Midwife in the Tire Swing
Intermezzo 13—Fr. Coughlin and Dave the Angel stop to pee
Madness strips things down to their core.
It takes everything, and in exchange offers more madness,
and the occasional ability to see things that are not there.
—Lauren E. Simonutti (1968-2012)
“Let’s duck in here.” Dave Peel tugged at Fr. Coughlin’s sleeve. He banged the huge bronze knocker of a country inn. A liverish eye appeared at a peep hole. “Yes?” It was a woman’s voice, and familiar.
“Ahh... hello. I am David Peel and this is Father Charles E. Coughlin, my traveling companion. We were wondering...”
“Upstairs and in the back,” said the voice. The peephole slammed shut.
Dave shrugged. “The road is a thirsty place; we must have been expected. Come along, father.”
Up an external fire escape—wooden, Fr. Coughlin noted—was a half-attic. Dave hung by his heels from a corner truss and gestured to a corn husk pallet, “Pull up a bale, priest. Don’t be shy. This may be a while.” They waited.
Fr. Coughlin must have fallen asleep, for how long he had no idea. He awoke to muffled voices; a chair squeaked from below. Formless chatter filtered up between the joists, made faint and rebroadcast as a chorus in Greek. The choristers seemed glad to be here but had stuffed their mouths with shortbread cookies to give themselves strength before daring introductions.
“Nice bonnet, Joanna. And what hear ’ee from Young Shiloh, our miraculous child?”
“Nothing yet, Lord. He’s be waiting on his conception they tells me.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Can’t rightly tell.”
“Aye, we are all strangers here. Have a digestive biscuit, Joanna.”
“I feel no want of food, Lord.” The voice could have been female, with a brittle mechanical edge.
“Yes. It won’t do to cloud one’s prophecies.”
A chair, most likely the same chair—a fidgety visitor nervous at being surrounded by the minions of Hell, perhaps—squeaked again, distantly muffled, a squeak not in anger, but in anguish. “The green timber raspy edge of the voice sounds like Old Scrimshander himself,” whispered Dave Peel. “He won’t like us eavesdropping.” Dave gave Fr. Coughlin a sharp elbow in the ribs as a caution to be silent.
“Huh.” The priest grunted, annoyed at a poke from an unfrocked angel.
Old Scrimshander cleared his throat. “That you up there, Angel Dave? Don’t bother answering. I know that it is. You and your little chum may come down and join us at the grownup table. Or not. Whatever.”
“Our village has heard tales of you, Odysseus,” called Joanna. “We assembled have all stepped on the cat’s tail in token of your welcome. A sidewise spell—widdershins, the invocation of the anti-clockwise. Be welcome and come down into the firelight that we may enjoy the full power of your physiognomy.”
Father Coughlin gripped Dave just behind the elbow, “Odysseus? Does she mean me or the Evil One?”
“Oh, you by all means, holy guy. You are a celebrity. The broadcast authorities have put their stamp of approval upon elastic undergarments, chocolate-flavored Ovaltine and radio preachers alike.”
“An’ don’t ye forget the soap operas, Davey.” Old Scrimshander clumped a cloven hoof upon the table, popping the eye of a roasted lamb and sending it spinning into a puddle of green ale. “Our Joanna may love your lapdog priest but she hates you, Child of God. Not rashly but in reflection. Not in anger, but in accommodation, nothing personal. This is love seen from beneath, past its lacy drawers as it were. Come ye on down from the attic an’ I’ll give ’ee a peek.”
“Be first to see to it that it’s yers ta give, Cloven Clopper,” a woman’s voice now. Peering through the crack in the floor boards, Dave the Angel could not tell for sure if this was the same Joanna Southcott. Not as at first, the voice—bold, welcoming, she now ended each statement with a question mark, as if seeking approval. “You will sit? Oh, is this chair in your way? Bad chair. Bad, noisy chair.” The chair squeaked a tormented sidewise rasp; a sound of shattered slats, splintered whorls of lathe-turned spindles to be cast into the stove. The rattle of an iron grate shaken, a whistling up the flue as the chair blazed. A bright blue flame, Dave Peel reflected, like Pyrofax bottled gas or the souls of fallen angels.
“You must be on a journey of some importance for His Nibs to recognize your voices,” said the Prophetess Joanna. The chair consumed, its soul creaked on. Scree. Scree.
“Come down here, Charlie-Priest,” said Old Scrimshander. “We’ll not eat ’ee. Not yet, for we have recognized yer need. Welcome home, Odysseus. Dinner is served.”
The priest and Dave the Angel were allowed to stay the night. They dined on table leavings and were in turn nibbled at by rats and bedbugs. Lights-out ushered in the never-ending action films promised in the Puritan hereafter—Despair All Ye What Enter In, No Tipping Allowed, Don’t Tread on the Damned They just Might be You kind of entertainments. The two seekers after knowledge made a break it without bothering to wait for a tub of the more-buttery-than-butter yellow-slathered goodness that was the popcorn from Hell’s concession stand. In short, Charles E. Coughlin and the fallen angel grabbed their Jelly Babies and high-tailed it out of there.
In the courtyard of the inn stood the clockwork woman, silently mouthing “Help me.”
“In the back,” said Dave Peel.
The collision was ill-advised. This is according to Harry Collier, Samantha Cherry Hobart’s actuarial consultant whom you will recall is consigned forever to a medicine chest mirror in the trunk of her Dodge Neon. In his rearview mirror, Dave the Angel had a glimpse of Fr. Coughlin and the clockwork woman just before the impact as they jumped from the moving car. The Father of All Demons must have seen them gunning by and set up an obstacle course. Dave Peel’s head punched out the safety windshield, starring it in a snowflake pattern. A bloody nose spouted blue, not red. Blue ichor was so much more becoming; he’d have to express his appreciation at the next Council of Principalities and Thrones. Ahead of them in the fog were themselves in the self-same Buick looking anxiously back, fleeing a rear-end collision. A doppelgänger. They had picked up with their own trail, just a split second later. He had been doing 80 kilometers per hour, about the legal speed, and coming around a blind corner where the road ahead was obscured by a tight turn and a rock escarpment, piled into the Radio Shrine of the Little Flower’s Buick parked—parked, God damn it!—right in the middle of the fornicating road. Dave fell into a period of unconsciousness with furry edges.
There followed a sideways time of celestial second-best significance. All clocks ran backwards except for those of the Trans-Siberian Marmoset, which excels at cold weather propagation.
Dave’s eyelids fluttered. He appeared to be impaled on the steering wheel. Invoking Saint Phineas Gage of blessed memory’s tamping iron, he grabbed the wheel post with both hands and pushed. There was a cartoony “splunch!” followed by a gush of glistening blue ink.
The number two Buick caromed sideways up the hill, jumping a drainage culvert. Fr. Coughlin number two felt the thrill of panic down his back as he leaped from the car dragging the clockwork Prophetess, the second time this day he believed. He was a hero. This was Armageddon and he had rescued a windup woman from the Next to Last Judgment. He thought of the crucifix above his bed. This was the time of resolution, forced upon them by the abiding Father of All Demons. Too late now to ask why. He stopped to savor the moment.
As Dave the Angel lay slumped on the floor there arrived through the skill of unionized stagehands the Greek Chorus advertised in our Table of Contents—a god and a goddess with Olympian attendants (43), a life-size clockwork woman (2) with a key protruding from her back, and a New York State Supreme Court Justice got up as a midtown macassared dandy (1), at his side a flapper with silk stockings rolled to her knees (2).
“What th’ fook,” announced a commanding presence who arrived to the accompaniment of a motorcycle and percussion choir.
“Oooo...” The choristers clutched their chests and fell down.
“Well, if they’re dead then that’s no more business of mine,” said Old Scrimshander who vaulted down from a screaming blue Ducati motorcycle. “But it will make some of our transactions more challenging.” He observed the smoking wreckage of Fr. Coughlin’s ruined Buicks 1 and 2. Dave Peel crouched near the corpse of Fr. Coughlin, shaking and twisting the priest’s broken neck as though if he got it into the proper position it might heal. “Hoy, Child of God, stop with the head flopping. There’s nothing for it than that we’ll have to grow him a new neck. Take the rest of the day off, Davey. Go to grass Ducati.” A dismissive wave of the hand and the motorcycle ambled to the middle of a nearby pasture where it spent the rest of the day making lazy-eights in the corn stubble.
“We’re going to have to do this all over. Crank ’er up!” said Old Scrimshander. An impressionist backdrop in fall colors was unfurled—by the same Québec stagehand, if you have been paying attention, represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, who in Chapter 14 ran alongside with a landscape-on-rollers when Cat Hobart made her break for freedom by stealing the visiting physiotherapist’s automobile. Time ran whipping backwards to just before Fr. Coughlin’s expiration date, and he and Dave the Angel were in Buick #1 motoring along life’s highway.
Yes, a visitation is happening, thought Dave. “I have read about these things and, yes, seen them in the movies, but I had never expected a personal appearance.” What was that forming on the fog there off to his right as if projected on a scrim? It was keeping up with Dave Peel’s driving, too fast for the road and the weather and gluttonous on gas consumption. “If we are killed, Mrs. Coughlin will get what is left of the Buick with a rebuilt engine, and the bank will forgive the Little Flower’s vestrymen the rest of their loan. How’s your neck?” asked Dave.
“Hurts,” said the Radio Priest. “And Amelia my sainted mother is lo these many decades in her grave. David, pull the car over, I must have some relief.” At the angel’s blank stare, the radio priest said, “Gotta pee. Now.”
“Oho! That won’t save her from the taxman. Dead or alive, Ontario is jealous of its revenue. The grave is puny shelter from parliamentary avidity.”
Father Coughlin straightened his collar. “This day we have seen, heard and been expected to swallow whole the fact of the existence of a creature from another revelation with mental powers that dwarf our puny human endeavors. And I am going to explode. Stop.”
“I suppose you mean our Joanna.” Dave stopped the car in the dense fog. “I’ll pull over to where they draw the shoulders on the roadmaps. Huh?” Salt sea smells said there was a plunge into the ocean just yards ahead. They had left the roadway and were floating in a gray amniotic nowhere. “Uh, Father?”
“Over here.” The priest made his way out into the yellowish vapor where he fumbled with his zipper, then turned to face the curtain of fog, here as thick as sea-wrack. There was a fog-muffled sigh of relief. His eyes were closed; he groaned quietly, peeing on and on. Feeling the flow nearing its end, he opened his eyes and there was a black-winged man standing in a doorway. That’s all, just a jam and a door—three feet up and fifteen feet away, hanging in mid-air just past a head-smashing tumble down the cliffs. “There’s a creature—one of the heavenly horde out for a stroll most likely, the damned busybodies.”
“Malakh,” it said. Then what sounded to be “Golf.”
“Do as I say. Zip and back away.”
“Zip and back. Can I shake?”
“If you must. But the operative command is to come back, toward the sound of my voice. And don’t look down.”
“I don’t know if you can see this, Dave, but a man is standing in a doorway. Did I ever tell you I had an illustrated color plate Bible when I was a lad? And so help me, this is just like the celestial messengers who laid out the Word to Old Testament prophets. Powers, Thrones, Principalities—those people.”
“Is your angel wearing an expensively tailored summer weight suit with a straw boater?”
“With black wings. You do see him! Oops.” There was the rattle of gravel down and away; Charles E. Coughlin had been advancing as he talked, into the doorway rather than away.
Malakh the Principality, or so Dave judged him by the sporty choice of haberdashery, was tall and slim—a cigarette dangled carelessly in one hand as he lounged against the side of his doorway.
“Child of God, that is you?”
“Correct, O Fallen One,” the Sixth Choir angel said. “Sorry but I’m kind of rushed; these impromptus are that way.”
“Charles. You have been going in the wrong direction. The thing is a mirage. Come to my voice; go backwards—reverse your current bearing lest you die shattered on the rocks.”
Malakh the Principality frowned. “Dave, Dave, Dave,” he said. “You are becoming a major pain in the ass. Be true to your school; a soupçon of class loyalty would be appreciated. And best wishes from the gang in the Sixth Choir, by the way. You are a messenger after all. Act the part.”
Fr. Coughlin arrived at Dave the Angel’s side. “You see it, too. Are we both crazy?”
Malakh ground out his cigarette under the heel of a red-soled golfing Oxford. “You are not crazy, not yet. Ah, I feel your distress—not yours, Dave Peel, but your companion’s, the bladder spasmic priest. Here’s some free advice. Watch out for the Hole in the World and don’t fall through. The Hole in the World? Nod if you understand.”
“I don’t understand,” said Fr. Coughlin.
“Nod anyway,” said Malakh. He stood silhouetted against the framing of his door, running a hand along the polished grain. “Looks really impressive, the way we cut this little honey in a wall of fog and have it hanging apparently unassisted. No visible means of support, eh? A picture on the wall except there ain’t no wall. Cool, huh?” Malakh of the Sixth Choir was enjoying himself. “Craziness is of course, an option; I am just standing here, not a party to these deliberations, just an onlooker. Your trusty Fallen Angel, Dave Peel here, will be your guide. I,” announced Malakh, drawing himself up to his full height, “...am a Proclaiming Angel. You have been proclaimed upon. That’s it. Whew!” He sat down in the doorway and fanned himself with his flat-brimmed hat. “These impromptus take a lot out of a fella. I’m fair running on fumes, ectoplasm-wise.”
Malakh of the Sixth Choir fished a copy of the Daily Racing Form from his back pocket and read silently, following the columns with a finger. His lips moved. Fr. Coughlin noticed some pages were dog-eared and passages had been highlighted with yellow marker. “I’m afraid the math is beyond me, these days even archangels can’t get through a supermarket checkout line without counting on their fingers. ‘Superluminal’—great name. Unfortunately, the horse wasn’t.” He found a highlighted passage.
Fr. Coughlin read over the Principality’s shoulder. “There is a horse named ‘Causality?’”
“And an ‘In Memoriam.’ Causality was a three-year-old in a stakes race at Belmont Park, dropped dead in the stretch. The horse right behind him was heard to mutter, “Oh, Shit,” and it, too, dropped dead in its tracks. A Jesuit Perfecta. There is no Law of Causality; and wouldn’t the Jesuits love to get their hands on that one. Causality is just a ‘notion.’ And a horse until it dropped dead at Belmont. There is no argued reason why cause must precede effect. Causality is not a law of science. Causality is not a law of Muncie, Indiana, even. Oh, yes... here’s your car back.”
Dave Peel hovered in space and looked back toward the first car. Fr. Coughlin sat immobile, the windshield wipers in mid-stroke, the condensation from the exhaust pipe still holding the same question mark shaped plume it had had hours before. Time was standing still. Malakh waxed on; father Coughlin stared blankly, panic in his eyes. “You are not pivotal; however you are essential to the execution of the plan. Just expendable, understand? I mean radio, really. The probability vectors of Joanna Southcott, the miraculous child, Sarah Drye and Cat and Lucy Hobart are coalescing at a nexus. Don’t ask what a nexus is—they talk that way back Home; you’ll get used to it when you’re dead. You have to fix things. Then you can go paint daisies on urinals to your heart’s content. Zip, please.” Here Malakh was tap-dancing backwards, accompanied by small explosions as he pulled dance bombs from his pocket and threw them at his feet, tiny puffs propelling him offstage. “Like this number? I remember Fred Astaire doing it in the films—Putting On The Ritz, I think.” The doorway followed.
“The Hole in the World,” Fr. Coughlin managed, shaking and zipping, “What is the Hole in the World?”
“Damifiknow,” called Malakh out of the nothingness. “Just one of those things Ol’ Scrimshander comes up with. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m supposed to be watching a quiche for a friend.” And he was gone.
Father Coughlin and Dave the Angel drove on, this time in silence. After some miles the vicar of the Little Flower had recovered sufficiently to speak. “David, this is serious business,” he said.
“Fabulous, padre. I am a bona fide disgraced angel, and here you’re talking about ‘serious business.’ Pee or die—that is a natural law. No choice. Ladies and gentlemen, there are great things happening, and over there on the Edge of Creation is the hope of sentient life on this planet. You are nuts, a candidate for haloperidol or chlorpromazine; popping your clogs is an option for you later, not now. We have looked into your diocesan health plan and you would be 80% covered for psychiatric procedures. These things can become expensive. Priest Relates Plan for Dealing with Supranatural Threat Whilst Exposing Self, tours hourly. Wonderful! Wait, no, don’t zip up just yet, we have a photo team rushing here at this moment to pepper the celebwebs with your priestly piddling. Serious business, indeed, quack, quack.”
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