Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 19—Moribund

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

—Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII

“Moribund.” Billie Sundae thrust her rosy cheeks and perky nose around the corner of the door. Sara’s appliqué and paper-piecing workshop was just breaking up. There was the usual minor confusion of small talk punctuated with laughter that spoke of a well-taught class. The quilters were gathering up their projects, putting shears and rotary cutters into tote bags embroidered with the Quilter’s Paradise logo.

Moribund. Sarah looked up, surprised. “I beg your pardon?”

“I am sure you have no pardon to beg, Sarah. Do you know what moribund is?” Billie was beaming.

“It’s an adjective?” Sarah’s face fell. “Sorry... I was trying to make a joke.”

“That’s two,” said Billie. “You have excused yourself twice without having done a single thing to piss me off. Three times and you get a cookie. Or something.” Billie smiled brightly. “Moribund is to have passed a point of any possible usefulness, to be redundant, dead without the presence of mind to just pack it all in, lie down and stop breathing.”

“My father,” Sarah said.

“Yes. Your father.” Billie was a fifty-something with teeth like a dentist’s wife. She paraded her age and excess poundage with a grace which emphasized the spread of her hips rather than trying to hide it; Billie was a piece of performance art. She was an overdressed overweight woman in a quilted jacket and tight knitted vest with velour pants. “Father as a deceiver, the Tempter. Last Tango in Paris,” She said. “I have lived by those words. Maria Schneider’s. Or Marlon Brando’s words to Maria Schneider.”

“Yes. Uh-huh.” Sarah stared blankly as she gathered up the remaining stragglers.

“Wanna know what he said? Marlon Brando?” Billie whispered.

“What he said...” Sarah waved farewells to her charges. “Bye, Debbie.” A woman in jeans pressed to a knife edge crease with wooly socks and sandals led her child, a smaller version of herself. Both wore powder blue t-shirts, their quilting uniform.

“The words, Marlon Brando’s from Last Tango in Paris.”

“Bye, Sarah,” said the child. She wore her hair in a thick braid down her back to her waist.

Billie stepped aside to hold the door open and the little girl struggled through with her mother’s portable machine. “Bye now. See you next week.” As the mother and child passed down the long hall to the street bolts of the latest fabrics soared to a pastel crescendo on either side. The child stopped and tugged at her mother’s sleeve. The mother, Debbie Enfield, drew a credit card from an inside pocket. Billie Sundae looked on approvingly. “With a set of tits like that you’ll be playing soccer with them in twenty years. That’s what he said,” Billie said.

“What? To you?”

“That’s three,” Billie said. “No, to Maria Schneider. In the movie, Marlon Brando said it. I decided then and there, watching Last Tango in Paris, that whatever disasters time inflicted on me, that I would carry the girls proudly.” She propelled her breasts in Sarah’s direction. “See?”

“I see.”

The next Saturday and the woman, Debbie Enfield, and Rachel the powder blue T-shirted daughter were back and in fine form, this week with socks with alternating stripes of primary colors like Sarah’s, sandals and knife-edge jeans.

“Sarah, wanna see what we bought last Saturday? Right here.” Rachel held out her tote bag. It was filled with glossy silk batiks in earth tones, pricey at twelve dollars the yard.

“Very nice.”

Billie bustled down the hallway from the shop. “All right everybody, the three o’clock demonstration is about to begin at the table at the back of the classroom.” This class had been advertised for weeks. Billie got an odd look from the late arrivals; since this was her place she should really know what was going on.

“Billie... they know that. They were here last week.”

“Oh, yes. Well, a little reminder never hurts, lets them know we are on top of things. Structure, remember that, Sarah.”

“I will.”

Billie loved imparting structure to her staff. She called her orientation sessions “Imparting a Sense of Structure.” Sarah was to be a glorified sales clerk plus a teacher of basic to intermediate sewing techniques that had vanished from the middle school curriculum, leaving Brooklyn and the world that dwelt in the umbra of the American Empire unable to darn a sock or tuck a gusset—forever dependent on cheap imports from Brazil, Bangladesh and the sweatshops blooming in the shade of the Brighton Beach El.

“Now go in there and rip a stitch.” Billie Sundae co-opted show business terminology at any and every opportunity. She meant Sarah was expected to “break a leg,” in spirit if not in practice. Sarah took a deep breath and marched down the hall. Billie advised her teachers to do this, “Every class, and if you don’t think facing a room of apprentice quilters armed only with a rotary cutter and a bag of dreams isn’t show business, then I don’t know what is.”

Sarah stood in front at the gate-legged table Billie had set up. The women hushed expectantly. God damn! she thought, Just like on Broadway.

*  *  *

“Drat!” cursed young Princess Gwylfillian for she had made a misstep with her stitches.

“Ooh...” chorused a semicircle of ladies-in-waiting, ears yet unblemished by the urgent utterances of a conjugal couch. They were virgins by tradition and pledged to municipal service.

“You have heard nothing,” fussed Gwylfillian, herself one of last year’s virgins. There was an exhalation of relief from the handmaidens. “And I really mean it,” said Gwylfillian. A polychrome starburst dissolved the scene and a chorus of floppy puppets danced. A butterscotch-tinctured announcer ordered children to buy cereal and tune in tomorrow.

“Sarah. Sarah Drye.”

“Huh.” A cartoon balloon popped and Sarah woke as her chin bumped against her sternum. Her body executed a daytime dozer’s spasm. “Ouch!” The dream dissipated.

Sarah looked around defensively. “I must’ve dozed off, I’m sorry.”

“Bony chest,” said Billie Sundae, “They heard that one all the way in Queens. You have nodded off, Sarah. You have been asleep for...” a pause as Billie reeled in the pocket watch that dangled from a lanyard about her neck. She checked the time and let the pocket watch fall. “Ten minutes. I hope I am not boring you.” By Sarah’s lights, Billie had had to have been a smoker. The sultry character of her voice spoke to a lifetime nicotine habit. There was a creak of distressed wooden furniture. “...be right back, lovey.”

Billie stood to check a mantle clock. Interesting, thought Sarah behind a curtain of drowsy haze, she doesn’t trust her watch.

“Well, three minutes... I thought you were lost in thought, then noticed your eyes were closed and I couldn’t bear to wake you up. You were talking in your sleep.” Above Sarah’s head the cartoon balloon had returned. It was empty. She wondered if Billie saw it too. “You jumped,” said Billie. This was the accusation; her class was out of control, going Bolshie. She had missed one of her postulants not paying attention, passing a note, stringing her gum.

“As you fall asleep your heart rate gets very slow, and your breathing slows down. Your brain may interpret this as your body dying, so it sends a jolt to your muscles. Like a jump start. This is similar to a Night Terror—when you wake up absolutely terrified about something, but have no idea why.”

Sarah looked up; now there was no balloon. “Wha...?” She rubbed her eyes.

“Not to worry, just something I made up,” said Billie. “A piece of work. Me. That’s what they say. I don’t mind; that’s what I am.”

Sarah felt cast loose from the real world. She must have missed something. Now, what exactly was the real world? Is this a thing I have ever experienced? I am hallucinating—not much, just enough. Had she used Jerry’s toothpaste that morning? Sure, the old ‘my boyfriend put chloral hydrate in the Pepsodent’ number. Unlikely.

“I hope you have come up with some sizzling romantic liaison to share with us.”

“No,” said Sarah “Just plain old napping.”

“Pity. These are the revelations of the Old Ones. They come to us as we sleep.”

“Uhh... Uh-huh,” said Sarah.

“The quilter’s curse,” said Billie. “It’s a dream I have, too. You would have been Princess Sarah. Too many Disney movies, alas. Slasher films, now—a heavy dose of reality, that’s the cure.”

“Sorry, I mean if you thought I was trying to offend. A princess; that’s who I was? How’d you... What’s it mean? It’s not witchcraft, is it?”

“Oh, yes. It’s really dreadful. It needs a context is all. The municipal virgins were a custom from Puritan days, their origin obscured by the mists of time. I grew up on fairytales. My parents were hippie pot farmers in the backwoods of Maine. In our bedtime stories the naughty girlies got put away in a dungeon, or locked up in the privy, whatever, till St. Swithin’s Eve when they were properly trussed up and chucked into the well to insure a bountiful harvest. A scary under-the-covers read with a flashlight. Nowadays the girls are expected to take up needlework. Sort of like lifetime of Lent. Class dismissed. No. Not you, Sarah. Sorry.”

Sarah’s quilters looked up, surprised, collected their things and filed out.

She was being fired. Sarah felt it coming—the kiss-off, the pink slip. Time to change the subject. “Billie Sundae...” said Sarah. “Chocolate syrup with a maraschino cherry.”

“And nuts. I’m that good.” Billie blushed and could not recall what she had been going to say.

Billie Sundae could have been a waitress, a professional earth-mother figure. That there had been an earlier life somewhere in the Maine woods, she hinted at. When she was Sarah’s age Billie had dyed away the gray in her hair and bought a push-up bra and begun life anew. Anew from just what she was not about to tell.

*  *  *

Billie took Sarah aside the next Saturday afternoon. “I have a question.” She led her to the hall that led from the classroom and past the store proper. There was a bulletin board, Community Notices. “See?” Billie pointed to a small business card, Grace Ascendant, Serving the Deceased Community Since 1989. “Have you considered broadening your horizons, being of some use?”

“Bye, Sarah, see you next week,” said a smiling woman from that morning’s class as she struggled with the outer door.

“Here, let me get that.” Sarah helped the woman get her sewing machine to her car.

“See, they like you,” Billie said. “Everybody likes you. That’s why...”

“That is why you are sad to have to let me go. I realize things are tight all over, but I hoped I had been paying my freight.”

“Oh.” Billie struck an astonished pose. She held a finger over but not touching the Grace Ascendant card.

Touch it, thought Sarah. Go ahead—touch it. “Deceased. That’s like dead, right?”

“I understand you are a singer.” Her hand was back on Sarah’s elbow.

“I used to be. It was one of those career paths that led nowhere.”

“Ah.” Billie struck a thoughtful pose. “Musical thanatology is a field whose practitioners provide musical comfort, using harp, voice, at the bedside of patients near the end of life.” Billie’s grip on her elbow grew firmer as though she anticipated a break for freedom. “The word ‘thanatology’ comes from the Greek word for death, thanatos.”

Thanatopsis. William Cullen Bryant. We read that in high school. ‘A turning toward death.’”

“A midwife, ‘death’s second self’—that’s Shakespeare. Sonnet seventy-three,” she said. Billie radiated accomplishment of having by heart a sonnet by the Bard. “I have never heard of this Bryant.”

“Bryant Park—the library with the lions where the Croton Reservoir used to be. But you wouldn’t remember that,” said Sarah sweetly. I am showing an edge, she thought. Good. First I’m fired, then I am being recruited for one of this woman’s pet cults.

“It will mean going to school, studying with one of our midwives from the Outer Brooklyn Gathering. The tuition is free but you will have to do this on your own time. I am running a business here.”

Sarah noted the change in tone. Billie had first sounded her out, inspected her psyche, testing for a proper malleability, then lured her into her Gathering circle. And now the whole thing was Sarah’s idea in the first place and would bring hardship upon Quilter’s Paradise. Subtext: if Sarah wanted to stay in Billie’s good graces, she’d damned well better get her ass to this midwife training.

“This Gathering you spoke of. Where is Outer Brooklyn?” Sarah was already arranging a timetable to fit the commute into her class schedule; her job was a good job, whether Billie was crazy or not. The student quilters loved her.

“Bay Ridge. You take the ‘F’ train. Transfer to the ‘R’ at Fourth Avenue.”

“And if there is an Outer Brooklyn doesn’t that presume there is an Inner Brooklyn? I mean we’re closer to downtown and...”

“There is no Inner Brooklyn Gathering. By far the greatest number of gatherings is in New Jersey. Forget Jersey.” Billie’s jaw firmed, her tone followed suit. “...way out on the island, Outer Brooklyn, there is a group—Crystalline Sphere—almost in Montauk.”

“I really don’t know a whole lot about natural childbirth. But I would be giving back: the community...”

“Not that midwife. This is Doula training—sensitivity, empathy. Grief counseling. A Doula is a death midwife. By the way you were talking, Thanatopsis and all, I just naturally assumed...”

“Oh.”

“You are intuitive, Sarah Drye. Natural childbirth is an expression of what death midwifery is all about. Giving birth is painful, but many women do not wish it to be anaesthetized away. Death is the natural conclusion, part of being human. At home, among friends, not in a hospital, catalogued and drugged into a premature oblivion. How pitifully tragic it is to die with the television on.” Billie’s eyes grew wide and moist. Billie glistened. “Natural death is the retreat from consciousness, as we call it. Like hospice. Only organic and in parallelism with natural forces. This will be a burden for you, my dear, the train all the way out to Montauk and all, but it will make you one of us. I’ve been watching you. You have the gift.”

*  *  *

That afternoon there were twenty-three women. And one man, elegant and tweedy—a surprise but welcome. Men quilters tended to be graduates of the Fashion Design institutes the needle trades unions underwrote. Men went straight out of college to the front office of a textile conglomerate. “And welcome to you all.” Sarah focused her eyes on the elegant tweedy man. She had caught him staring back at her. Well, why not, she was the teacher. The man blushed. He was in his sixties with a mop of white hair, distinguished but with a comb-over that simulated a windswept look. He smiled. And dentures. Safe—a hobbyist on a pension.

“Today is rotary cutting, please be careful and count your fingers when you leave.” This brought a ripple of nervous laughter. The man held up a new yellow-handled cutter. He had brought three sizes. New quilter and prepared, Sarah thought. If this was a class on fly-fishing he would have showed up wearing hip-waders.

“Now what it is is a round razor blade...”

Billie Sundae had quietly entered the room and looked on approvingly. Sarah turned to her and was about to say something but Billie waved her off.

The powder blue T-shirt girl, Rachel, arched her sculpted neck, showing a throat that would someday be graceful, and produced a yard of expensive batik. Her mother had brought some scraps of calico. She looked at Mr. Tweedy as he spread out his practice swatches. Why, the child was coming on to him! Her sculpted neck was arched, then bobbed, then bobbed again. Surely he must notice that a ten-year-old girl was giving him the old come-hither. Yes, he cast a surreptitious glance at the woman and her child. A neck man. Bob, bob, arch. Rachel choked; she must have swallowed wrong with her neck in a stress position. This must be a ploy of her mother’s—for the child, practice, not a come-on. Rachel was only trolling. The girl looked to her mother. Debbie had not seen; the girl was relieved. The elegant tweedy man, handsome with rich tobacco smells, tweed with leather patches at his elbows, had not seen. He was staring at the girl’s mother. The mother arched, bobbed and formed a perfect silhouette of regal grace. It’s the neck, thought Sarah. That’s what gets them. She watched entranced as the mother and child duplicated one another’s gestures like preening swans.

The elegant tweedy man pretended to fiddle with something in his carry-all, on the floor at his feet. He noticed Sarah was watching and blushed again. Well, glamor was where you found it and the girl—ten, eleven, whatever—was still looking. The mom had her moves down pat.

“Remember—these are sharp, surgically sharp. Your rotary cutter will do amazing things but please, please treat it with respect.”

There was a pause as Sarah allowed this to sink in with her students.

“Death,” Billie whispered. Her voice had become close and urgent. “The harp and voice of a music-thanatologist, a music vigil at the bedside is very beneficial for both the dying one and the loved ones. This is prescriptive music, tailored phrase by phrase to the soon departed’s respiratory cycles, a musical presence of beauty, intimacy, and reverence. As our Gathering communities grow older, our members will have to face all the issues of how they choose to die, what rites they want performed and how, and what they want done with their remains. They need a caring, a special, person to help them over.”

“Hey, what’s this?” A jocular woman from the back of the room, a new face. She is a visitor, looking us over. The new woman held her left hand in the air, middle fingers bent over, index and pinky upright. “It’s a quilter,” said the woman. The visitor could have been an L.L. Bean cover girl, with a glen plaid blazer, stone washed cuffed denim jeans and expensive clogs. “It’s a quilter ordering four beers.” Sarah had heard the joke before. This was one of Taffy O’Toole’s jokes; the two-fingered hand had belonged to a Polish carpenter. The woman cast a sideways peek at Mr. Tweedy. A fine specimen, the catch of the day, thought Sarah. Better look out, little Rachel, he’ll get away.

“For an accurate rotary cut, precision ironing is everything...” Sarah held a fabric of cabbage roses and gondoliers, chased with red and gold. It was lumpy from the wash line. “Put the selvages together after you have washed and ironed it.” Sarah held aloft a cordless iron. There was the smallest ‘swoosh’ of steam. “The fabric is flattened.” The gondoliers went prow first into the cabbage roses following a bow wave generated by the iron’s Teflon tip. “Now, I’m left-handed so you’ll have to imagine a mirror image here...” The observers’ perspective was from the opposite side of the table and it was her right side they were watching if not her right hand.

Billie was still there. “At this very personal, very... holy moment, the television eavesdrops, dancing and laughing shadows of blue, white and red. This is death with a keening chorus of game shows; The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, Hollywood Squares and Match Game play all day, every day, every night. All the time. Unceasingly. TV is immortal—it just goes on and on. We die. This is not right.”

*  *  *

“Appearances can be deceiving,” said Dave Peel. Dave drove as Fr. Coughlin squinted ahead in the feeble glow of yellow fog lights set low on his front bumper. “The few roads of turnpike quality built before the 1950s were all constructed on sound engineering principles, the Roman techniques that outlasted the Empire—crowned roads, reverse banked at the turns for good drainage but treacherous driving. These roads were laid down with eternity in mind. The crowned road—the hump down the middle where the line should be? The Romans. Hi-tech back in the BCs. To this day the Roman roads are in everyday use in Europe; did you know that? Not many people know that. Crowned roads are a bitch—get some ice and they toss you right over the edge. Or into oncoming traffic. Depends. The ancient Romans did not survive their roads.”

The late winter twilight and wind-driven fog put a halo around the middle distance, vaguely perceived presences on a horizon just beyond the depth of the headlights’ focus.

“Sturdy car, the Buick. Imagine me, an angel of the Sixth Choir, driving an automobile on a public thoroughfare. No hocus pocus or other-worldly hustle; the license is the genuine article. The State of Michigan has seen fit to issue me an operator’s permit. I just boogied on down to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles and took the test. The young woman in attendance ushered me to the parking lot where we slalomed about with some traffic cones. That the photos of me came out blank bothered her for a moment, but she forgot the problem and sent me on my way an anointed driver. I find anachronism refreshing, don’t you? Just nod your head; this is a rhetorical question. Nodding, are we? Excellent.”

“A thoroughly remarkable occurrence,” murmured Coughlin, fidgeting in the passenger’s seat. “Are we choosing to believe we have just left a séance with a creature from an equivalent reality?”

“That, Father, is QED. What I’m concerned about is her mental stability. Her grip on the here and now has been manufactured in Hollywood voodoo movies. Someone wants us to see this. The Hebrew Lord Grubb is Southcott’s opinion; Old Scrimshander has a more practiced hand is mine. You, Fr. Coughlin, are a man of the world, even if this one, married twenty years to the Church with magnetic pictures of the Holy Family on the refrigerator. Clueless.”

“I am married to the True Church,” said Fr. Coughlin.

“Well, that is what I meant. Clueless, not churchless. Your altar-ego then. You ever think of getting down with the housekeeper for a surreptitious surplice-shredding? Or is there a latent lust for pubescent choirboys? I can understand this, choirgirls too.

“An incarnation, the seamstress is the prophetess Joanna, but without the clockwork innards—a superior being marooned among us, armed to the teeth with as yet unguessed-at powers. And she has acknowledged us. I think her sanity is called to question and frankly, my first reaction is to change our names and run like hell.”

“Seamstress. You mean Billie Sundae.”

“I do—a retired Trout, the spiritual daughter of Joanna Southcott. She has grown amorous with the years, for there is a prom night lubricity amongst God’s elect. She now sells yard goods which women cut to pieces only to sew back together again. The tent show evangelist is buried in Chicago. Who’d you rather be?” Dave waved, the Buick swerved, and a giant porcupine ambled across their right-of-way.

“You have talked enough, demon, angel—whatever. This requires the human touch,” said Father Coughlin as he scrambled sideways across the front seat. “Get in the back. I’ll drive.” Dave the Angel performed some gymnastic legerdemain and went backwards over the seat. The porcupine sped up, hit the ditch and was grateful.

“If you can assure me that you are on amiable terms with gigantic porcupines. Look again—it could be an illusion.” Its eyes wide with terror, the porcupine struck out at their near side tires as the Buick dopplered past. There was a squeal of rubber on wet concrete as Fr. Coughlin swerved. The car teetered on edge, righted itself, then hummed unconcernedly along.

“I say, exciting,” said Dave the Angel. “That one woke me up.” Dave now hovered outside, just past the windshield. “Smooth maneuver, priest. Your vestrymen have not yet upgraded to pneumatic tires. You may continue to drive.”

“Get in here; I can’t see the road. You have appeared to speak, but the sounds that escape your throat are as of the hissing of a pit of serpents.”

Dave oozed back in through the window and mashed out his cigarette in the overfull ashtray. “Oh, have I been doing that again? I hope I’m not putting you off, old boy.” The two drove through alternating lunar landscapes and stands of scrub pines left in the wake of the paper companies. Fr. Coughlin executed an ellipse as he swerved to avoid a second porcupine.

“A barrage of porcupines is a sign of the Second Coming. Spare me more of this, Apollonius of Tyana—Abraxas, even. Missa Brevis don’ live heah no mo. Did I say that? I must be losing control, inexorably pulled into an alternate universe.” Charles Coughlin had closed his ears to the angel’s caterwauling; he was driving as if nothing out of the usual was going on. “I could be speaking with the voice of prophecy, priest. The hissing fits will do that; better listen up. You radio religiosos make it up as you go along—never the same way twice. And they say the age of miracles has passed.”

*  *  *

Cat begins compulsively washing her hands, precipitating an anti-biotic soap rant by Lucy—“Spoiling the septic. With every wash you are creating Frankenshit beneath our feet, Cat.”

Lucy brings in a pile of old painting clothes from near the unlit wood stove in the closed part of the house. He throws them in a pile on the floor. The cat claims the pile and curls up for a nap. An hour later Lucy shoos it off. “Thank you, Miss Molly, for warming my bundle.” He stands floor center, strips naked and dons the garb. “Gotta dig,” he says.

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