Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 38—“I can feel her. Everywhere.”
No airy fairy she,
As she hangs in arsenic green,
From a highly impossible tree,
In a highly impossible scene.
—W. S. Gilbert Only a Dancing Girl 1869
“I can feel her. Everywhere. Have you ever noticed?” Sarah Drye looked up from the funerary crèche she was building on the sun porch. A wisp of smoke rose heavenward from her glue gun; sequins glittered. The sun porch faced east to catch a trickle of winter warmth. It was punishingly hot in summer.
“Oceana. My mother. Contagious. Yes.”
Lucy’s mother was a presence in the Hobart house. Not a presence to be spoken of in everyday goings-on, although Cat had considered calling in Phil leVoid for an exorcism. Oceana Carter Hobart festered just under the surface, behind the pale faded cabbage roses of the front hall wallpaper. The wallpaper had been printed with a poisonous verdigris—Paris green, toxic and deadly with arsenic, an arts and crafts wallpaper in the design of Wm. Morris. Overstated roses, great showy heads in full flower, big as dinner plates, cowered yellowly beneath a thick sickly overlay of tobacco resin that coated everything and made housecleaning a medicinal experience. These were cigar and cigarette exhalations, the Hobart men were not pipe smokers. And behind the poisonous wallpaper the spirit of Oceana settled in to wait. To wait for what was not knowable.
“A solarium,” his mother insisted not long after Lucy’s father finished the house. Oceana Carter Hobart had grown up in the shadow of the American Civil War—the War Between the States—and solarium (the word) had connotations of all things bright and beautiful. At solaria (the reality) tubercular veterans lounged behind glass, faded blooms of forgotten bell jars pressed and dried, their backs to the wind, and waited for death. The sun porch was duly added on.
When the solarium was complete and the last carpenter had shouldered his toolbox and departed down the hill, Oceana surveyed their work and found it good. “Now the wallpaper,” she said. The killer wallpaper.
“The wallpaper,” Lucy said. “It is poisoned; don’t breathe near it.” Sarah looked up surprised. “No, really. It changed my mother, her spirit. It was, ah... fevered.”
Oceana wheedled Old Doxology, “I must have it. We can afford it. We cannot afford not to have it.” The Hobart prestige was at stake. Wheedling was not Oceana’s style. Lucy’s father recognized this, and fairly warned gave in to his wife’s decorating selection. The design of choice was Trellis from the William Morris studios, very au courant, hand-made and expensive. Feeling his mother’s emanations, Lucy looked into the William Morris studios. The green branches were an arsenic-copper salt, the red roses vermilion. A toxic cocktail.
“I read up on it,” Lucy said. “I was stationed in Europe—this was in the war—and I visited the Morris studios. Still in business. And they fessed up about mysterious deaths associated with their wallpaper. Oh, they stopped making it, changed the dye stock and all, before I was born. But not soon enough to keep Oceana from getting it pasted all over the house.”
Sarah bustled about with her shears and rolls of shiny colored Mylar foil. “Like decorating the Christmas tree at this stage,” she told Lucy. Lucy looked on from the archway separating the sun porch from the house proper. “Have any clean sheets? We could lay down a drop cloth—like snow?”
Lucy’s mouth turned up at the corners; his lined face crinkled in unaccustomed places. “Cat refused to do laundry. My laundry. I ever tell you that? I guess not. I keep an old Maytag in the garage—the one with the gearbox and right-angle drive train that goes up the side of the tank to run a wringer? My pride and joy. Got it from the 3rd Baptists, their yearly yard sale.”
“Oh, Lucy. Your clothes are so smelly.” Catherine Armstrong Hobart, a young wife, holds a pair of overalls at arm’s length, her nose turned up. That will show Oceana, her mother-in-law hiding behind the wallpaper.
“That’s because I wear them, Cat. This is a farm. I kneel in shit.”
“You never come to church with me.” Cat the centenarian says this seventy years later.
“You don’t go to church, Cat. Your church-going days are a figment. That’s a past life. Real people don’t go to church except when they have to. To get married, buried. Kneeling in the shit pile out back of the barn is as close to God as I’m likely to come. My church, shit.”
From a boom box at Sarah’s feet a 70s band played their greatest hits. A dial tone warbled from the speakers. “It’s a phone. A telephone,” Lucy said. It was a sound effect.
“That’s the song—Telephone Line. One of their hits, ELO. ‘The Electric Light Orchestra,’” she explained, making obvious a simple statement of fact. “Hello, how are you?” sang a faltering teenage voice.
There was a muffled snap from the hall closet. “Uh, you’ll have to excuse me, Sarah. Duty calls.” Lucy stepped over to the walker with the giant red wheels and loosened a fresh mousetrap. Fifteen remained, tied to the handlebars by lengths of binder twine tied with half hitches.
“Your prey will wait, Lucy. He’s dead.”
“Maybe not. I can’t let the little feller suffer. He... why he? Why not a she? I recall all the kids’ books. Alicia most likely read ’em to you, those books. An inveterate reader, Alicia: large type, lots of pictures. The Walt Disney effect at work.”
“My mother—usually drunk and despondent. She lived on Spaghetti-Os and candy bars.” Sarah shot her father a swift, angry look.
“Malnutrition will do that—get you despondent. I sent her a stipend. Guilt never sleeps; this is our pietistic heritage, yours and mine.”
“Your guilt slept around a whole lot before it got settled in. You send money. How very Old Testament of you, father. Cash expiation.”
“I had a wife. Alicia had you.”
Sarah was cutting out large foil stars. “See, father? A starry firmament to welcome you home. Of course you don’t have to go. Not right now, anyway. But I have come all this way and some consideration is due me.”
“Ever the estranged daughter. And I have a choice. Just as I always thought. Payback now, payback later. It’s all the same to me.”
“You will feel it when it comes, the wisdom of the body will let you know. The brain sends out messages—a constant stream if you will—that you are yourself. So they say.”
“Or so they think they say. I am talking about revenge.”
“I know all about the things people say. They say things they would like to believe are true; that’s why they’re called ‘Wisdom’—dumb shit that hasn’t been disproved over thousands, tens of thousands, of years.”
“That would be a given for ‘Wisdom,’ then. ‘They say.’ Who says?”
“Oh, people—like that Rush Limbaugh. The talk radio guy? ‘On loan from God,’ he used to say that all the time. They say he owned a chain of barbecue parlors, a millionaire. He died right on the air; I heard it—clogged arteries. Plop, like that. Funny noise he made, gurgling then silence, a long silence. Then a commercial for Motel Six, I heard it. Forget your body; let it go; leave it behind you like a bundle of old clothes. I will be there with you every step of the way.”
Lucy returned with the dead mouse. He held it in his hand, tentatively, then opened a window and threw it out. Sarah noticed. “Not dead, stunned. I thought to give him another chance at life.” How godlike, he thought. “The Spanish-American War,” he said. “‘By Fate unwarned, in Death Unafraid.’ I always wondered whose child I was after I found out about my mother’s liaison with Willie Carter. I was in my 40s then. Old diaries, Sarah. Don’t put anything down in writing that you don’t intend to have bruited about after you’re dead.”
“A living funeral. You get to be there—say a few words in your defense.”
“And I should get off my ass and get on with it—that is what you’re saying to me.”
Sarah Drye talked on. She was cutting out cardboard houses and covering them with aluminum foil. “This is not all about you, Lucy. I have wounds, too. Your death will help heal us both. The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives the greatest importance to the state of consciousness at the time of death. William Randolph Hearst. He wrote that—‘By Fate unwarned, in Death Unafraid.’ Or caused it to be written. It is on the monument at Columbus Circle. The Battleship Maine?”
“Yes, I have heard about that war,” said Lucy. “I’m not that old that I was there at the time. Close but no cigar. Both my fathers were around. Both. Get it?”
“The Hobarts have a penchant for joint paternity. You killed my father, Archimedes Drye, just like one of your mice. He was trapped you say. You showed that mouse more kindness than you did my father. For years I cursed you. I am here to set us free, both of us.”
“Archie Drye begged me to kill him.”
“There are ways and then there are ways.” Sarah hummed tunelessly between her teeth, “Of celebrating a life. Take Scott Nearing or Aldous Huxley. Nearing starved himself to death; he was your age and it was his time. He’d seen it all and inferred the rest—there were no wonders left. You should be willing and conscious that you are going, willingly and consciously. Forward and up, let it all go. Look to the light. The lights in the sky are stars, Lucy.” She waved in a grand gesture to the half molding where the plaster ceiling joined the upper reaches of a wainscoted wall. “Or will be.” Sarah was cutting out the stars freehanded, from multiple hues of colored foil—russet, silver and gold. “We’ll need something black for the night sky. A backdrop to the stars.”
Lucy scratched inside his coveralls. “Scott Nearing I have met. They lived downstate, in the woods. Built their house out of stones they lugged themselves. Shit, he was in his seventies then. A younger woman, still juicy, his wife Helen—sturdy, she looked like she could haul a lot of rocks. Yes, Helen Nearing. Huxley though. I have read Huxley, never met up with him.”
“Laura Huxley gave Aldous on his deathbed, at his request, two injections of LSD.”
“For the trip. Thoughtful. I like that in a woman. So he could see God. And if God shot up He would then see Aldous Huxley. Gods and men, then, are complementary hallucinations.”
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