Jim Meirose’s work has appeared in numerous venues. His novels include “Sunday Dinner with Father Dwyer”(Optional Books), “Understanding Franklin Thompson”(JEF), “Le Overgivers au Club de la Résurrection”(Mannequin Haus), and “No and Maybe – Maybe and No”(Pski’s Porch). New work “Audio Bookies” is forthcoming from J.New Books. Info:www.jimmeirose.com @jwmeirose
People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.
The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden. If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.
Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.
One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.
“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.
“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”
Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.
Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.
A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.
It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.
“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.
Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.
“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”
“Gives the mind something to focus on.”
“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.
“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”
“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.
“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”
At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.
She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.
That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.
The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.
My counselor Joycelyn says I need to work on my communication skills, so I’ll be upfront right off the bat. My name is Paul and I was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. How’s that?
I’m twenty-four years old and live in a group home in Redrock, Arizona, a big city on the Colorado River. I’ve got a GED certificate from Redrock high school, and I have a job and that’s what I want to tell you about.
Mr. Ramirez runs Ramirez and Sons Pool Cleaning. He’s been in business for seventeen years, and he hired me six months ago. It was the first job I ever had an interview for. Boy, I’ll tell you, I was nervous. I was sweating so bad you’d have thought I’d just stepped out of one of those pools I was hoping to be hired to clean. Ha ha.
Anyway, Mr. Ramirez liked me and hired me right away. “We’ll get you helping the crew,” he said, “and take it from there.” I was so excited I thought about mentioning my sweaty pool joke but decided against it which was probably a good thing.
I took ‘We’ll take it from there’ to mean it was what they call a trial period which was fine with me. I started the next day.
I liked the work. Me and the crew got along great. There was Johnny, who was Mr. Ramirez’s son. There was Nicko, a black kid who had a great sense of humor. There was Jody, a native American from the Kootenai tribe up in Montana, and Newt, a white guy like me who was the oldest on the crew, maybe sixty or so. Even older that Mr. Ramirez. Anyway, we all got along great. They called me Pauli. I like it.
The best news, though, was what happened last month. It was mid-July and the day was like most days, sunny and hot and not a cloud in the sky. The temperature around one-hundred and fifteen degrees so we took a lot of breaks and sat in the shade. We drank a lot of water, too, but Mr. Ramierz wouldn’t let us swim in the pools we were cleaning.
“I catch any of you in the water, you’re done for,” he’d tell us every morning and morning break and noon and noon break. I got the message. So did the rest of the crew.
Anyway, on the day I wanted to tell you about, after work Mr. Ramierz was driving me back to the group home. I forgot to mention that he always picked me up and dropped me off because I don’t drive due my mental problems.
Yes, I am fully aware there are bigger problems in the world, but this is exasperating. I do the laundry, bring it up from the basement to my second-floor bedroom to sort it and put it away, and find an odd number of socks.
The first time it happened, OK. No big deal. I assumed the missing sock had been left behind when I last emptied either the washer or the dryer. Surely it would show up in the next batch.
So before starting the next laundry, I carefully inspected the insides of both the washer and the dryer. The missing sock wasn’t there. I got down on my hands and knees and surveyed the cold, hard, concrete floor areas around both machines. No luck.
This was annoying. No more annoying, I realize, than the daily frustrations anyone else has to put up with, but aggravating nonetheless. I buy expensive socks, and losing one means losing a pair. I also don’t have that many pairs of socks without holes, and sock-shopping is the last thing I have either the time or the inclination to do.
I started my new batch of laundry. When I eventually got around to hauling it upstairs to my bedroom and sorting it, I was surprised – and frustrated – to discover an odd number of socks yet again. I was getting agitated. What the fuck is going on?
I took my first breath in the year of 1942, during the final song of a performance by the Stables Family Band at the Bijou Theatre in Cumber, Wisconsin. It was August as hell and my mother was playing fiddle.
The birth occurred without the aid of a doctor. Rather, I slid out of my mother’s well-practiced womb and splashed upon the wooden stage between her shoeless feet. In anticipation of this, Mother had worn her wedding dress that night. She’d been wearing it for seven straight days.
The dress had first belonged to my grandmother, who had sewn it for her own wedding. Grandmother had bedecked the dress with hideous, cascading folds and frills and fluffy things in order to hide the shameful bulge of her belly, a bulge that would eventually turn into my mother.
These many years later, the dress’s white cotton had aged into the color of sunstained newsprint, and it was perforated with moth bites. After an unlaundered week as stagewear, the cotton had acquired several additional hues, the perforations had expanded into holes, and it was as pungent as a pond of panther piss.
In spite of this, the dress looked great on Mother. Everything always looked great on Mother. Even in her mid-thirties, she had remained a dish, thanks to her lifelong loves of performance, moonshine, amphetamines, and rigorous fucking.
My first memory, planted that firefly and frogsong evening, is of my babyhead colliding with the Bijou’s age-warped stage. The impact jiggered my soft body all the way to the bottoms of my convex feet.
My phlegmy nostrils, desperate for oxygen, drew in a teaspoon of air dank with the funk of Mother’s unwashed, bare feet. One of these feet rose and then stomped the floor adjacent to my head. Birth liquid splashed upon my brand-new skin.
My universe consisted of a cotton sky, a hardwood floor, and two stocky legs. From the murky and mysterious Other Side of the Dress came the whoops and hollers of an audience. Vibratories of hundreds of boots stomping in merciless unison shook the wavered floorboards below me. My untouched fingers spasmed into involuntary fists.
In the dim light afforded by my birthtent, my untrained eyes followed my mother’s bare foot as it lifted its blood-speckled toes and dropped them floorward, and then did so twice more. My abode fell into complete darkness. The stage curtains had closed.
Of some concern was my inability to inhale. My nostrils had by now become clogged with a quantity of phlegm far beyond the pneumatic power of my tiny lungs. I redirected my respiration to my mouth, a procedure that required me to shift the tip of my tongue to rear of my throat. This endeavor should have liberated my breath, but it did not. My convulsions had by now settled into the lackluster mouth-stretching flops of a fish tossed to the bottom of a rowboat. I found myself becoming disillusioned.
The audience wanted an encore. Their slap-claps and stomp-bomps walloped the pink folds of my wet ears.
Mother’s toes massaged my chest with apologetic squeezes, working my ribs and lungs. Mucus oozed from my nostrils. My teeny diaphragm jerked up and down noncommittally. My fingers groped for my throat. There they encountered a tightly coiled rope of flesh. To be murdered by the very umbilicus that had sustained me heretofore. My first brush with irony.
Unseen by me in the midst of this unseen struggle, the curtains spread open. As was the tradition, the band approached the lip of the stage to perform one final song. This intimate moment was the conclusion of any Stables Family performance, barring those that were cut short by a slow-motion drunken slugfest between members of the band and/or the audience.
With Mother following the rest of the group to the front of the stage, I was dragged along rivuleted planks by my own umbilical cord. The tugging spun my body once, twice, until the cord unwound from my throat like the last inches of thread spinning off the spool.
The band had by now assembled in a line, their eyebrows dripping sweat and their limbs poised begin the encoric tune.
My first contribution to the Stables Family band was a single squawk in the midst of that brief moment of silence.
Squawk, I did, and there proceeded a longer-than-brief moment while band and audience alike attempted to reconcile what they’d just heard with the fact that there were no geese in the auditorium.
Mother, being as she was both a natural ham and unnaturally stoic, flapped her bow-arm up and down and replicated upon her fiddle, as best she could, the squawk of my first exhalation.
The noise thus explained, the recently-pregnant silence was replaced with hooting and hollering and general glee.
On that August evening of 1942, as I took my first unencumbered gulps of air, as I lay dripping upon a wooden floor under my grandmother’s hoop dress, the Stables Family Band performed what is considered one of their finer versions of one of their lesser songs, A Light in Yonder Glade.
As captured by an art-deco microphone operated by a Purple Hearted, certified Radio Technician Third Class, the show was being broadcast across thirty-eight states from the mighty needle of WOZI’s 50,000 watt AM transmitter just up the hill. It is said that the slender, two-hundred-foot iron tower lured fireflies with its weird, crackling noises. The fireflies would spiral around this electromagnetic god until they became so saturated with ionic madness and that they would splatter in small static explosions. It is further said that the accumulation of guts had rendered the tower practically luminescent.
Anybody who listened to the broadcast that night–huddled around their vacuum tube radios or driving in their large iron cars–will claim they heard something special.
I’m not so sure about that. If something special did happen that night, it had nothing to do with me.