The Red Sneaker Zones
the 2nd tale of the Libby the Quilter quintet
by Rob Hunter
“This will be my little miracle,” says Sun-Ripples-Pool.
“I shall wear purple.” Libby Pease touches the framed poem that hangs on her kitchen wall. Libby could have memorized the verse, but prefers to be surprised by it.
“All the damned thing says is that when you’re old people expect you to be aligned a mite off center...” says the 400-year-old Algonquian spirit-priest who regularly joins her for morning tea, “...look at me. Go for it, Lib. Get naked, paint the cat; you’ve earned it,” says Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon.
Libby accepts having her own personal shaman as an article of faith, which faith she could not tell. Perhaps that of those pilgrims at the shrine of St. James she has seen in The National Geographic. The dead Indian smells rank, but not unpleasantly so—fresh earth clinging to over-wintering vegetables, plug-cut tobacco and molasses. He wears a loincloth and is well muscled, albeit stringy.
Libby reads a line further down, in mid-poem, “And learn to spit...”
This calligraphic treatment of the poem had come anonymously on her fiftieth birthday. Libby is celebrated as a quilter of rare gifts; people find both Libby and her quilts difficult. “Artistic,” is what they say. For her sixtieth birthday the quilters’ guild presented her with a framed copy of the poem. Libby’s quilts define her as she defines them, polychrome geometrical complexities being her specialty.
“...wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,” Libby reads.
“Libby, Libby, Libby,” says Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon. “Have you ever paused to reflect that some greeting card company pumps this crap out by the metric ton? Are we searching for deeper meanings today? Christ, I hate these biscotti.”
“You eat them.”
“Termites eat houses. Bet they’d rather have a cookie,” says Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon.
“And a red hat,” reads Libby Pease.
“To match your basketball shoes. Très élégant. Red is not your color, Lib. Besides, you’re already as batty as a bag of wood pigeons,” says the spirit-priest as he dunks the last of the dry Italian almond toasts favored by Libby Pease. “Got any Oreos?”
“I thought you liked biscotti, that is surely the only reason I buy them.”
“You buy biscotti because you are a dotty old lady. Folks expect you to be peculiar. Besides, you already have red shoes.”
“Yes, I have red shoes.”
Libby’s tight-laced, high-top red canvas tennis shoes carry her on patrol. With a sudden nor’easter, Libby answers the call of duty, white diner mug of tea in her hands. There are decades of tea stains set into the ascending floral stair runners. Elizabeth Profitt Pease wonders whom she is leaving her tea trail for.
The Pease house teeters comfortably on a granite ledge near the fish pier. The house, as Libby, is never at rest; it creaks before the wind. This is Willipaq, Maine, the leeward limit of North America, and Libby Pease has a system for balancing her thermostats. Ever diligent, her red sneakers run from room to room, area, zone. Libby finds that more and more often on her red sneaker scamperings she will stop in front of the tall pier-glass mirror at the foot of the parlor stairs. She is checking to see if she is still there. She had been beautiful as a child; everyone said so.
Willipaq’s early settlers sported the stiff black broadcloth of the followers of John Calvin; they named the county Willipaq after its indigenes, a leisurely crowd of layabouts possessed of no sense of urgency. The Willipaqs picked berries, made love and squatted to their need beholden to no clock. That the Willipaqs were a lost tribe of Israel was a popular fancy of Calvinist lore.
Wheat, called corn by the new arrivals, had come across in sturdy jute sacking and arrived untainted. The harvest would be good. From an unknown source ergot, a hallucinogenic component of certain wild grasses, appeared in the wheat called corn and was inadvertently tasted. The settlers discovered a new covenant of rapture and forgot to plant. They ate more and then more until their seed was gone. The Pease family had had its representatives among those who starved that first winter. One child, a boy, survived to question why at a later date.
Over the council fires of the Willipaqs, puzzled elders strove for an explanation of the erratic behavior of the summer visitors who covered themselves all in black and took turns hitting each other as they knelt on the sand. The Willipaqs sought wisdom or an epiphany, at least. What they got was the smallpox.
“That Charley Pease is some piece of work,” says Sun-Ripples-Pool. Libby nods agreement. Libby is accustomed to hear criticism of her brother. Libby’s brother, Charles Wyndham Pease, heats with wood, no thermostats for Charley Pease. When his wood runs out, he moves in with Libby for the balance of the heating season.
Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon fishes about in his leather loincloth for a lump of kinnikinnick, the Stone Age granola and protein snack. Ahh, he has found it, “Slippery devils, these whole foods,” he remarks, gnawing off a hunk of dried fish mashed together with blueberries. “If there had been smallpox inoculations in the seventeenth century then we need not have died,” says Sun-Ripples-Pool. He is uneasy being the spiritual advisor of an old lady who boasts a vaccination scar on her arm. “The white man’s bells and whistles. All supplied at a reasonable cost, of course.”
Libby kickstarts her winter morning runs at the thermostats with strong sweet tea and Dr. Pomeroy’s Herbal Draft, an alcoholic infusion. Charley drinks the standing-spoon coffee at the Willipaq Diner: black, thick and bitter with much reheating.
“I like the taste; I just don’t need all that caffeine,” says Elizabeth Pease about the coffee at the Willipaq Diner.
Libby loves strong tea with much brown sugar, and the orange tempera sunrises which visit the Pease house on its ledge behind the wind-whipped clouds of Willipaq Bay. Libby’s tea abides on an eye level shelf above the kitchen wood range. It is in a nice lithographed canister that had once held King Cole Tea, a Canadian brand. Now it is stuffed with Red Rose Tea from the IGA. The Canadian tea is cheaper but Red Rose Tea is Libby’s engineering decision. With American teabags, the paper tags are more firmly stapled to the string. The Dr. Pomeroy’s lives in the medicine cabinet over the kitchen sink. She adds a dollop of Dr. Pomeroy’s and begins her day.
“You really should think about reducing your booze intake,” says Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon who reads off the alcohol content of Dr. Pomeroy’s Herbal Draft. “...40 percent. Does the Dept. of Motor Vehicles know that you’re driving around pickled as a jugged hare? By the way, I love your shoes, Libby, they are quite becoming.”
“They are tennis sneakers,” says Libby Pease, “and I do not wear them outside the house. And you are opinionated for an apparition.”
“They are red. Red is a passionate color,” says Sun-Ripples-Pool. “And I am not an apparition.” The dead Indian often points this out to her. “Any more than you are not a person. In your imaginings you are a glorified paper doll,” says the spirit-priest, “Shirley Temple or Debbie Reynolds. You live in the past.” He becomes a bird and grooms his feathers. “I am a filament.”
“You are a figment. There is an appreciable difference,” says Libby Pease. “A filament is what makes a light bulb light up.”
The white settlers’ meager crops failed. Calvinist vigor was no longer proof to mixed bathing and sweaty labors under a strange sun. Fornication brought a hundred strokes with the rope’s end against deteriorating social standards. Many were the righteous arms grown weary with flogging and by surreptitious self-manipulation. It was a good fight, but futile. They ate gruel made from acorns and the few sacks of seed remaining, saw visions and died one-by-one.
The indigenes looked on, astonished. When the Willipaqs returned to their seaside encampments the following year, they gave a decent burial to what the wolves and foxes had left of the white settlers.
“Slow learners,” said Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon, munching on his kinnikinnick. Had not the white men called their own reckoning after the fact? Their tautology satisfied, the Willipaqs found this a satisfactory explanation for the thinning of their own numbers.
Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon squats in Libby’s front yard and pulls a medicine bag from the carry pouch he wears slung at his side. He tastes a mild bloom of fungus residue and adds in the powdered purple hinge of a mussel pried from tidal mud flats during the toxic days of high August. “Audacious,” says the spirit-priest. “Audacious to the point of arrogance. And as nasty as that ergot I slipped into the gringo white-eyes’ wheat called corn.” He feels blameless in the poisonings. “I but anticipated destiny,” says the spirit-priest. “Dead is dead.”
The spirit-priest kneels behind the southeast wind and snuffles up a cone of taupe dust from the flattened palm of his right hand: sumac berries and yellow dock root dried and pounded to purify his blood when he returned.
“If I return, that is. Whatever, it’s been a good life.” Sun-Ripples-Pool tosses back the sumac and dock root.
“Hmm, smooth,” he says, throwing up. “I am inspired to create, perhaps something useful and of everyday utility, a transcendent doodad perhaps. Generations yet unborn will bless me for it.”
There is a sensation of flight.
“It looks easy but don’t try this one at home, kids. Flying is for big folks.”
The Pease children grew up confessing sins against economy before the assembled family. Profitt Pease quoted First Corinthians as his authority. “The Congregationalists and the Baptists declare their shortcomings before the entire congregation at altar call, before the regular service. So folks get an hour to think about things with everyone right there,” pronounced their father.
Their father did not believe in the stuffiness attendant with church membership so the Pease children, Libby and Charley, declared before breakfast. Charley escapes their father’s stern pronouncements first by moving out and finally by outliving him. Libby the grownup recalls those breakfast confessions as expiation for duties lapsed: the thawing of the water lines with hairdryer and torch, once performed, was a public humiliation and never to be mentioned again. Thawing was a laying-on of hands as practiced by the primitive church, pausing and praying for a release of the grip of frost on the arteries and veins of Profitt Pease’s prized pipings.
Thermostatically controlled zone heat, this was her father’s plan. The thermostats were placed above shoulder height, beyond the reach of the children, Elizabeth and Charles.
In The National Geographic Libby sees pictures of grieving pilgrims struggling with bleeding knees up rock-strewn mountain paths to the shrine of St. James of Compostela. The pilgrims had it right: they had left their thermostats unattended and they must pay. The plumbing, the water lines, the pipes froze; this was God’s plan and a testing. Relaxed vigilance meant creeping for hours on hands and knees, following the baseboard plumbing lines.
Sun-Ripples-Pool soars through a palisaded cleft in the side of a jagged rock wall. Forgetting to remember that he is flying, he looks up and notices that up is now down. He is falling and the sea is rushing up at him. The incoming tide hammers its spume into a vertical column, driving him against a headwind that rebounds from the cliff side. Soaring back out and over the foaming tidal breakers, he hovers on an updraft, resting.
The spirit-priest turns his head so that his sharp shining black beak points down his wing. He makes an incision and thrusts in a morning glory seed freighted with ergine, a lysergic acid alkaloid. Pushing deeper into his flesh, he plucks a thin, hollow bone out of his shoulder. This will be his gift of forgiveness: yellow, hollow and supple. “A wonder of ancient technology, except here and now. I shall call it a stitcher; Libby will be pleased.”
He has just invented sewing and his starboard wing is throbbing with pain. Sun-Ripples-Pool plummets. “Oops! Flap, boy. Flap for your life!”
With a furious flailing of elbows, he makes it to ground at the edge of the cliff. He hits hard, barking both shins and taking the tip off his nose. “Well, any landing you can walk away from, etcetera...” The healing will be a bother but the needle is worth the lesion. “It’s like inventing the paper clip or Post-Its,” says Sun-Ripples-Pool. “This will be my little miracle.” Bird legs change back to man legs and the spirit-priest preens his remaining feathers. He lays the bone needle on Libby’s kitchen table.
“Sewing is already invented,” Libby might have said, “You are out of touch, being dead and all.” But she is away. She has changed from her red sneakers into sensible clogs for a trip out into the world. Libby has gone to the Pick ‘N’ Pay to buy Oreo cookies for the spirit-priest.
A flurry of wind-driven snow follows Libby in through the kitchen door. “I have your cookies.” Sun-Ripples-Pool jumps; Libby has surprised him.
“You startled me. Now I have lost my train.” He shuffles the bone needle out of sight behind the sugar bowl.
“The quilter’s curse...” says Libby Pease as she unpacks her tote, “...so many quilts, so little time.” She spreads multi-colored blocks of fabric across the kitchen table. “Have you been here all this time?”
With a flourish of pre-industrial legerdemain, from behind his back the spirit-priest produces a pot of daffodils. “Flowers?”
Libby bustles setting out her quilting squares.
“Medicine-man, I would have preferred real flowers, and in season, not a magic trick.” She turns on the radio; it is playing a program she has listened to decades before, as a child. In the darting effervescences of her never-still mind she plays her own programs over and over to save electricity. Libby pauses to listen.
“Here, I have made you something. I call it a stitcher.” Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon sways in time with the strange music. He hands over the bone needle torn from his own flesh and listens along with Libby Pease. “This stitcher is the gift of transcendence, a spirit-gift.” Hoagy Carmichael sings Old Buttermilk Sky. “If I thought it made a difference I would have invented the radio,” says the spirit-priest. “But then I should have to learn to sing and play the piano. I have too many demands on my time as it is to take up an instrument.”
“Demands?” Libby giggles at the idea of a spirit world with secretaries, answering machines and week-at-a-glance desk blotters.
“Looking after you, dear Libby.”
“It is a beautiful gift, your stitcher. Thank you.”
One loose shutter announces a wind change. Thin fingers of frost creep across the living room wallpaper. On the leeward side of the Pease house clapboards relax with a sigh, then open to welcome the thrust of the coming storm. Libby must get to work. She bends to lace her red sneakers. “Proverbs 8:1,” says Libby, “Does not wisdom call, And understanding lift up her voice? You will notice that wisdom is female. Here, have a cookie,” says Libby as she turns off the radio. “You must excuse me; I have to check the thermostats.”
There are four thermostats: kitchen, parlor and bedrooms. The thermostats for the upstairs bedrooms were only to be raised in case of illness—severe illness that confined a child to his or her bed. When she is dead who will follow her figure-eights retraced hourly across the linoleum, up the brass-bound carpeting of the stairs to the forgotten lands where the guest bedrooms wait, empty?
“And thank you again for the magic needle.”
“Don’t mention it,” says Sun-ripples-quiet-pool-to-call-of-loon. The centuries-old fumes of a sweetgrass smudge lift prayers to him and he is content.
“Central heating? Yeah, the chimney’s in the middle,” her father remarked in the days before he made his conversion to oil heat. Conversion comes late to many sinners; Profitt Pease was a whole-hearted proselyte. “Zones. That’s what I got when I put in the oil burner,” said Profitt Pease.
Libby puts in the latest oil burner—an upgrade, new and improved. Her father made the first conversion. The first zones were his to command. Profitt Pease hung onto his old coal furnace ten years after he put in oil, then grudgingly tore it out single-handed one summer. His leftover coal was burned in the kitchen range. Disappointments by gouging suppliers, failure of his woodlot, price fluctuations in an increasingly international market were all to be considered. Vern Lightfoot, the oil delivery man, bore Profitt’s wrath as an agent of foreign imperialism. Libby thinks of asking Sun-Ripples-Pool to keep and eye on the Illuminati, the multinational secret schemers who keep her house so unseasonably cold in winter and hot in summer.
Libby remembers her father’s blusterings but not her mother’s face.
Dalton Comfrey, the oil deliveryman, pulls up in his red, white and blue tank truck. Dalton picks up the route when Vern Lightfoot dies in 1966. He breaks a path through the knee-deep snow piled between the road and the basement tank fill pipe. Libby gives the window a smack to loosen its frozen casement. “Hiya, Dalton. Good to see ya. Needed that fill.”
“Hiya, Lib. How they hangin’?” This is their joke, well worn and polished from decades of familiarity. Dalton was four years behind her in high school. Dalton has never been inside the Pease house. Since graduation, Libby Pease has never seen Dalton except when he makes his oil deliveries. The oil man’s knee-high rubber boots he keeps packed with felt inserts. The felt gives him warmth and an increase in height honestly come by.
From a smoky hereafter of animal spirits and perpetual pemmican, the Algonquian spirit-priest clears his throat. “You and Dalton, the oil man. You were an item? In high school?”
“No,” says Libby. “We had other appointments to keep.”
As Dalton Comfrey’s truck departs down the hill Libby laces her sneakers for yet another run at the upstairs thermostats. As she tightens the second elaborate Turkish bow it strikes her that when her father was called to glory he hadn’t left the faucets dripping behind him.
“Thank you for the bone needle,” says Libby, this time to no one in particular. “I shall treasure it.” Libby stops in front of the tall pier-glass mirror at the foot of the parlor stairs and checks as usual to see if she is still there. “Like railroad tracks,” says Libby about her life, “...we all have our vanishing point.”
Libby thinks about the bloodied knees of the pilgrims at the shrine of St. James of Compostela and resolves to wear her red sneakers outside the house today. “This year I shall perhaps let the thermostats go to all hell,” says Libby Pease.
copyright 2007, 2015 Rob Hunter
a Libby the Quilter story
The Red Sneaker Zones was first published in The Hiss Quarterly, Spring 2007