The fire cast the Jews out, A miracle had saved the Torah, but the Jews had no longer a home and had no longer any sanctuary but that which others granted temporarily. They asked only for space and peace. One day, it was written, the Jews would have again a home, but for now they would wander through the diaspora.
All the churches and temples and mosques on Rose Street had immediately offered the congregation of Torah, Torah Torah a place to worship, and Rose Street is only about a quarter-mile long, so it wasn’t the farthest the Jews ever had to wander, but still: a diaspora’s a diaspora.
A neighborhood’s got to have its churches and whatnot, Little Aleppians figured, but they ought be avoidable. No worse feeling than getting up a decent head of steam on a night of shoplifting and sex magix and WHAMMO there’s an Episcopalian joint in your face. Put God in one place, tell everyone where that place was, and let adults make their own choices about participating. It was like the zoo or the college: animals and education are great, but no one needs tapirs and chemistry professors on every corner. If people wanted the Lord, or to look at an elephant, or learn about an elephant, then they knew where to go.
The First Church of the Infinite Christ was the oldest on the block, predating the neighborhood itself. The first First Church was a cool, flat rock under the shade of a sequoia a mile to the north of the Pulaski village. Two men who were not Pulaski that the tribe called Stranger Who Hunts and Stranger Who Hunts’ Useless Friend had consecrated the rock over many hours of lying on it getting high and arguing about Jesus.
After the Pulaski were dead, Stranger Who Hunt’s Useless Friend was never called that again, and after a certain amount of years could not even remember his village name to say it. The Whites called him by his family name of Busybody Tyndale, and he used the money he got getting screwed out of his gold claim to buy some land and build a church. First one in Little Aleppo: an eight-bencher (four on each side) with a step-up stage that had a wooden pulpit on it. Tiny apartment in back, private privy out back.
The Reverend Tyndale would preach on Sunday mornings, and Wednesday nights, and any other time more than three people were in the church at the same time. He had built a house for the Lord to dwelleth in, and he was proud of this, but pride was a sin. And he missed his kotcha, and he missed his friend whom the Pulaski called Stranger Who Hunts, and whom he knew as Peter.
Every week or so, Busybody would walk west out of Little Aleppo–which was barely a few streets and a couple dozen buildings–until he hit the lake that smelled funny, and then he would make a left. The Peregrine Maria trees had knobby, ugly bark and stumpy branches that spiraled up the bulgy trunk. The leaves were the size of a child’s hand with thirteen points and the Pulaski would roll them up and chew them. This produced an effect. Mostly in your brain, but your legs felt kinda funny, too. Busybody would pluck the branches.
Sometimes at night, the Reverend would climb out onto the roof. He would chew the leaf, and name the stars, and miss his friend.
During the day, he preached the Infinite Christ. That the Lord was in the killing darkness at the bottom of the mines of the Turnaway Lode, and with the whores upstairs at the Wayside Inn, and in the shitty filth of the Main Drag. He preached the Christ of bedrolls and spoiled meat, and of softness amongst knives. The shooter was the Christ, and so was the poor fuck on the ground. Sheriff would be the Christ, too, if anyone ever got around to hiring one. The gold that brought America to the valley was the Christ, and the calm harbor that began to bustle with trade was the Christ. The plagues that would burn through the neighborhood every few years: the Christ. And the Wayside Fire must surely be the Christ, too, though Busybody Tyndale never could quite understand how. His friend Peter would have known, but he had been gone for such a very long time.
They buried him out back, but his tombstone was stolen and now no one is quite sure of the exact location of his grave. “Out back” is as specific as anyone will get.
The Reverend hadn’t just bought the land under his church: he’d bought the whole damn street, so when the Town Fathers decided to redline all the houses of worship onto Rose Street, it set the First Church of the Infinite Christ up in perpetuity. First to move in were the Catholics, St. Mary’s, and then St. Martin’s and St. Clement’s. One of them was Episcopalian and the other was Presbyterian, but no one could remember which was which. The synagogue, and then the mosque. All of them paid rent to the First Church of the Infinite Christ, which kept the lights on and paid for a preacher.
His name was the Reverend Arcade Jones and he took up a great deal of space in the First Church of the Infinite Christ’s all-purpose room. He was at the head of the rectangular table in an outfield-green suit. The Reverend’s shaved head was the color of overturned soil, and his hands were the size of counties.
“We need to do something about the Jews.”
“Not the best way to say that,” Deacon Blue murmured.
The First Church had a deacon, and his name was Louis Blue. He sat to the right of the Reverend Arcade Jones. His suit was suit-colored; his hair was thick but receding at the temples, and he wore it back in a ponytail. Several silver rings.
“Everyone knows what I mean.”
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of Little Aleppo was the Hindu temple, and the head priest was named Pramahamsa Nithyananda. He was spiritually evolved to the point where it did not bother him when people mispronounced his name, and he had great white whiskers covering the southern portion of his face. He said,
“My temple has enjoyed hosting the Jewish worshipers this past week. Rabbi Levy and I have led many wonderful discussions introducing our faiths to each others’ congregations. No one could be better guests than our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Pramahamsa Nithyananda stroked his wild beard.
“But a week is about enough.”
“That’s all I’m saying,” Arcade Jones said to the deacon.
“There’s just not room for two religions in one temple,” Pramahamsa continued. “Plus, you know: they don’t eat pork and we don’t eat beef. It’s chicken every freaking night.”
Muhammad Battuta was the imam of the Al-Alamut mosque, and the youngest man in the room. He was also the only one born in Little Aleppo, which had never stopped anyone from telling him to go back where he came from. He asked,
“What about a vegetarian option?”
“Are you really asking an Indian if there’s a vegetarian option? My people invented the vegetarian option.”
“There’s no need for the attitude.”
“Give back Kashmir and I’ll be nice.”
Imam Battuta was compact and balding with a close-cropped beard and dimples way up high near his eyes that pierced into his face when he smiled. You could not now see his dimples.
“I have absolutely no authority over Kashmir.”
“Your people do.”
“My people own a motorcycle repair shop on Garrick Street.”
“A likely story,” Pramahamsa said, and began muttering darkly in Hindi.
“I can do that, too,” Muhammad said, and began muttering darkly in Arabic.
“Everyone stop muttering darkly at each other!” Reverend Jones announced, and then the two men muttered darkly at him, but only very briefly.
Deacon Blue cleared his throat. He was the president of the Rose Street Interfaith Council and an active promoter of cross-congregational activities. Helped, he thought. Builds dialogue, community, that sort of thing. He’d been to 74 different countries in his former life, and he’d never lost a drummer. Shepherded bands into South American football stadiums and driven the equipment van between Leeds and Chichester at three am in February. Been stuck on the side of the road with a dope-sick guitarist and 200 miles to go. Deacon Blue was the rarest of men: he had seen the world, and still loved it.
Which is not to say it was not deeply annoying.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t keep passing the congregation from Torah, Torah, Torah around. Everybody hosting for a week was a good idea at first, but it’s not really working.”
Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.
“So. What we need to do here is not bicker with one another, but come up with some sort of…um,”
Deacon Blue tried to think of a word that was not…
“Solution?” Pramahamsa said.
“No! No, no. Not a solution.” Deacon Blue shook his head and regretted learning to speak as a child.
The Reverends Green and Brown were white, and from the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches, respectively. Or maybe the other way around; nobody was quite sure.
“We do need a solution, Deacon,” one of them said.
“To the Jewish problem,” the other one added.
The deacon loosened his tie and popped open the top button on his collar and said,
“It’s like no one’s listening to themselves.”
“You know,” Imam Battuta said, “there’s an empty building on Madagascar Avenue that might be perfect.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones liked that; he pointed at the imam in agreement and said,
“We should explore the Madagascar option.”
“Wow. Really? Has no one taken a history class?”
Deacon Blue called out to Mrs. Fong. She was still at her desk in the church’s main office because she had forgotten to go home; Mrs. Fong would reply with any number of ages if you asked her how old she was, but none of them were under 80.
“Are there any donuts left?”
“The Jews ate them!”
And Deacon Blue just sat there quietly for a second. He thought about faith, and he thought about the Lord, and about all the left-hand turns that could have been rights. Accidents of genealogy battered by history’s waves, and all those possible realities drowned in the surf until there was just one life struggling for breath on the shore, and staring at the sun on the horizon wondering whether it was coming up or going down. Happenstance monkeys, that’s all we were.
“I have an idea.”
Gladys Alsop was the only woman at the table, and so the men wanted to be respectful, but she was also the Unitarian minister; if there’s one thing that brings religions together, it’s the belief that Unitarians were pussies. At a certain point, inclusion becomes condescending: the Mormons and the Muslims might both be wrong, but they couldn’t both be right.
The Reverend Arcade Jones was still polite, and he said,
“And what is that, Gladys?”
“High school gym.”
Pramahamsa threw his hands up in the air and half-yelled,
“Woman, it’s basketball season!”
Father Declan Ember had been at St. Mary’s for as long as most in the neighborhood could remember, and he had a giant head full of gin with hair as white as his collar. His hands were soft and his fingernails were buffed. Father Ember gave the old Mass, the scary Mass, the Latin Mass that John XXIII and Vatican II had abolished. He faced away from the worshipers, and there was a settled order to the proceedings that had been decided on a thousand years prior. The Lord shouldn’t be addressed in the vernacular. “Hey, how ya doing?” Is that how you’d speak to God? Of course not. God speaks Latin.
“My heathen friend is correct,” Father Ember said.
“Kiss my ass, Papist,” Pramahamsa replied.
“The Jews, having wandered for millennia, now find themselves again bereft. Homeless and needing shelter from the buffeting winds. I am reminded, my friends of the parable of the Good Samaritan.”
The priest’s words surrounded the men and women at the table like warm water, and stupefied them; they lolled and jerked their heads until the sirens. They all heard the sirens closing in. Deacon Blue looked around, and then got up and walked out of the conference room in the First Church of the Infinite Christ; he was followed by the Reverend Arcade Jones and the rest of the holy men, and also the Unitarian.
Rose Street abutted Harper College–the campus was behind the First Church to the south–and all that had been in the meeting now stood on the grass to the side of the building watching a small Victorian house burn. Flames were already bursting from the gabled roof. The pumper and ladder trucks were not yet pulled up to the blaze, and students were gathered: some of them crying and others high. All the holy men and the Unitarian could do was pray; they did not know each others’ prayers, but their shoulders rubbed and they swayed in time and closed their eyes together all at once, and that was the best they could do. We are all capable of the best we can do, and sometimes not even that in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.