Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 22—Ta-Ra-Rah and Boom-De-Ay

Ahead, the line of cars suddenly slowed as a light changed. There was a squeal and a smell of smoke as Sarah mashed the brake; she thought of asbestosis and lung cancer. She looked in the glove compartment on the off chance that an ancient Lucky Strike was hidden behind the maps. No luck, only an archival Mars bar. Her ears volunteered a make-believe sizzle as a droplet of sweat between her eyes evaporated. She rolled down the window and flopped an elbow on the sill, tried to relax and reconnoiter the surroundings. The four lane highway narrowed to be siphoned off onto a pair of two lane roads. To her left the federal Route #1 appeared to have become #1-A. Route #3 continued on ahead past a sign announcing Bar Harbor and ferry service to Nova Scotia. A sweaty-faced bearded man in a hurry leaned on his horn right behind her. Hung over and running late. His girlfriend threw him out. “Keep your pants on, asshole. I’m networking with my karma.” She pulled a hard left and swung onto the road marked Acadia and Downeast destinations. The traffic immediately thinned out.

Things became thinner and older; there were blue tarpaulin roof patches, house trailers and gravel shoulders with sharp drop-offs, fewer late model cars. A tree is dead but refuses to be—a straggling pine, white limbs splayed to the sides, a full sixty feet and counting. “It doesn’t know,” said Sarah. A cone-rich florescent tuft of greenery on top, a last gasp before dying from the ground up. A few years, next year maybe, it will fall, she thought. Then, a few yards on, a little tree, the same but smaller. “Hiya, kid,” Sarah said. Crossroads of Downeast Maine said a sign. “Welcome home, wandering girl. And here we go.” Sarah pressed her foot down on the accelerator. In the rearview a cloud of blue smoke drifted out of her field of vision, thence skywards.

The roadside played a reel of deteriorating signage—50s fonts on chrome dinette diners, their windows shot out. EAT. A carousel laundry line, its empty struts uplifted in worship, prayed for a washday, an umbrella turned inside out by a sudden gust. The wash line was strung on ceramic insulators. Sarah wished she had a coffee. Or a cigarette.

A substation protected by a chain link fence, its transformers gone. Empty concrete slabs. Someone wanted power once. Powerball 4.5 Million, Fresh Maine Lobster, Live Bait, all sun bleached and faded. A wheelchair ramp, the elevation of its plywood twisted by unshoveled snow turned to ice with repeating thaws and freezes. Grandpa had given up, or like the tree, had forgotten to remember. Grandpa didn’t care anymore. Or had died. Sarah thinks the ramp is to be saved against future need by the now living, the yet hale and hearty. Thrifty.

“Bethel Chapel.” A sign, but no building. There is electricity here; new wires strung taut—new poles, no church. Lucy would be all smiles, content that he has a generator. An augury of things to come, she thinks, pleased. The poles have holes; they will fall down. A distant woodpecker hammers at a telephone pole. Tough bird, thinks Sarah.

Approaching Willipaq, two low rugged hills seen through a break in the trees, mist and upland bogs—Ta-Ra-Rah and Boom-De-Ay were the names used by the locals who couldn’t tell you why. Sarah thinks they must be a reminiscence of the Bull Moose campaign of Teddy Roosevelt. The peaks like the presidents are just numbers on a survey chart. High school, Sarah thinks and recalls the fine golden hairs on the nape of a neck—Karen Oppenheim, the girl she had loved with silent yearning. Karen sat in the desk in front of her in English class where they studied old poetry, old ballads, some Shakespeare and Willa Cather. Fine golden hairs. Sarah touched them once. The girl had jumped and looked back, accusing. No Lord Randal today. Sarah studied the line above the golden nape hairs where clippers, scissors, a razor had left a bare place between head and body. Naked flesh, a firebreak for keeping secrets.

*  *  *

Driving out to the Hobart place Sarah’s mind was full of the constantly rewritten scenario of how her meeting with Lucy was expected to go. It was a bright, sunshiny day, and rutted pockets in the unpaved road held reservoirs of yesterday’s rain water. A passing car threw up a cloud of spray that streaked the windshield and speckled her vision. She gave the plaster of crushed lime dust a swipe of the wipers. Skreek, skreek. Smear, smear. A brown blotch tinged with green and yellow highlights. “Cuba Libre,” she said. “With a twist.” She twisted the washer knob. Skreek, skreek. Wipe, wipe. A tiny clear spot appeared; Sarah drove slowly, never taking her eyes off the windshield. Wipe, wipe. She was out of fluid. Seen straight on through the clotted windshield, the road looked like a Civil War era stereopticon slide left too long out in the sun, a total eclipse thereof, lime juice ascendant. Bloated and peeling, the honored dead at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville become smeared, melting. The lime juice will dry to a fine china glaze. She had to get it off before she had to use a chisel. Coke worked on lug nuts, maybe Diet Pepsi. She fumbled for the half-empty can, trying to discover it with her fingertips in the door pocket or jammed between the passenger seat and the handbrake. A tricky business, this.

Sarah stopped the Volvo in the middle of the road. On a hill, just around a bend in the road—a picture perfect, Christina’s World?—two red maple trees crowded in upon a weathered but well-kept farmhouse. This is too much. I am calling it a farm house. Why? It is on a farm. What is it? I am a trained observer, sort of. The Hobart house was a three-story Victorian painstakingly cobbled together in the eighteen-hundreds. A pair of wooden columns pretended to be marble at either side of the front door. Their paint had flaked away.

*  *  *

It is 1936. Inside the house winter smells like wet wool, oatmeal and coal oil, and lungs gurgle with persistent coughs. When it snows, dotting the mud of the dooryard with great, plashy wet flakes, coloring the drifts in a day, the brown mud seeps up as the coal smoke seeps down. Wind-blown snow exposes striations of white, black, and brown eddying at the gritty film that covers all outdoors. Soot clotted on the snow, the walls, the curtains, and the lungs. Two kitchens and four stoves—the soot and ash settled as a fine gray film over every room in the house.

“I think I shall begin today.”

The time had come for Cat to put something of herself into the house. In the fourteen years of her marriage to Lucy she had worked the house—that was how she thought of it, working the house—in the untended moments of introspection she allowed herself, usually in the mornings before coffee.

When I came to this house as a bride, things were different, thought Cat. But not much different.

For most of those years she had swept up the charred twists of newspaper Grandfather Hobart stamped out on the floor after lighting his pipe from the kitchen stove, boiled her wash in the two-handled copper boiler Grandmother Hobart had favored, and ironed on Wednesdays. Cat Hobart did not consider herself a romantic person; but now it was time for a change.

As a bride she had been neither resigned nor hopeful; her marriage had just happened at an appropriate time. She had wedded Lucy in the same house, before the same familiar faces, amid the same furniture with identical rows of orchards—apple trees, Cortlands marching in parallel ranks to the Atlantic shore three miles away. Marrying Lucy Hobart had been quite the same as marrying one’s own brother, with the added incentive of plentiful sex. They had grown up together barely speaking, she sixteen, he a mere child. Ten years changed all this. She had not crossed the Hobart threshold; she had stood by and waited. Theirs was a love match; it was, like their wedding, reasonable and inevitable. And a full two years later, they had a child, a son, Elliot, their only child.

*  *  *

A fox got the Hobart’s number one cat six years back, that was in 1995. Their inventory is now at one cat, and once a dog, deceased. Miss Molly—now Felix Major, top cat by default—manages more than adequately on three legs and a stump, her left front paw left behind in a neighbor’s muskrat trap.

At a January thaw, Molly worked loose the trap’s chain and staple and made it home. “She was so thin you could read a magazine right through her,” says Lucy affectionately. He treated her with home care and antibiotics until the smell of gangrene, and she was off to the vet for an amputation. Molly is not a hunter. And now she is the senior cat. Lucy jokes about sending her out as bait for the eagles that fish downstream where his river takes a turn toward the ocean.

Lucy thinks, Historically, I do not brush the teeth of household pets. This is an understanding we have reached. I did brush the teeth of the dog, the vet’s remedy for a purple tongue from a weak heart. The dog died; there is a lesson there. A daily baking soda application prevented bacteria colonies lodging in a pet’s mouth from migrating into her bloodstream.

Cat’s osteoarthritis has been plaguing her right hip since she was in her forties; the household, human and animal, has legs in odd numbers. Lucy says he is considering hauling her off to the vet to be put down; this, too, is a joke. We have established a pattern for replacement of pets; why not ourselves? Cat is just getting old. Cat is my wife; I do not brush her teeth.

The cat scrambled off the cushions as Lucy came through the doorway from the summer kitchen and the zinc sink. She still had three good legs to escape on—two more than he had, riding his arthritic knee with a cane in his left hand and, in his right, a cup of baking soda solution. And now, I brush the teeth of a cat, the evening’s portion of joy. The cat and I have been doing our pas de deux for eight years. Eight plus. And now that my mobility is becoming more constrained with each passing cortisone injection, so is hers. Gimpy man with gimpy cat. Another winter, each succeeding winter painted with ever-larger blobs of blaze orange scattered from a palette of pain. We enter on the future together.

Molly scuttles away under the window seat and Lucy goes in after her, pushing back the coffee table and lowering himself to the floor where he butt-walks closer to lie on the floor at her side.

*  *  *

Sarah pulled off to the side of the gravel drive and got out. I am a good hundred yards short of the house. I hope somebody sees me and comes out to introduce themselves first. On a downwardly slanting slope in a cluster of maple trees by the river, three dairy cows, honey-brown big-eyed jerseys, faced east against the rising sun as they browsed a pasture that was empty of grass. A tall, thin man in faded overalls leaned motionless on a rake. Lucy, it had to be Lucy from his photographs. He is facing the rising sun to have the prevailing westerlies at his back should he have to make a run for it, Sarah thought. A wired-together farm gate hung loosely open; the cows paid it no attention. Escape was not in their vocabulary today.

Filtered sunrise sun dappled gray, long shadows. Sarah noticed that someone had been brush-hogging a patch of raspberry canes and a stand of hundred-year-old apple trees gone wild. Shattered cane, uprooted stumps and snapped apple deadfall were arranged in a conical heap ready for next year’s spring burning. Speckled nodules, little sphincters winking out of the shining sliver bark said Yes, I am—was—a fruit tree. Where am I today? What good has this done me? See the stones uprooted by the plow, lichen gaining ground. Stones are a good place to cling for the winter. What do the stones know, Sarah thought. Their thoughts are long and slow. The sunlight is soon over and gone.

“Hello,” Sarah called. No response, no movement. He had not heard her. The hearing is the first to go, then the nose, then eyesight. Lucy is ninety-two years old and all his organs are beginning to fail him, those that have not already failed him. Sarah shouted, “I said hel-LO!”

A dog barked in the distance. There was a man’s shout, far enough away to arrive as a whisper. The crackle of her careful footfalls. The whistle of her nose hair.

“My father’s house. Carpenter Gothic,” said a voice close to her ear. Sarah jumped but did not turn. The man in the pasture had not moved.

“Steady as a rock, girl. I like that. Good nerves, but I had hoped to give you a scare.”

“Lucy Hobart...” said Sarah Drye.

“Ha. You were shaken. But not stirred...” said Lucy Hobart.

“James Bond then.”

*  *  *

Pulling at a thin cotton towel, Lucy luxuriated, kneading his eye sockets and massaging his hair. He emerged one eye at a time. The familiar wall had changed. At eye level was a gleaming representation of a porcelain sink nestled atop custom cabinetry.

Cat had pinned a picture torn from a magazine where he would have to see it.

“I see it.” He spoke knowing she would be there.

Better Homes and Gardens. Like it? I like it.”

“This one stays; it’s a zinc sink.” That tickled Lucy, the words and their music. The zinc sink, the old, ugly and serviceable sink, planted like a foundry casting across a windowless wall in the summer kitchen, was two-basined, deep and immovable. A zinc sink. The words would be there all afternoon, hovering through his exhalations at just the level of audibility. Lucy was not easily or often amused, but when a thing caught his fancy he would savor it all day. He was not purposefully trying to annoy her; he was teasing the words for himself alone; Cat could watch if she chose. Lucy’s jokes were his chief source of pleasure. Even when she understood them, which was often, she did not see the humor in them. For Cat, her husband had no sense of humor. When he deflected her requests with these self-absorbed tangents, she let him have his way—knowing in her own mind that she was right was sufficient. Cat would not cajole, but wait. Lucy would come around.

“A zinc sink.” Substantial. Cast concrete, a marvel of last century’s washday technology, with stubby legs, its basins two feet deep.

“I was only mentioning it. Forget it. I never said anything.”

Lucy has been born with an arrested sense of humor, thinks Cat. He is not an ignorant man. “It’s in a magazine; it is a picture. It’s not as though I’m asking you to do anything.”

“And the picture has leaped from the magazine to the wall. You require a porcelain sink in the kitchen. That is what you are saying.”

“What I am saying Lucy, is that from time to time I would like to feel like a human being and not a stoop-shouldered kitchen slave. I am tired; I ache all the time.”

“Posture, Cat Hobart. Straighten up, girl,” Lucy reached to put his arms around her, “You’re a fine figure of a woman when you straighten up.” She shrugged him off and returned the towel he had used to its spindle, the ticking’s blue stripes aligned to the vertical.

*  *  *

I am the daughter of the man with the wolf smile. Her mother had kept a photograph of Lucy—“Archimedes Drye, your father”—dashing in a flight jacket with the peak of his Army Air Corps officer’s cap pulled, tugged and rumpled until it was smartly shapeless. His daughter—a child of this man who rained destruction and death across Europe. His daughter. They had written and talked for years, but not like this, not face-to-face.

Her father.

“So I am. And you would be Sarah,” he would say.

“Lucy Hobart,” said Sarah Drye.

“Yes, I’m Lucy.” He arched his eyebrows to the man leaning on his rake. “He’s a scarecrow.” He smiled. The wolf smile. “I believe you were trying to put the house into a category. Carpenter Gothic—that’s it. Shipwrights slapped it together. They walked off with timbers from the ships they were working on. A little piece of change on the side, this house. The Gothic carpenters prospered in their houses; their shareholders’ ships sank at sea what with missing boards taken as venture capital.”

She felt Lucy’s breath on her neck—warm, moist with cinnamon and cloves, sugar-cured tobacco and alcohol. She imagined she heard a displacement of air as her father smiled, imagined shark gills gasping at the sides of his throat. “You will like it here. Your grandmother and I have put in central heating. And flush toilets. Nose plays tricks as one gets along in years. I was always smelling the cesspool. That and chlorine bleach.”

“My grandmother...”

“Cat. Perhaps and not quite. Humor me, daughter mine. Cat is my wife and we shall have a wee secret, you and I.”

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