Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 11—Ed Hobart is tempted
A clock ticked somewhere in the silent, drafty Extension office. Ed Hobart sat at his desk moving piles of manila folders from the left side In box to the right side Out box. He would open the folders, do a perfunctory scan of the contents—always paper-clipped with a letter from Heidi, immaculately typed, that awaited his signature—sign, riffle, grunt, close the folder. He looked across the street. No Heidi at the diner. He wondered where she was and felt a wrench of jealousy. She should be here, with me, where she is needed. Needed. For what? She had done all the work—hers and his—and left early for a trip to the Mall.
With no Heidi on the premises, he unlocked a bottom drawer and withdrew a pair of bird-watching binoculars. Across the street, through the plate glass panes of the Wilco diner, two women enter. Their body language says they are a couple—they have upper-arm wattles that droop and sway as they gesture. The 60-something twosome sport pedal pushers and pastel tops, one green and one lavender, both with three-quarter length sleeves. Green wears a leather shoulder bag; lavender carries a woven grass tote. They pause, arms behind their backs, hands clasped. Arsenault smiles and waves them to a booth. Keys on a camera strap depend between Green’s ample breasts—step, bounce, jiggle, clink, smile—I am a serious piece of business. Green enters the washroom; Lavender primps and waits for her return, fingering an unopened menu.
Ed got up and walked over to the wall behind his secretary’s desk where a large, loud clock spun away the seconds, minutes, hours. It came from Walmart and lost five minutes a week. “I want to get laid,” said Ed. He held his head against the clock’s plastic face; it felt cool without being cool, a caress of plastic. The second hand wobbled. There was a hum and not a tick. He tried the biorhythm technique Sue Maldonado née Sue Murray tried to get him to learn. “Hold yourself still and feel the essence of eternity,” she had said. He heard his heart pounding and the rush of blood inside his ears; Sue’s hand was in his pants at the time.
“I heard my ears, is all,” Ed said.
“You have a sensory integration dysfunction,” she said after they made love. “You see, hear and feel but you can’t make the connection with what you have heard, seen and felt. You are disconnected with the history of your feelings.”
The ticking continued. Ed traced it to the middle drawer in Heidi’s desk. Not locked—but then, why should it be? There was his alarm clock from home, the one he had brought in to bolster his cover-up excuse for staying late at the office just to keep ahead of her on the previous day’s work. He had told her it was broken. She had hidden it in the drawer. For what, an accusation? No, not Heidi’s style. If a thing still worked it was therefore too good to toss in the trash and she kept it against future need. Like him. He returned to his own desk where he jockeyed the chair back into position with a nudge of a hip and settled in with the binoculars.
A child, a girl—long straight blond hair—bends to examine a display of art quilts the local quilt guild has set up near the diner’s door. The fabric’s artful drape continues in a cascade that spills out onto the floor. The girl bends further, a presentation of goods, unselfconscious and practiced. Ed adjusts his focus. There is a balletic adjustment. Was that a wiggle, a sensory tweak for any chance watcher? The woman is not a child—the woman is a woman and feels we all should all know this. The man who accompanies her looks on. He reaches out a hand, near but not touching her presentation of ass-at-the-ready. He is broad-shouldered with a closely-trimmed brown beard. His stance says, “This woman is mine. I’m OK; I’m not gay.” The woman is for display purposes—not right now, not here for the sex, maybe later. He wears faded blue jeans, shrink-to-fits, with a blousy t-shirt to show off his shoulders. He works out and is not gay. A country line-dancer, perhaps.
As if sensing the hovering hand, the woman stands, aware that her shorts may be too short for the occasion. She holds a fashion magazine—cover bright salmon pink—over her crotch. Her escort smiles possessively. Both wear sandals and circulate to the post card rack, nodding, appreciating. The nymphet sports a small but observable belly—not noticeable except for her drawing attention to it with the magazine. She is attractive; her belly is more sensuous than alarming. Is she having her period? Is she pregnant? Is she keeping a secret? Theo comes out from behind the counter to personally guide them to a table.
Ed wants the child-woman.
The University Extension was alert to its liabilities and has sought to insulate itself from lawsuits brought on by just such thoughts as he was having. He would need a waiver from a parent. Or husband. May I take Gwendola to the woods for a quickie? It won’t take long, I promise. Regards, Ed Hobart. Not too likely. Vehicles were for official Extension business only. Only University faculty, staff, and students rode in the Extension vehicles. It was strongly recommended that more than one adult be in a vehicle when transporting youth; an adult “shall never intentionally place him-/her-self in a one-on-one situation with a minor.”
The child-woman and the straight, not-gay man settle in at a table near the Reiki demonstrator’s display. She will be here next Tuesday, part of Arsenault’s Outreach. With a satellite campus in town, Arsenault wanted the Wilco to be seen as eco-friendly and offered vegan specials.
The Extension’s country store bell-on-a-spring jangled cheerily as Heidi struggled through the door, her arms around 12-count plastic-wrapped balloons of discount paper towels and toilet paper. “Hiya, Ed, back from Wally-World.” Ed scrambled to get the binoculars back in the drawer.
Across the street, New Age music fluttered indecisively from a boom box at the Reiki demonstrator’s table.
The priest and the angel were in a shadowless nowhere, rather like a museum gallery, with diffused gray light and cornerings that defied the eye to find where its walls ended and its floors began. A stray sunbeam flashed dull highlights of tarnished brass. A clockwork woman, the Prophetess, sat on an elevated platform slumped over her needlework. The two circled, a purposeful academic ramble, hands in pockets. They appeared deep in thought. “Poke her,” said Dave the Angel. “Come along now, priest—give ’er the old one-two with a rigid digit, there’s a good chap.”
“It, she, is a machine.” The rector of the Radio Shrine of the Little Flower stood aghast.
Joanna Southcott, the Prophetess, wore a ticking-striped high-waisted Regency day costume with a starched cap. A large key protruded from the center of her back. “A proper widow’s hump I’d call that,” said Dave Peel.
“We are to have the words of Our Lord and Savior be interpreted by a mechanical toy, then?” Fr. Coughlin grumped.
“Mechanical surely. But no toy, she is the real thing. Right, Joanna?” Dave poked the Prophetess.
“Mind yer fingers,” said Joanna. A metal fist fetched Dave a roundhouse right. He went caroming about the ill-defined space that held the three of them, seeming to bounce off where otherwise there appeared to be empty air.
Dave stopped spinning. “Ah, Madam Southcott, if I may...”
“‘Course ye may, Satan’s spawn. Yer kind allus takes whut ’ee want. The Living Christ’ll stop ’ee. Mark my words.” Fr. Coughlin crossed himself.
“Joanna, Joanna,” said Dave the Angel. “For auld lang syne, my most insightful seer. We are after all working the same tip, just from opposite sides of the street. Bear with me, my passion flower. Your revelations carry great weight with certain, ahhh... Personages.”
“Crime, banditry, distress and perplexity,” said the automaton. Its voice was heavy with an antique dialect, uninflected as though generated by a piece of no frills text-to-speech software. “Make the bishops open my box. Wind me, Dave.”
“A minute, Love.”
Fr. Coughlin pulled Dave aside. The mechanical Prophetess followed them with great polished carbuncle eyes, flecked with gold and shot with red. Dave held a cautionary finger to the side of his nose and nodded in her direction. “If you have anything to say that you are chary of having got about wholesale, t’were best to expel such utterance outside of the company of yon Prophetess. She is the quintessential bigmouth; this is her sacred calling. As of all the seven English prophets of modern times of which she is the one and preeminent female, to wit...”
“She hears voices,” said Fr. Coughlin, looking up nervously to the clockwork Seer. “Crackpottery, put-on religiosity.”
“No. Not voices, but a Voice,” said Joanna the Prophetess. [note 1]
note 1: The voice Joanna heard was The Voice, her mentor and teacher of unknown provenance, still a mystery even to this day. In 1792 the Spirit of Truth visited, warning her of bad stuff coming down on the whole earth. She was commanded to write as the Spirit dictated, channeling the pungent prophets of the Old Testament. The Southcottian nose was raised and wrinkled. Nonetheless, she was commanded to write it down and get it right, then disseminate her screed to a waiting world. Our Joanna performed admirably: she bankrolled a printing that forewarned the nation of the coming Napoleonic wars and of crop failures and disturbances at a time when there was as yet no hint of danger to England. In her day she had a following of many thousands, but little joy, since the church to which she often pleaded to judge her words—whether they be true or false—declined to do so.
She stuck out her tongue at him. “The Voice of God. And I’d be careful hurling careless encomia if I were you, Chuckie-lad. For ‘crackpot’ ravings, ‘quackery’ and the like? Read ’ee much o’ yer Bible lately? I should particularly recommend the Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. Really, Popish priest. Get a liii-ife.” The Prophetess had wound down and slumped forward, head between her knees.
“You said she was an agent of millenarianism.” Fr. Coughlin had discovered that he was blushing and turned away from the woman on the dais. “And seven prophets. I had but heard of two, and they both false and both American.”
“Have a seat, priest. As you are wanting in matters of imported heretics, it is time for a little backstory. This is common knowledge.
“Her parents had brought her up to attend church regularly, to read her Bible daily, and to be sincere and hard working—whether on the farm, in domestic service, or at the crafts of upholstery and needlework. Her apologists revere her as a petticoated Forerunner, a Baptist in bloomers.” Dave stopped. Throughout his soliloquy he had been searching his person for a cigarette. Finding one, he looked up, smiled and looked expectant. “Sensible, pretty and humorous, in early life she showed no signs of a prophetic calling. You wouldn’t have a light, would you Father? I’m without.”
“Your allusion would give her the leadership of a coven of cranks. Not...”
“Not your Great Whore at Rome—another quackery. Have no fear, Father; the popish curia is clear on that charge at least. No, a home-grown English quackery called the Panacea Society. But all that comes much later on, more than a century past her birth, Perfidious Albion being held ignorant in the twin clutches of the High Church and the Methodists.”
“Cough... lin.” It was Joanna.
“Uh, yes. You spoke.”
“O’ course I spoke, you slanderous nincompoop. That’s what prophesying is all about. Ye be Priest, enny?”
“I am a confessor of the Church of Rome,” said Charles Coughlin.
“Nah ’ardly a proper Priest, but one o’ yer bloodless Canadians.” The automaton picked her nose. “Ye want Priest; I’ll give ’ee Priest.”
At the Prophetess’ utterance of the word “Priest,” a mighty whirlwind flew in through the museum’s ductwork, picked up the Father and bore him off, into and through the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning apparatuses that made the northern hemisphere’s soggy summers breathable, and thence to a fluttering neverland of quiltwork budgerigars and like hallucinations. “I don’t think I’m in Kansas now,” said Fr. Coughlin, who had read the book but not seen the movie.
“Ye never were,” pronounced the Prophetess, fetching the Roman confessor a dope slap alongside his tonsure. “Pay attention. This is Allegory.”
A red and green budgie paused in mid-flight to take a peck at Fr. Coughlin’s eye. Fr. Coughlin flinched. “Not no ducking. Not allowed,” the quilt-bird said. Fr. Coughlin looked down to behold the Earth receding at a distressing rate.
The eager earth. It could wait, knowing there would be more allegories. Always more.
A Roman priest stands at the altar of Quetzalcoatl, celebrating an augury. He cuts a fine figure in robes of wild mountain cat and feathers of the quetzal bird. Charles E. Coughlin holds a human liver yet throbbing, considers the implications of a spleen, the intestines. Was that an extra loop there? What portend? Ah, all will be well. The writhing victim is dismissed with a magisterial wave. Attendants haul the still-living sacrifice to be cast down the steps of the sun. But what is this?—a glistening spot of augural blood seeps impudently onto the priest’s golden robes of spotted jaguar. There could not be new vestments this year; the wild cats were becoming scarce. The sacerdotal cloak will have to be rubbed and brushed with pumice. The girls will see to it. Addressing to the plumed serpent a chant of praise, words of aversion—Nothing strange in the guts this time, Lord. Thanks again for leaving things as they were—Fr. Coughlin steps down from the altar, a day’s work well done. Behind him acolytes lap the rich black blood darkening the stones, sharing the food of the gods, propitiating the ghosts that twitter about the ritual pool.
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