Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 6—Makepeace Inglehall, the Judge and Phineas Gage
Work on the railroad; sleep on the ground;
Eat soda crackers the wind blows around.
—Big Ball’s in Boston, a folk tune
In Midlothian, Ohio Ian Emory catches Clear-eyed Alicia bent over. She has dropped the mail. “In Nam, the medics... You had to know your guy. Some of them loved, loved, to do a digital rectal exam.”
Alicia quickly stands, getting her rear deck out of play, and turns to face him.
Ian has picked up with Lucy’s mouse tally on the cellar door and has a carpenter’s pencil behind one ear. He makes a mark. It is a stick figure with a balloon body, four stick legs and a stick tail. Its mouth is open and a salvo of short radial lines exits, the all-healing emanations of an ancient Egyptian god. Or a cartoon bark. It has Xs for eyes; it is dead. “This is the neighbor’s dog—with the bulging eyes and the bangs? I buried her under the birdbath.”
“Oh, that is nice,” says Alicia. Safe, she again bends for the dropped mail. This is before the police take Ian Emory away. He snaps a rubber glove. “It was a Pekinese. A Shih Tzu—one of those.”
That Alicia Drye was old enough to be Ian Emory’s mother was a biological certainty. She was not, however—not his mother that is. I am someone’s mother, she thinks. The brain—Alicia’s brain, your brain, our brains—sends out constant streams that we are ourselves. We are here all the time.
“I am Sarah’s mother,” Alicia says.
“Two saints, two,” said Dave the Angel, “whose sanctifying miracles feature persistence in the face of adversity. They shall be a lesson to you.”
Fr. Charles Coughlin stood by, misting the leaves of rubber plants in the herbarium of the Shrine of the Little Flower. “I was good at lessons. In the priest place.”
“The seminary,” said Dave.
“Probably. We didn’t have football. Not like Notre Dame.” Fr. Coughlin stopped with his misting to admire a grouping of daisy-like flowers rooted in an eighteenth-century English stoneware pot. “Arnica montana, of the aster family, actually. The popular name is wolfsbane, alternately leopard’s bane, mountain tobacco, good for headaches.”
“Mildly interesting. Sit down, father. Please. And don’t interrupt. Today’s educational effort will be about two saints omitted from the canon of the Established Church. Saint 1: Phineas P. Gage, a railroad man presenting with frontal lobe disinhibition. A railroad construction foreman, he was in charge of a crew working with blasting powder on the construction of the Rutland and Burlington Railroad. It was just before lunch on a brisk September morning that a misstep with a tamping rod fashioned a halo for our Phineas. He ignored it and got on with things.
“It was in 1848, a small town in Vermont—Cavendish, I believe. A bizarre location for the creation of a saint, one of God’s elect, although I have never visited Cavendish and can’t rightly say. Later much was written about the effects of an iron bar shot through the head and its influence on the shootee’s personality or lack of same. Saints are not known for their wit, consequently not much is expected. As barflies warble whilst plunging face-first into the free lunch, ‘Does this pickled herring have bones in it?’ Not yet the alcoholic he would become, but a Christian teetotaler, Phineas P. Gage did not opt for a lobe job, but got one all the same.
“Mr. Gage was preparing for an explosion, using the tamping iron to drive home a charge in a borehole. As he was doing so, the iron produced a spark that ignited the gunpowder, and the resulting blast propelled the tamping iron straight through his head. Said projectile—iron, 1.1 m long, 38.1 mm in diameter, and weighing 6 kg—went through his left cheek and out the dome of his skull. Jonathan Ignatius of Antioch Harlow, the physician who attended Gage at the scene, noted that the tamping iron was found some 10 meters away, ‘where it was afterward picked up by his men, smeared with blood and brain.’”
“Touching. Most touching,” said Fr. Coughlin. But I don’t see wha...”
Dave Peel waved him to silence. “Despite his injuries Phineas remained conscious and a few minutes later was sitting in an ox cart writing up the event in his supervisor’s notebook. He recognized and reassured Dr. Harlow, who had been summoned to the scene. Harlow removed small bone fragments from the wounds, replaced larger fragments, and closed the wound at the top of Gage’s head with adhesive bandages. The wound would continue to bleed for two days, then become infected as Gage fell into a semi-comatose state. Fearing the worst, his family bought a coffin, but he soon recovered and by January 1849 was leading an apparently normal life. But those closest to him began to notice dramatic changes in his behavior. Twenty years later, Dr. Harlow would describe the mental manifestations of Gage’s injury in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Had the story ended there it would have been a remarkable account of Gage’s endurance and Dr. Harlow’s skills as a healer.”
“You promised two saints.”
“In good time, father,” said Dave the Angel. “As I have said, Phineas was watched. Immediately after Gage’s physical recovery, he was fitful, irreverent and spouted the grossest profanity, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicted with his desires. Phineas P. Gage had become a child, but with the passions of a strong vigorous man.”
“That means sex,” offered Fr. Coughlin.
“Yep. He got laid a lot,” said Dave as he rolled himself a long brown cigarette.
“Like a child...” said Fr. Coughlin.
“Only in spirit,” said Dave the Angel. “‘Quasi modo geniti infantes...’ as the Octave of Easter teaches us. During his time of unconsciousness he dreamed dreams and enjoyed visions, muttering strange pronouncements. The women of the town lingered hopefully at his bedside listening for meaningful content. Or, some whispered, a stiffening member of the tall and proud post-mortem variety, accepted as a last hurrah for the flesh and forgiveness by a beneficent God, for in those days the young women of Vermont read heavily of the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
“However, a proselyte-chaser for one of the latest revelations, a Southcottian circuit rider, happened by as healers ofttimes will during moments of erectile dysfunction. Makepeace Inglehall was a follower of Joanna Southcott whose curious sect was forming up among the nonconformist meetings and Established Church parishes of England, and now the New World.
“When questioned on theology he would hold forth on whatever rippled the quiet pool of his perception and have it accepted as the latest bulletin from on high. ‘Could ’ee ’ave ’im put that in writing?’ asked Inglehall, his eyes glassy and turned up. ‘Sorry, Joanna’s fasting, have to mail it in,’ for the difficult questions. Considering the vigor of the Royal Mail this gave him a few months to think things over. The charismatic Makepeace agreed to stay and pastor the unconscious Gage’s little flock. Eventually Phineas P. Gage awoke.
“Women ran or surrendered,” said Dave Peel. “Or…”
“Else,” said Fr. Coughlin.
“Ah, yes,” said Dave. He blew a long blue calligraphic embellishment of marijuana smoke from deep in his lungs. The fumarole became a spiral, then a perfect circle, and retreated to coil about his head. He hawked up red sputum and launched a loogie that flew dead center into the ring. “Bingo. But I digress. The husbands of Vermont became testy to say the very least at seeing their wives hoisting up their petticoats and dashing into the woods at the mention of Gage’s name. Friends and acquaintances said he was no longer himself.”
“These women. These women who ran into the woods, they... uh, where was Gage at the time?”
“You mean were they running toward or running from the aforementioned Phineas P. Gage? Hard to tell,” said Dave the Angel. “It appears Mr. Gage’s short-term memory had been affected and the women weren’t talking. At any rate husbands voted, husbands were selectmen, aldermen, senators and the like, and the votes of the husbands determined whether the Rutland and Burlington Railroad or any railroad at all went through. Horses and canals boasted moneyed lobbying interests. Unemployed, Mr. Gage travelled with his tamping iron throughout New England. At Barnum’s Circus he displayed himself as a curiosity. In 1860 he returned to his family in San Francisco. He had developed epilepsy, and in May 1861, 12 years after the injury, he died of a seizure. Dr. Harlow observed that mentally the recovery certainly was only partial, his intellectual faculties being decidedly impaired, but not totally lost—nothing like dementia, but they were enfeebled in their manifestations—his mental operations being perfect in kind, but not in degrees or quantity. [note 1]
If Dr. Harlow was alive today he would witness an explosion of research into the frontal cortex. He would know that the cardinal function of the prefrontal cortex is the temporal organization of behavior supported by the subordinate functions of short term memory, motor attention, and inhibitory control. Phineas had through a tragic natural experiment caused Dr. Harlow to observe what animal studies later showed—that injury to the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobes of the brain can cause profound personality changes, without other apparent neurological deficits.
“If you don’t mind me asking, just how does this make Phineas Gage a saint?” asked Charles E. Coughlin.
“We don’t know—and that’s just why, not how. But where was he when he was out cold as a planked mackerel? Got me. Got God. Got Joanna Southcott. Got Old Scrimshander, Father of All Demons. Got us all, worthy Makepeace included. Nobody knows, and that’s the beauty of it. He’s a saint, Q.E.D.”
“Ah,” said the Radio Priest, “Most marvelous. The simplicity of it. I see.”
From Willipaq, Maine Cat Hobart comments, “A celebration of death. That is nice. Perhaps it is all for the best, after all.” Clear-eyed Alicia is not in the loop; she has been left off God’s mailing list. If you use 60 point type, they will hear. And come.
Otherwhile, in Royal Oak, Michigan in the vestry of the Shrine of the Little Flower, Dave Peel clears his throat. “Ahem...”
Fr. Coughlin crosses himself. He mutters something unintelligible about supplication and aversion.
“A prayer, little priest? And well you might. And now for saint number two—to wit: Judge Joseph Force Crater, his deeds, his death, miracles and Questionable Resurrection. An excellent chap, much like you, father—corruptible.”
“Crater. I have never heard of that saint.”
“An appropriate candidate for the Lives of the Saints, father. Sit,” said Dave the Angel who smelled like a smoldering junkyard. Fr. Coughlin sat.
Fr. Coughlin considered un-crossing himself, counter-clockwise and bottom-to-top, something in the way of an air-freshener to get the reek of burning tires out of the room. “This being God’s house and all...?” Fr. Coughlin stammered. Dave Peel gave him a disapproving look.
“Once upon a time,” said Dave, “and a very jolly time it was, the Mayor of New York City was the Right Rev. James J. Walker. Hizzoner was never ordained by any church or graduated from any theological emporium. The only cloth with which he was intimate was silk of the stocking and lingerie persuasion. As Jimmy Walker liked to say, ‘A reformer is a guy who rides through the sewer in a glass bottom boat.’ People loved Rev. Jimmy, swindler that he was.
“Well it appears that near the end of Jimmy’s reign one Joseph Force Crater, a Judge of the Supreme Court of New York, disappeared off the street never to be seen again. Rev. Jimmy’s name came up, retailed by the regular crew of courthouse lawyers, but they couldn’t make it stick. The Reverend thing? Nah, an honorific is all.
“Judge Joe Crater did not love Rev. Jimmy, for Crater Esq. knew things, being in on Hizzoner’s shadier doings. Both Jimmy and the Judge thought it would be better if one of them were to take a lengthy vacation. In the absence of a corpus defunctus, most figured it was the judge was on the run...”
In the derelict underbelly of Manhattan, a storefront nun confronted the contents of her tambourine. Empty. No, wait... a dull clatter on the drumhead. A nickel. Sister Elspeth Joyful frowned.
“Slim pickings Sister,” said a tall robust man in brown suit, gray spats and a Panama hat from the open door of the Chapel of Divine Satisfaction.
“I beg your pardon, but you have thrown a nickel on the tambourine,” Sister Joyful turned to the accuser of the day’s offering. “We ask not beyond the means of our flock, stranger. Matthew 7:7.”
“‘Ye lust, and have not: yet ye have not, because ye ask not.’ James 4:2,” said the man in the doorway. “The Bible is an almanac of failed good intentions, Sister. You can help me; I am asking. Here, accept this as a further token of my sincerity.” The visitor produced a large fruit basket, beribboned and covered with cellophane, of the kind often left by a well-wisher in a stateroom of a great ocean liner. “Tammany—the downtown Democratic club arranges the freight. Fresh fruit, aside from bananas, those go by boat. Heat raises the humors in tropical nations—nasty, the tropics. From far California the Democratic Party supplies fresh fruit daily to pacify its voters. A grand vision except for the bananas.”
Sister Joyful accepted the gift of fruit and looked the man over. Expensive suit, brilliantined hair parted in the center, a style long gone by. White silk cravat. “You have found abundant comfort, stranger. Have you been to services?”
“Yes, many times. I came in disguise as a simple working man. Stella, that’s my wife, thinks I’ve run away with a chorus girl. She will be hiring private detectives. The Pinkerton thugs.”
“A chorus girl.” Sister Joyful took a step back and appraised the judge. Substantial—a man to watch they would have said in his youth. The man—erect with a mane of white hair and yachtsman’s deep tan—must be a professor. This man was a gift and gifts were doubtful. Sister Joyful stood her ground. “You are the Devil, then.”
“I am Joseph Force Crater, styled the ‘Missingest Man in America’ by the sensational tabloids. I am not the Adversary. Your chastity is safe with me; I am a Democrat.”
“You are lost.”
“Amen, Sister.” The judge removed his coat, then beckoned her to come closer. Through the streaked glazing of the storefront mission’s plate glass, he pointed to a crimson and gilt marquee across the street. Professor LaBonte’s Flea Circus—Extraordinary, Incomparable. See the Amazing Rollo perform His Bravura Exploits on the Flea Trapeze. Chariot races afternoons at 3:30 and 5:30, said the flashing blue neon.
“A good life—that of a flea,” said Judge Crater. “There are dogs everywhere. I am partial to schnauzers, myself. For a man stranded on the rocky shoals of matrimony there can be no hiding place.”
In the street a homeless man clutched at his chest and fell to the pavement. He collapsed in slow-motion like a marionette whose strings were being cut one by one. “Interesting,” said Judge Crater. “That man out there, he seems to be having a stroke.” The man gave a final twitch, then lay still. There was a slight trickle of a greenish fluid at the corners of his mouth. “The city morgue wagon picks up on alternate Tuesdays. He’ll keep.”
“Isn’t it wonderful what they can do these days? Let’s help him nonetheless,” exclaimed Sister Joyful. “This is, after all, our Christian duty.”
“No,” said Joseph Force Crater. “That will only encourage them. First one derelict tosses a fit in front of the mission and then the next. They’ll be coming in brigades. You will be overwhelmed. You’ll be dishing out chicken broth and celery sandwiches all the day. There would be no time for your ministry.”
“Hmm... as you say,” said the storefront nun.
“They are watching me—even as we speak,” said Judge Crater. “Pinkerton operatives. That man.”
“The man in the street,” said Sister Joyful. “He is dead.”
The judge attempted to open the door and found it locked. “Madam... Sister, unlock this door at once. Pinkerton or not, I will save that man if he yet has the breath of life in him.” He struck the door a mighty thump with the flat of his hand. rattling a leaded cut crystal pane incised with nouveau filigrees of the type much coveted by brownstone renovators.
“Deadbolt,” said Sister Joyful. “You locked yourself in.”
Judge Crater unfastened the bolt. “Hmm, so I have. Nice architectural detailing. It is wise you have a deadbolt.” He swung open the door to be assailed by the sights, sounds and smells of New York. A trolley car clanged past, its motorman mouthing obscenities. Heedless of his own person Judge Crater strode into the stream of yellow-liveried taxicabs. The Sister and the jurist dodged an onrush of homicidal hacks and juggernauting trolley cars to reach the corpse, which lay sprawled on the center median. The judge, kneeling to take a pulse, found none.
“Alas, we are too late,” said the judge to Sister Joyful. “His ticket has indeed been punched.”
“As will yours be if you have uttered a falsehood in the hope that I, a poor woman of the cloth, would be deluded and thereby fall under your spell. I am very sure that even the Pinkertons’ brief does not extend past the Pearly Gates. Pardon me. I am coming undone.” Sister Joyful brushed a stray lock out of her eye. Undoing her kerchief, she thrust the unruly wisp of hair back in order and retied it all the more tightly to keep herself from future disarray.
“Modesty. I like that in a woman. The kerchief. You are a lay sister?”
“Not much,” replied the sister. “Not lately. The church...”
“I understand,” said Judge Crater. “One’s charms are not to be shared with the casual passer-by.”
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