Sweet noon, you magnate. You Zeus, O you zenith. Noon, you villain to shadows and harbinger of lunch. Plump and disinterested and perched to fall in the middle of the sky; noon, you think too much of yourself. Arrogant Apollo over Little Aleppo, where everything was in bright focus–overhead lighting is no one’s friend–and the Main Drag was bustling and full of itself. Housewives were doing their marketing; househusbands, too, but they did their marketing in a manly fashion: efficient, growling.
The Victory Diner was feeding the office workers, get ’em in and get ’em out, and styrofoam clamshells to go: hamburger and a soggy pickle.The stevedores at the Salt Wharf were heaving and hoeing; the whores on Eighth Avenue were mostly only hoeing, but they were more than willing to heave if you had the cash. The junkies at The Nod were being woken up by the crooks of their elbows. The protestors outside Town Hall had not yet begun to fight. High atop Pulaski Peak in Harper Observatory, all the astronomers were behind tin-foiled windows and dead asleep.
There was also a ghost cop who lived in the Harper Observatory, but he was not asleep. Romeo Rodriguez had been ruined by the Marines: he got up at dawn. He had tried the scientists’ nocturnal schedule, but found it impossible to change his internal clock. Goddammit, I’m a ghost, Romeo thought. Ghosts come out at night. He couldn’t do it; he was a daytime kind of ghost.
It was the first position Romeo had ever occupied that didn’t come with instructions. Marines had a field manual; cops had a rulebook. Sure, he thought, the practice was often different from the prescription, but at least you could get a general idea of what was expected of you. This ghost shit was a bit catch-as-catch-can for his taste. There seemed to be no chain of command whatsoever.
There were still visitors to the Observatory, even with the legal wrangling and rumors flying: little kids and stoned teenagers and couples on dates. Secretaries took long lunches once a week and made the trek up Skyway Drive, the one connecting street from Little Aleppo to Pulaski Peak, to sit on the grass overlooking the valley and pretend all their dreams came true. Romantic drunks brought their flasks and pads to write on, and painters brought canvases. A tall, skinny man with a potbelly and a ponytail came up and plucked leaves off the Peregrine trees in the crescent moon-shaped stand to the east of the peak’s summit.
Officer Romeo Rodriguez sat in a bulldozer outside the Observatory; no one noticed him. Everyone saw him, but no one noticed him. Ghosts are the refrigerator’s noise, or the air conditioner’s blowing, or the car tires’ whizzing: your brain filters it out just as soon as it happens. It takes concentration to focus on a ghost, like being aware of your heartbeat or your breath, and most people just don’t have it in them. Easier to just see a bulldozer.
Peace is the goal, right? That was the thought that circled around his head, but it orbited a second–and just as great–notion: was it peace to let yourself get fucked? To lay down, to follow orders–even when they were bullshit orders–would be the peaceful thing to do. Bending over generally brings peace, he thought. You don’t want to get fucked unless it’s on your terms. Unless it’s on your terms, well: that’s not even getting fucked, is it? That’s something else entirely.
“Peter, may I tell you something?”
“I have not been with a woman.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, were attending services at the first First Church of the Iterated Christ. A cynic might say that they were lying on a rock getting high and having circular conversations, but Busybody and Peter were not cynics–Peter was a realist, and also a Neoplatonist; Busybody was a romantic and an optimist–and neither were the Pulaski.
The Pulaski had lived in the area for hundred of years–no one was keeping a precise count–and they worshiped the owl, and the coyote, and the red-tailed hawk. Had they lived in the flat desert of the Levant and Egypt, they would have worshiped the sun and the stars; if they were from Northern Europe, they would have worshiped the forest and the storm: people worship what’s around them.
The native tribes of America were like Greek city-states: communal character shaped by geography. In the East, they formed leagues and politicked; in the Southwest, the women ran things, and the men rode horses and fought. As would be the case for years to come, things were more mellow in (what would later be called) California. The Pulaski culture had been formed in a land that did not freeze for months in the winter, nor scorch in the summer: there was always food available. It just grew! You could go out-any day of the year–and walk not a mile or two from your home, and come back with a full basket of fruit and nuts and mushrooms and berries. The lake was full of fish.
Abundance takes the edge off.
And so the Pulaski were not averse to taking in strays, whereas the Comanche tended to skin strangers. There was enough to go around, so they welcomed Peter and Busybody. More specifically, they welcomed Peter and tolerated Busybody because Peter asked them nicely to. The Pulaski called Peter “The Guy Who Came To Town And Hunts Really Well.” Pulaski names were bluntly descriptive. Their name for Busybody was “Peter’s Little Useless Friend.”
“Never?” Peter said.
“No. I have not married.”
“What does marriage have to do with it?”
“You can’t have relations with anyone but your wife!”
“I believe it’s possible.”
“It’s wrong,” the Reverend said.
“And still it happens.”
“Sex is the Christ, Reverend.”
Busybody Tyndale was so scandalized by this statement that he almost thought about sitting up.
“What comes from sex? Joy, compassion, tenderness. Life, Preacher. Life comes from sex. The most unoriginal sin of all. No babies without it. Jealousy, and heartbreak, and murder: they come from sex, too. Are these things not the Christ?”
“Then so too must sex be the Christ. To cause is to become and embody.”
“Is the Christ its own cause?”
“That depends,” Peter said.
“I don’t know.”
The leaf of the peregrina maria tree is broad and waxy, the size of a child’s hand with 13 points, and rolled up is about the size of a cigarette. The trees grew in a large stand about an hour’s walk from the village. Walk towards the sun until you hit the lake that smells weird and turn left. The women would trek out once a week and fill their flat-bottomed baskets; since Peter and Busybody had founded the First Church of the Iterated Christ, they had been filling an extra basket.
The Pulaski chewed the Peregrine leaf, one in the morning and one or two in the afternoon. The leaf was reality’s lubricant: it made everything a little smoother, made you a little smarter, faster. It is an organizing principle of the universe that everyone wants to go a little faster. But if you chomped down on the fuckers, you’d get high as shit. A lifting high, like you were two feet up from your body, and you would be going so fast that everything else slowed down and then so did you: it was a relativistic high.
“Never?” Peter asked.
“I was engaged to be married once. In Spokane.”
“I’ve been there.”
“Her name was Liesl Cowhill. I was preaching there, and she was one of my parishioner’s daughters. She was 17. I was 23, but I was very young then. I believe I might have been younger than her. She was taller than me, though. Some men, I’ve heard, don’t care for that but I didn’t mind. She was a very kind person.”
“She had an attack. We were walking down the promenade. A seizure. And she hit her head. I tried to help her, but I couldn’t. Her father said that she had had these attacks before. But she hit her head.”
The Reverend stared up at the sequoia that cast its shadow on the rock beneath it.
“And do you understand that this, too, is the Christ?” Peter said.
“Yes. But I don’t have to like it,” Busybody answered.
They lay there in silence listening for an answer, but all they heard was each other breathing. Peter sat up.
“Oh. Me, too.”
The first First Church of the Iterated Christ had been sanctified by prayer, consecrated and holy, but it was also a rock under a sequoia on the edge of a wood. The bathroom was anywhere outside a 20′ radius from the rock, 50′ if it was number two. Usually, the two walked north about a minute when they had to go: there was a trickling stream that ran into the lake, and Peter and Busybody would piss and then kneel down to get a drink. They had always gone separately, but then Busybody saw a bear and now he tagged along with Peter.
When they got to the stream, they pissed, knelt, drank.
“You ever been hunting?” Peter asked as they walked back.
“Once. My uncle took me. My father did not use any weapons, even to hunt . So, my uncle took me. His sons and me. I remember leaving very early in the morning, and I remember dawn coming through the trees. There were starlings. Do you know a starling’s call?”
“Baya-BEEya. Baya-BEEya. I recognized them because there was a bird feeder in our yard. I helped my father build it. Brave little birds, starlings. They would just look at you. You felt as thought they were regarding you in some way. Sizing you up. They must not have found me too threatening, because they never flew away. I used to practice preaching the Gospel to them, and they would say that back to me. Baya-BEEya.
“I used to pretend that was their way of saying ‘Amen.’ That the birds had understood what I had preached about.
“So that was why I recognized them. I was small as child. Nothing’s changed, I guess, but I was small. My uncle had given me a .22 rifle. I had shot it before, once or twice. It was as big as me, almost. I don’t suppose it really had much of a kick, but it felt like being punched in the shoulder by Samson. It was the only metal in the woods. I remember thinking that, and I don’t know why, and I don’t know why I remember it. It was the only metal, and the barrel was the only perfect circle.
“We were going for turkey.”
Wait,” Peter said. They were by now laying back on the rock that was their church. “Y’don’t hunt turkey with a rifle.”
“Oh, I know. My uncle had the shotgun. I was expressly forbidden from using the rifle. It might not have been loaded.”
“So, why’d you have it?”
“My uncle insisted. I think he might have been trying to toughen me up. I am quite sure he thought I was a sissy.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was small even by 18– standards, and not just short: he was slight, and had delicate features and thin wrists and ankles. He was wearing a simple black suit, frayed, with a dirty white shirt and scuffed boots. When he arrived at the Pulaski village, his clothes had just about disintegrated on him. The Pulaski gave him what they wore–a deerhide tunic and moccasins–but he looked so ridiculous that everyone demanded Peter ride to the nearest white-person-clothier and buy him a new suit and some boots.
Peter used the trip to buy himself some clothes, too. He was born a Pawnee–not that far from Busybody–but he was raised by Whites, the same ones that massacred his family and tribe. They had taught him English, for which he was thankful, and they had taught him the Bible, about which his feelings were complicated, and they had taught him about pants. Peter had tried the tunic the Pulaski men and women wore, and he did not like it one little bit. No ball security whatsoever, he thought. You’re just flipping and flopping! No, Peter thought: I’m a pants man.
But it was warm during the summer, so Peter sliced through the legs mid-thigh and then his pants were shorts, and that was all he was wearing. When he hunted, he wore his buckskin suit and boots, but he attended church with his chest and feet bare.
“We were in a blind,” Busybody said. “Cramped. All the branches and leaves on the outside so the turkeys wouldn’t see us. Well, they would see us but they wouldn’t notice us.
“We waited for most of the day. You’re not really allowed to talk. You shouldn’t even whisper, because whispering so often becomes talking. Sometimes, you’re loudest when you’re trying to be quiet. So: no talking.
“We heard him before we saw him. I remember that. Footsteps. Crinch, crinch, and then there was a big tom right in front of the window. Not 40 feet away. His neck was the brightest green I had ever seen before. I did not see that color again until I was in the Southwest and saw the large reptiles that live there.
“My uncle shot, and he was a good shot, but he did not kill it.
“We left the blind, my cousins and I. My uncle sent us to fetch the bird. He had been drinking. He didn’t want to stand up.
“There is no humanity to a bird’s eye. Just black. Just ignorant sight.
“Except there was. Just a little. Enough. The turkey was still alive. Dying, but alive. He looked at me right in my eye and I remember how green his head was. And I couldn’t help myself. I knelt down and I ministered to the bird. I reached out for his wing. I think it was broken. The feathers were greasy with blood, and my cousins laughed at me.”
“A righteous man has regard for the life of an animal,” Peter said.
“Proverbs. My cousins didn’t think I was so righteous.”
Busybody snorted out a laugh.
“Did the turkey go to use?”
“Of course. We ate it.”
“And what use will you be when you die? Or me? Buried in the ground, serving no one, helping no one.”
“The turkey did not volunteer to be supper,” the Reverend said.
“Did you volunteer to feel hunger?” Peter answered.
“I suppose I didn’t.”
“Hunger is the Christ, Reverend. Hunger, and the food which keeps it at bay. All that lives is hungry. Christ is the screaming stomach.”
“But is the Christ not also the reason with which to decide what to put in that stomach?”
Peter smiled at Busybody.
“He is, yes. I believe He is.”
“Me, too,” Busybody said.
They spit out their leaves in tandem, into their palms and then discarded next to the rock that they lay on. Busybody had rolled tight two fresh leaves; he handed one to Peter.
“Been with a woman,” Peter asked.
“Oh. No. I told you. No.”
“There’s some gals in the village that would snatch you right up.”
“No. Really? No. How do you know?”
“They told me. Definitely two, maybe three.”
“No accounting for taste.”
The sun was high as it was going to get, and so were Peter and Busybody.
Noon in the Morning Tavern looked like two a.m. anywhere else: everyone was sloppy and loud. Conversations were shouted; proclamations of love were made between strangers, to coke dealers, about the jukebox. A man at the end of the bar was trying to sell a watermelon farm; a woman in the bathroom was threatening the sink. It was the time of night–or day, technically–when the entire bar knows one another, and introductions are assumed. Couples that formed a few hours ago are slipping out the back door, having first donned their sunglasses.
Leaving the Morning Tavern without your sunglasses on was just the worst idea.
Mr. Venable was in no shape for leaving, mostly because he was dead asleep with his head down on the table. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy), Tiresias Richardson, and Big-Dicked Sheila had arranged straws in his hair rather artfully. There was also a coaster with an advertisement for Arrow Beer on it resting on the crown of his skull like a yarmulke.
“I’d still fuck him,” Gussy said.
“Tommy Amici?” Sheila answered. “Still?”
“He started a riot in your place and he’s tearing down the fucking Observatory!”
“I didn’t say I was proud of the fact: I just stated the fact.”
Tiresias was not paying attention; she was carefully tearing and folding a paper napkin.
“I couldn’t. He’s too much of an asshole. Ruins it,” Sheila said.”
“Like, every man I’ve slept with has turned out to be an asshole. Be refreshing to know upfront.”
“Are we talking about now? Old Tommy?”
“Old Tommy, young Tommy: I’ll fuck ’em all. Baby Tommy. I’ll crawl in that crib, I don’t give a shit.”
SHMARF Sheila shot vodka and a teeny, tiny bit of orange juice out her nose.
“My dad loved Tommy Amici,” Gussy said as she reached for another of Sheila’s Camels. “Played his records all the time. I think my dad actually looked up to him.”
“But he’s such an asshole.”
“So was my father!”
“And you’re fine ignoring the Freudian implications here?”
“What about the Jungian implications?”
Sheila lit Gussy’s cigarette with a yellow lighter, and then her own.
“I don’t even know what those are, so it’ll be even easier to ignore those. I will also ignore Henry James.”
“He was the novelist. William James was the psychiatrist,” Sheila said.
“No, I think Henry was the psychiatrist.”
And Sheila called out to the bar,
“Was William or Henry James the psychiatrist?”
And everyone in the room answered,
“I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong,” Gussy said and lifted her drink up. Sheila clinked it. Tiresias was still performing surgery on her napkin. Mr. Venable was making the occasional snorey-type noise.
The Rolling Stones came on because the Christ is infinite even in the Morning Tavern, and if there is a Christ then surely He sounds like the Rolling Stones in a bar at two in the morning, even if it’s actually noon. Keith went BRANG and Charlie went WHAP and the whole room lifted two feet above its body, and the bartenders blew their hair out of their face as they poured and poured and poured, and a deal was struck for a watermelon farm. Pool cues were re-imagined as guitars.
“I’m glad we sat down with you guys,” Gussy said, leaning forward and putting her hand on Sheila’s arm.
“Oh my God, me too. You’re awesome.”
“We should hang out,” Gussy said.
“But you gotta keep the Tommy Amici thing secret, okay?”
“Sweetie, you yelled it in the middle of the bar.”
“No, that was you.”
“Let’s not point fingers. The point is that it got yelled.”
“I don’t think anybody heard.”
And everyone in the room said,
Gussy tried to give the bar the stink eye, but she had lost fine muscle control of her face several drinks ago, so she just looked puzzled.
“I can’t win with these people.”
“It’s a tough room,” Sheila said.
Tiresias was absorbed in her origami.
“Can I ask you something? And, like, don’t be offended. But I gotta ask you something.”
Sheila, who was the owner and namesake of Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk, had heard this preamble before. It only led to one question, or–more correctly–one request.
There’s an old cliche that someone’s a woman trapped in a man’s body, man trapped in a woman’s body: nonsense, Sheila thought. She wasn’t trapped anywhere, except for the town she grew up in until she ran away and some old roadie in a GMC Ambassador picked her up and brought her to Little Aleppo. She liked her body, and didn’t see any conflict. She was a woman; this body belonged to her; therefore, it was a woman’s body. It made sense to her. She had met a lot of people to whom that didn’t make sense, and Sheila had run out of patience with those fuckers years before.
She would never run out of patience with her dick, though. Sheila loved her dick. If a girl’s got to have a dick, she thought, then this is the one to have: thick and heavy, both a shower and a grower with an absurdly pink head and a vein the thickness of a straw that made a lazy s-curve down the length all the way to her neatly trimmed bush. It was a Swiss Army knife of an appendage: it had made her friends, and gotten her both into and out of trouble, and it had won her bets. Sheila’s dick had made the seed money for her shop, most of it anyway.
She didn’t mind the request.
“Ya wanna see it?”
“Well, I mean, you know: your shop’s named Big-Dicked Sheila’s, and–”
Sheila was wearing a black dress with a short, loose skirt; she pulled it up ad FWUMP her dick hit the vinyl of the chair in between her legs. Gussy’s eyes widened.
“I cannot tell a lie,'” Sheila said, lowering her skirt.
Gussy tipped the rest of her drink up, and then she stubbed her Camel cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray.
“Do you smoke pot? I have pot back at my place. We could go there.”
“My place is closer and I have better pot,” Sheila said.
Tiresias had finished her napkin surgery; DICK was spelled out in paper strips on Mr. Venable’s head. She looked up at the girls.
“What’s going on?”
“Are you okay to get home?” Sheila asked.
Tiresias looked at Sheila, then Gussy, then back to Sheila.
“AAAAAAAHahaha! Yeah, I’m a big girl and it’s broad daylight out.”
Sheila kissed Tiresias, who was still laughing, on the cheek.
“I’ll see you Friday night,” Gussy said.
“Oh, you bet you will,” Tiresias answered.
Mr. Venable made a noise like phLOMpf.
Sheila and Gussy walked out of the Morning Tavern, having first donned their sunglasses, and having left a bomb ticking in the room: a piece of information wild and loose and floating up and down the bar gaining steam, and soon that piece of information left the Morning Tavern and when it did it turned right and left on Widow Way, where it rambles down to the bay and sprints through the Main Drag, where it is high noon and there are no shadows at all in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.