Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 16—Judge Crater speaks of Kumquats
The Sister and Judge Crater dodged through an onrush of homicidal taxicabs and juggernauting trolley cars to reach the corpse, which lay sprawled on the center median. “This is Skid Row—the Bowery—where once downtown swells and up-river patroons alike could catch the airs of the countryside of a Sunday morning. Three hundred years ago the Bowery was a tree-shaded boulevard, where the gentry of New Amsterdam might essay forth, wives and children in tow—on a charabanc, astroll, or with matched pairs of horses in black lacquered landaus, called fiacres by the burgers.”
“Your explanation is overlong,” Sister Joyful harrumphed, flouncing her wimple. “It could come from any of the guidebooks peddled by the Puerto Rican coco helado sellers.”
There was a squeal of brakes as a taxicab swerved to miss them by a hair’s breadth, the whirlwind of its spinning tires against their faces. “Fiacre,” said Judge Crater as he dusted himself off and stooped to kneel beside the derelict. The man’s face had turned blue. “Saint Fiacre is the patron saint of taxi drivers,” explained the Judge, his arm suddenly around the waist of Sister Joyful.
“Oh. Interesting,” she replied. The man has power, she thought as she disengaged herself. Whether it is The Power remains to be seen. “How interesting, we’ll see,” said the Sister, as she gathered the distressed wimple into a pillow to place beneath the head of the expired wino.
“See what, my pigeon?” The arm was replaced.
“If there is a saint named Fucker,” she replied demurely.
“Fee-ACK-er,” a generous smile adorned the clean-shaven features of Joseph Force Crater, corpse and fugitive.
The dead man sat up. “Martha...”
“Wrong answer,” said Judge Crater as he pressed his thumbs into the man’s throat. “Kick the bucket; you have outstayed your welcome. Martha will have to be bereft.” The derelict turned blue and gargled his last.
Sister Joyful clutched her hands to her bosom, “But... you just killed him.”
“It was foreordained. Look closely, Sister; don’t his clothes fit him well for a down-and-outer? He is not a potential postulant for your Church of the Divine Satisfaction, quondam dispensary of celery soup. He is a suicide—abhorred by God and man alike.”
“You have restored a dead man to life,” said Sister Joyful.
“Have I, then? I seem to be gifted with miraculous powers.”
“Then you killed him again.”
“True. Etiam capillus unus habet umbram, even one hair has its shadow. But dear Sister, our solitary suicide did not die alone for we were with him. This is important on all the television shows which glorify God’s Name. ‘His eye is on the sparrow,’ as the angels say.” This was Judge Crater’s first miracle.
“His cheeks—how rosy...” exclaimed Sister Joyful.
“His nose like a cherry,” said Judge Crater. “He might have been somebody but blew away his chances at an afterlife by drinking himself to death.”
“A contender,” said Sister Joyful, quoting Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. “This is a miracle. You have made a dead man rosy.”
“A cosmetic effect. It will pass. As will all things. Ozymandias,” the judge noted. “Many have heard of me. My deeds are legend.”
“I never heard of you,” remarked Sister Joyful as she peeled a kumquat.
“Those kumquats. You have heard of them. They come all the way from California. You have me to thank for that. Indirectly.”
“You bring them in.”
“Tammany, the downtown Democratic club. I played cat’s-paw to their schemings of a transcontinental railroad. Fresh fruit. Aside from bananas. The tropical nations. Heat raises the humors in the blood, black bile and suchlike. Nasty, the tropics. From distant California the Democratic Party supplies fresh fruit daily to pacify its voters. A grand vision.”
“In your day possibly, but these are modern times. The kumquats come in by truck. I get ’em at the Korean on the corner. He rides the IRT Pelham Line to the Hunt’s Point market. Three in the morning, then back to the Bowery. Dedication. As a dedicated woman I can appreciate this; I eat the Korean’s California kumquats. Loquats, too. You want to make love to me. I am not a freethinker.”
“Dear... no, beloved Sister Joyful, I lived long enough to revel in all the world can offer a man of substance. I have loved; I have been loved, albeit not simultaneously. You would be the first. Alas, even sanctified love could become a bore, despite a shapely leg or moist thighs throbbing with lust—for I have a medical condition.”
“You are dead.”
“Death is not a medical condition? This poor chap, f’rinstance...” The Judge had been rifling through the dead derelict’s inside pockets. He came up with a gold pocket watch and chain. Appended to the chain was a jeweled golden fob with Masonic symbols. Judge Crater pocketed the watch and fob.
“Robbing the dead. And we call ourselves ‘civilized,’” said Sister. “This is the twenty-first century. You have been out of things. In... limbo? Heaven, hell?”
“A gray place with vapors. Rather like a hot springs health spa. But without the health, I am afraid. No blanket-wrapped rides along the boardwalk in one of those three-wheeled chairs. No whole grains and celery tonic. Not much fun, in short. But I am certainly revivified. I don’t feel a day over forty-one. That is the age at which I died. I was garroted and stabbed by a pair of burly policemen and buried in Brooklyn. Coney Island, under the boardwalk.”
“Did you see Jesus?”
“Not in Coney Island. Oh... in the afterlife. A dapper gent wearing plus-fours? I certainly did, dear Sister. Jesus sends you His best.”
“You have seen Him...”
“Not only seen the Savior but played nine holes. We played through—His place in the Scheme of Things, and all. I let Him have two points when He nickered on his scorecard. Lost a ball in the trees, He did. A foursome with Menenius Agrippa and St. Paul of Tarsus. Splendid gentlemen; I had never heard of them”
“Because you were dead...”
“Not as dead as our everyman.” The judge dropped the derelict’s hand. Blue-veined and scrupulously manicured, it fell across his chest in a gesture of repose. “The departed was an investment banker. Until recently. I exercised judicial privilege and relieved him of the bearer bonds he had tucked away in an inside pocket as well as his watch. He is kaput, finito. No mud baths or nubile attendants in store for him. No colonics, upper or otherwise I fear, will revive him. I, meanwhile, am here.”
Sister Joyful stooped to adjust her hosiery. There was a flash of plump, golden décolletage. The judge ogled. The sister snapped her ecclesiastical elastic and stood to challenge the Missingest Man in America. “A nun’s habit is her working clothes; treat us both with respect. I am at work while you, sir, are a malingerer and a cad.”
“Just the devil in my soul, Sister. I would blush if I could—bad circulatory system, a lack of use. You will have to pardon me, for these are my little ways. Dead or alive, I fancy myself a connoisseur of the female form divine. And the goods you have on display are ne plus ultra.”
“You are not quite what I expected.” Sister Joyful realized that while Judge Crater was better looking than one’s average pervert, his only aim was to play pound the ground with her nearly virgin flesh. She considered this.
“Most definitely,” said the judge. “We played through. Or was that Clovis, the King of the Franks I played through with? Played doubles at lawn tennis though with old Vlad the Impaler, Jesus and Sam Cooke. Vampires and Negroes in paradise. I never would have thought it. Marvelous voice, though, Sam Cooke, that is. The afterlife is surprisingly athletic.”
“You have seen Elvis...”
“And Jesus. I am the Messenger you have been expecting, Sister. Your sermons are full of me, your homilies rejoice at my coming. Well, here I am. What do you have to say? Have I struck you dumb? You are speechless...” Judge Joseph Force Crater ran a hand over his barbered, brilliantined hair. “My haberdashery, it is off? I wear a celluloid collar; this is enough for most believers.”
The Sister felt an itching at her now revealed garter belt. She scratched. “Are you doing that? Making me itch? Ten years... well, three we have been in this particular tabernacle. I expected a miracle, an opening of the heavens. The Rapture, not a rash.”
“I have performed the first miracle, Sister. Your miracle. The Son of God did not command me to make the miracles personal, a dedication like the disc jockeys do. I rather like it, however—a nice effect.”
Sister Joyful assumed an argumentative stance, thrusting forward her chin in a gesture of confrontation. “I have seen no miracle.”
“I beg to differ; it was a small miracle, but a miracle nonetheless. I have made a dead man presentable. I touched him up with the wink of an eyelid. A cosmetological thingy, I unquestionably did it. And I dedicate it to you: the rosy, healthful look of the corpse.”
“Whose pocket you picked.”
“Better me, an emissary of Heaven, than the police or the mortician’s hirelings. Plus, the business of your itchy garter belt, and I am this very moment performing a real-time marvel keeping you from plunging face first onto the linoleum. You are overbalanced. Do not mope; your dignity should be worth at least a half point, miracle-wise.”
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