Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 5—Dave the Angel
Dave Peel coughed up blood. Fr. Charles E. Coughlin offered a handkerchief. “Not TB. In case you are worried. The consumption and all,” said the angel. The two were in the vestry stairwell of the Shrine Church of the Little Flower.“Ichor,” Dave said and coughed again. Globules glistened in the cloth which was now sacred. “The hanky has been sanctified. You could rake in the big bucks with this baby, Father.” He brandished the holy hanky, shook out the creases, then wiped at a picture of the Little Flower which hung in the stairwell, six steps up from the pier glass landing. There was some smearing.
Fr. Coughlin was uneasy ministering to the sick; they got so close. He made a vague movement over the kerchief that could have been seen as a blessing. “Mary is the flower in which God lies hidden...”
“You possess the red-faced resonance of booming good health,” said the angel. Here the priest broke into an asthmatic fit. Angel Dave pounded him on the back and wiped his lips with the bloody handkerchief. “Considering. Better check on yourself in the mirror. To see if you are there.”
“You work in Cleveland. At the radio station.”
“Why are you here?”
“To serve and protect,” said Dave. “Ichor, if your little head is not overstuffed with apologetics, is a mineral in the blood that makes demi-gods immortals.” He leaned forward over Fr. Coughlin’s kerchief. “Go on—take a peek in the mirror. Just lookee, no touchee. No tricks, I promise.”
The Radio Priest snuck a peek. In the reflection, Dave the Angel rippled like a heat mirage. “You are shifting and changing. Changing color. Are you a Negro?”
“Because I am black? Unlikely.” Dave became white. He coughed up more blood. What’s a cocoon?”
“C-coon. A n-nigger, get it? Negroes back to Negroland, Jews back to Jewland. I wrote that line. Rather proud of it. Herne of the Hernia, Father of All Demons, loves it. He has told me this. You should read what I write, use it in a sermon—you beat around the bush. Not your style as defined by me. Worship me, Charlie-priest.”
“These are pagan things of which you speak.”
“Guess so. I am a rebel angel. We do that. Now what I want you to do is an Ergo, draco maledicte. Purge evil influences, nothing sensational. Never know just who might be lurking about, do we?”
“You want me to exorcise the Bohemian cleaning lady.”
“Nope. A counter-measure is all. Like Amelia, your mother and her frigging candles. A teensy-weensy canticle to clean up her shingles. She’ll love you for it. Mind if I light up?” Dave produced his drawstring bag of marijuana and a packet of rolling papers.
It was Old Mayfield’s beard. Lucy heard his parents wondering—in the elbow-poking way of a private joke—just what he had hid out under there. Old Mayfield’s beard was a marvel to the kids. Mary Jane Elloway from the sixth grade had seen him tuck it into the waistband of his trousers when he was leaning over the dairy case at the Red and White. Mayfield was an usher at the Willipaq (3rd) Baptist and deserved a modicum of respect. The Hobarts dutifully had him over to Sunday dinner once a year where Old Mayfield once astonished Young Lucy with his skill as a flycatcher.
A fly, one not tempted by the flypaper that hung dead center over the red checkered oilcloth of the kitchen table, circled the Sunday chicken, landed on a drumstick and sprang quickly away into the air. The chicken was fresh from the oven and piping hot. “Wait,” said Old Mayfield. He sat motionless as the fly considered his heaping plate of mashed potatoes, circled three times, then landed at the edge of a lagoon of melted butter. The assembled Hobarts waited; the flypaper buzzed over their heads as though the fly’s less fortunate cousins were cheering it on.
“Gotta get inside their head,” Prentiss Mayfield said softly to Lucy. His huge fist flashed and the fly was gone. “See.” He opened his fist and the fly, damaged but not dead, fell into his mashed potatoes. “It’s your eyes,” Mayfield said as he tucked into his potatoes, fly and all. “Never move ’em. Grab where the fly is going, not where it is. They do a barrel roll when they see a hand coming at them, flip right over backwards. Keep him at the end of your nose. You’re coming right along in Sunday Bible class, Lucy. Bet your Mom’s proud of you.” Old Mayfield—Prentiss Oliver Mayfield his full, proper name—had been a widower living alone for the past thirty years, since Lucy’s mother was a girl, and while his personal hygiene was wanting, his devotion was unquestioned. A buttery blob of potato and dead fly popped out of his mouth as he spoke and landed in his beard. A sister laughed out loud and was sent to her room.
“He’s fast alright. Just ’cause there’s snow on the roof don’t mean there’s no one home,” Old Doxology said this of Old Mayfield, out of their dinner guest’s hearing. The Hobart children nudged one another and writhed with suppressed giggles; their mother shot them a stern glance. To his face their father was Dear, or Father, or Mr. Hobart to tradesmen and bill collectors. There was no confusion. The “old” of Old Doxology was there as a sign of respect, Lucy’s father admitting to but 38 years. Old Mayfield was, well... old. And considered to be odd.
Lucy ran from the dinner table to return with A Child’s Illustrated Testament. The binding cracked as he plomped it open on the table. Abraham and Sarah were depicted in a 4-color plate having at one another while Hagar hid out behind a bush. “See!” Abraham’s luxurious whiskers streamed out behind him in a lithographic wind.
“Abraham’s a Jew,” said Father, Lucian Hobart, Sr. with a meaningful look at Old Mayfield. “Christians shave.” There was an embarrassed silence. Mayfield seemed not to care and continued shoveling in the mashed potatoes.
Lucy flipped to a full color plate of Jesus.
“They didn’t have razors back then,” said Father, settling the matter. Prentiss Mayfield nodded and smiled.
It was at the Wanamaker Terminal that Clear-eyed Alicia Emmons met Lucian Hobart. It was 1945 and she was sixteen, out of a job and headed back to Midlothian, Ohio. A chill of apprehension pressed on her heart. Clear-eyed Alicia’s heart was a warm heart, and no longer required at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She had been attached as a civilian bookkeeper but now the Boys Were Back. Unemployment held no concern for Alicia Emmons. The Great Depression had left psychic damage, true—a dread wrought by poverty of place. Compared to a return to Ohio and the yearning emptiness of her solitary bed any future atrocities by slant-eyed Asian hordes or the murderous Hun were small potatoes. Clear-eyed Alicia had a toughness of spirit honestly come by.
A man—a lean, craggy, handsome man—much older than she but in uniform with battle ribbons that testified he had been overseas slid onto the bench beside her.
“I don’t have a middle name,” he said. “Do you?”
“Leola,” said Alicia.
Beware the middle names. They are there not to be used except in dire emergency, and are not to be removed except in case of well… an emergency. What is given, as in one’s given name—Alicia, in Clear-eyed Alicia’s case—may well be taken back some day. Alicia Leola Emmons was smitten with the gallant young officer.
“Not quite so young,” Lucy might have said had Alicia spoken up. “I am thirty-one years old. Going on thirty-two. I was born in 1914. Leola. A lovely name. You have more names?”
“What is your name first? I can’t sit here all day long discussing intimate details of my private life with a total stranger.” The man, he was in the Army Air Corps from the wings on his sleeve, smiled a smile of deeply rooted, strong teeth.
“Drye. Archimedes Drye, Call me Archie, Miss...”
“Alicia Emmons. There we have done it. Broken the ice, as it were. Now we shall be the best of friends.”
“Alicia Leola Emmons, how do you do? Charmed, I am sure. You are a handsome woman.”
“Why, thank you kind sir, she said,” said Alicia. “I am really rather plain, they say. I know that I don’t have a face to turn a gentleman’s head.”
“You’ll do. And please notice that I said ‘handsome.’ Not pretty, not beautiful. I am not a wolf; I am not a liar. Howsomever, if you and I were abandoned naked and starving on a desert island, we would make love first, and then forage for clams and seaweed.” Lucy Hobart who, while a relentless teller of truths real or imagined, had lied about his name. Archimedes Drye was a turret gunner with his bomber crew. Archie had been reported killed in a burst of shrapnel. Lucy Hobart had a wife at home.
“I love clams,” said Clear-eyed Alicia.
“See that woman?” Lucy as Archimedes Drye pointed across Broadway to where a thinly-dressed figure was coalescing through the yellow vapors of an incandescent streetlight. The base of the light pole had been decorated with glued-on pottery shards, a macro-mosaic. She dodged a splat of birdlime let loose by one of a string of pigeons atop the streetlight’s yardarm. Masked by fog, she fumbled about in her suitcase and came up with a pot of glue and a sack of pottery fragments. “She is a municipal fallen angel; perhaps an artist—behold the brilliant daubs of madness.” The woman made an adjustment to the light pole mosaic, then seemed to slump inside her skin as she turned to depart, shielding her eyes against an invisible sun. “This is a practiced affect that her psychiatrists once found endearing. She will be accepted as a schizophrenic genius in the next century. Meanwhile, alas, we are where and of when we are. And she is an eyesore.” The woman squinted through the fog at them.
Clear-eyed Alicia was bewildered by this man’s talk of mosaic and madness and wished for change of topic lest she say something ignorant-sounding.
Lucy gripped her by the shoulders and turned her around. He indicated a multistoried building in soot-blackened sandstone and granite covering what would be a city block anywhere else. “Cooper Union. In a city-state of ancient Greece a monument—here in New York City it is a bloated traffic island. We are at center of Creation,” he said. “The down-and-out woman. Regard her knots; they tell a story steeped in the mythologies of the race.” The woman was carrying a ragged rattan suitcase held together with a network of knotted clothesline and mesh adhesive tape. “That particular tape is available as a special order these days.” Lucy bent to kiss Clear-eyed Alicia on the forehead. “The adhesive tends to bleed, leaving a sticky mess behind all over whatever has been in contact with it. To wit: yonder suitcase—spare nighties, dry socks, a threadbare house dress, in all sorts of weather bonding the runaway to her baggage. She may run but she will never escape, An abusive husband, perhaps. If she has murdered him, the brute—more power to her—his face will appear in the mists of her midnight sweats and waking horrors.” Across the street the mad artist slumped to the ground, sobbing. She was quickly covered by a cloud of pigeons that pecked at her.
Alicia Emmons held up a wickerwork traveler’s special much like the threadbare woman’s.
“Are you running away?”
“I haven’t got a job anymore. So what’s to keep me?”
“Family, a husband, fiancée?”
“I’ll be seventeen next April.”
“Excellent.” Lucy leaned in—close, to breathe into her ear.
“No, and now I cannot even shake hands for I am glued to my suitcase, just like that poor woman.” She was ashamed to say that she was so ill-treated by her government employers that she worked mill girl hours: a ten hour day and a six and a half day week, that she was most nights too tired for even dreams of romance. Alicia blushed and turned away. She lived in a dormitory with 36 other girls who took the bus home to their families on Christmas.
The woman had shaken off her pigeon attackers. She crept close to her suitcase, shooing the birds away. Alicia saw that the tape that held the case together was colored purple. “Why purple?”
“Because that was all they had at the office. She pinched a roll and made her getaway. Sylvie.”
“Sylvie?” asked Clear-eyed Alicia.
“Because that is her name,” said Archimedes Drye. “I am making this up—work with me. Becoming stuck to one’s suitcase makes denial of ownership difficult if not impossible. Therefore you are who you say you are; people only distance themselves from frustration and regret. Come, the war has made me cold, but not dead.”
Lucy took her by the hand and marched her into a residential hotel near the Overseas Press Club where Edward R. Murrow would cop a souvenir coffee mug in 1948. Alicia Emmons Drye will become pregnant that winter, a miscalculation in keeping count of her safe days. The child, a girl, will be named Sarah, and will serve an apprenticeship as a mislaid parcel.
The smelly dead baby is wrapped in pink butcher’s paper, tied with a string—double tied with double twine, expertly tied. Alicia decides to leave it tied, and leave it in the drawer. It was best to not inquire deeply into the contents of things the butcher sends. You never knew. It is most likely a mislaid chicken, a strange career choice for her child. And unlikely, for any child of hers and Capt. Drye’s would be a sensible young woman; thus it must be a chicken. That Sarah would each night tie herself up with pink paper and butcher’s twine and never join her for meals was unusual, but then Alicia and Archie Drye were an unusual couple even though he never came around these days.
Alicia feels that it is not the accepted order of things for a woman with a disappearing husband—a woman alone—to have a visible child in the house. So the new arrival is ignored. Her daughter, nose running and thumb inserted firmly in her mouth, wanders into the neighbor’s kitchen where she sits down to join them for dinner. She does this for the next five years. The Polanskis, Marion and Leo, finally move to Akron—for work, they say. Sarah is so sad they cannot bear to hurt her feelings.
Alicia gets plants at the nursery. Deep purple flowered clematis. C. jackmanii, Archie loved it. Clear-eyed Alicia had at first wanted bergamot, bee-balm. “Getcha butterflies but won’t climb,” Capt. Drye had said. “Bee-balm dies, an annual.”
Lucy left. Archie left. The clematis lived on and on.
A dull small distant sound, the galvanized jiggle of the mailbox, grinding gravel from the road. The metal and rubber noises of arrival and departure. The mail. Alicia forgot butterflies and the missing Capt. Drye and started for the road. A cold foot made her look down. She hopped back into the house and began a hunt for her missing mule, the clematis and a lost October.
Lucy keeps a tally of dead mice on the back of the cellar door. The lines are large, soft and black from his carpenter’s marking pencil. He has done this in Midlothian, Ohio and in Willipaq, Maine. Cat and Clear-eyed Alicia tease him about this. The tallies are the traditional storekeeper’s scores, four straight vertical lines with a horizontal strikeout to help count by fives.
“He did that, Archimedes Drye. Kept score on the bubble of his ball turret,” he tells Cat. “In crayon. You remember Archie Drye? I have told you about him.”
Cat does not recall the name. “Surely, dear Lucy, how would I know if I liked the man if I never met him?”
“Ball gunners entered right side up then flipped on their heads to be in firing position. Archie died upside down hanging from his harness in a gun turret over Ploesti. I carted him back to Egypt while he dripped.”
“Ploesti. I am sure I have not heard of this place. Is it in the stereopticon slides? Find it for me.”
“It is in Rumania. Or was until our raids—1943, thirty miles from Bucharest. We took off from Egypt and flew in at tree-top level. They could have got Archie with a set of golf clubs. We lost 148 bombers in six days. Miss Taken Identity made it home with Archie upside down in his turret. All that blood made the floor plates slippery. Two .50-cal. machine guns between him and the Messerschmitts and he took a hit of shrapnel from the ground.”
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