The Reverend Arcade Jones rose before dawn on Sundays. He had always been nervous on game day. When he was the star linebacker for Loxachachi High School, he would sleep on the living room couch Thursday nights. He knew he’d be up too early and wake his brothers if he slept in the bedroom they shared, so he laid out his jeans and sneakers and jersey–the football team wore their jerseys to class on Friday game days–and two extra tee-shirts and was out the door before his father. The phrase “football season” brings to mind crisp apple air and driving gray rain and snow squalls, but not in Florida. It was just as steamy as baseball season, and Arcade would be sweated up by the time he made it to the school. He would walk the field as the sun rose, look for spots where the turf was soft, remember them for the game so he could steer his blocker into them and rush by when they tripped.
There were no soft patches to the field at the Swamp. University of Florida Gators played in a stadium nicknamed The Swamp, and it was slightly larger than his high school stomping grounds. 90,000 fans. Arcade was the same amount of nervous, though. He had his own room now–being a starter for a big-time college football program had its benefits–but he still laid out his clothes the night before. Night before was Friday instead of Thursday, but otherwise it was all the same. The field was the same size. Pack in as many fans as you want; still a hundred yards from goal line to goal line.
And now the Reverend Arcade Jones laid out his suit on Saturday night and woke up too early. He swung his legs over Emergency, who was a dog, and sat on his bed staring out the window. The Reverend thought about the Christ, and he thought about breakfast. Breakfast was surely the Christ, if He were infinite. The Lord manifested in oval plates laden with eggs and toast; he would take communion in an hour, but first a shower. He shaved his entire head under the water, hottest as he could stand, and used his fingers to feel for spots he had missed. Shea butter spread all over before he dried fully. The lotion soaked in better if you were still damp. His mother taught him that. Check the nails. Q-Tips for the ears.
Emergency had roused and he was underfoot, but Arcade did not mind. Surely the Christ was rust-colored and had a waggedy tail. Emergency was the Reverend’s first adult dog. His family had always had dogs, but Emergency was the first dog he had cared for since he had left home. He had forgotten how much he loved the dumb little suckers. How much they rooted you to a place. How you could enjoy putting another’s needs in front of yours. Emergency gnawed on Arcade’s ankle as he brushed his teeth; he was fully-grown, but still acted like a puppy in the mornings.
Arcade Jones wore tighty-whities because his dick flopped around too much in boxer shorts, and he slid his sheer black socks up his hairless calves. The gold suit. (The white folks called it yellow, but Arcade knew it was gold.) White shirt, silk. Seafoam green tie with a matching pocket square. Gator shoes, black, size 17 EEEE. Mickey Mouse watch that a pop star had given him when he worked security for her.
The dog walked from his bowl to the door of Arcade’s small apartment, back and forth, back and forth.
“You hungry? You wanna take a shit?”
Emergency wiggled his whole butt, and Arcade smiled so wide that buses could drive through.
“Me, too. I already took a shit, but I’m hungry. You wanna get going? You wanna get going?”
The butt wriggled some more, and the Reverend clipped the leash to his harness and then down the stairs and out of the office and into the First Church of the Infinite Christ and out the front door onto Rose Street. Shit. Bag. Garbage can. And then the two were on the Main Drag while the sun made its first advances on the neighborhood. Drunks staggered home past joggers; the Hetfields and McCoys of early Sunday mornings. The intellectually mobile walked down to the Broadside Newsstand in their pajamas clutching five dollar bills to buy the Sunday Cenotaph. It was the size of a starter home. World news, local news, sports, coupons, the op-ed page, coupons, the funnies, the important obituaries, coupons, the Magazine, the style section, arts and farts, coupons. Couples sat in bed half-naked and drinking coffee and hate-reading the paper to one another.
The Reverend Arcade Jones greeted everyone he passed, and so did Emergency. They smiled the whole way; Arcade was a people person, and Emergency was a people dog.
“May I recommend the red wolf?”
“Hmm. Tell me about it.”
“A lean meat,” Mr. Leopard said. “Very little fat. Flavorful without being aggressive, and it has the most fascinating finish. Tangy, but not coy. A mouthfeel halfway between turkey and veal.”
“My mouth feels like it’s watering,” Mr. France said, laughing at his own joke.
“There are fewer than 100 left in the world. We do a tartare with Maltese capers, or a bone-in shank over wild rice.”
“The shank sounds perfect.”
“It shall be. And you, Mr. Denmark?”
Mr, Leopard had found that if he forced his customers to use code names, he could charge them more. People would pay good money to feel like they’re getting away with something, and you could get away with anything besides being poor at the restaurant with no name. The carpet was dark and forgettable, and the tables were as solid as the dollar. Not dark, but dim. Clubby. Everything in the dining room was chosen to project one message: we are in here, and they are out there, and let us take advantage of that fact.
Mr. Denmark had piggy eyes and a thousand-dollar tie, and he only smiled when he was causing pain. He was smiling.
“I was thinking about ordering off the menu tonight.”
Mr. Leopard smiled. He had too many teeth.
“Of course. We have a scotch fillet that’s delightful. Tender as a daydream. Or, if you’re in a savage mood, we have short ribs that Chef has coated in a teriyaki glaze that would knock your socks off.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
Mr. Leopard was barefoot. He smiled. They always said the same thing.
“I’m feeling savage,” Mr. Denmark said.
“Aren’t we all? The ribs it is.”
Mr. France had the cleanest fingernails you’ve ever seen. He said,
“Mr. Leopard, I have heard from here and there that you’ll be having a very special special soon.”
Mr. Leopard smiled again, but this time you could not see his teeth. His posture remained solicitous and he put his hands together in front of him like he was praying. His fingers each had an extra knuckle.
“Oh, have you?”
“Secrets are so hard to keep.”
“I disagree. The trick is to not tell them to anyone.”
All three men laughed, and the servers and busboys in black did not rush and never ran around the dining room. Their shoes were rubber-soled and made no noise at all, and they did not speak to one another. Everything was choreographed at the restaurant with no name. A server pulled the chair out, pushed it in under you. Champagne poured. Amuse-bouche; a single light dumpling, slice of lardo, something to practice chewing on. Busboy removes the plate from over your left shoulder. Mr. Leopard takes your order. The severs set your plate before you from over your right shoulder. Then, nothing. No check-ins–“How’s everything going?”–but your glass will be refilled and dropped silverware replaced without a word. The busboys will count one, two, three, four when you place your silverware on the plate and wipe your mouth, then your plate is gone and Mr. Leopard is back with news of dessert, several of which are set on fire before being presented. Coffee. Cognac. No check. The restaurant with no name is prix fixe, and payment comes before the meal. Cash only, thousand a diner. There is an envelope in the car that is sent for you.
It’s all so dreadfully civilized.
Dogs were not allowed in the Victory Diner, except for seeing-eye dogs and Emergency on Sunday mornings. He stayed under the table and got a bowl made up of the Reverend Arcade Jones’ breakfasts; he usually had three. Eggs and pancakes and usually a cheeseburger and fries. Arcade would put fingerfuls of each plate into a cereal bowl the waitress would bring. It was Sunday, he thought, it was Game Day; everybody gotta eat on Game Day. He ate relentlessly, but did not hurry. Emergency, who was a dog, scarfed back his bowl in under five seconds and then made small noises that even one unfamiliar with canines could translate as “Please give me more bacon.”
It was Saturday night in the Victory Diner until around ten a.m. Sunday morning. Teenagers in sunglasses coming down off their first acid trips were in the corner tackling their coffee cups, muttering and sputtering brilliant gibberish at each other. Insomniacs with poached eyes eating poached eggs. Call girls and rent boys in a booth stealing each others’ french fries. Chicks in fishnets nodding out; dudes in leather, too. Mixmistress Bosh had walked over from the loft party on Good Jones Street after her shift and tucked into oatmeal and egg whites. She ate right, Mixmistress Bosh.
“Three eggs, scrambled very hard. Double order of bacon, greasy. Just barely cook it. White toast, light. Coffee. Thank you.”
Flower Childs did not eat right, not lately at least. Didn’t sleep right, either. Lower Montana put a sleepy hand on her back as she got out of bed, and she dressed in her uniform even though she was off-duty and walked out of their house on Alfalfa Street west to the Main Drag and then to the Broadside for the Cenotaph and then back to the Victory Diner and the booth next to the Reverend Arcade Jones and Emergency. She had deep pockets under her eyes, which were under her reading glasses. She whipped through the broadsheet’s pages looking for her name, and when she did not find it in the news or on the editorial page, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes until the waitress startled her with coffee.
It was almost liberating, she thought, to have everything going wrong. Saved the categorization: all was fucked, all was fucked as far as the eye could fuck, and she felt the same sick relief as a condemned man out of appeals. Neighborhood was burning and, short an actual culprit, everyone was blaming her. Should’ve handed over those notes, Little Aleppo’s eyes read when they looked at her. All of a sudden, the cops were superheroes like in the movies or tech wizards like on teevee. What could those idiots have done? Flower had been dealing with the LAPD (No, Not That One) for decades and knew that their general level of competence was somewhere between “drunken teenager” and “chair.” Did everyone think the cops had a computer genius in the basement who could examine the notes under a spectrograph and pinpoint the factory they was made in?
Never seen the like, she thought as she sipped her black coffee. Little Aleppians happy to see the cops. The cops! You lied to the cops, you ran from the cops, you goofed on the cops, you avoided the cops, you dreaded the cops, you watched for the cops, you cursed the cops. You accused people of being cops. You didn’t cheer them, but here we were. The patrol cars were green and yellow–officially, they were emerald and gold, but Little Aleppo knew green and yellow when it saw them–and Chief Paraffin had hung “FIRE WATCH” signs on the doors. The officers were doing no more than usual, listening to the radio while cruising around looking at asses, but the locals bought it and cheered for them.
And Lower. Lowita. Fuck, Jesus, fuck, Light of my life, fire of my loins, pain of my ass, Lowita. A bar. She’s gonna run a bar. Kiss my ass, Flower thought, Lower’s gonna run a bar. She’d never paid a bill in her life. I do that shit, Flower thought. For all intents and purposes, the woman was on an allowance. It was a joint checking account, but Flower had the checkbook and the bank card, and she gave Lower lunch money at the beginning of the week. Mortgage, bills, taxes, the check when they went out for dinner: I do that shit, Flower thought, and then she remembered all the times Lower, her Lowita, had done math in front of her and Flower closed her eyes again. Of course she wanted the Wayside to live again, but not if she had to fill out the place’s quarterly reports. Flower was already seeing the Wayside as the dog her children had talked her into getting, promising at the top of their lungs to take care of it.
Walls made of shit were closing in.
She opened her eyes and looked behind her. The Reverend Arcade Jones was twisted around in his seat, too. He had recognized her through the mirror. They were both the kind of people you could recognize from behind.
“Reverend Jones, right?”
“Arcade Jones. I was at the meeting the other night and thought you expressed yourself wonderfully.”
And she realized how long it had been since she’d gotten a compliment, and so she said nothing so her voice did not catch, and then she said,
“Would you like some company?”
No, of course she didn’t. Goddamned religious wackos and their bullshit. No time for that. Rude to even ask, she thought, and she said,
Arcade turned back to his table and his breakfasts and did a quick calculation. Back over his shoulder.
“I’m working on like seven plates. It would be a lot easier if you came here.”
Flower Childs dropped her fork onto the plate and grabbed it along with her coffee. Set them down in the remaining bare patch of the table opposite the Reverend. He put out his hand.
“Reverend Arcade Jones. Very glad to meet you.”
“Flower Childs. Same here.”
From under the table came a paw on her thigh.
“This your dog?”
“Oh, do you not like dogs? I’m sorry. Are you allergic?”
“Shit, no. I love dogs.”
Arcade smiled, and Flower held up a piece of bacon. He nodded, and she slipped it under the table where it got snapped right up. She left her hand there for licking.
“That’s Emergency,” Arcade said.
“Hey, girl. Who’s a girl?”
“He’s a boy.”
“Who’s a boy? Who’s a boy?”
“You have one?”
“The station does. Ash-Nine.”
“Is he a good dog?”
“She. And yes. She’s got three brain cells and they’re not speaking to each other, but she’s a good dog.”
“Nothing better than a dog.”
“Why is he allowed in the diner?”
The Reverend’s mouth enveloped a forkful of pancakes, and he raised his napkin to chew behind. When he swallowed, he said,
“He usually isn’t. Only real early Sunday mornings when no one will notice. We are the only sober people in here.”
She looked around. Across the dining room, spontaneously-formed doo-wop groups snapped their fingers at each other. Mescaline daddies played Jenga with waffles, and coffee ran like mascara. Behind the cutout, Louie Bucca was doing 120 behind the gill, speeding and sizzling and on for the next 24 hours; the waitress’ eyes were glassy and thrilled. At a table, a 19-year-old named Mallory cracked open a hard-boiled egg and found the secret to life, the universe, and everything. Then she ate it.
“Seems like it,” Flower said.
“All paths to the Christ are equal, but some look very silly from an outside perspective.”
She smirked and raised her coffee mug; he clunked his plastic tumbler of Coke against it.
“The Jewish folks are with you, right?”
“Yes. They wandered for a bit.”
Arcade laughed so loudly that the whole diner pretended not to look.
“I used to play with a guy named Lonnie German. Strong safety. 6’2″ 150 pounds. Looked like a greyhound. Lonnie was into weird philosophy and conspiracies and dark nonsense. Would run his mouth about it for hours. Used to talk about how there’s no difference between a thousand years and a week. All of life was just cycles running at different speeds. I thought that man was crazy for years, but I don’t know if I do anymore.”
Flower stole a handful of fries and said,
“Where’s Lonny now?”
Arcade took a bite of his cheeseburger and dabbed at the sheen of sweat on his head with a paper napkin, one of about a dozen he was deploying: they were bibbed in his collar and spread in overlapping lines along his crotch and legs like shingles on a roof.
“So,” he said. “What’s up?”
And she told him. Lower could get two or three sentences out of her sometimes, but she gushed forth to the Reverend. He was a good listener. The notes, and the Jack of Instance, and Lower–her Lowita, Flower loved her, the pain in the ass–and the cops and the public opinion and the damned newspaper and everything, just everything, and when she was done she did not have tears in her eyes, but only out of practice.
Arcade sipped his Coke and slipped one last piece of bacon to the dog.
Flower spat out a laugh and stole another handful of fries.Here it comes, she thought. The Jesus rap. He was gonna invite her to church or tell her that he’d pray for her, whatever the fuck good that would do. Why was she even sitting here? Who the fuck was this guy? Flower Childs felt shaky in her situation.
“You ever hear the story of the guy who asked God for a sandwich?”
“No. What happened to him?”
“He starved to death.”
The sun rose higher in the sky outside the frosted windows, and the lights inside the Victory Diner became superfluous; day had taken hold and would not let go, not for hours, and there was nothing to do but face what’s coming to you in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.