Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 12—Samantha Rear-ends Sarah at the Phaneuf Gas Station
The sun sliced through Sarah’s sunglasses with icepick intensity as she signaled for a turn, hoping there was nobody in the oncoming lane. A dusty green counter-image flared behind her eyes—getting bigger and bigger until it threatened to replace her head. She pulled her rattletrap Volvo under the canopy of an abandoned gas station, out of the head-on glare. Dino, the Sinclair dinosaur, smiled down. Stop! Clean Restrooms! An hour. She could wait an hour. An hour was a small thing to ask. Yesterday’s reptile trolled on for vacationers, a smiling lie set to misdirect one last wagon train.
Sarah felt a bead of sweat form between her eyes and took a pull at the screw-top bottle of Diet Pepsi to encourage it along. Lukewarm and tasteless—two liters of flat brown fluid, but she could still get at the caffeine. Dino looked on benignly from behind layers of rust pitted by wind-driven debris. She longed for rain, but there was not a cloud in the sky.
She engaged the clutch and inched forward, following the line of shade. Ahead, outside of the sheltering canopy, delusional oases flowed sideways through the heat and humidity. There was a Thonk! followed by a juicy squish. “Damn!” She had run over something. Rust holes big enough to put your fist through and now a squish. A weird smell. “No, Goddamit, not until we get to rotting flesh.” Sarah checked the rearview. She was alone and lost. Lost—that was it. She was lost and she was going to die, eaten by zombies. “Uhn... that would be, ‘What Is Zombies,’ Alex. Gotta go. Bye.” She was a Jeopardy enthusiast, but no zombies were forthcoming. Her panic waited hopefully as Alex Trebek bowed, flickered and called for a commercial break. She wanted to bolt and run.
Goddamn that Lucy. “The Pyrofax sign and you are almost there.” What was that guy’s name? Some crony of her father who had hung the sign back in the 1940s. Phaneuf—French. A lot of Québecers in Maine, no wonder there. He would have to be in his nineties as well. Pretty damn unlikely for him to be around.
Sarah screwed the cap back on the Pepsi to save what carbonation was left and thrust her head out of the window. “Hey, I am talking here—you and my dad were army buddies... blah, blah, blah.” No response. Shit. How do you get lost when there is only one fucking paved road in the whole State of Maine? Sarah fumbled through the macramé of roadmaps stuffed in the glove compartment. “At least I have a name for where I am. Here is ‘Lost.’ Good.” The panic attack retreated, quelled. A slight breeze that refused to be either cool or dry tickled the fine hairs at the base of her neck, erasing her tire tracks as it pulled along a ground-hugging cocoon of roadside litter.
Her tracks were the only tire marks and the only evidence that life once paused here, ever―coming or going. The place was deserted. She pumped at the hand brake to rock the car. Squish squish. A turtle. A snapping turtle. An expired, flattened raccoon, a huge porcupine. And a nasty smell, probably. And a tire stuck full of quills, flat.
“Hey, lady...” A child’s voice.
Sarah jumped a foot—straight up, bruising her forehead on the rearview.
“...you ran over my Jack-o’-Lantern.”
A kid in faded bib overalls stood on tiptoe at the side of the car and peered in at her. He wasn’t big enough to be ten years old. Eight, maybe. In one hand the kid held a jackknife covered with orange slime. “I rolled just in time,” said the kid. “The pumpkin wasn’t fast enough.” She wondered if the kid was going to attack her with his Boy Scout knife. If this came to court she’d be up on reckless endangerment at least. Vehicular manslaughter, attempted.
“Sorry for your loss. I’m glad you made it, though.”
“I’m Eddie and I’m eight years old.”
Keep those sticky fingers off my car and you might see nine. “OK if I try and guess your weight?” The kid nodded Yes. “Ninety-eight pounds.”
The kid shrugged. “I don’t know how much I weigh.”
Your grandfather knew my father; that’s something. “And I do. Well, Eddie, I’m lost.”
“That’s about the only folks we see here is lost,” said Eddie.
“Eddie, what is your last name?”
“Fan-iff,” said Eddie, with the accent on the FAN.
Phaneuf. Ed Phaneuf. There was no way this kid, this kid’s father—this kid’s grandfather—could have known Lucy Hobart. No one could know Lucy—she received cryptic notes in his impossible pencil scrawl and against her better judgment picked up the phone to listen for hours to his meanderings. “But I know him,” Sarah said.
“Huh?” said Little Eddie Phaneuf.
Sarah regarded Little Eddie with an expression she hoped radiated loving concern. “A pal of your great-grandfather’s maybe. My Father.”
A first-time buyer consumer sub-compact peeled in from the highway, a distracted young mother at the wheel. The mom slammed on her brakes and made a grab for the child sleeping on the seat beside her. She tossed an “O, shit. Sorry,” to the dinosaur as she loomed in Sarah’s rearview. Impact.
“Oof!” Sarah’s sunglasses flew off her face and bounced against the windshield; her head slammed back into the head rest. Shit, I’ve been hit. Chiropractor, a cervical collar, paralysis. The airbags will deploy and I’ll have my neck broken by a goddamned safety feature. Sarah rotated her neck to see if everything still worked. It did. She twisted the rearview mirror around for a glimpse of the other driver. The other car, an ancient Dodge Neon, had its hood buckled. The car looked like it was held together with screaming red duct tape. The engine steamed.
“Wow!” said Little Eddie Phaneuf. “A rear-ender. I’ve never seen one of those. Bet your bumpers are locked.” Little Eddie climbed up to where Sarah’s bumper and the Neon’s minimal grillwork were intertwined in a jumble of steel and fiberglass and jumped up and down.
“Hey, kid. Stop that,” the other driver shrieked.
“Your radiator’s OK, lady. It’s from a broken hose, all that steam,” said Little Eddie. “Turn off your engine or you’ll crack the block.” With that, the kid clambered down and went to confront the new arrival. Sarah pulled at the hand brake and got out to join in the fun.
The woman had gone into a Yoga position in the driver’s seat. Her eyes were closed and she muttered tonelessly under her breath. Somehow she had pulled her knees up and crossed her legs at the ankles. On her knees, crowded against the steering wheel, palms faced up, the thumb and second finger of each hand formed a letter O.
“Uh, you OK?” This woman has attacked—without warning, mind you—just slammed my flat Volvo ass in broad daylight, thought Sarah Drye. She’s more than OK. I am the one who needs help.
“Drifting... floating... slowly falling downward, downward into the silence, sweet peace, forgetfulness, oblivion.” The woman giggled; she seemed to be hunting for suitable words. “Paying it forward. There. I rear-ended you. Tantric City, totally all karma all the time.” She snorted. A spray of post-nasal drip misted her windshield. She was attractive, no—strangely beautiful, sensuous in spite of stringy oily hair, a shrill voice, a runny nose. “Fucking allergies.” Her car wore California plates. The collision had not awakened the child.
“This is the Full Lotus, symmetrical.” Her eyes opened, violet eyes. “Bet you can’t do it. Samantha Hobart, what’s yours? The kid is DazL.”
“Hobart...” Sarah made a resolution to ask Lucy about this woman. He couldn’t have...
Violet eyes stared into Sarah’s. “You checked my license plate and made up your mind: ‘She’s another west coast airhead—navel-gazing and the what-ness of if.’ I’m just going along with your preconceptions about a single mom in a beat-up car with California plates.”
Little Eddie Phaneuf stuck his head into Samantha’s window. “Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” said DazL woozily.
“Your little boy?” asked Sarah.
“Who else?” said the young woman. “There is no father. What’s the difference between a pregnant woman and a light bulb?” Samantha and Sarah both waited for an answer. The child woke up and began sucking at his thumb.
“You can unscrew a light bulb?” Sarah guessed.
The thumb was extracted, “Ma...”
Samantha licked her hand and smoothed an unruly tuft of hair sprouting from an otherwise normal-looking head. “No. No titty. Make do with your thumb. There’s a Snickers bar under the front seat.” The child looked hopefully to Sarah.
“Sorry, kid, I’m all out. And that hair... You are Hobart to the bone, young man.” Sarah gave the cowlick a flip with her fingers. DazL sucked faster. “Your mother should have read more. A fictional boyhood in the American heartland would flesh out your sense of proportion. Vistas of placid cows while fermenting silos explode on the horizon; a mongrel dog frolics at your feet—that sort of thing, the stuff of legend. Charleyhorse?” Samantha was squirming to free herself from the yoga pose; it looked painful. She popped free of the wheel in a tangle of arms and legs. “You are, um... flexible.”
Samantha filled her lungs as if trying to inflate herself to a standing position. It worked; she smiled, “Flexible, yes. You can be, too. You’d have to trust me.”
“You are not my boyfriend’s ex-wife back from the dead to tell me knock-knock jokes, are you?”
“I doubt it,” said Samantha. “Seems improbable. I just came to mail a letter.”
“It was a long drive. The kid and I are living on an insurance payout from when I was rear-ended last month in L.A. That’s what I meant about paying things forward. I get to practice my pranayama. That’s locking into the vibrations of the magnetic All. The Zimzum. Read any Jewish Kabbalah?”
“Zimzum. That’s where God retreated to make room for Creation. Withdrawing into Himself to make space for the material world. A place of His own. Isn’t that neat? That’s what I am looking for. Dark matter, it proves that God exists. Dark matter is where God goes to be by Himself. I read that in National Geographic.”
“Not in the Kabbalah?”
“I was at the dentist. Some lunch?” Samantha held up a carton of saltines and a brick of no-name cheese. “Sharp cheddar. Want some? We’re eating orange today.”
Sarah rummaged in the back of her car, extracting a tiny polystyrene box labeled Flags of all Nations Hors d’Oeuvre Toothpicks. Selecting a flag of a Balkan principality redolent with red, gold and Latin, she pushed it into the cheese block. DazL studied his thumb, looked from his hand to the cheese, then burst out in laughter. “Just the thing for our Samantha’s little boy, lest he vanish in a twitch of history,” said Sarah.
For three quarters of a century after Willipaq County became a county, its people were without electric service. Tallow candles, kerosene lamps, the gasoline lantern lighted offices and homes. They that sat in darkness heard of the wonders of electric bulbs and longed for the day when electricity might come to them. Bangor Hydro-Electric answered the call and no sooner than you could say Government Bond a line of creosote-soaked poles marched 140 miles up the coast and into Willipaq. Lucy had already installed a Delco home electric light and power plant—an array of 12 volt batteries with a gasoline generator—for the Hobart homestead in 1934. This was the fourth lighting plant of the sort to be installed in New England north of Bangor. He and Cat would watch the amber dial of the radio and listen to H.V. Kaltenborn announce the news.
Service along the 35 KV line was not available to farms because there were no step-down sub stations except at Cherryfield and Whitneyville. A step-down station at Eastport made connections there with the 6.9 KV line extending service eastward to Loup du Jour, New Brunswick, jumping an international boundary and crossing a tidal river, but missing Lucy’s Delco system.
For three decades, Lucy and Cat made do with batteries as the pilgrims and, before them the Anasazi and their successors, the adjuncts of the Iroquois Six Nations, the Penobscots, Maliseets and Passamaquoddys. Free-wheeling entrepreneurs like Ed Phaneuf struck out into the wilderness as local generators of electric power. Rural electric cooperatives sprang up like forage buckwheat after the fall plowing. Lucy Hobart was a last-gasper, but in due course bowed to Progress and ordered a hookup with the main grid. After all, he still had the Delco system. Cat bought a television set and sent her husband scuttling up the roof with an antenna of many spikes and tines.
With time insects burrowed past the creosote and hollowed out the utility poles. Fierce-headed hairy woodpeckers and rampaging oil trucks that fishtailed over black ice, the frozen fog of the coastal marshland, brought them down.
Now when the poles fell, a diesel engine belched to life behind the barn. Catherine Armstrong Hobart kept her vigil by the blue glow of a cathode-ray tube powered by her husband’s new generator. “Lucy. Lawrence Welk. You know how you love the Lennon Sisters.”
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