Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, lived at 19 Robin Street and her living room window overlooked Cagliostro’s, which was a pizza place, among other things. There were always large gentlemen sitting outside at the tables, and sometimes cars that were too fancy for the neighborhood would pull up. When that happened, everyone on the sidewalk would find something else to look at. Gussy liked her street, and she liked living across from the large gentlemen outside Cagliostro’s. Police stations are always on the most dangerous blocks, but the streets where large gentlemen gather are always the safest in town; when she walked home alone late at night, she would turn off the Main Drag onto Robin and when she smelled pizza she knew that she would make it home safely.
She was safe in bed now, at ten in the morning on a sunny and quick day in Little Aleppo; it was Friday, and everyone was wrapping up their affairs, getting their ducks in a row, putting a bow on things so that nothing was hanging over their heads for the weekend, the glorious sainted promised declarative performative restorative weekend, that was coming up fast. Monday through Thursday, people count the days til the weekend, but on Friday they count the hours. You can hear Saturday night from Friday morning.
Gussy was not alone. Her nose and upper lip were pressed into the back of Big-Dicked Sheila’s neck, and every time Gussy breathed in she could smell Sheila’s sweat and hair dye–Firetruck Red this week–and she spooned against Sheila’s back, both of them on their right sides. Sheila did not have hips, but her ass plumped out, and it rubbed against Gussy’s pubic hair, which was black and thick, and Gussy rubbed back. They were half-asleep and half-fucking. Gussy was bigger than Sheila, but so were most: Sheila was 5’4″ in the tallest heels she could walk in (she usually didn’t wear heels) and slight everywhere except her cock, which Gussy was holding.
There was a ceiling fan, and on the dresser was a teddy bear from Gussy’s childhood named Wilbur.
She kissed the back of Sheila’s neck, still asleep but not; her right arm was under Sheila’s head, and she leaned into it and put her lips on Gussy’s bicep and sucked, and Gussy made a very small noise from her nose and pressed her pubis against Sheila’s ass and stroked the back of her ankle with her foot. The bedroom was in the back of the apartment, and still dark. Gussy had thick curtains, quilted blue with white fluer-de-lis embroidered on; they blocked the light and muffled the sound from the alley. Cats fucking and bums going through the trash, and sometimes fucking.
And the bed. There was nothing bigger than an Ultra King, so Gussy bought the Ultra King. She had not had a real bed since moving out of her parents’ house, just futons and floor-mattresses. Once, a tatami mat, but Gussy woke up with an aching back; she didn’t understand how the Japanese did it. When The Tahitian started to make money, it was the very first thing she bought. The bed was as broad as Kansas, but offered more lumbar support: it would sleep four comfortably, or eight people could fuck on it.
“Gus?” Sheila murmured.
“What time is it?”
Gussy lifted her head and looked past Sheila to the clock on the nightstand .
“Little after ten.”
Sheila smiled and said, “We were up late.”
Gussy bit her on the shoulder, not hard, and pulled her in tighter and said, “Yeah,” and squeezed her cock, and squeezed it again, and squeezed it again until it pushed back against her hand, plumping in her grip.
“You’re up now,” she said into Sheila’s ear, and then stuck her tongue in it.
“Fuuuuuck,” Sheila said and turned over.
The door to the bookstore with no title opened, and the bell went TINKadink.
Deacon Blue was not tall, and he was not wide; he was dense. Solid. He radiated a size his body didn’t possess, and if you asked people how big he was when he was not present, they would peg him for a larger man. He was in his shirt-sleeves–it was a beautiful morning–and his forearms were tattooed: an old and faded naked woman on the left, a fresher cross on the right. The deacon’s hair was long, graying, receding at the temples, and pulled back into a ponytail. His fu manchu mustache was also graying, but very neat, and the skin where his neck met his chin was creased and bumpy from overshaving.
Mr. Venable was sitting in his customary spot, wearing his customary suit.
“I need a book.”
“I can’t help you. This is an ice cream shop.”
Deacon Blue ignored him and said,
“On Tommy Amici.”
“You didn’t strike me as a fan.”
“Oh, the man’s got a voice like an angel.”
“One specific angel, I’m thinking,” Mr. Venable muttered into his coffee as he took a sip of coffee from a mug that read HARPER OBSERVATORY: WHERE THE STARS SHINE.
“Where am I looking?”
“Middle aisle. Then turn left. Down three rows. Left again. Ladder up to the annex. Go right, but if you hit the Foreign Pornography section, you’ve gone too far. Then you’ll meet a sphinx. It will be small, but please do not underestimate it. Answer the riddle. Take the ladder back down. Turn right. If you see ducks, ignore them. You should be in the Poetry section. That’s wrong. You got lost. Get out of the Poetry section. Then come back here.”
Mr. Venable leaned forward and pulled a gently-used copy of Tommy Boy: My Life With Mr. Amici by Jacob George out from under a pile of books and papers on the table in front of him.
“And I’ll give you this.”
Tommy and Jacob were on the cover, Jacob standing behind the seated Tommy, who was in his photo shoot hairpiece. They looked so happy. When the tell-all was published, Tommy tried to have a hit put out on Jacob.
“It really is the customer service that keeps people coming back.,” the deacon said.
“I aim to please. I miss, but it’s the aiming that’s important.”
Deacon Blue picked up the book, riffled through it, stopped at random and read:
“Mister A. had set himself a challenge that awards season. He wanted to fuck all of the Best Actress nominees, and even though one was a lesbian and one was 70, Tommy got it done. Wow,” the deacon said.
“That’s mild,” Mr. Venable replied Deacon Blue flipped forward a few pages.
“In addition to my normal supplies, I also made sure I always had some thick foundation makeup and a few pairs of ladies’ sunglasses; sometimes girls would come out of Tommy’s room in the morning with some bruises. Lovely guy,” he said, and leafed through the book some more. “How much of it you think is true?”
“Oh, a jilted employee would never lie, would he?”
Mr. Venable swiveled around in his chair and plucked a hardcover from the shelf behind him. It was The Singer, a classy and well-researched biography of Tommy. It had appendices and footnotes and an overflowing bibliography; it was nowhere near as fun as Jacob’s book. THUMP it dropped on the table. The dust cover was embossed and glossy, and the pages were thick.
“This is the respectable version. Many respectable publications wrote respectable things about it. There were awards, I believe.”
Deacon Blue scratched his ear; he had scars on the lobe from where the piercings had grown over.
“Can’t argue with an award, I guess,” he said, and picked the book up and held it with the other. “What’s the damage?”
The deacon pulled a neat fold of bills from his front pocket, snapped off a twenty, handed it over.
“Stay for a cup of coffee?”
“Got some reading to do,” Deacon Blue said, and the bell on the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink.
“How do you take it?”
“Sweet and creamy,” Sheila yelled back.
Gussy padded down the hall and into the kitchen, naked, shielding her eyes against the sunlight slipping in from the living room. The tiles on the floor were yellow and white checkerboard, dingy but clean, and she opened the jar shaped like an elephant where she kept the coffee and scooped it out into the filter, and then water, and then the switch, and the wait, and then there would be coffee. Gussy brought it home from The Tahitian in gallon-sized baggies; she had no idea why anyone would order coffee at the movies, but some people did, and so the theater always had a percolator going.
Her bellybutton was sticky, and she idly picked the flaking, dried cum from the fine hairs below her navel. She was on the pill, but didn’t trust it, and made Sheila pull out.
The Tahitian’s schedule was held to the fridge with a magnet from Graceland, and ticket stubs and pictures. Her mother, dead almost two years, and her brothers. One was in Phoenix doing something she was pretty sure was insurance fraud; she had no idea where the other one was. None of her father. The front page from The Cenotaph the morning after the grand reopening. A black-and-white glamour shot of Cara Thorn.
Gussy got two mugs from the cabinet: one said HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE, and the other was dark blue. Milk and sugar. Milk milk milk and sugar sugar sugar. Coffee. Coffee. She carried them back to the bedroom, where had left the door ajar and flipped it open with her foot. Sheila was half-under the covers and smiling sleepy. Gussy could see her flat, skinny chest–a boy’s chest–and her cock draped on her thigh–a man’s cock–and somehow it still read as feminine: the angle of her shoulders or the jut of her jaw, something Gussy could not quite articulate but was still there and radiating from Sheila: pure Yin, woman through and through, and Gussy did not quite understand it but she went with it. 90% of life in Little Aleppo was going along with things you didn’t quite understand, Gussy thought. She handed the dark blue mug to Sheila, got into bed next to her, close.
The women sipped their coffee and tried not to fall in love with each other.
“Oh, God,” Gussy said.
“Is this gonna be some kind of ‘Let’s be friends speech?'”
Sheila put her coffee on the nightstand and got up on her knees. She leaned over and kissed Gussy.
“I don’t wanna be friends.”
And she kissed her.
“I don’t wanna be friends.”
And she kissed her again, and Gussy did the thing she was trying not to do.
Sheila laid back down. She was nestled into Gussy, face half on her shoulder and half on her tit, and she picked up her coffee and took a sip.
“I was just asking about the meeting. The one at the Victory Diner.”
“You gotta see Reverend Jones eat. It’s amazing.”
“He’s a good man.”
“I like him.”
“We should go to services one week,” Sheila said, and that was the first plan that she had suggested to Gussy, the first suggestion that their relationship projected into the future past coffee and a lazy morning fuck; Gussy liked that, but she had a good poker face and sipped her coffee.
“Mm-hmm,” she said.
“How’d it go?”
Gussy was rubbing the crown of Sheila’s head with her chin, back and forth softly.
The ceiling fan spun above them. It clicked on and off with two little chains, and Gussy had attached pink fuzzy dice to them. They swayed in the breeze.
Gussy put her coffee down and sat up. She knew this tone of voice: it was the same one her teenaged employees used when they had fucked something up.
“Ask me what you want to ask me.”
Sheila put her coffee down, too, and pulled herself up; she sat cross-legged to the side of Gussy and stroked her naked thigh with the fingertips of both hands. She said,
“You’re gonna think this is funny.”
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
In a souvenir ashtray from Monk’s Casino on the nightstand, there was a half-smoked joint from the night before. Sheila leaned over Gussy’s lap slowly to fetch it, and she hesitated there with her ass sticking up in the air; Gussy ran her hand up the back of Sheila’s thigh, and brushed her fingers against her balls and smacked her ass, not hard but firmly, and Sheila made a little noise and smiled as she FFT flicked the yellow lighter and relit the joint and then she settled back on her heels in a posture like a Japanese lady at a tea ceremony with the smoke still in her lung; curlicues of white smoke flared from her nostrils as she leaned over and Gussy opened her mouth and she PHWOO shotgunned the pot smoke into her mouth and then kissed her as hard as she could.
Sheila sat back and decided that the truth was the easiest path to happiness. Sheila had often found in her life that path through avoiding the truth, or ignoring it, but this time the facts seemed to be the most expeditious method.
“Tiresias completely spaced during the meeting and she has no idea what the plan is.”
“It’s a big deal,” Sheila said, and took another hit off the joint; she brought her lips to Gussy’s and PHWOO the smoke went into her mouth throat lungs, and Sheila’s tongue followed: she took up Gussy’s tit in her hand, and rubbed her thumb over the hardening nipple and when she opened her eyes, she found that Gussy’s eyes were open, too, and so she kissed her some more.
“Okay,” Gussy said. “It’s a big deal.”
“We must defend our island.”
“We shall fight them on the Main Drag, we shall fight them in the Segovian Hills, we shall fight them in the Verdance.”
Sheila kissed her again.
“But, really, her whole part in the plan is to wear something low-cut. Laugh at Tommy’s jokes, that sort of thing. Reverend Jones and Doctor Arrabbiata are gonna do the talking.”
Gussy took the joint from Sheila, ashed it, handed it back.
“Uh-huh. She’s gonna start talking.”
“That’s not the plan.”
“Guarantee you she’s gonna start talking.”
“I don’t think she’s supposed to.”
“We’re not talking about perfect worlds here, baby, we’re talking about Tiresias. I’ve known her a while, and she doesn’t shut the fuck up. She’s, like, loquacious.”
The joint had just hit Sheila.
“Sure, yeah. This is good weed.”
“I’m surprised you don’t recognize it. It’s from Precarious.”
Sheila took a big toke off the joint that was more rightly by now a roach; she held the smoke in and blew it out her nose slowly.
Gussy took it from her, hit it, and said,
“He drops off an ounce every few weeks. Rent for that jackass sound system he tricked me into sheltering.”
“Wally’s not that bad.”
“Yeah? Imagine all the chairs in your shop talked back.”
“He means well.”
“Precarious or Wally?”
“Either one. Both,” Sheila said, and slung her leg over Gussy’s lap so she was straddling her, and she took the joint and put it between her lips to free her hands to play with Gussy’s tits. Gussy put her hands on Sheila’s thighs, and then her flat stomach and over her jutting clavicles and around her neck; Sheila bent her head down and took Gussy’s thumb in her mouth and they didn’t talk much for a while thereafter.
The bell atop the First Church of the Iterated Christ is named the Calling Judge, and the whole building shimmies when it strikes the hour WHONGG followed shortly by the bells of St. Martin’s, and St. Clemens’, and St. John’s. Eleven a.m., and the church is as quiet as it ever gets. There are ex-drunks in the basement telling each other the same stories they told last week. Mrs. Fong is at her desk; she picks up the phone and says “Hello?” (Mrs. Fong answers the phone every time the Calling Judge tolls.) Deacon Blue, sitting on the ratty couch in the same office, doesn’t look up from his books. He is taking notes.
The Reverend Arcade Jones is in the nave, second pew on the right near the aisle. He has laid his suit jacket, orange, next to him and his hands are between his knees. The crucifix bearing the Christ is suspended above the bema of the First Church of the Iterated Christ as though by magic–from the pews, you cannot see the supports–and someone has put a Blue Oxen baseball cap on Jesus’ head.
And the preacher prays,
And that is his whole prayer, because the preacher knows the Christ and knows that anything else is a waste of breath and time, and so the preacher says it again, and then once more for good measure. Better to beg God’s mercy than ask His plans, and up above there was a bell still ringing out the hour; it was eleven in the morning in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.