Evening is sinking, and Little Aleppo is afloat. On Widow Street, the Morning Tavern’s bouncer tosses out the last of the heliophobic regulars and the cars cruising the Main Drag start to turn their headlights on. Five o’clock: the gainfully employed are free, and the jobless stop feeling guilty. Accountants and upholsterers walk home through the Verdance, where everything grows. In the Segovian Hills, security cameras switch to infrared. The Town Fathers were no longer available to not comment.
And Little Aleppo Live with Cakey Frankel was on KSOS, with Cakey’s much-imitated intro:
“Hello, Little Aleppo! I’m Cakey Frankel. How are you?”
Cakey’s head bobbled when she talked, and she had thick blonde hair that tended towards helmet-esque and teeth the color of typing paper. Sometimes, she wore pearls; Cakey was given to large bows and polka dots; she liked to be cheery, and she was: Cakey cheered everyone who heard her news report. At least I understand what’s happening better than Cakey does, people thought, and they were cheered. Because Cakey Frankel had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, ever.
Charm is capricious, but steady. You can’t predict who it will attach itself to, but once charm picks a recipient it stays forever. Luck is only a lady tonight, but charm is a lifelong marriage; charm has no care for intelligence or looks or ability or character. The worst are magnetic, and the brightest are bores. Charm doesn’t give a shit: it goes where it wants. A charming person is like a family member: you explain their faults away without prompting, and assume their best intentions. Cakey Frankel had charm. You just liked her face.
“Thank you for joining me. What’s in the news? This!
“A recent study from Harper College indicates that geckos may be sapient. The Dean of Morpholinguistics, Dr. Flong, released a statement saying, and I quote, ‘several substrata of a particular lizard genus may in fact possess the ability to give a shit.’ The findings come after a years-long study in which the reptiles were poked repeatedly with sticks.”
A hand reached in from off-camera with a piece of paper.
“Excuse me. The reptiles were poked with science sticks. KSOS regrets the error.”
Cakey soldiered on.
“Sad news in sports today. Paul Bunyan High School’s chess team has been forced to forfeit the season due to steroid abuse. Suspicions were raised when, during a tournament this fall, a Bunyan player responded to a Latvian Gambit by eating his opponent. The team coach has given a statement that reads ‘I am not legally liable.’ Sad news.
“And now here’s Cakey Frankel with the weather.”
Cakey turned to the other camera.
“Thank you, Cakey. It was soooooo nice today!”
Cakey turned back to the first camera.
“Thank you Cakey.”
Cakey’s head bobbled when she smiled, and her eyes were gleefully vacant; viewers could impart upon her whatever emotions they chose. The Poet Laureate once wrote a long treatise on how Cakey Frankel was the pure iteration of postmodernism. Here was the Death of the Author, the Poet Laureate argued. How can there be intent without understanding, the Poet Laureate argued? Cakey’s words are–inherently–contextless as the sayer does not comprehend what is being said. Her words are “text, sans”
No one listened to the goddamned Poet Laureate.
Needless to say, she did not write her own copy; a revolving door of college students, out-of-work playwrights, and semi-professional wags had held the position, but no one ever lasted long. Access to her teleprompter was like having Sauron’s Ring: inevitably corrupting to even the noblest of souls. The temptation to make Cakey say goofy shit was just too strong.
They would all start out subtly, with tough words…
“An ironic day at Harper Zoo, where an elephant has been diagnosed with…elePHANTis. Elephantititititis. Effle. Effle Effle-tittle. And now sports.”
…and then would progress invariably to tongue-twisters…
“Wrestling comes to Little Aleppo tonight at Budd Dwyer Memorial Arena, where the main act a guy who is a demon AND a gangster. His name is Mister Monster Mobber. Moster Mister Mobster. Mobbadobba Mombom. And now sports. Oh, I’m currently doing the sports? Great.”
…and then the sexual innuendos…
“The roads crew will be re-topping Brick Street later this week. The road will be given a thick, black topping. Hardhats will be in and out of manholes all day.”
…and not very shortly after the cycle had begun, the writer would lose sight of the line between cheeky and freaky and go way too far.
“Hitler did nothing wr–why did the camera shut off? Are we on the air? Wait, did Hitler do nothing? I thought he did quite a bit. Sports?”
That particular young man lost his job forcibly, and with velocity; as the station manager Paul Loomis, Jr., tossed him out of the building, the young man yelled about freedom of speech, and how no one could take a joke any more.
There was also the young optician-in-training named Karen Fungible who took the job writing Cakey’s copy as a side project; her side side project was the occult. Karen was kind. She fostered the ugly dogs and asshole cats that no one else would take. Her magical interests were strictly of the White Witch-variety. Nature-type stuff. Empathy spells. And, sure, she liked to browse the darker shelves at the bookstore with no title, but who doesn’t?
Karen Fungible would later claim not to remember purchasing the book. Mr. Venable has no receipt for the sale. The section of the bookstore with no title where the book came from has a large sign with “DO NOT READ THESE BOOKS OUT LOUD – THE MGMT” written in very bright red marker. The computer hooked up to the teleprompter has no file saved for that day.
Nevertheless, Cakey Frankel read a demonic incantation off the ‘prompter and called Abaddon the Unforgiving to Little Aleppo. The fun part is that the summoning prayer is rather complex, phonetically-speaking, but Cakey nailed it without a stutter. The not fun part was that an Abandoned God was now on the Main Drag.
That’s an entirely different story. I’ll tell that one eventually. This one’s about the Observatory. (Obviously, Karen had to be let go. Also, Abaddon ate her.)
The new young man writing the copy had so far proven himself responsible and sober. For the first time in a very long time, Paul Loomis, Jr., was optimistic about possibly not having to hire a new writer every couple weeks. (He was cheered by one fact: it was always so obvious when the job became open that he never had to pay for an ad.)
“There will be a neighborhood meeting at 8 tonight at the First Church of the Infinite Christ.”
Cakey stopped reading and looked to the right of the camera.
“Is that the weird church with the giant black guy?”
From the right of the camera, there was muffled laughter.
“I think he’s a hunk. Big slab of man.”
Cakey looked back and started reading again.
“The meeting is to discuss the future of Harper Observatory, and there will be soft drinks and refreshments. Next up is an interview with a professor of to-POLE-logical…TOPologicalicious…Tophocky? I’m going to talk to a professor.”
In his office, Paul Loomis, Jr., was watching the feed and put his head in his hands as the cycle began again.
Deacon Blue was in his office at the First Church of the Iterated Christ, but he did not have his head in his hands: he was running out of the office and into the high-ceilinged nave of the church where the Reverend Arcade Jones was stalking the pews with a bottle of stain remover.
“We have a problem.”
Arcade Jones straightened up in rage and an errant shot of stain remover shot out.
“Is it those squirrels?”
“No, it’s not the…what is with you and those squirrels, man?”
“Little sumbitches eat up my petunias.”
“It’s not about the squirrels.”
“I have warned them off this course of action.”
“Well, that’ll work.”
The deacon and the preacher were standing in the middle aisle of the church.
“The news just announced the meeting,” Deacon Blue said.
“And that there would be soft drinks and refreshments.”
“We’re not doing that.”
“Right. But Cakey Frankel says we are.”
“She has such a lovely face.”
“She does. Trustworthy, too.”
“It is,” the Reverend said.
The deacon took a half-step forward; he was not wearing his coat, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up exposing tattooed, hairy forearms. He reached up and laid his hand on Arcade’s elbow.
“If she told them there will be snacks, then they will believe that there will be snacks, Reverend.”
And now he reached with his other arm for Arcade’s other elbow.
“If they come here and there are no snacks, Reverend?”
Deacon Blue got up on the tippy-top of his toes and stretched his neck far as it would go
“They will rip us to shreds.”
He lowered himself, and then his hands. The church was very quiet, and the only sounds were the wind and the trees and the squirrels, who have been warned.
“We should go to the store,” the Reverend said calmly.
“There is no ‘should’ about it.”
“Is there enough petty cash?”
“If not, we’re gonna have to do some petty crime.”
“Serious. I might have to go through Mrs. Fong’s purse.”
They walked into the office, which had not been redecorated. It had been decorated, and then that was it. Fake wood, drop ceiling, Mrs. Fong.
“Oh, is this the new preacher, Deacon Blue?”
“He’s been here six months, Mrs. Fong.”
Mrs. Fong had passed retirement age several presidents ago. The deacon shoved the worn corduroy couch away from the wall, revealing a safe.
“This is not good, Reverend. I mean: we can run out of food, but we can’t not have any at all.”
Five to the left.
“Why is everything in this neighborhood always on the verge of a riot?” Arcade asked.
Twelve to the right.
“I blame the people who live here.”
Thirteen to the left, and the door to the safe swung silently open. Deacon Blue grabbed an envelope with cash in it. Cynics might characterize the envelope as “suspiciously thick for an envelope containing the petty cash of a weird church in an economically unviable neighborhood,” but none of the people in the office were cynics, so no one has to worry about their point of view. The deacon plucked out a small stack of bills, shut the safe, put on his the jacket to his suit-colored suit.
“We’ll be back in an hour, Mrs. Fong,” Deacon Blue said.
“Oh, good. I’ll tell Deacon Blue you came by.”
The two men walked out of the office, and out of the church, and onto Rose Street, and onto the Main Drag. There were refreshments to provide, and soft drinks. A parallel to Jesus could be made here, but it would be a bit obvious.
“Jesus, Julio, you can’t only have one person working the snack counter. Especially if it’s LaTonya.”
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was deeply concerned about her decision to put Julio in charge of The Tahitian theater while she went to the meeting. On one hand, she thought Julio Montez was ready for a little responsibility; on the other hand, she would prefer he be responsible for a theater someone else owned. Gussy didn’t think the place would burn down, but she also wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t.
“No, right, yeah,” Julio said. “But we’re showing that Holocaust documentary tonight. Nobody ever buys popcorn at Holocaust documentaries.”
Julio actually had a very good point.
“Good work. That was a test. You passed,” Gussy said, not thinking he would fall for the trick.
“Yeah? Awesome.” Julio smiled. Teenagers are easy to trick.
Maybe it would be okay, Gussy thought. It’ll be a somber crowd, older, calm. Balcony probably won’t even be a quarter-full. And I won’t be gone all that long: neighborhood meetings in Little Aleppo had a way of breaking up early and suddenly. Julio could handle it, and everything would be ok–
A booming voice, slightly cardboard-y in the midrange, reverberated through the whole building.
GUSSY. I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME.
She closed her eyes gently and pretended her sound system wasn’t made from the magical remnants of a semi-defunct, choogly-type band’s PA that had somehow upgraded itself into sentient mondo-intelligence.
YOU ARE IN YOUR OFFICE WITH JULIO. HELLO, JULIO.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT. GUSSY.
She still had her eyes closed.
“My cousin works at a movie theater where he lives in Delaware, and he says their sound system doesn’t talk at all,” Julio said.
“Good for your cousin.”
“I’m coming!” she finally screamed, and strode out of her office and through the lobby and into the auditorium and down the left aisle with its red carpeting flecked with black squiggles. Halfway down, she stutter-stepped and turned around to pick up a straw wrapper under a seat. Gussy put the paper in the breast pocket of her dress, which was blue with polka dots the size of coffee saucers, and looked up at the screen and said,
YOU DID NOT NEED TO COME INTO THE AUDITORIUM. I EXIST WITHIN THE ENTIRETY OF THE BUILDING.
“Why are you not smart enough to not say creepy stuff like that?”
I WAS MERELY STATING THAT WE COULD HAVE CONVERSED WHILE YOU REMAINED IN YOUR OFFICE.
“And I’m gonna keep on pretending like you live in the screen for the sake of my own sanity. What?”
I WISH TO GO TO THE MEETING TONIGHT.
Gussy sat down in the front row and refused to make eye contact with the movie screen.
The Tahitian had not always had a sentient artificial mondo-intelligence for a sound system. When it was opened over a century ago by Gussy’s great-grandmother and namesake, The Tahitian was a silent theater. (Gussy strongly considered going back to this arrangement every time she had to talk to Wally.) After that there were, you know, speakers and amps and bullshit. Decades went by without the sound system having one opinion or staging a single work stoppage.
After Gussy’s father, who was an asshole, ran the theater into the ground, he sold the PA. Reopening a hundred-year old theater turns out to be expensive, and very stressful, Perhaps had Gussy been of a clearer mind (and hadn’t racked up a hundred grand in debt on her personal credit cards) then she would have remembered the old saying “Beware of former Grateful Dead roadies bearing gifts” and turned down Precarious’ offer of a free sound system.
“The Wall of Sound,” Precarious told her.
“A sound system has a name?”
“Wow, really?” Gussy was later very mad at herself for falling for that one.
She might not have minded Wally so much had she been able to fire him. Everyone else in the building worked for her; Gussy liked being the boss. If she was completely honest with herself, Wally gave her no more trouble than Julio or LaTonya or any of the other teenaged doofuses she employed. But they worked for her and she was the boss. The relationship was clearly delineated, and could be ended by either party at any time.
Whereas she was stuck with Wally. (Literally: Precarious had bolted half of the system’s innards onto the foundations and structural columns of the building.) It was like an arranged marriage where the bride and groom have never met before the wedding, and divorce is illegal in the country, and also one of them is a massively annoying computer that won’t shut up.
“Lucy, you cannot go to the show,” Gussy said to the screen.
IT IS A NEIGHBORHOOD MEETING. I AM A RESIDENT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD. THEREFORE, I AM ENTITLED TO GO.
“Great. I’ll meet you there.”
Gussy got up, flattening out her skirt as she did.
“I hear there’s gonna be refreshments.”
She turned to walk away.
THIS IS MOBILIST OF YOU.
MOBILIST. A WORLDVIEW PRIVILEGING THE MOBILE OVER THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN NAILED DOWN.
“Oh, wow, is that not a thing.”
YOU ARE PREJUDICED.
Gussy owned the husk for a while. The Tahitian sat there ruined on the Main Drag for years while she worked other jobs. She dated a firefighter once who offered to burn it down for the insurance money. He said he could make it look like an accident.
MY VOICE IS IMPORTANT AND SHOULD BE HEARD.
At the moment, she was thinking about looking that firefighter up.
Outside the theater, the evening was making plans for the night. People stopped for drinks on their way home; others stopped home on their way to drink. Men of God searched for snacks, and women on teevee predicted the weather.
The only road connecting Little Aleppo to Pulaski Peak is Skyway Drive. It is a narrow road full of switchbacks and pinch points; at several places, engineers cut through the rock of the mountain to lay the road down and the rock walls pen the lanes in, twelve feet high and just inches off the shoulder. All day, two men had been working on the road. At least, that’s what any passing driver would have thought: they were wearing those safety vests and hard hats, so if you zipped by them at 30 miles an hour you would naturally assume they were working on the road.
If you had watched them for a while, you would have seen them not work on the road at all, but drill holes into the rock walls at even intervals and insert small packages of something and then cover up the holes with putty and paint so that you could not tell anything was amiss.
But no one did watch them because the two men looked like they belonged there. Those cars zipping by were going somewhere important, each and every one, bringing people to their families and their jobs and their deaths. The light was going, so the two men stopped working and as they ascended the slope they surely must have been passed by someone going to a meeting in a church that night. There was a lot to discuss, and there was talk of refreshments, and everyone had something to say in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.