Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 4—Busting the Maumau

Sarah’s running route takes her past the Atlantic Ave. station of the Long Island Railroad. Hooker-stuffed cars howl and bounce and honk as she passes on her pre-dawn jog. Their night was old; her day beginning. A pair of whores shivering in iridescent hot pants puts the hustle on her. “Hey, girl—wanna go out?” With cold toes and slimy thighs from running in silk longjohns, she feels a nascent fellowship.

“I am out,” says Sarah. “We are out,” she corrects herself. “Aren’t you cold?” Over on Bergen St. a white-on-white Coupe deVille idles, its heater on. “And I am a woman,” she says.

“Whatever,” they say. Across the street flanked by the cellar holes of loftier structures now gone was a small building painted all black, “Doray Tavern” in large, sloppy white letters. Next to the name was “Where Friends Meet” with scare quotes. It was more scrawled than painted on; the letters had dripped. There was muffled laughter from inside. No matter how drunk I get, I’m never going in there. Sarah knows of the cosmic ripples that grind humankind’s secret soul. They have not chosen this life, she tells herself. They are cruising for one last blowjob before heading home to where the sheets are clean and breakfast is waiting; she is on the move. Bullshit. No. I have seen too many Walt Disney movies, Sarah thinks. They will die young and alone. Sarah jogged in place to keep warm.

“Shake them titties, mama.” Gales of laughter from the girls. They mean well, thinks Sarah, a feral underclass at home on their range. The warm whores are inside the saloon and their pimps’ parked cars, on the case as she and they share a chuckle over the human condition. Maybe they did choose the life.

A hooded figure emerges from the Coupe deVille—white-on-white wolfskin parka with red snakeskin cowboy boots. The pimp senses Sarah as a possible trouble-maker, at least a drag on the girls’ earning potential. “Hey, hos!” Ronnie Maumau Jones beckons his string back to the car to warm up. He stands in the street a moment to shiver with the girls—his girls. It is cold, and they appreciate their place in an ordered universe as he appreciates his—inside the Coupe deVille. Ronnie Maumau guides his $5000 parka past the freshly oiled hinges of the Cadillac’s door and over to the dry bar. Good Morning America is on the TV. The shivering women snap-to and slide in after him. Sarah moves along. Before turning his full attention to the news and weather, he considers Sarah’s retreating silk and Goretexed buttocks as they take the turn at the Long Island Railroad terminal on Atlantic and clucks appreciatively. Mighty fine.

Little Ronnie Jones once spends a summer with Lucy and Cat Hobart, an inner city delinquent sent to grass in rural Maine. This is at his first conviction; he is twelve years old and has peddled crack to the middle school kids. Cat had enlisted herself and Lucy in a surrogate parent program. “Just two weeks in the summer,” she said. “And we get a hired hand for free.”

Lucy grumped. “The kid is a gangster,” he said. “He’s got a rock in his sock and brass knuckles.”

“He’s just a child,” said Cat.

“He’s a thug and a liar,” said Lucy Hobart.

“A twelve-year-old thug. They’ll pay us $120 a week for room and board,” Cat said.

“We’ll take him for all summer,” Lucy replied. “I’ll get him a paper route.”

During the boy’s first summer in Willipaq, Lucy informed Ronnie that all in this region of the State of Maine got their electricity from a power grid that included a wood chip fired generating plant down-county. While the paper mills only took certain kinds of trees, and cut depending on what paper process they were tooled up for; the generating station could burn anything, and this encouraged year-round clear-cutting, a kind of strip mining of trees. “Genocide,” Lucy said. He took a swallow from a cloudy pint bottle and passed it to the boy. Ronnie gulped, coughed, and agreed—trees were harmless even though they cluttered up the landscape—and explained this to Billie Trout, his girlfriend, in turn.

“Totally,” she said

*  *  *

“I got a new job. At the grocery?” Ronnie’s wide-eyed innocence made Lucy immediately suspicious, but Cat was pleased. The Hobarts rejoiced that this was indoors work which, while presented as bagging groceries at the Red and White, paid the same as newspaper delivery and did not require Lucy to be up and moving at 4:00 AM on rainy days to drive him in the farm truck. Both guessed the Maumau’s new job was not at a grocery store. Ronnie made the transition from newspapering to living on the avails of prostitution without a hitch. In leaving newspapering he made a sound move toward anonymity that would witness for his continued at-large status.

Billie Trout, a thirteen-year-old with fricasseed natural blonde hair, dazzling orthodontia and breath-taking natural uplift, became the Maumau’s stock in trade. The two hung out at the bus depot, where returning sailors were funneled back into civilian life. Sell a girl, save a tree, something like that. Paper was a fire hazard. It took two summers with Lucy and Cat, but he said a final farewell to his canvas newsboy’s bag and put Lucy’s old balloon-tired Schwinn out to stud.

*  *  *

Mama Trout and Papa Trout watched their fingerlings grow wild and free while they cherished an upcountry woodlot of cannabis seedlings. Billie Trout was home schooled and could roll a workmanlike joint by age ten. She was likewise of an environmental inclination. The Trouts were of the counterculture yeomanry who practiced sustainable agriculture and traded that part of their harvest that they didn’t smoke for groceries and medical and dental services. Their kids had great teeth.

Billie and Little Ronnie had met while combing the beach, picking up old tires, syringes, lobster traps and condoms. This was one of the coastal cleanups organized yearly by the Rotarians of nearby communities that others might become as they. Aware, that is. In practice, these were singles weekends.

At weigh-in the participants sorted out trash from their bio-degradable corrugated cardboard cartons and were tallying up the day’s take when their eyes met. Little Ronnie was having trouble pulling his gaze away from Billie’s T-shirt; Billie smiled, and the reflections from seven thousand dollars’ worth of bartered braces captured Little Ronnie’s heart. He smiled back, exposing his more humble naturally straight teeth, and from then on they were inseparable.

When they turned on the light in Ronnie’s room, Billie said, “Don’t. Reading kills trees.”

“Huh?” replied Ronnie. Billie pointed out that while newspapers and the generation of electricity killed trees, having sex in the dark was powered with macaroni and cheese, which was OK. They made do as best they could.

The Trout plantation, by return on acreage, outstripped the dollar investments of the paper companies. The lesson was clear—the free-soil entrepreneurs had to go. The property-owners loaned out their helicopter to the Maine Forest Service, who called the Border Patrol, who in turn called in the DEA. The Trouts were busted. The undersize Trouts—Billie and her sisters—needed a protector.

In the fall, when Ronnie returned to Green Point, Brooklyn, Billie and the girls went along. They would turn the occasional trick and supervise the Maumau’s burgeoning retail marijuana empire.

Billie, Janice and Tiffany leaned forward on high stiletto heels, looking like debutantes at a junior prom, walking perpetually downhill. Bent over ironing boards they starched and pressed the thin threadbare money of the street dealers, suitcases of it. The money had cleaned fingernails, picked ears―rolled into tight tubes it sucked the snows of Mama Coca. Billie and her sisters had great teeth and whistled while they worked.

Busting the Maumau, busting the Maumau,
Who’ll go a-busting the Maumau with me?
And his girls can be seen stuffing pot into those nickel bags...
Who’ll go a-busting the Maumau with me?

Ronnie Maumau Jones came to cherish his memories of Willipaq and the Mainers who, whatever their faults, voted in substantial numbers at their yearly town meeting, and never remarked on the arrival (or departure) of an extremely tall young black man amongst their lily-white (and short) population. Such color-blindness, inclusive and welcoming, stymied nosy law enforcement types.

Beholden to no man, Willipaqers had trudged to town on Election Day with only an occasional rebellion since the Aroostook War of 1839. Voting involved the heroic consumption of alcohol supplied free of charge by the candidates, and not a few bullet wounds, gouged eyes, broken limbs and missing teeth. Albeit tales of cannibal sacrifice by roving bands of free-lance desperados persisted, they voted their consciences and split their tickets.

*  *  *

Bill Bent’s comment about why didn’t Sarah have a quilting granny stashed away somewhere in the boonies: “Maine. You have a hockey team, right? People live there?” Strange, the super was interested in grannies. He watched sports, played sports—well, handball, pelota, with a gang of toughs from the corner bodega—and called sports talk shows on arcane twists of game statistics. That people might abide in a cold place all year round took the building super beyond the NFL draft and into a twilight zone of climate change and geopolitics, not his zone of comfort.

A handsome, sane and well-kept granny as depicted in the TV commercials for Levitrol and Paxil, who could spit out handsome patchworkings in the variegated colors and geometries of folk art. This interested Sarah. Medieval needlepoint laced with Zoloft and Prozac. Mmm, comfy. Not Cat. Decidedly not Cat. And surely never Clear-eyed Alicia. Xanax—mmm, yummy.

Intrigued by grannyhood, Sarah decides to learn to quilt. Fabric Art it is called at the store, Quilter’s Paradise, over on 7th Avenue, across the Gowanus Canal. Bill Bent’s suggestion has become a passion and Sarah is aglow with her own progress. Her instructor sees promise. “You could be a designer. How about working here weekends? I have a beginner’s class you are already good enough to teach. Be a group leader. Facilitator.”

It became time to move. “I have a car,” said Emorej Yvel, whose name when written on the tiles of the bathroom in block letters with a large, black crayon and viewed in the mirror was actually Jerome Levy. Sarah had already figured this out. She tried it at home one morning.

“You have a car.” This was a wonderment for Sarah. In New York City, in Brooklyn even, a car bespoke riches or extreme poverty. Not normal people. Normal people took the subway. Cars cost money. Sarah had figured out her annual bill for subway tokens when she was working as an office temp in Midtown. Five thousand, two-hundred dollars. Just for tokens at $2.00 a pop. She could have had a car, but frittered away the down payment on subway fare.

“This is one of those BMWs adjunct professors are supposed to have all safe and snug in a heated warehouse down at the docks? To drive the latest conquest out to Sheepshead Bay for Surf ‘n’ Turf? Leaf-peeping in Connecticut one weekend out of the year?”

“I go for groceries. It is a thirty-year-old Volkswagen and I park it on the street. They say New York is a city of strangers. I’ve got the keys—house and car keys, for half, no, make that five out of seven—of the houses on the block. It’s a short block.”

Jerry Levy lived on Verandah Place in the foothills of the 3 percent uphill grade to Prospect Park, Sarah’s morning jog. “Alternate side parking,” Jerry said. “I am home most of the day so folks just double park on alternating Tuesdays and Thursdays when the Sanitation trucks are scheduled to come by. And I put the cars back in the afternoon before the cops come along with tickets.”

“I will be needing to go to Maine sometime soon,” Sarah said.

“Maine...” Jerry’s tone suggested a place pirates might put in to kill their captives.

“Like Bayonne with mud.”

Over dinner the talk was about him and his ex. “Seven years now. A stripper named Taffy.”

“Wha...?” Dinner with an all-but-failed perpetual student, thinks Sarah. Thai take-out not taken out.

“Taffy O’Toole, real name, Novotny. I met her in Vegas; don’t ask how I ended up in Vegas. Alright, I’ll tell you. My thesis. Masters. The New School: ‘Interactions Between the Keepers and the Kept.’ She’s dead.”

*  *  *

Sarah and Jerry settled on a sunny walkup with a roof garden in a gentrified neighborhood of renaissance Brooklyn. The roof garden was potted plants and a boardwalk over tar and septic vents, the breathe pipes to equalize water pressure. “Not much vent gas. No problem,” said Arpad Tasmanian, the agent from Renaissance Properties. “You won’t smell a thing.”

“Really?” Sarah is surprisingly credulous, thinks Tasmanian.

Sarah visualizes a headline in the Post. BROOKLYN SUNBATHER DEAD FROM METHANE ASPHYXIA. “We’ll think it over,” she says.

*  *  *

“Here she is.” She, the car was a she. “You collect females,” Sarah observed.

“And you...”

Touché.” The automobile had no two fenders the same shade of paint and a twisted coat hanger was jammed into where an antenna might go.

“There was a radio,” Jerry volunteered. “That went years ago. Crackheads get the battery on a regular basis, but the Johnsons...” Here he pointed at a four-story brownstone five houses down with an overgrown ten-by-twenty patch of yard cluttered with garbage and surrounded by an iron pipe handrail. “...keep a lookout on everything that goes on on this street. I can usually ransom the battery back for five dollars. It takes a lot of effort for a crack addict to harvest enough batteries for a fix.”

“I have a recliner and a Hoosier. You know—one of those kitchen hutches. An antique. They won’t fit in your car.”

“I have some rope. Bungee cords.”

In a snowstorm, Brooklyn’s first that year, Jerry Levy—Emorej Yvel—and Sarah Drye moved in together. Sarah drove as slowly as first gear would allow, the clutch kicking and stalling as Jerry jogged alongside, steadying the Hoosier strapped to the roof of the car.

“Something smells hot. Where’s the temperature gauge?”

“They don’t have one in this model year. Just keep your eyes open.”

He didn’t say for what, exactly, but Sarah watched for any tell-tale signs of overheating—generally, fire and smoke. In Jerry’s technical manual, it said that the safe upper oil temperature was on the order of a cauldron of Turkish Delight. “Those Volkswagen manuals read like the Fanny Farmer Cookbook.” He shouted through the snow outside the open passenger’s side window, “Slow down. I’ve got a candy thermometer stuck in the dipstick hole.”

“Huh?” said Sarah.

“Gotta check. Drive steady and I’ll look in the engine. If the temperature gets higher than 235 Fahrenheit, the head gasket warps and we pop a bearing.” Jerry fell back from the window and opened the latch on the VW’s rear engine hatch. There was a chee-whang and a smell of burning toast as a chrome-bright object flew high and inside for a ground rules double into the dark and the snow. Jerry’s car sputtered and died. “Sarah, run,” he yelled. Sarah’s foot spasmed on the brake pedal as she struggled to get the driver’s side door open.

At the corner bodega an orange light shone forth into the street to give a Dickensian ambience. Inside the usual suspects were smoking weed and discussing winter baseball in the Dominican leagues as the candy thermometer imbedded itself in the trunk of a ginkgo tree over on Wyckoff Street.

*  *  *

Sarah has told her father to expect her. “I am studying to be a Doula, a death-midwife.”

“That’s nice.” She hears her father spit. Chewing tobacco.

“You are using tobacco.” Not an accusation.

“Nicotine gum. Had to quit tobacco. Hate the shit, the gum. Tastes like medicine. But I have developed jaws like an alligator, huge and strong. Bring me something to chew on, daughter; I can cut through barbed wire with these jaws.”

“There is a man. Jerry Levy. That’s Emorej Yvel backwards.”

“I’m sure it is. The world is big. You are fucking this Zoltan person. That is different. More different than screwing a Jerry, I’ll just bet, this Zoltan.” Her father is jealous.

“Yvel. Emorej Yvel. It’s French.”

“Zoltan, Zoloft. Whatever. I had imagined you taking up with some strange-sounding foreigner. Going for a merit badge in exotic liaisons, are we? For the same reasons poets live in poverty to go strolling with their Irish wolfhounds. The man is a decoration.”

*  *  *

“My father, he says you are a decoration,” says Sarah.

“I try to be pretty. Are you coming back?” says Jerry.

“Yes.”

“Good.”

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