Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Diagnosis And Complication In Little Aleppo

Tommy Amici was a snappy dresser. It was one of his trademarks. Most men don’t even get one trademark, but Tommy had several: his voice, and his temper; that he’d be sitting with the most beautiful women in the room, and with the ugliest men.

And the clothes.

“There are rules for this sort of thing, not that you’d be aware of this. First of all, what time is it? Daytime is for slacks–checked is fine, but no plaid ever–and sports coat. Pocket square, folded: don’t just wad the goddamned thing in there like some fruit, you have your man iron creases into it, and it should sit at a slight angle rising outward. Silk tie, and learn how to make a knot? I’d send you in the back with the help if you can’t tie a fucking windsor. Tommy, Jr., can get it right and he’s a retard. Polish your fucking shoes, and they should be lace-ups.

“A man can wear one ring, plus his wedding ring. If the necklace doesn’t have a cross or a Jew star on it, then no dice. That’s it. Men buy bracelets, they don’t wear them.

“You got a beard, I don’t wanna know you.

“Black in the evenings. Maybe midnight blue. Suit if you’re just fucking around, going for dinner, whatever. Tuxedo if you’re going to a show.

“Get your shirts custom. Best investment you’ll ever make. Don’t go crazy with the monogram, though. Not too big. Latins do that, maybe it’s a Zorro thing.

“And put some mints in your pocket, because bad breath is the devil coming out of your mouth.”

Tommy delivered this sartorial advice calmly, as if he were not duct-taped to an office chair in a warehouse. There was a work light pointing towards him, five feet tall and with a metal grate over the bulb. Dull-gray van with the back doors still open, barely visible on the fringe of the illuminated radius.

They had torn his sweater, you see, his yellow mohair sweater that was thin enough to see through and soft enough to wipe your ass with. It was from Milan, and had a vee-neck. Where the right sleeve meets the shoulder, there was a rip almost all the way around the arm. Got caught on something when they threw him in the van, maybe, or just from the manhandling. Mohair sweaters aren’t tactical garments; no one wears them for their durability. Tommy saw this rip when they removed the navy-blue pillowcase from his head, and that’s what prompted the lesson in style.

There were three of them. Khaki jumpsuits. Pantyhose over their heads. The one in the middle was tallest, and that’s who Tommy addressed.

“No tie pins. Or clasps, any of that shit. Cuff links and a watch. What kind of watch do you wear with a tuxedo?”

Tommy cocked his head and stared through the work light, which was harsh and showed his ruined jawline and poached cheeks, but also his eyes that were still as green as the Verdance in summer.

The jumpsuit in the middle, who was the tallest, looked left. Right. Back at Tommy.

“What. Kind. Of watch. Does a man. Wear with. A tuxedo?”

Middle Jumpsuit shrugged.

“A man does not wear a watch with a tuxedo. When is man is wearing a tuxedo, he has nowhere else to be. Therefore, he does not need to know the time.”

Middle Jumpsuit looked left, right. All three nodded in confused agreement.

“But, see, this lesson is wasted on you. I’m talking about how a man should dress, but you’re not a man. You’re a corpse. Someone else is gonna dress you. Make you nice so your mother can look at you.

“I should be talking to him.

“Yeah. I don’t need to talk to you.

“Fuck you.”

Tommy spit on Middle Jumpsuit’s shin.

“You’re not germane to the fucking conversation anymore. Bring me your morticians.”

Middle Jumpsuit looked left, right. Right, left. Left, right. The three of them retreated to beyond the work light’s reach, putting the van in between them and Tommy.

“You got hit by a van.”

“Swiped.”

“By a van,” Precarious Lee said. He had his right arm draped over the front seat of a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and was swiveled around facing the Reverend Arcade Jones, who was draped over the back seat. The car was parked in front of St. Agatha’s ER, which had a kludge of architecture: modern automatic door retrofitted into a brick encasement. Over the entrance was an inscription in the stone: Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi?

Precarious had dropped Tiresias Richardson and Big-Dicked Sheila off at KSOS’ studio, and he was up front by himself. Penny Arrabbiata was next to the Reverend. She said,

“Let a doctor look at you.”

“You’re a doctor,” Arcade said.

“Not that kind. You need a doctor.”

“I’m fine.”

Penny reached out and slapped his cheek. Not hard, but annoying. Again. Again.

“Stop that.”

“Make me.”

Slap.

“Please stop that.”

“Make me.”

Slap.

The Reverend Arcade Jones was not gelatinous, but he was gelatin-ish, and raising either arm seemed a task.

“Stop.”

Slap.

“Hey, Precarious,” Fancy Delaware said. “What’s this?”

Fancy Delaware was the Chief of the ER, and twice a night she would walk to the far side of the parking lot behind the dumpster and have a cigarette. She would leave her white coat and stethoscope under the front desk when she did, and so she was in her navy scrubs and bright red sneakers. She had her head halfway in the car.

“Doc.”

She kissed him on the cheek, but didn’t take her eyes off the Reverend and repeated,

“What’s this?”

“Man versus van.”

“I’m fine,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said.

“Sure, yeah. You’re a big guy. Totally up for taking on a van,” Fancy said to Arcade.

She withdrew her head and walked around the car, and as she did the locks opened CHUNK and she opened the back door.

“Fancy Delaware, she said. “Who are you?”

“Arcade Jones.”

Fancy held out her hand and smiled like she knew the punchline of the joke. The Reverend looked at her offered hand, her face, her hand, and did not move a muscle except to say,

“Hello, there.”

“Ooooookay,” she said. “I’m gonna get you a wheelchair and bring you inside.”

“I’m fine.”

“Hit him again, Pen,” Precarious said.

Slap.

The Reverend Arcade Jones did not trust doctors, never had. When he was a kid, he had a younger brother by 13 months named Achilles, and when he was seven and Achilles was six, Achilles starting going to see doctors. By the time Arcade turned eight, he didn’t have a brother named Achilles any more.

Trainer was fine. Couldn’t play football without seeing the trainer. Get your ankle taped up, or your fingers taped together. Arcade used to get blood blisters on his heels, inch-and-a-half across, and the trainers would drain them with a horse-sized syringe. The guys on the team who were into horror movies would come and watch. But doctors? No, thank you. Doctors fucked up fixing his knee, and doctors let his brother die, and a man’s health was provided or not by the Lord.

Besides, he was just sore. Couple bruises. Nothing too bad.

Slap.

“Stop that.”

Slap!

“Don’t fucking hit me, you fucking bitch!”

Amber Lance, who called herself Violet Violence until three days ago and was actually named Melisandre Boone, launched herself at Stewart Brand. They were both wearing khaki jumpsuits and pantyhose on the heads, and she shoved his against the front of a dull-grey van with one arm across his chest and the other hand on his mouth. His back was bent back over the hood.

She hissed,

“Shut the fuck up,” and her eyes were wide and zealous beneath the nylon. “You’re gonna talk quieter. We don’t want him to hear us. Right?”

Stewart Brand was easily cowed: he had never been punched in the face, not even once, so he was afraid of being hit. He was an easy flincher.

“Right, yeah, okay.”

Students for Harper Observatory had taken a turn from dialectics to direct action. Meetings in the dorm room became speeches on the Quint (Harper College’s Quad had five sides) became no more speeches because the group had “officially” disbanded and then there was a plan. They met in secret, because it was a secret plan, cleverly and thoroughly disguising themselves as five college students arguing about nonsense while smoking pot.

It was a book’s fault. Caesar was right to burn the Library at Alexandria, Socrates was right to curse the written word. It’s always a book’s fault. The Morning Tavern used to have a regular named Shit-Starting Earl, and when he would roll in around noon the bartenders would point at him and say,

“Don’t you start shit, Earl.”

He would nod, smile, compliment the bartender’s forehead. And then Shit-Starting Earl would start shit, because Earl was a shit-starter.

Books are just like that. Holy books, obviously, those were the big kahunas as far as troublesome tomes went, but also economics textbooks and novels extolling the virtues of being invirtuous. Books on psychology had caused problems, and philosophy, too. Books have led to the deaths of men, women, and politicians. Rock stars, even, and you never knew which one was dangerous. A book is a random grenade: might go off, might not; maybe now, maybe in a hundred years. Kings and Popes used to know what to do about books: kill people for reading them.

Fontaine Grondis was a schizophrenic from Philadelphia. Almost seven feet tall. Harmless, mostly; quiet, usually. Good family. Smart as three whips. University of Pennsylvania. He went from discipline to discipline, sampling, but was never called a dilettante because of the speed with which he grasped the subjects. Six days after his 20th birthday, he heard a voice over his right shoulder. A choir followed. His good family came for him and he was seen to. Six days after his 23rd birthday, Fontaine came back to Penn’s campus. Solicitous and subdued. Apologies for any unpleasantness. He sat in on a class, and then another. An old teacher invited him for lunch, and then to a dinner party. He became a fixture at the school, always there. Chinese Mythology 101 or a grad-level seminar on modular arithmetic, Fontaine Grondis would fold himself into a chair in the back and though he was usually quiet he would always ask one question. It was always the most interesting question. Six days after his 31st birthday, he killed himself. He did not suffocate; he knew the distance that he needed to fall, and so the noose broke his neck.

There was a manuscript in his room. Half of it was typed, and half of it was handwritten in a tight and up-and-down script, and half was in some sort of cypher, and another half was drawings–elaborate and intricately Manichean–and another half was annotated maps. It needed an editor. Well, first it needed someone to wade through it and make sure it wasn’t insanity, and then it needed an editor. Gordon Lish did both jobs: he was a philosophy professor at the school, and a friend of Fontaine’s; he pared the unnecessary obsessions and meandering subplots and improbable conspiracies, and what was left was genius, perhaps.

Minor Acts and Their Amplifications. That was the phrase written in pencil in big block letters on every page of the manuscript, down at the bottom like a signature. It was magnificent in its scope: all of history, and concise in its point: human societies are uncontrollable. Wars and famines and plagues and genocides, all the mutilations of life, are completely outside the realm of predictability and–invariably–touched off and worsened by the most random of actors. The Great Man Theory was bullshit, he argued in 884 pages. Fontaine Grondis invented chaos theory, but no one noticed.

But he didn’t stop at description. Fontaine prescribed.

The Butterfly Effect. Butterfly humps a wildebeest in Africa, which leads to a bank getting robbed in Akron. Something like that.

Fontaine Grondis advocated being the butterfly. Sudden, uncomfortable acts to jolt society. The smallest action if it was the right one would have exponentially random outcomes. And the righter the action, the randomer the outcome. (Fontaine had several equations to prove that last assertion, using mathematical symbols he had invented, but Gordon Lish cut them from the book.)

Stewart Brand had read Minor Acts and Their Amplifications, and so had Anacostia Hymen and Molly McGlory and Joey the Spaz III. Amber Lance had read the first 13 pages, and then several bits and pieces thereafter. She didn’t need to read; she was a doer. All revolutionary movements–not intellectual salons, real revolutionaries–have two power orbits up top: the thinker and the doer. Generally, the thinker is excommunicated or murdered as soon as possible; sometimes, the doer gets to die of old age in a mansion.

Amber pulled the pantyhose off her head and said,

“You’re gonna let me talk.”

And before Stewart could say anything, both of them could have sworn they heard a voice from somewhere off in the warehouse’s darkness say,

“Ah, shit.”

“A ghost cop? There was a ghost cop in Tommy Amici’s house? Really? Deep breath, Reverend.”

Fancy Delaware had her stethoscope on Arcade Jones’ chest; it took some convincing to get him in the ER–Precarious kept suggesting that she “just tranq him and drag him in”–but being an ER doctor is like being a cop: no one realizes how much persuasion is involved. Fancy had seen doctors come and go through St. Agatha’s ER, good ones, award-winners, leaders in their field, but they didn’t know how to how to talk to drunks and the furious, and so they crapped out in her eyes.

She felt like a hostage negotiator sometimes, and used some of the same techniques. Never say “no.” Ever. Never disagree. Never demand. Never raise your voice. Introduce yourself first thing, and get their name and keep fucking using their name. When you use someone’s name, you remind them they had parents, that they’re human beings. Threats never worked, but shame did. Read the situation. React to the individual on front of you. The second they thought you were reading from a script, you were dead. Watch their eyes and trust your gut.

There was a pale-green curtain drawn round the complicated bed, which sat Arcade Jones up at a 30 degree angle.

“Romeo Rodriguez. The young man who got shot his first day on the job.”

Fancy did not say anything at all, just palpated the Reverend’s broad belly. You press your fingers in here and it should feel like this. Certain parts on the torso gave in, and other parts resisted. Deviation from the norm was a red flag.

“They probably brought him here,” Arcade said.

“They did.”

“He’s back.”

“He died, Reverend. I signed the certificate.”

“So, too, the Christ.”

“I think you ruptured your spleen.”

“So, too, the Christ.”

Fancy looked up from her hands, his belly, and Arcade’s eyes were glowing and bloodshot; she put her palm on his bald head. Far too hot. Reached into her lab coat pocket, took out a syringe, screwed it into the IV that had already been started. Pushed.

“That’s gotta come out, Reverend.”

“What? No. No surgerSHWWWAAAAAZH.”

He was out. She would never give Precarious the satisfaction of telling him, but “just tranq him” occasionally was the best option. You had to keep your options open in St. Agatha’s.

PRECARIOUS AND DOCTOR ARRABBIATA ARE HERE.

“How do you know that?”

IN ADDITION TO THE TELESCOPE, I HAVE ALSO TAPPED INTO THE OBSERVATORY’S SECURITY CAMERAS.

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was sitting on a bench overlooking Little Aleppo. Behind her was Harper Observatory, and next to her was a matte-black metal object the size and shape of a mailbox with no seams at all, sat on its end, with a five-inch glass outbubbling on what you might call its face. There was a handle on top.

“Wally, what the fuck?” Precarious said

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

“The fuck is this, Gussy?”

“He wanted to see the stars,” Gussy said, standing up and hugging Precarious. Penny hung back, not a hugger; she smiled, but Gussy was good at reading faces and asked said,

“How bad did it go?”

Precarious and Penny sat down on the bench on either side of her. He rested his elbow on Wally’s technoproxy and snaked a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket. Zippo. FFT. PHWOO. He had a joint behind his ear, and he put it in his mouth. FFT. PHWOO. Handed it to Gussy, who said,

“That bad?” and hit the joint PHWOO and gave it to Penny, who was staring into the heavens and not saying a damn word.

And Precarious told her a story about pills and mistaken identities and floating Oscars and broad-daylight kidnappings, and when he was done she handed him back joint. It was canoeing a bit, he licked his finger and wet down the paper that was advancing too quickly. No matter how well you rolled them, they burned how they wanted.

“That’s bad.”

I SHOULD HAVE BEEN PRESENT.

“You shouldn’t even be here,” Precarious said. Wally’s voice came from everywhere, but he looked at the glass outbubbling on the matte-black metal object.

I AM A CITIZEN OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD. DO I NOT HAVE THE RIGHT OF FREE PASSAGE?

“You’re not a citizen of shit. You’re a sound system.”

IF YOU PRICK ME, DO I NOT BLEED?

“No. You would not bleed.”

I MEANT IT METAPHORICALLY.

There was darkness in front of them. The bench was forest green planks of wood held to metal with bulbous rivets. There was a small strip of grass in front of it, and then a fence that kept the clumsy and drunk from tumbling down Pulaski Peak. Just darkness. Then, a voice.

“We’re fucked.”

Gussy looked at Precarious. He looked back. They both looked at Penny, who had her head down and her blue ball cap low. All three looked at Wally, and Gussy said,

“Was that you?”

OBVIOUSLY NOT. MY VOICE IS MUCH BOOMIER.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez cohered in front of them, and the three recoiled. Watching that was like having your eyeballs dry cleaned.

“Jesus, kid,” Precarious said.

“Warn a girl,” Gussy added.

Penny said nothing at all.

Looking at a ghost feels like an ice cream headache, but if the ice cream were made from PCP.  Precarious didn’t give a shit; he stared at him angrily.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were there?”

“Penny said I shouldn’t.”

Precarious and Gussy looked at Penny, who would not look back and said,

“I fucked up.”

“I know where Tommy is. He’s in a warehouse on the Downside. He’s okay. But we’re fucked. Things are more complicated now,” Romeo said.

Gussy handed Precarious the joint, and he said,

“How the fuck could things get more fucking complicated?”

“One of the kidnappers is Melisandre Boone.”

Precarious closed his eyes and his lips tightened up and the bench outside Harper Observatory was silent for a moment until Gussy asked,

“Who’s that?”

“Boone,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez said. “As in Boone’s Docks.”

Precarious gave the joint to Gussy, who hit it PHWOO and said,

“Oh, shit.”

There were stars above them and crimes going on below. Out in the distance was the ocean, and then the harbor, and then the shore, and then the valley, and then the mountains. There was once a stream that cut through the valley, but not any longer. To the right was a park shaped like an egg, and it was green and everything grew there; to the left was a zoo and a college and a party. The summit of Pulaski Peak is a rounded-off diamond, and it overlooks Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

2 Comments

  1. awesome. poor fontaine. reminds me of diego hervas. (i’ve read that garcia’s favourite movie was the sargossa manuscript. “the polymath hervas” a.k.a. “the atheist hervas” is one of the book’s best characters, but he doesn’t appear in the movie.)

  2. NoThoughtsOnDead

    June 14, 2017 at 1:30 am

    “Looking at a ghost feels like an ice cream headache, but if the ice cream were made from PCP. ” One of the 13,700 things you write I never would’ve thought of.

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