In the Verdance, where everything grows, there is a Hand. Ten feet long from fingertip to the base of the palm, and set smack in the middle of the park right next to the main path through it, which was called the Thoroughfare. The Hand was made of bronze, and the side of the thumb that ran alongside the Thoroughfare had been polished shiny by decades of passers-by rubbing it for luck. Upturned, welcoming: the Hand beckoned you and reached out like Adam straining for God’s touch on that ceiling in Italy. Children swung from the pinky, and teenagers fucked in the palm, and grown-ups gave the thumb a stroke or two hoping for Providence to take notice on their way to put a dollar on the Mother Mary. College students on acid would make plans: if we get separated, meet at the Hand. Draculette had done a photo shoot up there, pretended it was King Kong. Couples got married under the ring finger.
On average, the Hand was sold twice a week by conmen. The Town Fathers put up a sign warning people not to buy the Hand, that it wasn’t for sale, but the conmen just incorporated it into their pitches. (“That sign’s just for the rubes. It’s to scare off the little fish.”)
Harper T. Harper had bought the Hand for–no, not bought, nothing so pedestrian: he had bequeathed it to–Little Aleppo when he returned from making his fortune in the Congo; he would tell anyone who would listen that the statue was a replica of his hand, but that was a lie: Harper was a stubby, wide man with stubby, wide fingers and so the artist had used one of his friends, a concert pianist with elegant fingers, as the reference and just told Harper that he was the model. He would hold his hand up next to the Hand, and demand whomever he was speaking to acknowledge the likeness. They always would. Little Aleppians know instinctively to lie to the rich and powerful.
Leaves fell on it in the fall, and the summer sun baked it to where it burnt flesh in the late afternoon; the statue would expand and contract a full glove size with the heat and cold.
“I don’t think PHWOO this is a good plan,” Stuart Brand said, and palmed the joint as the mom with a stroller walked by. Violet Violence stuck her tongue out at the baby and thrust out her hand for the joint.
“Suck my dick. Gimme.”
Stuart gave her the joint and wondered about his taste in friends. His hair poofed out unfortunately, and he wore shapeless, grey, canvas shoes.
“Why are you a pussy, Stuart? Where action meets ideology. Right? PHWOO You said that’s where you live,” she said. “The intersection. You said that in your fucking smart guy voice. ‘I live at the prattle.’ Remember that?”
“Fucking whatever!” Violet walked faster, ahead of him so that he was rushing to catch up and she had control of the conversation again. She didn’t know why she put up with Stuart. All he did was read, and no fiction. Philosophy. Symbology. Entheoneutics. Autodidactics. And Hunter Thompson. Violet had met some boys in college who didn’t read Hunter Thompson, but only because they didn’t read anything at all.
They walked past a couple on a bench. They were breaking up: he was trying not to cry; she was trying not to laugh.
“It’s a good plan, Stuart.”
“It’s direct action,” Violet said; hit the joint again; PHWOO; handed it to Stuart. “Direct action. We’re like Martin Luther King.”
“Leave him out of this.”
“This is what Martin Luther King would have wanted. He would support us, Stuart. What’s the difference between the fucking lunch counter sit-ins and what we’re gonna do? It’s direct action. Direct fucking action. You see a wrong and you deal with it. You fucking deal with it DIRECTLY,” she yelled this last part at him, and several squirrels stopped gathering nuts to look at her.
They were walking south, and on their right was where the Pulaski were all buried; they did not know that.
“Whose neighborhood is this? Does it belong to the people who fucking live there or to some asshole who fucking swoops in with his fucking money? Do we not deserve a fucking VOTE, Stuart?”
Violet was getting louder and gesticulating wilder. He snatched the joint from her hand mid-gesture.
“Where’s our SAY? Some rich shitbird who thinks that his fucking money buys him everything he wants comes to OUR neighborhood and gets to fucking DICTATE what happens? What fucking stays and goes? Bullshit! BULLSHIT!”
She stopped on the Thoroughfare. Stuart walked a few paces before realizing that she had, and then he stopped, too, and turned around. He put his hands in his pockets.
“I just don’t know–”
“You’re never gonna fucking KNOW, Stuart,” she said. “KNOWING is for pussies. We have to DO. We need to be the change we seek in Little Aleppo.”
Violet Violence, whose real name was Melisandre Boone, was wearing a ribbed white tank top under dark-blue overalls. She took the doobie back from Stuart, and thought about changing her name again. Jen O’Cide? Guernica Prolapse? She would need a new name. Violet thought many of the world’s problems were based in the fact that we remained the same people our whole lives. Be somebody else, she thought. Choose your own adventure.
“The sky is held up by the stars,” said the Reverend Busybody Tyndale.
“The stars are buttressed by the sky,” said Peter.
Night comes on weird in the desert. As the sun sloughs off its duties, there’s a false image of the starfield in the sky–Venus shining bright and blue under the evening moon–and then the sun fucks off at last under the horizon’s skirt; the Heavens are above you, prickling and full of shine.
“The night is dangerous for man, but prosperous for the bat. The stars hold secrets for the fortune-teller, and the pagan, and the scientist, but also the moth. Cats, Peter. To a cat, night is day. The nighttime is the territory of others’. Not man, Peter. Man is a daytime creature.”
“But do we not stay up late?”
“Yes, we do.”
“And are we not man?”
“We are,” Busybody answered.
“Then man is adaptable in all ways. Adaptability is the Christ, Reverend. If the Christ is human, then He must be adaptable. This is man’s greatest adaptation. Not the thumb. Not language. Adaptability. The coldest climes, the warmest: you will find man. And thus you will find the Christ.”
“Gotta go along to get along.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
The two men were lying, naked, by the Jeremiad spring. It was growing colder rapidly and they would soon need to put on clothes, but for now the chill was a prickly, pimply, pleasure; their goose bumps postured and plumped; vestigial coats of fur, long abandoned, puffing and protecting the men from the Low Desert’s dangers. They lay in a straight line next to the spring; the crowns of their heads touched. Peter was six feet tall, which was large for those days, and broad in the shoulders and chest. His wrists were thick. Busybody was around 5’2″, which was small even for those days, and scrawny by nature. He was very pale, and even though the Pulaski women stuffed him with food every night, his ribs were still visible.
But they had the same hair, kind of. Peter had been born a Pawnee. He didn’t remember much. The lodge, huge in his mind. His sister during a winter storm. His mother had a crooked front tooth. In his next memory, he is in a white man’s school, and he is wearing hard shoes and his hair had been cut very short. When Peter left what he had been told was his home not too many years later, he let his hair grow back out and never cut it again. Busybody Tyndale, on the other hand, was a reverend. A man of God, and is not cleanliness next to Godliness? Never during his travels through America did Busybody get too scruffy: the first stop in any new town was the barber’s, and if he did not have the money for the cut and shave, then he would sweep up and do chores to pay. He insisted for a time on keeping clean-cut after reaching the Pulaski village, even though no one had scissors; Peter did it with his knife and he did an even worse job than you might figure. Eventually, and after much chewing of the Peregrine leaf, Busybody stopped caring and let his hair grow. Both of them wore loose ponytails secured with leather ties.
“Do we tell them?”
“Who?” Peter said.
“Everyone. America. Everyone. About the Christ. About His infinicy. About the sanctity of all souls, and that all that exists has soul. Do we tell them about the specter of soul? That the Animists, heathens though they were, were correct and that all things live? The spring lives and contains the Christ, and that which contains the Christ is the Christ.”
Busybody pointed towards the spring, which emptied into a pool shaped like the symbol for infinity. The earth’s water, the deep water, the water under the water: it bubbled up from subterranean cisterns, aquifers left from the last continental shift and forgotten about by the mountains, clear and cool and stars reflected off the surface. They twinkled in the sky, shimmered in the water.
“Shall we alert the press? Contact the White House? The authorities must be notified. The serious people, Peter. The serious people need to know about the Christ. The newspapers say that they’re Christians, but they clearly do not know the Christ.”
“They do not chew the Peregrine leaf.”
“And they murder and steal. And they consume. Dig. Carve. Oh, so much carving. Man from earth. Man from woman. Man from Christ. All carved up and claimed. Mine, mine, mine.”
“Do you know how you can tell a serious person, Preacher?”
“Their clothes are uncomfortable.”
Busybody laughed and said,
“Then we must be the least serious people in the country.”
It was almost totally dark now in the Low Desert. The Milky Way was a smoky highway across the sky, smudgy with vague barriers, and crackling with light-brown and purple off-ramps to the Outer Worlds.
Penny Arrabbiata had mapped them all. The Cowcatcher Nebula and the Aquiline Variable. Wandering black holes screaming through the Oxbridge Quadrant. She wondered about the worlds sucked up: there was no infinite, infinity was some speed freak mathematician’s jerk-off dream, but there were so many, o so many, and surely anything that could exist did, and surely anything that might happen would, and through the 100-inch telescope of Harper Observatory, she saw all; sometimes she wondered about the lives of whomever was living on those planets orbiting those faraway stars, but not for long. Whatever she might think, whatever conclusions arrived at about aliens: all just fiction. Speculation, and not fit for a scientist. Little Aleppo had enough novelists, Penny thought. Let them make shit up down in the Morning Tavern. She dealt in the provable: helium ionisation kappa mechanisms, Manseur’s Constant, massive baryonic objects.
The telescope was pointed towards the Ophiuchus constellation. The Greeks thought it was Laocoōn; the Romans, Asclepius. Doomed either way, Penny thought. Never make the gods take an interest in you. The gods do not fight fair. The gods send snakes. No, she thought as she took a sip of coffee from a white mug that read HARPER OBSERVATORY: WHERE THE STARS SHINE in blue and yellow letters. Not snakes. The gods send lawyers. Much worse.
Harper Observatory was built around a 100-inch telescope that, for a while, was the biggest on the West Coast. He wasn’t the king anymore, but he could do the job. (Penny tried not to anthropomorphize the ‘scope, but it was just so damned dick-shaped.) At dusk, the two metal lips on the hemispherical outbubbling opened–almost silent–and the sky was reflected in the polished glass, and flipped, refracted, amplified and enhanced, and then shipped down wires to the screens in the control room tucked into the outer wall on the ground floor. There were computers in there, and a little plug-in heater, and a tiny bathroom, too. Penny hated it in there.
She liked the Prime Focus. That was where the eyepiece was. It was still a telescope, no matter how overgrown, so it had an eyepiece that you could wedge yourself into and give the universe the old hairy eyeball. 80 feet up by a narrow utility staircase. Above the calibrated cannon of the ‘scope, in a cylindrical chamber ten feet in diameter and exposed to the elements when the doors opened. Circular bank of instruments in the middle, and screens and wiring and piping tattooing the outer walls. One chair, no bathroom. Metal grated floor.
And the stars.
You had an eyepiece–you looked into it, physically pressed your ocular socket into the hard plastic–and a joystick with a button on it. Like a video game. What are you looking at? The Ursa Major Moving Group or the Barnard Nebula? Focus, focus. The viewer has a crosshatch on it. Line it up like a sniper. Curse the clouds. You have it? Then press the button, and the building will respond: the great dome of the Observatory would, when commanded, rotate in precise accord with the movement of the sky. Smoothly, so you wouldn’t know until the sky pinked and you were facing the opposite direction than when you began your night. A woman named Anthema Proff had written a novel set in a fictional version of Little Aleppo that featured the Observatory, and she had used the silent swiveling as a metaphor and a theme: how you can get all turned around without knowing it. That happens to people sometimes. The book was called Up and Down Skyway Drive, and it won several awards. Peggy didn’t read it. What use was fiction when there were Blue Stragglers?
Ophiuchus is not ten stars like the Greeks thought. The Greeks didn’t have 100-inch telescopes. There are tens of millions of stars in the segment of the sky our benighted ancestors described via myth, and things much weirder than stars. Globular clusters. Dwarf spheroidals. Spiral Hexologens. Bok globules. Blue Stragglers were stars, just stars, but out-of place in context. They were too massive and too blue: stars have a sequence, they age just like we do, and for where these freak stars were, they were too young. Misfits. They should not have been there. Wrong place, wrong time. They didn’t make sense, and yet there they were: twinkling, and ready to receive wishes. There are billions of stars in the sky, and some of them are not where they are supposed to be.
Penny Arrabbiata was wearing long johns under her flannel shirt and jeans. Peacoat from the army/navy store and wool hat, too. Cold at night with those metal lips opened up to the heavens. If she were immortal, she’d never leave. Let the Main Drag burn and rot and disappear, leave the mainland for the buffalo and grass; all she wanted was her telescope and the sky. And glorious night. One more perfect, silent, pitch-dark night under the stellar eaves just like the first night in her backyard with her father, who named the sky for her. Penny did not believe in God, nor would she admit to praying, but she still did: one more cloudless night, Lord. My work is not done, Lord. Why did You assign me the task if You won’t give me the time to finish it, Lord? Take my days, take all of my noons, and leave me with beautiful midnight, Lord. Take the time I don’t need and give it back to me, You bastard. You utter bastard. Give us minds to contemplate million-year time spans, and give us bodies that wear out in less than a century. You motherfucker, You think You’re funny, don’t You?
When the sun butted in, she would sneer and raise her middle finger. Fuck you, buddy. Who invited you? Boring G-type. I see you every day she thought, and with familiarity came loathing. Yellow bully-boy. Penny Arrabbiata had brought two thermoses up the Prime Focus. One had been full of coffee at the beginning of the night, and one had been empty. Now, one was empty and the other was full of used coffee. She stepped carefully down the metal stairs to the main floor; there was a tallboy of Arrow beer waiting for her in the fridge, and maybe she would watch the sunrise, maybe not. Saturday was rising over the neighborhood, an invader from the east, and God only knows what the weekend will bring in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.