Midwife in the Tire Swing
Intermezzo 19—Nasty business, peace
It is November 11, 1918, Armistice Day. This is another time, a time inside the private movies Lucy sometime plays in the aftermath of a brain event—those small strokes that accompany great age. In his movies-out-of-time he is someone else. Lucy once asks the librarian, a Goodall girl, the granddaughter of George and Azalea, about this. He has a friend, he says; he is concerned. This is good; the girl’s forehead displays a wrinkle. She taps at her keyboard. “Transient ischemic attack,” she says. She smiles. Lucy smiles.
Departing the library, Lucy stumbles and catches himself against the pediment of Our Heroes, a patinated bronze Union infantryman. He checks if anybody has seen. There is no one watching. “This will be our secret, Corporal, the balance thing. I pledge to henceforth name every successive barn cat after one of the 5th Maine Volunteers—a kind of immortality. Better than I’ll get. You and I, soldier, may be the last homeless veteran or unemployed turret gunner left out in the rain in the state of Maine. Ever meet a woman called Euphrosyne? She used to picnic here in the park. My wife’s mother. Whaddya say? Yes? Good. Cat’s mother was a flaming nutjob; did I ever tell you that?” The Union corporal, Tim Spaulding once of Eastport, groomed his mustache and coughed up a minie ball.
“Gesundheit. She died of tuberculosis. At a health spa, not from Confederate lead—there’s an oxymoron there if you care to look for it. Cat’s mother is dead, no statue, her torch of insanity passed to her daughter. I am alive, now retired, verb transitive, due to the reluctance of American taxpayers to keep me flying after the Germans shot down most of our airplanes. No small accomplishment when you count up the missions in which we delivered tons of ordnance on the heads of innocent civilians. All those bullets, thousands of misses by the Wehrmacht targeteers, and me guilty as sin. What do you think about that? Innocence as the culpability of souls where the United States of America chooses to drop its bombs?” Corporal Spaulding is puzzled, but Lucy keeps going.
“And then there is the peace. Peace has a quieting effect on corporals and turret gunners alike. Vox populi, the taxpayers have spoken. Nasty business, peace.
“Our former employers expected us to go someplace to lie down and be good boys, all grown up and ready for their next war. In the Year of Grace 1945, having survived my war unbloodied, I reveled in a life of moderate sloth punctuated by the demands of a wife, Catherine, and one son, Elliot. The son is dead these fifty years, and the wife is hopelessly addled, a viewer of game show reruns.
“I read books—this is my foolishness, what care my wife has me hide them in the barn. This is about the garish colors and exposed flesh on the covers. These are pulp magazines and science fiction paperbacks, many imported from other lives now ended with a touch of the undertaker. Cat thinks visitors might see them and this would diminish our standing in the community. She will never throw them out for Catherine my Cat will never go into the barn. This is about ‘curb appeal,’ a thing spoken of in women’s magazines. Having the garbage men handing them about, these lurid covers, might diminish my books’ status as curbside recyclables. Maine is not a state much for reading books, but pasturage is a demand commodity and it is by selling hay that I earn my humble bread.”
“If we should ever become separated by an onset of unexpected sanity, shed me no tears, but I would leave you with a bit of advice, one veteran to another—‘Never give a sucker an even break.’ That is what I told the printers to scroll across the base of my bookplate, where the printer’s catalog of simulated woodcuts suggested a family motto. My bookplates were so expensive I could not bear to glue them to the inside covers of pulp adventure magazines to be stored in the barn. In case you have missed the reference, the quote is from W. C. Fields in a movie I greatly relished as a young man.” The statue raised an eyebrow.
“Movie. Kinda like flip-cards.” The soldier nodded. The statue seemed satisfied with this.
“Thank you for listening. In any census of meaningful monuments; you shall be number two—I have counted myself as number one. I have taken the trouble to marry the third, and she me. A fit of passion, true, but we have many decades of imaginative intercourse trailing out behind us, much of it with each other. You like music?” The statue might have smiled.
“Excellent. I shall tell you about Catherine Armstrong Hobart, Cat my wife, as though she were a child who, playing the piano or giving a recitation from memory, has done something precious, inadvertently achieved beyond her years. She has forgotten her place in the piece, but so totally absorbed is she and being towed along by her own rapt enthusiasm, she extemporizes a phrase from the child-mind of God himself, far superior to anything the original composer would have come up with in a hundred chance years. George and Azalea Goodall own the hardware store. They are children of the nineteenth century who not even in the afterlife will accept Roosevelt or the germ theory. The adults are uneasy, not sure what they are witnessing:
“‘Simply marvelous, Catherine. Did you think of that all by yourself?’
“It would make no difference if the recital in my anecdote was performed when Cat the wife was six or eighty-six years old. Nobody would have patronized Catherine. Actually, nobody usually showed up for her piano recitals either. Not even her parents. Our Catherine might shine, but not rise.” There is a whiff of buttered popcorn. Tim Spaulding looks interested.
“She is a child performing for company almost a century past. Not our company, to be sure, for I would not have allowed a piano in the house. The guests would be her parents’—Gladstone’s and Euphrosyne’s—guests, and this afternoon she is exercising their black piano under its tasseled silk throw. Catherine really plays quite well and has presented them with this week’s lesson, a divertimento she had by heart in less than the allotted time. But the one lacuna, a brilliant improvisation with hardly a hesitation, and she is through.
“No one has noticed. Catherine stays seated at the piano.
“‘Sooo...’ George and Azalea turn to her father and mother. The guests have lost their place in the predictable flow of a Sunday visit.
“Soooo... ‘Mrs. Armstrong, that’s quite a young lady you’ve got there.’
“The Sunday visitor swirls his empty drink. He is waiting. His name is George, but he is dead. They are all dead except for Cat and me—we linger on like lusty wraiths. This is a scenario into which I have written myself and which I replay for my own private picture shows. Cat was a lusty lass, even though in her private imaginings she would be the love slave of a radio preacher. A Catholic priest, no less, supposedly celibate.
“Earlier in the private picture show, I am not Gladstone Armstrong, but myself, Lucy Hobart, though of an era to match the wallpaper and the furniture. This is how revelations work. I follow George out to the kitchen for refills while his wife and Catherine talk about school. Azalea misses having a child about the house, her own empty nest having been vacated by a virulent case of the measles some years earlier. Azalea gets dewy-eyed and deep into a discussion of Cat’s sixth grade social studies project.
“While I wrestle with the handle on the ice cube tray, George has strayed outdoors glass in hand to admire our Willipaq Sunday afternoon. Then he is in midair. ‘Whoaa...’ He has stepped on a roller skate and has his arms wrapped around a corner post at the head of the steps. “First time someone gets a broken leg and a trip to the hospital, your premiums are going to double, if the underwriters don’t drop you altogether.”
Lucy chokes back a snappy reply.
“After a harrowing experience like that a guy requires fortification. Don’t ask me to say when, that’s what I say,” says George, holding out his glass which has survived the skid intact. His host gives George four fingers of scotch over his ice and studies the drink appreciatively before handing it over. He congratulates the Sunday visitor on his balance and reflexes.”
“Ahh, that’s just the ticket. Shall we join the ladies?” George makes pantomime suggesting a carpenter driving a large plane down a board. George is a sketch. They joined the ladies. Lucy thinks, He is of his world, sixty-two years gone as I measure the sidereal longitude of time’s passages, and I in mine.
Azalea’s gaze is trailing absently after the departing Cat, diminishing over the patterned linoleum and through the kitchen door to where backyard baseball was forming up. Her eyes have the forgetful, misty glaze of a childless middle age. Her half-turn on the velvet sofa reveals very much of her very marvelous legs.
“‘Sooo...’ Azalea synthesizes. Thesis, hypothesis, synthesis. In loco parentis, they have quelled the rebel child. Cat the child will allow her resentments to grow and ripen. Soon she will celebrate her one hundred and eleventh birthday.
“Azalea holds me by the arm during my recasting of the event and whispers close to my ear. ‘Lucy, you are in my prayers every night.’
“I could have told her that if I were of the praying persuasion, she, too, would be in mine—a brief entreaty for access to her thighs. Praying for me was well and good, but praying then telling the target of one’s benediction is tacky. I thank her. This is in the private movie, of course. ‘I am Lucy Hobart,’ I say, ‘I am quite the pervert.’ The Goodalls smile and nod, their generation evaporated along with the electric interurban lines that once sped us to Bangor and Boston on nothing but a whim and a pocketful of quarters.
“‘Sooo... only too marvelous, Azalea. You must spread them for us more often.’”
The words are not said. Socially perfect, she has reverted to a careless posture. Sitting all day on a high stool at the cash register is what does it. Gladstone’s eyes swivel to follow the action; he catches himself and pulls back. Lucy’s eyes continue to stare. Conscious of her husband but not of Lucy, Azalea’s knees snap together, the tramway to the Promised Land temporarily out of order.
“She’ll be back healthy as a horse and rosy as a pippin.” Azalea really says this. She does not mean Catherine, Lucy’s future wife, but her mother. Euphrosyne has tuberculosis. For the Consumption, a trip to the mountains. Horses and apples speak of health. Azalea’s veiled promise and Euphrosyne’s distant death are not to be spoken of.
“...and there are these injections I hear about...” George means antibiotics. Penicillin and mountain air. If Euphrosyne Armstrong were tubercular and gone for the cure, they would have had her back in six months. But antibiotics were not available then, the time of this masquerade. Sulfonamides were the miracle cure of the day, considered efficacious for everything from scabies to the clap.
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