Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 1—Lucy and the Mouse

Lucy Hobart, age ten, was holding a dead mouse up to the light when the first blast went off. Lucy—short for Lucian—held the small corpse warily, by the tail. You never knew; they were hard to kill. The mouse’s eyes were still bright and beady and only beginning to glaze over. Lucy raised the corpse slowly at arm’s length until they were eye-to-eye. The mouse swung, a tiny dead pendulum.

The mouse’s eyes held a look of determined surprise. If the summons of death had not interrupted it, it would have got away with the peanut butter bait. As it was it left a brownish-red smear of blood and bait on a joist of the hayloft. It had struggled briefly, dragging the trap behind it as best it could with a broken neck. Death happens for a reason, he had heard of that in one of Pastor leVoid’s homilies. He, Lucy Hobart, was the reason today. That he was a murderer did not mean that he and his victim could not at least exercise some civility after the fact. “Hiya, little fella,” said Lucy. There was an explosion from down by the road. The barn shook.

A hayloft in high August, its air made immediately unbreathable with hay dust; blinded by the dust squall, Lucy lost his balance. He clung and swayed with his arms wrapped around a crossbeam thirty feet above the floor. Lucy dangled, feet flailing. The mouse was gone. What remained of his catch was a line of string wrapped around his wrist. At the end of the string hung an empty mousetrap. He struggled for breath in the oppressive air.

The State of Maine, from its marbled hallways and walnut-paneled chambers in far Augusta, had decided it was time to widen the state roads. The roads and the bridges of the State of Maine, like the Federal mails, always went through. This was an article of faith, a much needed faith. The Sunday sermon board out front of the Willipaq (3rd) Baptist proclaimed: “Reason is the Enemy of Faith.” Pastor Phil leVoid used the same outline for all of his homilies so there was never any need to change the lettering on the sign. The sign had stayed put through the progress of the seasons for sixteen years—every year since the Willipaq County Railroad Bubble burst. Phillip R. leVoid, BDiv New Brunswick Bible College, thundered and pounded at the pulpit and his congregation was satisfied—no need to change the sermon. There was faith aplenty too, in the railroads—transit as the harbinger of Progress. And in roads as in railroads progress was generally interpreted as fattened wallets for the journeymen and burgesses of the hamlets along the right-of-way.

Lucy would recall the explosion, the lost mouse. Boom. That was how explosions were supposed to be written down, Boom! Young Lucy was an avid reader and knew this. But this was more of a thump, felt through the soles of his feet rather than heard, and impossible to write down. It was the percussive bass note of two empty freight cars hitting the deadhead down at the end of the line. The yard hands on the Wytopitlock and Danforth called this procedure “humping,” and seemed to derive much pleasure in telling this to him; Lucy guessed they recognized a fellow railroader. There was career potential in Lucian Hobart, aged ten.

Lucy Hobart regained his perch on the hayloft beam and shinnied to the ground. He ran to where the horse-drawn road graders were lined up and waited for further explosions. There were many. The next day he set out more traps.

*  *  *

“Damn that woman,” said the Radio Priest. The woman damned was not Amelia Mahoney Coughlin, his mother, for damning one’s own mother would be cutting close to the bone, skating at the brink, on an abyss; The Radio Priest struggled for a metaphor. The woman damned was the Bohemian cleaning lady, a Czech refugee of some sort, who dusted and cooked and made herself invisible to outsiders lest a female presence in celibate quarters raise eyebrows amongst parishioners. She bustled to brighten things up with a pestilence of flower arrangements: “Something fresh in here. That’ll fix the ague.”

“Not ague. Asthma.” How peculiar that an illiterate immigrant would use an archaism for his constricted breathing condition.

“Flowers for the Shrine of the Little Flower, eh then, Father?”

How could he say no? He had never said no to his mother, Amelia of blessed memory. His life as a child was bathed in the reek of God’s creation. That things stank and clogged the drains—he was a sickly child—was said to be God’s will. Flynn-Doyle, the parish priest, was conflicted on this, unwilling to come right out and say that there were parts of God’s plan allowed by God to bustle about unattended. “Automata,” Father Henry Flynn-Doyle announced, “Divine indulgence.” He was uncomfortable with the concept—Jesuitical at the least—that an all-seeing, all-knowing, compassionate God should set the agents of Creation to simply run themselves. These were not Fr. Flynn-Doyle’s thoughts exactly, but how Charlie Coughlin, then aged ten, interpreted them.

Fr. Flynn-Doyle broke an iridescence of perspiration across his forehead—the small sweat of closed rooms in an Ontario autumn, a coal stove too hot for the early chill—and his catechetical intuition was not up to the curiosity of a sharp-witted child given the lowering levels of oxygen in the vestry. That these two labored breathers with their fish-mouthed gasps at the sanctified air—one asthmatic, the other a heavy smoker of cigarettes—sucked up all the oxygen in the room did not help their focus.

Young Charlie’s mother, her son’s asthma notwithstanding, also objected to the indoor miasms of 19th Century Hamilton, Ontario on esthetic principles. “I hope to improve the indoors,” said Amelia Mahoney Coughlin and, good housekeeper that she was, took steps. This day her steps took her to James Street at Gore Park, where she entered Knifeman’s Emporium to inquire after scented candles. Not one for half measures, she purchased the whole case.

“A gross. That’s 144, ma’am.”

“A gross. Correct,” said Amelia Mahoney Coughlin.

Thereafter tasseled throws, rich with silk, cross-stranded with cloth of gold and silver threads impregnated with coal smoke beyond airing on the porch, beyond rubbing with pounded pumice or the solvent-based French dry cleaning—rubbing, pounding again—wafted the come-hither scent of blooming lilacs and volatile organic compounds, petrochemicals—benzene, phenol, toluene, xylenes, cresols, naphthalene, and cyclopentene. The pong of Amelia’s candles would have been not unfamiliar to the scouts of the Iroquois Confederation who traced the boundaries of Upper Canada for George Hamilton and his children for whom the streets of Hamilton, Ontario were largely named. Vanilla or cherry pie or lilac scents announced that one might creep up and watch which creature, if any, nibbled at a proffered fruit. A ring of dead or intoxicated birds was not a healthy sign.

The clerk waited, bored but attentive.

“Ahem.” Amelia leaned forward, her elbows on the glass-topped display counter as she waited for him to begin wrapping her purchase. “Surely, young man, I can count. My husband is the sexton at St. Mary’s Cathedral.” Amelia considered her husband’s position to be that of a glorified janitor, an opinion she often shared with Young Charles Coughlin. Mrs. Coughlin ferried the scents of spring past the chicken coops, horse manure and mud slurry of the street, and into the Coughlin household. “Spring Victorious!” cried Amelia Mahoney Coughlin.

Damn that woman.

The face in the pier glass was turning red. Fr. Coughlin had put on his dog collar with a half-twist that dug into his neck. He pulled off his jacket and struggled with the tie of his dickey.

“Damned vests.” There was an easier, simpler way to get the collar from front to back—getting a finger between his neck and the celluloid and walking it through 180 degrees of a half turn over a moraine of abraded razor stubble. “Ah, gotcha.” Like an executioner in the Tower of London. “Not enough for a proper job, just a wrench. As the bishop said to the actress.” The Radio Priest possessed a restrained sense of humor. He tabbed the notion, risqué and off-center, to be stored against further need of bishops-and-actresses anecdotes in the cubby of his mind where mild decadences were quarantined.

“Damned fornicating bishops.” The Radio Priest’s radio program was named for the parish’s patron saint, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, better known as the Little Flower of Jesus. In the mirror, Fr. Coughlin’s face blanched. The station manager at the Golden Hour of the Little Flower’s Cleveland radio affiliate had told him, “Leave it outside. If it doesn’t come into the studio it doesn’t go out on the air.” The Cleveland station was nervous about the program. “They don’t take kindly to you. Got to tread easy for starters,” the station manager explained about Ohio listeners. The station manager did not elaborate on who they might be; obviously they were not loyal listeners, not Catholics, not Ohioans. Outsiders. From away.

“I preach against the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.” Coughlin stared down the station manager as he touched a Rosary inside his jacket pocket. “A million listeners every Sunday, and I am assured there will be 20 million by the time Mr. Hoover is voted out of office.”

The station manager got the point. A wind of change—something Bolshie in that, he’d have to examine it later—lifted the cries of the poverty-stricken above the coal-fired haze at ground level up to the corner office. There would be guidelines, however—for the Radio Priest. He was to consider all microphones as always on to capture careless talk of actresses and bishops.

*  *  *

“Project your voice from here.” The man assigned to shepherd him through the business of doing radio, Dave Peel, touched Fr. Coughlin just below his 5th sternal rib. “Right here.” Dave’s finger dug into Charles Coughlin’s diaphragm.

“Red clay man,” Coughlin gasped, more at the unexpected intimacy than from fear of a collapsed lung. “My lungs...” he offered.

“Your lungs are here,” said Dave, placing his hands flat against Coughlin’s chest. “Red what?”

“Red clay man. Adam’s other name. Created by God on the final day of Creation. Genesis 2:7, you read your Bible, surely?”

“No, I can’t rightly say I have,” said Dave Peel. Fr. Coughlin did not like the man.

“If this were in Biblical times and not the United States in the Twentieth Century, I may possibly have interpreted your breathing lesson as an attack by banditti and replied violently: ‘Abner with the hinder end of the spear smote him under the fifth rib.’ Second Samuel 2:23,” said Coughlin.

“The Dominicans,” said Dave. The man looked wary.

“Yes?”

“Your collar. The dog collar? Just made me think of them is all.” The man was becoming familiar—overly familiar by Fr. Charles Coughlin’s likes. Dave leaned in closer. “The dogs of God? It’s a joke they tell. Ever hear that one?”

“Yes.” Dave appeared disappointed. “But I am certainly willing to hear it again,” offered the Radio Priest. Dave Peel’s face fell further. The exchange of a familiarity, a joke, family reminiscence, any common ground would be a peace offering. They had to work together however much they disliked each other. A bad start at a new radio station. Not good. Fr. Coughlin quickly backtracked, hoping to smooth things out. “Saint Basil. I am—was—a Basilist priest. The order was, ah, confining. Currently I am a diocesan priest attached to the Shrine of the Little Flower.”

Dave reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a Duke’s Golden Grain drawstring tobacco bag and a sheaf of rolling papers. “Wanna toke?” It was Father Coughlin’s turn to be wary. “No? Mind if I smoke?”

“No, indeed. I do not mind, that is. I am a smoker myself.”

“This ain’t tobacco.” Dave rolled a large lumpy cigarette and lit up. “Dominicans. Domini Cani...” He exhaled a cloud of blue-green smoke. Sweet, like lilac. “The dogs of God. Latin? It’s a pun,” Dave assured him. “That’s why they wear the collars. Attack dogs.” Dave paused to let the tidbit hang between them in the blue, smoky air of the radio station hallway. “Ever hear of the Third Order of St. Dominic?”

Fr. Coughlin noticed Dave was humming an off-tempo, ragtime something. Negro music, retrograde, dangerous. This made his collar itch. “On second thought, could I have one of those?” he asked.

“Be my guest,” Dave tossed him the papers and bag. As the Radio Priest rolled his cigarette, it was Dave’s turn to be impressed. “You’ve done this before.”

“I assisted at a parish in Kalamazoo before coming to Detroit.” That explained things—everyone who was anyone in Kalamazoo smoked reefer. “Why not, it’s legal. And my doctor prescribed it when I was a child—for medical use. I suffer bouts of asthma.” Charles Coughlin inhaled deeply, held it, and then let a plume of smoke escape slowly from his nostrils. “Marijuana is God’s gift to sufferers, reaching out from the darkness of our puny souls to find another—the Other. Hoping for a revelation with which to make all this nonsense seem meaningful. You said? About the Third Order?”

Dave took a furtive look down the corridor. “His eye is on the sparrow.” The man touched the side of his nose with a meaningful index finger. Secret stuff, then. A code, password. They were to be conspirators.

“‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?’ Matthew 10:29,” said Fr. Coughlin as he drew deeply. “So? What’s the message?” Thin brown rice paper smoldered and crisped. The glowing coal approached his nose.

“Isn’t it always about the money? But the very hairs of your head are all numbered,” said Dave knowingly.

“I doubt that. And who’s counting? The Tertiaries, the Third Order? You mentioned...?”

“I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free,” Dave Peel sang in a husky, powerful voice. “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” He then erupted in a spasm of coughing and choking. He must smoke this stuff all the time, thought the Radio Priest. An aroma of lilac and locker room rose from the tarry ends of their cigarettes, not unlike the smell of cabbage and manure from Irishtown dooryards where pigs roamed at will.

The man and the priest slid to the floor and, backs against the wall in a contemplative stance, stared ahead checking for any loose visions. In Irishtown, pigs fell over, lay still a few moments, then floated away into the sky. “Goin’ home,” said Dave Peel.

“A miracle,” said Fr. Coughlin.

Young Charlie Coughlin had had Dave’s cough, the same gasping paroxysms, that his mother then called pleurisy. She produced more scented candles. Young Charlie would be made comfortable with pillows and a steaming kettle with vinegar and rose petals. Amelia Mahoney Coughlin produced a can of belladonna and burned it like incense from his bedside table. Belladonna, that smell of smudge and pigs.

Whook, whook, bluraggh!” Dave Peel’s face turned bright gentian as he strangled on his own lungs.

“‘His eye is on...’ A pleasant air.” Fr. Coughlin hummed as he picked up with the broken hymn. Dave Peel’s reefer guttered down, unattended, and went out.

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