Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 13—True, I talk of dreams

True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Ed Hobart shuffled the last of the morning’s unopened mail under a copy of Modern Fly Fishing and rechecked the clock. Ten past. Heidi was now officially late. What the hell, if he wasn’t here when she came in he wouldn’t have the recurring feeling he should really do something about her increasing late arrivals—this time at least.

He scooped his binoculars out of the desk drawer, locked the office door and hung up the Back in 5 Minutes placard. He headed around the corner and up the steep incline of Love Street, named for Ephraim Love, a founding father. He heard the rumble of construction machinery—diesels, the big stuff—from up the hill, past Church Street and out of his field of vision. Let’s have a look.

There was a familiar face in a group in front of an idling bulldozer. He ducked and pulled his collar up. A flash of reflecting sunglasses—the face had turned in his direction. Caught. Without knowing why, Ed felt guilty. He pressed himself deeper into the brick wall and willed himself to become invisible; Boy Scout lore had it Indian guides could do this. He tried to look casual and stooped to give some attention to his shoelaces. The steep pitch of Love Street had him perched like a mountain goat, one leg short, one leg long. Ed stumbled, adjusted for balance and limbered up the birding binoculars.

“You look like you’re going to fall over,” said a voice at his shoulder. “Can I watch?” It was Sue Maldonado. What if Heidi came by and saw them together? He managed to squeak out, “The damned town looks like a trailer park.” She nodded mistily. She is crying for the trees. There was one tree left of the elm canopied streets of their childhood; Carpelli Construction was wrestling it down. This was a living, healthy tree, unaffected by Dutch elm disease.

“Oh...” said Sue. She forced a knuckle between her teeth as if to hold back a tear.

Ed sat down on a nearby stump. “Sorry, Sue. Sorry about Willipaq going to hell, the elm trees.” He leaned closer and said, “Sorry about everything.”

The city was widening Church Street. An older man appeared to in command. He stood ramrod straight in a tan corduroy suit with leather elbow patches. Ten men with yellow hard hats tucked under their arms waited expectantly. “Ed,” Sue said to her one time boyfriend, “isn’t that...” The man was Billy Bradshaw.

“Yes,” said Ed and sighed a sigh of successful memory retrieval. Not Alzheimer’s, not this time—maybe next year. Billy Bradshaw was again in charge. He must have insinuated himself into the workings of town government just by showing up and ordering people around. Fingers of dread crept up his spine at the prospect of Bradshaw catching him out of the office—he, Ed, was on the state payroll.

Here they were, doomed to play out a long-ago rivalry between the first Billy Bradshaw and Old Doxology, Ed’s great-grandfather, until one or the other dropped dead. And Lucy. Old Doxology and Billy the First had been the closest of friends while at the same time hating each other’s guts. Why? Why not? Their animosity started in the primary grades. It was nurtured until the thing between them was a grownup thing, a loathing fine and wonderful and past understanding. Hobart-Bradshaw confrontations cascaded through the generations like a Sicilian vendetta with mutual slights, rude letters and, with the arrival of ample technology, ill-considered e-mails. If this then was a contest, what was the prize? No prize, no brass ring unless you counted the wives. Billy and Philly had been the hot item in their sophomore class at Willipaq High School. Philomena and Elliot hadn’t started going steady until their senior year. The timing didn’t matter; Billy got there first. I could have been this man’s son—a Bradshaw. Billy recognized them and strode on over.

“Billy.” Ed extended his hand.

“Lucy Hobart, I believe.” Billy Bradshaw flipped the tails of his corduroy jacket and extracted a baseball cap he had tucked into the back of his waistband, a piece of street theater that precluded skin-to-skin contact. The cap was a military green twill, gored and stitched to a matching green fabric button at its apex. “And hello there.” Billy leered at Sue Maldonado and waved at the idled construction crew. They should not follow. “Don’t take it too hard. We’re all getting older, trees too. Except you, huh, Lucy? Oh, Ed. Ed Hobart. Sorry about the Lucy thing—you are one of the Hobarts aren’t you? I recall your face from the last Willipaq High reunion.” Ed hadn’t changed. “And Suze. As lovely as ever.” He bowed; Sue made a mock curtsey—she had kept her figure, but then she was 30 years younger than he was. “Long time no see,” said Billy. He flourished his cap and positioned it firmly over his ears. The words Willipaq Historical Society had been machine embroidered across the front. He adjusted a leather belt at the back. Wisps of steel gray hair stuck out at the nape of his neck.

“Nice hat. You been back long?”

“Only a week. The cap is one of a kind.”

“So there is no Historical Society,” said Sue.

“Not yet,” said Billy. He called to a long lanky man with a floppy mustache who was sitting on the running board of a Carpelli truck. “C’mon, Jim, let’s get to work.” Sue flinched as the mustachioed man picked up his chainsaw.

“That’ll take all day,” called Billy. “Have to do it the old-fashioned way.” Jim the chainsaw man thumbed the lid of his takeout coffee and touched two fingers to the visor of his hard hat to acknowledge Billy as boss until a more likely candidate showed up.

A Carpelli Construction king cab pickup rolled to a stop just behind Billy, Ed and Sue and the circle of men. From across the street, Carpelli’s hijacked crew watched the horizon. Billy Bradshaw was going to go face first in his oatmeal when a younger gunslinger got off the noon train. The project supervisor jumped down from the truck, remembering to reach back into the passenger well for his hard hat. He settled it lightly on the back of his head as he beheld his idle crew and silent chainsaws. Frank Carpelli let out a deep sigh and retrieved a Dunkin’ Donuts sack from the dashboard. He had the robust red-faced look of a man who spent his days outdoors at the controls of heavy equipment. He strode up to Billy and his hijacked crew. Sensing trouble on the way, Jim the sawyer gave a perfunctory yank at his saw’s starter cord. The chainsaw burped and passed a small cloud of blue vapor, then sputtered to a full stop.

“And just who the hell are you, mister?” said the red-faced man, really ticked that this geriatric busybody had walked in and expropriated his work gang.

Billy pulled out a card which he handed over to the foreman. The card said “Consultant.” “Gotta get ’em down. There’s a standby clause in the grant proposal. Federal money. All the trees have to go before Willipaq gets the check. And the jobs.”

“And who put you in charge?”

As his arms and hands were in play directing a front-end loader homing in on Willipaq’s last elm, Billy indicated his left lapel with his chin. The chin bobbed on a flag lapel pin. “The United States of America, that’s who.”

The front-end loader came with a crane hook and a single asphalt-breaking tooth welded on the bucket. The driver dug the tooth into the street, engaged his hydraulics, and leaned his machine against the tree. The front-end loader fell over, sideways. Carpelli had to call in a bucket truck and the fire department’s ladder company to take down the last standing elm in town. It took a whole day and they did it in five-foot lengths. Then it took the Carpellis two days to grind down the stump and remove the debris.

The front-end loader had been Billy’s plan too, but Frank Carpelli banished him from the work site before he had time to regret this. “Lions 5, Christians nothing,” said Billy Bradshaw. The Bradshaws were Presbyterians, a denomination favored by Ronald and Nancy Reagan, 40th President and First Lady of the United States of America.

Billy Bradshaw would eventually set himself up as a freelance writer of grant proposals. His potential clients would be the bewildered selectmen of Willipaq County. Billy was not a schemer, but a dreamer, crafty and honest. In the 1st Gulf War he had learned how to run an army on paper. And paperwork, not its stomach, is what an army travels on.

“Six feet across at the base,” Ed Hobart would later recall, “And all they could think of was a front-end loader could push it over.”

*  *  *

Cat Armstrong had returned with a child, that was the story. A legend without corroboration, no one noticed she had been away, but that was how these things went. Where she had come back to Willipaq from and whose the child was was an outside consideration. Likewise if she had been away at all, lest a finger of accusation be leveled at some local boy. The local boys, all, would have been pleased to have tampered with the Cat. There was no child, just a tale of a child. Maybe she left it in the train station.

Children were expected to listen with closed ears, mute and tractable, seen and not heard. The older children built upon their scanty information and the tale of Cat’s childless confinement grew into a failed bittersweet infatuation with a dissolute nobleman in search of his soul in the North American wilderness. The children of Willipaq who eavesdropped on their mothers and aunts talking of the woman who spread the bounty of her white, creamy thighs—that thighs were white and creamy, the children of Willipaq did not doubt for they read it in their parents’ eyes, lingering on Cat as she passed by—created the legend for Cat to live up to.

Cat was beautiful and unwed, the stuff of fable and a focus of suspicion. Lucian Hobart had heard the tales of Cat’s creamy thighs. “I’ll have to get me some of those creamy thighs,” said Lucy, age seventeen.

*  *  *

Cat came bustling in from the yard, her arms full of radishes and carrots, leaving a trail of garden soil. Feathery green tops made a bouquet that hid her face. “Either you are staying or you are not. I have to know how many for supper.” She headed to the kitchen. Cat Armstrong was ten years older than Lucy Hobart and it pleased her to be fancied by the tall young man—how old could he be? Sixteen, seventeen? He was tongue-tied. He just stood there in the kitchen shifting his weight from one foot to the other—awkward and gangling with that crooked wolfish grin. Lucy had good teeth, big, strong with orange stains. Cat wondered if he chewed tobacco.

Lucy Hobart had the assertive swagger of one pretending past his years—a pool hall hanger-on, Cat had heard. His stance was that of a lurker, a moper.

But, my God wasn’t he handsome.

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