A secret is a smart dog: if it wants out, it’s getting out. Close the door, and it’ll figure out the knob; lock it, and the dog will work the latch. You’ll leave a window open. Fences can be tunneled under. Hell, a dog can chew right through a wall if you give it enough time. You need to watch the dog. If you want to be sure, you need to watch the dog. The only way to make sure that smart dog stays put is constant, wearying vigilance; and a smart dog is just like a secret.
Tommy Amici buying Harper Observatory was a secret. He had done it anonymously, played the shell game with corporations, fake names and dead-ends and feints and legal red herrings: fences, collars, doors. Tommy thought the dog was secure in the house, so he did not pay careful attention and now it was running frenzied up and down the Main Drag pissing on clergy and biting fire hydrants.
The marketing people call it penetration. (The marketing people call it that because marketing people are self-absorbed creeps.) Take a geographic location, say a neighborhood. Now take an idea. (Well, not an idea so much as a discrete memetic concept.) Do some math and you get the percentage of your location aware of your idea: this is penetration. Within 24 hours of Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, shouting out the news in the Morning Tavern, the news had reached a level of penetration that can only be described as “balls deep.”
“24 hours, cats and kittens. Lot can happen in a day! You don’t think so, right? Wake up, work a little, drink a little, hump a little, sleep. That’s what you can do in 24 hours, right? Can’t learn algebra: that takes forever, man. No great novel got written in a day. Marriages take longer than that, or at least I hope they do. Can’t make a baby in 24 hours.
“I mean: you can make one in five minutes, but you know what I’m saying.
“Lot happens in a day, it’s just that you weren’t looking at it right. You got a job to think about. Kids to raise, hell to raise, Jolly Roger to raise: whatever you raise. More than you think is going on but you ain’t looking at it the right way. Good thing you’re listening to KHAY–Hey!–and your old pal, Frankie Nickels.
“See, you’re being–and I’m gonna use a real fancy word here–anthropocentric. Thinking that the human perspective is the only valid one; and, yes, I know that for daily to-ings and fro-ings, the human perspective is the one that matters. I’m not talking about that.
“Fruit fly’s 24 hours is his whole life. Fruit Fly Grundy, born on a Monday. Died on a Monday, too. 24 hours, that’s all a fruit fly gets. I did the math, cats and kittens, I did the math. Hour of that fruit fly’s life is three years of yours. Assuming you get your three-score-and-ten. Assuming you don’t get cheated.
“But no one cares about fruit flies but scientists and hungry beetles. And besides: let’s get loose with our viewpoints.
“What’s a day to a place? A house, an office building, a store. What’s 24 hours to a neighborhood? Ahhhh. Now, we’re talking about something good and strange. Ekistocentric thought. You can look that up, but I’ll break it down: the settlement as the hero. The main character.
“Gotta have a hero in your stories.
“Now take that 24 hours, the same 24 hours you scoffed at, and look at them again. Look at that day through Little Aleppo’s eyes, at her pace. Whaddya got? Apartment blocks full of stories. You got joy, and you got pain. You got sunshine, and you got rain. Children’s daydreams and old men’s regrets, and stacked up newspapers and letters to the editor. Parties and funerals.
“Why don’t we get specific? You wanna get specific?
“First kisses. How many do you get, puny human? Only a couple good ones. I mean, you get a lot, but only a few are worth a damn. That one behind the bleachers. Outside that Italian place with the cheesy tablecloths. He pulls you into him. She laces her fingers into yours. You go in fast, right? But you take the last few inches real slow. Rub noses like movie Eskimos. THAMP THAMP THAMP. That’s your heart. You only get a couple good ones.
“Neighborhood has ten of those every day. Ten first kisses, twelve, fifteen, who knows how many? All that love slipping in. Past the words and the reason and the metaphor. Just love lining the cracks of the sidewalk.
“Not just love, though.
“Lot can happen in 24 hours, cats and kittens! Ain’t you glad you got Frankie Nickels and good old KHAY–Hey!–to help you through the rough patches?
“It is 8 am in Little Aleppo, and you need to get out of your own head. Because it is most assuredly up your ass.”
“It’s shit,” Precarious Lee said.
“It’s not shit,” Romeo Rodriguez answered.
High atop Pulaski Peak, an ex-cop was arguing with an ex-roadie.
“Yeah,” Romeo said.
“It’s shit. They get that far, you’re fucked.”
The summit of Pulaski Peak had been flattish before white people showed up with heavy equipment; now you could play soccer on it. White people love turning land into lawns. Ten acres in the shape of a diamond with rounded vertices. There were walkways sketched through the grass, which was a shade of green that only a lawn with a permanent minder assigned to it can achieve. At the west end, overlooking Little Aleppo, was the Harper Observatory. Opposite that to the east was a crescent moon-shaped stand of trees that overlooked America.
The Observatory was an exact copy of the White House, but bigger. Plus there was a giant telescope sticking out of it and it was on top of a hill in California. Other than that: exact copy.
The two of them were on the Truman Balcony overlooking the grounds looking at a large drawing that the wind kept threatening to snatch.
“Am I even looking at this right?”
“I don’t know. Are you?”
Precarious rotated the paper 180 degrees.
“Nope. Still bullshit.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Romeo said.
Precarious pointed at a squiggle.
“Does that say caltrap?”
“The little fuckers that look like jacks? To pop tires?”
“Right, caltrap. Caltraps are awesome.”
Officer Romeo Rodriguez was tough to look at. Not because he was ugly: on the contrary, he was tall and muscular and had a crooked smile that, when deployed, caused a deep dimple to appear in his cheek on the side opposite the smile. His uniform was tailored and pressed, too; Romeo was always fastidious about his clothes. He was a hunky dude.
He was tough to look at because he was a ghost. You can see ghosts, but your brain generally stops you from doing so; looking straight at a ghost is like looking straight at the sun, but worse. Like if the sun were also your naked mother. You could force yourself, but it’s going to hurt. Easier to ignore, or at least keep in your peripheral vision.
But Precarious Lee–who had seen quite a bit in his life–glanced over at Romeo, and Precarious noticed for the first time how young he was.
“Son, if you’re popping their tires 50 feet from the front door, the game’s over.”
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, don’t call me that.”
“–I think I know something about tactical emplacements. I’m a Marine, okay?”
Precarious handed the map to Romeo, put both hands on the rail, leaned over.
“Looking for a fight,” Precarious said as he lit a cigarette.
“Looking to win a fight, jackass.”
“Nobody wins this kind of fight. Plan’s gotta be to make it impossible for the fight to happen.”
“Don’t tell me about plans, okay. I don’t even know who the hell you are, really.”
“He’s the guy you’re gonna listen to,” Penny Arrabbita said from behind them. She walked out onto the balcony drinking a tallboy of Arrow. She had a fresh can in the pocket of her fuzzy purple robe. 8 in the morning: bedtime for astronomers.
“I don’t need any help, Penny.”
“The fact that you say you don’t need help is evidence that you need help.”
Penny handed Precarious the unopened beer.
“I never refuse a drink from a beautiful woman,” he said.
When women reach a certain age, they acquire a new facial expression, a half-smirk with a lowered brow. It means “While I, as a woman of a certain age, have heard every schmucky line from every putzy man, I appreciate the effort.” Penny shot that expression at Precarious. Men, no matter what age they reach, never figure out what the expression means.
“When you’re hunting for taa-aaste,” he sang in a surprisingly pretty tenor.
“Arrow hits the mark!” they harmonized and toasted with their cans.
“I don’t get one?” Romeo asked Penny.
“You want one?
“No, I don’t want a beer. It’s eight in the morning.”
“There you go. Precarious, Romeo’s in charge. Romeo, do what Precarious says.”
And then she turned around and went back inside to finish her beer and dream of nebulae and comets and, for some reason lately, werewolf Ronald Reagan.
The two men leaned over the railing. Precarious sipped his beer. Romeo looked at his map, and at the grounds, and back at his map.
“Everything besides the road is bullshit, kid. Y’gonna build a fuckin’ moat around the telescope? Wanna mine the lawn? C’mon.”
“Again, Mr. Lee–”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“–I think I know more about this. You ever in the service?”
“That figures,” Romeo smiled.
Precarious didn’t take the bait, just swiped his cigarette against his heel and put the butt in his back pocket.
“Germany,” Precarious said. “You deployed?”
“How was it?’
“Hot in the summer, cold in the winter”
“That’s what I hear.”
Precarious offered the can to Romeo, who took it and had a long pull and said,
“What was your MOS?”
He handed the can back.
“88M. I drove.”
“What’d you do after you got out?”
“Drove for a different army,” Precarious said.
On the lawn, visitors had started to arrive. A school bus with children thrilled to be free from class was letting out in the parking lot right next to a sports car with a doctor in it; her license was about to be taken away because of her drinking, so she he had come to the top of a mountain to get drunk and think about suicide. There were teenagers waiting for their acid to kick in; there were old lonely men who had come to feed the birds; there were people who had been fired three weeks ago and had not figured out how to tell their spouses.
“You think you got some kinda great destiny coming,” Precarious said. “Final battle or some bullshit. Ain’t about you.”
“Never said it was.”
“You ain’t the star of the show. No redemption here, just a job. Do it right or don’t do it at all.”
“I’m trying to!”
“Y’got your head up your ghost ass.”
Mister Hamburger was on the air, live, broadcasting from the fabulous KSOS studios in Little Aleppo. Breakfast With Mister Hamburger was the number one show in the neighborhood by a landslide: full penetration. He did his show every weekday morning from 7-9; two generations of kids had grown up with him.
“Panopticality, children. That’s what we’re talking about this morning. Not just the ability to see all, but the ability to see all without revelation of self. The thousand-eyed beast in the dark with a flashlight for a mind. Is it moral? Not ‘Is it possible?’ We know that it’s possible. But is this desired? The question we’re asking, really, is this: Are all views worthwhile? Maybe some are lesser than others, maybe some should be avoided.
“Furthermore, does the concept of humanity itself depend on a singular point of view?
“I don’t know. Do you? Let’s take a call.”
Mister Hamburger had bad skin, and one eye was far larger than the other. His tie knot was enormous, and he crossed one stork-like leg over the other as he punched a button on the phone next to his chair. PHWOOOO he blew out the smoke from his cigarette.
“Mister Hamburger, I love you. My name is Timmy and I love you.”
“Timmy, my soul contains dread. I need you to know that. Permeated with sheer dread.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“Thanks for the call.” He picked up the receiver and hung it up.
“Our humanity lies in its positionalilty, not in super-position. We are not quanta, children. At least, Mister Hamburger isn’t. I don’t know about your parents, I haven’t met them. One scope. This is how a human views the world, through one lens with the implicit understanding that to see is to allow yourself to be seen. To remove that, to remove the material from the etherocorporeal gestalt that makes up a being…what does that do?
“Ever see The Invisible Man, children? Claude Rains. Great stuff. Doesn’t turn out too well for the Invisible Man.”
“Let’s take another call.”
He hit the button on the phone.
“Mister Hamburger, my name is also Timmy and you are my favorite.”
Mister Hamburger pointed at the camera with the two fingers his cigarette was cradled in, eyes flashing.
“No! I do not grant you authority to grade me! I reject your metric!”
“Okay. I love you.”
“Thanks for the call.”
He lifted the receiver and set it down.
“Man learned to worship before he mastered fire. This was the first thought, this was the first step, this was the first doorway in between animal and angel. To worship is to acknowledge an eye peering down upon you: this was the first thought, children. The eye in the sky, kids.
“The eye is the sky, kids.”
The teevee at the Victory Diner was tuned to KSOS like always; the Reverend Arcade Jones was transfixed. He and Deacon Blue were sitting at a table in the middle of the floor, and Arcade couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. His apartment at the First Church of the Iterated Christ had a teevee, but the Reverend only used it to watch movies. Sometimes, he would watch tapes of his old college games, but mostly just movies. He had not been in Little Aleppo for long, and he thought he was getting used to the oddness–he liked most of it, to be honest–but the Mister Hamburger show was freaking him out.
“I just don’t understand how this is a children’s show.”
“It’s a mystery,” Deacon Blue answered as he stabbed his eggs and shoveled them in his mouth. “But the kids love him. Raised mine on him.”
“And do they understand what the hell he’s talking about? I sure don’t.”
Deacon Blue wiped his mouth with his paper napkin.
“I don’t think Mister Hamburger’s ideas get understood so much as they get implanted.”
The Victory Diner was on the Main Drag. It was a 48-hour diner, which is like a 24-hour diner, but double. The plates were off-white oval slabs that could survive being hurled at brick walls, or used as discuses in the impromptu track-and-field meets that would break out when the coffee was too strong. The menus were both the largest and shortest in the world: four feet long slabs of leather binding and paper-under-plastic with 25 pages; each page said, simply, “We have it.” The Victory Diner was like all 48-hour diners in that everything was on the menu; it was also like every other 48-hour diner in that you should really only order breakfast or a cheeseburger.
The Reverend Arcade Jones had ordered breakfast and a cheeseburger, plus another breakfast: he had five plates in front of him with eggs and pancakes and fruit and about a loaf’s worth of toast and another plate with a different kind of eggs. And the cheeseburger. Arcade was a large and hungry man–6’5″ and over 300 pounds with hands the size of manhole covers–and he ate quickly, but with impeccable manners. The Reverend did not put his elbows on the table, not did he talk with his mouth full, and he was wearing a suit the same color of an infield on Opening Day. Jacket on the back of the chair; napkins tucked into collar, draped over each emerald thigh.
“But how does this entertain children? It’s an unattractive man spouting nonsense.”
“Dunno about that. Mister Hamburger makes some good points.”
“Okay, perhaps, but even if he does: why do kids like this? Kids like cartoons and puppets.”
“Mister Hamburger’s got puppets.”
On the screen, Mister Hamburger was wearing a cow puppet on his right hand.
“Good morning, Flipper T. Gibbet”
Then he opened the cow’s mouth and shrieked for around ten seconds.
“What was that, Flipper T.?”
“That was the scream of cataclysm,” the cow puppet responded. “I hear it every time I close my eyes.”
The Reverend stared at the screen in confusion.
“That’s not normal, man.”
Deacon Blue only had one breakfast–poached eggs and toast–and had not removed the jacket to his suit, which was suit-colored. Somewhere in between blue and grey. He had been trying to eat healthier, so he had foregone his side order of bacon but just ended up stealing strips off the Reverend’s plates.
“You’re coming at it from a ‘reality should be this way’ kind of place. Start from the proposition that reality is doing what it wants to do.”
“I am! I just don’t understand why reality would want to do that!”
“Reality’s squirrely,” Deacon Blue said as he swirled his egg in a pool of ketchup. “You gotta be ready for this meeting tonight, Reverend.”
All the waitresses in the Victory Diner have some tattoos that they regret, and some they’re proud of. Several had piercings they were unable to remove. One of them, Hester Prim, refilled the men’s coffee. Behind the counter was the service window, and behind that was the grill, and behind that was Louie Bucca; you coud hear his metal spatula against the grill-top cutting up hash browns.
“Neighborhood meetings get weird, man. And people seem keyed up.”
“I’ve noticed. Everyone seems very attached to that Observatory.”
“Like, half of everybody around here lost their virginity up there. It’s touchy.”
“I hear you. Why we doing this in the church?”
Deacon Blue stole another piece of bacon.
“Because it turns out it’s a terrible idea to hold neighborhood meetings in the bar.”
“Oh, I can’t imagine that turned out well,” the Reverend said.
“Angry mob. Every. Single. Time.”
“Sure. But what about a school? Or the public library? Isn’t this a secular matter, Deacon?”
“Sanctuary is sanctuary, I suppose.”
They each sipped their coffee: black for the Deacon, light and sugary for the Reverend.
“And, you know church or not, it’s still gonna get a little rowdy.”
“It won’t get that rowdy,” Arcade Jones said from under lowered eyelids.
“Yeah, no. You’re gonna have to throw some people out.”
“I can handle a room.”
“Uh-huh. You’re gonna have to throw some people out.”
“We’ll see, Deacon.”
“We won’t, Reverend. You will. Trust me on this one.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones smiled and ate an entire piece of toast in one bite of his yard-wide mouth. Deacon Blue stole another piece of bacon as Hester dropped the check.
Louie Bucca was in the back scrambling another dozen eggs and poking at bubbles in pancakes on the sizzling grill, and two men of God were drinking coffee and enjoying breakfast, and Mister Hamburger was entertaining the children, and high atop Pulaski Peak a ghost cop and an ex-roadie were arguing about the proper way to defend a mountaintop. It was eight in the morning, and all the church bells up on Rose Street were tolling the hour: first the Calling Judge in the belfry of the First Church of the Iterated Christ, and then St. Clement’s and St. Martin’s and St. Mary’s, and then all the local dogs joined in howling as a new and unpredictable morning took root in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.