Sylvie’s Suitcase

the invention of television, Jesus arrives, etc.
by Rob Hunter

Sylvie’s Suitcase

Her husband knew.

Fytte the First

Fr. Charles Coughlin set down the book he had been reading, Sylvie’s Suitcase, a short story collection. The title piece was about a woman in search of her lost self—what she might have become if she had not married young. Sixteen. Fr. Coughlin didn’t think sixteen was too young. The girls in high school were doing it like rabbits, giving it away. Or so he thought, so they told him in the confessional with an outbreak of giggles; they never offered him any.

In the story the husband was an indifferently cruel man; his slights and abuses gave his wife a framework for her life. Without him she was a cipher, zero. “Validation,” Fr. Coughlin explained to the small collie dog that had been following him as he paced. “That’s all the woman wants. He gives her validation. Well, plus the bruises and the insults. Want some entertainment while we have our dinners?” he asked the dog. There was some tail wagging. He clicked on the television which had yet to be invented.

“The power is in you...” From between guardian gates of veneered mahogany, dead center in the television’s tiny screen, a lacquered, pomaded TV preacher leered out from behind a fence of scan lines. Fr. Coughlin gave the TV a kick. The picture rolled over, the screen went dark, then popped back on minus the lines but with the sound full throttle.

“I guess we missed something while he was away, huh, Amelia?” Fr. Coughlin said to the collie dog.

“JESUS IS WAITING,” boomed the preacher.

“Not for the Pentecostals.” The telephone rang. “Coming.”

A clearing of a throat, a hushed cough in the receiver. “You are watching me.” It was the preacher from the television.

“I reckon,” said Fr. Coughlin, “And could you pull down the volume? I’m not deaf you know.”

“You are not surprised then.”

“About?”

“Me. Knowing about you. Hello, hello?” There was a flash, a crackle, and the TV came back on. The preacher was standing in front of a cardboard spaceship covered with aluminum foil, holding a daffodil-style telephone and jiggling its hook. “Oh, there you are, father.” A bubbling fog of dry ice vapor rose at his feet. “You are on the phone while you are watching me on TV. You have been doubly blessed; TV has yet to be made known. Check in your trash bin. There will be something there for you—a token of our appreciation. It will be...” There was a drum roll. “A crate of fresh-picked pink grapefruit flown in direct from Florida. In an airplane—this is a miracle.”

“Sally Baggs in the 10th grade. Sally is a decent girl, God-fearing. You know so much about me, then of course you know of Sally. Sally has performed fellatio while driving with her knees, so she tells me. Save the citrus, that is a miracle.” The TV evangelist became fidgety and wiped his palms repeatedly on his trousers. “You have been eavesdropping at my confessional. Ah, but I see you are flying to Mars,” said Fr. Coughlin. “I won’t keep you, cheerio.” Fr. Coughlin crossed himself. The dry ice fog was carried off on the studio wind.

“She told you that?” The man on television consulted a thick pad of scribbled notes. “No, you are her confessor; you don’t know this first hand, albeit I’ll grant the two are not mutually exclusive. Or you have tampered with Sally? Unlikely. In fact Sally’s here with me now.” There was a snapping of fingers and some fumbling as the daffodil telephone was handed over.

“Hi, Fr. Coughlin,” said a female voice. “Why don’t Catholics get to go on TV, father?”

“You mean radio; TV hasn’t been invented yet,” the Radio Priest corrected. “Or the newsreels—Fox Movietone, the Mightiest of All—Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Smith...” The list went on, newsreels of Mussolini, Al Capone, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. “John Fitzgerald Kennedy...” Fr. Coughlin paused, uncertain about that last name.

“He’s not yet either, that Kennedy,” said his mother’s voice. “Alive or dead. Born. One of those... Oh, figure it out for yourself. And don’t slump, Charles. Straighten up. Ouch!” His mother was being attacked. There was a Clunk! as of a dropped receiver at Sally’s end. The small collie dog coughed—a smoker’s cough, not that of a dog about to throw up a hairball—and Fr. Coughlin felt his pants cuff rip as she bit him. “Ow!” He hopped on his unbitten leg, stifling a mild oath. The world took on unfamiliar sideways qualities as he fell to the floor.

“Ah, yes.” Amelia Mahoney Coughlin, mother of Charles Edward Coughlin, a priest of Rome, turned to the television, slavered, growled, and leapt through matrices of sub-etheric broadcast waves to launch herself at Sally’s throat. “Slut.” His mother was fighting Sally for the telephone. There was a crunch and a whimper.

“Hey! She bit me,” cried Sally Baggs.

Amelia Mahoney Coughlin hissed, “You can see my son any time―in church, bitch.”

Sympathetic welts rose on Fr. Coughlin’s face and neck as teeming letters, alphabetine insects, swarmed from the upcountry Ontario muskeg with the faces of newsmakers past, a blood-sucking alphabet soup. “Mother! Stop that. It’s me, your son Charles.”

“Bow-wow,” said the small collie dog.

“Yep, she bit her. Then you. Your mother.” At his side the TV preacher coughed and spat.

“It’s all right; I’ve had my shots. Besides, I’m dead, a lost angel. Charles,” his mother whispered into Fr. Coughlin’s ear. “Jesus is waiting for you. Television hasn’t been invented yet.”

“I know that. And tell Jesus he’ll have to wait. You and Sally are enough for one day,” said Fr. Coughlin. He gingerly set the phone back in its cradle.

Fytte the Second

Blam Blam Blam. Someone pounding on the door with the lid of a trash bin. Blam-ity Blam Blam—a counterpoint to the lightning rampaging across the sky. Charles Coughlin, priest of Rome, pulled back the curtain. Humidity steamed the glass, which Fr. Coughlin wiped with a sleeve. Through the streaks a nondescript man was standing calmly in the downpour. Waiting.

“I need ten daisies? I’m getting married this afternoon?” The speaker was youngish, his hair center-parted in the style of a hundred years before. He spoke in half-inflected questions, almost apologetically. “To her.” He jerked his head toward the road where a motorcycle was parked. A young woman looked expectantly from the sidecar.

Fr. Coughlin had, since coming to the Shrine of the Little Flower, nurtured a—quite handsome if he did say so himself—patch of daisies: gloriosas, black-eyed Susans, and echinacea of every race and flavor. Most of the daisies had begun life in the wild. A Guatemalan gardener, Enrique Lavan, dogged the father’s footsteps like a devoted hound. “He is embarrassing,” said Fr. Coughlin, “But, on the other hand, he does not bite like my mother, and I have a black thumb. I am an avid gardener, but by proxy.” Enrique carried a bucket and a shovel in the 1922 Ford truck that doubled as the Shrine’s shuttle coach during the retreat season.

“That is quite thoughtful, the flowers,” said Fr. Charles E. Coughlin to Jesus, who indeed it was. “Although if you are in love I would suppose that a mutual concern over the feelings of one’s intended would come with the territory.”

“If you are not going to have the simple civility to invite me in out of the rain, you could at least come out and stand here with me. She’ll be alright.” He again nodded to the young woman in the sidecar.

“Sorry. Puddles. Enrique just finished the linoleum.” Fr. Coughlin handed him a towel. “Here,” he said. “For your hair?” He noticed that but a few moments with the visitor camped on the rectory stoop and he himself had begun speaking in half-inflected proto-questions. “And why ten? Damn. There I did it again.”

“Ten because twelve is showy and pretentious. The Apostles?” The young man standing in the rain squinted. “Did what again?”

“Not to bother, my friend. That shall remain my concern. You have twelve covered, lèse majesté. And less than ten? What then?”

The young man fidgeted and wiped his feet. Prodigious clumps of mud came off and clung to the doormat. “Whoa sagebrush, you’ve got me there. Doesn’t seem right, does it? All out of balance. After six years in seminary, you should recognize me.” He looked past the priest as though referencing himself in for a curl-up by the fire. “It’s me, Jesus. More or less.”

“Yes...” said Fr. Coughlin, “...less. Oh, definitely less. Come back tomorrow.” He had stood his ground. It felt tangentially inhumane leaving his caller in the rain, but he had showed him no more nor less consideration than the young man had shown the girl—his wife-to-be—in the motorcycle’s sidecar.

“That’s all quite well for you to say, you there, Mister Householder all uppity and superior under your tight-shingled roofage. And while you’re at it, Mr. High-and-Mighty, why not six, or a dozen?” The man at the door tossed his head back like a retriever, some waterdog, shaking loose a halo of shimmering droplets.

“Savior. Jesus. That is you?” The man turned. There was a circle of light surrounding his head and a smear of scarlet on his mouth.

“Yes...” said the man. “So? It’s not tomorrow? I distinctly heard you say I should wait. That I’d be here today. You said ‘tomorrow.’ Yesterday—that’s when you said it, or it will be tomorrow if we are granted such. You may wait with me. Yesterday—today? Anyway, keep it bent for Lent—you know the drill.”

“Wait. This not about the flowers, then; it’s about how many flowers. The woman—the girl—she is not getting married at all is she? This is all about you and your numbers with that poor woman left out standing in the rain. She will develop a cough too.”

“Don’t worry about her, father. She’s dead. Vilified, sanctified, canonized and set to gather dust on the shelf of history.”

Fr. Coughlin patted his pockets, “Christ, I wish I had a cigarette.”

“Sit down and let me tell you a tale of redemption and a failed saint. OK?”

“Uhn... Sure.”

“You are? Sure that I am the Savior, come again? Perhaps I may be the Great Beast—the Antichrist, for all you know—Hugh Laurie or Lenny Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld conceivably. Think about it. On the other hand, I could be some streetwise bum who smokes too much and has attached himself to a sedulous member of the clergy, seeing a potential meal ticket behind the Roman collar. Potential. That’s from the Latin for...”

Fr. Coughlin stepped forward, chin thrust out. “Potestas, virility, the seminal power that springs from the loins of the man. Or the loins of the state. Conferred, it is. A powerful power, being. Possum. From the verb ‘to be.’ Auctorictas principis, a divine authority conferred upon a human by God. I know what Latin is. I am a priest of the Congregation of the See of St. Peter.”

Jesus met the father chin-to-chin. “Well, I suppose having Latin is enough to ask of a Roman priest. Forget your seminary days—the pubescent fever dreams, sinus congestion, and early waking to wet sheets.”

A pitiful snuffle and a muffled cough filtered toward them through sheets of rain. “You’re certain...” Fr. Coughlin squinted toward the figure huddled at the end of the garden.

“For My sake, let’s get inside,” said Jesus. The men entered to where a kettle boiled, windows were steamed and a jolly odor of roasted fowl and pastry baking filled the room. “Nice digs. What do I want of you? This is what you are thinking. I want you to find fulfillment, father. That and I shall be happy.”

“I am fulfilled.”

“Not yet. You have a rich parish; that is all, no redemption. Here is the second part of the story, the failed saint. Sit.”

Father Coughlin sat.

Fytte the Third

In the story Sylvie turned to check under the skirt of the daybed. Sylvie kept her suitcase packed and at the ready. Her husband knew. Of course he knew—all those hours alone at home while she was away at her daytime employment as a bookkeeper. He would have found it.

The suitcase was one of those brown overnighters, its outside printed in a pattern to simulate woven rattan. Saturday mornings she would carry her suitcase to the bedroom and flip it open to sort and inventory her personal things. She sniffed for mustiness, shook out the wrinkles and carefully laid the week-old lingerie in the clothes hamper. She then replaced it with a freshly laundered set.

“You are packed,” said the husband. He glared at Fr. Coughlin who by rights he should not have known was listening. A wave and hail from a parallel world—spinning past but unreachable, another dimension.

“Dr. Harmon,” Sylvie said.

“Yes...” said Charles Coughlin to the book, Sylvie’s Suitcase, “and...”

“Dr. Harmon says I have a malignancy,” said Sylvie. “A lump.”

“Malignancy is just a scary word. Better get a mammogram. That is where you have the lump, I have been reading ahead. Get a mammogram. It’ll be nothing,” the Radio Priest lied.

“Ohhh. Thank you.”

“You are packed,” observed Fr. Coughlin, echoing the words of her husband. In the book Sylvie started, stared at the ceiling and crossed herself. Sylvie chose not to acknowledge her husband; she had learned to tune him out. “Uh, sorry,” said Fr. Coughlin. The suitcase she would now be taking to the hospital. He was happy for her in that she would have clean underwear what with the cancer and all.

Fytte the Fourth

“I’m wet.”

They were back at the door—one in, one out.

“It’s water, so walk on it,” Fr. Coughlin replied.

“Wrong time. Not now—it would be showing off,” said Jesus.

The dog seemed to approve of this answer. She sat to worry a flea on her hindquarters, arched a leg and fell over. The bouncing and barking had stopped. She lapped contentedly at her crotch. “Amelia! Mother. Manners,” said the priest.

“See,” said the man in the rain.

“See what?”

The visitor thrust his nose in past the chain. “She knows the real thing. The dog. I’m it.” There was another flash of lightning. “That’s my Father. He is ineluctable and inscrutable. You could be next. Or not. Not to worry, we’re safe. I’m just hanging out.”

“You’re Jesus.”

“Yep. Or just some harmless nut. Your call.”

Fr. Coughlin unlatched the chain. “I’m going for a bath towel. Stay put.”

“Here?”

“There. You’re wet already. What’s a little more rain to Jesus?”

“You’ve got a point there.”

Fr. Coughlin stood on tiptoe to lean forward and peer into the dooryard. At a series of flashes he made out what appeared to be a female form hunkered down under a poncho. Back at the front door, Fr. Coughlin pulled the man inside and thrust the towel in his face. “How about your girlfriend? The Magdalene? Sally... That is Sally, isn’t it?”

Jesus coughed up blood. Fr. Charles E. Coughlin offered a handkerchief. The two were now in the vestry stairwell of the Shrine Church of the Little Flower. “Ichor. Sacred blood,” said Jesus. “Should be green. Strange.” He coughed again; globules glistened in the cloth which was now sacred. “The hanky has been sanctified. You could rake in the big bucks with this puppy, Father.” He brandished the holy hanky, shook out the creases, then wiped at a picture of the Little Flower which hung in the stairwell, six steps up from the pier glass landing. There was some smearing.

“Mary is the flower in which God lies hidden...” Fr. Coughlin was uneasy ministering to the sick; they got so close. He made a vague movement over the kerchief that could have been seen as a blessing.

“You possess the red-faced resonance of booming good health,” said Jesus. Here the Savior broke into a choking fit. Fr. Coughlin pounded him on the back and wiped his forehead with the bloody handkerchief. “Considering. Better check on yourself in the mirror. To see if you are here.”

The Finale

A suitcase, any suitcase—spare nighties, dry socks, a threadbare house dress, in all sorts of weather bonding the runaway to her baggage. Sylvie has found hers on the street, discarded, not unlike her. Sylvie keeps the books at Weller & Klein Precision Machinework. The job is afternoons only, bookkeeping only. Klein answers the phone himself. There is a regular 3:00 pm call that keeps him out of the way for a half hour at least. This is Sylvie’s time. She walks, exploring the Precision Machinework neighborhood on foot.

She might run but she will never escape—the abusive husband, perhaps. She thinks of killing him on these walks of hers before returning to the drudgery of galvanized grommets per tare-weight. If she murders him, the brute—more power to her—his face will appear in the mists of her midnight sweats and waking horrors. Sylvie slumped to the ground, sobbing. She was quickly covered by a cloud of pigeons that pecked at her and the fiberboard suitcase. It had come in simulated rattan with two web straps when it was new. That it had been new once, Sylvie supposed. It had been thrown out, discarded; something bad must have happened. She should never have touched it. There was one remaining strap when Sylvie pulled it out of the dumpster at Cassie and Callaghan, a specialty grocery she passed on her walk from the bus station. The strap flopped listlessly. She waved an arm at the no-see-ems that rose in a cloud, attracted by her breath. She waited amazed by the dumpster and the aura of benign holiness emanating from the insect cloud.

She must have stood there, the suitcase in her extended arms for... 30 minutes? An hour? She and the cloud of midges regarded one another—their minute hoverings, her silent breathing; she exploring her oneness with the cloud, the suitcase—the empty vessel which it was and which she had become. Sylvie picked up a charleyhorse in her right leg from lack of circulation, fell down and broke the spell. If these had been moths, I would have run away, she thought. The no-see-ems swarmed off on other business.

The suitcase. With Klein on his afternoon call there was still time. She opened it carefully. A skunk, a raccoon, you never knew. It was empty save for the decaying roses smell of an old lady’s underwear drawer, not even a pair of socks.

Sylvie, before she was married, worked mill girl hours—with a ten hour day and a six-and-a-half day week, she was most nights too tired for even dreams of romance. However she lived in a dormitory with 36 other girls who took the bus home to their families on Christmas. She was not invited to tag along. “No, and now I cannot even shake hands for I am glued to my suitcase. It is the tape.” Sylvie was thankful for Weller and Klein, their grommets and headers, and grudgingly, their tape.

Sylvie had by now shaken off her insect attackers and crept close to her suitcase, shooing the birds away. Fr. Coughlin saw the tape that held the case together was colored purple. “Why purple?” he asked Jesus.

“Because that was all they had at the office. She pinched a roll and made her getaway. She has taken the wrong train. She is in the wrong town,” said Jesus. “Any town except where she comes from would be the right town—Sylvie now keeps the suitcase at work lest her husband finds out. That would mean a broken rib or dislocated shoulder for sure.”

“Sylvie?” asked Fr. Coughlin.

“Because that is her name,” said Jesus. “I am making this up—work with me. Becoming stuck to one’s suitcase makes denial of ownership difficult if not impossible. Therefore you are who you say you are; people only distance themselves from frustration and regret. Come, crucifixion has made me cold, but not dead.”

Thunder crashed and a lightning bolt drilled into the ground down by the road. A piece of blackened earth and the smoking skeleton of an ornamental yew tree marked where the lightning had struck, but the woman’s sobbing said she was still alive. “I suppose you think that’s funny,” said the man, Jesus. “One of these Judgment Day chuckles of yours. Well, I am getting positively drenched and it’s all Your fault.”

“My fault...” Fr. Coughlin started to say.

“No, not you, dummy. His.” The man on the doorstep shook a fist at the sky. “My Father.”

“Hi, Father,” said a female voice, meaning the priest and not the Heavenly Presence. There was the odor of gasoline.

“Hi, Sally.”

The moon winked. Then winked again as a gnat struggled under Fr. Coughlin’s eyelid. In the middle distance a night-hunting creature paused to listen. There was a whimper, then a howl. It scurried off.

“Critic,” said Jesus.

“I beg your pardon...” Fr. Coughlin winked back at the moon. All he wanted was things back the way they were. The eyelid stung, smarted, then let fall a tear that carried away the corpse of the gnat.

copyright 2015 Rob Hunter

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