The Town Fathers had two choices: meeting or riot. They voted 3-2 for the meeting. (Regarding the two ‘no’ votes: Annetta Housell voted no on everything out of principle, and Big Bobby Barr just liked riots.) Not that the meeting would preclude a riot; in fact, they usually preceded them. Other times, the meeting and the riot would run concurrently. Once, during the debate about whether to build a minor-league baseball field, the neighborhood tried having the riot first, and then the meeting, but that didn’t work at all; people were too keyed up to discuss municipal debt after all the hitting and kicking and looting and whatnot. Also, the building the meeting was to have taken place in was on fire. Meeting first, then the riot.
It was the cops’ fault, Flower Childs thought. She had taken the note the arsonist had left for her at the firehouse after the Wayside Inn fire to the police station.
“Can I help you?”
“Here to see the Chief.”
There are many places in America where the cops and the firemen get along, and Little Aleppo isn’t one of them. The firemen hate the cops because they think the cops are lazy, corrupt, semi-literate fleabags who bother people for a living; the cops hate the firemen because cops hate everyone who isn’t a cop. And there was jealousy, too. The Little Aleppo Fire Department was beloved; the Little Aleppo Police Department was tolerated, at best. Best thing a cop could do for you, locals figured, was not be around, but when life got truly fucked up, then you prayed for a fireman to kick in the door. They both got free meals at the Victory Diner, but the cops got them as sub rosa bribes and the firemen got them out of love. And the cops knew it, too: they were lazy, corrupt, and semi-literate, but they weren’t dumb.
“And you are?”
So the cops fucked with the firemen.
“You know who I am, Honey.”
He was a snowman with a badge, spheres plopped atop each other, and topped off with a thick shock of white hair. One of the ongoing debates in the LAPD (No Not That One’s) locker room was whether Sergeant Honey’s finger would even fit in the trigger of his gun; if not, how long had it been since it could? They did not have this debate in front of Honey, as he was the Desk Officer. Anyone could walk in the front door, but to get back to the offices required being buzzed in through the heavy steel door to the right of Honey’s desk. And if you pissed him off, he wouldn’t let you in. Several officers had been barred entrance to the station until they gave up and got different jobs.
“I need ID.”
“You need ID?”
“Got a driver’s license?”
“Sure, right here,” Flower said.
She reached into her pocket and came up with her middle finger.
“My picture? You think it’s cute?”
She pointed at her middle finger, which was still extended.
“This picture right here on my driver’s license?”
She pointed again.
The desk was up high like in the movies, because Sergeant Honey had seen it in movies and thought it looked cool, so he didn’t let some rookies into the building until they built one for him. The walls were the shade of green that promises nothing good, and there was no carpet. Photos of cops killed in the line of duty. Flag. Security camera. There was a speaker embedded in the drop ceiling. It crackled.
“Let her in, Honey.”
He looked into the camera and said,
“She hasn’t properly identified herself, Chief.”
“Let her in, Honey!”
Sergeant Honey reached under his desk and thumbed the button for the door BBBBBZZZZ and said,
“Fuck yourself, you heart attack with ears.”
Flower Childs was almost disappointed when she got called bitch. Not in men’s character, but in their creativity. Bitch bitch, cunt cunt. Men repeated themselves constantly. Come up with something new, put a little effort into it. Get personal, for fuck’s sake. She had long ago stopped being offended by men, and was now just bored with them. Short-sleeved white work shirt with all the fireman bullshit on it. Blue pants, black boots. Shoulder bag. She strode through the bullpen of cop desks. The holding cell was in the back of the room. One of the Browley twins, Brenda, was in it. The other, Bunny, was locked in the bathroom. The LAPD (No, Not That One) had learned their lesson over the years: no matter how well the Browley twins were getting along when they were brought in, they weren’t to share a cell.
“Some of the Whites are black.”
“They’re not Whites. Whites are white.”
“What are they?” Cannot Swim asked.
“It’s a whole long story.”
“Can you talk to them?”
“But you are Talks To Whites.”
“I told you. It’s a whole thing. They speak the White language.”
Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites led their horse Easy Life into C—–a City. It was early in the morning, and they had snuck onto the trail into town a few miles back. There was a pine-covered ridge that crested and there it was. Wagon wheels had cut furrows a foot deep towards it. There was gold in the rivers and laced into the woods, and Whites had come to seek their fortunes, and other Whites had come to steal it from them. Tent camp with stinking men jumbled on top of each other, barely out of the elements, and taverns with women in them. One road made of equal parts dirt and horseshit that turned to slurry when it rained.
And people everywhere. Cannot Swim had never seen so many people, and so many hats. He had seen the way the Whites dressed, but there were so many of them. He was surrounded by boots and pants and what in the name of the Turtle Who Was And Will Be Once More was that stink? Like fanged shit. Was that them? How could a human being reek like that? The Whites had little noses, but were they incapable of smelling themselves?
“Stop making that face.”
“I cannot help it, cousin. Do the Whites wash their asses? It smells like no one here has ever washed his ass. Ever.”
“They are irregular bathers.”
“It’s like my nose hairs are on fire. The horse smells better.”
Talks To Whites had Easy LIfe’s lead in his hand. He tugged it and said to the horse,
“Don’t encourage him.”
Two Chinese men passed the cousins in the street. They were wearing dark-colored changshan and their long black hair was in braids. They looked more like the Pulaski than anyone else Cannot Swim had seen.
“Are they Indians?”
“Is that a tribe?”
“Big one. But they’re not Indians.”
“They’re not wearing pants. They have hair like ours.”
“They’re not Indians. Trust me.”
“But they are not Whites.”
“Can you talk to them?”
Hank Paraffin was the best Police Chief Little Aleppo ever had. He was corrupt and lazy and semi-literate just like all the past chiefs, but he looked good, Little Aleppians figured. Some of the Chiefs had been downright homely: Chief Farthing was almost fictional in his ugliness–he looked like a pumpkin with an underbite–and Chief Andros had a face only his mother could love, and that’s only because she was dead when he was Chief; when she was alive, she thought he was an ugly little fuck. The cops were there to fuck you, the neighborhood thought. They might as well be fuckable.
Hank Paraffin was a handsome bastard, and all the pictures on the wall of his office confirmed it. There he was with the governor. President, even. He had two shots of himself with Supreme Court Justices, and several with towering basketball players and football players the size of military vehicles. Hank Paraffin’s mustache had never had food in it, not one crumb, and his thick hair was not going gray, but stainless-steel. He had a chin you could believe in and an open-mouthed smile that he would produce on demand, or on request, or whenever. Hank liked to be handsome around people, and people enjoyed it when he was handsome around them.
And, O, his uniform. Tailored and tuned like a Formula One car: high in the armpits and darted in at the waist and double-vented–he was tall and broad-shouldered, so the double-vent was the correct decision–and four buttons down the single breast instead of the traditional five. White shirt with a spread collar and a black tie with a Pratt knot, which is thicker at the bottom than a Windsor. His sleeves had gold braids embroidered in rings ’round his arms; he had started with two down by the cuff, then added a third, and then a fourth and now he had eleven stretching all the way up past his elbow.
One of the awards on the wall was for posture.
“Chief!” he called through his open door.
“Captain,” she said and braced herself for…
“Gimme a hug.”
Hank was a hugger.
“Chief, I’m really not–”
“Get in here,” he said with his arms out like cheerful Jesus. Flower chose the path of least resistance and most physical contact; he wrapped her up tight and warm while she taptaptapped on his back with her fingertips.
“Okee doke,” she said.
Hank released her, took a step back, great big smile.
“Have you been working out?”
“Chief Paraffin, I’m here on official business.”
“Me, too. This is my office.”
Flower Childs wanted to go back to the firehouse, where she was in charge and there weren’t any armed dopes grinning at her. There was leftover spaghetti, too. She’d take any one of the three right now. Or a drink. Or running headfirst into a plate-glass window. She was also used to being taller than the person she was talking to, and Hank’s height was pissing her off.
“Chief, this was left on the door to the firehouse after the Wayside fire that took the life of Manfred Pierce.”
“Shame about that.”
She tried to read his face for the insult, but there was just a vacant grin. He wasn’t being cruel to her; he was just cruel.
“Here,” she said and handed him the note from out of her shoulder bag. It was in a family-sized plastic ziploc. Hank took it and said,
“Good work, Chief. Might be fingerprints. See that on teevee?”
He slipped his reading glasses out of his breast pocket, scanned the letter.
“Who’s the J of I?”
“‘I told you this one would hurt,'” he read. “What does that mean? What does ‘I told you’ mean?”
This was the part Flower Childs was not looking forward to. She reached into her shoulder bag and produced two other notes, also in ziploc bags. Chief Paraffin never stopped smiling.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
Cannot Swim stood before the printer’s shop, staring in the window. First, he stared at the window–the Pulaski did not have glass–and then inside where a thin man arranged blocks on a tray and fed them into a stamping press. He tried to make sense of what his eyes were shouting at him, but he could not even guess at the purpose of the machine. He could smell the grease over the stink of the Whites, it was a high-pitched smell, and Cannot Swim felt his balls tighten and his cock wither. There was no purpose he could see. The moccasin, the kotcha, the hearth, even the rifles Talks To Whites brought back for the Pulaski to hunt with: these were obvious objects; their intent was blatant. But this? The man strained against a wheel, horizontal, and there was another scent, fruity and full, and the man noticed Cannot Swim watching and nodded his head, and Cannot Swim did not know to nod back, so he didn’t and then his cousin pulled at him by the elbow.
“You were supposed to come in the store with me.”
“What is this?”
“Please don’t wander off. If you wander off, you’re gonna get killed. Or get me killed. Whichever.”
“Tell me what this is.”
“It’s a <printing press>,” Talks To Whites said, the last two words in English.
“I can’t translate it. This is where they print the…uh…ah…<newspaper>.”
Two Blacks in overalls passed by on the wooden sidewalk. A White man with a reverend’s collar, drunk; a White woman with a clean face and a petticoat, high. Talks To Whites took his cousin by the shoulder and moved him as close to the building as they could get.
“Why do you keep saying words in the White language to me?”
“Because there’s just no translation for <newspaper,> dude. We don’t have <news> and we don’t have <paper>.”
“You’re so unhelpful.”
“They write their words down. They draw their language. Little drawings for each word and some Whites paint them on something called <paper> and the other Whites look at the drawings and understand the words.”
Cannot Swim chewed his peregrine leaf and thought this over.
“How do you say it? <Newspaper>?”
“Close enough,” Talks To Whites said. “C’mon.”
A Chinese man humped a burlap sack past them. Wagons chained to horses much more impressive than Easy Life rumbled past, laden with trunks and bearded Whites holding rifles. There were dogs in the street, scrawnier and dirtier than the dogs the Pulaski kept. It had not rained in weeks and the dust was mostly shit. Talks To Whites pulled his cousin into Watts’ Dry Goods.
The Cenotaph. The fucking Cenotaph. Good for training puppies, Flower Childs thought. Movie listings. Sometimes, there were coupons for free egg rolls at Yung Man’s. Other than that? Fuck the Cenotaph right in its rowdy asshole. How dare they. How dare he, she corrected herself. Iffy Bould, that corpse with a nicotine habit, he was the one who wrote this horseshit. Utter horseshit. Didn’t matter that it was true: horseshit.
Chief Paraffin had called Iffy seconds after Flower Childs had left his office; he started dialing while she was walking out, only to be interrupted by Officer Zander with the news that Bunny Browley had escaped from the bathroom via the window and that she had taken the toilet with her.
“Well, go find her.”
“Right, chief,” said Officer Zander.
Then he re-dialed the Cenotaph. That motherfucker.
FIRE FREAK! AUTHORITIES AFFIRM ARSONIST! in 72-point type, and under that was the story of the notes left at the fire station, and the story of how Chief Childs had not brought those notes to the police until someone died–a hero, a trailblazer, a Town Father–and the story of the police working the case as diligently as possible. Chief Paraffin had covered his ass handsomely.
Flower Childs was at the station before dawn. She snuck out of the bedroom without waking Lower Montana, grabbing her clothes and dressing in the living room. She carried her boots outside onto the porch; when she closed the front door behind her, she held the knob open and released it gently. Then, the key. She took the three steps down to the path in one step.
Past the station on her right. She was walking west and so saw just blackness in the sky in front of her, but there was purpling in her peripheral vision. Right onto the Main Drag and then she walked north. Joggers passed her, and drunks, and men in ties who had oddly-timed jobs. Waitresses in their sneakers. The Tahitian was ahead, and she turned right onto Gower Avenue. Omar was not yet at the Broadside Newsstand, but the morning papers were; Flower pulled a flick-knife from her pocket and cut the twine on one of the packages. Took the top copy, left a buck for Omar on the register. Read the headline as she walked away.
The bar at the Morning Tavern was wallpapered with the paper, and every booth in the Victory Diner had a copy. The stevedores and fishmongers from the Salt Wharf washing down breakfast burritos with bottles of Arrow beer in Anatoly’s American were reading passages to one another. The Paperboy Brigade lit out as the sun rose, and the Cenotaph plopped onto doormats and stoops. The vending machines on the Main Drag were filled, and then immediately emptied for the price of one paper and resold at a discount. The news swept through the neighborhood just like the fires that the news was about.
Fires were one thing. Little Aleppo had always burned, and would again. Locals knew that. You had your plans, and the Lord had His chemical reactions; sometimes they quarreled. Locals knew that. But a firebug was something different. Something intercontextual, and no one had the words to translate it, so everyone was scared, but fear is supposed to be fleeting and when it sits too long on your shoulders it turns to anger. The fire had come for the Jews and the gays and the intellectuals, and locals knew their poetry. They knew the next line, and so they knew what would happen when the fire came for them, and so they were scared and angry. The Main Drag was snarling and hunched and distrustful and more heavily-armed than usual, and the options were meeting or riot, so the Town Fathers voted (3-2) for a meeting, which would be held at The Tahitian tonight in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.