Health nuts and religious types–the Sebastianite monks had been awake for hours–and photographers lurking by the wooden pylons of the Salt Wharf waiting for the light; and insomniacs having given up on sleep, wandering up and down the sidewalks dragging their dogs on forced walks. The night watchmen and the Midnight Librarians getting off their shifts, and the cop with his head down on the counter of the Victory Diner. The bicyclists and the joggers ready to pitch their turf battles. The baker, Sweet Jane; and the Poet Laureate, who was afraid of the dark and so stayed up all night. All of them happy for the sun’s return.
Everyone else in Little Aleppo, though, thought the sun could go fuck itself. Not for the whole day–sun was pleasant to have around at noon, and quite lovely when it set–but it came on too strong at dawn. Sneaking through blinds and seeping under doors, eyelids doing very little to help the situation. Jesus, sun. People are still sleeping and dreaming, or doing drugs and dancing. Come back around 9. 9:30 to be on the safe side. In tidy homes and hotel rooms with bloodstains on the carpet: not just yet.
The sun does not take requests. The sun is a teenager’s dick; it rises when it wants to.
But no one was as angered by the dawn as an astronomer. Imagine you were at a museum and a fat guy stood in front of you exactly half the time. Penny Arrabbiata knew that was a terrible metaphor, but it had stuck in her head 25 years ago and she had just learned to live with it. Mostly, she thought the sun was rude. The other stars don’t blot out the entire damn sky, she thought, and there are a hell of lot more impressive stars out there. The Carolingian Binary in the Guelph system, G-Class monsters rotating around each other at 15% of the speed of light; Abernays 626A in the Carceral Archipelago, three million times the size of the sun and sucking in surrounding matter like a black hole burning bright red; Felis Major in the Felicidae system, and all its planets packed so close together. Penny always thought it would be a perfect system for a multi-planet civilization.
Penny Arrabbiata wanted to murder the sun; she didn’t think it was too much to ask. She had work to do, and she would never finish; leave her be to do her damn work. Do you know how much is up there, out there? There are more stars in the sky than there are books in a very large library, or even two very large libraries. If you go out to your yard and extend your hand with your thumb up, then the area blotted out will contain more stars than there would be if you had a smaller thumb. She would never finish counting the stars; it was impossible for her to complete her work even if she had 24 hours in a day, but she didn’t because that pushy yellow bastard ate up half of them. There is no such thing as infinicy, Penny thought; we just don’t have enough time to count all the way to the end. There was a last star out there somewhere, she knew.
She only had so much time, and she only had half of that, and now they were going to take her telescope.
Maybe it wasn’t the sun that needed murdering.
“We should get frou-frou drinks. I feel like a frou-frou drink.”
“It’s dawn, Gussy. Dawn is not the time for frou-frou drinks,” Mr. Venable sighed.
“Ooh, manly-man drinks. What’s a good manly-man drink? How about a pint of Everclear with a handful of stubble tossed in?”
Mr. Venable laughed with his eyes, but used his mouth to order a vodka and orange juice from the bartender. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, thought that was a fine decision and asked for the same.
The drinks were strong at the Morning Tavern; several had put themselves through nursing school while raising children on their own. Others would eat through the engine block of a Chrysler. Don’t order the Easter Island Iced Tea unless you want to come to three days later, having chopped down all the trees in the area. The Moilerbaker is another terrible idea; it is a stein of whiskey with a shot of beer dropped into it.
They got their drinks; there was an oily yellow film on top of the vodka and ice cubes. Mr. Venable looked for a straw, found none, stirred his drink with his finger, put it in his mouth, wiped it on his pants. Gussy didn’t bother, just pounded a third of hers at once and slammed the glass on the bar.
“We’re gonna WIN, motherFUCKER!” she yelled. No one looked. People had epiphanies in the Morning Tavern a lot.
“You shush! Drink that,” Gussy said.
Mr. Venable took a sip.
He looked genuinely alarmed as he took a slightly larger pull off his cocktail. Then, setting his glass on the bar, he very gently laid his hand on Gussy’s forearm.
“Gus, I need you to know something: I am very excited about our little come-from-behind victory, too.”
“You mean when Omar was smarter than you?”
Mr. Venable did not dig his nails into Gussy’s forearm, but he desperately wanted to.
“Gussy. Focus. Answer a question for me.”
“What should we do with this new information? ‘The anonymous buyer of Harper Observatory is Tommy Amici.’ That piece of information. What should we do with it?”
“Tell everyone,” Gussy said.”
“Wait. Maybe we should tell no one.”
“Or tell someone. Someone specific.”
“That could also work.”
“Great. So, which is it?’
He took his hand off her arm, and took a sip of his drink.
“I’ve no idea. We found out, and then you taunted me for the entire walk over, and then we ordered drinks and had this conversation. I’ve no idea whatsoever.”
The nature of information is relative. Anarchists are quite sure it wants to be free, but professors and sports touts disagree. Mathematicians think it’s the end of an equation: subtract noise from signal, and you’re left with information. A black hole can’t destroy it; a liar can’t create it.
And information is a weapon. Soldiers know this, and so do politicians and lawyers and con artists. A limited one, though, and specific like a bullet made for just one soul. Fired from the right gun at the right time, a piece of information can kill a man. Or a marriage. Or a government.
Or a land deal.
The jukebox played Tommy Amici. Live from the Menefreghista Club, which was a 1967 release from Adamo Brothers Records. It was a good recording, airy and crisp, and you could hear pinky rings clink against cocktail glasses as Tommy sang all his hits–The Next Time I’ll Cry, and Foggy Morning, and Just Passing Through–and he told his jokes, which were of two themes: Drinking, and Fuck That Guy (Or Gal). That nearly-repressed rage that fueled Tommy’s singing spread and splattered all over the stage like popping grease from a frying pan when he tried to tell jokes; he would snarl through the punchlines. The crowd still laughed: anything to hear Tommy sing. Still, in 1967.
World War II came and went, and he was still singing, and then Hollywood and all the terrible movies made worse by Tommy’s steadfast refusal to do more than one take, or learn his lines, or show up on time, or not slug the director, or not storm off the set and fly to Spain, or not fuck his co-star no matter how married she was and how many problems it would cause, or not drive his Mercedes through the set. Then there was that first little bit of rock and roll in the late 50’s; Tommy barely noticed, and the fad faded. They said he was a fad, but he was still here, and when the second wave of rock and roll rock and rolled around in ’61–something they were calling the British Invasion–Tommy was not worried. He had his eyes, which were the color of the Verdance in the summer, and he had his voice.
Several years later, Tommy was still not worried. This rock and roll bullshit would go away any minute. And sure, he was getting older, no doubt about it. He had put on weight in his skull; his head, once rectangular, was now square and blocky. His chin was less distinct, and there was grey in his toupee. Tommy had noticed that his tailor used to let his tuxedos in and out, but lately had only been letting them out. He was not worried at all, this was nothing–no big deal–and because getting older was no big deal, Tommy had recently married a 19-year-old actress named Hiawatha Mayflower.
It was a whirlwind romance. The papers reported on “Tommy Amici and his Child Bride,” and then they reported on Tommy punching a reporter for calling her a “Child Bride,” and then the cycle restarted. She went with him on tour in Europe; it was chaotic. In England, Tommy saw Hiawatha talking to a Rolling Stone, or maybe a Kink–one of them, who gives a shit–and this kicked off a bar brawl; he also called the Queen fat. France saw a reconciliation, and he sang the entire show right to her. But whirlwinds are temporary.
And Hiawatha Mayflower was no Child Bride. 19-year-olds who marry men Tommy’s age are either very dumb are very smart, and she was not dumb. Hiawatha understood Hollywood before she had even been there, back in her boarding school dorm: fame beats everything. The organizing principle of Hollywood is not power, like in DC, but fame. Fame beats resume, experience, connections; fame beats ugly, stupid, untalented. She was, Hiawatha knew, just as talented as the other girls, and she was certainly as beautiful as the other girls.
But there were so many other girls in Hollywood.
Hiawatha was working on a soap opera called Tomorrow’s Yesterdays; she played a student nurse named Eve Lovedance, and she was in a love triangle with a doctor named Drape Knox and a tollbooth collector/heir to the Eustachian fortune named Burlington Cotes. A job’s a job, she thought.
Tommy Amici was shooting a film called The Lieutenant on the next stage. He was a cop on the trail of drug kingpins; or a kidnapper; maybe a mad bomber: Tommy had not read the script. He knew he was a cop because the costume girl handed him a badge every morning, or afternoon, or whenever he showed up. Fuck this job bullshit, he thought.
That first morning he noticed her in the parking lot was coincidence, but the day after that, Hiawatha sat in her car watching for his to pull into the lot. She counted to ten and got out; she was wearing a yellow dress the exact same color as her hair, and she looked like a movie star. They had dinner that night, and then they went up to Harper Observatory to look at the stars. She and Tommy were married five weeks later.
Now, there are some that might fault Hiawatha Mayflower for her behavior. Assume that her love was not true; this was not the case. He still had those eyes, and that charisma, and he was great in bed. Hiawatha loved him just as much as Tommy loved her, which is to say: almost as much as they loved themselves. It was a Hollywood romance.
Tommy Amici had sung for presidents–hell, he had helped elect one–and kings; he sold out stadiums and arenas, and he packed movie houses. He had four planes and seven houses. A share in a casino that the government knew about, and two that the government didn’t. And every six months like clockwork, he played a weekend at a tiny club called the Menefreghista in a weird neighborhood named Little Aleppo. For free.
He was not in a good mood.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know, Tommy,” Jacob George said.
Jacob was Tommy’s valet, and Tommy very rarely threw food on him or screamed racial epithets at him in front of company. Jacob thanked Tommy for this kindness with courteous service, and by skimming tens of thousands of dollars out of the household accounts. He also took detailed notes for the book he would write ten years later.
The dressing room at the Menefreghista was freshly redecorated: brand-new velour couch, purple, and tasteful cream walls with art picked to complement Tommy’s eyes. The Friend redid the dressing room every time Tommy played the club; he had never noticed.
The Friend owned the Menefreghista, but not on paper; the only paper The Friend dealt in was cash. (In fact, there was legend printed over the bar: Nummis Semper Accipitur.) Why own? he thought. Nothing but liability. Silent partnerships: that was the way to go. Contracts were for people who didn’t trust each other, The Friend would tell people before he shook their hands. We trust each other, don’t we?
No one had ever said no.
Tommy didn’t say no, all those years ago in this very club, just shook The Friend’s hand and all of a sudden there was money for a press agent and new teeth and the best musicians, and the best gigs in the country–the Copa, the Fontainebleau, Ciro’s–and his name was in all the papers (those fucking newspapers and their lies) and then theaters, sold out, and then there were movies and tours and so much money, so much fucking money that no one could ever spend it all. Less ten percent off the top, which went to that man Tommy made friends with all those years ago. A silent partnership.
And two weekends a year at the Menefreghista.
“Little bitch was supposed to be here.” Tommy was seething. He sat at the makeup mirror in his tuxedo shirt, boxer shorts, and sheer black socks. Jacob stood behind him working Tommy’s pants with a lint brush.
“I called the house and there was no answer.”
“Aren’t you on top of things?” Tommy spat.
“Maybe there was traffic.”
There was a knock on the door, and then The Friend walked in without waiting for a response. He was the only human on the planet, including royalty and popes, who could have gotten away with that. He handed Tommy a telegram.
MISTER STOP HAVE GONE TO ENGLAND STOP TAKEN STARRING ROLE IN HORROR MOVIE STOP ALREADY OSCAR BUZZ STOP SUCH A GREAT SCRIPT STOP MARRIAGE NOT WORKING STOP LOVE ALWAYS STOP LITTLE BIRD
She called him Mister, and he called her Little Bird.
Tommy laid the telegram down on the desk, very calmly. Jacob recognized this specific form of calm, and–as respectfully as possible–shoved The Friend out the door. When Tommy emerged ten minutes later, there was an an actual need to redecorate the dressing room.
Then he did the show. Tommy Amici is a professional, but every note he sung that night was a promise: someone is gonna pay for this. That little bitch. The Friend. This weird fucking pissant neighborhood Someone. Someone is gonna fucking pay.
“Whose round is this?”
Gussy WHAPPED her glass on the table. She and Mr. Venable were sitting with Tiresias Richardson and Big-Dicked Sheila at a table across from the bar. The Morning Tavern was a wide room with an el-shaped bar and tables in the front, and a pool table and jukebox in the back. It would have been a rather plain joint were it not for the Rejection.
Letters saying “no thank you” from publishers and colleges, and eviction notices, and writs of expulsion, and dishonorable discharges, and divorce papers, and findings of negligence, and concession speeches, and letters saying “I don’t love you anymore.” All tacked to the walls and columns and ceiling, overflowing atop one another and grasping for space like paper anemones on a coral reef and forming what was called the Rejection. You got a place here, the Rejection says; you’re not the only loser at the Morning Tavern.
“Yours,” Sheila burped.
“No,” Gussy said.
“Why are you always mean!?” Tiresias shouted at Mr. Venable. She had not been sober–or even close to it–for several days now, and had entered the shouting phase of a bender.
“I’m not always mean. I’m lovely.”
“I bought the round before this,” Gussy said, counting on her fingers.
“No, you bought the round before the round before this. Before that.”
“Don’t you laugh at me,” Mr. Venable said with a rather sloppy smile. “I’m a delight.”
“You’re rementless…relentest…you’re always mean.”
“But that only makes three,” Gussy said. “There are four of us.”
“Fantastic four,” Sheila dug around in her purse for her cigarettes; she was not really paying attention to the conversation.
“You’ve been in the shop?”
“Several times,” Tiresias said. “Mean every time.”
“What did you buy?”
“Books on acting.”
“There you go.”
“There I go what?”
“My cruelty was a favor to you. Acting is no life. It’s for the degenerate and the silly.”
Sheila found her cigarettes–she smoked Camels like Precarious–and held out the soft pack. Gussy had not had a cigarette in four years, but she was shitfaced at 8 am trying to either avert or touch off a land war in the middle of her neighborhood. She took the smoke; Sheila lit it with a yellow plastic lighter; Gussy HACKHACKHACK and then she was light-headed and her throat felt barbed and her tongue coated with mud. She blew out, half through her nose and the rest through her mouth and remembered why she had started smoking at 15.
Gussy had gone to Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk for years, but had always gotten her hair cut by Antonio Faberge; she knew Sheila enough to stop and chat on the sidewalk, but they were not close friends. At this moment, though, Gussy felt very close to Sheila, and motioned to her with two fingers.
“C’mere. I gotta tell you something.”
Sheila leaned forward, but warily. She had been on the losing end of the “C’mere, I gotta tell you something” game before.
“We found out who’s buying the Observatory.”
Sheila’s eyes widened, and she was wearing very dramatic makeup; the gesture popped.
“What are you two talking about?” Mr. Venable said.
“Excuse me,” Tiresias said. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” She was now in the “repeating yourself” phase of the bender.
“I happen to be a successful actor.”
“What would I have seen you in?”
“Who?” Mr. Venable said.
“Who?” Sheila said. She and Gussy were huddling and hunched into each other, almost under the table. They could see the gum.
“You can’t say anything.”
“You can’t say annnnnnything.”
Sheila zipped her lips, and then she threw the key over her shoulder.
“Just repeating the ludicrous name isn’t going to make me recognize it.”
“Draculette. You know: Draculette.” She mimed her enormous wig, and then unzipped her rust-colored sweatshirt down and pushed her cleavage together. SHAKEYSHAKEYSHAKEY. Then she made spooky noises. “Draculette!”
Mr. Venable’s eyes widened, but he wasn’t wearing any makeup, let alone dramatic makeup.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
“Tell me, tell me,” Sheila said.
“Okay, I did some research and found out that the anonymous buyer–who was hidden behind, like, a million shell companies–was a guy named Tomas Valenzuela.”
“Oh my God! You’re so smart.”
“Yeah,” Gussy said.
“Who’s Tomas Valenzuela?”
“I’m very famous!” Tiresias insisted.
“Here. In Little Aleppo! I’m on teevee every night!”
“Tomas Valenzuela is Tommy Amici.”
“Yes,” Gussy said.
“Oh my God.”
Mr. Venable leaned back in his chair.
“Well, there you go. I don’t own a tevee.”
“Ohhhhhhhh, of COURSE you don’t own a teevee,” Tiresias said.
“Oh, come on,” Gussy chimed in. “You most certainly do have a teevee.”
“You have one in the back office of the shop! You watch Tomorrow’s Yesterdays every single day.”
Sheila sat bolt-upright in her seat.
“Tommy Amici is tearing down the Observatory?”
“I think this is my round,” Gussy said, got up, went to the bar.
Tiresias smirked; Sheila gawped; Mr. Venable wondered again why women always seemed to be yelling at him, and also contemplated murdering Gussy. He still did not know what to do with the new piece of information, but he had seen several heads in the bar jerk around when Sheila announced the information, so he figured that it was no longer his problem; it was the hands of the gods now.
High atop Pulaski Peak, the hemispherical doors on Harper Observatory have closed. The sun, that bully, was back in its arcing throne and the sky was no longer of any use to astronomers. The park the Observatory sat in did not have berms and emplacements carved into it, but they had been marked off. There were benches along walkways–one had been bulldozed–and from them, you can see all of the lights of the valley below glowing warm and yellow, and beyond that the wharf and the docks, and beyond that the harbor, and beyond that the sea. It was a good place to take a date, just one romantic spot among many in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.