Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 10—Miss Taken Identity
The voice was hollow with the many miles and many connections from Ohio to Maine—six o’clock, right at the start of the Edgar Bergen-Charley McCarthy Show. One Sunday a month, without fail, the cork was off and Clear-eyed Alicia would call. Alicia knew it was one of Lucy’s favorites and adjusted herself accordingly, inserting a dry island in her all-day cocktail hour until she finished making the connection. At the feast of the gods, one eats what is placed on one’s plate and is content.
“Alicia, listen to me. You have whatever small change I send along for heart balm and I have all these phone bills back here; would you kindly ring back the operator and tell her you will be paying for the call? I can’t afford collect calls from Midlothian.” Calls timed to coincide with his evening radio time in Maine.
Lucy had only one such incident. After that, Clear-eyed Alicia picked up the tab for the calls. She was a bookkeeper, not an accountant, and the effort involved in figuring out when to annoy him cost her dearly. So did the long distance calls.
“You were the one for a while there at the Wanamaker Terminal,” says Lucy without waiting for the caller to identify herself. Lucy is shouting. “‘The woman, Watson.’ Sherlock Holmes said that. About Irene Adler, not you. More correctly Conan Doyle, the author, said it in A Scandal in Bohemia. But I forget, you don’t read anything but the seed catalogs and the funny papers, do you? She doesn’t know she’s a whore. Irene Adler, that is. Do you?”
“Me. I never asked you for money. I didn’t. I could have. And who doesn’t know?—she, I... am a, a... thingy?” There is an electrical pop as Florence Ulrich, a long lines operator in Rochester, New York checks the connection. A wee blue arc from the tip of her patch cord catches Alicia’s question and she pauses to listen.
“Whore. Like your not quite grandchild, Ian Emory Hobart. The latest news is he’s a male prostitute in Reno, Nevada. Ian—that’s Elliot’s boy, remember Elliot? No, you wouldn’t. I never told you about him. Anyhow, Ian told me. Or more properly, he told Philomena, just to piss her off. Philomena’s calls are eavesdropped upon by Cat and, by inference, innuendo, implication—never a direct statement, passed along. Cat told me.”
“No one tells me anything. They just talk to me; you talk to me, Lucy.”
“You call; I pick up the phone. We both talk; it’s just that you don’t listen—I listen. I talk to the barn cat; I talk to Philomena too, God help me. They listen. Philomena doesn’t talk to me—I seem to have done things that make her unhappy. To talk to Philomena I pick up a telephone, any telephone, and pretend she’s on the line, listening in. She usually is—not much of a life, that girl. Word gets around. Philomena, Cat, and now with the announced arrival of Sarah my occasional daughter, eavesdroppers will have potential round-the-clock coverage. I shall find myself inventing happenings—new news—just to keep up their interest.”
The Rochester operator nods approval and ends the connection.
Down the hall and up a flight of carpeted stairs—the pattern is cabbage roses, the stair runner bound in place with brass rods polished by the passage of many toes—Cat has picked up the extension to listen in. Alicia Drye’s conversation is a torrent of words. Poor Alicia, she is getting more confused by the day. I should explain all this to her, Cat thinks.
No, she wouldn’t get it even with a diagram, Lucy thinks. Where the parts go and what the parts do during sexual congress.
“We are thinking,” says Cat. “I can hear your thoughts.”
“What?” Lucy has not heard her.
For the first year, Lucy dreaded the regular, expected ringing from the hall table. The knowledge that she was paying for the calls gave a minor melancholy room to grow and breathe.
Although the railroad monopolies had allowed the United States Congress to follow their lead and in 1918 establish a uniform transcontinental happy hour with four time zones calibrated to guarantee that the gin was poured after dark or at least not before local sunset, depending. To the extent of one hundred feet on each side of the central line of their tracks, America’s railroads served booze at any hour and to anyone. Stay-at-homes made do as best they might. Maine and Ohio sat at opposite ends of the Eastern Time Zone.
In 1952 there was a telephone line installed in the barn. Only Lucy answered.
Twenty years later Lucy would have that phone disconnected.
There was a writhing and a subdued slithering as something tugged at Jerry Levy’s shoelaces. It was a rat. “Holy shit!” he yelled and piled into the cubbyhole with room for a toilet and a washer-dryer combo and little else that the real estate agent called the bathroom. There was a sharp metal snick of a latch being thrown home.
One down. Having evened his odds, the rat turned to Sarah and stood on his hind legs, begging—that Let’s take him home, Daddy, can I keep him please? number the Prospect Park squirrels used. Real cute.
“He’s asking for a handout. Nice ratty,” said Sarah. She patted the rat on its head. Wasn’t there something about rats and plague on the evening news? The hand was jerked back.
“Tell it times are hard all over,” came Jerry’s voice from behind the bathroom door. The rat looked disappointed and scuttled away under the bureau.
Sarah reached for the Yellow Pages to look for exterminators. “I have the Yellow Pages. I am looking under B as in Black Death.”
“Maybe we should get a cat,” said Jerry.
“No,” Sarah said icily, “my father has a cat. One is enough...”
“The cat lives in Maine. You don’t hear much about plague deaths in Maine.”
“They’re all dead. Who would call? And you have locked yourself in the bathroom while I am paralyzed with fright. That leaves the Yellow Pages.”
“What?” There was a noticeable delay, a processing lag as on the NBC Evening News from Afghanistan or Beijing. Slam! Smack! From Sarah’s side of the hollow core door as mounted horsemen collided with lethal intent. “Sarah! What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
There was silence and heavy breathing, Sarah’s breathing. “I got him with that Louisville Slugger you keep behind the door. For Christ’s sake Jerry come on out and help me clean up the mess.”
Relieved, Jerry unbolted the bathroom door and ventured forth. On the floor lay the rat, looking like road-hit ravioli with cheese, but no tread marks, just tomato sauce and hair. Jerry made a U-turn and threw up into the toilet.
Alicia found it hard breaking away from her unsure memories of Archimedes Drye. “I want you to know how hard this is for me, Archie. Lucy...?” She is the same sixteen-year-old Alicia Emmons Lucy met at the Wanamaker Terminal twenty, thirty, forty years before.
Clear-eyed Alicia is calling to say she will die. Person-to-person collect. Alicia Leola Emmons Drye calling Lucy Hobart in Willipaq, Maine. The thought of leaving behind a teenage daughter makes her a regular caller, running up fabulous phone bills as one Sunday each month she rattles out irrelevancies. Time stands still for Alicia Drye.
“We are talking about our daughter...”
“We have no daughter.”
”That would be Sarah.”
“‘He hastens and chastens His will to make known...’” Lucy was invoking a Higher Power from out of the stanzas of an old-time hymn. Hymn as in attending church, a practice Old Doxology had foresworn on behalf of himself, his wife and children and generations as yet unborn, meaning Lucy who was in Oceana’s womb at the time. Lucy and Sarah both wonder what this is all about.
“Sorry about that—automatic hymnody, the more mundane sister of automatic writing. I watched him sleep, Archie Drye, your vaporous father. This is what I recited by way of a valedictory.” Lucy said. “It was not a restful sleep but full of upside down mutterings and turnings. He was hanging in his harness. We came in under the radar in a blackout—they had radar by then, in Egypt, the English—and throughout the anti-aircraft batteries around London. There was always a blackout. Did I ever tell you about the Miss Taken Identity, daughter mine?” Sarah gave Lucy a blank stare. She was distractedly toying with an earring, twisting a knot of gold wire, until a piece fell to the floor. She bent to rescue the broken part.
“Archie’s turret got its glass blown out in a confetti of machine gun fire. Missed him, every damn bullet. The ground crew had to scrub him out with a steam hose—it was shrapnel killed him, airborne anti-personnel splitterbomben. Archimedes Drye was left hanging in his harness—upside down, drowning on blood and pieces of his lungs.
Miss Taken Identity, a B-24 with a glorified paint job. Sexy. ‘Nose art’—a largely naked mademoiselle painted full color and twelve feet high, Rita Hayworth in a shimmering chemise and little else, a ritual object to distract any passing Messerschmitt from the gun turrets. An impressive set, Rita had. She would marry a prince, the Ali Khan, and die of Alzheimer’s, and here am I still paddling around raising chickens with a half-mad wife. Hello? Sarah?” Huh, must have lost a contact lens. She was patting the floor with the flat of a palm. Lucy kept on talking to where her head had been. “Oh, drop something?”
“My earring. Got it.” She righted herself. “See?” The separated dangle glinted between a thumb and forefinger.
“A golden coil. The spiral of life. Trendy. You were missing the best part—where I shot your father.”
“Your personal war.”
“They gave me a Colt .45 and two racks of 500 pound bombs.”
“You shot my father you said. You did not drop a bomb on him.”
“Hard to miss at point-blank range, and bombs are so loud. I shot myself, then?”
“My mother still believes you are Archimedes Drye. She is nutty as a fruitcake.”
“I could be Archimedes Drye. That is your name too; the birth records don’t lie. And fruitcakes are supposed to have nuts. If we were all to start questioning the reliability of the county clerk’s office then where would we be, I ask you. Where? Chaos. Nobody could depend on anything. And why not Archie Drye? I shot him and his life was mine—not the life of the impersonal torrent of metal shards that riddled his turret. I am Archie Drye. I was Archie Drye long enough to kill and be killed.”
“Long enough to get laid. You were infused with Archimedes Drye’s DNA by miraculous absorption. You picked up Alicia at the Wanamaker Terminal and cast his seed by proxy. This is me we are talking about here, Baby Sarah. Propagation and abandonment. Oh, shit. Oh, simply shit.” Sarah had unhooked the remaining shank of her earring and stood by the window, holding the pieces together.
“Super glue, a miraculous modern compound,” said Lucy. “That should do it. Can’t solder gold wire, you’d get a puddle, hardly enough to make a nugget. Tiny Aztec dots dribbling from your ear. It would be hot, then cool to a lump no bigger than the tit of a field mouse. Aztec piddling.
“You have to understand about your father, Sarah. It was an act of mercy. He pleaded with me to do it. His eyes were clouded and he could not speak. I once shot an old dog—behind the head with my .410 over and under. I did not believe that for the dog or the man, that their last yelp was a cry of recognition or even of complaint. The nervous system giving out with a final pre-programmed response. Just doing its job. Like me, I figured. That’s the long answer. The short answer is, yes, I killed your father. But I am your father—how could I have? These are the imponderables. Go figure.”
Sarah was unmoved by the story of Archie Drye’s murder. “Wherever he is, I’m sure he is grateful,” she said. However, “It is time you were dead, too. I have come to help.”
Lucy stood staring through his daughter’s self-defined point in space. A burraow at his feet. “Damned cat. Useless for anything but being beautiful. Like Rita Hayworth. Sarah...” Sarah was gone; Lucy kept right on talking.
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