Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 48—Lucy cranks the Chevy Six

The Chevy 6, a 1938 rumble-seat sports coupe, began life circling Willipaq’s Commercial Block, cruising for girls. That these girls were underage and yet in school—hence triumphant suitors subject to a court hearing, fine and jail—was not a serious consideration. The car would come to Lucian Hobart third-hand, but with great potential as an engine of insemination.

There was no key for the Chevy. When the car was put out to grass Lucy dropped it in the kitchen box of mysterious keys, single earrings and picture hanging hardware—a repurposed celluloid hair receiver, a leftover of one of his mother’s Gibson Girl cousins. As is the way with things put by against future need, neither the key nor the hair receiver was seen again. This was a pity, for the box was etched with a pattern that mimicked old ivory.

That any key would turn in the rust-plugged ignition switch was unlikely. Lucy hotwired the car, trimming back the insulation from the two sets of wires that led to and from the steering column. He tinned the ends and soldered them onto a toggle switch that hung loosely under the dash. “Vehicular suicide, car,” Lucy told the Chevy. “I’d never do it, but a diverting idea all the same, trendy.” He saw the investigating officers scratching their heads wondering just what to write on the police report. What a hoot the newspapers would have with it if they knew. Sending an anonymous letter was considered, then put by. “To kill yourself in a car you’ve either got to suck on the exhaust or have a head-on. Anything else could leave you in a world of hurt and no better off than when you started. Bad idea,” said Lucian Hobart.

The physics of a head-on collision was appealing—the fierce judgment, sudden and unannounced, of a crap shoot with God. They most likely wouldn’t feel a thing; they had probably made plans for later on. Double your velocity and quadruple your impact. No, there was a sliding scale. “It’s Isaac Newton, car. Half the mass times the square of speed. Add the results for both cars and we get vaporized, just like on Star Trek. Newton’s Third Law at work all around us in our everyday lives; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. No, let them live.” Playing the messenger of Death was not his forte. He had his hands full just being Lucy Hobart.

“Time for a test flight.” Attached to the carburetor with a length of surgical hose was a pint bottle of gasoline. He had tied off the line to the fuel pump as a safety precaution. He eased himself into the driver’s seat being careful not to jostle the two-by-two he had jammed between the seat and the clutch pedal to make sure there was no chance of the car slipping from its blocks and taking off with him riding sidesaddle. “Can’t wait to see the coroner’s report on this one,” he muttered as he closed the switch. The starter heaved against its flywheel, then fell away, the battery drained. The engine sputtered—something there, a favorable augury. Lucy stood in a cloud of oil-rich emissions. “We’re rotting on the hoof, car...” He picked up a spare carburetor from the floor and began absently flipping its butterfly valve with a finger. He kicked a tire. The car shivered. “...but we’ll get there just the same.”

Driving an ancient automobile with no plates, no insurance, might be cause for a sheriff’s deputy to pull me over, Lucy thought. He checked behind the sun visor. There it was, his operator’s license. Expired July 23 1949. “Sixty-five years—no big deal. Close enough. I’ll tell ’em I forgot to renew.” The deputy would let him go with a warning. A sure thing.

He shut off the ignition and levered himself up and out. He disconnected the battery and pulled the spark plugs then squeezed a few heavy squirts of Marvel Mystery Lubricating Oil into the upper cylinders.

“Hate to have to get you all dolled up just to wreck you again,” Lucy spoke to the car. “Be an even swap—me for the deer carcass. I don’t promise to smell much sweeter though.” The Chevy was silent. “I do have a plan, a plan that’ll leave you hale and hearty and me... well, off stage. There’s no harm in letting people think I’m dead or run off. For a while. They’d tell me old coots with bad eyes shouldn’t drive.” He patted the car’s open hood. “Public menaces—you and me both.”

His eyes weren’t all that bad. A couple of months back, just for the fun of it Lucy had driven the farm truck into town to get his eyes checked at the Department of Motor Vehicles. There had been a handicapped ramp added since the last time he was here; that would have been in 1956. “Nice ramp. New. Guess drivers are aging in place instead of dropping dead like good Christian folk are expected to do,” Lucy remarked to the woman behind the glass. She was forty-ish and was not wearing a brassiere. Her three top buttons were unbuttoned so he took a look. It must have been a long look. The woman sounded irritated when she said, “Yes?”

“Yes, indeed,” Lucy said. He looked up. It was Darlene Lester, a girl his grandson had been in school with. “Darlene. Your hair’s all frizzy. New style?”

She cracked a smile of tentative welcome. “What can the DMV do for you today Mr. Hobart?”

“Came in to have my eyes checked. You have a machine.”

“It is pretty basic. If you need to go to an optometrist...”

“Nope. Just wondering if I can pass the test.”

He passed with flying colors. “Just step over there and I’ll take your picture,” said Darlene.

“How much for a license?”

“Twenty-seven dollars. At your age you’ll have to renew every five years.”

“Nice tits, Darlene. Thanks for the peek. And thank you especially for your faith in my longevity.” Lucy left without getting a license. Behind him, Darlene buttoned up.

*  *  *

Lucy leaned into the pain; the new battery was heavier than he remembered. Damned knee. His replacement knee, titanium with a neoprene bearing at the hinge, was fine. The problem was the human knee, his right knee, as lightning strikes of agony settled along the calf, quadriceps and instep. He flexed the protesting joint and winced as it flared bright and hot.

“Huh,” no worse than usual at least. Balancing on the arthritic leg he flexed the prosthetic knee. A noticeable clicking, but then replacement parts did that; he was used to it. Hand over hand he lowered himself to the ground. He sat and rolled up the pants leg. A white scar with a blanket stitch of staple marks began eight inches above the knee, sidestepped in a semicircle around the patella, then went on for an additional eight inches.

“They sawed it off, the doctors,” says Lucy.

He is now a teenager in a high school infirmary. No answer from the school nurse, who looks puzzled. “Inflammation,” says the nurse. Her diagnosis is seventy-five years too soon; there is no scar. Today’s scar looks like the stitching on a major league baseball, the Greek letter omega laid on its side. “I am become Omega. In the Big Inning I was the Word.” His words—deep and resonant, layered with a crackling from lungs long abused by tobacco and the fumes of alcohol—kicked off a drawn-out coughing fit. Red-faced and gasping for air he thought of Samantha.

Samantha. Of all the hangers-on of the Hobart family tree, she was the one who counted. Samantha was Cat, Sarah and Clear-eyed Alicia all rolled into one—the fantasies of romance, of lust fulfilled too soon followed by regret and then forgetfulness—trysts and one night stands, the whores and handmaids of desire now forgotten. Perhaps he loved her, once before she was born, he had said that. For Samantha he was the Chicken Wizard, withered and bandy-legged.

The high school nurse had called it ‘housemaid’s knee’ and had a laugh on the team. Football heroes in high school had housemaid’s knee just like everyone else. With a note from the nurse the coach took him out of the lineup for one game, then sent him back on in. Heat and massage. Seventeen-year-old knees were a quick study. Housemaid’s knee.

A throbbing bursa of flesh welled up above the surgeried joint. “Inflammation,” he told the world. He felt for the thin tin of aspirin he always carried. He did not use it as a rule, but carried it just in case. They didn’t sell aspirin in the pocket-sized tins anymore. He had bought it at Havey and Wilson’s—the tin and its contents—thirty, forty years back. Behind the tin of aspirin was a vial of nitro pills. He thumbed the seal, checking if anyone had been nicking his pills. This was unlikely but you never knew. Lucy massaged the swelling at the front of his other, human knee. “Original equipment. Me—all me more or less, God damn it. The good knee is the one from McDonnell Douglas.” He popped open the aspirin tin and warily selected two of the large orange pills. He popped them in his mouth, then popped in two more. He chewed them, grinding off the enteric coating, promoted as keeping the pills from dissolving until they passed safely into the colon. “Not bad.” He swallowed and waited. Relief came to the aching knee and with it a fresh prick of pain from his stomach.

He attached the 6 volt motorcycle battery he had carried in with a set of jumper cables. “Fly or die, here we go.” Lucy eased himself back into the driver’s seat and jogged the starter a few times. Nothing. The same cloud of blue oil issued from the open cylinders. He waited a minute and cranked again. Less smoke, nothing else. And again even less smoke. He gapped the plugs with a jackknife and screwed them back in place. The car started. “Gotcha.” By then he was tired enough to doubt his judgment and his reflexes. He hobbled back to the house for a nap.

*  *  *

Twenty years earlier, then in his seventies, Lucy drove 140 miles to the south, to Bangor to be alone, by himself. Ed Hobart volunteered to drive him, but Lucy demurred. The given reason for the trip was an impacted wisdom tooth. The closest specialist in extractions was in Bangor. Hence, the drive. It would take three, maybe four hours Lucy figured, but there was a bottle of cut-rate bourbon, an emergency pain killer, he kept stashed under the seat. That he did not have a valid operator’s license or insurance, that the beater farm truck that usually hauled hay in summer and plowed the drive in winter had no plates, amused him. It would be a battle of wits with the state troopers. If he kept within the speed limits and didn’t run over anything bigger than a raccoon or a strayed beagle, he’d be all right. This was his first experience on a high speed four lane road and he relished it, pain or no.

Lucy drove with a map spread out on the seat beside him. It was a map of many folds, easy to open and impossible to get back into its original configuration. The exits were numbered and he steered with his knees while he studied the map. There was a spur—a rotator, the interstate bypass he had to catch on the first pass or keep on going until he got to Orono to make a U-turn.

A grandmotherly bluehair toodling along beside him turned and grinned sympathetically. The sweet smell of transmission fluid and partially burned gasoline filled his eyes and brought him to tears. A brake rider—she needed a head gasket. The backdraft of a passing semitrailer sucked his map out the window; Lucy glared. Her lips formed the words “It’s always something.” Lucy debated running her off the road. The terrain was steep and, except for the clear stretch of a quarter mile near the turnoff, the ascending switchbacks made for dangerous passing. She might very well kill them both. She hit her brakes and accelerator simultaneously as she waved and skidded into a U turn at their mutual missed exit.

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