Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 20—These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.

―Wm Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet: Act 2, Scene 6

Elder Jesse Youngblood of the Church of the Divine Satisfaction was hunting. His cuffless trousers—corduroy, like Sarah Drye’s, but not steam-ironed nap side in like Sarah’s—were tucked into heavy woolen knee-highs. Elder Jesse favored two pairs of socks inside his boot, preceded by a wad of tissue in the toe. These particular socks he bought at the Goodwill on the same day as his boots. The boots were several sizes too big and quadruple E width. “Jes’ fine for two pair,” said Elder Jesse at the Goodwill. “Leaves room for my feet.” Elder Jesse’s outer socks were a match­­ed pair decorated with concentric bands of red piping above the ankle. Elder Jesse’s under-socks were gray, undressed wool. Elder Jesse was blind as a chest of drawers, but he could still make out the red stripes. “Mighty fine.” The rest of his universe presented itself in shades of grey and, well... gray, blurry presences—big things that moved were trucks, big standing-still things were houses. Plus red stripes when available.

Jesse received an honorarium for performing as sexton, greeter and deacon. As this was a Saturday, Elder Jesse’s duties were light—reading aloud occasioned by the post of deacon was no trouble. Elder Jesse’s magnifying appliances, double-thick but ineffectual against cataracts, he had likewise picked up at the Goodwill. “My specs...” Elder Jesse would perform a practiced professorial business with his useless eyeglasses. This gave him time to think and remember. Jesse had Scripture by heart; all he had to be reminded of was the day and the verse.

*  *  *

The only way to arrive unannounced at Lucy and Cat’s was to creep up commando-style, under a fence and across the forty acres of pasture Lucy had given over to black alder and weeds. Bee, the Big Bee Willoughby, never noticed Elder Jesse Youngblood as she approached the Hobart place. She was doing her best against the wind over uneven terrain. “Damn wind,” said Bee. She had just snagged a run in her leggings from a patch of nettles and was mildly peeved. Bee had witnessed Sarah’s arrival. This was a new, unknown woman and the Bee wanted to look her over from a distance before she obligated herself to anything so intimate as homemade banana bread or an invitation for coffee and cookies.

The Big Bee’s head declined forward in the swanlike deformity of osteoporosis. My widow’s hump, thinks Betty Reynolds-Willoughby. It is like my husband died first. They are doing that, dying—husbands, not mine. Yet. I see other women burying their dead husbands. I have the trophy without the trouble. Bee’s face had settled with age since she was Lucy Hobart’s high school fantasy; her nose had traveled to overhang her lower lip, which protruded as if in a sulk. “I am not sulking,” she would say. “I have just reached an age where looking alert and joyous is not the first thing on my mind.” Today she is still a beauty if one looks closely. Today she will answer the telephone and die.

“Groundhog. Mighty fine eatin’,” said Elder Jesse. He fingered in a pocket, counting his .22 long rifle cartridges. For fear of dropping one precious bullet and having to find it again in the macular blur of brown-gray pastureland, he filled a clip single-handed inside the same tattered jacket pocket, not unlike Dave Peel hand-rolling a reefer out of the wind.

From a nearby woodlot a roar of a chainsaw that, a trick of the wind surely, became the drone of a dragonfly in rut. “Late in the year for the darning needle bugs. But I suppose any time is a good time if the other bug’s sex parts is close by,” said Elder Jesse. The chainsaw—Pierce Willoughby getting in next winter’s wood while the ground was still dry—executed a diminuendo down the scale and stopped. “Got no brake on that chain,” Elder Jesse observed. “That boy is going to get hisself hurt someday.” A mile or so away, repeated in echo, another chainsaw took up the mating call. Jesse brought his rifle to his shoulder and waited.

The Big Bee’s cell phone vibrated against her thigh with the same frequency as a dragonfly in heat. She thought of Lucy with whom she shared a crush once when they were children, before Cat. Lucy. In her haste to answer she dropped her phone. Elder Jesse Youngblood sensed movement and fired. The report of his Remington repeating rifle was drowned out by the passions of dragonflies.

*  *  *

That same morning, and one-thousand-two-hundred miles to the south and west, Leo Levine at the Cleveland Plain Dealer local copy desk cupped a hand over the telephone. “It’s her.” Alicia Drye was asking for the editor. Again. Leo Levine has a shock of flame-red hair and is significantly overweight. He will die later that afternoon of internal hemorrhaging.

In Alicia’s defense it should be reported that Dick Tracy and the Sunday funnies had been a major part of her life since Lucy left. Ian Emory encouraged her in the belief that Dick Tracy, Moon Mullins, Abbie ‘n’ Slats and the rest were in peril—living, breathing human beings who smuggled out snippets of reality through the comic strips. “There is Danger,” he told her. “You can help get the word out.” Clear-eyed Alicia Drye launched herself into the task.

“...and he must be told,” Alicia explained to Leo Levine. She stared at the telephone. She held the receiver in trembling hands, as far from her as her arms could reach so as not to be contaminated by, by... whatever. Ian Emory had not made that clear. She giggled, “I must look like Lady Macbeth with her dagger.”

She did not take the daily paper, just the Sunday edition with its This Week Magazine, the rotogravure section with grainy photographs of Himalayan footprints “too large to be human,” and bathing beauties lined up at Atlantic City. But the superstar of Alicia’s Sundays was the Dick Tracy color comic strip. She needed to be needed, and with Archie away Dick Tracy filled the bill. Since 1948 when the Chicago Tribune introduced the exploits of the lantern-jawed detective and his remarkably adaptive array of sociopathic villains, Clear-eyed Alicia had been on the phone to the nearest local news desk first thing on Monday morning. The Cleveland paper, however, did not carry Dick Tracy, which caused some confusion. Alicia reveled in her new omniscience; she knew what none of them—not Sam Catchem, Tracy’s sidekick, not Diet Smith who had devised an atomic-powered video camera with unlimited range, not Tess Trueheart, always clueless even after an eighteen-years’ engagement—knew of the threats presented by Coffyhead, by Big Frost, by Sleet and Mrs. Volts. These were not imaginary threats; Diet Smith might at least have told the police.

“I mean how can you just stand by and let him walk into a trap? Open Mind is gunning for Dick Tracy. A fool can see that. You know him. Tell him. You can save him. Please...”

“Huh?” said Leo Levine. She could see Leo through the wires—a carefree, rugged newshound, just like in the movies: a crumpled, wear-worn fedora tilted back on his head, pencil behind one ear like Dick Tracy or Casey, Crime Photographer. If she squinted she could read his secret thoughts. Alicia Drye thought better of intercepting Leo’s innermost musings. She was sure he was thinking about her, most likely something unflattering.

“Lady, I got ulcerative colitis and a quadruple bypass. And Dick Tracy is in the Trib, not us. Go fuck yourself.” Leo slammed down the receiver. In distant Cleveland, a cartoon cartouche melted, tears dripping from its bubble bottom; there was a ringing in Alicia’s ears.

*  *  *

While Bee Willoughby made her celestial getaway when she was mistaken for a groundhog, Alicia Leola Emmons-Drye hardly knew the difference; she shrugged and brushed a runnel of sweat from her eyes. She was cutting back her clematis again this year just to be sure of moles, groundhogs, and small boys; the huge purple blooms were the envy of the neighbors, who allowed their pets to bury their do and/or lift a leg against her trellises.

Ian Emory had convinced her that demons walked among us. Dick Tracy would round them up. One day Clear-eyed Alicia traced the sinister origins of the number 666. The number of doom was derived out of Astrology. The Zodiac was a narrow band making a complete circuit of the sky around the earth. This represented endless time or eternal life and was symbolized in pagan art by a serpent with his tail in his mouth forming a circle. Alicia had heard this.

Astrology taught Alicia Drye, née Emmons, that the fate of mankind was decided by the position of the stars. The chief gods of the Zodiac were the 7 planets who serpentined their way through the 36 rooms of the Zodiac. The 7 planets traveled through the narrow band of the Zodiac at varying speeds. The Zodiacal band itself was divided into 12 houses, one for each month of the year, and each house was divided into three rooms, making 36 rooms in all, one for each 10 degrees of the Zodiacal circle. Believe it or not, Alicia read, the dial of a clock was derived from the 12 houses of the Zodiac. Thus the Zodiac was a Heavenly Clock with which today we measured Time, our time. Here was an interesting fact—it was not by chance that our ruler had 12 inches to a foot. These revelations Clear-eyed Alicia believed, for what ends would disbelief serve? Sheer foolishness that the Almighty would create a useless untrue thing. Surely any thought that appeared in her mind was worthy and therefore true.

*  *  *

Betty Reynolds-Willoughby’s last disengaged synapse was of Splat. She was a child and jukeboxes cost a nickel and the big 78-rpm lacquer platters dropped onto the turntable with a Splat. Wurlitzer flashing carnival lights as she listened to the music and smelled the sweet red sawdust, salt peanuts and pickled eggs in the bars where she went with her father and watched him consume a weekend breakfast of beer with a raw egg floating in it. “Gimme some nickels, George.”

Splat. Don’t Fence Me In and White Christmas were her favorites. Yes, I was four years old when White Christmas, from a 1942 movie, Holiday Inn, was on the radio again and again and again. My earliest memory is of trimming the Christmas tree behind blackout curtains and Bing Crosby crooning from the radio.


Clear-eyed Alicia says “Ouch.” This is at the exact instant of Bee Willoughby’s last Splat. Alicia thereupon forgets all she has ever read, heard or intuited. She has received the three evangelists added to the list of prophets of the English speaking world: Judge Crater, Joanne Southcott and Charles E. Coughlin.

In another dealing-out of the Tarot of Lucy, it might have been Cat Armstrong who stood there, in Maine and not Ohio, if Lucy had ridden off into the sunset on his balloon-tired Schwinn. A twist in infinity’s skeins and it might be Betty Reynolds-Willoughby, a ghost in a garter belt, on the train platform, studying a train schedule. Cat or Alicia Emmons Drye would have had a message from Lucy to deliver. Elder Jesse Youngblood would shoot her, Cat and/or Clear-eyed Alicia. Elder Jesse’s bullet would enter Cat’s head, just as it had the Big Bee’s—in the center of her right occipital lobe where the impact made the smallest Splat, so as not to disturb the rollicking dragonflies, attracted by their cousins’ gasoline-powered chainsaw rut in the neighboring woodlots.

Betty’s last thought is of running downstairs to answer the telephone. She is 16, and it just might be that handsome boy Lucy Hobart. It is not Lucy.

*  *  *

“Moribund,” says Dave Peel.

“Moribund? Not me surely,” says Fr. Coughlin, “And not you... I have come to depend so upon our relationship. You as my guide. Don’t they miss you at the radio station?”

“WGAR. I doubt it. I was never affiliated with them. I crept into their confidence, showed up. Eventually they began cutting a paycheck. I was real. Somebody wrote ‘What does Dave Peel do here?’ in lipstick over the urinal. I got a chuckle out of that. It meant that I belonged. And Cleveland... really.”

“But moribund. You said ‘moribund.’”

“Moribund. Like an abscessed tooth. You don’t perform any useful function but things wouldn’t be the same without you. You have outlived your usefulness and are merely an ornament. You go on because there is no other option. On and on for no reason. Like a garden gnome. You have said what you had to say. Everybody listened. Millions. You do have that. Now I realize this will be hard for you to comprehend, but I am an angel. Not a guardian angel—consider my name, Peel, as in to flay alive. An avenging angel? No, just a messin’ around angel, here to smoke some dope and warble a couple of hymns. I am not the agent of your extirpation.”

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