Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 25—Golf with Jesus
“You have played golf with Jesus. That is special.” Sister Joyful walked to the far corner of the soup kitchen chapel and opened a hymnal. She pretended to sing, her mouth forming words and a slight humming issuing from her nose:
“The world is very evil, the times are waxing late,
Be sober and keep vigil, the Judge is at the gate.”
“How perceptive,” said Judge Crater. “You have doubts about me and are seeking solace in the mighty threnodies of faith. Open your heart and we will be connected on a wholly different level. Louder, please. My coming has been foreordained.”
Sister Joyful crossed herself. “I don’t know who sent you, mister. But I fear you are here after doin’ no good. There’s the piano; do you play?” She cleared her throat, hawking up a suggestion of phlegm, and commenced to sing in a full, throaty contralto:
“The Judge Who comes in mercy, the Judge Who comes in might,
Who comes to end the evil, Who comes to crown the right.”
“The Celestial Country, if I am not mistaken. Bernard of Cluny—a cloistered monk, he cheats at gin rummy as I recall. A 12th century favorite of mine. A naïve man.” The judge removed his elegant overcoat and Sister Joyful’s feverish gaze was drawn to the tightly coiled fur which adorned the collar.
“No, not pubic hair. It is the pelt of an unborn lamb of Persian extraction. Jehonadab the Rechabite. A good, solid man, he placed the collar’s antecedent on the Altar of the Lord,” said Judge Crater. “Of course it was still alive then. The little lamb cried ‘maaa’ and had its throat slit with a bronze knife. Sacrifice was a chaotic business overall. You had to really mean it and clean up after. Not like these modern times. The lamb was discovered to be unsuitable to the crime for which Jehonadab sought expiation. The Lord struck him deaf. Or blind. There is a whole lot of deaf- and blind-striking in Scripture.” Judge Crater pulled his creamy linen shirting up to his elbows and, carefully undoing a pair of cufflinks crafted from fifty-dollar gold pieces, rolled back his sleeves. “There. Ready.” The piano keys danced a pre-industrial galliard under his touch.
The Sister’s fine high contralto rose to a waiting heaven while the judge’s butterscotch basso rambled in and out of her melody with a forceful harmony. Rich resonances of the high renaissance filled the air:
“O home of fadeless splendor, of flowers that bear no thorn,
Where they shall dwell as children who here as exiles mourn;
’Midst power that knows no limits, where wisdom has no bound,
The beatific vision shall glad the saints around.”
“Are you ready, Sister? There are going to be great doings this night. We shall bring the wonders of the New Jerusalem to your frowsty storefront tabernacle. Attend me: I am to perform my Second Miracle.”
“One was enough. You killed that man. He was alive and you killed him, right out in plain sight. Now you are going to kill me.”
“No. Nononono. Spare your tears for the forgotten man who had the brass to drop dead in front of your chapel. He was already a goner from the second he strutted forth from his mother’s womb. Life is written. Man proposes; God disposes. All is foreordained. You and I... here in quiet converse, your fear of murder most foul, and by my hands. My hands—most ludicrous, ha, ha. Trust me... How could I cause you harm? I have the Power. I am here to fructify the womb of a woman who has taken a vow of chastity.”
Sister Joyful looked relieved and disappointed simultaneously. “I am not a virgin; I am not your wife. I guess that leaves me out. I have never been possessed by a spirit. I thought that possession was by demons—a migraine of the immortal soul. I wanted to bring pilgrims, the seekers after Grace, in the door.” She picked up the empty tambourine. “All too few, it seems. There’s nothing like a good rip-roarin’ hell and damnation preacher to get folks scared and keep ’em scared. I am too soft for this work. The Church of the Divine Satisfaction has turned into a soup kitchen for the homeless. They come, mutter a hosanna, they eat, they leave. I have misread my vocation, I am a failure.”
“This is all my fault,” said the Judge. “I have appeared as an apparition, a wraith in the williwags. Nobody paid me any attention, either—until you. Just like the dead derelict I so miraculously revived. Womb and tomb—notice how musical the words are. I have come to deliver the Holy Spirit into the womb of a deserving female, a wife. Or if not a wife, a woman at any rate. That’s how conception works.”
Sister Joyful recoiled from Judge Crater. “I knew it. You are going to have your way with me, then kill me.”
“As appealing as that thought may be, Sister Joyful, I fear death has slowed my libido. Possession by demons, I fear, is pure hokum. The real, the corporeal me is moldering in a Brooklyn landfill. How then, came I to be here? The man you see before you is a channel for the Holy Spirit, come to conceive a miraculous child, the new messiah. It is, alas, not your love tunnel which we shall be exploring together, but the Cosmos.” The judge moved from the piano to sit beside Sister Joyful, who cowered away from his touch. “What is that I see? A full two inches of empty space between us.” Judge Crater pulled her close and put a hand on a breast. “See? Distance does not matter. Time and space in their immensity are but as a trip to the corner for cigarettes to the Power which I represent. And I? What am I?”
“You are a stiff sent to do miracles?”
“Nope, wrong on all counts. I am the Messenger, God’s Chosen One. Christ, it stinks in here. You should really have some men in.” He extended an index finger to poke at the stagnant air. “Huh. Thought for sure I’d leave a hole. Either I am an angel of the Lord, or a politico on the lam with his pockets stuffed with chits. Either or both of the above. You are bound to be correct whatever the choice. I am of the damned. The celerity of my departure from the mortal plane has shortened my penance, however. But then, we were talking about you.”
“Talking about you is jake with me,” said Sister Joyful. “And it is stuffy in here.” She hoisted her habit a modest three inches to step down from the elevated platform where stood the Church of the Divine Satisfaction’s few instruments of worship: a four- by eight-foot sheet of plywood draped with oilcloth, two sawhorses to hold it aloft, and a gilded bisque crucifix. “There is a woman. You are searching for her. This is your Quest.”
“Yes. I promised you the advent of a miraculous child. Three wise men and a virgin and all that good stuff. How too, too theosophagous, you have swallowed the whole thing, hook, line and Thessalonians. You read your Bible too much, Sister Joyful. Reading rots the mind.”
“The Bible is God’s holy Word.” The sister’s eyes glazed in rapt contemplation.
“A total load of crap, rewritten time and again to favor whatever passing breeze of ecclesiastical fancy is blowing that day. Believe me; I have it on a Higher Authority.”
“You have performed a miracle. Not a big one, but a miracle nonetheless.” The Sister’s eyes were moist with tears.
“So sue me; I am a product of my times.” The judge produced a handkerchief. “Here. Blow.”
As the sister honked and wiped, Joseph Force Crater sniffed the motionless air, clapped his panama hat on his head and extended the sister a hand. “Come. We shall walk. The Chapel of Divine Satisfaction has a mold infestation, yeast... whatever. Its mephitic humors clog the lungs. We shall walk and talk.”
Sister Joyful gratefully refolded Judge Crater’s pocket kerchief and tucked the now sodden silk into his breast pocket. “Mold...” she cooed. “Yeast infection,” she exclaimed. “That is extremely personal, judge. I never...”
“Shush. We have talked enough of you. Now we are moving on to me, my wants and needs.”
As the two exited the storefront church they observed a crowd assembled around the dead man in the median. A mortuary wagon and three policemen stood by as a white-coated surgeon listened to the man’s chest with a stethoscope.
Judge Crater strode over and, shouldering his way past the attending physician, placed the flat of his hand against the man’s chest. “Dead. Dead as a planked mackerel. Oh, I know what you are thinking. It takes one to know one. But this one died peaceably, by his own hand—in sin but right on time. Not like the trauma of having one’s life cut off before you’ve had any time to plan a proper farewell. Stella—my wife, soon to be ex-wife, or would have been if I had lived to accept the divorce decree—warned me about playing on the edge. I was her lawyer for her first divorce, you know. A usufruct of the Law—you get to keep what’s left over.”
Faith called Philomena was cut out of her husband’s will. There was the call he made—hushed, secretive—to Roy Dibble the attorney. The conversation had been brusque, at least on Elliot’s end. Philomena strained to hear the voice—Lawyer Dibble‘s voice—that came from the earpiece. “Yes... OK, sure,” said Elliot. Elliot cupped his hand around the mouthpiece. “Uh-huh. OK. That’ll be fine.” Click. He hung up, and scribbled an appointment time on the kitchen calendar. “I’ll be going into town, Philomena.”
“That’s nice, dear.”
“Tuesday. I’m changing my will.”
“That’s nice, dear.”
That Elliot would use the telephone at all was a surprise. “Useless,” he had propounded when Philomena suggested they tie in to the party line service that was going through. “Except for eavesdropping.” Lucian Hobart had whole-heartedly embraced the new technology.
“The saloon,” said Philomena. “Men have the saloon.”
“Women have the grange hall, Philly. You just never go there.”
The coroner, who was also the family doctor, had pronounced the cause of Elliot’s exit—misadventure, death resulting. Beyond this, her husband’s heart attack at the summit of a 40-foot extension ladder was never again mentioned. After Elliot’s fall—and subsequent death, the inquest was unsure as to which had happened first—the change to his will came like a bolt out of the blue. There was no doubt about it. Why had he cut her out?
While Maine was not a community property state, the reading of the will was a time-honored formality. It was assumed that the surviving spouse would inherit.
The offices of Roy F. Dibble, Esq. were mahogany paneled and shrouded in perpetual gloom despite a window that faced east to catch the first light over Willipaq Bay. That light might from time to time penetrate the inner reaches of his chambers was suggested by a thriving cactus garden in terracotta pots that lined a refectory table against the far wall. The tabletop was stained, its veneer peeling from seepage; the cactuses, however, appeared vigorous and thriving.
Lawyer Dibble peered around a large scale model of a schooner, the Geneva Grace under full sail, from his leather chair. “We are all here. Good.” The only two in attendance were Lucy and Philomena. Lawyer Dibble leaned back. Leather creaked as he adjusted his position. “The decedent... ah...” He removed his glasses and polished them with a tissue plucked from a desktop dispenser.
Lucy thumped the floor with his walker. “Yes, yes, Roy. We all know Elliot’s dead. Get on with it.”
“Yes, Lucy,” said the lawyer. He leaned around the Geneva Grace’s jib boom to make eye contact with Philomena. “Philomena, as the decedent’s widow, you would be usually entitled to the full value of the estate. However...”
“The decedent’s name was Elliot,” said Philomena.
“We know that, Philly,” said Lucy.
“If a surviving spouse doesn’t object to receiving less, the will is honored as written. You have been disinherited, Mrs. Hobart.”
Philomena went ashen and slumped in her chair. “How can that be?”
Lawyer Dibble appeared uncomfortable; leather creaked again. His face disappeared behind masts and sails. “In most circumstances, a surviving spouse cannot be completely cut out of a will. That having been said, you have been mostly disinherited, Philomena. The house goes to Lucy at Elliot’s death. It seems that a surviving spouse cannot be denied redress under the law. However you must go to court to claim a share.”
“Go to court. Sue. Me. Sue who? Wait... who is the beneficiary?”
“Your father-in-law, Lucian Hobart.”
Philomena’s eyebrows rose and she turned to face Lucy. “You. You worked on him behind my back. You hypnotized him like one of your pet chickens. You have always wanted to make me look the fool. Well, you’ve done it, Lucy Hobart, and I hope you are happy.” Lucy smiled at her and studied his fingernails.
“These were your husband’s wishes, Philomena,” said Roy Dibble. “The closest relatives may have a right to claim part of the estate. In community property states basically, each spouse automatically owns half of what either one earned during the marriage, unless they have a written agreement to the contrary.”
“But not in Maine,” Philomena waited for the lawyer to catch up with her lost hope.
“No. And only very close relatives—surviving spouses, children, or children of a deceased child—even have the right to claim an inheritance from a deceased relative. Elliot foresaw this and to avoid any, uh, unseemly wrangling at his death, left you a token dispersal. Likewise Edward, a child—not much, but something.” A fresh tissue was plucked, lawyerly glasses once more polished. “There is another child. Ian. He is deceased as well, I believe.”
“Yes... Ian Emory died in the service of his country. Dispersal. That sounds like the Bible, the Jews... they were cast out and taken into slavery.”
“The Jews didn’t have a trust fund, Philomena. You are to be very well looked-after.”
“Sounds as if you are sending me to a nursing home.”
“No, quite to the contrary. You retain full tenancy of the house and grounds occupied by you and your late husband during his life—as long as you live. All expenses will be taken care of.”
“I will be taken care of. By who?”
“By your father-in-law.”
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