Eight o’clock in Little Aleppo, and some is well, the Town Crier muttered as he walked down the Main Drag ringing his bell. Not all, never all. Sometimes nothing is well, but never all. Perfect happiness can be described, pictured, doodled on the back of a gas bill, but never achieved and this, the Town Crier continued with his chin down, was the root of all humanity’s problems: not that there was a chasm between the ideal and the actual, but the awareness of the chasm itself. The Town Crier could mutter in italics; it would be a neat party trick if he ever got invited to parties. He shuffled north towards the Upside of the neighborhood, and all the church bells tolled for him.
Years ago, the Town Fathers had redlined all the religious institutions onto Rose Street, which was across the Main Drag from Town Hall. Churches, synagogues, mosques, whatever, are tax-exempt and that includes local property tax. And there would be no extra-legal revenue, either: even Little Aleppo cops wouldn’t shake down a church.
So, they figured: all the churches, synagogues, mosques, whatever, go on one street and then–and this is the fun part of the plan–they could ignore the street. No repaving, streetlights, nothing: not one cent for those mooching moralists.
The churches, synagogues, mosques, whatever, moved in and immediately showed the Town Fathers the flaw in the plan, which is that not having to pay taxes leaves you with a lot of money to pay lawyers. (Although to tell the truth, the churches could have hired a much cheaper attorney, as the plan was so patently illegal that the judge threw his gavel at the Town Fathers’ lawyer, hard.) Rose Street was paved regularly to a silky smoothness.
But the circumscription on building remained, and so all the consecration was penned in on one street; a little holy neighborhood in the middle of an unholy one, sanctum standing shoulder-to-shoulder with sanctuary and shul. It was homey, and pastors would borrow cups of Bibles from each other. Interfaith cookouts were held regularly.
St. Clement’s, and St. Martin’s, and St. Mary’s. The Mt. Olive Holy Roller Praiseworthy Chapel of the Anointed and Most Sanctified Nazarene was on the corner, but the sign went halfway down the street. Al-Alamut Mosque was next to the Jewish temple, Torah Torah Torah. The Jains had a building that was very plain; the Greek Orthodox church was iconic. And every hour on the hour, from eight in the morning until eight at night, the church bells tolled the time, slicing the day up into digestible chunks and scaring the crap out of dogs and nappers.
By tradition, the first bell to ring–just by a second–was the Calling Judge, ten tons of brass in the belfry of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, which was the first church in Little Aleppo. Technically, the building was the fifth First Church; the first First Church had been founded on a rock in the church’s courtyard by a guy named Peter before any white men lived in the area, except one.
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was not a bad rider, but he looked ridiculous perched on his horse. They had walked from the Pulaski village into C—–a City to hire horses from the livery, and the only two mares available were massive beasts; Peter had to boost the preacher up into the saddle, and he looked a child getting a horsie ride at the zoo. Busybody’s horse was white; Peter had a palomino. From the livery, they had ridden east for two days, and they had one more day of traveling until they got to the Jeremiad in the Low Desert.
As he rocked back and forth in the saddle, Peter thought about trains. Much better than a horse. Faster, more comfortable. You could read a book, or eat something. Or just sleep. Wouldn’t that be nice, he thought. Close your eyes and snore your way to your destination. Peter had never been on a train that had broken its leg 30 miles outside of Cheyenne in November, and he didn’t have a scar on his right shoulder from where a train had bitten him for damn reason. What if, he thought, you took the train off the tracks? Made it so you could steer the thing, carved out some paths for it, go wherever you wanted. Someone should get on that, he decided. Peter had not named his horse.
“Is Plucky the Christ?”
“Stop calling it that.”
The Reverend had named his horse Plucky.
“She, first of all. And I will not stop calling her Plucky. That’s her name. She’s a horse of distinctive gumption. Imagine what stories she could tell.”
“Stories? ‘Guy sat on my back and I walked for a while. Took a shit. Ate hay. Walked some more.’ Those are the entirety of a horse’s stories.”
Peter was wearing his buckskin suit with the fringes cut off, and there were two scabbards attached to his saddle, one on each side, a shotgun and a rifle. Busybody had on his one suit of clothes, and he had a pistol in the holster strapped to his waist. (Peter had bought him a gunbelt and holster in C—–a City because he couldn’t bear looking at him wearing the gun like a purse anymore. The Pulaski wove dried dogbane stalks into rope, and Busybody had tied a length to the Colt and slung it over his shoulder; the revolver bounced off his hip when he walked, and Peter knew that he wouldn’t be able to take three days on the trail of that bullshit.)
“I believe that Plucky is the Christ, Peter.”
“The horse is indeed the Christ.”
“Then why do you think so little of her?”
“Because in addition to being the Christ, it’s also a horse.”
“So, do all beings have an animal-nature and a Christ-nature?”
“Yes,” Peter said, reaching into his saddle bag for a fresh Peregrine leaf. “All that lives can pray, and all that lives must shit. God is in the prayer, and in the pile. But even the most base and savage impulses contain the Christ. Fucking leads to joy, which is the Christ, and fucking makes babies. To create life is surely the Christ, Reverend.”
“Shit is fertilizer. Shit fuels the earth, and nothing would be green without it. Shit allows for life. Is that not the Christ?”
“Life is the purest Christ, Peter. The only Christ.”
“The only Christ, yes. Something where there was nothing. Value from the void. The Christ lies in poetry and ritual, in everything that is beautiful, but the same Christ manifests through fucking and shitting.”
Oaks and nutmeg trees were giving way to sage and chaparral and serviceberries and sugarbushes. The sky had paled to the color of a blind dog’s eyes; it was tough to make out the clouds. A small stream was running fast and clear; they stopped, Peter dismounted, helped Busybody down.
“Make sure all the canteens and jugs are full.”
“You said we were going to a spot with water.”
“That’s for the horses. It’s a little spring, and I don’t know if it’ll kill you.”
“How do we know the stream water won’t kill us?”
“It’s running,” Peter said, and knelt down and drank.
Busybody did not know enough about waterborne parasites to argue.
“I’m still going to drink cactus water.”
“I read about that in a paperback novel.”
Peter sat back on his heels and wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
“Reverend! What are you doing reading that trash?”
“Oh, no. Well, yes. Most of those dreadful things are trash. But not the Stanton Box books,” Busybody said.
“Stanton Box, the Pistol-Packin’ Preacher?”
“Yes, he’s wonderful. Town to town spreading the Good Word. He gets in adventures. Helps out widows and children. Converts Indians. And he’s clever, too. He’s always getting into jams and using his brain to get out. Like the cactus water. You can cut into a cactus and drink from it.”
“He got stuck in the desert?”
“Several times. Bad guys leave him out there to die a lot. They always seem to leave him with his knife, though.”
“That’s why I don’t read that crap. You want someone dead, you shoot him. Don’t leave him in the desert. You can leave his body in the desert, but you really have to shoot it a couple times first,” Peter said as he took his shirt off and washed himself off with water from the stream.
“Well, it’s just a story. Wouldn’t be right to kill off someone the readers liked.”
Penny Arrabbiata stood at the back of the First Church of the Infinite Christ with a cup of coffee and remembered why she lived on top of a mountain. The way they attacked those snacks, she thought. Not to mention the soft drinks. Penny was quite sure that she had seen a gown woman knee a child in the head to get to a communal bowl of pretzels.
As she walked in, she had said hi to Deacon Blue but he hadn’t noticed as he was 86’ing a man who had tried to siphon all the orange drink into containers concealed in his pants.
“It’s just flavored powder dumped in water!” the deacon said as he dragged the guy out by the collar.
“But it’s freeeeeeeeee! It’s freeeeeeeee!” the guy answered.
Every time Penny came down Skyway Drive, she just wanted to go right back up.
“I used your title. You could return the courtesy.”
Mr. Venable and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, were late and had been bickering. Now that they were here, they were still bickering. She was carrying something the size and shape of a shoe box, held vertically.
“There are no snacks left, Gussy. I am snackless.”
“I have heard you say on numerous occasions that–and I quote–‘communal feeding troughs are the crevice of the devil’s buttocks.'”
“That sounds like something I’d say.”
“What if I changed my mind this afternoon? I’m mercurial, you know.”
“You’re mercury. You’re poisonous and no one should ever touch you.”
“There are no seats left. This is your fault.”
The church was fuller than any Sunday morning, and louder: the neighborhood saw meetings like this as a social event, and half of them had come from the bar. (The other half got drunk at home.) Leslie Westerbrook, who ran the sock rental place, was standing halfway up on the left of the pew with his wife, who was also named Leslie Westerbrook. Omar and Argus were right up front. Frankie Nickels was there, too, but no one knew what she looked like. The rich folks had come down, and the poor folks had come up.
The Poet Laureate, and the whores from 8th Avenue, and the bartenders from the Morning Tavern missing their sleep; dog-walkers and cat-fanciers; Mrs. Ableworth, the winner of the gardening competition; a reporter from The Cenotaph and one from the Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!) paper, The Axe; the Town Father who drew the short straw in a fake mustache and sunglasses; an attorney who was sent by the law firm of Holly, Wood, and Vine to report back; shopkeepers and schoolteachers and streetsweepers; a ghost cop; Romy Schott’s anarcho-primitivist cousin, Balthazar; Sally Moon, who was sent by the large gentlemen to report back. And undercover officers from the LAPD (No, Not That One).
“Hey, Stan. Undercover?”
The pews were full but for a small gap four rows back on the right. Big-Dicked Sheila stood facing the rear of the church scanning the crowd. Tiresias Richardson, who may or may not have taken some pills, sat and stared at Jesus happily.
“Gussy!” Sheila yelped, waving.
Gussy waved back, and she and Mr. Venable shouldered their way through the throng to them. Sheila and Tiresias were wearing what can only be described as “church drag.” Flowered sundresses, white gloves, floppy hats, paper fans. Mr. Venable and Gussy squeezed in next to them.
“Thank you, sweetie,” Gussy said, kissing Sheila on the cheek and setting the object down in front of her. It was dull and black and the shape of a shoe box, and there was a glass outbubbling about five inches in diameter on the narrow face.
“What is that?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Hello, Sheila. Tiresias.”
“Hey, Venable,” Sheila said, chipper. Tiresias turned her head slowly, and her smile turned into a sloppy grin.
“Vegetabllllle,” she said, and shot him the double-guns.
Deacon Blue had changed from his regular suit into his three-piece suit; they were both suit-colored, halfway in between blue and grey, and he checked the buttons of his vest and straightened the puffy windsor knot of his maroon tie as he strode up the center aisle of the church.
“Good evening, everybody. You all know me; I’m one of the deacons of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, Louis Blue.”
The whole crowd went LOOOOOOOOOOU. Or BLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE. It doesn’t matter which one; they made the OOOOOOOOOH sound is the point.
“Thank you. So, uh, thank you all for coming out. There’s a lot of rumors going around, a lot of talk and nonsense and weirdo theories that can only lead to problems if we let it them fester. So, uh, we’re gonna have a neighborhood meeting about what we know, and what we don’t know, and what everyone’s thoughts on it are. Just get everything out in the fresh air.”
He was standing behind the podium on the bema by now, and he pulled folded legal pad pages out of his back pocket and flattened them. The Reverend Arcade Jones stood behind him in a suit as blue as an actress’ eyes.
“All right, you know that Harper Observatory got itself bought. Lot of people didn’t think that was right. Courts thought differently. Before, uh, two days ago, no one knew who the buyer was. A rumor emerged that Tommy Amici was the anonymous purchaser, and then this morning’s Cenotaph confirmed it.”
The congregation murmured.
“Okay. So. We’re here to listen to each other, I guess. You raise your hand and Reverend Jones will come around with the microphone. And, hey: we are all gonna listen to each other, and be respectful, and no heckling. Whoever wants to speak, raise your hand.”
90% of the crowd raised their hands.
“Oh, great,” Deacon Blue said deadpan. “How about the woman here in the front row in the green blouse?”
Arcade Jones walked to the woman in the front row in the green blouse and put the mic in front of her. She grabbed it and tried to wrestle it away.
“I hold the mic!” he said.
“Free speech!” the woman in the green dress said
“Not what free speech means!” he said, yanking the microphone out of her grasp. Arcade Jones shot her a look and then put the mic in front of her mouth. Her name was Montego Bayes, and she had taught two generations of second graders at Lyndon LaRouche Elementary.
Montego Bayes was not used to speaking in front of adults, and she was nervous.
“Violence is called for.”
The church erupted, pro and con, yes and no, up and down; everyone was trying to be right the loudest. Arcade Jones whisked the mic away from Montego and addressed the crowd.
“Brothers and sisters! Brothers and sisters! We have come here to forge a path forward! We have come here to share in our community, and celebrate our love for it! How can we love strife? How can we go forward with destruction? I don’t see a way, I truly don’t. Please. Please, please, please: let’s find a path of righteousness. Let’s blaze a trail together along which all can prosper and all can profit.
“Everyone can win, I believe that to be true. In any given situation, there is a way for all participants to come out winners. I do believe that, yes. Let’s try. Let’s try to have everyone win. Now, I know it’s a cliché to ask what the Lord would do, I know that. But things become clichés for reasons.
“So. Why don’t we ask ourselves what Jesus would have to say?”
The crowd had quieted; they had listened to the Reverend Arcade Jones and knew his exhortation to be a holy one. It was still in the church and then a booming and omnidirectional voice said,
I CANNOT SEE. PUT ME ON THE PEW.
And now it was still again in the church, but a freaked-out kind of still. Someone in the back cried out in a strangled voice,
“Was that Jesus, man!?”
And than the owner of that voice ran out of the church because he was a sinner.
Four rows back on the right, Gussy was hissing at on object the size and shape of a shoe box made of dull, black metal with a glass outbubbling about five inches in diameter on its narrow face.
“Your thingy is talking, Gus,” Sheila said.
I AM NOT A THINGY. I AM A RESIDENT.
Tiresias poked at the metal shoe box, giggled.
“How many wolves are there?”
“Four,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said. “I count four.”
“That means there’s six,” Peter said.
They had been riding for two days and most of a third morning; they were in an immense basin ringed with mountains that could have been three or thirty miles away. Grass had given way to scrub, and streams to washes, and gentle slopes to sharp outcroppings of rock bursting through the beige and sandy soil; the sun and the sky and the clouds blended into one fierce khaki umbrella. Cactus: barrel and saguaro, and king.
“Stanton Box faced wolves once. A whole hungry pack. Stalked him for days,” the preacher said.
“What’d he do?”
Peter made a face like he had smelled a stupid child’s fart.
“How’s that work?”
“I recall the novel being less than specific about the details. Not like the cactus water thing. There were step-by-step instructions.”
“You’re obsessed with the cactus water,” Peter said.
“In the desert, where Christ denied the Devil. Water from sand. Life where there should not be, against all odds. It just always stuck in my head.”
They rode for a mile in silence. The sun was dropping behind them, and so they both tilted their hats back to keep the back of their necks from burning. Busybody spit out his chewed-up peregrine leaf, took a swig from his canteen, popped in a fresh leaf.
“No life? I see cactus. I see lizards. I just ate a bug. The desert is these creatures’ home just as the village is ours. To the rattlesnake, the desert is the Christ. And what is the Christ to one must surely be the Christ to all.”
“Are there rattlesnakes?”
“We’ve passed, like, a million of them.”
“Ever eat one?”
“You are not to eat any creature that moves along the ground,” Busybody said.
“Yeah, I know Leviticus.”
“So, no. I never ate snake.”
“You’re not missing much.”
“Can’t be much meat, anyway.”
“Just enough to keep you alive until you find the next snake. Becomes a bit of a vicious circle.”
Busybody hitched up his gunbelt–it kept slipping, and he kept forgetting to poke himself another hole to cinch it tighter–and looked at Peter. An eagle watched the two men and their horses from a mile up.
“May I ask why you were surviving on rattlesnake?”
“Low Desert’s a good place to hide. Had to hide longer than I figured.”
“And why were you hiding?”
“Local sheriff thought I robbed a bank,” Peter said.
“My word. You were wrongly accused?”
“No, I robbed the bank. I mean, I wasn’t the only one who did it, but yeah.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale said nothing. He tried to think of the Christ ministering to whores and thieves and the leprous, but he failed and he judged Peter, and then he rebuked himself for the thought. Then he wished he could rob a bank, and he rebuked himself for that thought, too.
“This is what you did before coming to live with the Pulaski?”
“Y’know those paperback novels you like?”
“I don’t like them that much,” Busybody said.
“Y’got the lead bad guy, right? His name’s, like, Scum Carter or something? And he’s got a gang: the Carter Gang.”
“I was one of the guys in the gang that doesn’t get a lot of time in the book. Might not get a name, even. ‘The henchmen behind Scum laughed.’ That was me.”
Peter pointed off to the north, up in the sky.
The bird had seen the hare 60 seconds ago; it cut short a great swooping loop and condensed its turn into tight spirals, finding position, and the hare has excellent hearing but the eagle was both silent and a mile up so the hare had no idea what was about to happen DIIIIIVE down for dinner, wings tucked, friction is for pigeons, and the eagle disappeared behind the sage 300 yards off to the men’s left.
“Always an eagle, always a hare.”
“But the hare wishes it were not so.”
“The hare wouldn’t be the hare without the eagle. Its speed, its shape, its essence: all designed to avoid the eagle. The eagle, likewise, is designed to catch the hare. They orbit each other.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, rode on for another mile and finally Busybody said,
“That seemed very meaningful.”
“It did, didn’t it?”
The First Church of the Infinite Christ took a while to settle down after God spoke to everyone, Gussy explained that the voice was not, in fact, God, but a portable technoproxy of a sentient artificial mondo-intelligence that was also the sound system of her movie theater. Anywhere else, this story would have raised more questions than it answered, but Little Aleppians were used to having weird neighbors.
“Can it pick the numbers for the Mother Mary?” Mrs. Ableworth asked from a back pew.
“No. It’s a sound system.” Gussy said.
“Then I don’t give a shit.”
The crowd cheered. Nothing gets applause like old ladies cursing.
Wally would have certainly responded to Mrs. Ableworth, but he was outside being given a talking-to by Precarious Lee. The black metal shoebox was set on the top stair; Precarious stood on the walkway, smoking. They were eye to eye.
“Stop taking advantage of Gussy.”
I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
I LIVE HERE NOW. SHOULD I NOT CARE ABOUT MY HOME?
Precarious lifted his foot and stripped his cigarette on his heel, put the remains in his back pocket.
“You’re just bored.”
THAT, TOO. BRING ME BACK INSIDE.
“Gonna shut up?”
I WILL OBSERVE.
“I’m gonna stand in the back.”
I WILL OBSERVE.
Precarious ascended the stairs and grabbed the box. He stood at the back next to Penny Arrabbiatta, who handed him a tallboy of Arrow from her bag.
“Hello, I am Balthazar. I do not believe in last names.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones dwarfed a man on the left of the church; he had dreadlocks and was wearing a shirt that was not culturally appropriate. The Reverend was trying desperately to keep a neutral look on his face, but Balthazar smelled so damn bad. Like, if feet could vomit. Arcade’s eyes were watering.
“As many of you might now from my lectures in the Verdance, I am an anarcho-primitivist. That means I like to live in the woods and I think you should have to, too.”
“Get to your point, son.”
“Humanity lost its way when it learned to wipe its ass.”
“I say we don’t wait for Tommy Amici to knock down the Observatory. I SAY WE DO IT OURSELVES!” Balthazar roared. “WHO’S WITH ME?”
No one was with him.
“Cultural fascists, all of you.”
“Thank you, Balthazar,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said, backing away from him as quickly as was polite and looking around for someone–anyone– to give the mic to. He saw a familiar face, a man he had seen around the church.
“Yes, sir,” Arcade said, putting the mic in front of the man’s mouth.
“Hi, my name is Randolph, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“HI, RANDOLPH,” the church thundered back.
“This is not that kind of meeting, Randolph.”
“I’ve been sober since noon, except for dinner.”
The Reverend put the mic behind his giant back and said,
“Just sit down, Randolph.”
“Are there pretzels left?”
The meeting was losing focus. Deacon Blue was in the back of the church talking to Precarious and Penny.
“You two are staying for the real meeting, right?” he asked.
“Any pretzels left?” Precarious asked.
“Held a bag back,” the deacon answered.
Precarious nodded his head. Penny did, too.
“Hey! Reverend!” Leslie Westerbrook (the lady version) yelled from across the nave. “Why don’t we ask the mayor what he thinks?”
The crowd agreed.
“Little Aleppo has a mayor?” Arcade asked.
“Course we do,” Leslie answered.
The Reverend’s eyes widened.
“The mayor’s here? Where? Of course we should ask the mayor! What does the mayor think?”
And Argus went,
Arcade Jones slumped in his sky-blue suit.
“Y’all made a dog the damn mayor?”
“Best one we’ve ever had!” a voice cried from the back of the church. There were cheers, and no one noticed Deacon Blue slide up the middle aisle of the church to the pew four rows back on the right where Mr. Venable and Gussy and Sheila and Tiresias sat. The crowd was having its say, and saying nothing but nonsense, but they were doing it freely and loudly and that’s what mattered to the crowd, that’s all that’s ever mattered to the crowd filling the First Church of the Infinite Christ on Rose Street, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.