Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 10—The invention of Television, Jesus arrives, etc.

Fr. Charles Coughlin set down the book he had been reading, Sylvie’s Suitcase, a short story collection. The title piece was about a woman in search of her lost self—what she might have become if she had not married young. Sixteen. Fr. Coughlin didn’t think sixteen was too young. The girls in high school were doing it like rabbits, giving it away. Or so he thought, so they told him at confession with an outbreak of giggles; they never offered him any.

In the story the husband was an indifferently cruel man; his slights and abuses gave his wife a framework for her life. Without him she was a cipher, zero. “Validation,” Fr. Coughlin explained to the small collie dog that had been following him as he paced. “That’s all the woman wants. He gives her validation. Well, plus the bruises and the insults. Want some entertainment while we have our dinners?” he asked the dog. There was some tail wagging. He clicked on the television which had yet to be invented.

“The power is in you...” From between guardian gates of veneered mahogany, dead center in the television’s tiny screen, a lacquered, pomaded TV preacher leered out from behind a fence of scan lines. Fr. Coughlin gave the TV a kick. The picture rolled over, the screen went dark, then popped back on minus the lines but with the sound full throttle. “POLLUTION OF THE ETHICAL LANDSCAPE,” blared the preacher.

“I guess we missed something while he was away, huh, Amelia?” Fr. Coughlin said to the collie dog.

“JESUS IS WAITING,” boomed the preacher.

“Not for the Pentecostals.” The telephone rang. “Coming.”

A clearing of a throat, a hushed cough in the receiver. “You are watching me.” It was the preacher from the television.

“I reckon,” said Fr. Coughlin, “And could you pull down the volume? I’m not deaf you know.”

“You are not surprised then.”

“About?”

“Me. Knowing about you. Hello, hello?” There was a flash, a crackle, and the TV came back on. The preacher was standing in front of a cardboard spaceship covered with aluminum foil, holding a daffodil-style telephone and jiggling its hook. “Oh, there you are, father.” A bubbling fog of dry ice vapor rose at his feet. “You are on the phone while you are watching me on TV. You have been doubly blessed; TV has yet to be made known. Check in your trash bin. There will be something there for you—a token of our appreciation. It will be...” There was a drum roll. “A crate of fresh-picked pink grapefruit flown in direct from Florida. In an airplane—this is a miracle.”

“Sally Baggs in the 10th grade. Sally is a decent girl, God-fearing. You know so much about me, then of course you know of Sally. Sally has performed fellatio while driving with her knees. Save the citrus, that is a miracle.” The TV evangelist became fidgety and wiped his palms repeatedly on his trousers. “You have been eavesdropping at my confessional. Ah, but I see you are flying to Mars,” said Fr. Coughlin. “I won’t keep you, cheerio.” Fr. Coughlin crossed himself. The dry ice fog was carried off on the studio wind.

“She told you that?” The man on television consulted a thick pad of scribbled notes. “No, you are her confessor; you don’t know this first hand, albeit I’ll grant the two are not mutually exclusive. Or you have tampered with Sally? Unlikely. Sally is a decent girl, God-fearing. In fact Sally’s here with me now.” There was a snapping of fingers and some fumbling as the daffodil telephone was handed over.

“Hi, Fr. Coughlin,” said a female voice. “Why don’t Catholics get to go on TV, father?”

“You mean radio; TV hasn’t been invented yet,” the Radio Priest corrected. “Or the newsreels—Fox Movietone, the Mightiest of All—Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Smith...” The list went on, newsreels of Mussolini, Al Capone, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. “John Fitzgerald Kennedy...” Fr. Coughlin paused, uncertain about the last name.

“He’s not yet either, that Kennedy,” said his mother’s voice. “Alive or dead. Born. One of those, figure it out for yourself. And don’t slump, Charles. Straighten up. Ouch!” There was a Clunk! as of a dropped receiver. The small collie dog coughed—a smoker’s cough, not that of a dog about to throw up a hairball—and Fr. Coughlin felt his pants cuff rip as she bit him. “Ow!” He hopped on his unbitten leg, stifling a mild oath. The world took on unfamiliar sideways qualities as he fell to the floor.

“Ah, yes.” Amelia Mahoney Coughlin, mother of the Radio Priest, turned to the television, slavered, growled, and leapt through matrices of sub-etheric broadcast waves to launch herself at Sally’s throat. “Slut.” His mother was fighting Sally for the telephone. There was a crunch and a whimper.

“Hey! She bit me,” cried Sally Baggs.

Amelia Mahoney Coughlin hissed, “You can see my son any time—in church, bitch.”

Sympathetic welts rose on Fr. Coughlin’s face and neck as teeming letters, alphabetine insects swarmed from the upcountry Ontario muskeg with the faces of newsmakers past, a blood-sucking alphabet soup. “Mother! Stop that. It’s me, your son Charles.”

“Bow-wow,” said the small collie dog.

“Yep, she bit her. Then you. Your mother.” At his side Dave Peel coughed up a gobbet of ruby phlegm. “It’s all right; I’ve had my shots. Besides, I’m dead, a lost angel.”

“Charles,” his mother whispered into Fr. Coughlin’s ear. “Jesus is waiting for you. Television hasn’t been invented yet.”

“I know that. And tell Jesus he’ll have to wait. You and Sally are enough for one day,” said Fr. Coughlin. He gingerly set the phone back in its cradle.

*  *  *

“Dr. Harmon,” Sylvie said. Fr. Coughlin had turned the TV off and was reading again.

“Yes...” said Charles Coughlin to the book, Sylvie’s Suitcase, “and...”

“Dr. Harmon says I have a malignancy,” said Sylvie. “A lump.”

“Malignancy is just a scary word. Better get a mammogram. That is where you have the lump, I have been reading ahead. Get a mammogram. It’ll be nothing,” the Radio Priest lied.

“Ohhh. Thank you.”

In the story, Sylvie turned, in spite of herself, to look under the skirt of the daybed. Sylvie kept her suitcase packed and at the ready. Her husband knew. Of course he knew—all those hours alone at home while she was away at work. He would have found it. The suitcase was one of those brown overnighters, its outside printed in a pattern to simulate woven rattan. Saturday mornings she would carry her suitcase to the bedroom and flip it open to sort and inventory her personal things. She sniffed for mustiness, shook out the wrinkles and carefully laid the week-old lingerie in the clothes hamper. She then replaced it with a freshly laundered set.

“You are packed,” observed Fr. Coughlin. The suitcase, now she would be taking it to the hospital.

In the book Sylvie started, stared at the ceiling and crossed herself. “Uh, sorry,” said Fr. Coughlin. He was happy for her in that she would have clean underwear.

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