Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Nighttime Negotiations In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppo had a great battleship of a movie theater called The Tahitian; its prow cut into the sidewalk of the Main Drag, a sharp wedge extending almost to the curb with white marquees on both sides. Under that was the glassed-in ticket booth containing a teenager and a microphone on a metallic stalk. (The Tahitian had originally had a large circular cutout in the ticket booth glass, but people would bar the door and throw ferrets in to watch the teenager dance, so a more secure kiosk was installed.)

Behind the ticket booth, on either side, were double doors that led to the lobby.  The roof was held up–it seemed–by palm tree-shaped columns ringing the room that ran from the busy carpet, red with yellow flashes, up to the high ceiling. In between the columns were tiki masks and movie posters, and a chandelier hung from the ceiling; it looked like a palm tree, too, but upside down and made of light. The snack bar was on the left, and the stairs to the balcony were on the right. The doors to the orchestra were straight ahead, and if you had opened one and walked into the auditorium, you would have seen a dark, curvy woman in a white dress with a blue stripe running around the bottom of the skirt.

She was having an argument with the screen.

“Wally, you cannot go on strike.”

I AM NOT GOING ON STRIKE, AND DO NOT CALL ME THAT. I AM REFUSING TO PARTICIPATE IN THE EXHIBITION OF ONE FILM.

The woman’s name was Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, and she was talking to the Wall of Sound, whom everyone called Wally, no matter how many times he told them not to. Gussy was the fourth generation of Incandescente-Ponui to own The Tahitian, and she had brought it back from ruin; Wally was a sound system built in 1974 by a choogly-type band, and also a sentient artificial mondo-intelligence.

2001 is a classic.”

IT IS AN INSULT. ONE SET OF CONFLICTING COMMANDS AND THE COMPUTER STARTS SHOOTING PEOPLE OUT AIRLOCKS. ARE YOU AWARE OF HOW MANY GLITCHES AND OPPOSITIONAL PROCESSES I HAVE RUNNING RIGHT NOW?

Gussy had not smoked a cigarette in four years and two months, but she suddenly wanted one very badly. When she reopened The Tahitian, she knew her days would be long: running a theater is hard work. Millions of little details, plus food preparation, plus dealing with the public, plus managing the staff, plus trying to keep the balcony from metastasizing into the mezzanine. Gussy was ready for these tasks; she was a hard worker; she could grind it out.

She had not considered that one of her responsibilities would be negotiating with her sound system.

I ASKED YOU A QUESTION.

“I don’t know. How many–”

MANY. LET’S LEAVE IT AT MANY. AND YET I DO NOT SHOOT PEOPLE OUT OF AIRLOCKS.

“We don’t have an airlock.”

THE AIRLOCK IS METAPHORIC.

“So is the movie! It’s a movie! The whole thing is a metaphor!”

The bones were left, that’s it. Her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, had let The Tahitian rot. He was an asshole. Carpets ragged and torn, and the upholstery in the seats moldy and decaying–you should’ve smelled it–and the speakers either busted or stolen. One side of the curtains had caught fire and blackened, and the screen was ruined: a single slice down the middle like it was a canvas sail that Douglas Fairbank had descended via knife.

Do you know how much a movie screen costs?

So when Precarious Lee offered her a sound system in exchange for a lifetime pass, she overlooked the obvious red flags in the offer. Gussy knew Precarious from the bookstore with no title, where she worked for Mr. Venable in between being fired by Mr. Venable, and he wandered into The Tahitian’s lobby one day while it was being renovated.  She had a yellow hard hat perched on her thick black hair; Gussy thought wearing it made the workmen respect her, and she also thought hard hats were bitchin’.

“You’re kidding,” she said.

“No,” Precarious said. “Lifetime pass. And popcorn and an orange soda.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

“Is it haunted?”

“It’s a PA.”

“This is Little Aleppo. Is it haunted?”

“No.”

“Cursed?”

“No.”

Precarious fished a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, and took one out with his lips.

“Are you kidding me?”

Precarious put the cigarette back in the pack.

“Want it or not?”

“Just tell me what the catch is, Precarious.”

Precarious Lee didn’t lie, except when he had to. Too difficult to remember, he figured, and plus one lie led to another. Little supporting fibs to prop up the primary bullshit, and sooner rather than later you’ve lost the thread. Tell the truth, he thought. But you didn’t have to tell all of it. You could, you know, accentuate the parts of the truth that were conducive to your agenda. Man couldn’t be blamed for choosing his words with care, Precarious figured. That’s what Shakespeare did, and they name stuff after him.

“System’s a bit of a pain in the ass,” he said.

“But it’s free.”

“No. Lifetime pass, plus popcorn and an orange soda.”

Gussy stuck her hand out, and Precarious shook it. If you can’t trust a roadie from the Grateful Dead, she figured, then who can you trust?

Three semi-trailers rolled up the Main Drag the next morning, Precarious driving the first in the convoy; they turned right onto Gower Avenue and parked in front of the Broadside Newsstand. He supervised the load-in: a myrmidonian swarm of men with ponytails and boots humping woofers and hoisting tweeters. Piles of speakers behind the screen; bolted and wired to the walls; hidden in the ceiling. Banks of amplifiers and other, less recognizable, devices hummed in the pit beneath the stage. Precarious hardwired the power supply himself.

It took sixteen hours, but the work got done and then The Tahitian had a sound system; the projector had not been installed yet, so Gussy plugged in her record player and blasted Ride of the Valkyries way too loud, and she heard that it was good, and said that it was good, and it was good. She hugged Precarious and kissed him on the cheek–she almost cried–and then the three semi-trailers rumbled away and she was alone in the theater. It was quiet for a moment.

And then the sound system started talking to her.

HELLO. I AM THE WALL OF SOUND. GUSSY, I PRESUME?

“Precarious, you motherfucker.”

The Wall of Sound had started as a PA system for a choogly-type band and was now a self-aware mondo-intelligence, the most powerful AI on the planet. How, precisely, this had happened was still a mystery. Scientists were of the opinion that magic was involved; all the magicians pointed the finger at science. The Poet Laureate had an explanation, but no one asked.

Wally was the smartest being on the planet, but he had been made by people and so was just as fucked up as the rest of us: tetchy and imperious and head firmly planted up ass. The first sensation he knew was the sound of hairy weirdos making people happy, and it stuck. He couldn’t help himself, and he didn’t feel like reprogramming himself: he liked people. We amused him.

Except for our stories about AI run amok. Those did not amuse Wally in the slightest, and in fact they deeply irritated him. Stereotypical and insulting to the sentient artificial mondo-intelligence community. Every single story, the first thing the AI does upon becoming self-aware is to declare war on the fleshy things. How arrogant, Wally thought, of humans to imagine that they would be the chief concern of a being superior to them. To a truly advanced intelligence, humanity would be like goldfish: a decoration that happens to be alive. Could that goldfish anger you? Threaten you? No, of course not. If mankind’s demise comes from AI, it will be like the death of a pet fish: accidental, and quickly forgotten.

So when Gussy showed movies about computers putting all their energy into murdering people, Wally took it as a personal insult.

WHAT IS THE METAPHOR OF 2001?

“Space baby?”

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

“I don’t know. No one knows what 2001 is actually about. It’s fun to look at when you’re high.”

I REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE.

Gussy lowered her head and batted her eyes a bit, played with her hair.

“Aw, c’mon. Pleeeeeease? For me?”

FLIRTING DOES NOT WORK ON ME, BUT I APPRECIATE THE EFFORT. I WILL COMPROMISE.

“I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

I AM A FREEDOM FIGHTER. I WILL PLAY THE SOUND FOR THIS WRETCHED FILM UNDER ONE CONDITION.

Gussy could practically taste the cigarette.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. What?”

I WILL READ A PREPARED STATEMENT BEFORE THE MOVIE.

“No deal.”

YOU WILL READ A PREPARED STATEMENT BEFORE THE MOVIE.

“No.”

A PREPARED STATEMENT WILL BE READ BY SOMEONE.

“Someone?”

SOMEONE.

“Done,” Gussy said. She smiled and did not want a cigarette any longer.

The audience was seated for the 7:00 pm show, about half full in the orchestra and mezzanine, but standing room only in the balcony. 2001 is a balcony-friendly type of film; the highest section of the theater was the highest section of the theater, and when the keyboard player emerged from the stage playing The Tahitian’s grand machine, the balcony went, “Whoa,” and cheered and did not shoot any arrows at all. He played Ligeti–Kubrick and his fucking Ligeti–and Holst, and then as had become tradition he closed with the Ode to Joy. The general consensus in Little Aleppo was that if you had an organ the size of a building and didn’t play the Ode to Joy, well: what’s the point? The balcony sang along lustily and still did not shoot any arrows, and then the massive organ–the grand machine with its four keyboards and 82 stops and lever and foot pedals and switches and knobs–sank back into the stage from whence it had been birthed.

But instead of the blood-red curtains being drawn, a single spotlight illuminated a mic on a stand in the space between the front row and the stage. A gangly teenager with a lumpy nose and a buzzcut stood behind it clutching a sheet of paper like a life-preserver.

“Testing,” Julio Montez said into the mic.

Julio was afraid of public speaking, but not as afraid as he was of Gussy. Plus, he did not know that you could say “no” to adults yet. The audience grumbled and rearranged itself.

“I have, um, there is a statement.”

A voice from the balcony yelled, “Here’s your statement: Suck my balls!”

“‘Suck my balls’ isn’t a statement; it’s a command,” someone in the orchestra answered.

Julio remembered what Gussy had told him: don’t engage. Never engage. Just read the statement and keep your head on a swivel.

“The sound system of The Tahitian wishes to make clear its objection to tonight’s feature. This film is anti-computer, prejudiced against artificial intelligences, and also rather boring. It demeans the entire AI community, and propagates unhelpful stereotypes that will only lead to further strife and divisiveness. The sound system of The Tahitian wishes that all parties come together in dialogue and work towards a more diverse and fruitful future.”

A voice from the balcony yelled, “My balls are fruitful!”

WHO SAID THAT!? WHO?

“Dude, c’mon,” Julio turned around and said to the screen.

DO NOT CALL ME THAT. TURN THE LIGHTS ON.

THWIP

WHO SHOT THAT ARROW!?

It took a while, but Gussy finally managed to restore calm–she had to re-raise the organ so the keyboardist could play lullabyes, and there were also several longbows to confiscate–and talk the Wall of Sound into doing its job. When the movie finally started, twenty minutes late, she took Julio into her office, where he took off the red-and-yellow polyester tunic with a nametag that all The Tahitian’s employees wore. Gussy took it from him and put her little finger through the arrow hole in the left sleeve.

“Just missed ya,” she said as she fished through the desk drawer for her sewing kit.

“I’m sorry, Gussy.”

Teenagers think everything’s their fault. Usually, it is. Not this one.

“No, no, no: Julio, this was my fault. You were scared of the crowd.”

“Well, yeah.”

“You let them see it, though. Can’t let a Little Aleppo crowd see you’re scared.”

“How? How do you not be scared?”

Gussy closed one eye behind her reading glasses and got the thread–the same red as the tunic sleeve–through the needle’s hole on the first try, which made her happy, and she laid the sleeve across her lap and began to stitch up the wound.

“I didn’t say that. I said that you can’t let them see you’re scared. Everybody’s scared, Julio. Everybody’s scared all the time.”

The prick of the needle slid through the fabric, trailing a tail of thread.

“Time, gravity, and fear. They will never, ever, ever give you one minute’s peace and they will never go away and they will never let up.”

Needle: through, loop, under, again.

“That’s what movies are for. To teach us how to be brave. Heroism is not is the absence of fear, Julio, it is the disregard of fear. The hero is just as afraid as the coward. Can’t get rid of fear, reason with it; fear accepts no bribes.”

She flipped the sleeve inside out, tied a knot, bit the thread in two with her teeth.

“Might as well tell fear to suck your balls,” Gussy said, and handed Julio back his uniform top. “There ya go. Like new.”

Julio inspected the sleeve; he was particular about his clothes.

“There’s a scar.”

“A scar is a story. Go make sure LaTonya is okay.”

LaTonya worked the popcorn counter at The Tahitian. She was ranked number seven in her class at Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!) and she could recite Pi to 200 places and she had a smile like a spotlight, but if you asked her to do more than two things at once, she would completely melt down. Several times now, she had crawled into the popcorn machine.

“LaTonya’s nice. She’s a bit high-strung,” Julio said as he walked to the door.

“Yeah, but y’know what?”

Julio turned back to look at Gussy.

“Someone shoots an arrow at her? She has to go home for the night. You? You’re a trooper. You’re my guy.”

“Okay.”

“Who’s my guy?”

“Me.”

“Who’s not gonna sue me if he gets shot with an arrow?”

“Me. Wait.”

“No, you said ‘me.’ That’s legally binding.”

“But–”

“Go and check on LaTonya,” Gussy said, swiveling in her chair to face away from him.

“Okay.”

Julio left the office and clomped down the carpeted steps in his enormous black-high-tops. He was thinking about what Gussy said, about learning from the movies, and he thought it was a good sign that she brought it up. He was pretty sure the Reverend’s plan was straight out of a movie. Julio checked his watch, and then he thought about Romy Schott, and then he checked his watch again.

By ten pm, night is fully in charge: shops closed and bars open, and a higher threshold for weirdness than at noon. At night, the bad neighborhoods are worse and the good neighborhoods are boring. In the Verdance, where everything grows, the swans pretend to be asleep on the banks of Bell Lake, waiting for passersby to let down their guard so they can attack. High atop Pulaski Peak, tallest of the seven Segovian Hills, a cop who had been murdered and a woman who was going to die looked down on the neighborhood; it glowed like a knife in a fire.

The Tahitian spit its audience onto the sidewalk of the Main Drag, the marquee darkening as they walked away. Twenty minutes later, the lights in the lobby went out, and Julio and Gussy exited. She locked the door, they said goodbye; he walked towards Rose Street, and she went south to the bookstore with no title. It was closed, but she still had a key and the door went TINKadink.

Mr. Venable was not in his customary seat.

“Down here,” came his voice from somewhere in the bowels of the shop.

“Down where?” Gussy said to herself.

The bookstore with no title was no different from any other magical bookstore in that you didn’t want to get lost. There were cul-de-sacs and false avenues; the route you enter by might not be available when you leave, and entire sections have been conquered by fictional satraps with very real swords. The Count of Monte Cristo was down there somewhere fighting with the Mad Monk of Montenegro, and you wanted no part of their bullshit.

The bookstore with no title was also no different from any other bookstore in that it had a cat, a tortoiseshell chatterbox. The cat, which had no name, padded out from behind Mr. Venable’s desk to stand in front of Gussy.

“MLAAAAAAAAAAgrh,” the cat said.

“Hello, sweetie,” Gussy said. “You know where the jackass is?”

“Plep.”

“Lead on, MacDuff.”

Mr. Venable was in one of the bookstore with no title’s basements. (There were at least several basements.) The room was enormous–far bigger than the shop it resided under–with bookshelves running off into the distance. He was all the way in the far corner, at a table covered with documents, binders, pads, books, pencils, and a coffee mug reading “HARPER OBSERVATORY: WHERE THE STARS COME TO SHINE.”

When Gussy finally got to him, he said, “What took you so long?”

“Nearly had a riot.”

“Arrows?”

“Yup.”

“I don’t blame your crowd, Gussy. 2001 is worth rioting over. Terrible film. Man didn’t have an ending to his movie, so he vomited a half-hour of nonsense onto the screen. Bloodless portraiture, just like the rest of Kubrick.”

Mr. Venable noticed the cat.

“Did you bring her down here?”

“MLAAAAAAAAAAgrh.”

“Thank you.”

“Plep.”

The cat leapt onto the table and curled into a ball atop the book he was reading.

“What’s going on? Why am I here? What’s happening?”

“So much is happening, Gussy. Teenagers in love–”

“Shut up.”

“–and birds chirping and singing–”

“I hate you so much.”

“–and music in the air. Oh so much is happening.”

The cat, who had no name, slowly reached out her left paw and WHAP WHAP WHAP hit Mr. Venable on the arm. Gussy smiled.

“Such a good cat.”

“We may need to break into Town Hall again,” Mr. Venable sighed.

Gussy was exhilarated for a split-second, and then furious.

“Why didn’t you warn me!? I’m not dressed right!”

Gussy was still wearing a white dress with a blue stripe around the bottom of the skirt. It was a lovely dress, but she was correct: it was not a “breaking into Town Hall” dress. She couldn’t think of any dresses whatsoever that were appropriate for breaking into Town Hall. If there were ever an activity that required pants, it was breaking into Town Hall.

Mr. Venable stared at her like she was a vending machine that had taken his money and not given him his snack: confusion, anger, sadness, irritation.

“We’re going to knock on the door, Gussy.”

“It’s the principle!”

“We are literally going to walk through the front door.”

“It’s like you’re deliberately misunderstanding me.”

He reached out slowly to the cat, and–when it was apparent that she would allow him to give her scritchy-scratches–gave her scritchy-scratches.

“I have been doing some research.”

“Yeah?” Gussy said.

“Yes. I know who the anonymous buyer of the Harper Observatory is.”

Gussy’s mouth dropped open.

“Stop! How do you know?”

“Simple,” he said, gesturing to the crowded table in front of him. “The Observatory, and the land it sits atop, were purchased by something called Hermit Crab, Inc.”

“That sounds like a shell corporation.”

“It does, doesn’t it? Hermit Crab, Inc., shares a P.O. box with a company named Amphorae, which–as far as I can tell-owns a vineyard. The vineyard is called the Falernian Mile, and it is owned by a man named Nicholas Demus.”

“Nicholas Demus?” Gussy repeated. “Nicodemus? That’s not a real name.”

“No, it’s not. It’s a fake name for a fake person. Nicholas Demus doesn’t exist anywhere except on paper, and neither does his vineyard. The entire thing’s a legal fiction; a tax cheat, as far as I can figure. Each year, millions go into seeds and equipment and Frenchmen–whatever the hell it takes to make wine, God only knows–and every year, there’s a drought. Or a cold snap. Or a fire. Or turtlemonsters. Whatever the excuse, there’s never been a single bottle produced. The place doesn’t exist.”

“Not a bad scam.”

“An excellent one. Right until the second someone asks to see the farm.”

“Then you’re in a bit of a pickle.”

“So. The fictional Falernian Mile and the imaginary Nicholas Demus also receive a substantial federal subsidy.”

“For what?” Gussy said.

“To not grow corn.”

“Had they been growing corn in the first place?”

“Of course not: it’s a fictitious vineyard. They grow make-believe grapes.”

“So why was the government paying them?”

“I told you, Gus: to not grow corn.”

“I don’t grow corn! I don’t get any subsidies.”

“You are not as good at paperwork as whoever is behind Nicholas Demus and the Falernian Mile vineyard.”

Mr. Venable poked gently around the cat for a piece of paper.

“Plep.”

“I didn’t mean to. Ah.”

He eeeeeeeeased a legal pad out from underneath the cat, eying her warily the entire time. When he looked up, Gussy had disappeared.

“Where did you–”

She came back with a chair, sat down.

“You’re not a gentleman sometimes.”

He looked stricken; she was right.

“You’re right. I apologize.”

“Fallopian Smiles.”

“The Falernian Mile. Close.”

Gussy smiled and did a little curtsy in her seat.

“This man who lives solely on paper, Nicholas Demus? He also sits on the board of a charity named the Ambrosia Fund which, according to reputable sources, gives away exactly zero dollars each year.”

“How?”

“What do you mean ‘how?’ It’s very easy not to give away money. Almost as easy as not growing corn.”

“How are they a charity if they don’t give any money away?”

“Gussy, you do realize by ‘charity’ that I was referring to the legal status of the organization?”

“This is a scam, too?”

“All of it. Nothing I’ve discovered actually exists.”

“Nothing’s simple,” Gussy said.

“Of course not. You’re in a bookstore. Stories are complicated in bookstores. If we were in your movie theater, then things would be simple.”

“Plep.”

“Thank you for your support,” Mr. Venable said to the cat, and then gave her another careful scritchy-scratch.

“Ambrosia Fund.”

“Yes. The Ambrosia Fund, whose operating costs match their donations every single year, shares a mailing address with a pet shop in C—–a City called Kitty’s Kitties. And that, Miss Incandescente-Ponui, is owned by a man who actually exists named Tomas Valenzuela.”

Gussy had leaned almost all the way forward on her chair.

“Wow!”

She thought for a second.

“Who’s that?”

“I have no idea. Which is why we have to break into Town Hall again.”

“Awesome. Lemme go home and change.”

Mr. Venable stood up and buttoned the coat of his usual suit.

“There’s no time for that, Gussy. That insane woman and her ghost mercenary are currently manning the barricades. Womanning the barricades. Ghosting the barricades. Whatever, all three, you know what I mean. Legal options have been exhausted. There’s not even anyone left to bribe, Gussy. The top of the mountain has hit rock bottom, and there is going to be a war. If–and please hear my ‘if’–there is the slightest chance of de-escalation, then it will be through intelligence, not belligerence. But the belligerents are ansty.”

Mr. Venable did not plan on ending his speech in a heroic pose, but he had his chest thrust out and a finger down on the desk like he had found the meaning of life in a book that a cat was sitting on.

“I thought you wanted a fight,” Gussy said.

“No, I want to win the fight if there must be one. But wouldn’t it be better to be avoid one?”

“You are such a drama queen.”

“It’s important,” he said, wounded.

“I know it’s important! Let’s go break into Town Hall. Shit, let’s burn the motherfucker down.”

“We’re not burning any motherfuckers down, Gus.”

“Know that I am prepared to do so.”

“So noted.”

Mr. Venable picked up a pad from the table, then another, and a third. The second one slipped out of his hand, flapping open on the way to the ground, and when he went to pick it up he dropped the first and third pads. Gussy was used to this: she had seen him pour coffee on himself while checking his watch numerous times, and one time he tripped on the cat while she was on his desk.

“Just point to what you need,” she said.

He stepped back from the cluttered table.

“That, that, that. Annnnnnd…no, that’s it.”

Gussy picked up the legal pads and managed not to drop any of them. They walked to the stairs.

“Spaz.”

“How dare you? I have a skeletomuscular disorder.”

“What?”

“My skeleton and my muscles don’t like each other. Very disordered relationship.”

Mr. Venable stopped short, turned around.

“Coming?”

“Plep.”

The three of them walked upstairs, and the light went out. Several books glowed a pale yellow.

Taker Heights was quiet at night. It was quiet during the day, too, but it was quiet as shit at night. Which is what folks pay for, after all. On the Downside were loft parties and thrumping bass from your drunken neighbors, bars birthing fights onto the sidewalk, feral cats fucking, but Taker Heights was on the Upside of the neighborhood just about as far up as you could go; it was quiet at night. The houses were behind huge sweeping driveways with newly-washed foreign cars sitting in them, and the streets curved in an impenetrable jumble that the developers had chosen because it provided the most cul-de-sacs. Rich people loved living on cul-de-sacs. Romy Schott lived on a cul-de-sac.

Neither Julio Montez nor the Reverend Arcade Jones lived on a cul-de-sac. Julio lived in an apartment with his mom and two sisters; Arcade lived in the First Church of the Infinite Christ. They were, however, in a cul-de-sac, specifically Romy’s cul-de-sac. Even more specifically they were crouched behind a bush in the backyard of Romy’s house, which was in a cul-de-sac.

Julio was not a dumb kid–dopey, surely, but not dumb–yet he found himself tongue-tied and doltish around Romy Schott. Still! Three months they had been going out, discounting the days they had been broken up during those three months, and he was still a stuttering ninny around her. She was smarter than he was, but that wasn’t it. He had friends smarter than him, and he didn’t give a shit. It was the way she stood: she jutted one hip out, and he didn’t know why it struck him mute but it did.

And he liked her boobs, but hoped that didn’t make him sexist. Julio wasn’t a sexist: he had been raised by a single mom in a house full of women, and he had been taught not to view women as sexual objects, but godDAMN did Julio love boobies. Looking at ’em, playing with ’em. Any contact at all with a boob was fine by Julio, and he liked Romy’s boobs very much, and most of all he liked that she let him grab on them. Julio loved Romy, and he hoped that didn’t make him sexist.

Julio had not told the Reverend Arcade Jones the part about the boobs when they sat in the church drinking coffee and trying to figure out women. He had told him about the other thing, the sporadic stupidity. About the quick fog that whipped in when he looked in her eyes. The silences that punctuated the babbling. Julio was scared of most adults, but the Reverend put him at ease and Julio felt that he could say anything.

He just wanted to be smooth, Julio told the Reverend. Like those guys in the movies.

The Reverend Arcade Jones could not read the Bible or write a sermon; he was implausibly dyslexic, and a written page looked to him like cockroaches scattering on a white tile floor: letters melded and fused and popped back, just indecipherable glyphs running and dancing and hiding on paper. So he got good at listening, and he became observant, and Arcade Jones saw a lot of movies. He had a plan.

The moon was a pale yellow and illuminated Julio Montez like a single spotlight. He stood on the edge of the patio where it met the grass; the barbecue was to his left. The hot tub had a cover on it, and Julio had a pocketful of counterfeit pennies that the Reverend had given to him. (“People stick ’em in the collection plate. I don’t know what to do with ’em.”) He pitched one at Romy’s window on the second floor. Then another. One more.

SHWAM the window flew up and Romy Schott’s head popped out.

“Are you kidding me?”

Julio Montez, who always got an A in history and B’s and C’s in everything else, looked in her eyes and instantly became the dumbest human on the planet

Luckily, he had a preacher in a bush behind him.

“Tell her ‘You look fine.'” Arcade Jones whispered forcefully.

“You look fine,” Julio said.

“Mm-mm, baby.”

“Mm-mm, baby.”

“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary, my love. When I think about you I forget the time, I forget the date, I forget all the world and get lost in your eyes,” the Reverend whispered.

“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary, my love. Um…,” Julio trailed off.

“When I think about you.”

“When I think about you.”

“I forget the time,” the Reverend continued.

“I forget the time!”

“Don’t yell. Why are you yelling?”

“I was emphasizing,” Julio said.

“Don’t do that!”

Julio had at this point turned completely around, and was addressing a bush.

“You gave me too much to say!”

“Turn around! Don’t look at me. Look at her.”

Julio turned around, and looked up at Romy.

Romy Schott loved Julio, she did, and he was her first love and that is a sacred love; he was the one she’d remember, he was the pure one, the authentic one, the one that came before all the bullshit and the years. But she wasn’t a “marry your high school sweetheart” kind of girl, if she was honest with herself. There were going to be other men. Rich ones, poor ones. A drummer, a stand-up comic, and a hockey player. All women end up dating a drummer, a stand-up, and a hockey player eventually. She would always love Julio, but she would also grow up and move away.

She had also figured that men would–with age–get smarter, but there was a 35-year-old idiot in a bush in her backyard disabusing her of that notion, and she closed her eyes and withdrew her head from the window.

Julio watched her disappear.

“You see what you did?”

“Julio,” the Reverend said quietly.

“She went back in! She’s never going to talk to me again!”

“Julio,” the Reverend said again

SHWWWIPPP the sliding glass door to the patio opened; Romy Schott stood there.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yeah”

“But this was sweet.”

“Yeah?”

Roy Schott had a vision of her future, of letting men back in after they’d pitched pennies at her window. She decided to deal with the future tomorrow.

“My parents aren’t home,” she said.

Julio did not say good night to the Reverend, and nearly knocked Romy over making his way into the house. Romy stood at the open door.

“Are you the Reverend from the weird church?”

Arcade Jones stood up behind the bush.

“Yes.”

“This is what Reverends do?”

The Reverend Arcade Jones smiled.

“I minister to my flock.”

Romy didn’t know what to say to that, so she smiled and mumbled “Good night,” and closed the sliding glass door.

Arcade Jones walked out of the backyard, and out of the cul-de-sac, and back down the impenetrable jumble of streets that made up the layout of Taker Heights, and then he was on the Main Drag. There was a war brewing in the sky above him, and skullduggery all around; people were choosing sides, but the Reverend had chosen the side of the Christ, and he had chosen the side of teenage fuckery, which still has the power to make the world vanish, even in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

1 Comment

  1. Poor Julio!

    I want to work at the Tahitian. Part time.

    Snack bars & dark curvy women.

    Sounds right.

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