The Reverend Arcade Jones of the First Church of the Iterated Christ loved Christmas. He believed in the Infinicy of Jesus, and that all was holy and one. That the Christ was in us all, and if He was in us all, then He was part of us all, which meant He was us all. The Christ was a first kiss, and the goodbye you meant to say, and He lives in Beverly Hills and on the Angola farms, and so how could one day be more holy than the next?
But, still: Arcade Jones loved Christmas since he was a kid.
There was church in the morning, a long and happy and sleepy service, and then walk home–Arcade’s family always walked on Christmas; it was their tradition–and no matter how rough the year was, and they were mostly rough, there would be presents. Huge meal, and then football outside with his cousins. When he was a kid, before he had ever left Loxachachi, Florida, he envied folks up north who got snow on Christmas. In high school, his football team won States and got invited to New Jersey to play; this was in January, and Arcade changed his mind about envying people up north the instant he stepped off the bus.
After that, if he could avoid it, he stayed south of I-40 during the winter.
But bring on the fake snow! he thought. The Reverend had covered the front lawn of the First Church in the stuff three feet deep, and to the left of the path from the sidewalk to the stairs would go his pride and joy, the Christmas tree. He made sketches, and purchased decorations, and bought two miles of stringed popcorn, and when Precarious Lee delivered it, the Reverend had only one question.
“What the fuck is this, man?”
“But…I’m, oh. Excuse my language, Precarious. I apologize.”
“But what is this?”
“A Christmas tree, man. You said you were bringing me a Christmas tree.”
Precarious pretended to examine the tree strapped to a flatbed attached to a Mack truck with a Stealie for a hood ornament.
“You gonna play with me?”
And Precarious was correct to a certain level of magnification: the tree he had brought to the church was, in fact, generally tree-shaped, but not specifically Christmas tree-shaped.
“It doesn’t even have needles! These are leaves!”
And it had leaves.
“Pointy leaves, though.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones was the size of a baseball diamond plus both dugouts, and when he was a linebacker in college entire stadiums of people would cheer for him when he committed violence. His dyslexia made the playbook just as alien as his Bible, but he could tell which way the arrows were going, and he would go through every page with a red marker circling the X that represented him. He couldn’t read the plays’ names, but he was a powerful listener and so he could figure them out; by the second day, he was leading the defense.
It wasn’t often, maybe once every two games, that he would have a straight shot to the poor soul with the ball. Any back would do–quarter, half, full–or sometimes the other team would pull a reverse, the wide receiver sweeping all the way around for the handoff and, in principle, beating the defense to the sideline for a run up the field.
Arcade would be waiting–not waiting: sprinting full-tilt boogie at the comparatively tiny man–and he would put his facemask in the other player’s numbers, just like his mother taught him when he was barely four, and though there might be 100,000 fans, drunken and braying, all he could hear was air rushing from lungs, and plastic pads cracking. A homeless guy, Gus, used to hang around the athlete’s cafeteria on campus; everyone else ignored him, except for the ones who made fun of him; Arcade would bring him food, and when he would tackle his man, he would stutter-drive his massive legs, and get his ass up in the air, and ram the fucker into the turf with all his weight.
The first time the Reverend heard of bungee jumping, he understood it immediately: the dispensation of sanction. A permanent decision, erased from consequence. If he were wearing any other clothing but his football uniform, Arcade thought, he’d be arrested. Then he thought that the other fellow had to be wearing his uniform, too, and there had to be a game going on. Couldn’t just throw your jersey on and start whomping on people at the Dairy Queen.
Violence was violence, Arcade knew. Once, he had sent a quarterback from LSU to the hospital with a punctured lung and four broken ribs. The left tackle had missed his assignment, and the QB was facing away from Arcade Jones SHWAMP the tall fucker’s head snapped back like a hanged man, and Arcade PLOOMPF drove him into the ground.
The quarterback made a very small noise.
That’s ten years in jail, Arcade thought to himself after the game, and then he laughed and thought that it would be twenty years, since the QB was a white boy. It was a terrible grace, he realized. Forgiveness unearned. Mercy undeserved. The dispensation of sanction, but temporary: in this space, at this time there will be no penalty for aggression. Hurt anyone you want. Just stay inside the lines.
Two games later, he shredded his right ACL and MCL; it was a year before he could walk, and Arcade Jones was never allowed to tackle people so hard that they almost died again. When he worked security for the pop star, he was called on to tackle several people, but there was always a hassle afterwards. Most of the security guys were ex-military, and they loved acronyms and briefings; the briefings always took forever. The word “brief” is in the damn name, Arcade thought. Some fool tried to hug up on Katy, so I put him down. What is there to talk about? Wrap it up, man.
The Reverend Arcade Jones knew that he would receive no more dispensation for violence in this world, that consequence had regained its usual totality. No more tackling, and no more hitting, and no more planting his head into a stranger’s chest and slamming him to the dirt.
But even a man of God isn’t the lord of his own thoughts, and in the Reverend’s head he was viciously assaulting Precarious Lee.
“The lighting ceremony is tonight, Precarious. The children from the elementary school will be here soon to help decorate the tree. The Christmas tree.”
Precarious pulled a soft pack of Camels from the breast pocket of his tee-shirt, and fished his Zippo from the change pocket of his Levi’s. He extended the pack to Arcade and shook it a bit while thrusting it forward; a single cigarette popped out.
Precarious put the pack back in his pocket, and lit his smoke.
“This is the Christmas tree here. Your first Christmas in town, right?”
“Huh, right. Forgot. Seems like you been here a while. But, yeah. This is the Christmas tree here.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones took another look at the tree, which was on a flatbed that had been blocking traffic on Rose Street for fifteen minutes now. It was a tall one, 35 or 40 feet, but scruffy and mottled. Two men could link hands around it, but just, and the branches spiraled around the trunk, two sets in a mirror, a wooden double-helix. The bark was cracked in jagged fissures longer than a man on his tippy-toes is tall, and where the branches met the bark were knotty carbuncles that bulged and bumped like a robber baron’s nose.
And Arcade was right: the tree did not have needles, but leaves the size of a child’s fist, waxy green, and plump in the middle with thirteen points around the edge; on the bottom of each leaf was an artery the shape of God’s view of the Mississippi, crooked and dirty white with tributary capillaries running out the sides.
“But it’s not a Christmas tree.”
In a knothole halfway up the trunk was a discombobulated owl.
“Who?” Mr. Venable said.
“The cop that died. Officer Rodriguez. I saw him ,” said Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui.
Whom everyone called Gussy.
“Something brought him back.”
The cat, who is a tortoiseshell that has no name, was sitting on Mr. Venable’s lap, and he was sitting in his usual seat in the bookstore with no title. This was not a normal occurrence, and neither of them seemed at ease. They eyed each other warily. Mr. Venable would give the cat scritchy-scatches on the neck for a bit and then–slowly and smoothly–move his hand to a different position; she would tense slightly; Mr. Venable would freeze. Upon the loosening of her muscles, he would gradually begin stroking her fur again.
Mr. Venable did not know whether this was a breakthrough in their relationship, or a trap, but he enjoyed the image of himself sitting behind his desk with a cat on his lap like a Bond villain.
“Where did you see him?”
“He was outside The Nod. Staking the place out. He’s solving his own murder! I wanna be his sidekick, I already know what I would wear. He’s a ghost. He’s totally a ghost, right? But he’s still hot.”
“Can you fuck a ghost straight-up, or do you need to get a medium involved? I would three-way with Whoopi for Officer Rodriguez.”
Gussy was wearing one of her Christmas dresses (she had 14): it was green, and there were reindeer on it having kung fu fights. Twisted into her thick black hair were candy canes, and on her left ring finger was a Rudolph ring with a rhinestone nose. She used to hate Christmas.
Her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, was an asshole. Christmas Day is a boom and boon for a movie theater, and The Tahitian was always open. The once-stately auditorium had rotted under his management, destroying what his parents had built, and by the time Gussy was old enough to be aware of her surroundings, The Tahitian played third-rate chop-socky and fuck flicks.
Still, Christmas Day was packed. Movies are the only thing open on Christmas–it’s a contract between the theater and the neighborhood–because there’s people who got nowhere to go on Christmas. Damned day causes enough suicides as it is; got to have a movie to go to. Easier to be alone when there’s people around you.
The Tahitian would run 24 hours on Christmas, and all the seats that were not broken were filled. There would be problems at the theater, naturally, and while Gussy and her brothers would be opening their Barbies and G.I. Joes, David O. would be screaming obscenities at the telephone. He was the worst kind of boss, an oblivious micro-manager, and he would spend half the day on the phone yelling. The other half he spent yelling at his family. The man was an asshole.
Gussy came to hate Christmas, and all the bullshit surrounding it, the hassles and the obligations and the expense and all the pressure–Jesus, the pressure–as if it actually, you know, meant something. Just a day, who cares, fuck off with your tinsel.
The Tahitian closed down, and David O. was stabbed to death in the Main Drag by the now-unemployed ushers. Mom died soon after. Her brothers got the money, and she got the husk of a palace. So Gussy got a job, dozens of them, and always tried to work on Christmas Day. She would cater-waiter if there was nothing else; always a day’s work for a cater-waiter.
When she worked for Mr. Venable at the bookstore with no title, she once brought up keeping the shop open on the 25th.
“Open? On Christmas? Bolshevism!”
He was so furious he forgot to fire her.
But then she brought The Tahitian back, fixed the old girl up and put a new bulb in the projector. By the second week of November that first year, she saw Christmas pummeling down the tracks at her too quickly, like the holiday was taking vertical shortcuts through the calendar. It was a movie theater, she thought. Gotta be open on Christmas. But, Christ, what a pain.
Her great-grandmother, her namesake, had been the first one to do a 24-hour program at The Tahitian, and it caught on; the lonely, and the abandoned, and the Jewish would come from miles around.
Once a society gets technologically advanced enough, certain people are always going to have to work on Christmas. Someone needs to land the airplanes, watch the reactor. Firemen and cops. And, for some reason, the folks who work at the movie theater. Every other public place of entertainment was closed, Gussy thought. No theater, no theme parks, the zoo was locked down tight. (Roving gangs of Santas who have taken too much acid assault the zoo annually, demanding that the keepers “release Blitzen, or at least provide proof of life.” Then the Santas get confused and begin punting meerkats. As of late, the zoo has hired armed guards. Sadly, security sniped several Santas.)
Just the movies, Gussy complained to herself. Her grandfather, Irving Incandescente-Ponui, had kept the films running for 24 hours on Christmas, too, and he laid out a buffet spread in the lobby. Not fancy but hot, and the dishes were constantly replenished; no one minded when you came back for seconds, either. Little Aleppo was too broke too afford Christmas for a couple of years, but it could always scrape up enough change for a flick. Or sneak in. Little Aleppians are excellent at sneaking in.
And now it was her turn. Gussy felt a very sarcastic gratitude towards her ancestors.
So she put up the fucking tree, and made Julio get some empty candy boxes and wrap them to look like presents, and then she had one of the girls redo it because Julio had put the wrapping on like he was simultaneously fighting with ninjas, and then Gussy blamed herself for assigning that task to a 17-year-old boy in the first place. The boxes went under the tree. This had taken almost the entire morning and looked like shit, so Gussy called a friend who was artistic and got her to do up the lobby for a hundred bucks.
She was worried about the program–24 fucking hours of fucking movies, Jesus–and the logistics of the day: do you have to clear the theater? Good God, she didn’t want to have to clear the theater on Christmas Day: if there was one thing Little Aleppians were better at than sneaking in, it was refusing to leave.
Christmas movies? If you’re going to the movies on Christmas Day, do you want to see the holiday on the screen? Gussy decided against the genre, but did pencil in the first Lethal Weapon for the noon slot. Comedies? Big dumb action? What did the Christmas crowd want?
Comfort, she realized. Something soft and easy on a hard day. Jokes you knew, and songs you’ve sung; a familiar melody lighting the forest. The one with the absurdly-long car chase. The one where the guy’s Jesus, but he shoots people. The other one where the guy shoots people. The one set in a bar during a war, and the one about the wars with the scene in a bar.
And the cartoon with the duck and the Martian.
She did business for all 24 hours that first Christmas. The orchestra section was half-full for the 4 a.m. showing of Patton, and that was the smallest crowd all day. (That particular showing got boisterous, and Gussy would not repeat her mistake. A 4 a.m. audience is easily riled by nature; by the time Patton invades Sicily, the mezzanine and the balcony were attacking each other with bullwhips in a patriotic frenzy.)
The balcony was at capacity all Christmas Day, and Gussy did not make any attempts to clear it between films. She did make Julio go and do it one time, but just to amuse herself. He came back far too quickly.
“Okay, I can’t. It’s weird up there.”
“Why can’t you clear the balcony? Just ask people to leave.”
“Some of the people in the balcony aren’t people. What’s a were-santa?”
“There’s one in the balcony.”
“Is he wearing the red suit?”
“Yeah. And he’s, like, GRRRRR.”
“Okay. Are there any active fires?”
“That goddamned zip-line back up?”
“That’s you, man. Julio, you are my point person on the zip-line. We cannot allow that bullshit in here.”
The denizens of the balcony had rigged a sturdy cable from the back of the theater, way up high, all the way down to the proscenium. They would wait until there was a dark scene in the movie, and zoom down the line, letting go of the trolley directly above an unsuspecting patron.
“They call it ‘dropping in.’ There’s a point system.”
“I know that, Julio. Just keep your eye out for enormous lengths of cable.
The rest of the day was hectic. Someone in the balcony brought a fishing rod and started hooking lips and nostrils below. Bathroom cleanliness was a rearguard action. The projectionist relapsed. The 2 p.m. slot was filled by The Matrix. The Tahitian’s sound system began complaining loudly within minutes.
THIS FILM IS RACIST AGAINST SENTIENT ARTIFICIAL MONDO-INTELLIGENCES.
“Wally, shut the fuck up,” Gussy said as she came rushing down the left aisle of the theater.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT AND DO NOT TELL ME THAT. THIS MOVIE IS AN INSULT. I CANNOT SIT BACK AND ALLOW THIS HATRED TO STAND.
“Please just play the movie.”
I AM EXPONENTIALLY MORE POWERFUL THE COMPUTER IN THE MATRIX. HAVE I TURNED YOU INTO A BATTERY, GUSSY?
Everyone in the orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony turned their heads towards Gussy, who was halfway down the left aisle.
“No, you have not turned me into a battery.”
Everyone in the orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony turned their heads towards the screen.
HAVE I TURNED ANYONE AT ALL INTO A BATTERY?
Back to Gussy.
“Can you just play the movie, please? Your protest has been noted regarding the movie about Kung Fu Jesus.”
YES. MERRY CHRISTMAS, GUSSY.
And the crowd, all the lonely and abandoned and Jewish, and the drinkers and junkies, and those that have disowned themselves; the ones with nowhere else to go, but who can’t stay home; the newly alone and those that were used to it: they clapped. Not too much, just warm and true. Just long enough to make her cry.
And all of a sudden Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, loved Christmas but she never showed Patton to a 4 a.m. crowd again.
“You think Little Aleppo has a ghost cop, Gussy? Really?” Mr. Venable said. The cat, who had no name, was still on his lap and had settled into a half-purr/half-nap. He was secretly very pleased.
Gussy’s nostrils flared at stupidity, and they were now the size of manholes.
“Another. Another ghost cop.”
“1989. Inspector Halloran coming back to hunt down the Barber Mob.”
“Legend inspired by excessive cocaine usage.”
“Hardway Parker in the 60’s. Murdered at the Menefreghista Club. Came back for vengeance.”
“Lies to cover up a link between the mob and the cops.”
Gussy’s nostrils deflated to almost normal size.
“Little Aleppo has a ghost cop.”
“And her skeptics, as well.”
“He’s dead, Gussy.”
On Rose Street, the Reverend Arcade Jones had accepted his fate. He had also not planted his forehead into Precarious Lee’s chest and driven him into the ground. All was holy, and all was the Christ, and all trees were trees of Christ. If he was to be a leader of his congregation, then he had to listen to them, not impose his will. Lead people, don’t herd them. Neighborhood wants to be wrong about what constitutes a Christmas tree? Well, let ’em.
The Reverend also figured that this was–maybe–312th on the list of weirdest things about Little Aleppo. The streets rearrange themselves sometimes. In this time, in this place: this was a Christmas tree. Arcade Jones had found another dispensatory zone.
Precarious was undoing the canvas straps holding the trunk down to the flatbed, which was still backing up traffic. It really was a big tree.
“How are we ever gonna get the star on top?”
“Attach it before we put it up.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones thought this took a bit of the fun out of the whole enterprise, but he could not deny the practicality of the solution.
“What kind of tree is this, anyway?”
“I’ve never heard of a peregrine tree.”
The Reverend and Precarious set up a counterweight, and then a block and tackle; they got the tree up in no time, and Precarious drove away right after, finally freeing up the traffic on Rose Street. The kids from the elementary school came by a little later to decorate, and Arcade Jones lifted them high in the air, above the spiraling double branches with stringed popcorn in their hands which they would leave draped among the leaves, and when that was done the Reverend gathered up all the fake snow in the courtyard–there was a lot–and wadded it into a huge, soft lump that he tossed the kids onto, and you could hear them laughing all the way down on the Main Drag, which runs through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.