Little Aleppo had been raising money for Frenchy, the World’s Sickest Boy, for almost half-a-century. In 1971, the original Frenchy was seven, cute, and terminal; the neighborhood rallied around the plucky lad and kicked in until he kicked the bucket. Almost immediately after Frenchy’s death, another boy–suspiciously also named Frenchy–was paraded around on his sickbed to drum up financial support; he looked surprisingly healthy, but no one wanted to say anything. People did start talking when Frenchy joined a Little League team, though, and cynicism set in when his illness was found to be a hoax.
Shortly thereafter, a young girl named Fawn who wore her hair in braids needed an operation; her parents did not have the money. Little Aleppo, burnt once, did nothing.
This led to the establishment of the Frenchy Fund. It was a general fund for sick kids and unlucky adults: people who had seen life’s asshole up close. Every business in town had a jar on the counter, and customers would throw in their change, counterfeit pennies and all. Being a local charity, the Frenchy Fund doesn’t have much money for graphic design and lacks a logo; instead, all of the jars have pictures taped to them of what happened to the last guy to try to steal them.
On the weekends, students from Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen) stand in the Main Drag’s intersections and wave buckets at the stopped cars for five minutes, and then they start making out with one another and forming bands; a musical number has broken out on more than one occasion. On slow evenings, the fire department wanders between cars with their boots held out and begging. If the drivers don’t give, then the fire fighters begin placing kittens in trees, and then refusing to rescue them.
There was also the President’s Day telethon, also known as the Frenchython. Every year on Labor Day weekend, KSOS would solicit donations and showcase local talent, live, for 24-hours straight. Very early in his career, Tommy Amici hosted; the results were predictable: Tommy told aggressively-phrased jokes about the bandleader’s ethnicity, and then punched the bandleader for not laughing; this was in the first hour, and things got worse from there. The next day, several large gentlemen came to the station and asked nicely for the tapes. Paul Loomis, Sr., the owner of KSOS, handed them over with a smile, as he had already made copies.
The Frenchython was kept in-house after that, but KSOS was a local station and didn’t have much in the way of a talent pool; most of the programming was syndicated reruns and semi-crappy movies. There was the fifteen minute nightly news with Cakey Frankel, and the kiddie show in the morning with Mister Hamburger.
Cakey was not the right fit for a 24-hour, improvised broadcast; Cakey couldn’t improvise. She was fascinatingly dumb, the kind of stupid that inspires wonder; not one person who had ever spoken with her at length didn’t wonder how she was still alive. How does she, say, pay her bills? Or her taxes? Or even remember that bills and taxes are things that need to be paid?
This was why Little Aleppo liked her, honestly. She clearly had no idea what she was reading off the teleprompter; residents felt it reassuring to know that the person telling them the news had as little idea what it meant as they did. Little Aleppians also enjoyed Cakey’s mispronunciations, and a popular conspiracy theory (a true one) was that the person writing the news was deliberately inserting long words for her to mangle. It was the only explanation: no local news program should see the words “anthropomorphization,” “anemone,” or “otolaryngologist” used that much. Plus there were always stories about the Monongahela River, and Little Aleppo was nowhere near the Monongahela River.
Cakey was a beloved local figure–she tipped well and remembered people’s names–but she couldn’t host the Frenchython.
Mister Hamburger hosted the kiddie show, Breakfast with Mister Hamburger, seven to nine every weekday morning. This is a crucial time for parents. They are getting the older children to school, and themselves to work. Sandwiches need to be made, and arguments to be had; the youngest need to be distracted, or they will destroy all schedule and make everyone late. The mothers and fathers of Little Aleppo had Mister Hamburger to keep the tykes’ attentions.
He was skinny, pale, and smoked on camera.
“Can sanctity be bestowed? That’s what we’re talking about, down at the nitty-gritty of the question: does man–any man–have the authority to grant sanctity to another being? Or is it earned–in decontextualized examination of action–through deed? And then, obviously, we’re broaching on the topic of worth. Can one decontextualize worth from cultural value? I don’t know, man. I just don’t know. I know Spinoza doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, but I don’t know what I know.”
And then Mister Hamburger would raise his right arm, which had a cow puppet on it.
“Oh, look children: it’s Flipper T. Gibbet the Cow. Hello, Flipper.”
“Moooo. All of your dreams will turn to ash in the mouth of time. Mooooo.”
No one could precisely explain why the littlest Aleppians enjoyed Breakfast with Mister Hamburger so much. In fact, no one could even vaguely explain it. The kids loved him, but Mister Hamburger was not the presence you wanted on a telethon. He would almost certainly go off on an hourlong lecture about intrinsic value vs. assigned value, with tangents about the meta-ethics of capitalism, and forget to ask people for money. Also, he had refused to do it.
Which left KSOS’ Horror Host, Draculette.
The advertising rates for a teevee station, even a little local one like KSOS, are assigned to six-hour blocks. The six p.m. to midnight block was the most expensive block, and then six a.m. to noon, and then noon to six p.m. Midnight until six in the morning was the cheapest, and because KSOS was so little and local, the station could not afford to show any syndicated sitcoms or real movies. The smart financial move would be signing off at midnight.
But Paul Loomis, Sr., knew there was an audience out there, the late-nighters and nervous knitters, all those lonely folks drunk in front of the set. He did the math, and figured out that if you didn’t pay anyone but the people the unions forced you to pay, then a profit could be made from that midnight to six block. He acquired a large cache of old, terrible films and hired the very first Horror Host, The Frightening Alex.
“Where the hell did you get these movies from?” The Frightening Alex asked after he had accepted the job.
Paul Loomis, Sr., slapped him across the face, hard.
“That’s what fucknuts get. Are you a fucknuts?”
The Frightening Alex was not used to being slapped by teevee-station owners.
“No. You’re not. Now get out there and dance, monkey-boy.”
Paul Loomis, Sr., was an aggressive man, but his son Paul Loomis, Jr., was a passive-aggressive one, which is why he was hiding in his office while Tiresias Richardson yelled at him.
“I am not your monkey! 24 hours all by myself!? ABSOLUTELY not!”
“Read your contract,” came a small voice from inside the office.
“We don’t have a contract!”
“We have an agreement!”
“It’s for the kids!”
Tiresias stormed back to her dressing room. Her cameraman, Bruiser, had tried to be nice and bought her a star for the door, but he bought a six-pointed one instead of five. Tiresias hung it up anyway and called the place Masada. It had been an office, but there was a bathroom with running water so it would do. On one side was a ratty blue couch; on the other, the makeup mirror with all the lightbulbs like it was having a dozen good ideas at once. The Draculette costume was hanging from a clothes rack, and Big-Dicked Sheila was lying on the floor.
“It’s for the kids, Tirry.”
“Draculette is for the children. I’m not doing it. Why are you on the floor?”
Tiresias sat in front of the makeup mirror.
“Why are you in front of the makeup mirror?”
“I need to do my makeup.”
“And I need to lie on the floor.”
The dozen lightbulbs, three sides of a square, came on FWOP and Sheila rolled over the other way. Her left eye had a tiny blood river running through the white, and she put her hand up in between the light and herself.
“Did you go in today?”
“To the shop?”
“Yeah, where else?”
“Franco covered all my clients. Place runs itself.”
“Nothing runs itself, sweetie. You’re not even running yourself lately. AHHHHHahaha!”
Sheila’s lips performed the smallest actions possible that might be defined as a smile.
“I’m rallying. Was at the loft party, didn’t get home ’til noon.”
“You told me you were going home.”
“Didn’t make it. Would’ve invited you. Spur of the moment decision.”
One of the reasons Sheila loved Precarious Lee so much is that she understood him. That thing, that gotta-go, that sudden irresistible wind at his back that led him out to that damned magic highway of his: she had it, too, but more locally. A bar, or a party, or some stranger’s place. Sheila meant to sail straight, but sometimes she just got blown off course.
Sheila was going home, honest, she had said good night to Tiresias and walked south on the Main Drag towards the Downside of town, black Converse high-tops slapping against the wet pavement–it had rained–and she was wearing dark tights and a blue dress with a pleated skirt. God lived on Rose Street, she passed it on her left, and then across the street on the right was The Tahitian long since darkened and locked. Another thousand yards and there was a lake to the right that was not there any more; where the Pulaski used to fish.
Tower Tower loomed above her, a monstrosity, and she gave it the finger then both fingers. Her shop, Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk, was right across the street; she rattled the door back and forth to make sure it was locked. Shlap shlap, waffle and canvas on rain-splattered sidewalk, and Sheila passed the Wayside Inn, which was owned by Miss Valentine, which burned down in 1871 with Miss Valentine in it.
And then she wanted to get sloppy, and dance and fuck.
She was going home, honest, like she had gone home the night before and before and before, but now was not then; a wave came over her from behind, by surprise, and she needed people and a jukebox: Sheila needed to start a tab. She needed to start a fight, or have one started over her. There was a blowjob in her immediate future, and she didn’t care which side of it she was on.
The loft party on Good Jones Street had been going on for an indeterminate amount of time, but it was always three in the morning inside. On the third floor, with a bouncer that Sheila knew from way back, and then a room that swooped into the dark distance a hundred feet with the deejay booth elevated at the other end. The bar did not sell anything besides napkins, which did not require a license to sell, but the napkins came with complimentary cocktails or beer or water, all of which did require a license to sell.
Bring ’em up and settle ’em down, the deejay did, and the dance floor was a whale on the bottom of the ocean writhing with life, squirming and wriggling in the dark and from the dance floor came love, and from the dance floor came drug deals, and from the dance floor came heartbreak. And so many blowjobs. Dance floors are where blowjobs are born.
In high heels, bare feet, crutches, whatever, the dance floor hopped up and down as Sheila joined it: she danced through the crowd, and hugged her friends and took notes on strangers. She did not know who the guy was, but a friend did and showed her, so she went up to the guy, and then to the bathroom, and back to the dance floor where everything, the shoulders of the universe, got on top of her very quickly pressing down and then releasing as the disco music was so very loud and coming from inside her own skull, so she lifted her arms like all the men around her and danced.
“Get laid?” Tiresias said as she did her eyes.
“I always get laid.”
“Are you helping me, or are you just going to lay there and be smelly?”
“Am I smelly?”
Sheila sniffed at her armpit.
“Oh, yeah. Should’ve showered.”
“Yeah. Maybe we should make that a rule.”
“Suck my dick, Tirry.”
“Me and the whole neighborhood. AHHHHahaha!”
Sheila put her knees up and began to think about starting the process of standing. Tiresias was pinning up her thick, lazy curls.
“Jealous of what?”
“You need to get laid.”
“I don’t…get laid? Are we in a Porky’s movie? AHHHHahaha! I don’t need to get laid. I’m fine.”
“I have stuff going on you don’t know about.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“I’m not worried so much as I am concerned.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Sounds like it does, though, doesn’t it?”
“Mmm,” Tiresias said with several bobby pins in her mouth. Her curls went up in a pinned mass, and under a stretchy cap, and beneath the wig: becoming Draculette involved a lot of prepositions. Sheila propped herself up on her elbows and thought vertical thoughts.
“What’s the movie tonight, Draculette?”
“Knife Of The Pharaoh.”
“Ooh, mummy movie?”
“Nope. Hitler gets cloned , but something goes wrong with the process and he gets mixed up with a barracuda.”
“Yeah. And then he starts biting people at a Jewish beach resort.
“Biting? Not eating?”
“Barracudas aren’t that big.”
“That’s terrible,” Sheila said as she sat up.
“Another fine feature from Adamo Brothers Studios.”
“Never heard of ’em.”
“Join the club. You’ve never seen shit like this, never. All the production values of porn, all the energy of industrial films.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Talk to a stuffed bat and shake my tits at the camera.”
“You did that last night.”
Sheila took two deep breaths, and stood up as quickly as she could, then she smoothed her skirt and walked over to the Draculette costume hanging on the clothes rack without looking in the makeup mirror.
“I’ll quit. 24 hour telethon? I’ll quit.”
“I know what it’s called.”
“Then you should have known that the Horror Host does it.”
“Slipped my mind.”
Tiresias wouldn’t quit. She liked being famous very much, even though she was only famous when she was someone else. There was money in it, easy money, and quite a bit of attention. Tiresias Richardson was a smart woman, and she thought deeply about what she was presenting–she’d consider it art even if no one else did–and she wanted to explore the grand themes like artists were supposed to, but she also really liked being paid attention to.
And the money. Oh, the money; yes, the money, mine, the money: easy, and cash half the time. KSOS paid almost nothing–and she had to fight for the “almost”–but there was the show at The Tahitian on Saturday. Midnight show, Tiresias would get wheeled out in her Draculette costume to introduce a scary movie and tell some jokes; she negotiated 50% of the door, and she had started selling tee-shirts and photos outside.
And the endorsements. Tiresias had sold out the very first second someone asked her to, and then the next time, and the time after that. Occasionally, she would remember her integrity if the money wasn’t good enough. She had not yet sold snake oil, but then again: no one had asked her yet.
“You’ll show some movies, we’ll get some acts,” Sheila said as she took the Draculette dress off the hanger and smoothed it against her thigh with her palm. She licked her finger and rubbed it against a spot on the black fabric. Then, she smelled it.
“Are you drinking in the dress, Tirry?”
“Not drinking. Just white wine. AHHHHHahaha!”
“Not in the dress!”
Tiresias had discovered how much easier it was to be Draculette after a couple drinks, looser and flowing and she could see her stolen jokes coming a mile away and point her bullshit towards it: she didn’t have a script or a net, and Jesus she had to MAKE IT ALL UP HERSELF and fuck me if a drink isn’t just acceptable but maybe goddamned required.
She called it the pipe, that space in between abject sobriety and objective drunkenness: that twinkle the moon got when you had just the right amount of booze in you, somewhere between two and four, right in there. Too much, too fast, and you’re slopping around and dumb; not enough, and where’s the fun in that? Stay in the pipe, that’s the goal, a steady sip sip sip with the occasional glug.
“Bands. Comics. Magicians.”
“Anyone I haven’t dated? AHHHHHahaha!”
“When did you date a magician?”
Tiresias stood up and dropped her robe; she was wearing two pairs of sheer industrial-strength leggings cut off at the knees.
“The Magnificent Maxwell.”
“He was a magician?”
“You thought that was just his name?”
“I’ve been living in Little Aleppo too long to question weird names, sweetie.”
Sheila had gathered the dress up into two handfuls, and she held it out like a hoop in front of her. Tiresias put both arms up and bent over at the waist.
“Let’s do this.”
“Once more into the bitch.”
The door to the bookstore with no title opened SLAM and the bell went TINKaWHANGadingledingle across the room, skittering along the wooden floor and coming to rest against a stained baseboard. The shop cat, who had no name, went sprinting into the backroom. Mr. Venable was in his customary spot, wearing his customary suit, and he looked up.
“Venable, you’re an asshole.”
Penny Arrabbiata had grey hair–a short, sharp shock of it, spiky–and a pair of boots that rattlesnakes could not bite through. Harper Observatory was at the top of Pulaski Peak, which was the highest summit in the Segovian Hills, and though the roads had been carved a hundred years ago, the mountain was still wild. There were rattlers and tree snails and puma and horned squirrels. Officially, there were no ‘squatch left, but the officials were a couple jackasses that wandered around for a week and made their findings. Penny had been the director of the observatory for 30 years, 30 years worth of quiet nights, and she knew better. There was always a loaded shotgun by the telescope.
Penny had thought about bringing it down with her for her chat with Mr. Venable. She wasn’t going to shoot him, probably.
“You scared the cat.”
“Fuck the cat.”
“Leave her out of this.”
“Who asked you to help?”
Mr. Venable had been reading In Transit, An Autumn Memory by Roman Episcopo. It was a classic from the European post-modern school of novels, and it was told in the second person; it intended to illuminate not the author’s intent, but the reader’s. Mr. Venable figured his intent was to read a decent story, and was getting irritated with the book when Penny stormed in.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’ll need to be more specific.”
“Romeo. Officer Rodriguez. The kid who got shot.”
“Much more specific. Penny, I didn’t help you.”
She stood there with her eyes wide, and Mr. Venable looked back at her like she was a crazy person.
“So: we’re in agreement. This means you can stop yelling at me, and fix my bell.”
“You didn’t send Romeo to the Observatory?”
“Oh, I did that, yes, but you were accusing me of trying to help you. I didn’t do it to help you.”
The Harper Observatory had been built in the 30’s with New Deal money; the land belonged to a rubber tycoon named Harper T. Harper who hated FDR, and so he built the observatory in the exact shape of the White House but bigger. Also, there was the giant dome that the telescope stuck out of, but other than that: White House but bigger.
The Observatory had a 100-inch telescope, which was no longer the largest reflecting telescope in the country, but it was still a powerhouse. Penny had trained two generations of astronomers, undergrad to post-docs, on the immense machine. She had seen the interstellar flume, and discovered a nebula so fertile that the science journalists called it the “Nova Nursery.” Penny thought that was a bit silly, but secretly she liked it.
Penny did not secretly like Mr. Venable. She openly despised him.
“No one asked you to insert yourself.”
“It’s not about you, Penny.”
“Injecting your ego into things.”
“Not about you, Penny.”
“Then what’s it about?”
Mr. Venable took a sip of coffee. It had gone cold; he blamed Penny.
“In the mornings, when I walk to work. I drink my coffee and get my paper, and when I look up: the Observatory. And I know that you’re in it. So very, very far away from me.”
Mr. Venable was a little upset the cat had run off; he would have liked to have been stroking her for that last line. He smiled; Penny didn’t.
“How is young Officer Rodriguez?”
“He thinks he’s Rommel.”
“Rommel had tanks.”
“Romeo has grad students.”
Officer Romeo Rodriguez had been shot in the face on his first day with Little Aleppo Police Department; he was rather surprised to open his eyes on the Main Drag several days later. He had seen movies and read comic books dealing with this kind of situation, this ghost cop deal he found himself in, but there was no field manual and no code of conduct, and he did not know what to do with himself. Romeo Rodriguez had been a Marine before he was a cop, and the one thing he liked about the massive suck that was the Corps was the idea of a mission.
What’s the point, he wanted to know. The point of the day: what the fuck did I get outta bed for this morning, Romeo wanted to know. Marines had a mission: take the bridge, defend the bridge, blow up the bridge, something to do with the bridge. Cops, too: help the people, catch the criminals. Man with a uniform on should have a reason for wearing it, he figured. But there was no sergeant giving a briefing, no shift-commander reading out the assignments and telling him to be careful out there.
But he had been there on a field trip, unseasonably hot in May, and seen the 100-inch telescope, and on the day he died he had looked up and smiled crookedly at Pulaski Peak with the Harper Observatory on top of it like it had been for his entire life.
Office Rodriguez was dead now, but the view was the same. He decided that meant something.
“He’s fortifying the damn place, Venable.”
“Marines tend to do that.”
“This is hastening an unreasonable conclusion. The lawyers are handling it.”
“The lawyers are making copies of documents and charging you for it. Is it worth fighting for?”
She did not say anything, and Mr. Venable SLAPPED his hand on his desk.
“Of course,” he said quietly. “And if there is to be a fight, it must be done properly. The Little Aleppo way, as it were.”
Penny Arrabbiata smiled, but not with her face.
“And that is?”
“Sabotage, subterfuge, and sudden violence.”
When Penny walked out of the bookstore with no title, the bell did not go TINKadink because she had broken it on the way in. Her 1982 Ford Bronco was still idling with the keys in it, and she got in and gunned the V8 down the Main Drag until Gower Avenue, where she made a right and the streets got smaller until she hit the road up Pulaski Peak, winding and treacherous, that led to Harper Observatory that had a lovely view of heaven, and also of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.