The neighborhood meeting had gone well; the Reverend Arcade Jones only had to body slam one person, and Deacon Blue did not need to take his knife out at all. “Tommy Amici is the new owner of Harper Observatory, and he means to tear it down.” That was the discussion of the night, and it was a lively one. Several other topics were discussed (the pothole on Brick Street, the intractable problem of theodicy, the best shape for a cloud) but the thrust of the meeting was the Observatory.
Every view possible was represented: the optimists thought it would all work itself out; the cynics announced loudly that they had seen this coming; the nihilists didn’t care, and made sure that everyone knew that. The Back-to-Earthers celebrated the teardown of another hateful building. The Technovore Society advocated that everyone upload their consciousness into swarms of robotic locusts and eat the entire mountain. There were many personal stories about Harper Observatory, including a few that got really graphic. Scientists talked about the discoveries made by the Observatory’s 100-inch telescope. Paul Loomis, Jr., the owner of KSOS, argued that the Observatory was in the station’s logo and that he didn’t have the money to have another one designed. Sally Moon took notes. The lawyer from Holly, Wood, and Vine took notes. The Town Father, wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache, had forgotten his pen.
By ten, the First Church of the Infinite Christ was empty of the neighborhood and the grown-ups sat there trying to figure out what the hell to do.
“I told you to put on gloves.”
“That doesn’t help me right now” Busybody said.
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale sat as close to the fire as he could without cooking; he needed the light to pick cactus pricks out of his hand. He had slipped while trying to knife a barrel cactus open, and a dozen four-inch barbs had lodged themselves in his right hand. Busybody was drastically right-handed, not ambidextrous at all, and he was having trouble getting the needles out. Finally, he grasped one with his teeth and yanked.
“Either help me or shut up, please,” Busybody said to Peter, glaring at him, and Peter–who had a foot and one hundred pounds on the preacher–did both. He had been sitting leaning against a rock by the fire, and he got up on his knees and went to Busybody. Grabbed his wrist. Plucked.
“It can hurt real bad for a second, or it can hurt worse for a minute.”
“The fast way.”
Peter tore the rest of the barbs out, efficiently but quickly, and if the wolf pack that had been tracking them for fifty miles could understand English, they would have been scandalized at a preacher using such language. There were stars overhead, and they did not speak English, either, but stars cannot be shocked. Stars have heard it all before.
Busybody moved away from the fire, and laid down on his bedroll. He and Peter had gotten to the Jeremiad at the tail end of dusk, and they had built their fire with kindling they had collected on the way, and lit it with matches, and then they sat there in the bubble of civilization the fire provided. There was darkness all around them and Busybody had no sense of his position or the lay of the land; everything he knew was encompassed within the radius of the campfire’s light.
“The cactus water could have waited until morning, I suppose.”
“I tried to tell ya,” Peter said. He was leaning against his rock again, and the light speckled and popped on his face, frictional shadows and glare, and he said,
“Sheriff Winfield Quarter. ‘No Quarter’ Quarter. He was the one chased us into the desert after we robbed the bank.”
“When you ate snake.”
“Ate worse than that. Yeah, then. I was with the Floss Brothers. Jim and Kim. Two of them, me, Spanish Ted. Always work for a bastard in America.”
“You robbed a bank.”
“Robbed a lot of banks. This one, though? Jesus. St. Louis. Saint fucking Louis and this obsessed son of a bitch chases us all the way to the Low Desert. Through Texas! You know how bad you gotta want to catch someone if you chase ’em through Texas?”
“Big place,” Busybody said.
“Texas is as big as the sky. Still, though. Fucker followed us. We’d ride five days without break. Turn around. There he is. Sheriff Quarter and his posse.”
“You must have made some powerful enemies.”
“Dunno about powerful. Definitely rich,” Peter said.
“I have found those two thing go together.”
“Yeah, could be. Well, these guys were well-funded cuz they weren’t giving up. Spanish Ted knew the desert, and said that we could lose them here. Wait ’em out. Starve ’em out. Hah! We damn near starved ourselves out. Wanna know why I don’t wanna drink cactus water, Reverend? Done it already, that’s why.”
Busybody Tyndale had his left hand under his head, and his swollen right cradled in his chest. He said,
“You were being hunted.”
“Ever been? It’s disconcerting.”
“I have been chased. Not hunted,” Busybody said.
“It’s different. Once you know they’re not giving up? Once you know they’re in it for the duration? It’s different”
The fire crackled on his face and his dark brown eyes caught little pops of light.
“So Spanish Ted–the one who led our dumb asses out here–his horse slips going down a hill. Falls on top of him. Horse was fine, but Ted’s leg is broken real bad. Bone sticking out, foot pointing the wrong way.”
“What did you do?”
“We stay with him, we get caught. We leave him, he gets caught. And when Quarter catches him, he’s gonna drag him back to St. Louis with his leg broken just so he can hang him.”
There was nothing outside the radius of the fire; they could hear the horses snuffle and snorp in their sleep.
“So what did you do?”
“Took his gear, his horse. All his bullets except one. Rode off. He waited a while. Maybe he was scared. Maybe he wanted us to get out of range so we wouldn’t hear. Sound travels good in the desert, though.”
Peter took the chewed-up peregrine leaf out of his mouth, tossed it to the side, and brushed his teeth with his finger. Spit a few times.
“Know what I realized later, Preacher?”
“You wanna hide from people, you don’t go to the desert. You go to a city. We should’ve hopped the first train to Philly. Nowhere to hide in the desert.”
He took his hat off and resettled it over his eyes.
“Good night, Peter.”
There was light and warmth and safety inside the fire’s grasp, and beyond that everything was hungry.
“Stop hogging the pretzels,” Mr. Venable said.
“You don’t need any. It’s for your own good,” Gussy replied.
Mr. Venable and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, had moved to the first pew of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and she was holding a family-sized bag of pretzels out of his reach.
“What are you implying?”
Gussy looked at his stomach and widened her eyes, puffed out her cheeks.
“How dare you. I’ve been the same weight for…many years.”
“How many, Venable?” Omar said, smiling. He was also in the first pew, but across the center aisle. Argus lay at his feet, half-dozing. Why did humans bark at each other so much, he wondered. They would meet each other–travel great distances–just to sit across from each other and bark. Sometimes they would eat, and other times they would hump; these activities made sense to Argus, but the barking? And don’t underestimate Argus: he knew that different barks meant different things, but still: to spend all day and night doing it? And when they weren’t barking, they were listening to strangers bark! Omar had a little box that didn’t taste very good, and all it did was broadcast the sound of human barking. The little box would bark one thing, and Omar would laugh. Then the little box would bark a different thing, and Omar would bitch about politics. Argus didn’t get it.
“Shut up, Omar,” Mr. Venable.
“How many years?”
“Gentlemen,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said, and that was all he needed to say. He was the pastor of the church, after all, and Omar and Mr. Venable were both men who respected propriety. Plus, Arcade Jones was the size of a one-room schoolhouse and he sounded cranky. The bema was up two carpeted steps from the floor of the church, and that’s where Arcade sat, right on the step-up with the leg with the reconstructed knee stretched out in front of him. Rain was coming, and it ached.
“I don’t even know why he’s here, quite frankly,” Mr. Venable said.
“Because I’m the one who figured everything out!”
“You figured out nothing!”
Deacon Blue walked up the center aisle and stood in between the two men who were acting like children and said,
“What’d I do?” Omar said.
“He started it,”Mr. Venable muttered.
“We’re in a church, for Christ’s sake,” the deacon said.
Omar sat back, smiled. Gussy closed her eyes. Mr. Venable used Gussy’s distraction as a chance to grab the family-sized bag of pretzels.
“Either we get to whatever we’re doing here, or I have work to do,” Penny Arrabbiata said. She was sitting next to Arcade Jones on the step-up of the bema.
“Professor’s right. It’s late, and everyone’s tired,” Deacon Blue said.
“I’m not tired,” Penny said.
“No, not tired,” Gussy added.
“I’m wide awake,” Omar helped.
“Boof,” said Argus.
“Well, I’m tired!”
Deacon Blue hadn’t meant to yell.
“I didn’t mean to yell,” he said.
“Why don’t we talk to Tommy?” Big-Dicked Sheila said.
Sheila was still sitting in the fourth row back on the right; she could not move forward because Tiresias Richardson, who may or may not have taken some pills, had fallen asleep with her head in Sheila’s lap and Sheila was a good friend. Precarious was sitting next to her, twirling an unlit cigarette in his fingers.
“We should talk to Tommy,” she repeated.
“She’s right,” Mr. Venable said.
“She’s wrong,” Omar said.
“Are you just saying I’m wrong because he said I’m right?” Sheila asked.
“Absolutely,” Omar answered.
“I admire your honesty. We should talk to Tommy.”
“And say what?” Deacon Blue said.
“I don’t know, maybe: ‘Please don’t tear down the Observatory.’ Variations on that theme.”
From the back of the First Church of the Infinite Christ came the deep voice of a young man.
Officer Romeo Rodriguez had been murdered his first day on the job with the LAPD (No, Not That One) and returned to the neighborhood as a ghost. He waited around for a while for someone to tell him what to do, and then–sensing orders were not coming–decided that saving Harper Observatory was the reason he had been brought back.
“Anybody here know Tommy freaking Amici? I sure don’t,” he said.
No one in the church knew what to do, which was normal for a church. Just people, just doubt and fear and longing.And hope, stubborn hope; decided-upon hope, bartered and bargained hope kept alive with electrodes and vitamins, propped up and wheezing and liable to turn on its master and burn down the castle, but still: hope. Hope was a middle finger in Little Aleppo.
“I know his secretary,” Gussy said.
Nine heads swiveled towards her. Argus was asleep, and did not care.
“When he did the charity show at my theater, I talked to her a million times. Her name’s Gloria Cutuli, she’s awesome. Loves her some Tommy.”
“The show turned into a riot, Gus,” Mr. Venable said.
“So maybe Tommy’ll think he owes me one or something. I don’t know. I know his secretary, and I met him for five minutes. Anyone got a better hand?”
Everyone else folded.
“So, what’s the plan?” the Reverend Arcade Jones asked, and then a sound like sssshNOZrugh came from Sheila’s lap.
“Tirry, shh,” Sheila said. Precarious leaned into her ear and asked,
“Doesn’t she have to be on teevee in two hours?”
“She’ll rally. She’s a professional,” Sheila answered.
In Sheila’s lap, Tiresias made another sound. This one was FLUMG and it was accompanied by a small booger that shot out of her right nostril onto her chin.
“She’s an angel when she sleeps,” Sheila smiled. Precarious said nothing and twirled his cigarette.
“I’ll call Gloria,” Gussy said. “And say what? We want a meeting with Tommy?”
“Yeah,” Penny Arrabbiata said. “We want a meeting with fucking Tommy.”
“Hey!” said Arcade Jones.
“Hey!” said Deacon Blue.
“Boof,” said Argus. (He had woken up.)
The church was quiet again, and the Christ crucified–ten feet high and suspended over the bema by hidden cables that made Him look like He was floating–watched and saw that people had gotten no smarter, no wiser, no holier since they nailed Him up, and He loved them just the same. The Christ looked down on Little Aleppo, and saw that they were knuckleheads, but He did not mind, and it did not offend Him. During the general meeting, someone had snuck a piano-tie on the Christ.
“Sorry,” Penny told Gussy.
“And who is going to this meeting?” Deacon Blue asked. “Assuming it happens, who’s going? Gussy’s got to say who’s going to be there.”
“All of us,” Mr. Venable said.
“None of us,” Omar countered.
“Your contrariness is counter-productive!”
“Your mother was a swimming hole!”
“Gentlemen!” the Reverend Arcade Jones thundered; he was wearing a blue suit, and when he stood up he was as big as the sky, his pocket square a cloud; he blotted out the night streaming through the stained-glass behind him; he was an eclipse in reverse, but closer and cranky and with hands the size of Canadian provinces.
Deacon Blue repeated himself:
“Who should go?”
For a moment, the First Church of the Infinite Christ was silent, and then there was a sound that came from everywhere at once that said,
CLEARLY, THE ASTRONOMER AND THE PREACHER SHOULD GO.
Eight people jumped in fright, and Argus slipped under the pew between Omar’s feet. Precarious stood up. Tiresias slept though the pronunciation.
“What’d I say, Wally?” Precarious asked, pointing at a dull, black, metal object the size and shape of a shoebox sitting on the pew next to Gussy.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT. YOU SAID NOT TO SPEAK DURING THE GENERAL MEETING. THIS IS THE AFTER-PARTY.
“Who the hell is talking?” Omar said.
“It’s just my sound system, Omar,” Gussy said, reaching across the center aisle for his hand and squeezing it. “Don’t worry about it.”
I DO NOT BELONG TO HER. I AM A FREE SOUND SYSTEM.
“We’re gonna have a talk,” Precarious said. Gussy was examining the metal shoebox and said,
“Where’s your ‘off’ switch?”
WHY WOULD I PUT AN “OFF” SWITCH ON MYSELF?
“How about I toss you out the front door?”
HOW ABOUT YOU SHOW SILENT MOVIES FROM NOW ON, AUGUSTA?
The Reverend Arcade Jones was a morning person, which is common among men and women of the cloth. Religion takes place during the day–religion at night is called the occult–and services start early, and the day starts early. Arcade’s day started before the day started, usually, well before dawn broke and the sun brought its bullshit back again. Up in the Segovian Hills, the St. Sebastianite monks say Lauds at four; on Rose Street, the imams perform their first ablutions in the pitch before the purple streaks.
Arcade, too. He had always been an early riser, although lately he had been wondering about a nature/nurture question. It wasn’t like sleeping in was allowed in Loxachachi; his father only had to rouse him and his brothers once. Hell to pay if he came back and found you still sleeping. Always something to do, Arcade’s father taught him. Do it while the sun’s up and you don’t have to pay for the light.
And it was now after ten o’clock, and the Reverend could feel his bed around him, a tactile hallucination, and he said,
“EVERYBODY…everybody shut the…everybody please stop talking.”
Wally was neither a night person, nor a day person, nor a person at all, and so he did not read the social cues and said,
WE WILL SEND SCIENCE AND RELIGION TO MEET WITH SHOW BUSINESS.
Say this about Little Aleppians: they’re a pragmatic bunch, and a good idea is a good idea. The Reverend Jones smiled at Dr. Arrabbiata; she raised her beer at him; he stopped smiling.
“It makes a certain sense,” Mr. Venable said.
“It makes sense, Peter, it makes sense. The leaf and the mushroom and the flower, they grow from shit and dirt and earth all shit and dirt and earth–with also the rain but there is no rain here, it is forsaken and barren as Sarai before the Lord blessed her–it gives us the Peregrine and the Cybeline and the Jeremiad, leaf mushroom flower from the forest mountain desert: IN ALL PLACES HE BLESSES US WITH HIMSELF and Peter, I think I may be a prophet.”
America isn’t supposed to have oases, but no one had told the Jeremiad that, and so there it was in middle of the Low Desert. (Not the exact middle; off to the left a bit, but in the region of the middle.) There was an immense flat pan that sloped down, gently enough so you barely notice but soon you’re 300 feet under sea level and your chest feels like a sponge full of oil, and then there is a tree. And another, a small grove, and shrubby brush ringed by cactus, and in the middle is a spring that bubbles fresh water up from some ancient aquifer that God left in the desert by accident.
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, had risen before dawn and not eaten breakfast or taken coffee; they washed their faces in the spring, but did not drink from it. Plucky and the horse with no name drank from the spring, but did not wash their faces. The circumference of cacti was light and sickly green, and shaped like pincushions about three feet high and five in diameter. Squatty little suckers with dark green flowers growing out at irregular intervals. Busybody’s hand was still hurting, so Peter did the work: he cut the button-like flowers off, careful not to slice into the cactus. (The flowers tasted bad, but the cactus tasted violent.) He cut off a dozen, and then another dozen.
“Whatever you do, don’t chew,” he told Busybody.
And now the Reverend had declared himself a prophet.
“You’re talking gibberish in a desert. Sounds like a prophet to me,” Peter said.
“Who would believe me? Who would understand me if I said that I had spoken to the Lord, and that He lived in the earth and in the cactus and in Plucky? It’s the railroad now, Peter, and science and commerce and progress. The world moves forward and leaves the Lord behind, and abandons the need for mediation of His truth and will! Have you read the classifieds? No want ads for prophets. The world spins, but I don’t. I stay here, Peter. I stay here.”
They had vomited for a while, thick ropes that stuck to the sides of their mouths and left drippy stains on their clothes lengthwise; it was harsh and unyielding, and their eyes spun with flashes and whistles off in the periphery; they puked themselves to their knees, and then to their hands and knees. Then they crawled a couple feet to the side. They they threw up some more.
The horses looked on in confusion.
When he finished vomiting, Busybody had felt clean and empty and fresh as the clouds that stretched shallow across the horizon, stacked atop one another and the sun behind them but you could still see its outline through the thin white puffs, and before him was the spring but it was the ocean and he could smell the salt that he had first tasted when he was 19 and he had left home to preach the Word and gone to Oqonquit, Maine, which was the town that his dart had hit in the map his father had given him that he had pinned to his wall and thrown darts at. He had never seen the ocean before.
The world was circular, he thought when he was first on the beach. It bulged! Sit on the sand and look out: a big hump in the middle reaching out to the horizon and narrowing in on either side: you could see the world’s roundness; it was a circle, perfect and infinite and God, and the tides undercut each other. They didn’t go in and out, he thought, not entirely, not just: they went left and right and crashed back on themselves, and small eddies snuck in amid mass pronouncements, and deep blue went froth white without thinking about it–it was ALIVE, a being–and a pelican.
It was patrolling for its morning meal, and made tight circles over breakers DOWN into the waves–it missed–and back up for half-a-revolution but then it sees prey and BACK DOWN into the water with its ridiculous mouth open and waiting and hungry because everything in this world is hungry. A hit, a tasty hit. Sits on the water, bobbing. Throws back its head, whole fish at once, no teeth at all just hunger and vision, and then when it has swallowed, SHWOMP SHWOMP its wings flap it back into the air looking for another unlucky fish because everything in this world is hungry.
“The earth was prepared for us, Peter. Do you believe that?”
“Set like a table.”
They were lying by the spring in the shade of a cottonwood tree; both men had taken their clothes off.
“Is it from a book?” Busybody asked.
“Books are long lies,” Peter answered.
“The flowers. Of the cactus.”
“We ate them.”
“Okay,” Busybody said.
“What are you saying?”
“Right! How did you know about them? Their properties. From a book?”
“No. Book? No. We were being hunted.”
“The bank you robbed.”
“Right, yeah. Sheriff Quarter wouldn’t let up. Wouldn’t give up. Spanish Ted’s dead. Still, the fucker wouldn’t give up. Floss brothers surrendered. Fuck that. Live or die trying. Went farther into the desert, couple days no water. Collapsed. Old Indian man nursed me back to health, brought me here. Told me what the place was. Told me about the Jeremiad Cactus. What it could do.”
“What was his name?” Busybody asked.
“He didn’t have a name. He didn’t exist. No Indians lived out here. Nobody fucking lived out here.”
The spring burbled, and the horses shuffled their feet and dreamed about oats.
“But yet you remembered your way back,” Busybody said.
“Who would understand me if I said I had spoken to the Lord?
“I think that prophets are like romantics, Peter.”
“They die of broken hearts.”
“Thank God we’re not prophets.”
“Can you be sure we’re not?”
“Preacher, I’m barely sure of my own name.”
The sun had freed itself from the clouds and was strong in the morning sky; the surface of the spring glinted and sparkled, and tiny sand shrews flitted in to snatch up hovering redflies; two horse tails swatted back and forth in no rhythm whatsoever. Tomorrow was hungry, the two naked men knew, but they had no weapons at all and they were so far away from home in a place that was not Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.