Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 8—Ed Hobart checks his answering machine

“In the Zoologist, 3-18-21, is recorded an instance of a bird (puffin) that had fallen to the ground with a fractured head. Interesting, but mere speculation—what solid object, high in the air, had the bird struck against?”

—Charles Fort, Book of the Damned, Chapter XIX

When Ed got back to the office there was a Mason jar of carpenter ants waiting for him outside the door. “The ant guy,” Ed said. He looked around to see if Sue Maldonado might be cruising by in her husband’s truck, trying to catch him being snappish.

“You do that,” Sue had said, “...you talk to yourself and keep it under your collar. You turn red and tremble, all the physiological symptoms of uncontrollable rage. You’re headed for a stroke. I’d give a bag of fifty dollar chips from the PowWow Palace to hear what you say about me.” The PowWow Palace was the nearest tribal casino, over a 400 mile drive and in Connecticut. Jubilee Tours ran a bus trip every other week, synchronized with the arrival of pension and Social Security checks. The busses were generally full, their occupants in high spirits, being conducted in a sing-a-long by Mavis Eldridge who led the choir at Grace Episcopal. Mavis was eighty-two if she was a day and had had a stroke—by rights Ed’s stroke, ricocheted to hit an innocent bystander if you believed Sue Maldonado. And there she was waving and warbling—eyes bright, cheeks ruddy with the high color of a day at the slots.

“I bet if you just loosened the waistband of that bomber jacket the Extension gives you everything you’ve ever whispered down your collar, up your sleeve—and you do do that—your whisperings will fall out. I’ve never seen you do it but I’ll bet you do. The game wardens get the same jackets and they get to carry a gun. You carry a grudge.” The casino busses had to roll past Ed’s window on their way to the glittering pleasure domes of Connecticut.

Ed hefted a plastic tote of mail in from the truck and slammed it on a church banquet table. The table had legs that folded up. The legs were unfolded now and the table occupied all the available space, center floor, for Heidi’s collating. A light was flashing from the answering machine. “Heidi?” No answer. Heidi was more than competent to handle run-of-the-mill gardening queries. Ed went to the window and looked across the street. There was Heidi’s French braid gesturing with a donut and cup of coffee at the counter of the Wilco Diner. On break. She had left the office unattended, the door unlatched, the answering machine turned on to pick up any slack. Heidi looked up and saw Ed watching her. She waved at him and returned to her conversation with Theo Arsenault, proprietor of Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries and owner of the Wilco Diner. In an age of specialization, Arsenault was a generalist, with gas pumps, a soda fountain, over-the-counter drugs and notions plus lottery tickets, tobacco and magazines, pizza and beer. Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries was also the bus stop. Heidi and Theo leaned close, exchanging confidences. Theo Arsenault raised his head and peered back at Ed.

Ed muttered into his collar. She could have waited till I got back. He checked for any missed calls on the counter. Zero. There had been a whole lot piled up. The calls to be returned were listened to and then left on the machine. Most calls came in the spring when there was an onslaught of insect questions. Ed changed the salutation weekly as recommended by the University. “Keeps you current,” he was told. “Shows you are concerned, their problems are your problems.” Ed summoned up the number, a smear of flashing red digits. These were the actionable but deferred, gone but not forgotten calls—the not right now, but later maybe, calls. There had been at least 20. Heidi must have played them all while he was at the post office. Was there something I should have deleted? It was the practice that Ed Hobart took the knotty problems and cleared the nuisance calls, the nuts, the pests, from the machine—the lonely and the old trapped in their houses, stranded by uncaring families, alone with only a TV and a telephone, next stop the nursing home, so hopeless in the shadows of their lives that they chatted up answering machines to fend off depression. Was there something personal that Heidi had heard? That he had forgotten? The majority of the calls came in either right after the afternoon network soap operas went off, displaced by local news and game shows, or in the middle of the night.

“Hey, you’ve got the degree. Earn your money,” Heidi once said when the phone rang as he was leaning over her shoulder ostensibly proofreading a piece of dictation. Her shoulders were marvelously smooth and uniformly golden. Heidi favored spaghetti straps and low-cut tank tops in all seasons and used the tanning bed at the Sunrise Spa. Colicky cows, insect infestations and techniques for building steel barns were Ed’s specialties.

Ed hit Replay. “September 14th two-forty-five A.M.” a honeyed female voice announced from the answering machine’s very small speaker. Digital, strangely inflected, a machine. A cold sweat prickled at Ed’s collar line.

“This is Anne—from Palmer and Pike? Insurance? We sent the forms on the 18th.”

“Hi, it’s me...” A woman’s voice, unfamiliar. A wrong number? A hang up then dial tone and the beep that started the next archival call.

“...and it’s flat-head borers. I know you probably can’t make house calls, but I am a shut-in and... Hello?” Ed and feedback as he shouts into the speakerphone on the 2nd floor. “Wait. I am up a ladder. If you could possibly call again during regular hours, business hours...”

Up a ladder. His father Elliot had died in a fall from a ladder. Was this the destiny of the Hobart men, to die precipitated from a height like a Plantagenet duke caught in flagrante? Philomena had said he was “doing his nails.” Strange.

On the night before his prostatectomy, Philomena suggested Elliot and she have sex.

“Sounds indecent,” Elliot said. “The farewell fuck?” Philomena had looked relieved. “Now you sound like your father,” she said.

“Here, hold the hammer.” Elliot reached over and back, down, down to hand her his tools. He was up the ladder as far as balance allowed. “Look at me...” He kicked out at a right angle, balancing with his knee against the rungs. “Savate—French foot-fighting. I learned that move in Portuguese Goa.”

“You have never left Willipaq.”

“I could have. Damned nail polish.” At the correct angle exposed nail heads glistened with mother-of-pearl. “It rusted right through. Some female enhancement, nail polish.”

“Pearl essence, mother-of-pearl made from fish scales—read the bottle next time.” Rust stains dripped from the heads of iron nails where the fingernail polish had chipped.

“Well, it lasted for fifteen years.”

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about; you asked me if I had some. I did. Women are not supposed to be left out in the yard through winter snow, lightning and hailstorms, Mr. Hobart. You could have used galvanized nails, zinc coated.”

Beep. Click. “September 16th twelve-ten P.M.” The same microchip—still impersonal, but doing her best to make a human connection. The machine was enjoying this.

“This is Maxine... at the Library? Just called to remind you that you have two books here that you ordered on inter-library loan. But you know that. Anyway, they’re here. Come and pick them up.”

Beep. Click. Ed and feedback again. He is shouting and farther from the speakerphone than before. “Yeah. Who...?” Ed’s voice echoes boomily with the hard slap resonance of parallel tile surfaces. He must have been in the toilet for this one.

“McNeill Whistler. Just Whistler will do. That’s my name.”

“Wasn’t there a painter...?” Now Ed had a name to go with the jars of ants that arrived anonymously every year with the first swarmings of warm weather.

“My parents had a strange sense of humor. Get my ants?” It sounded like Lucy.

“Mr. Whistler... Just one jar this time?”

“Well, yes. We are doing arithmetic now? I asked about ants. You are asking about jars. I asked you about ants. My ants. I saw you. I know who you are.”

“Lots of people see me, Mr. Whistler. I’m supposed to be seen; I’m the county agent. The University of Maine. The Department of Agriculture—they want me to be seen. I am here to help; this is my job. Carpenter ants, yes. We have a pamphlet...”

“I saw you at the craft show. With Sue Maldonado. She has a tattoo. Probably has herpes, too. Girls with tattoos have herpes—it follows. The bar life an’ all. And I have ants. Just goes to show.”

The craft show, the Willipaq Historical ran one every year. Ed and Sue had gone; he probably had seen them together. So what, so had everybody. Their fling was no secret. The ladies of Grace Episcopal hosted the event and the women of Willipaq went stoop-shouldered and myopic over their quilting hoops through the winter for the Historical’s show. Sue Maldonado called them the Hystericals: “The good wives toil that their men may be appreciative when they trot out their stuff. Hysterical. From hysteria, Greek for the entrance to the womb. The snatch: snatch and grab.”

Husbands were drafted for the craft show—setting up, sweeping out, selling raffle chances. Ed remembered a balding man in a Quilt Guild T-shirt selling chances on a raffle quilt made from last year’s contest blocks. Another husband.

Sue had said, “You are appreciative when I trot out my stuff, aren’t you Eddie?” Ed was appreciative. Sue had great stuff and she dumped him. Shit. Ed Hobart thought about Heidi Nichol’s cleavage.

A beefy gent with yellow suspenders marked off like a carpenter’s rule had stopped to look. “Nice quilt,” he said to the husband already in attendance.

“All the proceeds to Willipaq battered women’s shelter.”

The beefy man did not appear moved. “Nice quilt. Dollar a chance?”

“Five dollars for six tickets and you can call it a crappy quilt for all I care,” the man at the table said.

Ed looked across to Arsenault’s. Theo had left to wait on other customers, a gaggle of bluehairs ordering box lunches for takeout. Heidi had moved to a table with two other women, tellers from the First National. Ed felt furtive listening to calls he was supposed to have taken care of weeks ago. The Jubilee Casino Bus pulled to a stop and blocked his view.

Beep. Click. “Hi, Ed. It’s me Heidi. Having fun?”

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