Midwife in the Tire Swing
Fr. Coughlin, the Radio Priest
The face in the pier glass rippled as if it were sailing past in a Lake Erie fog. Charles E. Coughlin, The Radio Priest, viewed himself with alarm and some surprise. Fr. Coughlin stuck out his tongue and made a face. His reflection did the same. “Well, I am still in there. Or here. Hello, Charles.” Two Charlie Coughlins waggled their little fingers. The stench of cut flowers was overwhelming in the close confines of the burgundy-carpeted stairwell that carried him daily from his private apartments to the Shrine of the Little Flower. His sinuses throbbed and tears filled his eyes; the only child of Thomas Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney pretended some adjustment to a vase of lilacs, and turned quickly to catch himself unawares. The reflection looked red-eyed and bloated.
“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 swam in the reek of God’s creation. That things stank and clogged the nostrils—he was a sickly child—with vapors and miasmas were explained as 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 had broken 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 chills—and his catechetical intuitions were not up to the questions of an inquisitive child given the lowering levels of oxygen in the vestry. That these two breathers with their fish-mouthed wheezing gasps at the sanctified air—one an asthmatic, the other a heavy smoker of cigarettes—sucked up all accessible oxygen did not help with Young Charlie’s focus.
“I hope to improve the indoors air,” said Amelia Mahoney Coughlin. Young Charlie’ s mother, her son’s asthma notwithstanding, also objected to the indoor aromas of 19th Century Hamilton, Ontario on esthetic principles. And, good housekeeper that she was, took steps. This day her steps took her to James Street at Gore Park. She entered Knifeman’s Emporium for scented candles. Nothing by half measures, she purchased the whole case.
“A gross. That’s 144, ma’am.”
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 what would come to be known as volatile organic compounds—petrochemicals, benzene, phenol, toluene, xylenes, cresols, naphthalene, and cyclopentene. The odors of Amelia’s candles would have been not unfamiliar to the scouts of the Iroquois Confederation who obligingly 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.
“A gross. Correct,” said Amelia Mahoney Coughlin. “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 full turn left marks—over the hills and valleys and the 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 even mild decadences were quarantined.
Fr. Coughlin’s face swam in the pier glass. Who am I? He peered closer and felt the bronchioles constrict in his lungs. He gasped, struggled for breath and sank to his knees on the burgundy carpeting—twelve-fifty the square foot. The color of a fine, rich wine, it was Burgundian by nature and nurture and imported at great expense by the Radio Vestrymen’s Guild.
“And vestrywomen,” Fr. Coughlin wheezed. “Mustn’t forget the women. After all...” His radio program began in 1926 with high hopes and a tight-fisted underwriter who had wanted to insert a commercial announcement in the middle of the hour—his hour. No, her hour. The Golden Hour of the Little Flower celebrated Mary, Mother of Christ. Fr. Coughlin patted his pockets, “Christ, I wish I had a cigarette.”
Damn that woman.
Terrified and unable to breathe, Charlie Coughlin, now age eight, is being choked to death by his own body. He sees his panic in his mother’s eyes. The doctor is called. “Asthma. Severe,” he hears the doctor tell his mother. “I have a compound which can offer relief. It comes as a powder and in a can. Simply pry the lid off the can and set in a saucer by Little Charlie’s bedside. You burn the powder—a single match should get it lighted. He breathes in the fumes. It will be hard for the tyke at first, but it is of the utmost importance that he breathe the fumes. He will get some relief until the natural exuberance of youth takes over and his body rebounds from each attack. Belladonna, a sovereign balsam.”
It is also reported that “Indian Tobacco,” redolent with cannabinoids, when decomposing encourages a palate of lethal fungus-borne diseases such as histoplasmosis. Victims of apha-terpineol intoxication report a minty lavender odor, the odor of lilac, the “smell of a locker room.” A-terpineol. A-terpineol may be found in the many compounds swallowed by Alzheimer’s patients: cologne, soap, hairspray, bleach and aftershave. It produces a lilac odor and can cause eye, nose, and respiratory irritation, headache, depression and central nervous system damage.
But Fr. Coughlin is adjusting his collar and desperately craving a cigarette. Damn that woman. And damn Amelia and her stinky candles. The face that had been Father Charles Coughlin’s face was replaced with a virginal beauty, wistful and savage. “You!”
“And about time, I’d say,” said the Little Flower. “I have developed a kink, Charles Edward Coughlin.” She touched her side. A piece of rib had been removed, torn from between her sternum and her left nipple in a passing fit of creation. It gave some bother on damp days. “And the child made flesh will have to walk the world a Paraclete, expunging sin. An atonement offering. That is the plan? A puny plan by My lights. The Cherubim, Powers and Thrones. They grow weary but cannot die. They are bored with existence and question why. Such a bother. A waste to send another Messenger. This one, this time, is just for the fun of it. He will be a fierce conversationalist, though. I have passed along Tourette’s Syndrome and a healthy dose of schizophrenia. Along with the Bundle of Joy.”
“Where is the Prophet?”
“You are the Prophet. ‘Send our servant the herald to trumpet his coming...’ It is so written. You have met Dave Peel? Put something on, man. Let me hear a fussing of vestments.” Fr. Coughlin hurried to the vestry. It was a room in which guests and baritones were expected to compose themselves before the broadcast.
The voice of the Little Flower followed, skimming upstairs like a flat stone over placid waters of burgundy carpet—twelve-fifty the square foot—“Coughlin, Charlie Coughlin. We are coming again. Spread the Word.”
copyright 2016 Rob Hunter
The Radio Priest
is excerpted from Midwife in the
Tire Swing, a novel.
image: Félicien Rops, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1878.