Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 52—Strangers, the Kindness of

“Samantha, that you?” The shriek of a delighted child. “That’s you. I figured you’d be showing up.” Lucy set the carburetor aside, just out of reach for an inquisitive toddler. Another shriek and a crash. Glass broke, followed by a stream of angry syllables.

“Samantha?” Lucy got to his feet and hobbled to the former tack room. There was DazL, his mother nowhere to be seen, playing with a stiletto-shaped shard of window pane. The child had toppled a pile of scythes and discs-on harrow shafts left leaning near the window against a future date when Lucy would appear with his files and sharpening stones.

“You’re going to cut your throat teething on that glass, kid.” The child put the piece of broken glass in his mouth, looked at Lucy and babbled happily. “Ahh... not advised, sonny. I’d take that out of there if I were you.” The glass was removed and studied, turned over and held to the light, then handed to Lucy. Lucy accepted the gift. “On approval, right? Ahh, I see—this is your science project. Nice. Wanna see mine?” The child gurgled and tried to stand up. He made it a few precarious steps, looked surprised as he teetered and his legs gave way, then collapsed in a mound of indignation. His face turned red and he began to howl.

“Some days that’s about how I feel.” Lucy lay down on the tack room floor beside DazL. The crying stopped. “Lonely, too.” The child nodded and smiled.

“C’mon.” DazL hooted at the invitation and crawled after Lucy to where the Chevy 6 sat atop its blocks and chocks. Lucy checked around for any other instruments of possible mayhem. There were none, most of the broken glass had fallen outside the tack room. He made no move to help the child to his feet.

“I’m getting the chariot all gussied up for the coliseum...” The child nodded sagely. “You getting this?” DazL pointed to the spare battery, now on the floor beside the Chevy 6. He stood and walked to it, leaned forward and caught himself by grabbing the positive and negative terminals, one in each hand. Nothing happened. “I drained it flushing the pistons. Sorry. If you’re hell-bend on self-destruction, the broken glass was your best bet. So far.” DazL made a frown and stuck a fist into his mouth. “But I can show you some neat stuff. Our science project, remember?” The child’s eyes glowed with an intense interest; here were more lethal things to explore. “Thought you might be,” said Lucy. “You stay there where I can see you. Then we’ll have fun.” He crab-walked himself into the driver’s seat and flicked the ignition switch. The car’s tires spun as he engaged the gear shift. The speedometer read 25 miles per hour. DazL reached out to grab at a spinning tire. There was a smell of toasted flesh and the hand was quickly pulled back to be placed in his mouth. There was no howl of pain, no tears. “Thumb, huh? Happens to me all the time. It goes with the territory; science is a cruel mistress. Twenty-five is a safe speed, safe unless you grab a tire—safe for the car, and the Chevy 6 is what we are about today. Why am I running the car, going no place at such a moderate speed? Allegorical. Now that’s a big word but the basic idea should be a given. To you.” The thumb was withdrawn and studied. There was a black friction burn beginning to swell. There would be a blister. “Now if the drive belt doesn’t pop on us, we should be in for some tasty fireworks. This is the good part, so watch closely.” Lucy consulted the unrolled chamois skin on which he had placed his tools: box wrenches, open-end wrenches, screwdrivers and a mechanic’s ball-peen hammer. He picked up a can of WD-40 and sprayed his hands, then wiped them clean on a fresh kitchen towel. “Passing along the family secrets, kid.”

With a screwdriver, he shorted the generator terminal on the circuit breaker. An arc of electric blue leapt from the screwdriver’s shank to the engine block where it quivered. Lucy played with it, bringing the screwdriver closer then farther away from the breaker terminals. “If we get a good flash, the generator is charging and the trouble is somewhere else.” DazL looked on approvingly. A weak arc of crackling blue curved from the screwdriver to Lucy’s outstretched finger. “It all depends on where you stand,” he explained to the toddler. He played the spark like a yo-yo, pulling his finger in and out. “There’s a formula—inductive capacitance, something like that. See, no shock. Ow! Shit.”

The child fell over backwards and rolled on the floor with gales of laughter. As Lucy pulled his hand away the spark continued on its own, growing an orange stripe at its center like the propane flame on the kitchen range when the tanks needed a refill. A gas leak. No, not plausible. Trouble somewhere. He reached in and shut off the ignition.

There was something wrong.

The barn was moving in ever-widening arcs above his head, a behavior no properly built barn would exhibit. Funny, thought Lucy, it never did that before. The spinning produced a mild nausea and Lucy staggered to keep from falling.

*  *  *

Old Doxology had called in a team of wandering Quakers. In an age of slip-shod generalists, the Quakers put up a farm building that would last. They specialized in post and beam oak barns pegged together from green wood. “The oak—native oak, we can’t make it work unless you cut the trees yourself on your own woodlot. It’d look the same but won’t set right. Twenty, forty years and it’ll fall down—the oak is what does it. No pine, that’s for the inside, cleats and walls.” Why the Quakers should have been wandering in Willipaq, Maine, far from their usual haunts in Ohio and the Erie basin had puzzled Lucy. But then the barn was its own story, and as with all Old Doxology’s stories, accumulated details in the repeating. Whoever had built it for him had done a good job.

The hard impact from the floor hitting Lucy’s head went almost unnoticed in the wonder of it all. The peaked barn roof, the ridge pole in particular, grew foreshortened and flew up, away from him. Pain, not the pain of an “event,” as Doc Harmon called these seizures, but all-encompassing. This would bring me to my knees, Lucy thought, if I wasn’t already on my back. He searched for the bottle of nitro. The interior barn roof wobbled and expanded.

This was the whirling gyroscopic flow of circles within circles he suffered when he was ten and his mother ordered his tonsils to be confiscated. The surgeon had sent him into an ether dream of runaway geometry. There was ice cream on demand after that. The ice cream soothed the throat—the sugar cleared his head his mother said. One week later and the ice cream treats were taken away. He was deemed sufficiently recovered to get back to work swamping out the cow barn. Lucy had started up again with keeping cows when he got back from the war. The first droppings from the first three cows were spread on a patch of winter rye grass gone fallow. Where the old manure pile had been, he installed the remains of the Chevy 6, Elliot’s shrine.

“Ceiling. Huh, on the inside. I never rightly called it anything—the roof now, my father anted up for a tin roof when he built the barn: ‘I like to hear the rain; the hail just bounces off the tin.’” The tin snappers came with charcoal braziers and three-pound soldering irons cherry red and snugged it together. The barn had outlasted Old Doxology, the Quakers and “Most likely me,” said Lucy. Thus far, with minimum repairs due to the barn’s settling and its twelve-by-twelve beams shrinking with the years, the roof had held.

The crisp fall air mixed with the smell of cider apples, burning leaves, soldering flux and composting manure from the pile out back of the barn. “How pungent our yesterdays, bathed in smells. People forget this―the smells of bodies closely packed. We had character. That’s childhood,” Lucy told DazL who watched him with a grim, determined gaze, “...the smells stick with you. We wore the knit sleeveless jerseys called weskits. In school everyone smelled differently; you got so you could tell who was behind you by their smell. There was this one boy―an Irish kid, from Ireland I mean; we had Italians and Irish moving in in those days—he reeked. Reeking was OK; we reeked too. We washed our naked selves Saturday nights and slicked back our hair with macassar oil. We smelled different—we knew who they were; we knew who we were. We smelled ourselves coming.”

Sunlight struggled in past the on-point diamond of a four pane window that lit the upper loft. Cobwebs hung with dust and the drained bodies of last year’s flies danced, casting shadows that flew and fled the spider’s reach. His hands found the bottle of nitro pills. Lucy’s thick jagged nails scratched and tore at the plastic seal. It broke and some pills fell out. He selected one and let the others lay where they had fallen. The pill he placed under his tongue.

This is it, the Big One—make room for tomorrow. Just lie down and the bullshit stops. There’s a cheery thought, thought Lucy. He was being crowded out, imposed upon. The kid was to be his replacement; standing room was at a premium and to be reserved for the living.

Through the ringing in his ears Lucy heard the clink of the mailbox down by the road. The mail girl. He waited for the spin of tires, signaling her departure over the drumlin of sand and gravel left by last winter’s snowplows. Rattle rattle, small stones spitting against the zinc-dipped government-approved metal mailbox atop a creosoted cedar post. Lucy held his breath and waited to hear through the thrumming in his ears. Rattle rattle rattle. Sure enough, the mail. A stab as the nitroglycerin washed through him bringing, instead of joy at missing the Big One this time, the beginnings of a nitro headache. He crept toward the loft’s ladder.

The ceiling trusses collapsed.

“What the hell was that?” He was in a plummeting free fall for what seemed like a long time, but it all had to be over in a couple of seconds. Like a B-24 dropping into a low pressure well. “If the roof has fallen in, where is it?” He was back in the tack room.

He heard a small insect voice, amused. “You like touching the spark, don’t you, Lucy?” It was Samantha.

“Samantha?” No. No Samantha, just him and the kid. He passed out. The child sat as if deep in thought and watched Lucy fall sideways.

When Lucy came to, the child had not moved. “Confounding the elders in the temple. Shit, you’ve got Jesus beat by eleven years already. You are one weird kid. Anybody tell you that?”

DazL crowed happily and flapped his chubby arms up and down—do that again—in an impression of a duck taking off from the surface of a pond. Lucy sat up as best he could and checked himself for any damage. Heartbeat, regular. Pulse slightly rapid but strong. Any broken bones? He felt around and tested his arms by flapping them like the kid—the infant giggled appreciatively. No, not that he could tell. “I know that was great fun—maybe as good as the spark gap with the generator. You’ll have to wait; I haven’t got another one of those in me today.” He got to his feet and staggered over to the Chevy 6.

Lucy left a note on the tack room door: “Back by 11:30” Missing was the red-painted walker with hand brakes and 8-inch ball bearing wheels. For the last year the Chevy 6 had been a collection of parts spread across the floor around the grease pit. They’d never guess the car had moved and think he was out for a stroll with the cat. If there was anybody concerned about him, which he doubted. Cat dreamed on in her world of flickering game shows and the weather channel; Sarah would be in town showing off her ass and looking to get laid—shopping she called it. That left Samantha.

*  *  *

“The child, DazL, was in the barn this afternoon,” said Sarah.

“Cat was babysitting the kid. He probably wandered off.” Samantha was not interested. She was primping in front of the mirror. “He can look after himself. The kindness of strangers you know? I am entitled to a life, too. It’s always the baby, the baby, the baby.”

“He is very... advanced for his years. Year,” Sarah corrected herself. Strangers, the kindness of, she thought. Riding the subway into Midtown, looking through a stranger’s eyes, the bitter nutty taste of sugary white coffee clinging at the back of her tongue, putting on the mask, slogging through a day filled with a catatonic acceptance of her peonage, the ass gropes at the copier bay. This was her life to come―event planner for the dead or an osteoporotic gal Friday. “Life is about choices,” she said. Samantha looked up, surprised.

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