. His plans were to live forever to spite God and whatever cautionary angels might come by the house. “Principalities, Thrones, Powers―they want to see me dead, all of them. Angels of every conceivable stripe, a heavenly tutti-frutti, the first night crowd at the Assumption of the Virgin—all armed to the teeth and after me.” Lucy said this to the cat; Molly groomed herself at his feet. “I hate surprises. They’ll sneak up on me. And you. Surely you, too. No witnesses, a wall-to-wall wipeout.
“Like James Bond, Alexander, Philip,” he told off the list of the barn cats of yesteryear—dead now, the predecessors to Molly the vegetarian. James Bond the tortoiseshell who died alone in bed, Alexander and Philip, kings of Macedonia. “The great... Alexander,” Lucy reminisced. A fox had taken them both.
Gravity, the Great Attractor, had called his only son home to Jesus. “Because he was so goddamned cheap, like me. Elliot saw the Earth rushing up at him, and thereby sealed the extinction of the Hobart name—if you don’t count Ian Emory, and I don’t count Ian Emory. ‘Plop!’ That was his last word,” said Lucy. Philomena had Elliot cremated.
Elliot was not cheap, but frugal where it came to maintenance on his and Philomena’s house because he did it himself. “Figure my time at minimum wage—shit, twice minimum wage—and I’d be a fool to hire it done.” Not the eaves, not the roof...” The roof where asphalt shingles curled away from their plywood substrate—“Twenty year shingles,” said Elliot to his wife. “Good enough.” There had been ‘Lifetime’ shingles available at twice the cost, but Elliot felt twenty years was as far into the future as he was prepared to hazard his cash flow. “Twenty years, then we’ll see,” he had said.
Fifty years later Lucy would visit the old car. It was under a blue tarp piled with baled hay and weighted with stones. It took him over an hour, but Lucy got the hay bales cleared away from two sides of the car and arranged into a row—facing south, dragged out of the shadow of the barn to dry in the sun. In his own private mourning for his dead son, he changed the hay piled on the Chevy each year in the fall. This hay could be put back, too early yet for fresh. He lifted a corner of the tarp. “Jesus Christ.” Death billowed forth—the burial chamber smell of long-departed flesh, seasoned with damp, dark, and forgetfulness. Something had died in there and it wasn’t Elliot. Lucy got himself away into the barn where he had hunted mice and rats as a boy. He slid the hanging doors shut behind him and was thrown to the floor by a blast of pain. “Interesting,” said Lucy Hobart. He felt around in his pants pockets for the bottle of nitroglycerin pills as he checked his vital signs. Pain from one knee—deep throbbing bone pain, heart galloping in his ears. Nothing new. He breathed in, then out, monitoring his body. Two short intakes of breath followed by a gradual exhalation—oxygenate the blood without hyperventilating, a runner’s trick his daughter had told him about.
“Don’t gulp; fish gulp.” Fish gulped, Sarah had said, her voice ringing through the sub-etheric sleet of a long-distance call of many chancy connections, “When they are suffocating in the lethal cocktail of nitrogen, oxygen, smog and particulates that we breathe.” Marooned on the drain boards of a boat, the fish flops and dies. “If they knew how to breathe our air, they could run a marathon.”
“If they had feet,” Lucy said.
Silence. Through the background spattering of their connection, Lucy heard Sarah breathing—two in, one out. He had hurt her feelings by taking her New Age practices lightly. “Well,” she had said, “Feet. That is a given for running—feet.”
Lucy sat legs spraddled out in the dust of the barn floor and thought about the smell of death emanating from under Elliot’s tarpaulin. The car’s tarp rather than Elliot’s, he reminded himself, Philomena had insisted on cremation. His questing fingers discovered the tiny vial of tinier pills. He broke the seal with a large jagged thumbnail; he had never taken nitroglycerin. “At an advanced age, like yours,” the doctor said while writing the prescription, “Angina goes with the territory, believe me. Carry them; you’ll thank me.” Lucy folded the prescription then folded it again and slid it between two brass rivets into a coverall pocket. Doc Harmon caught him at the door. “You will need a knee replacement. I’ve called the orthopedist; here’s his card. You feel pain; there is a reason for pain. Pain is God’s megaphone.” He patted the faded pocket where Lucy had put his prescription. “Take one. Ten minutes pass and you still have pain, take another one. Ten minutes after that and you are still having episodes of pain, take a nitro plus an aspirin—full strength, none of those baby aspirins—and get yourself to the hospital; you’re in trouble.”
“Knee replacement. That’s surgery.”
“Well, yes.” The doctor looked at him like he had just hobbled down the ramp of an alien spaceship.
Lucy opened the vial and poured the pills out onto his palm where he considered them. He rotated his hand and allowed the pills to dribble away to the dirt floor. He stopped Sarah’s breathing exercise; the bouquet of whatever it was that had chosen to die in the Chevy 6 had by now entered the barn. Sucking in a lungful of comparatively untainted air, he returned to the stinking car. He toppled a fieldstone cairn that anchored one corner of the tarpaulin and rolled the stones aside. The smell had lessened somewhat. Maybe it was that he was getting used to it. Lucy flipped the tarp. In the car, wedged behind the steering wheel, was the carcass of a deer. That a deer should choose a mothballed Chevy 6 as its final resting place seemed so natural, so right in a grander scheme of things, that it did not occur to him to question it. Lucy circled the car and filled his lungs.
People dismissed the skeletons of ancient deer kills—a cow dead of a broken leg and forgotten in the woods, a soldier, marched off to a war with time, a neighbor’s husband, killed for the insurance and dumped in a gulley. A piddling century later on, the bones of the cow or husband are turned up by the plow and declared relics of a race of giants.
The rotting corpse’s smell was not unpleasant. On the far side where the hay was still piled undisturbed from last year, some bales were broken, scattered. The deer must have tunneled in, attracted by a scent of sex seeped into the upholstery. Or escaping an attack by coyotes, maybe. Lucy checked the seat covers. Yep, they had been nibbled at. He looked the corpse in its face. A six-point buck, one eye gone and its flesh hanging loosely where last fall’s maggots had bred and fled. The deer’s antlers were caught in the steering wheel.
He kicked the car’s flabby tires. “Yard rot,” Lucy breathed in, deeply, of a time-distanced death mixed with salt air from the clam flats a mile away. Cat had asked again that morning for a ride in the Chevy roadster. “Top down—get some air. It’s always so stuffy in here.” His wife adjusted her lap quilt and turned from her always-on television. Cat wanted a repeat performance, an encore of impregnation. “Elliot, he is dead?”
“Still dead,” Lucy said. Cat was time traveling along an event horizon of young lust and tangled limbs supple with youth. “The car will have a problem or two, like as not. Oil’s got 3000 on it, or did when I put it out behind the barn. But that’s fifty years gone, Cat. It’s varnish by now. Or maybe I drained the oil. Have to check.”
“You can fix it, Lucy. You are so clever. All the books you read.”
“I’ll study up,” he had said. Cat seemed satisfied.
The odor of decomposition was by now mixed with the laundry-fresh smells of ice melt and fallow fields bursting with new life and the coming of spring.
Samantha was drawn to the car, Elliot’s car, the Chevy 6. Lucy found her there, touching its paint, holding a grease rag against her thin chest. “Sarah... Samantha.”
She turned slowly; she did not start, disturbed in her private reverie. “Yes. Oh, Lucy.”
“I’m going to do things over until I get them right. Repeating the past. Sorry.” Lucy put his hand over hers.
His big, strong fingers, thought Samantha. This ancient, vital man thinks I am somebody else. Or thinks I am here so what the hell. “Sorry for what? That you want to have sex with me. You want sex with a woman who hadn’t been born when you started getting your social security checks.”
“That is a disconnect, Samantha. Recreating the past all over again and every day—clean, bright, but basically the same—is what makes us less than savage.”
“You want me.” Her voice was soft, understanding.
“I wanted you. Then. Forty, fifty... shit, sixty years ago. You weren’t there. Cat was.”
“In the back of the car. This car.”
“A rumble seat. Sort of like a jump seat in an airplane—I flew B-24s, I ever tell you that? Here, I’ll show you.” Lucy jimmied the rumble seat with a screwdriver. He gave a yank, then a determined pull, and the hatch creaked open. Inside was a jumble of loose kapok, excelsior—exposed springs and coils poked through disintegrated upholstery. “Right there. We Hobarts generated a mighty tribe and our descendants, you among them, have been screwing like caged stoats for nigh-on a hundred years. The generations beget more generations and you drag your brats about for show and tell. But you don’t tell. You want us to guess.”
Lucy slammed the hatch shut. “Light. Grace is light is all—shining a light where a light might be needed. Jesus, don’t we just love the dark. No questions in the dark, no confrontation. Unmerited favor in the eyes of God, Grace. You have today shown me the quality of grace.”
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