Midwife in the Tire Swing

Prologue―The Radio Hour of the Little Flower

The face in the pier glass rippled as if it were sailing past in a Lake Erie fog. Charles E. Coughlin, The Radio Priest, viewed himself with alarm and some surprise, stuck out his tongue and made a face. His reflection did the same. “Hello, Charles.” Two Charlie Coughlins waggled their little fingers. The stench of cut flowers was overwhelming in the close confines of the burgundy-carpeted stairwell that carried him daily from his private apartments to the Shrine of the Little Flower. His sinuses throbbed and tears filled his eyes; the only child of Thomas Coughlin and Amelia Mahoney pretended some adjustment to a vase of lilacs, and turned quickly to catch himself unawares. The reflection looked red-eyed and bloated.

Fr. Coughlin leaned in for a closer look and felt the bronchioles constrict in his lungs. Air. I need air. He gasped, struggled for breath and sank to his knees on the Berber carpeting—twelve-fifty the square foot, beige in color and Belgian in origin, the shearings of an untamed Moroccan mountain goat imported at great expense by the Radio Vestrymen’s Guild. “And vestrywomen,” Fr. Coughlin wheezed. “Mustn’t forget the ladies. After all...” The casement windows had been rusted shut for some years past. He had suggested bronze casements, copper gutters and downspouts for the Shrine of the Little Flower. Modern, very modern. Modernity was what he was about, what radio was about, what the Twentieth Century was about. He should have stuck by his guns and insisted on bronze, copper, aluminum even—something that never rusted—over his accountants’ objections. The accountants had pleaded that they hadn’t the money for extras, that steel-framed casements would suffice. That week there would be an additional missionary appeal from the radio pulpit of the Hour of Power.

The Golden Hour of the Little Flower had begun in 1926 with high hopes and a tight-fisted underwriter who wanted a commercial announcement in the middle of the hour—his hour. No, her hour. Fr. Coughlin patted his pockets, “Christ, I wish I had a cigarette.” The radio program celebrated Mary, Mother of Christ.

*  *  *

Terrified and unable to breathe, Charlie Coughlin, now age eight, is being choked to death by his own body. He sees his panic in his mother’s eyes. The doctor is called. “Croup,” he says, meaning asthma, a constrictive disorder. Little Charlie barks like a seal. “Severe,” he hears the doctor tell his mother. “I have a compound which can offer relief. It comes as a powder and in a can. Simply pry the lid off the can and set it in a saucer by his bedside. You burn the powder—a single match should get it lighted. He breathes in the fumes. It will be hard for the tyke at first, but it is of the utmost importance that he breathe the fumes. He will get some relief until the natural exuberance of youth takes over and his body rebounds from each attack. Belladonna, a sovereign balsam.”

Fr. Coughlin is adjusting his collar and desperately craving a cigarette. Damn that woman. Damn my mother and her evil-smelling candles.

The face in the mirror that had been Father Charles Coughlin’s face was replaced with a virginal beauty, wistful and savage.

“Blessed Thérèse. You!”

“And about time, I’d say,” said the Little Flower. “But today I am not Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, but tenanted by She Who Surpasses All Wonder—an emissary, dig?” The Little Flower stretched and grimaced. “One moment, I have developed a kink, Charles Edward Coughlin.” She touched her side. A piece of rib had been removed, torn from between her sternum and her left nipple in a passing fit of creation. It gave some bother on damp days. “Good. There have been some, ahh... adjustments to the Plan. ‘And the child made flesh will walk the world a Paraclete, expunging sin.’ An atonement offering. That is the plan? A puny plan by My lights. The Cherubim, Powers and Thrones, they are bored with existence and question why; they grow weary but cannot die. Such a bother. A waste to send another Messenger. This one, this time, is just for the fun of it. He will be a fierce conversationalist, though. I have passed along Tourette’s syndrome and a healthy dose of schizophrenia. Along with the Bundle of Joy.”

“Where is the Prophet?”

“You are the Prophet. ‘Send our servant the herald to trumpet his coming...’ It is so written. You have met Dave Peel? No? Well, put something on, man. Let me hear a fussing of vestments.” Fr. Coughlin hurried to the vestry. It was a room in which guests and baritones were expected to compose themselves before the broadcast.

The voice of the Little Flower followed, skimming upstairs like a flat stone over the placid waters of the Radio Vestrymen’s carpet, “Coughlin, Charlie Coughlin. We are coming again. Spread the Word.”

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