Tommy Amici was an old man. It happens to everyone, even geniuses and bastards, and Tommy was both. Didn’t sing much any more because he couldn’t sing much any more. No more power in the low notes, and the high ones had slipped away a half-step at a time. The words were getting tougher to remember, too. Last big shows were four years ago, the We Part As Friends tour. Tommy had done three retirement tours before that, but this one was real. Crowds jammed the stadiums–he played stadiums, 60 and 70,000 people each night–and Tommy wore his tux for them, and that was just about all he did. In between songs, he would tell his old jokes, and the audience would laugh out of duty and love, and sometimes Tommy would tell stories that would scoot around between topics until his bandleader would start a new tune and cut him. Tommy would have fired him on the spot for that kind of bullshit in the old days, but he didn’t seem to even notice now. The music started, and he sang. Perform long enough, and you can do at least one tour on sheer muscle memory.
And that was it. Tommy went to the house in Jeremiad Springs, and stayed there. The record company quietly assembled unreleased songs, and alternate takes, and live performances; waited for him to die. His children (four) and ex-wives (three) and current wife (one) eyed up the properties and secretly put estate lawyers on retainer; waited for him to die. Obituaries sat in the files of the New York Times and the Cenotaph, occasionally updated; waited for him to die.
Tommy wasn’t ready to die, though. He still owed some people. That fucking neighborhood full of weirdos, fruits and nuts the lot of them, with their fucking attitudes and ingratitudes, that fucking neighborhood where ten percent of every dollar he ever goddamned earned went. How many millions? Christ, how many fucking millions was it? He couldn’t even figure it: the ten percent was off the top, before tax and in cash, and Jesus who knows what he could have done with it. He could have been wealthy, but instead he had to settle for just being rich.
And that bitch. Hiawatha Mayflower. That little bitch. Tommy could still feel his neck get hot and tight when he thought about her, thought about that fucking telegram–a telegram!–that she had sent. How many people read it before it got placed on the vanity in front of him in the dressing room of the Menefreghista Club all those years ago? All those years. Was it years? Decades, Jesus, decades. Or maybe it was years.
He was drinking way too much. He had always drank too much, but now he was drinking way too much. The fuck else was there to do? Sometimes he would wake up at dawn, and sometimes he would wake up at noon, and then he would wander around the house making phone calls to people who were waiting for him to die. Tommy didn’t do drugs–he had fired several drummers for smoking reefer–but the doctor had prescribed Paradil to help him sleep. It was taken off the market a few years later: Paradil had a long half-life, weeks, and so if you took it for a few days in a row it would build up in your system until you were blacking in and out of your life. Sometimes he would wear his robe all day, and sometimes he would wear his tux. He didn’t know where Jacob was. Around here somewhere. Just saw him, the lazy bastard.
What had happened was realer than what was happening, and Tommy felt like he was living his life all at once constantly: he was in clubs, and stadiums, and hotel rooms, and castles, and bedrooms he should not have been in. Casinos, and trains and planes. Dressing rooms; he tried to remember one, a specific dressing room, and couldn’t: they slid into each other, but he knew there was a star on the door, five-pointed, and that there was a mirror ringed with light bulbs like it just had many ideas at once. You don’t put your pants on until you’re ready to go onstage.
Theresa was in the kitchen. He had just seen her in the kitchen. She was the one who loved him. When he was nothing, just starting out and penniless and cocky. Gap between her front teeth, and a heavy face. Put up with everything, almost, until she wouldn’t. Cara Thorn was in the bedroom. He had just seen her in the bedroom. She didn’t go in for lingerie or any of that peekaboo shit; she would lay there naked daring him to fuck her. Was that pot? Did he smell pot? Shit, goddammit, Hiawatha was in her fucking teepee again, or wigwam or whatever the fuck that thing she built out by the pool is. “Meditation space” she called it. My ass, he thought. But, Christ, her ass. His Little Bird. Sherry Amici was in her office. When they got married, she had him turn one of the bedrooms in the house into an office for her. His kids didn’t like her. Fuck ’em, Tommy thought. Ungrateful. Everybody’s fucking ungrateful.
Tommy Amici was in his office behind his desk, which had been made from wood salvaged from the Menefreghista’s stage when they tore the club down. He had told The Friend that he wanted a keepsake, but that was a lie: he wanted a daily reminder that the shithole had really been destroyed. He wanted to put his feet up on it. The desk was nine feet long, and five feet wide, and deep brown, and it was atop a hidden shim in the floor that placed it–and Tommy–just a bit higher than whoever was seeking an audience. There were three chairs opposite, oak with green padding on the seats and back and armrests.
Three? Why three?
Gloria Cutuli had worked for Tommy for 47 years, and lately she had been crying when he napped, because even the worst bastards in the world have people who love them.
She poked her head, jet-black and lacquered six inches high, in the door.
“Should I let them in?’
Tommy wanted to say, “Who?” Wanted to blow out all the air in his lungs and let it take all this fog with them, and let time flow like it used to: one direction, forward, onward, steady, unimpeded. Was Theresa not in the kitchen? He knew he had just seen her, but there were three chairs in front of his desk when there should only have been two, and so maybe his judgement was suspect across the board.
But he didn’t say, “Who?” He said,
“Wait thirty seconds and then let them in.”
Gloria closed the door behind her, and Tommy stood up and went to the bookshelf along the north side of the room. On the third shelf was a hardcover copy of What Passes for Heaven by R.D. Maindt. They made a movie out of it, and Tommy was in it. Won an Oscar. He pulled it out and the shelf went CLACK and he spun it around to reveal a full-length mirror. Tommy’s shoulders were hunched, and his gut protruded, and his neck wattled and swung. Yellow V-neck sweater over a baby-blue shirt. Light gray slacks. Splotched hands like a Appaloosa horse’s ass. Posture was fucked, too. Hip hurt.
In the mirror, Tommy was in his tuxedo, which was blacker than an orgy of midnights, and he was wearing his most youthful toupee, and there was a single spotlight on him. He was in the studio, leading the band. Couldn’t read a note of music, and still: leading the band.
He spun the mirror back, and it CLICKED into place. Sat down at the desk and rotated so his back his to the door. Waited. Door opened.
“The Reverend Arcade Jones, Dr. Penny Arrabbiata, and Tiresias Richardson, Tommy,” Gloria announced.
Tommy heard steps behind him, and then sitting, and he let the office be quiet for a moment. He loved pulling this stunt on people. Sometimes, he would count to one hundred before he turned around.
Not this time. Only ten, and then he spun the chair around and saw Cara Thorn sitting in front of him, to the right of a giant black guy and some old chick.
“Cara, baby,” Tommy said, and rose quick like a teenager, and the Reverend and Penny did, too. They both figured he was kind of the American Pope, and when the Pope stands, so do you.
Tiresias stayed in her seat; she was rubbing the green padding on the armrests with her fingers, just for the sensation, and when she looked up everyone was on their feet and Tommy was right on top of her, so when she stood up she cracked him in the chin with the crown of her head, hard, and they both went down, hard.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Penny closed her eyes and sat back in her chair.
“Mr. Amici!” The Reverend Arcade Jones stepped over Tiresias to help him up; she staggered back into her seat: the light was knifing in through the west-facing window, slashing and slicing into her optic nerves, and she squinted–was that an Oscar?–and looked away from the sun. It was only so strong here because the desert encouraged it, she thought. Very co-dependent relationship the sun and the desert have. They should get out on their own, make new friends. The sun should see other landscapes; the desert should date alternative energy sources. The top of Tiresias’ head was clanging, and she rubbed her brown hair with her fingers, just for the sensation–that was definitely an Oscar–eyeballs had the fuzzy-wuzzies and her skull felt loose on its vertebrae. Allen wrench. I need an Allen wrench, she thought, and so she asked Penny,
“Are you Allen?”
Penny put her face back in her hand and muttered, “For fuck’s sake,” one more time.
Tommy was on his feet, braced against his desk and massaging his jaw.
“She hits like Sugar Ray,” he said.
The Reverend Arcade Jones was standing over him, and while he was curious about which Sugar Ray Tommy meant, he did not ask. He had seen the look in Tommy’s eyes before: people he had ministered to, his father before the end. Knew it was counterproductive to try to pin them down on details.
“She does, yes. Are you sure you’re okay, sir?”
“Jacob, I’m fine.”
He watched Tommy for a second, watched for wobbles, went back to his chair, squeezed himself back between the armrests.
When Tiresias could focus, she saw Tommy staring. He was an old man: heavy lines tracing a triangle from his nose to the corners of his mouth, loose neck, hunched. The eyes, though. Still had the eyes. Green as the Verdance in summer.
“You were supposed to be in Rome,” he said.
And Tiresias’ improv training kicked in, muscle memory, so she said,
“I had to leave. The city has too many pigeons.”
“You walked off another set?’
“I didn’t walk. I had a driver. AAAAHahaha!”
The Reverend looked to his right and tried to catch Penny’s eye, but she had not thrown it.
“Goddammit, Cara, you can’t do that!”
Tommy walked across the room behind the desk. There was a bar under framed photos: Tommy and Mr. Smith; Tommy and Mr. Flood; Tommy and Mr. Jones; Tommy and Mr. Moon. Three Lalique crystal decanters: brown, brown, clear. Tumblers, also Lalique, with frosty owls etched into the sides. Decanter topped in a glass ball, dimpled like a Titleist, with a protruding spike into the neck of the bottle; Tommy unplugged the middle one, brown, and poured two fingers in one tumbler, and then in another. Recapped. Drink in both hands, and back to Tiresias. Hands her one.
“You’re just a mess, baby.”
“You have no idea. AAAAHahaha!”
Expensive glasses make a sound like TONK when they clink, and they both slugged half their scotch without breaking eye contact.
“Was it that director?”
“Yes, it was,” Tiresias said.
“Little queer bastard.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones leaned slowly towards Dr. Penny Arrabbita.
“I have no idea,” he admitted.
“There you go,” she answered.
It was a shrine. The office was a shrine, an ossuary with the meat still attached. His Oscar in a glass cube. Leather-bound scripts from all his movies, even the ones he hadn’t read in the first place. Pictures of Tommy with everyone you’ve ever heard of. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Platinum records.
“Mr. Amici,” the Reverend started.
“Shut the fuck up, Jacob. Speak when you’re spoken to.”
“God, you look good,” Tommy said to Tiresias.
“Me? No,” she said, putting her hand to her chest and letting a finger linger in her cleavage. “Really? No.”
“Let’s take the plane. We’ll go to Hawaii.”
“Cuba,” he offered.
“Under no circumstance.”
Tommy was alive again, and he knew where he was and when he was, and there was blood flowing to his cock at last–do you know where this cock has been?–and he could breathe: his lungs were clear and new, and no longer labored. Cara. The one that mattered. Tommy was sure she was in the bedroom, but she wasn’t; she was right here in front of him in his office drinking with him, and he knew what followed drinking. He took a sip from his scotch, and lowered the tumbler down right in front of his crotch, and watched her eyes follow. Cara. Here she was. He knew she was here. He built the house for her, so why wouldn’t she be here? Here she was. Cara.
Tiresias threw back the rest of her drink, held the glass out, waggled it.
“You’re not gonna let a girl die of thirst, are you?”
Tommy smiled, took the empty glass, and walked over to the bar. Once his back was turned, Tiresias turned to Arcade and Penny and spat in a fierce whisper,
“What the fuck is happening?’
“He thinks you’re Cara Thorn,” the Reverend answered.
“She was so pretty.”
“Focus,” Penny said.
“He thinks you’re Cara Thorn.”
“They were married?”
Couples who get married twice are couples who fuck really well, but hate each other.
“Bottoms up,” Tommy said, handing Tiresias the glass.
“Not just yet. AAAAHahaha!”
TONK went the glasses. Tommy took a sip. Tiresias drained hers. Gave back the glass and smiled. Tommy went back to the bar.
“Why are you drinking like this?” the Reverend whispered.
“I needed him to go back to the bar so I could ask you something.”
“This is not a good long-term strategy,” Penny hissed.
“It’s really good scotch. Does he even know you’re here?”
Penny shrugged her shoulders.
“And why is calling you Jacob?”
“He thinks I’m a different black guy,” the Reverend answered.
Tiresias thought for a second and said,
“It’s unfair to bring race into it. He thinks I’m a different white woman.”
“This is a conversation for later.”
Tommy was back. TONK. Tiresias just sipped this time, and said,
He was leaning against the desk.
Tiresias hated her eyes. (The corneas, specifically: she was fine with her pupils.) Mud brown, she thought. Find the dullest color in the spectrum, multiply it by an economics textbook. She tried colored contacts, but fell asleep in them the first night she wore them and woke up with the upper half of her face swollen up like a baboon’s ass; that was it for the contacts. Eyes like Tommy’s, what she would give. Eyes like that and tits like these? I’d rule the world by now, she thought. But they were mud brown.
Didn’t stop her from fluttering them at him.
He made a noise, halfway between growling and hocking up a loogie: it was his sexy noise, and Penny knew that she would have the sound in her head for the rest of her life.
“Would you buy me the moon?”
“You got it.”
“What about the stars?”
“Buy me the stars, Tommy,” Tiresias said, leaned back in the chair, reversed the cross of her legs. “I don’t want diamonds. I don’t want furs. No more houses, either, baby. I want the stars. Can you do that, or should I find someone who can?”
Tommy dipped his finger in his drink, stirred it twice, put his finger in his mouth.
Tiresias flared her nostrils and went, “Mmm,” and while the Reverend Arcade Jones was unsure whether this tactic would work, he was impressed with her acting.
“I want you to buy me that Observatory. The one we went to.”
The problem with winging it is that you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Tommy had never taken Cara Thorn to Harper Observatory. He and Hiawatha Mayflower went there on their first date. They sat on a bench overlooking the valley, and she gave him a tugger while he sang to her. He hit the high note as he came, and then gave her a cream-colored silk handkerchief to wipe her hand with. One of the first warm spring nights, he remembered that, all the fresh green leaves on the trees on the way up Pulaski Peak; they had taken his Corvette, the convertible one, the Stingray in Tuxedo Black, and he had driven too fast like always and she screamed–for real, not like Cara; Cara always wanted him to go faster–and so he slowed down a bit, and she put her fragile and fragrant hand atop his on the gear shift.
This was not Cara Thorn.
And that was not Jacob George.
Absolutely no clue who the lady in the middle was. How long had she been here? How long had any of them been here, and Tommy remembered a conversation from this morning about the vampire with the big tits from that shitty little teevee station in that shitty little town. He was meeting her today, Gloria said that to him, he remembered, and looked down again and this was not Cara Thorn, this was a vampire with big tits and too much eye makeup and cheap slacks. Not Cara. Not at all.
Tommy set his Lalique tumbler on the desk–it had a drop of scotch left, swirling around the thick bottom–and walked back to his chair. Sat. Templed his fingers. Breathed in and out through his nose.
The three Little Aleppians smiled at him, hopeful, and behind his head was the pool and the sun.
“You come into my house,” Tommy said. There was a small chest, silver with gold highlights and six inches long, on the desk; he flipped the top open and took out an unfiltered cigarette.
“Oh, can I get one of those?” Tiresias leaned forward and asked. Penny and the Reverend closed their eyes: one in prayer; the other in something she would not call prayer, but was prayer.
Tommy smiled around his cigarette and chose another from the case, closed it, stood up and around the desk; he was right in front of her, arching over her, and there were tiny bushes of tobacco flopping out the end of the cigarette; he plucked them out with two fingers and deposited the waste on his desktop, and he was still leaning forward with the posture of a man a third his age right on top of her, over her, and he held out the smoke not to her hand but an inch from her lips.
Tiresias jutted her head forward, took the cigarette. She knew she had fucked up, but still thought the situation salvageable.
Dunhill lighter. Gold with silver highlights.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Oh, no. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Back behind the desk, opened the top drawer. Heavy glass ashtray. Placed it in front of Tiresias and sat back down. Another ashtray, also heavy and glass, from the drawer. In front of himself, on the dark green blotter.
“Thank you for reminding me of why I’m tearing down that fucking Observatory. For reminding me of what kind of people live in that dog’s asshole you call a neighborhood. Liars, all of you. Scumbags. All of you, everyone, fucking scumbags. PHWOO. You’re gonna take advantage of an old man? What kind of people are you?”
“What the fuck kind of person are you,” Penny yelled. “you fucking prick!? You want to destroy something that doesn’t rightfully belong to you because of, what, some bullshit little boy grudge?”
The Reverend stared out the window and pretended the meeting was going well. Tiresias smoked. Tommy was a very specific form of calm. He reopened the top drawer of his desk and reached in.
Behind the three Little Aleppians, the glass case protecting Tommy’s Oscar lifted off of its own accord. Settled next to the award on the shelf. The two women and the large man turned around at the sound, and then they and Tommy watched the Oscar float from one side of the office to the other. Around head height.
The Reverend Arcade Jones crossed himself.
“For fuck’s sake, Romeo,” Penny said into her hand.
“He’s pulling out a gun,” said a voice from the air in the vicinity of the Oscar.
Tommy pulled out a .32 with a pearl handle. The Reverend, Penny, and Tiresias leapt up.
“Thank you for seeing us,” the Reverend said over his shoulder as they evacuated the office; he kept himself between Tommy and the women, walking backwards down the hallway of the house towards the front door. Tommy followed.
“Clever little fucks, aren’t you? Got a plan, huh? How’s your plan now, assholes?” He punctuated his questions with his gun, and then Gloria Cutuli came out of the living room.
“Tommy! Put the gun down!”
He turned, and the three used his distraction to bolt for the door. Tiresias threw it open, and they were in the yard of the house, twenty feet from the gate which would lead out of the compound into the street where, they hoped, far fewer armed show biz legends were stalking them.
BANG and now the three were sprinting.
“Holy shit, he’s actually shooting,” Tiresias said, and none of them turned around to see the pistol knocked from his hand as if by an invisible man.
And now they were on the street, out of the madhouse, out on Pinyon Way, and Tommy is right behind them shouting about respect and fucking oneself. He promises to tear the Observatory down slow, in sections, let everyone watch in slow-motion, and there is no 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham on the street at all, and the Reverend says, “Fuck,” under his breath, but there is a dull grey panel van speeding towards the house and it fishtails and WHACKS the Reverend with its back quarter-panel, and he tumbles across the grass and says, “Fuck,” with the breath knocked out of him.
The back doors of the van open. Two jump out: man and woman with pantyhose over their heads. Grab Tommy. Back in the van, doors shut, and off they go SCREECH VROOM.
There are two slashing shadows across the pavement of Pinyon Way, and they come from Tommy’s Washingtonia robusta palms. One hundred feet tall with a bushy brush of green fronds all the way up. Tommy had built the house for Cara, but the architect had built the house around the trees. Their bases were close together and they grew outwards from each other; they made a shape like rabbit ears on a teevee as they transected the road.
Penny cried, “Reverend!” and ran to where he was laying, knelt down beside him.
Tiresias had, somehow, kept her cigarette. PHWOO. Pinyon Way was very long and straight, and you could see almost a mile in either direction. She watched the van until it disappeared, and then she said,
“I did not see that coming.”
“Reverend,” Penny said. “You dead?”
The Reverend Arcade Jones had moved his feet, and his hands, and swiveled his neck around. Nothing was broken, and nothing had torn. He thanked the Lord for that, and then he made a noise like “Ooooohfug” because getting hit by a van hurts so, so badly
The dull grey panel van had vanished to the north, and from the south a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham drove up. Precarious Lee and Big-Dicked Sheila were wearing brand-new sunglasses, and they each had ice cream cones.
“What the sweet fuck?” Precarious asked.
The Reverend Arcade Jones was down, and Penny Arrabbiata was ministering to him as well as she knew how, which was not very. Tiresias Richardson looked like she’d seen a ghost. There was a puppy on the front seat, a mutt with floppy ears named Emergency, and he was barely able to stay awake for an hour at a time, but he could pick up on human emotions because that’s what he was bred to do, and the puppy became concerned and went, “Berf!”
Precarious rolled down the window. Tiresias walked up, leaned in.
“Hey there,” Precarious said, turning down the radio.
Sheila stretched over Precarious’ lap to the open window and asked,
“What the fuck is happening, Tirry?”
“It’s not my fault. It’s not entirely my fault. It’s not my fault.”
Sheila reached out and took the half-smoked cigarette from Tiresias PHWOO and gave it back, and Precarious nearly knocked her over getting out of the Cadillac and running to the Reverend, who was still down on the impossible grass outside Tommy Amici’s house in Jeremiad Springs, which is three days by horse–but less than that by car, even if you stop for chicken–from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.