Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 14—Tad II and the Naming of DazL
Tad Needy sat at his cluttered desk and watched the passing parade of Willipaq, feet up, chair balanced perilously on two out of five wheels. This was Tad Needy Jr. or Tad II, the son of the Tad Needy who eavesdropped on Cat’s radio as she listened to Fr. Coughlin at the fish plant. Once upon a time, in the days of Europe’s Little Ice Age say, Tad would have been suspected of being a werewolf. This is a medievalism, for Tad Two’s wolf teeth, unlike Lucy’s, were not threatening, just gave his face a constipated look in spite of the genial Masonic grin he wore most afternoons. The mornings were different, but they were Mrs. Needy’s to deal with. He had Lucy’s teeth without Lucy’s threat.
Those rare times when Tad Two was in the office he was on the phone for replacement parts. Tad Needy was the Electrolux man; he did a brisk trade in vacuum bags and hoses.
“Uh, Tad. Could you spell that again? I have all this down but it looks strange, ending with a ‘q’ and all. The town? The county? And the zip code...”
“Willipaq? Town and county both. As well as our local Indian tribe. Chock full of yard sales where you can buy back the stuff you put out last year with the price tags still on, and parades with kids tossing candy from the fire truck, Shriners with their little cars, and the Willipaq High School marching band. This happens Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The bugs, blackflies and no-see-ums are generally gone by the Fourth and the mosquito plague of August is not till next month, so we forget about it.” A telephone at the Chicago warehouse is replaced in its cradle and a sales associate goes to lunch with a warm feeling about his clientele. These are the lost backwaters where families marry within close degrees of kinship, precipitating genetic anomalies. Canister vacuums are respected here.
Anomalies in Willipaq happened at a safe remove, but by and large remained self-referential. Willipaq existed as a footnote to a footnote, a place where no one ever went but everyone knew someone from—on TV shows a place where the people spoke in a local dialect that was strange, evocative, but familiar at the same time—Hollywood dialog coaches giving ears accustomed to a Norumbegan drawl what they heard as their own speech but better, confounding future generations of linguists. The speakers-upon-the-land, Indian tribes and late arrivals both, yearned to be the real thing like the Mainers seen on TV.
Tad Needy was the Electrolux man, real enough. Tad kept a neat storefront on Gulliver Street, right beside the Cooperative Extension, and nodded to Ed Hobart at those times when the freeholders of Willipaq walked out in the world to shovel snow, accept a FedEx drop, or retrieve a take-out from the Wilco. “Hullo, Ed,” said Tad as he tore open an envelope of sugar substitute and peeled back the lid of his latte light.
“Hullo, Mr. Needy.” Tad Needy was in his 60s, twenty years older than Ed, thus deserving of respect.
“Sarah Drye,” said Tad Two.
“Huh?” said Ed Hobart.
“She asked for directions. Like I was saying to Mrs. Needy just this morning, I told her there weren’t any street signs, Lucy pulled ’em down. I told her the best way to find Lucy Hobart was to call Emergency Services then follow the ambulance. Those guys got global positioning, space satellites, enhanced 911. I had to draw her a map. Sarah Drye. That’s her name,” said Tad Two.
“Imagine,” said Ed. “Who?”
“Some relative of yours, I’d guess. Tweedy. An aging hippie you’d call her. Pulled into town yesterday, asked after your grandfather. Some good-looking. Nice rack even under all those sweaters. She wears silk underwear.”
“This Sarah...” Ed gave Tad Two an appraising once-over. “She showed you her underwear?”
Tad Two was pleased to have gotten a rise out of Ed. They were standing in the middle of Gulliver Street and a semi was bearing down on them. There was a screech of compressed air as the truck driver engaged his engine retarder as a warning. “Jack brakes. He means business. Better hustle,” said Ed. The two dodged Edna Halverson’s PT Cruiser. Edna waved and honked. They waved back as they made it to the curbing in front of Arsenault’s.
“Underwear. The woman showed you silk undies. Lingerie?” Tad Two liked to be known as a sexual adventurer; he kept a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar on display over the desk in his store.
“Longjohns. She pulled her sweatpants down and scratched her ass right in front of my window.”
“Then she told you her name.”
“Nope. Saw me watching and came right in my store. I like that in a woman.”
“An itchy ass.”
“You better believe it.” Tad Two flashed the Masonic smile. “And sports briefs in a leopard-spot print. A matching brassiere. OK, I’m guessing about the bra, but I right out asked her who she was. That is, after she asked me where Lucy Hobart lived. Where the house was? About your age, Ed. Really good-looking, understated attractive, if you know what I mean. A hippie chick.”
“You are trying to set me up with an overripe hippie.”
“You never can tell. Like, she doesn’t know whether she is hot or cold—might require the services of a Maine guide. From away, New York plates. And dressed for a trip to Antarctica. She had this old yellow Volvo wagon full of her stuff like she was coming to stay a while. And rolls of Mylar foil, bright colors, the three-footers.”
“That’s her. Said she was Lucy’s daughter.”
Cat Hobart made a break for it once. This was in 1993. A visiting physical therapist had returned to the Hobart house the afternoon of her bi-weekly morning visit. “Uh... I left my tote with the exercise mats? And a big blue gym ball?” She had to explain to Philomena exactly what a big blue gym ball was, looked like and how, if it was as big as the width of the woman’s outspread arms, just how the hell she had managed to leave it behind. Surely she must have noticed.
“Uh... your mother-in-law...”
The visiting nurse’s car had been left idling in the driveway. Raylene Tilden, P.T. and Philomena Hobart, hanger-on and parasite-general to the clan of Hobart, underfoot most times of the day, turned their heads as one to the sound of tires crunching on gravel.
“You didn’t.” said Philomena.
“I did. I left the keys in the ignition,” said Raylene.
Cat had learned to drive in the unhurried days of gravel roads and mud sinkholes. Today a cloudy film of cataracts turned early fall colorings into an impressionist painter’s landscape-on-rollers being cranked for her pleasure—hers and hers alone—by an invisible stagehand who runs alongside the car. To a volley of horns and curses, she veered across two lanes of oncoming traffic to park and clean her glasses.
Cat is not yet totally blind. “Impaired,” is what the ophthalmologist said. He advised against operating heavy equipment. “Lucy drives the combine,” Cat said. At her side, Lucy smiled—there is no combine. The ophthalmologist smiled—he meant Cat was no longer allowed to drive anything. Where Cat and Lucy had stood together through the armistice of a marriage, she was now on her own. This was an understanding between the men. Her husband had sided with a man in a white coat, a stranger—life-long allegiances had shifted. Cat smiled—she had nowhere to go, really. Misty twilight murmurings from the always-on bedroom television told her of wars and cruises, pilgrimages, baseball and Olympic cycling. Enough.
Cat was to be excluded from any say-so in her freedom of movement. Now it seemed she had stolen a car. “Ouch,” she banged an elbow on the driver’s side window as she attempted a turn signal. She looked for a crank. “Huh!” There was none, just a panel of toggle switches that did nothing. Cat’s efforts to get the window down were thwarted by the ingenuities of the visiting nurse association’s leased automobile. The keys were in the ignition. She turned the key; four cylinders pooted softly to life, and three of four windows rolled down. The driver’s side stayed shut. She drove in a straight line so as to avoid any unannounced turns.
A stop sign said Arrête. “I am in Canada. The signs are in French—that is nice.” Her trip to Montreal was uneventful and accident-free. She abandoned the nurse’s car on a traffic circle, neatly parallel parked just off Avenue Laurier, and hitchhiked home.
“I am blind.” Cat awoke in the dark, smelling oleander. “I have never smelled oleander. How do I know this is oleander?” There had been a perfume spill. That was it; she was at the mall and her eyes were closed. Cat opened one eye. She was at home in her room, and did not remember how she got there. “Hello? Alex? Alex Trebek? Monte Hall?” The TV set was dark and soundless. Alex Trebek would be pleased she left the stolen car in French Canada. “No, I am not blind after all. The lights have gone out.” Had she run over a raccoon? A skunk? No, the car was parked. Whatever the smell was, it was with her in the car, the electric windows sealed tight. Cat flared her nostrils at the sickly, pervading reek. A wild thing, a dead wild thing. “Hello, dead thing? Would you care for tea? I have been away; I’ll have to put the kettle on.” All she remembers of her adventure is a stop sign in French and the roundabout where she parked the nurse’s rental car. They must not have asked her where she put it, the car.
And she is not at the mall. “Milk? Sugar?” There is no answer.
The smell. Yes, oleander. Not the oleander of the cologne demonstrator. Was a tree a proper vegetable? Cat smiled at her flight of fancy as an oleander garden bloomed in her mind. Oleander: lemon and syrup, redolent of the inbred dwellers of a great house, the midnight passions from which the Old South of literature was fashioned—prideful and mentally feeble. She had seen this on Dallas. Or was it Gone with the Wind? Oleander, the siren, an olfactory beacon that lured stinkbugs to certain death. “Ohh... see the bugs.” She and Lucy had lain in a field and watched the moon rise. There were fireflies. Cat’s eyes shone then, young and love-struck.
“Now I am the aunt in the attic of whom nobody speaks.” She shared quiet laughter with the wallpaper. Cabbage roses, she and Lucy had picked it out when he got back from the war.
Now it is the mall. She shared the wallpaper chuckle with the paneling of elevator walls. “Or, more properly, the crazy aunt stuck between floors in a power failure.” The stagehand was rolling the backdrop faster now. Scenes flashed by, eager to have her join them. “Woo, slow down. You are making me dizzy.” Not dizzy, no. But she was tired and wanted to lie down. Cat groped the walls at waist level seeking the alarm switch—didn’t they all have one? This elevator did not seem to. She hoped it was a power failure and not blindness.
Her hands reached out to both sides. Ah!—four walls. “Well, I at least have established a perimeter.” She hunted again for the switch in the dark.
A vase of wilted flowers falls to the floor and there is light streaming through an opening in the blinds. She is in her bedroom. Hollywood Squares is dark. The stagehand picks up his pace and she is gone. Again.
The department store cologne demonstrator has seen her coming and pounces. “Hello, dear...” a moist hand guides her elbow, “...this is special. Everyone, and I mean just everyone will be wearing Oleander this fall.” The sprit sprit of an atomizer. “Isn’t it just too, too..?” With the powdered gentility of courtiers in Hollywood costume pictures a wet wrist is thrust under her nose.
“Oleander,” said Cat. “Vomiting, diarrhea, cardiac anomalies, decreased body temperature, death.” There is a long silence as the wrist is withdrawn.
“This is our most popular scent...” the cologne demonstrator said. She allows Cat to pass unmolested.
“Oleander,” said Cat. She caresses the wall. She tastes it. Bitter and nauseating. Oleander.
“Silly Cat. You are at home, in your room.”
Oleander is the scent of the new woman, Sarah Drye.
“Oleander,” says Cat.
Samantha Cherry Hobart struggled. Beneath her terror, anger and indignation, at the bottom of a well of panic a small voice of reason was observing, So this is a rape. Not like I’d imagined. His skin bubbled and flowed. Powerful arms held her close, forcing the breath from her. The fact that she was here was incidental to the proceedings. The man above her was Harry Collier of Valley Cooperative Insurance. Her personal ringtone jingled unanswered from the cell phone on her bedside table. Her fists struck hard and deep, desperate, sinking into spongy, suppurating flesh. He tended to the business of her violation, effortlessly absorbing the blows. As she struck at his face, his features—ears, nose, mouth—took on little cartoon faces and wandered off, just out of reach. The telephone representative’s terrible calm added a meaninglessness to the deed.
“This will be a miraculous birth. Just think, Samantha, you can tell your child that you were here. At the conception.”
“Well, duh... Some romance would be nice. I took high school biology; bacteria do better with courtship.” Where was the romance?
“This is how things work,” said Harry. “Supposedly. Please understand...” Samantha stared, biting her fist as the man’s arm separated from his body and slid slowly, fingers twitching, to the floor as he babbled on, unaware, in bursts of words as disconnected as his departed parts. She was spun around and forced to the floor. One-armed he separated the waistband of her jeans and pulled them down her thighs, shredding the remnants and pushing her forward on her knees. She was being pressed into the tiles face first.
The harder she fought, the tighter his grip. So businesslike. I would expect this from a claims adjuster. Whether I fight or give in doesn’t matter to him. I am a necessary but expendable accomplice—a fat fly drugged and dragged home to feed the next generation of insurance larvae. Samantha Cherry Hobart was running with sweat; soon she would be exhausted and must surrender. The man’s touch was cool and dry; her resistance only slowed him down.
“Lucy, is that you?” said Cat.
“Yes, Cat, it’s me,” said Lucy “And somebody to see you.”
“A young woman. How do you do, young woman. Quite pretty, too. I am sure Lucy likes that. The woman sets the tone for a home. Lucian buys his own liquor, brings it home; don’t you, Lucy? I would not do this. I will not bring strong spirits into the home. The woman simply does not do this if she wishes to set the tone.”
“My name is Sarah...”
“Sarah Drye. How nice of you to visit, my dear. Would you care for a cookie?” Cat gestured to a tea trolley with a kidney-shaped basin and a fluted vase with an artificial sunflower. There was a box of Kleenex. There were no cookies. Sarah busied herself with the tea trolley, setting aright items which had not been out of place.
“You will have to look after Lucian, Sarah. He forgets sometimes. He’ll blank out... in the middle of a sentence. You could wait—a minute, ten minutes, ten seconds—then he will pick up right where he left off. It is like he has been away—someplace—and everyone is aware of it except him.” Cat tweaked the remote.
The Andy Griffith Show slid effortlessly into Leave It to Beaver.
“Do you dream, my dear?”
“Ah, the sign of an active mind. I will now tell you about my dreams. You may go, Lucy.” As Lucy made no movements that might indicate a departure, Cat whispered in Sarah’s ear, “Do you like Fr. Coughlin, my dear? It’s about time for his broadcast. I do hope you will enjoy it.” On Cat’s TV screen two too-attractive women with too many white teeth were displaying commemorative china plates. A lithographic blond woman with a tiara smiled up from the bottom of a tureen. “Princess Di,” said Cat. “She is dead. She doesn’t need dinnerware.”
“Well, that sounds reasonable enough.” Lucy smiled the wolf smile.
“I know it looks like the shopping channel. But you can hear Fr. Coughlin in the background. Pay no attention to the screen. This is radio. The government puts those silly people there to confuse me. They do not like Fr. Coughlin.”
“Lucy. You will be wanting to get back to your mice and your reading in the barn. These are important things—man things—which a poor woman could never hope to understand. Sarah and I will have our little talk.”
“I’ll be in the barn.” Lucy left. Sarah settled in.
Cat dipped into to the imaginary cookies. “My dreams... I dream of being burned alive. A nightmare with the same old crowd in every episode, but rearranged from the last time. I wander in the night. Plastic pails of ice cream in the dark, the marshmallow fluff with peanut butter eaten with a spoon right from the jar? Bad sleep sure to follow, the sundowner sleep—an expression of dementia, a pattern—the wandering snacks in the early hours after midnight, the early hours before any meaningful sleep. Spooning in the white fluffy goo and brown sticky peanut butter ...mmm, good! It sticks everywhere, down my front, looking like it has trickled down my face, glacé, like mineral seepage accretions from cavern ceilings. Lucy says geology professors take their classes into the subway tunnels on field trips. Lucy has been to New York City. Did he tell you that?”
Go on, Sarah nods.
“Sugar goes directly to the brain, faster than a speeding bullet it leaps tall buildings. The peanut butter has better manners, goes right to the bowels. Then the hangover, the second waking. And the fears. Fears for forgotten cigarettes, burning worm tracks in the table and the floor, fallen unattended out of ashtrays. The fire feeling—coming home, while in the previous scene you had been home, seeing yourself on fire. A dream of fear, you always in it, an image in a mirror in a mirrored image, coming home with the premonition, with second sight: I have seen this all before! And coming home again, one step forward, two steps back, never able to gain any ground. There is a glow in the night sky and a crowd standing around doing nothing, a flurry of obstructive inactivity. They are all very busy helping but getting in the way. Knowing neighbors, faces from here and now in the waking world and from all the other somewheres, cameos from childhood and childhood’s forgotten fears.
“‘Please help,’ I tell them.”
“‘We are here! We are the firemen; but you see, we are not really here yet and we have to wait. We are waiting for you. Hurry, Cat.’ They are helpless, they are there but they are not there at the same time and everything must wait. They mill about and wait for their own arrivals. They’ll be too late, they tell me so. ‘Don’t go in! It’s too late!’ It is always that way in this dream, standing about in fear, waiting.
“They pull and push at me, forcing me into the burning house; asphalt brick patterned shingling peels and melts, black molasses with sequined sprinkles running down the smoldering laths.
“Exterior melting, runny black. And that’s my dream,” said Cat. “I suppose you have dreams just like mine, Sarah. We are so very much alike, you and I.”
“Cat...” said Sarah Drye. “Is everything OK?” Cat was slumped in front of the TV. She muted the program, Green Acres, straightened and turned. Her eyes were bright and aware.
“You are actually Lucy’s daughter by that woman in Ohio.” Sarah must have appeared startled. “That’s all right, dear. I am not quite the dotty old lady some people like to think I am.”
“I had expected...”
“Someone else? Tad Needy called to say you were coming.”
There was a scuffling and a muffled cough from the hallway. Cat raised her voice, “Philomena. Is that you?” The door was opened with the deliberate speed of an eavesdropper caught in the act. “You might say something, knock first.”
“Uh, sorry.” Philomena left the room, closed the door, knocked and reentered. “I’m sorry. You have a caller, Cat. Two callers.”
“No, you are not sorry, but thank you anyway.” Cat turned to Sarah. “Two visitors. Oh, hello there.” A toddler edged an overlarge head into Cat’s room, sized up the waiting women, then entered. He was followed by a girl with violet eyes. “You have brought a friend. How nice. I must open a jar of my special chicken.” Cat looked conspiratorially around the room. “Don’t let Lucy know.” Her eyes twitched. Cat’s thumb massaged the remote buttons; the TV sound got louder. Sarah had lost her. “My, it seems I’m entertaining again; we’re having a regular soirée,” said Cat Hobart.
“Hello, Samantha,” said Sarah.
“Hello, Sarah,” said Samantha. “I have good intentions.”
“The road to hell, etc., etc.” Philomena gave Sarah a knowing look and elbowed her out the door. Samantha and Cat studied one another as Philomena closed the door behind them.
“Hobart. Samantha Cherry Hobart,” said Samantha. She held out her hand. “Everyone says how crazy you are so I thought I’d check you out. They say that about me, too. But then I am crazy. I have a baby.”
“So do I—did. Did have a baby. Once. His name was Elliot. There is a father?”
“Probably.” Samantha grabbed Cat’s remote and turned off the TV. “He’s called DazL.”
“After the father.”
“After a molecule, a gene—something.”
Cat tousled the toddler’s hair. “Red, screaming flaming red. I had red hair once. Like Anne of Green Gables.” She motioned to a place beside her in front of the TV, “Have a seat. Let’s talk. Care for a smoke?” She thrust a hand into the unbuttoned top of her plaid flannel pajamas, hunted about and retrieved a pouch of tobacco and cigarette papers. She rolled three cigarettes and passed them around. Samantha snatched DazL’s from his mouth as he started to eat it.
“It was a test study at USC—oligoazoospermia, whatever. One of the samples, I took it home. Down my shirt. Fucking cold, frostbite. They keep the low motility studies frozen in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 Centigrade.”
“You stole the child!” Cat tried to be scandalized but was pleased that her great-granddaughter had inherited initiative sufficient to stuff a test tube in her bra. “Lucy,” said Cat.
“Elastic. A sports bra. Got a frost burn, wanna see?” Sammi pulled her shirt up. Between her breasts was a crescent-shaped scar. “I have been blessed. The sign. On the fifth rib.”
“Lucy is the father. He raped me once. Did I tell you that?”
“You shoulda seen it. I was flailing at my tits and trying to get the damned thing out.”
“That’s me and my husband, in the picture.” There was a framed photograph of a smiling couple looking down from the wall. “He’s dead, but it’s hard to tell some days.”
“Lucian Hobart.” It was a large format print in the unposed style of a 20th Century master—Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange. Casual but glamorous. The couple was ruffled, standing against a light wind in a field of new-mown hay. There was an apple tree in full fruit to the photo’s right. The picture bore the imprint of a Canadian photographer.
“Lucian Hobart,” said Samantha, “so...” So young, she thought. And good-looking. Like a movie star. “He raped you? Me too. No, not Lucy, Harry the claims adjuster, but I think I made that part up.” At Lucy’s side was a woman, a beautiful woman. More beautiful even than the surfer girls on the vintage travel posters. It was a yellowing monochrome but Samantha saw red hair, braided into a pigtail with a few careless strands catching the breeze. Lucy Hobart hadn’t noticed her approach, she must have come from outside the picture’s field of focus. Freckles spattered across the bridge of Cat’s nose. She wore sandals and walking shorts and her tanned legs would stop traffic anywhere as cars slowed for a better look. Samantha felt out of her class. She gathered DazL and started to leave.
“Don’t go, Samantha. We have things to discuss.”
“Lucy is the father you said. You mean DazL. I don’t think so; is that what this is all about?”
“Not to worry, this is just between us girls.”
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