Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 7—The Discovery of Pluto

It is 1930 and at the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, scientists report finding a ninth planet, Pluto. Zorro, Robin Hood of the Old West, unaware of the discovery, decides on a career on the radio. Sometime in the 1990s cable television will be regarded as the usufruct of drawing breath, a guarantee of good government. Zorro makes the move from radio to television.

Lucy Hobart serenades the moon. That there is no balcony or even a ladderway of vines close to hand, no matter. Lucy is in love with the moon and, by extension, with himself and Cat Armstrong. He plucks and trills a rusty chord arpeggiation, “La-la-la-la-la-la-la.” His instrument of choice is the baritone ukulele.

*  *  *

It is still 1930.

Lucy caught up with Cat at a pasture let go to vetch and daisy fleabane. Their passage had startled a flight of scavenging birds, metallic blue with brown freckled bellies, worrying maggots from sun-crusted piles of dung. The birds did not take to flight but circled screeching desultory warnings and settled on an alternative feast a few yards off. With the climb he had to stop to catch his breath. “Yeah?” he said.

“Yeah,” she smiled down at him, and then took off. He fell into step behind her easy uphill stride. He had run out of words to say, so studied the insides of her pumping knees. She has put me behind her. Lucy stopped and watched the retreating posterior, Cat’s forbidden fruits. The prospect of Cat’s heart-shaped bottom executing lazy eights as she walked ahead started a roaring in his ears; clouds assumed the shapes of the white creamy thighs of the temptress. She knows I am watching her ass. It was going to be tricky getting out of this one. Cat and Lucy made the trip in silence. Lucy let himself become lost in contemplation of the flex and straighten, flex and straighten, the pumping pile drivers—maximus, minimus and medius—of Cat’s beauteous gluteus. The day filled with birdsong, distant insects and their own ragged breaths as the slope grew steeper. Stopping Cat with a touch on the shoulder, Lucy spun her around and held her close. “Just once, so we could say we did it.”

“Here and now?” His arms were crushing her. Cat fought briefly, then stopped kicking and went limp, hoping he would relax his grip. No. But it did not get tighter. Cat smiled distantly and mouthed a small Yes. He squeezed.

He has never done this before, thought Cat. “Ouch,” she said. “Please stop. Please.”

Another fraction of an inch and some internal organs would have ruptured. Lucy hummed a tuneless melody as he arranged her limbs like a demonstration dummy in a Red Cross lifesaving class. His need was immediate and urgent.

“Can’t.” A monosyllable and the humming resumed. Her ravisher plodded on, crazed and methodical. His purpose accomplished, she would be superfluous, the trophy that does not survive the hunt. “I love you, Cat.”

*  *  *

It will be 1933 for a while, then the 1990s.

“That you, Luce?”

“I hope so. You expecting visitors?” There was a stamping of boots. Lucy entered the big kitchen, in from the barn, and bent over the sink with a bar of yellow soap, working its shallow lather into the grease-clogged creases of his knuckles.

“Damn!” He had wet his cuffs.

Wiping a free hand on his hair, he tugged up one sleeve. Lucy wiped the suds from his right hand on the seat of his pants and pulled the other sleeve up. The water stopped. He gave a fly at the pump handle and plied the soap, working under his nails with a stiff fiber brush. Some more pumps and he buried his face in his hands as they caught the retreating stream. There was a plop, plop watery sound from under the sink. Lucy pulled back the curtain and centered the slops bucket under the drain. There was a dead bat in the bucket.

“Cat’s got a bat,” said Lucy and smiled because he had rhymed something. The wing had broken at the elbow—the propatagium—so that it hung over the lip of the slops bucket. This announced that the bucket was full. No room here for any other dead bat until the slops got dumped. He teased the limp wing with a toe then nudged the slops bucket back under the sink. She must have killed it with the broom; the broom had been left leaned against a step stool where anyone could trip over it. Lucy moved the broom into a corner. There would be other bats, rats, songbirds that broke their necks colliding with the storm windows to be forgotten and mislaid, but this bat was dead right now and the slops bucket full—a dismal dismissal, to be fed to the chickens with potato peels, corn husks and lemon rinds for a topping. Lucy dumped the slops bucket in the chicken run.

A line of Mason jars circled the kitchen at just about eye height. The 2 qt. wide-mouth jars were likewise full; pullets fed on bats and lemon peelings grew fat and were measured. When they approached the industrial tolerances that might deny admission to a 2 qt. wide-mouth Mason jar, they too died, to be put up in a pressure cooker for Sunday dinners.

Some Sundays there were uninvited uncles and strangers, unknown cousins just dropped by for the spread served up on the kitchen oilcloth. There was a lemony tang to Cat’s Mason jar chicken that clung to the palate.

*  *  *

From Cat’s room comes the Hollywood Squares theme. “The child. Samantha’s Dazzle has no soul. Get him one.”

“A child with no soul.” Lucy stops to think, strikes a pose with his chin between thumb and forefinger. Cat has already buried him. In her mind. “You are on the Other Side. There must be plenty of souls there. Bring him one. Fr. Coughlin says you can do it, Luce.”

“The Good Father. How are things down on the shrine, Cat?”

“It is important, Lucy, that you join a church. The church you belong to says a lot about you. It is an entrée. Oh, you don’t have to actually GO, just BELONG. Life is about belonging, don’t you think?”

“You, my dear, are a certified nutcase. Alzheimer’s has an end, but you will go on forever, running at the side of salvation, biting at its tires, no matter how many souls you retrieve for the church.”

“We are all burdened at some time. I am yours.”

“And I yours, Cat.”

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