Cannot Swim saw the flood raging. Swallowed up the earth, spat it out, gulped again, and the innocent drowned next to the wicked. Bodies bobbing in between brick buildings, water sloshing through second-floor windows. It was the tonnage; it was the motion; it was the pressure: that was the water’s weapon. Individual drops corralled together, lashed as one and brigading all the decent folks’ investments and photo albums and flinging babies into jagged rocks; he saw it all with eyes that would not close and then Cannot Swim walked into a tree.
“Son of a BITCH!”
“Heh heh heh,” Talks To Whites laughed.
“It’s not funny!”
The horse named Easy Life made a noise like PLUFFplffplff.
“It is. Even the horse is laughing, dude.”
Cannot Swim had clonked his forehead on the redwood’s bark, and he rubbed at it. Needles and dirt had fallen on him when he and the tree collided, so he brushed himself clean. Checked his nose.
“Am I bleeding?”
“I dunno. Pull up your tunic and lemme see.”
“Your mouth is going to get you in trouble one of these days.”
“That’s what I got you for, Cuz.”
“With me. Your mouth is going to get you in trouble with me.”
“Well, then I’m fucked.”
The three had topped the pass through the Segovian Hills a ways back and could see the nascent White town of C—–a City below them through the pines and crests, but just flashes; Talks To Whites had steered them off the trail–what there was of it–once they started descending. To the south, hidden by the brambles and sage and willowberry and brush. This was the way that Talks To White’s father had taught him to take, a long and looping tack all the way around the town. Leave a few miles in between you and the Whites so they could not see you, his father told him. Enter their village from the east. Leave the same way. Watch to make sure you’re not followed. Most of the Whites did not know that the Pulaski lived on the other side of the hills. All of the Pulaski thought that was a fine idea.
Easy Life led the way. He ambled carefully and placed his feet, big as dinner plates, where he intended. He could not be hurried, and if would bite you if you tried. Not hard, at least not the first time. The horse had been treated like a member of the tribe for so long that he thought himself equal to the Pulaski and expected the same respect from them as he showed. Easy Life never whipped any of the humans in the ass with a switch to get them to move faster, so he didn’t see why he should have to tolerate it.
Of the three of them, the horse knew the way the best, so the humans followed him.
“You were out there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your eyes glazed over,” Talks To White said. “And you were moaning again like the night you talked to Here And There.”
The sun was on their right, and their shadows were long and broken by trees.
“You’ve been having a lot of those.”
“Here And There tell you what they mean?”
“Cousin, I left her kotcha understanding less than when I entered.”
“Her way of knowing is not like ours. She speaks to the Great Bear Who Is Pregnant With The Universe. She is friends with the Fox With Teeth For Eyes. She can see what we cannot.”
“What can we not see?”
“You make as little sense as her,” Cannot Swim said, and spat out his leaf.
Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites were, according to the Pulaski, still children and therefore not allowed to chew the leaf of the Peregrine maria tree. But they were both sixteen and therefore believed the rules applied to everyone but them. Talks To Whites got the leaf from Stranger Who Hunts Well, who had wandered into the village a while ago and stayed. Stranger Who Hunts Well spoke the White language, so he and Talks To Whites got along, and he gave Talks To Whites as many leaves as he wanted.
The leaf was life. A speedy morning and an easy afternoon. You shit better when you chewed the leaf, and thought grander, too. Work was easier and so was fucking. The size of a child’s hand and waxy green, the leaf had thirteen points with a waxy green overcoat and a spidery white vein underneath the exact shape of the Mississippi’s route. The peregrine maria trees grew in only one place, the Pulaski thought: a crescent-shaped stand of trees about an hour to the west of the village. The women would walk out once a month to collect the leaves in flat-bottomed baskets made of redwood bark. It was not like coca, which needed to be processed, or tobacco that needed drying: pluck a leaf from the tree, pop it in your mouth, and chew. All there was to it.
“You’re still here?”
“And here is where we will stay, sinner,” Brannie Dade said.
“Then here is where we shall sin,” Manfred Pierce replied, and walked past her into the Wayside Inn.
Bad for business, he thought, and then admonished himself. It’s not all about business. These idiots were riling people up, first of all, and they were scaring away first-timers. The ones walking around the block five times catching a glimpse of the bar’s entrance in their peripheral vision. Never looking at it straight. What might strangers think? The kids who had no place to go and no one to understand them. Adults, too. The Wayside was for them, and these fuckers–these FUCKERS–were standing in the way with their stupid fucking signs and their stupid fucking faces. Manfred was not accepting arguments in the “both sides have a point” vein at the moment.
Lower Montana was by his side, her shoulders straight and ready to fight. She was sixteen and always ready to fight. Or run away at top speed. Sixteen-year-olds have two settings: FUCK YOOOOOOOU and fuuuuuuuck me; they are compromise-less animals, creatures of fight or flight, pure and beautiful and dumb as shit and generally right.
“What about violence?”
“What about it?”
“We should consider it,” Lower Montana said.
“Go downstairs and bring me up some bottles of vodka,” Manfred Pierce said.
Take was off, go figure. Turns out a picket line of churchy fiends calling you sinners in black magic marker scared away customers. Regulars called up, apologized for not coming in, asked if that cute one with the blond curls was there. Thank God they didn’t stay too late. The kind of person who would protest homosexuality also tended to be the early-to-bed type, Manfred noted. They did not like the nightlife; they did not like to boogie.
Manfred had a sheet of paper in his hand as he walked to the deejay booth. Flipped through the records, found what he was looking for. At The End Of The Bar. Tommy Amici’s masterwork. Lyrics by Sniffy Brice and Music by Carlos Charles. Tommy sang songs, but this was an album: it worked as a whole, an epic tone poem. A beginning and an end that echoed each other, and a middle part where everything was up for grabs.
The crackle of the needle.
And then the strings:
And the horns’ counter-melody:
And then Tommy:
It’s three in the morn
And I’m newly BOOOOOOORN
Into being aloooooooone.
They say I’m a star
But I’ll weep in the CAAAAAA-aaar
Just to keep
Me from going back HOOOOO-ooome.
Manfred descended from the booth in his usual pre-open trance. It was choreographed. Life needed a choreographer, he thought. You, take two steps that way; you, leap over there; jazz hands for everyone. The paper in his hand had a diagram on it. The Wayside Inn in simplified black lines on a mimeographed sheet. Instead of states or towns, his map had supplies: so many bottles of this here, and so much of that there. Some people liked checklists, but Manfred Pierce was cartophiliac and needed his space in front of him, represented to scale and perfect. Match reality to the description, he thought. Easy peasy. He danced around his bar. The map said there were ashtrays on every table, so he made sure there were ashtrays on every table. The map said that the floor of the backroom was spotless, so he mopped up the slimy streaks and swept up the empty popper bottles and cigarette packs and teeny baggies. (There were no condoms, as it was 1975.) Sometimes, there was cash or not-so-empty baggies; Manfred put them in the lost-and-found, which was located in his pocket and nose.
A place for everything, and everyone in his place.
Lower Montana was back from the basement. Four bottles of Lubyanka vodka in frosted bottles with thin necks, two cradled in each arm like puppies and two in the capacious inside pockets of her army jacket that had all the rock and roll pins on it. The Snug–they were from Little Aleppo just like her–and a pair of dick-sucking lips, and a skull with an oversized cranium. Upside-down cross with the arms broken off. Her bruised eye had faded to pale yellow like pissed-on snow, barely noticeable in the barroom light, and she was singing along with Tommy Amici without knowing it. Her father had played her this record when she was a child. When she was older, he blacked her eye and disowned her.
O, the gifts our parents give us.
Manfred felt her eyes on him and said,
“What should we do?”
“You’re asking me?”
Lower Montana was a smart kid, but a smart kid is still a kid and so she answered,
Manfred took the vodka from her and put the bottles where the map said they went. Then he said,
“Yeah. Slice their spinal cords.”
“Slice their spinal cords?”
Manfred leaned on the bar and motioned for Lower to do the same. He was wearing a fanciful shirt–ultra-Hawaiian, maybe–and he pulled a stout joint from his pocket. Lit a match from a pack with a plain white cover FffftPOP and then he sucked up PWOFFPWOFF and inhaled and blew out PHWOO and then he handed the doobie to the teenager.
“We’re right, right?”
“Yeah,” Lower Montana said.
“We’re on the side of compassion and love and a little bit of sweaty humping?”
“Right,” she said, and sucked deep on the joint and PHWOO handed it back to him.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“It doesn’t matter. Being right doesn’t matter. Not to grown-ups.”
“What does matter?”
The smoke from the joint curled and flittered in the shadowy light. Tommy Amici sang about heartache and heartbreak, for love’s sake, and for the sorrow that anything but perfectly-requited love brings. Weird thing about love. Gotta calibrate your requiting. Over-requited, under-requited: no good. Love is equal or love ain’t, Tommy sang. Otherwise, someone ends up hurt.
The way you’d receive me
You’d never deceive me
That’s the lie that I told.
The smell of your perfume
Still hunts our dark bedroom
Since your heart has grown COOOOO-ooold.
And tonight I will sleep
With only the pillow to hold.
The strings swelled against the constraints of the vinyl’s groove, and then the brass and woodwinds, too. Air came through the Wayside’s giant speakers, air that had been in a recording studio in Los Angeles in 1956 and picked up by microphones and etched into acetate; it was whooshy and thick and not silence. There was no sound, but it was not silence.
“Go flip the record, sweetie.”
Lower Montana handed the joint to Manfred Pierce and said,
“Can we listen to Roxy Music? I just bought their new album.”
Manfred held the joint away from her.
“Flip the record or you’re not getting the joint back.”
“And well, I’ve been told.”
Lower stuck her tongue out at Manfred. He smiled. She clomped off to the deejay booth; the needle was clicking clicking clicking against the end of the record. Same thing after same thing, infraction upon infraction, sharpness coming up against the same damn wall time and time again. Beaten back over and over, but carving marks and chops into the vinyl. SHHHHT-pop, SHHHHHT-pop
And nothing now. Lower Montana has lifted the stylus, set it in its cradle, the record orbits between her fingertips. Down. Side Two. This is the part where the album gains steam and momentum; this is where the promises are kept or not: art can make so many promises, but it’s a bitch keeping them. At The End Of The Bar kept up its end of the deal; Tommy Amici was a straight-shooter when he sang, if never else.
Side Two starts with a BRAMP! BRAMP BRAMP WHAAAAAaaaaaOHHH! from the horns Then the drums TAT-A-BLAM! and the strings padded along behind like a safety net.
You think you got me
Iiiiinnnnnn your pocket
You never understood me
Girl, I’m a rocket of LOOOOOOOOOOooooove.
“My dad used to play this for me,” Lower said quietly.
Manfred thought about telling her about his childhood. Daddy screaming drunk and waving his pistol around. The ladies from church bringing by food so they could feel better about their own families. Least they weren’t the Pierces.
But he didn’t. Just took her hand and said,
“We also need some rum from downstairs, sweetie.”
“Do I technically work here?”
“You’re technically not even supposed to be in here.”
Lower climbed down from her stool–her feet did not reach the ground–and moseyed towards the stairs to the basement muttering under her breath about slave labor.
“What?” Manfred called out behind her.
Manfred was alone with Tommy Amici, in a bar that Tommy Amici would never have set custom-shod foot in, and he spritzed down the bar and wiped it with a clean towel. He would have preferred Lower stay at his house and study for the English test she had tomorrow. But she had met someone. College girl, an older woman. They were goopy and sweet around each other. Lower had spent the night with her a few times, and she had snuck through the window back into the house on Fantic Street in the morning until Manfred told her to just use the front door. Good for her to have someone, and he liked the girl, too. Thought she was too tall for Lower, but he supposed lesbians went for tall girls just like he went for tall guys.
The front door of the Wayside Inn opened at the same time Lower Montana emerged from the basement with four bottles of Sangre Nelson Rum. Tall woman walked in and saw Lower first.
The tall woman turned to Manfred Pierce behind the bar and said,
“These cocksuckers are starting to piss me the fuck off, Manny.”
“Join the club, Flower.”
Lower delivered the bottles to Manfred; he turned around conspicuously so they could kiss. They did: Flower Childs brushed the long hair away from Lower Montana’s face, and Lower stretched up on the tippity-top of her toes. First, they leaned their heads to the left, and then the right, and then they laughed and Flower Childs took Lower Montana’s whole head in her hands and planted one on her. They were both wearing tee-shirts and jeans and boots and Flower stuck her tongue deep in Lower Montana’s mouth; Lower’s hand reached for Flower’s tit and grabbed it, squeezed it, felt its warmth, and squeezed again, and Manfred went,
Flower Childs put her arm around Lower’s back and pulled her close to her; Lower offered no resistance.
“Offending your delicate sensibilities?”
“Girls are icky,” Manfred said.
“Well, good thing there’s no girls here. Just women,” Flower said.
“Yeah! Women!” Lower Montana added. She pumped her fist in the air.
Manfred rolled his eyes and made a mental note: one day, understand lesbians.
“Y’can’t fight back. If they fuck with us. We just gotta walk away.”
“I won’t be fucked with.”
“You will,” Talks To Whites said. “And you’ll walk away with me. Cuz otherwise they’ll kill both of us.”
“I will not take shit from them,” Cannot Swim said.
The two Pulaski boys and the horse had emerged from the hills into America. They had made camp for the night in the vanishing daylight. It was warm, so they did not need a fire. Fire produces smoke, anyway, and they were trying to lay low on the way into town. Easy Life wandered off, ate grass, nibbled shrubs, tasted leaves, pooped. The cousins ate smoked trout with their hands. Talks To Whites had wrapped two large-ish fish in the leaves of an umbrella plant and put them in his satchel before they left. He had not told Cannot Swim about the fish, knowing how much his cousin loved trout. When he pulled them out, Cannot Swim clapped in happiness. The route that Talks To White’s father had taught him followed a stream, so there was water to drink. It was warmer in America than in the valley the Pulaski called home, so the boys had removed their tunics and sat in their breechcloths on the ground.
“You gonna eat your eyeballs?”
“You’re so fucking gross, dude,” Talks To White said.
Talks To Whites handed his cousin his half-eaten fish. Cannot Swim sllllllUUUURPPPPPed the eyeballs out of the trout’s head. Chewed loudly, and with his mouth open. Handed the fish back.
“I’m just flabbergasted.”
“Best part, dude,” Cannot Swim said.
“Really? Not the meat? Cuz I think the meat is the best part.”
“That’s because you don’t have my refined palate.”
“Why don’t you just suck the horse’s dick?”
“If it tasted like trout eyeballs? I’d consider it.”
The sun was no longer in the sky, but its light lingered. And there was the moon, early as always like a rude guest: first to arrive and last to leave. The boys had removed Easy Life’s pack-saddle, and they sat on the canvas blanket that went in between the horse’s back and the wooden frame. Magpies were in the trees. Their song sounded digital and glitched, and in between phrases they made a sound like a rattlesnake CHIH CHIH CHIH. Both boys had a rifle close to hand.
“Cousin, you must not fight the Whites if they start shit.”
“You keep saying this. Why?’
“Because they’re gonna start shit. They’re a shit-starting pack of motherfuckers. They drink poison all day and start shit.”
“They call it whiskey. It makes them loud and stupid and mean. Louder and stupider and meaner, I guess.”
“What is whiskey?” Cannot Swim said.
“I’ll show you. You’ll hate it. Tastes like shit and makes you puke,” Talks To Whites answered.
“Like the mushroom tea we drink at Midsummer’s?”
“Kinda, but not really.”
“How bad could it taste?”
“Like someone punched you in the tongue.”
“And this whiskey, it makes the Whites start shit?”
“Not makes them. Allows them to without conscience.”
Cannot Swim thought about this for a moment while chewing on his peregrine leaf. He had never met a White before, except for Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend, and that little idiot was nothing to worry about. Were they all tiny and jittery? Did they all wear hats? Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend always wore a hat, which none of the Pulaski did. Stranger Who Hunts Well wore a hat, as well. He was not a Native–not a Pulaski, but not a White–and he wore the Whites’ clothes: hat and trousers and hard shoes.
“Do they all wear hats?”
“Cousin, you’ve never seen so many fucking hats.”
“All of them?”
“All the time?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do the Whites have different skulls than we do? Maybe they cannot take the sun on their heads,” Cannot Swim said.
“That’s a theory. Honestly, though? I’ve never asked.”
“Does their god require headwear?”
“Maybe. Could be.”
“We should ask.”
“We shouldn’t. Dude, we’re gonna buy two rifles and as much ammo as Easy Life can carry and get the fuck out of Dodge. Maybe we’ll let their whores bathe us, but other than that? In and out.”
And then the cousins were quiet. The horse had returned from his wandering, and stood sleeping above the two. Both boys rolled up their tunics and placed them beneath their heads. The stars were close enough to fuck.
“Have I told you how much I hate sleeping outside?”
“Eleven times. You have told me that fact eleven times since we left the village this morning.”
“Make it twelve.”
They were quiet again.
“You’d look good in a hat,” Talks To Whites said.
“I will not wear the White man’s clothes.”
“Maybe a Stetson. Actually, for your head shape I would go with a bowler.”
“I do not understand these words you’re saying. Shut up and go to sleep,” Cannot Swim said.
“Hate sleeping outside.”
Manfred Pierce’s hair was gray now. His teeth were still neat and white, but his hair was gray and so was his mustache and no one had marched on the sidewalk in front of the Wayside Inn for many years. Funny story about how he got rid of her and her band of assholes…
How did I get rid of them? he wondered as the room got hotter. He threw his shoulder against the backroom door. Men used to fuck in the dark in here, back in the Seventies, but now it was storage and he could not remember getting how his own story ended. All the whiskey was back there, and the vodka and rum, too, and the fat shiny pony kegs of Arrow beer stacked three high in the corner where they belonged but he did not belong in here, not now, not with this kind of heat, and he felt his humerus wrench from the socket but did not feel pain as he hurled himself against the door and cried out for someone anyone everyone anyone to please help; Manfred did not know the knobs had been chained shut from the outside and coins wedged in the jamb to seal it tight the man who had walked in right before closing asked for a martini and when he turned around to grab the gin was the last thing he remembered before coming to in the backroom which was now locked and getting hotter and he could not remember how he got rid of Brannie Dade and her protestors but he could see his mother’s tears and smell his father’s cigarette breath and he could feel the USS Dextrous shudder and snap around him as the Communists launched bombs at it as his hair which was now gray singed and sizzled and then flamed he dropped to his knees and beat at his head but did not feel the pain a fire doubles in size every sixty seconds fire is logarithmic and he thought of Orphic Mystery and the picture of her that hung above his bar that was the only picture of her as she’d want to be remembered there was one other that was printed in the paper of her with her brains splattered on the sidewalk of the Main Drag but in the one hanging above the bar she was beautiful and she was smiling and she was with people who loved her and that was the only picture there was and Manfred Pierce was digging at the concrete floor of the backroom his fingernails ripped off and his knuckles sheered and splintered and he could not feel the pain wasn’t fair wasn’t fair wasn’t fair to erase a person like that she was a kid and now there would be nothing left but a photo that was used as evidence in a trial that never happened and not one that her friends placed their fingertips to gently and then to their lips and then back and when the temperature hits 1,800 degrees everything catches fire even flesh and Manfred Pierce kissed his ruined fingertips and placed them to a photo that was not there and then the back room flashed over and there was no pain at all just a roar just a roar.
Just a roar.
The firetrucks didn’t pull back into the station until well after noon. When a cleanup becomes a crime scene, things become complicated and take longer. Dwayne McGlory had torn the metal door to the backroom off with his Halligan tool as easy as a popping open a beer bottle. Protocol dictated that you checked the vital signs, so he did even though he knew what he would learn. The sun was streaming in through the vents cut in the roof and Dwayne called out,
“Chief. Come here.”
The firetrucks didn’t pull back into the station until well after noon. Flower Childs did not shower or pack up her gear, just walked outside onto the sidewalk of Alfalfa Street and turned left away from the Main Drag and walked down two blocks to a rowhouse numbered 138. There was an envelope on the Welcome mat. White, plain. She opened it.
“I TOLD YOU THIS ONE WOULD HURT.”
Flower Childs stopped herself from tearing up the note and did not cry. She popped the envelope back open, folded the typing paper back up, slid it in and took two deep breaths and opened the front door that was not locked.
On the piano was a picture taken at the Wayside many years ago. Two girls, one tall and one short, and a man whose smile showed off a row of neat, white teeth. The short girl from the picture was a short woman now, and she was standing in the living room with a cup of coffee that she set down on the messy table when she saw the look on the Flower Childs’ face and went to her and wrapped her up as much as her arms would allow and the tall girl from the picture, who was a tall woman now, set her head on Lower Montana’s and shook with tears and began to scream and because she had not closed the door, everyone could hear her all the way to the fire station and to the Main Drag and to the harbor and all the way up the Segovian Hills that were supposed to form a natural barrier between the world and Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.