Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 20—Fr. Charles E. Coughlin practices a Homily

“And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth,
and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth,
and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.”

—Genesis 9:2 (King James Version)

“Three hundred thousand ears will hear this, Spirit. Little Flower, is that you? I thought I saw the draperies move as if in a breeze.”

“No, priest, it is not me; your expensive double glazing has let in a draft. Do not fear, my child. Wait. Yes... that has a most excellent tone to it—the phrase. Fear. Fear Me, yes. That will be good.”

“You. You are always watching me. How long have you been here? You are not Dave Peel, the angel, the...”

“The Reamer of Virgins, the Horned One, Most Conspicuously Antlered Herne of the Hernia? No. He is a come-by-chance—handy no doubt, when pondering upon the creatures of the Deep. He is an illusion, Old Scrimshander. I am the One—one what it is up for you to winkle out for yourself. Later, priest.”

“I have been studying, my Lady.”

“Ahem.” This was an articulated stamping of a foot, signifying that the Little Flower was growing impatient. “For something homelitical, a welcome for my Miraculous Child. We are obsessed with keyhole-peeping at the boudoirs of the mighty. All the more so when the times are tough—on Earth as it is in Heaven. This is what the underfed underclass craves when things are going to go bad but they don’t know about it yet, when the brew of life is only beginning to sour. It’s popular taste, Coughlin—popular taste that is the most demonstrably reliable barometer of an impending economic collapse left squalling on our doorstep. That is a metaphor.”

“I know what a metaphor is.” At this minor mutiny the Flower’s mouth tightened, she glared at the confessor. Fr. Coughlin began to choke—turned an apoplectic burgundy, then cerulean as he strangled on a bit of phlegm.

The Flower smiled beneficently. “No wonder you pitch asthmatic fits; the air is thick with that goddamned incense. Stinks. Crank another window, would you? There’s a good fellow.” The Radio Priest’s shoulders slumped under the weight of the Flower’s disapproval. “I know. I know. You thought I enjoyed pine pitch, orrisroot, sandarac, myrrh and amber. You mean well, but save us both while there is time, thirty seconds to brain death, you know—a little something I picked up from an ambulance driver at Lourdes. I granted him a new set of tires.”

Fr. Coughlin wheezed, wildly gasping for air between words. “Ah, yes. About this week’s homily. The announced theme is ‘Walk to the Sea.’ I saw it on the bulletin board at the porte-cochere. Did you do that? You could have let me know.” He averted his eyes. Fr. Coughlin had discovered that he really, really disliked the Mother of God. “And I am called Charles, your Ladyship.”

The Little Flower became agitated. “Really? Really? Are you about getting snippy with me, little priest? Little Charles Edward Coughlin. Chuckie Cheese is not your saint’s-name then, Coughlin? Nor Edward? After Edward the Confessor of incorruptible flesh, no doubt. The committee on collects and lessons has found the sea an apt subject for you to expound upon. A return to the salty womb of Gaia, our mother, eh? Yes, your mother, mine, too. And put some spice in it. You know their attention spans.”

“The Church. Christ’s Body...”

“Church. Flaming Cathars, I am Christ’s Mum; I am the Church. My charisms are the special gifts of the Holy Spirit. I regulate the Holy Spirit. My magisterium will detect the presence of the Holy Spirit wherever I tell them to sniff it out. The operative word is faith. I manage things, comprende? You are not becoming My renegade priest, are you, Chuckie Cheese? Behold a sign of My wrath.” The Little Flower hurled a fragrance-free hypoallergenic thunderbolt in the direction of a tank of exotic fish.

*  *  *

Dave Peel arrived in the Radio Priest’s study to find Fr. Coughlin in contemplation of the fish tank. The aquarium was placed beside a lectern with griffin’s-claw feet and backlit with shades of rippling indigo. A small turtle floated on its back.

Fr. Coughlin pulled a kerchief from his cassock’s voluminous sleeve. He dabbed at his eyes and vocalized, warming up for the broadcast. “Bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom...” he ran a scale up and down at whole-tone intervals, his voice cracking at the upper and nether reaches of its range. From the flexible reality of the fish tank, his face—rippled, bloated and rubicund, more a buccaneer than a priest of Rome—stared out from behind a clump of seaweed. Lips curled back over his front teeth, he growled into his reflection, “Arrgh!”

“Ha! Meraviglioso,” trilled Dave Peel from the sidelines. “The perfect fifth. And likewise a proper pirate, Charlie-boy.” The Sixth Choir angel sat in a high canvas director’s chair and sipped at a mocha latte. “Butterfield 8,” said Dave.

“Ahh...”

“It’s a movie. They haven’t made it yet. Old Scrimshander is especially fond of the scene in which Elizabeth Taylor’s character drives her Nash Metropolitan over an embankment. Butterfield 8 is a mighty document of Film Noir.”

“I have never heard of Elizabeth Taylor,” Said Fr. Coughlin.

“‘I’m not like anyone. I’m me.’ Elizabeth Taylor will say that. In Butterfield 8,” said the Sixth Choir angel. “In that respect at least, Coughlin, you and the sainted Elizabeth are two cats of a color.”

Open, strewn across the broad black walnut library table were concordances, hagiographies, versions, commentaries, Lives of the Saints and a weighty Vulgate. The priest lifted the big book and held it over his head as if to bludgeon the fallen angel. Dave gave a Gallic shrug, implying much, saying nothing. The fumes of Mexican laughing tobacco, cannabis, Maryjane, made the room even closer, even more so than the Church’s recipe of myrrh and Valerian muskroot, frankincense and resins. Suffocating. Fr. Coughlin lunged to open a rusted shut window and nicked himself on red, flaking steel. “Damn!” Blood welled. He sucked his thumb until the pain retreated. Now the crank was jammed and he had split a thumbnail. Fr. Coughlin pushed harder, throwing his weight against it. The window relented and opened a crack. Rust that clotted in the passageways of the dormer mechanism crumbled and fell, dusting the carpeting with small red leaves of an early iron autumn. A light puff of air whispered over the fine auburn hairs of his wrist and forearm. “Damn, damn, damn, damn.” The priest paced before the full-length mirror and with his right index finger poked holes in the clotted air of his scriptorium. The Little Flower was right as always; the place was wanting ventilation.

“She’s been here,” said Dave.

“You don’t exist. She insists,” replied Fr. Coughlin.

The window crank detached itself from its rails and fell among the rust leaves. He had wrestled mightily with the vestrymen’s accountants, but no soap. He had accepted steel-framed casement windows and carpeting with a looped wool pile, Brussels-made on a machine, not the real thing—not Berber, but just costly enough to imitate fetal lamb’s wool.

Dave picked his nose. “Uhhh... I seem to recall being in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, to wit: all the stuff in holy writ that doesn’t have Jesus in it and must be abjured in homiletics. By default, the Old Testament with all that nasty genocide, the bull-in-a-china-shop Jehovah, epic smiting and fiery rains, gets in as a secondary source, not a Primary Source, get it? I distinctly remember the moment of my creation. It was right after daffodils and the innumerable shapes of snowflakes. That took a while.” Dave the Angel crossed his legs reverse-wise, right over left, and assumed a thinking posture, elbow on knee and chin in hand. He whistled a few bars of a bouncy, happy tune. “Recognize that?” he asked.

“I am not musically inclined,” said the priest.

Stompin’ at the Savoy, Benny Goodman, 1936. Then there’s ZZ Top and Black Sabbath, personal faves; they come later. Crosby, Stills and Nash, then? Like the Liz Taylor Nash Metropolitan? Classic rock instead of a classic car? Not as classic as Lucy’s rumbleseat Chevy, but a spicy bit of history all the same.”

“You mean music, pop tunes. We have our own music ministry at the Shrine of the Little Flower. She would not put up with a juke box.” Fr. Coughlin wept as he considered baby turtles, hatchlings scampering to the sea, attacked by predators from every side. The Radio Priest took off his chasuble and rolled up a sleeve. He reached into the tank and righted the turtle. It sank.

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