There were seven peaks to the Segovian Hills that were the eastern boundary of Little Aleppo and curved around the neighborhood like God’s hand around Job, cutting it off from the rest of C—–a City. The range sloped west, towards the ocean, and the last hill ran down right into the water where it became a natural harbor. The tallest one–fifth from the left if you’re looking at it from the Main Drag–is called Pulaski Peak. The whites who first settled the area named it that after the Indians they had to kill in order to settle the area. To honor them, they said.
They gave all the hills names, or at least they tried. The northernmost, the one all the way to your left, was declared Mt. Lincoln, but only after the newspaper office got torched and three guys got shot. Quickly, the hill next to it was named Mt. Booth; then, no one was happy and everyone settled down. After that, the naming of the hills was removed from the democratic process and they were named (in order) Mounts Faith, Fortitude, Chastity, and Charity by Miss Valentine, who ran the saloon. She thought she was being funny. And, at first, that’s all the whites did with Segovian Hills: name them. They ventured up in to them no more than the Pulaski did, which was mostly not at all. The Hills had teeth.
Over time, they were tamed. Everything that humans rub up against gets tamed, but a mountain is like a lion; tamed is not domesticated. Tamed doesn’t mean “safe;” tamed means “not actively killing you at this moment.” Mountains aren’t pets and they aren’t soldiers: they won’t take to training and they don’t listen to orders. You can carve a swatch off, or chisel a road through, but nature will snap back on you when you let down your guard. The earth will always reclaim herself, sometimes eventually and sometimes all of a sudden. You don’t want to be there for the all of a sudden.
There were Rock Stars in houses on stilts that they had bought decades ago with the advance from the first album, and long-forgotten communes and summer camps and abandoned hunting shacks; there are drug dealers who rent, and drug dealers’ bosses, who own. Nestled into a wooded spur on Mount Faith was the monastery where the Sebastianite monks lived and worshiped, among other things. The artists lived on Mount Chastity and couldn’t stop fucking each other; the bankers lived on Mount Charity, and they couldn’t stop fucking each other, either, but in a different way but also in the same way.
Up on Fortitude was the antenna. One hundred feet of latticed steel and cables and dishes rising from a concrete slab the size of a swimming pool; next to it was a utility shed made of dull green plated metal with GO BLUE OXEN spray-painted on the side in yellow. In the right light, you could see it crackle and spark as it slingshotted KSOS and KHAY down into Little Aleppo, from the studios on the Main Drag and up the hill through a cable thick as fat man’s thigh protected by wire mesh and toughened rubber; the signal hits the shed and steps itself up, down, whatever signals do, and radiates from the antenna down to the valley and up into the ionosphere just so it could bounce back into teevee sets and transistor radios.
And in an hour, the Late Show would come on. Big-Dicked Sheila was poofing up Draculette’s hair in the corner of the dressing room that Tiresias Richardson had named Masada after the mistakenly-purchased six-sided star affixed to the door. Tiresias was at the makeup mirror in a fluffy black robe putting on Draculette’s face, pale with swoopy black highlights and so goddamned much mascara that it took her three washings to get it out at night.
“Where did that robe come from?”
Tiresias slapped her eyeliner down on the table in front of her and swiveled around.
“I was wondering when you were gonna notice,” Tiresias said, standing up and walking over to Sheila with her arm out. “Feel.”
“Well, now I feel sad for the fleece,” Sheila said.
Tiresias went back to her mirror and sat down. Sheila started poofing the wig up again and asked,
“Where’d it come from?
“Fan bought it for me. Mailed it in.”
“Check the pockets for drugs?”
“First thing. No joy.”
“But so soft.”
“You washed it, right?”
“Like, five times. Then I microwaved it for ten seconds.”
“You’re not gonna fall for the ol’ smallpox in the blanket trick.”
“I didn’t fall out of a truck last night. I was asked to leave. AAAAAhahaha! Ooh, I should use that tonight.”
“What’s the movie?”
“An Adamo Brothers classic called Don’t Kill Me Again.”
“Of course not. It’s about a haunted diner where breakfast eats you,” Tiresias said. She turned her face left and right, examining each angle. Her eyes were not bloodshot. In fact, she thought, her eyeballs were freakishly white. Have they always been this bright and shiny? She looked closer and in the powerful light of the makeup mirror she could see a viscosity on the convex surface, mucosal and slimy, and she wondered if they had always looked this way.
“Sheel, are my eyeballs too white?”
“Yeah, you’re a freak.”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Me, either. People are talking.”
Tiresias leaned in closer to the mirror and pulled down her eyelid with a black nail-polished finger. She said,
“Seriously, I need to discuss my eyeballs.”
Sheila had known Tiresias a while, and so she knew to avoid these kinds of discussions. One time, she had gotten it into her head that her pinkies were too long and that went on for a week. Best to nip it in the bud.
“Can’t believe you’re going to the meeting with Tommy Amici. He’s a fan, huh?”
Tiresias froze. She was a wonderful actress, but a shitty liar. Sheila had known Tiresias a while.
Sheila walked over to the makeup mirror, grabbed Tiresias by the shoulders, spun her around.
“What are you not telling me?”
“Y’know how I went to dinner with the Reverend and Gussy and all to plan how the meeting was gonna go?”
“Just absolutely zoned. I think it was my blood sugar because I hadn’t eaten. We sat down and next thing I know Penny is asking me if I got it. And, you know, I’ve done a lot of improv training so I just said ‘Yes.’ It was like muscle memory.”
Sheila smiled at her sarcastically and said,
“You’re something special.”
“I’m lovely and talented. Sheeeeeeeel?’
“Could you find out what I’m supposed to do from Gussy? But don’t let her know that I don’t know? Because that would be awesome.”
“How do you fuck up listening?”
“Actresses never listen, darling. They wait until it’s their line. AAAAAhahaha!”
Sheila fell back onto the ratty blue couch and shook her head.
“It was like an out-of-body experience. Except I didn’t go anywhere.”
“That’s called not paying attention, sweetie. Were you fucked up?”
“I wasn’t,” Tiresias. “It was five o’clock! I had barely woken up and I didn’t even have that much the night before. Zip, nada. Sober as the Calling Judge.”
Tiresias batted Draculette’s eyelashes.
“Pleeeeeeease? Just find out what I’m supposed to do.”
“How do you know I’m going to see Gus?”
“AAAAAAhahaha! Draculette sees all, sweetie. I see evvvvvvverything.”
“Maybe you should try hearing something.”
Tiresias started piling her lazy brown curls on top of her head, bobby-pinning them down into coils; her hair was thick and tried to wriggle out of her grasp.
“You’re cruel and capricious.”
“If I do this, will you promise to try harder?”
“Any effort at all would be more than I’ve put forth so far. AAAAAhahaha!”
“Okay! Okay, okay.”
“Just be, like, in the moment.”
Tiresias crossed her heart and said,
“Cross my heart.”
“Gives me an excuse to see her.”
“There’s no excuse for this, Julio.”
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was pissed. The evening’s feature at The Tahitian was a documentary about women blacklisted from ballet companies called Barred From The Barre; it was terrible. The denizens of the balcony, bored, broke into the projectionist’s booth and thus began Little Aleppo’s XXX-Rated Shadow Puppet Theatre.
“No, yeah, you’re right. But I was working the snack bar.”
“Well, I can’t blame Fanow, can I?”
Fanow was the projectionist at The Tahitian, and he had gone home after being taken hostage.
“Well,” Julio thought out loud, “just because you can’t blame him doesn’t mean you should blame me.”
Gussy was like any movie theater owner: she employed a lot of kids. She liked watching them grow up. Come into themselves. She was proud of them when they took their first tottering steps towards adulthood, and she was proud of Julio Montez for standing up for himself logically and respectfully. On the other hand,
“Don’t talk back to me.”
They were in her office off the lobby with its Tiki theme and gaudy red carpet and cardboard standees of dead movie stars. Gussy was wearing a new dress. It was green, which was a color she did not often wear, and she was feeling good about her choice to wear green; the meeting at the Victory Diner went well, but long, and when she returned to The Tahitian there were shadow dicks and titties humping on her screen. It had just about ruined her day.
“And do you know why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I am grooming you, Julio.”
He looked down at his sneakers.
“Gussy, I think you’re awesome, but I have a girlfriend.”
“Not that kind of grooming, jackass.”
“To manage the theater.”
And he smiled. Julio Montez loved movies. The crap and the art, documentaries and cartoons, product and passion. He liked that whirring behind him, the projector’s warning that a new reality was getting thrown up in front of you larger than life. Julio liked larger than life. Life was Little Aleppo, school, the apartment he shared with his mother and sisters. Life was boring most of the time, he was finding, and confusing sometimes and terrifying occasionally. Movies made sense when life didn’t. They had a beginning, middle, and an end, Julio thought, even when the story in them refused to; didn’t just wander around for ages, people bumping into each other again and again. Movies had set pieces. Julio had never been in a set piece; it sounded fun.
He loved The Tahitian, too. It was, to him, unfathomably old. It had simply always been there on the Main Drag, just like the Great Wall was in China or the Grand Canyon was in Arizona. Whether made by God or our ancestors, The Tahitian had clearly been given to us, Julio figured. We inhabit it like the Hopi inhabited the caves of the Anasazi, we live in the houses of our fathers, we walk the streets first paced out by the settlers. Julio almost certainly would not have been able to articulate these thoughts, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them.
“Is that something you want to do?” Gussy asked.
“Yeah. Okay. Yeah, that would be…yeah.”
Julio felt like he was failing a test he didn’t know he was taking.
“I would appreciate the chance to show my qualities, and skills, to you and aid with the management of this, the, this, Tahitian to facilitate–”
Julio moved a box full of posters from the couch to the floor, then took the box’s place. Gussy rolled her office chair towards him.
“What do you think a manager does?”
“Could you be more specific?”
Gussy liked teenagers, she really did. They were blatant. Obvious. You could read them a mile off; they hadn’t learned to lie yet, at least not well, and they lived in the superlative: everything was the best or worst thing that had ever happened. But, Gussy always reminded herself, they were right. First time’s always the best or worst. First love, first rip-off. First time leaves a scar. Teenagers skitter between traumas, she thought.
But, God, were they clueless.
“Who is in charge of The Tahitian?”
“You,” Julio answered.
“Right. What about when I’m not here?”
“Last couple times, it’s been me.”
“Right. And what did you do?”
“Followed the checklists.”
The Tahitian ran on checklists. Gussy printed them out each morning: snack bar, ticket booth, projectionist’s booth, auditorium/sound, and one for herself. Then she clamped them to waxy brown clipboards and forced everyone to use them. It just made sense! This was the bare minimum, she thought. If nothing went wrong–and it would–there was a sequence of events that needed to take place for the theater to operate. Write it down! Memory was for elephants, Mr. Venable had told Gussy a long time ago; humans write things down. Which worked. As long as nothing went wrong.
“Great. Good for you, checklists are a big yes,” she said.
“You love them.”
“I do. But lemme ask you: what if something happens that’s not on the checklist?”
“Like the projectionist’s booth being stormed?”
“Like the projectionist’s booth being stormed. Yeah.”
“I didn’t know what to do.”
“Right, yeah. Got that. But what I’m asking is: what should you have done?”
Julio leaned back into the couch and bit his lip. He tried to look like he was thinking, and then he actually did start thinking but the conclusion he came up with was frightening. It showed on his face.
“Cut the power?”
Gussy smiled, leaned over, tapped his knee.
“There ya go! Gotta cut the power. Couple minutes in the dark and they scurry back to their seats without harming any of the hostages.”
“Okay, yeah. I was worried about the hostages.”
“Don’t. The balcony’s bluffing.”
“They’re all talk. Never, ever negotiate with the balcony. Give ’em an inch, and they’ll take the mezzanine.” Gussy said, turning back to her desk and opening the bottom drawer. She took out something that looked suspiciously like a smoke grenade.
“Julio, this is a smoke grenade.”
His eyes slammed open and his wide mouth made an O; he reached out for it without realizing that he was. Gussy snatched it back and covered the grenade with both hands.
“You can’t play with it.”
“I just wanna see it.”
“You see with your eyes.”
“I wanna see it with my hands.”
WHAP she slapped his wrist; Julio sat back and pouted.
“Should I be sorry I showed this to you? This is not a toy, Julio. It is the last resort in a full-scale balcony revolt.”
Going on a century, the balcony at The Tahitian had been trouble. It was planned that way by its builder, Gussy’s great-grandmother and namesake Augusta Incandescente. She knew the neighborhood, and decided that concentrating the weirdos was better than spreading them out among the decent people. Let some of those balcony crazies in the orchestra with women and children, and they’ll be sneaking under the seats to lick ankles. Separate the strange, she figured, and keep an eye on them.
There was generally an unspoken détente. The normal rules of a movie theater–no smoking, no alcohol, no battle rapping–were not enforced, but only so long as the balcony stayed in the balcony and didn’t disrupt the film. Generally. Occasionally, the balcony would get bored and start bungee jumping; the management would be forced to step in. Rarely, a full-scale balcony revolt breaks out.
“And when that happens: you pull the pin, chuck it in, and lock the doors,” Gussy said.
“But everyone is trapped in there if you lock the doors.”
“There are rope ladders.”
“Sure, why not? Julio, look at me.”
Gussy scooched up in her seat and leaned forward and put her hand on Julio’s knee. She smiled. She pinched his leg as hard as she could. She smiled again.
“Last,” she said, and pinched his leg again.
“Ow is right, mister. Ow. You think about that. Big responsibility here, Julio. Can you handle it?”
He was a little scared now and said nothing, so she pinched again.
“Yeah! I can.”
Gussy sat back and put the grenade in the drawer, shut it.
“Do I get a raise?”
“Give me the motion and spot me the murder. My family is all-in-one but the gods have been singing poorly, and my spotless kitchen floor is spotless nevermore. It was the thinkers, Peter, it was the thinkers. They’re the ones who got us into this mess. With fabrications, fabulations, and dreams. And America. Peter, I saw America one time but only once and I think it was but I can’t be sure. It was in the distance, she was in the distance. Farther away than eyeballs. Much farther. But still there, half in the sky and half bloodied dead. The river or the thinkers, Peter? Who wins? You say the river, the thinkers say a dam. They will think the rivers dry. As sure as the Christ, they will think the rivers dry,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said.
Peter thought that over for a moment.
“Uh-huh,” he said.
The two were at the Jeremiad, which is an oasis in the low desert three days ride from the Pulaski village where they both lived. It is the only place in the world where the Jeremiad cactus grows, which is the size and shape of an overstuffed ottoman. On that cactus is the only place the Jeremiad flower grows.
“Fangs and fingers. The stories have fangs and fingers: they stick in, they hold on; they extract, they insert. They told us to go west. Follow the sun. America ends where the sun sets. This was told to us. It was revealed. It was revealed to us in the fullness of fact. It was not revealed to others. And, thus, they have waned in their influence. The civilizing of the continent continues apace, faster than propriety would recommend, and sped along by steam. Sped along by the thinkers, zoom: New York to San Francisco and back in one week. One day. What do you think of that? One day, the whole of the continent zip zip zop slashes by you and then you are here. Or you are there. It’s coming, Peter. Who is the future born for?”
Peter was naked and lying tangent to the spring pool in the shade of a palm tree. Busybody was also nude and lying down. Their heads were together. and they formed a straight line.
“Dunno,” Peter said.
The Jeremiad flower is button-shaped, and dark green; if you eat a handful of them, you will begin to make sense of whatever Busybody’s ranting about.
“The thinkers. Murder in motion, Peter, that is the future they will build for our children. Faster and more deadly, ’til faith and love lie insensate on a road made from pounded shit. And there will be no Christ, and the last shall not be made first, no; the first shall make themselves even firster. All the world Gehenna. A Golgothic symphony in march time and there will be fire, Peter, there will be the Lord’s fire tho He not spark it, and it shall be encapsulated and its energies harnessed, and it shall be exposed to foreigners misbehaving. A flaming titan, Joshua with his sword, striking randomly and wildly and loosely with no regard for the Christ there shall be none of Him not needed when there is fire. The Word becomes the sword and it does not shed its blood for us, but draws it for us. And what is valuable will be set aside for what is viable.”
“Sure,” Peter said.
The sun was in the sky and the two men were in the Low Desert.
There are three types of circadian rhythms, and evolution bends anatomy to this fact. Diurnal animals are awake during the day; they have excellent color vision. Crepuscular hunters are active at dawn and dusk; these are invariably predators. Nocturnal creatures rely on hearing, or smell, or possess massive eyes to gather all the available light. Humans are diurnal by nature.
But some people stay up all night.
The insane and the lonely, and all the sots. Watchmen and bartenders and drug dealers and dancers. Dying men stay up all night, reliving their lives and wondering who they pissed off. Short-order cooks and the waitresses that hated them; fortune tellers on the lam; freelance paramedics. The cops hiding out from the graveyard shift. The whores on Eighth Avenue. Astronomers and insomniacs.
And Horror Hosts. Tiresias Richardson was not a night person before she became Draculette. She liked brunch, peaky sunlight streaming through windows, a fresh day to conquer or ignore. Sometimes, she would get up extra early and jog. Now, though, she had been getting up around dusk and there was tin foil double-taped to the window in her bedroom, and when it rained or she slept late she did not see the sun at all for days in a row. Which, Tiresias thought, was wrong. Somehow. A sin? She could not put her black nail-polished finger on it, but it seemed loosely to be a sin. She had not been raised in any particular religion–all her theological knowledge came from the time she played Mary Magdalene in the Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!) production of Jesus Christ, Superstar–but she still felt somehow guilty about the hours she kept. It was an affront to someone. Maybe God. Maybe farmers. When she would slump into her bed after dawn, going from her awakening living room into her bedroom dark as pitch, she would always think about the farmers. They’d been up for hours already. Milking or plowing or some shit, farmer shit, what did she know about farms? But she had been raised, unknowingly, to think that agricultural labor was the natural state of man and so she felt guilt about the city surrounding her and her schedule and her life.
Still, though: better than a real job.
Tiresias could not quite walk in the Draculette dress, and she could not walk at all in the Draculette shoes but she carried them as Sheila pushed her down the hall of the KSOS building in a semi-stolen wheelchair that had PROPERTY OF ST. AGATHA’S stenciled on the back of the seat. She hated sitting in the thing, and she hated sitting in the dress: it was so tight that she could stand or she could recline, and that was about it. Draculette was a straight line, tangent to the camera and bulgy in all the right places, and other positions were uncomfortable and unflattering; when she sat down, her stomach flopped out in rolls that she couldn’t help poking at hatefully.
“It’s the wine, sweetie.”
“It’s a mess is what it is. Look at this,” Tiresias said while grabbing a chunk of her stomach.
“Wine weight,” Sheila said.
“I must learn how sit-ups are done.”
“Or switch to vodka.”
“I like your idea better. AAAAAHahaha,” and then they were at the studio, where Bruiser the cameraman was standing where the union told him he must stand, and it was time for the Late Show and Tiresias was Draculette, talking to Count Fang and the Prince of Flies and shaking her tits to punctuate her jokes–she had it all covered, and everything made sense when the camera was pointing at her–Sheila raised a hand and Tirry raised an eyebrow and out the door and down the hall and the stairs and the door and it was midnight on the Main Drag.
Sheila stopped outside the doors, rummaged in her purse, lit a cigarette and PHWOO blew out the smoke and coughed just a little. She walked south, towards the Downside of the neighborhood, and when she passed her hair salon she rattled the doors to make sure they were locked. There was a half-moon that was yellow like a smoker’s teeth, and she smiled. On her right was the lake that the Pulaski fished in, and lived around, long since filled in and covered over and built up and forgotten about, and on her left was the Wayside Inn that had burned down a century before, and she felt her cock thicken under her skirt, which was short and black and stretchy, not hard but ready to be hard; she flicked her cigarette into the street and turned west onto Robin Street.
She breathed in through her nose and there were riots and uprisings, and there was hours-ago pizza from Cagliostoro’s. Maybe she could eat.
When she got to 19 Robin Street, she walked up the stairs and pressed the button for apartment #2.
A second went by.
“Hello?” the voice from the speaker said.
“It’s me,” Sheila said, and another second went by and then the voice said,
“Hey,” and the door buzzed open.
Sheila walked up a flight of stairs, and when she went to knock on the door, it opened. The teevee was on. The Late Show starring Draculette, and there was a smell of weed because Gussy had a joint in her hand and said,
“I was just thinking about you.”
And Sheila took the joint from her, hit it, and PHWOO blew the smoke up towards the top of the doorway, and she cocked her head to the right and smiled, Gussy was still wearing her new green dress, but she was barefoot and took a step forward. Sheila offered her back the joint and when Gussy reached for it, she snatched her wrist and pulled her towards herself and kissed her, and she ended the kiss with her chin; Gussy backed away, just a few inches, and the joint was smoldering in her hand and her pussy was wet now and she pulled her arm away from Sheila and handed her back the joint, and then she reached down to her waist and gathered up the material of her new green dress and one two three over her head and she was standing there in just white cotton underwear with no bra; her tits were bigger than Sheila’s hands, but she gathered them up anyway, and inhaled deep through her nose as her cock fought the stretchy black fabric of her dress, aided by Gussy’s hand, and they tumbled back into the apartment; Gussy stopped to put on a Tommy Amici record, and she and Sheila went to her bedroom and they could not stop staring in each other’s eyes as they fucked; they would stop to kiss, and Sheila would brush Gussy’s thick, black hair from her eyes. They were both sweating. Honest sweat, righteous sweat, fuck sweat pooling in the corners of their eyes; they licked the sweat off one another and sucked on each other’s earlobes as Sheila thrusted and Gussy felt full up her toes pointed and Sheila played with her clit; Gussy shot her head back and knocked Sheila in the nose with her chin and they both laughed, and Sheila bit Gussy’s bottom lip not hard and very soon all the sheets that were formerly on the bed were on the floor and everyone’s asshole was in play.
The light was gathering outside, and the swans that lived by Bell Lake had already begun their day. The Cenotaph slapped on porches. Sheila and Gussy did not notice; they were asleep, and so was most of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.