Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 26—Under the Boardwalk
“Things are always darkest, just before it goes totally black.”
Judge Crater felt some explanations were in order. This woman—Sister Joyful—was a rare bit of nobble despite her nunnish getup. “Your costume,” queried the judge. “That is what is it, isn’t it—a costume? Take it off.” Ectoplasmic detumescence or no, he felt further investigation was called for. “You are no more a Pentecostal nun than I am. I have never heard of Pentecostals having nunneries, or a cloistered anything. The non-conformist sects are big on context. They like to get it up in one’s face, so to speak.”
Sister Joyful fell to her knees beside a plywood altar and wept bitterly. “It is true,” she cried. Head bowed with shame, her hands she held clasped above her head in a gesture of supplication. “Elder Jesse says we should walk the walk, talk the talk...” She swiveled around to study the judge’s reaction “You know: ‘Fake it till you make it?’ They say it works for Alcoholics Anonymous.” Judge Crater produced a spiral-bound steno pad and scribbled a quick note. The Sister had made no move to shed her clerical garb.
“Hmmm... Ah-hah.” The judge snapped his notebook shut. “Elder Jesse, then is it? I was unaware you had an accomplice in this flim-flammery you are foisting on harmless skid row losers.”
Sister rolled her eyes heavenward. “Oh, it’s real. And, and...”
“Profoundly felt,” the judge prompted.
“I, too, have a shadowy presence in my story—Necrophilia D’Annunzio, the woman who was my undoing.”
“She turned you in.”
“No. She lured me to my death. Dear Nikki, I was smitten; what could I do but follow the call of the glands. I allowed myself to be murdered. Anything else would have been unfeeling, insensible. That’s French. Nikki was an art deco demoiselle, a dancer in the Roxy chorus, a showgirl. Breasts like a renaissance whore, nice tight ass like a boy—she would’ve driven those old Greeks mad with desire—tight blonde curls. She was what we called a flapper in those days. A veritable heart-stopper, sister. She had that indefinable something, a je ne sais quoi.”
“August 6, 1930. I can read it as if it were yesterday. Time comes and goes, Sister Joyful. In an astral plane it expands and contracts on a whim. To me, it was only yesterday. Or today. I can till smell sweet Nikki’s perfume, Chanel No. 5. I was famous as a fancier of chorus girls and fine dining—all the good things life has to offer. We had just exited Billy Haas’s chophouse on West 45th Street in Midtown. A cab—one of the Checker wide-bodies—came spinning around the corner. There was a cop on the running board. The taxi screeched to a stop and out popped Hizzoner the Mayor. Nikki slid into the cab and we headed for what I thought to be an evening at the theater. To my surprise there were two men already in the car. One, on the jump seat, was a copper—a police sergeant I knew from mayor James J. Walker’s bodyguard. Hizzoner the Mayor was a frequenter of Broadway theatre and the upper-class speakeasies like the Central Park Casino, much as was I. The other was a hooligan of the race track sort, checkered suit, a prison pallor and brass knuckles prominently displayed. The hooligan introduced himself as Schottke and flexed his fist around the brass knucks. The last thing I remember was Nikki batting those wedgewood blue eyes at me as she teased a spit curl with her little finger. I suspected nothing. When I awakened we were in Brooklyn—Coney Island.”
“They killed you. Why?”
“Why, indeed—one of those big, sticky words. There I was garroted, stabbed and buried under the Boardwalk near West Eighth Street. I was declared legally dead in 1939 and the Police Department’s missing person’s case was closed in 1979.”
“They didn’t investigate your disappearance?”
“Tammany. I was as corrupt as any of ’em. More than most. I think a lot of people knew that no good could come of delving into Judge Crater’s affairs.”
The couple had been strolling as they talked. Sister Joyful noticed that they were hand in hand. She did not disengage herself. By now they had reached a shady triangular park, placed by the city at an intersection of an angled avenue. An iron fence and a crop of starveling grass beckoned the weary passerby to stop and commune with nature.
“Thus you see why I feel an affinity for the unanointed dead,” said the judge. “Why I performed my first miracle with the man on the meridian—to pretty him up. He had to stay dead; that’s the rule. I strangled him, just as I was strangled. We were brothers under the noose, sort of...”
“So the dead man in the middle of the street has nothing to do with why you came to the church. You were looking for me?”
“No, sister. For a bowl of hot broth and a crust of bread. It’s been over seventy years. And don’t let the stunt with the cadaver get around. We’re not supposed to do tricks off premises, just whatever mission we’re sent out on.”
“Ohh...” Sister Joyful sat on a bench next to an old woman who was tossing scraps of bread to a flock of pigeons. “Just like in Harry Potter.”
“I knew a Harry Druze,” the judge offered. “A precinct captain in the 9th Ward.”
“It’s a book. Came out while you were away. Pardon me,” she said to the old woman, indicating that room should be made for her escort.
“You farted?” said the woman not moving and inch.
“Well, I pardon you anyway.” The woman went back to feeding her flock.
“Some things never change,” said the judge. “Pigeons. New York’s flying affliction, their hordes darken the sky at noon.”
“You spoke of two miracles. Or a second miracle. How many miracles do you have up your sleeve, anyway.”
“One more that I know of. But I shall require your help. The female perspective...”
“On the Second Coming.”
“Depends where one starts one’s counting, doesn’t it. Oh, alright, second coming. The new messiah at any rate. Like all sons of famous fathers he will have to start at the bottom. In the stockroom. For this we need a Mom. A virgo intacta.”
“I am a Pisces, if that is any help.”
“You must have an unbroken bridge of flesh denying entrance to the birth canal. One of those prophesy thingys. Parthenogenesis is a tricky business; it requires a woman’s touch.” Here Judge Crater slipped a hand inside Sister Joyful’s habit. “Your touch.”
“Parthenogenesis. That’s not French.”
“Do you have any children?”
“No. Stella wouldn’t allow it. All her demands—sex here, sex there: in the car, under the shrubberies, in the powder room at a cocktail party. I never figured it out until this very minute that she was trying to get pregnant. The pitter-patter of little feet around the house?” Judge Crater looked lost in thought. “I’ll wager Stella was some pissed-off that I missed her birthday. She was reassured everything was all right, that I would eventually turn up.” Judge Crater picked up a stone and scattered the old woman’s flock. The woman cursed him in an ancient tongue and picked up her own rock.
“Tsk, tsk. Language,” said the judge as he whacked her over the head with his rolled umbrella. The rock was dropped.
“She is...?” asked Sister Joyful.
“The municipal angel. Formerly a clockwork prophetess, her mind has crumbled. She haunts the waterfront putting an arm on passing strangers in the hope of a charity windup. Shabby, alas. No fruit baskets today.”
“The pigeons are mine,” the municipal angel cackled, “...the souls of departed aldermen. Bite on this, dead man.” The clockwork woman reached into a bulging tote and produced a huge pink overripe Florida grapefruit, which she prepared to hurl at the judge. Silent as an Indian scout, a figure loomed out of the smog of pigeons to stay her hand. “Hush, my darling Joanna. Not yet.” The municipal angel wept and unfurled slate-colored spotted wings—not unlike those of an overlarge pigeon. There was a feeble ratcheting of neglected joints as she fluttered over to the apparition to be consoled. Lithe and dapper, there could be no doubt as to the newcomer’s identity.
The Sister gasped and fell to her knees; Joseph Force Crater doffed his fedora. “Jimmy. James J. Walker. Is that you?”
“Yep.” Hizzoner doffed his gray Homburg. “The late Joe Crater, I believe. The police assured me you were dead. I’ll have to look into that. Nonetheless, glad that you could come. This is the End of Days of which I spoke at, at...” He turned aside to confer with a person unknown and unseen. Hizzoner cleared his throat. “...the dedication of the Bayside Community Center. That was 1929 I believe, the 19th of October.” There was a roll of distant thunder; the ground shook. “And I’m never wrong.”
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