Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 2—Gilgamesh among the Tinkers

Lucian Hobart, known as Lucy, paused his walker at the edge of the state road, just enough off the asphalt that if he was hit by a passing car, he could sue and win.

“Jesse Ventura.” A three-legged cat that walked at his feet looked up questioningly. “A wrestler,” said Lucy. “He was governor of some state once. Minnesota—Wisconsin, I think. Could be North Dakota. Wha’d they say about North Dakota? You know that, Molly?” The cat rubbed affectionately against one large, red wheel. “Hell with the fires gone out. That’s what they said—some general in the Indian wars.” He stumbled and caught himself. One of his wheels was stuck in a dip in the pea-sized gravel of the shoulder. “Nice, shit.”

The cat was a Burmese shorthair as far as anyone could tell. She stalked small things in tall grass, ate dry kibble and was a vegetarian by choice. Sixteen mousetraps hung by strings from the handlebars of Lucy’s walker. His walker was an appalling construction, but he had come to love it the way old men and small boys will with machines. The walker had four ball-bearing wheels that swung on universal pivots, big enough to get him out of anything but this one particular sinkhole, it would seem. Lucy Hobart was 92 years old and expected to be feeble.

The process of getting the Hobart patriarch on wheels was begun by Ed Hobart, Lucy’s grandson. Ed had a program for designing steel structures installed on his computer at the office; the program was made available by the Department of Agriculture in the hope county extension officers would encourage farmers to get creative while planning future construction. The old-time wood frame outbuildings rotted from the ground up. The good old pole barns of Willipaq County slumped into the ground in 30 or so years, about half the anticipated lifespan of the newer, modular steel-frame structures the government encouraged. Ed’s design program also worked just fine with devices to assist the halt and lame. Ed sent Lucy a note.

“God damn it—that’s the way things are supposed to rot,” said Lucy’s return note. “From the ground up. Look at me.” When the banks foreclosed, they liked the steel-frame buildings. They could be disassembled and carted off on flat-bed semis to a fresh location after the inevitable auction.

Lucy used the walker to quiet his wife who, in her moments away from dementia, was a caring person and solicitous of her husband’s well-being. There was a bicycle-style hand brake on the left handlebar in case the operator might be overtaken by weariness at the edge of a precipice. The shop class had added a shiny Masonite seat that faced front. “That’s a sure-fire NASCAR wheelchair,” said one student engineer from the Vocational Technical Institute where Ed’s shop class built it.

“Jesse Ventura,” said Lucy to the cat. “Just another name. I do recall a picture of him in his wrestling getup. With a nice blond with her boobs out.” Lucy was practicing remembering things—ephemera from the forefront of his cerebral cortex. This was a game he played, for with the onset of his wife’s senile dementia, he became uneasy with his own memory.

“He was a Navy SEAL.” The cat burraowed.

At their feet a rush of water and brownish effluent poured out of a pipe that protruded from the river bank. “Sarah’s shit,” said Lucy admiringly and looked up the hill at the house. Sarah Drye was to come for a stay. Molly the cat assented, burraowed and rubbed, then disappeared into the tall brown stalks of last fall’s sere grass. Lucy checked up the hill for any telltale flutter of a watcher at Cat’s window. The bluish-white glow of a television screen seeped through the drawn blind, pumped up and down with the jump-cut transitions of a commercial break. “TV’s on, we’re safe from prying eyes. Remember that, Miss Cat.” That the name of Lucy’s wife, Catherine Armstrong Hobart, and the species of Molly the barn cat were the same had never occurred to anyone. Cat Hobart had a middle name—her father’s gift and her dowry. The Armstrongs were a mighty clan. That none of the Hobart men, through all their generations, migrations and quiet anonymity, had had a middle name had been true almost without exception. That made the Hobarts a less mighty clan in Cat Hobart’s view. That her child would not have a middle name had caused Cat some concern.

“Ian Emory,” Lucy said. Ian Emory Hobart, the child of Elliot and Philomena, had a middle name. Ed Hobart, Ian’s kid brother, did not. “I know him. He is a moocher, a world-class loser, my grandson Ian. Volunteered for Vietnam, returned alive and has been drunk ever since. The expected health problems. Last year he switched from booze to amphetamines as the drug of choice. He’s a changed man, dropped sixty pounds. But he is as crazy as ever. He has a regular route of second hand stores, a store for every day of the week. Buys Aloha shirts. He has plans to move to Hawaii and sell them to tourists. My grandchild. I have a list somewhere, grandchildren, groceries, and things to fix around the house.”

A life defined by memoranda. Lucy’s fingers closed around the crumpled ball of notes in his pocket. “In case I forget,” he called to the cat in the weeds. “Balled, crumpled. The precise crease demonstrates the respect due to a shopping list.” The notes made a lump in Lucy’s pocket, created a presence that was hard to ignore. Lists lay flat, were ignored, and went through the wash. The writing on Cat’s shopping list had faded and puckered with washing. The rest? Ever-fresh forget-me-nots, billets-doux for Lucy from Lucy, to be read and discarded.

“Memory games,” said Lucy Hobart. “Like Jesse Ventura. Like crossword puzzles.” The cat interpreted this as a summons and poked her head through the stubble of last fall’s cover crop. “Can’t abide crossword puzzles. No, Molly, I’ll call you when it’s time. Go on pretending you are eating mice.”

Lucy gave his walker a shake. Sixteen mousetraps jiggled, swinging together, clunking like a sad wind chime. Lucy checked again to see if his wife was watching from the house, then sat down on the Masonite seat of his walker and began unstringing the traps. From a pocket of a threadbare cardigan he extracted a yellow clump of Romano cheese and undid its film wrapper.

*  *  *

Lucy has read—in a textbook from fifth grade—that the world’s supply of fossil fuels will run out in 2020. They had not been called this, fossil fuels, then—when oil was thought to be the blood of fish and dinosaurs and coal petrified trees from the Devonian or Cretaceous and presented as such to unquestioning minds. Old Doxology, his father, showed him, young Lucy, just the right way to light the coal furnace that lay beneath them, where ducts rang to the running feet of the children in the times of no coal fires, the spring, summer and most of the autumn.

“And then you light the fire...” Lucian Hobart, Sr. is explaining both the ignition of a coal furnace and the initiation of sexual congress. This is what he says—sexual congress. Both are tricky to get started up just right. Lucy’s father strikes a big purple-headed wooden kitchen match on his thumbnail, single-handed, and sets rumpled copies of the Willipaq Sentinel alight. His father’s tinder, kiln-dried maple castoffs from a local broom handle factory, sputters and goes out.

The times of our minds actually, really, really, Lucy thinks. He has seen this on Cat’s TV, a film version of Anne of Green Gables—where young Gilbert Blythe dips Anne’s pigtail in an inkwell. He had sat behind just such a girl, at identical kid-scarred desks. Long rows bolted to the floor made an aisle for reluctant scholars to trudge when summoned to the blackboard for correction. In 1985 Anne of Green Gables is a television mini-series on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Cat sends away for the tape. Lucy reads the book in the fifth grade.

“Lucy Hobart. Come to the front.”

Lucy had been saving a fart just to see how long he could. He let it go on the way past Joan Gehrig’s desk. She showed a curled upper lip as she wiped her hair on a blotter. “Lucy farted, Miss Cummings.”

Constance Cummings was the teacher. Hadn’t she been a movie actress? Or her name had been. The names and faces tended to get mixed up. Constant comings. In later years, when he was a teenager and given off hope of ever kindling a sexual congress with anyone, Lucy realized the sexual implications of the fifth-grade teacher’s name and summoned up the line of her garter belt, which she smoothed abstractedly with her hand, caressing her thigh when lost for just the right words to describe Lucy Maude Montgomery’s verb choices in Anne of Green Gables, up there at the head of the class, right in front of her chipped brown oak desk with its ever-present pot of dried mums. If I had been two years older, just two, I could have had her right there right on the floor, purrs Lucy’s internal monologue, age ninety-two.

“We did that,” says Lucy out loud, meaning farting to make girls giggle, and never daydreaming of the teacher’s lingerie before recess. “We were kids.” He finds the memory as delicious as it was in 1924. Lucy watches Anne of Green Gables by fits and starts as Cat’s hallucinations swim across the story and take over the town of Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. They fly from the forefront of her mind and burrow into the magnetic fields of the videocassette.

Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables is gone. Lucy feels a stab of anger at his wife and her hallucinations. “Cat...”

“I know, Lucy, dear. It is all for the best,” says Cat.

“I was watching Anne of Green Gables. Who are these people, in the film?”

“You know how it ends. I forget. I always forget. Now it is my turn. My stories. You watch Anne because of the name, Lucy. Lucy Montgomery who wrote the book. Same name as yours.”

“I am named Lucian,” says Lucy.

“Perhaps it is all for the best,” says Cat.

Molly the cat rubs at Lucy’s ankles.

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