Midwife in the Tire Swing
Intermezzo 8—The Head of Jim the Baptist
At fourteen Catherine Armstrong, not yet Cat Hobart, bought an empty book—padded pink satin covers with a clasp—and faithfully kept a tally of everyday doings all through her freshman year. Her life, the lives of her friends and all she knew were dull: common, ordinary, boiled ham and white bread uneventful, her yearnings without substance except for those things she would never write down against some unknown reader snooping through her secrets. Cat wished she had the spunk to make things up.
Reading these entries from seventy years earlier, a year’s worth of round exercise book script riding blue lines, Cat remembers wondering as she wrote, Will I ever read this? What sort of person will I be when I read this?
She picked up the diary project again when in her thirties, feeling quite the young matron with Elliot out of the house and off to school and the strangeness of free time in the middle of the day that was hers and hers alone to fill as she pleased. Inside the cover her fourteen-year-old self had written:
You may search for the richest blessings
Search till the world shall end,
You’ll find nothing half as precious,
As the love of a loyal friend.
At fourteen the blank pages had been a duty, a responsibility to a future self. She had seen herself years hence, seeking sound advice from her younger self, slipping back into the past and rediscovering how things were before they got complicated.
She had an image of the woman she would become in maturity, a woman like the summer people she saw each year—sophisticated, a busy wife and mother, a woman at home in the world wearing blue jeans, casually unconcerned with the appearance she presented—a kerchief about the hair driving a station wagon on her many errands. These women and their children came in early June, their arrival heralding the start of the summer season. They opened houses, spoke authoritatively with electricians, nurserymen, carpenters, plumbers, the deliverers of bottled gas; they and their money were in command. Slim and stylish with a dab of potting soil on the cheek, a stray lock of hair springing from under their bandannas, they drank in the afternoon and bought gin and scotch at the state agency liquor store. These women kept diaries, wrote, some painted all through the summer—seascapes and landscapes that to Cat were startlingly good, well executed. These were women who did things well, who were beautiful, worshippers at the shrines of their own inner fires. At fourteen Cat had a recurring nightmare wherein she grew up and stayed at home in solitary spinsterhood, there to tend her aging parents, who would become vigorous centenarians to spite her.
Catherine Armstrong Hobart wrote about the Italians, dark, energetic immigrants from the Mediterranean, and their more public passions, unlike the Germans, Swedes and Irish who shed their tears in private, more foreign than the French-speaking Québecers who walked over the border to cut trees, then walked back home in season, over the ice. Foreign enough, but not European, as the hard-living Slavs and Hungarians who stoked the furnaces of industry and leveled track for the Bangor and Piscataquis Railroad line. Those were Europeans. The Italians were foreign with dark skins, public passions and a taste for music and picnics.
These were interlopers; they entered the pages of her diary not noticing one another. Later, pushed into tenements, they fought among themselves, not against their WASP overlords. Cat wrote about these swarthy strangers and they entered the lists of her life as casually and unspectacularly as they had insinuated themselves into the life of Maine and America.
Time passed—strikes, lockouts, rural electrification, the death of Elvis, the melting of Kilimanjaro’s last ice. Then Pastor Jim leVoid of the 3rd Baptist died. A faultily vented space heater was blamed. Pastor leVoid, who was the great-grandson of Pastor Phil leVoid who thundered against rail transportation as an agent of Satan some generations earlier, succumbed to noxious fumes and froze to death in his bed. Case closed. Perhaps it was the strangeness attendant on the Baptist’s departure, frozen to death, except only from the neck up. And in the sweltering heat of July.
“Like Old Mayfield. Remember we helped our mothers clean out his place?” asked Philomena Hobart of her mother-in-law.
Cat remembers. “Except it was winter. And you, dear Philly, were not yet born.”
“I, ah... well.”
“I do believe that you have heard the story so often over so many years that you believe you were there. So you were there. An Act of God, the frozen head. We were told not to talk about it.”
“Ever.” Cat flicked her remote. The TV went silent. “Even Baptists need their mysteries.”
Sarah Drye had made it into town. How far? On the map blue lines converged, separated and went their merry ways without a thought of how much ink they consumed on their journeys. She had come on foot, running in Gortex shorts and a spandex net top. A carload of what looked to be kids gave her a hoot and a solitary wolf whistle as she jogged in place at a pedestrian crossing. They were in an ancient sedan with its rear leaf springs wedged down flat to appear to leap away from a rolling stop at traffic lights. I should have worn a sports bra.
Sarah stopped at the cantilevered franchise-style overhang of the Cooperative Extension office. A woman inside looked up and gave her a friendly smile. Sarah jogged in place for a few minutes to cool down, then stretched. Sarah’s alternating buttocks attracted an appreciative onlooker from the next storefront. He was an older man, albeit nowhere within the boundaries of age as defined by her father. He had a shock of white hair which he brushed back out of his eyes as he spoke. “Looks sort of like a bunkhouse, don’t it?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Ed Hobart’s overhang. Used to be one of those franchise steak and salad places. Went broke. The University got it cheap. Hiya, Heidi.” He waved at the woman in the window.
“You are staring at my ass. Mister, mister...” Twice in the same day. Sarah felt she should feel flattered.
“Tad Needy. Just admiring, there’s no harm in that. You are an athlete.” Sarah switched legs; Gortex rippled. “Buns of steel, like they say.”
“Truth, justice and the American way.”
“Christopher Reeve. I saw the movies, both of them. Very religious. I have them both on DVD if you would ever like to come over for an evening. Marlon Brando sends Christopher Reeve to Earth and says, ‘I send them my only son.’ It was God sending Christ to Earth.”
“Christopher Reeve died. He fell off his horse.”
“Like horses? I do. We all die. We are all, each and every one of us, a social unit, ever think about that? I do.”
Sarah straightened and looked Tad Needy in the eye. She was taller than he was. She felt that this should give her some tactical advantage as she held the high ground. The woman in the next office, Heidi, was still watching. The man kept on talking.
“I saw you drive through yesterday. I see you’re wearing the Willipaq badge of honor. The lime dust streaks on your car? The county commissioners voted crushed limestone over oil-topped gravel almost eighty years back. How’s about our engineering? Crowned roads, Roman roads—you notice that? Gives you a sense of being one with history, kinda. I’m the Electrolux man, Tad Needy, Jr. Tad Two, they call me. You are Sarah Drye. Like a vacuum cleaner? Special this week only.”
Old Mayfield—Prentiss Oliver Mayfield—had frozen to death in his unheated room at the rear of the Pythian Brotherhood. Consensus had it that he passed out drunk and allowed the coal stove to go out. His lips and fingers were blue as the women rapped tentatively and called out his name. Just in case they surprised him naked. Just in case he had been miraculously restored to life.
“Oh, the poor, dear man,” said Dicey Armstrong, Cat’s mother, as the children were shooed from the room. “Let’s get him ready.” By “ready” the local women meant getting Old Mayfield stripped, washed, into a presentable suit of clothes, into a box, then into the ground.
As they undid his nightshirt, a smell issued forth. Noses were crinkled, then relaxed. “The Milos,” said Dicey. Mayfield’s sanitary habits were well-defined. In death as in life he was preceded by a not unpleasant smell which Dicey identified as the yellow bar soap provided by the Daughters of Milo. Survival in the complex commercial society into which he had been born amidst high hopes and the dawning 20th Century made Mayfield a creature of habit. “Wan’t bright, but he was dependable,” said Marge Emmenthaler at the Emporium. “Didn’t fall down or bump into things.”
At the cemetery everyone had watched the early Vs of Geese honking south. These were their practice runs; the wild geese at first only flew as far as the cemetery where they paddled about among the headstones, foraging for slugs. Prentiss Mayfield was the closest Willipaq, Maine had to a permanent underclass. The girls’ mothers clucked and said, “Homeless...”
“Didn’t have any homeless in my day.” Gladstone Armstrong, Cat’s father, Dicey’s husband, gestured broadly. His day encompassed much between the liturgical Days of Creation and the 1920 census. “...we called ’em bums.”
Homeless. If the mothers of Willipaq had whispered, “Hopeless,” speaking to their bosoms a denial of hope rather than of home, it would be a heart-breaking denial of the Christian life. The three theological virtues lumped together as Love allowed man to share in God’s nature. Albeit the three virtues of Christian love (Fides, Spes and Caritas) were of the Catholic catechism and did not apply past the theological state line, Pastor Phil LeVoid at the 3rd Baptist held privately. Mayfield was indeed a hopeless case, a drunk, but in his public pronouncements Pastor Phil held Hope to be the gift of Christ, thus mete and measure of the New Testament. “If our brother goes astray, it is our duty to call him back to Jesus.”
Mayfield was quietly put to rest, but the memory of his blue-tinged skin lingered on. “I loved that blue,” said Cat’s mother. “With a pattern figure of blue-eyed grass and white cornflowers it would be a memorable quilt.” Dicey Armstrong said this during a time when quilting was falling out of fashion, the late 1930s. Cat, too, had loved that blue. “After Pastor LeVoid the younger passed, I think. Oh, yes—most definitely—I loved the blue then; it was the color of his lips.” If you had asked Cat Hobart when exactly her mother had uttered these words, she would be at a loss to say just when.
The thought came upon her as she was catching up on the darning in her workbasket after Prentiss Mayfield had been laid to rest. People went somewhere else to die—Gallipoli, the Canal Zone, an upstairs room. The house was hushed, drapes were drawn, the family waited.The doctor withdrew to the confines of the sickroom. He emerged hours, days, weeks later, head held down. “With the Lord. Done all I can do.”
The memory of Prentiss Mayfield, frozen in an early frost, would dance through the Twentieth Century: in treasured wedding dresses, prom gowns and, eventually, quilts. In the Twenty-first Century it would be supplanted by the deep indigo of the head of Jim the Baptist, turned likewise blue. It was the artist in Cat’s mother; she wanted to watch somebody die.
Her husband entered, grumped and stomped the snow from big rubber galoshes. Gladstone Armstrong flopped into the oak Morris chair, his. The rope webbing creaked as he opened the newspaper. “When you kill a goose, Gladstone, you lead it out behind the woodshed. I have seen this,” she said as if challenging him to deny it.
“Makes ’em edgy,” said her husband. “Watchin’. Like they’ll wonder about it at night—who’s next. Lose weight. Get thin with worry. Won’t trust me, Dicey. Can’t have that.”
One day, years after Cat had taken to her room and cable television—she noticed a familiar face among the cast of Carpe Diem, a soap opera. “No. Just my imagination,” said Cat and continued with her channel surfing.
“CATHERINE.” It was Tina Lord. In the TV. She was shouting above the whine of Lucy’s bargain air conditioner. Cat turned it off. “That’s better,” said Tina.
“You died. You have been away.”
“Another soap. I was over at ABC for seven years. Contract problem,” said Tina.
“Oh. You have been watching me,” said Cat Hobart.
“Every minute,” Tina said from inside the television. “You never do anything.” She stuck out her tongue and approached the inside of the thick glass of the cathode ray tube which separated them. “See.” Tina Lord knelt out of sight on the floor, rose and licked, leaving a vertical line up the inside of the glass. The cast of Carpe Diem had assembled around her and were staring curiously out at Cat. “Yuck.” Tina made a face and spat. “You don’t clean in here too often.”
Tina closed in on the foreground. Meanwhile, in the background, a handsome man, sixty-something—steel-gray hair cropped short, the haircut tapered up the back—manly, thought Cat—like Jimmy Stewart in the movies. Buttoning his shirt, the man approached Tina from the back. He nuzzled her neck and bit her on the ear. “Oh!” she pretended to be surprised. “We are having...” Tina’s voice grew hushed, “...an affair.”
“With, with...” Cat tried to call up a roster of characters from the program.
“Each other...” Tina giggled. “Silly.”
Cat opened a china cabinet which once occupied the farthest and darkest corner of the parlor. Hiding it there had been her mother’s choice for, while the cabinet had cost much money—20 dollars shipping—when her mother’s mother had won it in a contest. The cabinet could not defend itself and children were expected to treat it with respect. Cat caressed the curved glass of the door.
“Catherine, don’t you open the china closet,” her mother had cautioned. The china closet was called a ‘Vitrine’ by the Larkin Soap Company, which awarded honoraria of matching stemware, encyclopedias and household cabinetry to their up-and-coming sales ladies. Charles Wyndham Armstrong, a small brother and minor irritation, was likewise forbidden entry. Curved replacement glass was a special order, a casting and very hoity-toity. The genuine French vitrine was covered with decorative embellishments in a pattern of moonflowers and chrysanthemums. Its page in the Larkin catalog showed it stuffed with memorabilia: cosmetics, aromatics, rare bird feathers, locks of hair from many lovers gone to the wars of the Sun King, dead and never returned.
For a time, her mother’s quilting memorabilia claimed the vitrine, not bought objects but worked-for ribbons and medallions. A plaque recorded Best in Show. A stunning silken etui, an antique needle case, glimmered in a point of sunshine crept in past the high slatted window blinds. The needle case was a commemorative gift from the Quilters Guild. Her mother had left it open to let gold and steel needles humble themselves before her. The needles would surely tarnish in the open air. When one lifted the cover, the four sides fell away to reveal a second silk pillar at a 45° offset to the outside and smaller by half. Gold-capped needles, worn with the pull and push of many thrusts, reflected their sunbeam with a polished pewter glow. Cat has seen these in illustrated magazines—the needle cases, not the dead lovers. Subsequent hard times left it to stand empty in the guest room for fear that it might wear out.
Dicey, Cat’s mother—short for Eurydice, lost wife of Orpheus, and the wife of Cat’s father—liked to execute a flanking maneuver on a quilt in the making. “I quilt backwards. I baste and tack and pin. Looks a fright, but I like to know how things end. Designing a quilt top is a detective story. I sew it together then quilt my way back through things till I get to the beginning—from where I started laying things out—you know, at the end. By the time I’ve made the round trip I know how things come out.”
When Cat and her mother went driving of a Sunday, Gladstone Armstrong, father and husband, handled the wheel and the pedals, likewise the accelerator. Eurydice Armstrong did not drive. This was only right they felt, as the husband was assigned by God to be the regulator of his womenfolk. This was how things were—as Phil LeVoid, his son, grandson, and later on great-grandson James, Jim the Baptist, would make clear from the pulpit. “The double yellow line I see as a guide to preferred placement in the afterlife. A metaphor,” Cat’s mother, a Congregationalist, paused for emphasis, “the afterlife is like a replacement zipper track.” Like the dotted double yellow lines. Cat had never seen a yellow zipper.
Cat Armstrong did not speak of Phil LeVoid as her mother had of Prentiss Mayfield, turned likewise blue. The Cat did not like the stuffiness attendant upon organized religion and never went to church. Perhaps it was that Catherine Armstrong Hobart was secretly pleased at the Baptist’s demise. For there had been “A deacon in the ductwork,” as her father was wont to say when alive. Being dead, Cat’s father did not elaborate. “Hanky-panky, messin’ where he shouldn’t have been messin,’” was how Lucy put it
Prentiss Mayfield’s last words, as recounted in his eulogy, were “Death attend me now.” There had been no one present at Old Mayfield’s passing, but the congregants agreed this was the sort of thing he would have most likely said.
While well attended, Pastor James LeVoid’s burial observance was repetitive and without passion, much as his life.
The little kitchen was dingy and lightless and, from before Dicey and her new husband, painted an arsenical green. Dicey was a new bride, as her daughter would someday be, and was having the house re-done, for such is the nature of things. She took down all the curtains and washed them; she had much to prepare before the painters came. One evening after supper she made a shelf for behind the kitchen range—cut the wood, covered it with asbestos, then with oilcloth. Another day she put other shelves up around the stove, put the pot cover rack down lower, changed the places for stacking pots, pans, spatulas and whisks and removed a lot of nails from where they had hung.
Mr. Trevisano and his boy came on schedule to paint the little kitchen, to cover up the green.
Eurydice had chosen a light yellow paint for the walls and white for the woodwork in her new kitchen. The old curtains’ ragged, coal-streaked lace she would replace with crisp white organza, light and airy against newly painted woodwork. Her enthusiasm grew as the work progressed. She emptied cupboards full of dishes and painted them herself. When the two coats of paint were dry, she washed all the dishes. Reclaiming the kitchen spread to the rest of the house. Dicey went to town for more paint and paper and got things ready for Mr. Trevisano who would come again the next day. She tore off the bathroom wallpaper and patched holes in the walls. Mr. Trevisano papered the bedrooms and bathrooms.
Mr. Trevisano and his boy spent from Tuesday to Thursday painting and papering. When they finished, Dicey made sure to note, “They got through at 3:30. Mr. T. got 75 cents an hour; boy got 40 cents an hour. Bill $12.50.”
Dicey cut new linoleum for all the cupboard shelves, scalloping oilcloth for the edges. She washed windows and woodwork and sewed new curtains, cleaned the pantry and put fresh linoleum on its shelves, and again cut scalloped oilcloth for the edges. She mopped the upstairs rooms and hall. She washed winter quilts and bedding, polished the hot water tank with Copper Brite, blacked the stove, cleaned the closets.
Thirty-five years later Dicey’s daughter Cat will write in her diary, “Finished and cleaned kitchens; they look real nice (zinc sink and all).” She too was a new bride.
“Mother,” she wrote. Cat was a copier-out of inspirational snippets from the newspapers:
“A mother’s love for you will last
When lighter passions long have passed.
So [faithful crossed out] holy ’tis and true
Her peerless love hath longer dwelt
Tis more firmly fixed, more firmly felt”
The Italians were back. They came back each year for their picnic, a gathering that, according to Mr. Trevisano, had to do with the rows of the trees, the apple trees, Cortlands, Northern Spies and Empires under a brassy September sun that reminded them of the mezzogiorno.
“Only at this time of the year, of course. Capische? Buono.”
The dagos. Lucy’s father-in-law called them that after struggling manfully with their patronymics—communicants of the See of St. Peter, they had their own church in Machias. Each September they came with hampers, bottles, bundles, boxes and songs, content with the modest fee Lucy asked for the day’s use of the orchards. They came, they, sang, they ate, they went, always offering a largesse of garlicy meat sausages, tiny pink and blue cakes in ruffled paper collars.
Pink and blue. Their colors.
You can’t take the country out of its children, thought Dicey. Though the cakes were good, the garlic spoiled the meats for her taste. On this, while Cat’s father had had no opinion, Lucy, who dropped bombs on Italy, loved garlic and sausages and cupcakes with garlands of pastel icing.
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