Midwife in the Tire Swing
Intermezzo 11—The Wives of Midlothian
Dead words upon their page
Forgotten how to love and rage—
I turn on the TV.
Then, tired of happy talk,
I take myself out for a walk
On an Anasazi clamshell midden
Rumored to have been where
Africa touched us once.
—Samizdat (from Landing at LaGuardia)
Lucy Hobart had never thought about replacing Cat with another woman. Lucy slept alone; he had done this for almost 40 years. Sometimes he slept on straw in the barn loft amid the smells of hay and sweet silage—whatever the storage crop might be that year, and whether it was intended as feed for livestock or bedding for the stalls and stanchions. It was Lucy’s bedding as long as the weather held and the cows were led out to pasture. By Lucy’s lights sleeping in the barn usually meant the temperature was at or above freezing. The same could not be said for the house; there it was the noise. When the loud and frantic scrambles of copulating mice grew too much—in his room, in his house, where he slept alone and unconsoled down the hall from Cat while the mice frolicked in the walls—he would reach out for a woman, find no one there and remember the barn. The barn was a place of memories—some joyous. His wife’s womb was her business; it had earned a rest.
Besides, what would any other woman sharing his life think about the hours spent listening one Sunday night a month to Alicia’s long distance ravings? He had come to depend on her calls for release from the necessary tedium of day-to-day survival. Still, there were the fantasy excursions into sex.
Thinking about getting laid; I should have thought I was over all that, Lucy thinks on the way to town. Twenty-five miles on the Ridge Road there and back, fat crows skimmed low across the road, feeding on the remains of anxious rabbits, careless of the farm truck. A sure sign of fall. And now begins the siege of winter. He tries to focus on Things to Do. I have gotten in four cords of wood and this weekend will square stack three more cords to dry in the yard under a tarpaulin.
Lucy moved to the barn and his pulp adventures and sci-fi paperbacks with the death of Elliot. For the first year he lost weight, saw his graying hair thin out, and rode a teeter-totter between diarrhea and constipation. He was an object of hushed pity on the street—his imagination perhaps, his very own delusion—an island of calm seemed to follow him. His visits to the drug store gave a needed sense of continuity to his life. The big blue bottle of Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia on the nightstand, replenished weekly, became an anchor for his sanity—he was not so much horny as lonely.
One day Ed Sanders, the pharmacist, took him aside like a Dutch uncle.
“Lucy, that stuff’s going to kill you,” Ed was referring to Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia. He spoke with the same depth of concern an AA sponsor might spend on a postulant discovered with a quart of J. W. Dant under his arm. “It’s a woman, isn’t it? Come on, I know you were all over Europe in the war. Those European girls—sex-starved, gorgeous. Forget her, Lucy you’re never going back. Get a girl; get laid. Going on like this is doing no good for you or for your wife and child.” Ed Sanders speaks of Cat and Elliot, not of Clear-eyed Alicia and Sarah Drye who, while in the index of the volume labeled Lucy Hobart, had yet to make it to the main event.
“Oh, Lucy, you’ve seen so much. Been places...” Ed Sanders was wrapping up the Economy Size of Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia.
“And I am a disappointment to you. All I want is to tinker with Elliot’s old Chevy 6 and wait for the second coming. If not Jesus, Hemingway at least, the very least. I knew him, did you know that? No, that’s a lie; I really never met him. I have imagined he comes to town looking for me. Beard bristling, he struts up the hill from Willipaq and hops the fence by the apple orchard and the ever-flowing spring where my basement ought to be. Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway himself, mind you—asks me, ‘Well, Lucy how was it over there?’
I light up a cigarette and lean on Miss Taken Identity’s wing tank. I say, ‘Well Ernest, you should be in a better situation to know, having liberated the Ritz Bar and all.’ The great Hemingway hoo-haws and claps me on the back, sending my cigarette flying into Miss Taken Identity’s wing tank. We all—me, Ernest Hemingway and the plane—are enveloped in a Ragnarokian plume of fire, and transported directly to a nearby Valhalla. The ground crew had neglected to clamp the seal back on again. And it is thus that I appear here to you today. I should think some milk of magnesia would be little enough to ask for my wartime service.”
“Coco Chanel, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Ingrid Bergman—I read they all hung out at the bar at the Paris Ritz. You have been there. Have you, Lucy?”
“I was a bombardier on a B-24. We parked it in Egypt. Sorry, Ed. Even the chaplains never asked me that. ‘Keep it bent for Lent,’ you know the drill.”
The planking that made up the decking of Alicia’s old, comfortable back porch was springy with the wet of an Ohio summer all the year. It was little Sarah’s route to play with friends—skip rope, cowboys, dolls—and a deeply worn shortcut like a game trail diagonally through the vacant lot behind the house to where lay the bigger world of a twelve-year-old—school and McCrory’s Five and Dime, where the soda fountain was her refuge with a book and a lemonade. The springiness had become more pronounced and Alicia no longer trusted the porch with her weight; it was the property of Sarah and the cats. A thin film of slippery green had permanently colored the flooring and made it impossible to paint, but she found a yearly scrubbing with bleach slowed its progress. Once a week when she beat the braided rugs from the hallways, hanging them on the back yard wash line, she first piled them on the spongy boards outside the kitchen door then went outside, around the house, to pick them up. In winter when the temperature hovered right around freezing, there was an easement—a dispensation from whichever chancery oversaw aging lumber—and for a few days the boards were young again as they gradually filled with ice crystals. Spring and summer the moisture pressed from the boards by passing walkers would leave behind the imprint of a photographic negative, the fading footprints of an upside-down person.
Toward Thanksgiving the sound of the ever-wet porch—if Sarah could get her mother a good quote on tongue-in-groove cedar this year, this winter, in the slow time for construction work when bargains were to be had at the lumber yard, she was going to call Mr. Thibideau to try his hand at setting in a new porch floor next summer—modulated from the skiltch sklitch of summer to a skree-chick sound of deal pine turned stiff as freezer beef. No one passed unannounced. In the winter the porch bore Clear-eyed Alicia’s weight and it was her mother’s to be shoveled and salted. And on those rare occasions when others were required to visit the backyard they used the front door and walked around.
During Sarah Drye’s preteen years she was as much her mother’s warder as her mother was hers. More, perhaps, with the arrival of her mother’s sudden, intense mood changes and memory lapses. When Sarah was 12 Alicia went into the hospital for what her doctor called a “routine procedure.” That the surgery was to be a hysterectomy Sarah quickly figured out by relentlessly cross-examining the doctor.
“Female problems,” said the doctor. Almost as an afterthought it registered with him that Alicia’s daughter was indeed, also a female. Perhaps a female with a problem, but that would be something to be ironed out between the woman and her daughter. “We have consulted a specialist.” That sounded weak. Her mother’s doctor struggled for a more felicitous phrase. The girl stared at him, pityingly.
“Your mother has been, agitated… I called in Jim Blankly from Cleveland as a consulting physician. A gynecologist. A specialist. He offered his opinion which agrees with mine.”
“I am so happy for you,” said Sarah. “You will be removing something then, not putting something in.”
“Your mother’s uterus. The procedure is called a hysterectomy. This will help her to deal more calmly with what we call the ‘change of life.’”
“She’s already crazy. This will make her less crazy?”
“Do it,” said Sarah.
“I am a tirewoman,” said Sarah Drye. That a tirewoman was a maid, a serving-girl though of status, was of no matter—she had chosen the name because of its rhythms. Sarah was indeed household help, and expected to look after her mother. Children did that, looked after their aging parents. The tirewomen of medieval romance, who assisted in the dressing chores attendant on coiffing and accoutering female gentry that they might walk in the world with proper appreciation, were the lesser nobility—the heroine’s best buds, the Eve Ardens and Christine Baranskis of Poictesme. Twelve-year-old Sarah was a tirewoman. The rest of her friends were slaves to the rhythm of the words of the tales their parents told. Sarah felt this was close enough for children of the 20th Century.
During her mother’s stay in the hospital, neighbors and friends volunteered casseroles but to no coordinated timetable. “Oh you poor, dear child, you are being brave, aren’t you?” said the wives of Midlothian. Here a smoothing of the child’s hair, there the adjustment of an ornamental bow that sprouted at a prepubescent bodice, the tucking-in of a label flown out at the nape of the neck was indicated, even in their haste. No mean feat, actually, considering that after all day on their feet or on their knees, depending if that day’s venue was the kitchen or the garden, they were standing about holding a hot and heavy bit of crockery. Good form demanded the offering be acknowledged before they set it down. “Please take this, would you,” here was a little something they had thrown together—”Just thinking of you, Sarah, dear,” and she’d damn well better eat it because it was a labor of love, etc.
“Well, your mommy will be back all well by Friday, and we don’t want you to fade away to skin and bones till then, do we?” There would be a horn from the street and a covered dish would move forward as the presenter moved backward—the ceremony over, a perplexed child left with another dinner in its wake. Gesture without commitment, for the dirty dishes piled up, and how could Sarah say no to these well-intentioned women who forced the fruits of their labors upon her while their husbands waited in their cars, engines running, cigars chewed short and breaking a sweat in the steam from covered dishes destined for other stops.
The wives sped on their wonders to perform, leaving Sarah with the second or third hot meal of the evening and no chance to refuse. Alicia Drye came home after a week’s stay at the hospital ready for yet another week of prescribed convalescence, to find her daughter kitchen-rich with scalloped potatoes and the crusted remains of many casseroles. The sink was heaped high where the oven-fired food residue still adhered, unassailable, to the sides of presentation crockery, requiring a full 24 hours under the suds. The refrigerator was likewise full. It occurred to Sarah that if her mother were dead instead of only convalescing, she would have hot meals all the time.
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