Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 44—Philomena and the Seer

Philomena bore herself as minor royalty, a Princess Regent perhaps, as she bent to peer through the keyhole. She held a hypoallergenic featherless duster on high—feathers made her sneeze, thus announcing a would-be eavesdropper; this would not do. Affixed with clamps to the end of a three-foot telescoping handle was a disposable pad of electrostatic fabric. The latest thing, it was advertised on TV. Crouching before the paneled door she could separate out a mumble of voices—there were two. She recognized the rhythms of Lucy and Cat—what they were saying, no. They were most likely talking about her. Philomena believed that people thought she was a snoop. Some did, some didn’t. The door was both thick and walnut, a wood suitable for table legs and chests of drawers not known for its acoustic properties.

“Ah... Ahhh.” She stifled a sneeze and looked accusingly at her allergy-free duster. It gave her unquestioned right-of-way through the byways of the Hobart house, and was therefore good. The Hobart dust was the sticky dust of ancient ancestors who clogged the vacuum’s hose and glued souvenir knick-knacks to their shelves. The hypoallergenic dusters were cheap, the pads were too, individually, and to be discarded after each use. Many pads were required to repel encroaching dust bunnies, making for a monthly cash outlay in excess of thirty dollars, big money for a widow lady dependent on what she could skim from the kitchen accounts—loose bills and small change in a stoneware cookie jar kept just above eye level with the Bundt pans and aspic molds.

Brang!

The telephone. From its niche in the entryway it rattled the hallway fixtures, agitating the filaments of Lucy’s bulbs. Philomena snapped to attention. Flourishing her cleaning wand to show she was not eavesdropping but had real work to do, she cleared a dust-free path to the phone.

Brang! Brang!

“Hello.”

Whoo-a. Damn that’s hot. Pardon me, you sound like a lady’s voice. I usually puts the youngsters in the deacon’s seat for value-added cussin’ like that, but I been trying out a jar o’ jalapeño peppers on my sandiches. That’s no excuse. I did it—talked dirty. Sorry for the ‘damn.’” From the caller’s side of the connection Philomena thought she recognized the sound of suspenders being snapped.

“Who is this?”

“Uh, yes. Hello, like they say. More important might be who’s this?”

“Mrs. Philomena Hobart. This is the Hobart residence. Whom shall I say is calling?”

“This is Elder Jesse Youngblood of the Church of the Divine Satisfaction. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I have not intentionally called you, Mrs. Philomena Hobart. Not you personally; but a person a lot like you—could be you, who’s to know? I have been guided to your telephone by the Lord God Almighty.” A bright metallic crack and a whoosh of compressed air said a pull-tab can had been opened near the receiver. Some guttural muttering, crumpling of cellophane and a muffled burp. “Havin’ a beer is all. With baloney and cheese. ’Case you were wondering. This is a wrong number; I’d like to make that clear right off. That’s my ministry, telephone outreach. I’d like to thank you for joining my little flock; you’ll be happy here with us.”

“You… you are… what? How did you get this number?”

“I dialed it. Philomena, I think I can say we’re agreed that God is all-powerful, right?”

“Well… yes.”

“So, that’s where faith comes in. You gotta believe that this is a genuine, God-certified wrong number. By which I mean to say, a right number ’cause we’re in touch and in oral intercourse, so to speak, you and me. God done it, right?”

“Who is this?”

“Like I said, or maybe even I didn’t say—since God’s being God and all, he made a whole lot of numbers right at the creation, at that very instant. Prime numbers, little wiggly squiggly numbers, telephone numbers, square roots and cosines, the whole shootin’ match, infinity. The ways of heaven are inscrewtable and insurmountable and I have the pleasure of being yours truly, Elder Jesse Youngblood of the Church of the Divine Satisfaction. At your service.”

Philomena held her duster at port arms between herself and the telephone. “You got any lettuce and mayonnaise over there?” asked Elder Jesse.

“Hellmann’s Original. Yes. I have a few jars in the pantry. Glass. Glass jars. Not plastic.”

“Be right over.” Click.

Philomena held the receiver in her hand, looking at it. Something of great moment had happened, and she was dead to anything beyond the smallness of her soul. As she stared she did not hear the voices past the walnut door drop in volume to continue as whispers. There was a subdued crash, an end table, a curio shelf, whatever, knocked over—old people’s stealth spoiled by a lack of balance. The table fell; the contents of the table/shelf were saved by someone’s quick action, most likely Cat’s. The walnut door flew open.

“Philomena!” Catherine Armstrong Hobart—her eyes bright, shining and alert; standing not osteoporotically, but straight and true, her state of non-widowhood demonstrated by Lucian Hobart who stood at her side—recognized what looked to be a feather duster held on high not unlike the Statue of Liberty and felt diminished by her daughter-in-law’s self-confidence. She looked to be in her early 60s, this septuagenarian widow of her only son, God damn her. “I see you’re still moisturizing,” Cat said. Keeping yourself all slickery in case he is restored to life, my son himself—here, and aching after woman flesh, this she did not say.

To Philomena’s surprise the need to cower in the presence of Cat Hobart had departed. “Elliot is still dead,” Cat said.

Well, yes, thought Philomena. “Cat...” She could not find any words; her mouth hung open. God, how she hated that woman.

“You should know that,” Cat added softly. “I could tell you more. You forget. Old folks do.”

The taunt struck home. For years Philomena had dragged along a mop and bucket, stage props in the Via Dolorosa of her life. She found with age and exponential decay the weight of the water slowed her down. And here she had spilled some, perhaps only last year. She turned to run and slipped in a revenant of mop water. With bent knees she assumed one freeze frame, then the next in a progression from a modern dance video clip, jerking forward in the vertical intervals of time’s passages. There was an Eek-Oik! Snick as she pulled up short and stood parked five feet further down the hall.

“Rubber heels? You missed the latest picture,” Lucy said, “Skidded right by it.” It was titled Break Glass in Case of Fire, a hand-painted still life of a fire extinguisher, nickel-plated and framed by a red lacquered metal case. A nickel-plated hammer hung by a chain.

“Soviet Realism,” said Lucy, as if trying to break their ice with a hammer of foolery. “In case a picture of a fire breaks out nearby. I picked it up for five dollars at the Patrons of Husbandry yard sale.”

Philomena never breaks a smile. Tentative spidery tracings bloom on the insides of her eyes. There is a shadowless Hiroshima sunrise no one else can see—a small stroke, she has had them before. She drops her featherless duster and wraps her arms around herself, trying to hold on. It will pass.

Maybe she just doesn’t get it, Lucy thinks.

“Do I know you?” she asks.

“Probably not.”

*  *  *

“We will have to see the Seer,” said Elder Jesse, tending to a dab of mayonnaise that clung to the tip of his nose. “I am not from your here and now. Almost, but not quite, and we’s gonna have us a miracle, a journey of Time and Faith, so hang on tight, Philomena Hobart. I am from your future. Not far, coupla weeks, maybe. Doan know what you’re expecting, but—how they say?—here come Kaboom! Ever’ fool knows time travel is impossible, heh-heh.” Philomena felt a tingling on the soles of her feet. Then they were in an elegant country house.

“Very Christmassy,” said Philomena. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has just been published, while in the chronicles of wrack and ruin, British soldiers burn the White House and the final shipment of the Elgin Marbles arrives in England.

“Well, I’ll be. I did it,” said Jesse Youngblood.

“They do it all the time on TV.” Philomena giggled. She then covered her mouth with the tips of her fingers.

“That is a dated etiquette, an outmoded gesture from the age of lace mitts and swooning couches. You are getting’ right with the program.” Philomena noted the corners of Elder Jesse’s mouth struggled not to turn up. “You didn’t play Blanche Dubois in the high school play, did you?” He took Philomena’s elbow and led her through a plastered rococo gateway. Seated in a manner that made her look like a window display in a Fifth Avenue department store was Joanna Southcott.

The Seer, a woman past her prime—dropsical and with a beaky nose and mottled dewlap depending from her chin—wore a starched bonnet and the loosely cut empire-waisted dress of a country woman of the Regency period. The figure turned to look at them. The Seer’s eyes were clear and brightly blue as if illuminated from within. Joanna’s eyes were glass. Philomena walked back and forth in front of the figure. Joanna swiveled to follow her. “You are staring, young woman. This is impolite,” said the clockwork woman.

“Is she all right?” asked Philomena.

“Nope. Crazy as a shithouse rat, our Joanna, a religious zealot. Comes with the job, I’d suppose. Lookit me, heh, heh.” [note 1]

Philomena stood on tiptoe to peer into the Seer’s eyes. There was a light bulb inside her head. “She… she’s…”

“An automaton, yes. 18th Century technology, the biggest thing until the Internet and frozen French fries. And quite up to date—the vestrymen of Bedford having authorized the deanery to have electricity laid on. Not sure about her plumbing, though. You will please notice that there is a full third of the holy Joanna which she never allows us to see.”

Philomena scuttled around behind the Seer’s dais. Yes! There it was, just as Elder Jesse had said—a large ornate key, slowly unwinding itself as Joanna corrected her sideways momentum and again presented a two-thirds front view to Philomena and Elder Jesse. She removed a lace mitt and fanned herself with dainty motions of her short, plump fingers. “Phew. I haven’t had such a workout since the Bishops came to cross-examine me. This was after my darling Shiloh was born, a sweaty time that, too. Of course I died. But I am content to live again, the virgin mother of the Second Coming of the Chosen One of God.” [note 2]

“She’s an automaton,” said Elder Jesse. “Humor her.”

Joanna Southcott rolled her eyes back into her head with a grinding of tiny gears. “I SHALL begin my address to the JEWS from Jacob’s dying words. “Genesis xlix. ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a law-giver from between his feet, until Shiloh come, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.’ You be a people, girlie? And you black man?”

“Too long in the oven heh-heh,” said Elder Jesse. “I fell in the fire, they say.”

“That is how that Satan’s spawn, the black angel Dave Peel, excuses his slovenly state. You are Dave, then?”

“Uh, hello,” said Philomena. The Prophetess spun her around by the shoulders, and stared deeply into her eyes. She felt she was being—what did they call this when she was a girl?—no, not rape, but violation, a penetration of the soul. The grown-ups used guarded language, and spoke of things the children had not yet learned to fear. But now she knew, golden lineaments of understanding and reason radiated from the clockwork woman.

“Even by the God of thy father,” said Joanna, “who shall help thee, and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. The blessings of the father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors, unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.’”

“Wha...?” said Philomena. “I don’t understand.”

“Total load of crap, neither does she. Her driveway don’t go all the way to the main road.” Elder Jesse leaned back against the doorway and picked his teeth with a white plastic toothpick. “Baloney rind,” he said.

Elder Jesse nodded in the direction of the clockwork prophetess and made a small gesture to indicate that Philomena and they might better continue their discussion in a softer tone. “Joanna is—was—a vessel of prophesy. And her mechanical mannequin is the vessel of the vessel. Our Joanna, she don’t get out much. That’s a pretty well-known fact for those that know facts—like about the lady messiahs of history, but bear in mind at the time of her death she was sixty-four years old, a mighty advanced age for a eighteenth century lady if you get my meaning, all pale and indoorsy. She ate fat, and a lot of it, the dietary basic of her day for those as could afford it, and consumed alcohol at every meal, including breakfast.”

“And bread…” said Philomena. “The staff of life…”

“Bread sure enough, dear lady, green vegetables being considered important only to coax deer close to the house where they could be shot at your convenience. Brussels sprouts and cabbage though, folks loved ’em. The outdoors be’s mighty pungent with the farts of the well-fed.” There was a mechanical purring from the raised dais upon which sat the Prophetess. “Shhh. She’s grabbing her a nap. Tha’s snoring.”

“She heard voices, you said. These were hallucinations, then? I hear voices.”

“You eavesdrop. That means you get some exercise. Joanna heard the Voice o’ God. Poor Joanna—she turned into a regular little lard bucket, nothing much on her mind except Paradise and where her next dinner might be coming from. Our Joanna is a well-documented nutcase—I mean think about her BOX. And she had a BOX, make no mistake. She figured it was important and spelled it with capital letters. It was made out of sawn and planed slabs and about the size of a military footlocker. The Voice told her to get said BOX. The Voice then told her to write a lot and not let anybody read it. She was to take her writings and put them in the BOX, a not too slick plan for getting the word out I tell you.

“The prophetess stayed to her room when she was not out preaching. She wrote, then wrote again, drank prodigiously and ate sufficient of Brussels sprouts and cabbage to maintain the privacy of her person. Aside from the farts expelled by most of England’s seven and a half-million population (not counting cattle or the horses of the Royal Post) and the hydrogen sulfide gas of said sprouts and cabbages, Joanna Southcott’s major failing was that she didn’t drink enough. She had spare time on her hands and announced from her lonely loft, in writing, that without being visited by man she would soon be the mother of a miraculous child, Shiloh.”

Philomena touched her belly, testing. “I have heard voices. Everyone says I have hallucinations. Could it be...?”

“Not unless you got a turkey baster handy. The Mother of God gig is already spoke for.” [note 3]

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