Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 45—Real Butter on Request

Ed Hobart swung his legs over the side of the bed to the alarm’s insistent cricket call. Last Wednesday and four AM. The last Wednesdays of the month were his get-togethers with management at the University in Orono—all the county agents were expected to show up for a monthly flogging, considered sound bureaucratic practice lest high morale generate discontent in the ranks.

Wake up. He switched the alarm off. Brought to bay by a drugstore alarm clock, Ed Hobart strained to see. High in the sky a red blob squinted in at him through a slit in the blinds. Why had he done this—set the clock to get him up at first light? Ed liked the little battery operated quartz travel alarm, at five dollars ten years ago—one of his few good investments. Where had he gotten that clock? He held a hand up to hide the rising sun. He allowed himself some self-congratulation as he groped for a cigarette. That had been in Boston ten years ago. In a drugstore. He had been staying with friends who were not concerned with the time constraints of an industrial world, holistic dropouts who woke to bodily rhythms, not ringing bells. He had set up some job interviews while visiting in the area, hence the clock. Five dollar alarm clocks were the last reliable benchmark in a slippery world. They kept getting better, quieter.

With that wisdom which is the portion of age, Ed decided coffee was a good idea. Ah, coffee! Instant crystals dumped into water brought to boil in an aluminum saucepan. Ah, wisdom! Coffee with a jagged chemical edge to set the tone for a day of mindless activity. Ah, middle age, with its attendant loose teeth, gassy bowels and morning cough. For the round trip to Orono he had to hit the road before 6:30.

Heidi and Ed had a standing date for a late lunch at the Wilco Diner on Last Wednesdays. Ed burned rubber back to Willipaq and headed for their regular booth near the window, positioned where passers-by would see them together. They liked to watch the clouds of seagulls following the herring boats. People watching birds watching fish while the guys who watched the fish for a living all day, every day, nursed their beers at the counter. The view at the bar was a wall of postcards from regulars who had retired to Florida.

The gulls circled and dived, always hoping for the occasional feisty herring to throw itself out of the stream of wriggling fish being hosed from ship to dock. A gull would make off with the fish and then the fun would begin. Above the circling gulls a squadron of ospreys, two adults and tag-along juveniles from last year’s nesting, followed. This late on in the season the ospreys had no hungry young mouths waiting at home so they could be choosy—when the mood would strike one would execute a barrelroll and dive-bomb a fleeing gull.

The Wilco Diner hung on piles high above or right on astronomical high tide, depending—twice every twelve hours you could choose your dining ambience, either mud flats or the hungry tides that lapped the boards beneath your feet. Theo Arsenault, proprietor of Arsenault’s One-Stop and Family Sundries and the creative genius behind the Wilco Diner, had no master plan for the offerings from his tiny kitchen—a meatloaf leitmotif prevailed overall. Humble and unpretentious, the food—including eggs sunnyside and Belgian waffles—was gray with a plotch of margarine for color. The guys at the counter went for the headless beer though. They were here to get drunk, read the postcards and stare down the waitress’ shirtfronts, pulling nutrients from the salt sea air and the grease from the deep fryer.

Ed caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar. A shower and a shave would be... cosmetic.

“Hi Ed.” Too late. Heidi glowed. If he looked bad he didn’t look bad to her.

Ed smiled—well, he still had all his teeth if not all his hair. “Hi, Heidi.” Ed glowed.

Heidi Nichols and Ed Hobart watched the birds, the other diners, and the steady motions of the tides. They spoke in lovers’ small talk of the day, the weather, people passing by—smiled, touched hands and savored the wonder of the moment. They made plans for the future, a thing young lovers and yes, middle-aged lovers, did. They should move in together—this was a good idea they decided.

Ed and Heidi went home separately, to their separate beds, where they dreamed separate dreams. The dreams were calming, but strangely disturbing. Both would remember their dreams but not tell the other.

She is in an elevator. The door opens and closes, people get on and off, but the floor never changes. The other passengers are actors in the upcoming community theater play. The door closes on the last lines of the play. When it opens, the speakers are gone.

He is approaching a derelict house—Lucy’s Victorian Gothic bloat is in a swamp surrounded by deep tangled roots like those of a banyan tree. The roots are moving, slithering—about to eat the house. The house is in New England; why the banyan trees? They ooze lethargically, and beneath festoons of Spanish moss venomous snakes hide to strike. He is here to salvage antique bolts and screws, brass, and rescue the hardware and bathroom fixtures from the wreckers. He dashes in ahead of the bulldozers, over the twisted roots, dodging clanking tractor treads. The compressed soil springs back as he passes the bulldozer trail. He runs into the house as it collapses around him. Oops! He is dead.

Small wonder he looks terrible; he has just had a house fall on him. Would being dead send Heidi the message that he was taking her for granted? Well, he was—taking her for granted, not dead like him, that is. Grantedness was one of the things you moved in together for, the idea that Heidi would always be there for him, without asking, and therefore lessened by it. Ed reassured himself he would be shrinking and diminishing too, keeping pace. There was an even-handedness to this. While the insight that you’ve been taking someone as a given usually happens after they’ve left or died, a little presumption goes a long way.

*  *  *

Whether from tolerance or sloth, the Indians and the white-eye gringos allowed one another to go about their respective businesses unhindered. The march of progress had caught up with them at the same peak of the same wave of a now shared history. This of course was after some few centuries of mutual extermination. That the hemispheric homefolk had been in place for untold millennia was of no defense against the tsunami of the white man’s invasion. White mappers assigned Willipaq names to counties and townships, sure they were granting posterity a future free of bloody dustups. The name of the Willipaq nation became the name of the county, and by default the local beer palace and hangout, the Wilco Diner—real butter on request, pitcher beer, mayonnaise on everything, and vinegar always at the table.

The Indians awoke one day with the feeling that their heritage might deserve more than the nine point red type on the tourist maps gas stations handed out free with a fill-up. A call for justice delayed echoed faintly down the corridors of power. The cry resonated the cochlea of one Vern Vermilion, Esq. Vermilion and Vermilion, father and son, had been country lawyering in Stack O’ Trees, the county seat, for decades. Vermilion fils saw in the Willipaqs’ suit his own ticket out of poverty. He was right. He sued; they won. And to everyone’s surprise the state paid up.

As the ink dried on the final deposition, Vern leaned back, relaxed and counted the zeros on the settlement. There were nine zeros. Vern bought an airplane the next day. No longer a hometown lawyer with few prospects, he took off from an air strip on converted pasture land, power-diving clambakes and beach parties, scattering ashes, empties, and carelessly set-by bikini tops with his prop wash and wig-wagging fraternal hi-de-hos to foursomes at the golf course. The Mainers and the Willipaqs, peaceful neighbors for generations lawsuit or no lawsuit—agreed that this was a strange new bird beneath the canopy of Heaven.

Vern and his Beechcraft Bonanza are not properly part of this tale except to demonstrate the connectedness of all things great and small. One day he dropped out of a cloud bank to get his bearings over an upland glade, startling a moose strolling through a patch of clear-cut. There was a “pop” and Vern and the little airplane were never seen again. The moose registered mild surprise, and then returned to browse a particularly succulent patch of watercress. If flying rats were bats the moose reasoned, then flying lawyers were voyeurs and to be dealt with as such.

Vern was not missed for weeks. Folks just figured he had gone to Portland. His accounts were found to be in order and he became anecdotal.

The tribe got the land on which rested the cigarette machine and the jukebox but missed the beer pumps by a good five yards. The longliners, the weir tenders and lobstermen—destined to become butlers to tame salmon as the wild fish died off—were here for the beer. Once a bubbling froth of amber foam, the head vanished as the waitress passed it across the yard and a half from the pump to the countertop. They said the sea air did that. Theo had tried setting the controls for more gas at the pump, to try and whip up some foam, but no dice. The beer came out all foam, an alcoholic cotton candy that went flat and dried on the sides of the glasses, looking like spun sugar, a bubbly bit of crusty fluff with an inch of liquid on the bottom. Salt water taffy without the taffy and minus the salt.

The Willipaqs and Vern successfully brought before the bar of justice their demand that they have returned to them most of the State of Maine plus the tribal land represented by the six and one-third feet of the Wilco Diner’s building that rested on the shore, not on posts over the channel. The channel was federal tidelands and a Coast Guard matter. At the Wilco the cheap seats were the seats with a view.

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