The Tahitian was solid, but its owner was wobbly. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, had woken up in Big-Dicked Sheila’s bed–they had been spending a lot of time in bed–to a ringing phone. 8 a.m.? On a Saturday? Jesus, no, fuck no, what? Sheila reached out from under the covers, picked up the receiver of the baby-blue princess phone, replaced the receiver.
Quiet, and Gussy rolled into Sheila and draped her arm over her skinny chest and massaged her shoulder. The phone again. Both women opened their eyes: Sheila stared at the ceiling; Gussy’s face was buried in Sheila’s armpit, so she just saw stubble, and then she shoved her nose in the ‘pit like a truffle-hunting pig, inhaled for all she was worth. Sheila smiled, and slapped at the nightstand. The phone? No, her cigarettes. She offered one to Gussy.
Sheila took a Camel out of the soft pack with her lips. Yellow lighter went FFT, and she inhaled and PHWOO and then hacked out three wet, crunchy coughs: smokers make frightening sounds in the morning when that first drag loosens up the phlegm all those motionless hours have caked to their lungs. It doubled her over, then she laid back on the bed. The phone was still ringing, so she picked it up and placed the receiver on her chest. They listened for a second.
“Is that the Stones?’
“Uh-huh,” Sheila answered.
“She’s a mess.”
“Uh-huh,” Sheila said and lifted the phone to her ear. “What the fuck, sweetie?”
Gussy got out of bed. The door to the bathroom was open, and she caught Sheila looking at her ass as she walked. Gussy did not turn the light on: there was enough coming in the pebbled window in the shower, and she shut the door behind her. Clean floor, toilet, shower. Bleached and sparkling grout. Messy sink: makeup, four hairbrushes, eyelash crimper, razor. Extendable mirror attached to the wall by an accordion hinge. A signed promotional photo of Serge Gainsbourg above the toilet tank. Put the seat down, sat, pissed, wiped. She had never had a girlfriend before where she had to put the seat down. Gussy had dated women before, and lots of men. She was polyamorous, but only for a week: she enjoyed the threesomes, but truly had no interest in keeping up more than one relationship at once.
The door was thin, and she could hear Sheila’s end of the conversation.
“Of course I was asleep. I sleep at night like a human, Tirry.”
Gussy heard the phone resettle, and Sheila grunt as she PHWOO blew out the smoke of her cigarette and thwunk thwunk she stubbed it out in an ashtray that was square-shaped with rounded-off corners with divots cut out of them; it had The Menefreghista – Where The Stars Come To Shine written in fancy black cursive on the bottom glass, faded but readable; Sheila had paid two dollars for it in a thrift store in the Low Desert. Once, she had to hit a guy in the forehead with it. More damage to him than to the ashtray. Old-school craftsmanship, she figured.
Back into bed, into warmth and stink and flesh: the sheets were stained, and the sheets were sweaty, and the left corner at the foot of the bed was hanging on to the mattress by the skin of its elastic. Maroon, the sheets, and the blanket was tangerine, and one pillow was chartreuse and the other puce. Sheila wore black, but lived among color. It cheered her. Primaries and neons thrown together and refusing to complement. Free country, she thought, whenever she stuck a blue chair on a green rug. She turned over and threw her arm over Gussy, pulled her closer and Gussy shoved her crotch right up against her cock and put a hand on Sheila’s ass and pulled her even closer; their bellies were rubbed up against each other and Sheila put her hand on the back of Gussy’s head, fingers twined into brown hair, and blinked as slowly as possible; Gussy made a small noise like “Uhhh” and put her forehead into Sheila’s, and then she rotated her head up and the bridges of their noses collided, then the tips, and then the nostrils, and then the philtrums, and oh God the lips; they did not kiss each other for a moment, just held their mouths there sharing breath and still until there was nothing else, nothing else in the whole damned world, barely touching at all, just the prow of the upper lip rubbing back and forth so softly and slowly and then Sheila makes a fist out of Gussy’s hair, pulls her head back swift and fierce and forceful, and Gussy makes a small noise like “Ohhhh” and Sheila pivots on top of her, rolls Gussy onto her back and straddles her; Sheila’s balls are squished against Gussy’s belly button, and her cock is not hard, but thick and pulsing and resting on Gussy’s sternum; Sheila takes Gussy’s wrists in her hand–she can barely get her thumb and middle finger to touch–and holds her arms above her head against the grated metal headboard of her bed and leans down–Sheila does not hunch; her back is arched–and kisses her hard, and shoves her tongue deep in her mouth; Gussy’s hips start to buck under Sheila, and she rips her hands free and puts them on Sheila’s waist, lifts her up and splays her feet out to the north and south, puts her down between her legs and grabs her cock, hard now, and then Sheila is inside of Gussy and she makes a small noise like “Ahhh” and there was nothing else in the whole damned world.
“Maybe I should come.”
“You’re not coming,” Penny Arrabbiata said.
“I’ve been thinking it over,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez said.
“Don’t do that.”
“And maybe I should come to the meeting.”
Penny had an apartment on Bransauer Avenue, but most nights she cracked open her first Arrow at dawn and slept on the couch; her office had no windows, and she would line the bottom crack of the doorjamb with a towel like a freshman getting high. Pitch black. Crank up the AC. She was fine there.
Except when ghost cops wouldn’t leave her alone.
“You’re not coming.”
“You’re a ghost,” Penny said in the same tone of voice you might answer “Four” to the question “What’s two times two?”
“I’m a cop.”
“You still getting a paycheck?”
“I don’t really need money any more,” he said.
“Oh, because you’re a ghost?”
“What does that have to do with it?”
Penny swallowed a mouthful of beer, and then took another large swig. She was sitting at her messy desk; he was on the couch. Not on the couch: you could vaguely see though his legs and note that the cushion under him not compressed by his weight. Ghosts don’t technically sit on things. They sit “on” things.
“I’m not a kid.”
“–you’re not coming to the meeting because you’re a ghost and that’s final. That mean asshole’s gonna be mad enough to see a black guy and a woman he doesn’t want to fuck; we’re not bringing along a spectral apparition.”
Romeo Rodriguez had been shot in the face his first day on the job. He was returned to Little Aleppo for a reason–spirits hook onto a place for a reason–but no one had told him what that reason was, so he decided to throw in with Penny and try to save the Observatory. Maybe we’re all ghost cops, Romeo thought, brought back for a purpose not told to us in order so that we may learn to find our own purpose? And then Romeo thought, that’s some strenuously dumb shit I just thought; maybe I should stop thinking for a while and let the juices recharge.
“What?” Penny said.
“Like…ghost shit? Freak him out?”
“Wander around his office in a sheet going ‘Ooga-booga?'”
“But, sort of like that?”
“Romeo. Honey. You’re not coming to the meeting. Unless, you know,” Penny took another slug off her beer, “you can be invisible. And not say a goddamned word.”
She upended the can, crushed it while making eye contact with Romeo, reached under her desk and opened the mini-fridge. Fresh tallboy of Arrow. She opened it PSHH-OP! and raised it slightly towards him and poured some back, eyes on the drop ceiling. Grid of squares. Metal lattice with foam inserts. Big holes, little holes. When Penny looked back at the couch, there was no one there and then when she looked around the small office, there was no one there, either.
“Well, that’s fucked up.”
“No idea I could do this,” Romeo’s voice came from the place where his head used to be.
“How are you doing that?”
“Thinking see-through thoughts.”
“Is that all it takes?”
“This is helpful, Romeo. This,” she took a pull of the beer, “is a helpful ability.”
He was happy to hear that.
“I have no idea.”
Harper Observatory’s parking lot was filling up: there were school buses and beaters. Children come to learn, grown-ups come to yearn. All of Little Aleppo lay beneath and behind the main building, which was exactly like the White House, but a little bigger and with a giant telescope sticking out above the Truman Balcony. You could see the Main Drag slashing north to south. If you knew trigonometry, you could calculate the distance; if you didn’t, then you would just know that it was too far to leap.
But you could stand there, not ten feet from the edge of the machine-flattened summit of Pulaski Peak. There was a chain-link fence with a sign on it:
This is a fence. For legal purposes, this is a fence. It can be climbed, uprooted, or tunneled under, but it is still a fence and you know what that means.
Try not to fall off the mountain.
(The phrase “Try not to fall off the mountain” could be seen on tee-shirts around the neighborhood. Little Aleppians admired the phrasing, and its acknowledgment of both free will and destiny. People fell off mountains. It was inevitable. But you could try not to.)
Put your hand up, blot out half the Upside. The Verdance, gone by palm. Swivel your waist and spread your fingers: there goes the harbor. You’ve got Godzilla at the end of your arm, a whole army of turtlemonsters, worse. Ball up your fist and pound flat the churches, the schools; whoever’s on your list. Everybody’s got a list. Writing it down makes you a paranoiac, but just having one? Made you human.
Field mice that avoided the cats ignored the fence and scampered up and down the choking cliffs, made of fur and fear and fast metabolisms. These are the winning mice. The ones you don’t see got eaten.
Every person you’ve ever met has been a survivor.
“Gonna be the death of me,” Gussy mumbled.
She did not feel like a survivor, just jumbled up and clumsy; certainly, she smelled. Gussy’s shoes were on the floor, but not next to each other–they’d been kicked off–and she was on the couch half-asleep and half-keeping an ear out for catastrophe. Julio could handle it and oh God it was Saturday, sonofabitching Saturday: after the seven o’clock show, and after the nine o’clock show, there was still the Midnight Movie with Draculette. Whose fault this all was. Don’t show up to work fucked up–it was inevitable, but you could try not–and especially don’t show up to work fucked up if you were the boss. A thought popped up like a target at a shooting range: another line would truly set you right. PING she shot it down. Well, how about a cigarette? She put the gun down, reached to the floor where her purse was. She had a yellow lighter like Sheila’s because she had stolen Sheila’s yellow lighter, and Gussy rubbed her thumb along it thinking about Sheila’s cock FFT she inhaled and PHWOO blew out. She had quit four years prior, and was lying to herself and knew it: I am not a smoker, she thought. I’m just smoking. Difference, she bullshitted. Big difference. She could still blow smoke rings PWOFF PWOFF; it was one of those non-forgettable, bike-riding type skills, apparently.
Sheila was sitting cross-legged on the bed, naked, with The White Album in her lap. She hated The Beatles, but there wasn’t anything better to roll joints on. Six every morning, placed in an old-fashioned cigarette case with a tight elastic strap to keep the doobies secure. Sometimes, she’d end the day with none and other times with all six: it depended on how many friends she ran into. One had made her way into the bed, so Sheila lit up the first one that she rolled and handed it to Gussy, who said,
“It’s Saturday,” Sheila said and–careful not to upset the weed–leaned back and over and kissed her; Gussy wondered if they would fuck again, hoped they would, and she took the joint from Sheila, hit it, said,
“You’re a terrible influence.”
Sheila kissed her again.
“Wait until I say that we should go get a drink.”
The church bells on Rose Street struck ten. The Calling Judge in the First Church of the Iterated Christ, and then St. Clement’s, and St. Martin’s, and St. Mary’s.
“Come with. I gotta fetch Tirry. You were right,” Sheila said.
And kissed her.
“She’s a mess.
And kissed her again.
“You were right.”
“You’re very smart.”
And once more.
“I know what you’re doing,” Gussy said.
“Do you like it?”
“Yeah,” Gussy said under her breath.
Sheila had not spilled a speck of pot while she was turned around, and now she went back to her task. She rolled joints fast and tight, and she would twist the paper at the end so it resembled a Japanese fan. When she was finished with each one, she reached into the open drawer of her nightstand and plucked a premade cardboard filter, white, from a baggie. Condoms, lube, dildo, rolling papers, a Bible that Precarious Lee had stolen for her, a snub-nosed .38 (loaded), prescription bottles of varying fullness with the labels peeled off. Just the filter. Sheila had thin fingers, but they were strong and did not ever shake, and she closed one eye and fixed the tiny cardboard wedge in the end of the joint.
When she was done, she snapped the cigarette case closed and laid it the bed next to her. Frisbeed The White Album to the floor; it slid across the hardwood and bounced off the baseboard. She spins off the bed and now standing naked with a hip out, hand on it, other on the mattress and finger beckoning Gussy towards her.
“Just a hop, skip, and a jump,” Sheila says. Her hair is short and as red as a screaming infant.
Gussy puts her hands behind her head and says nothing; Sheila looks at her tits.
“Okay, forget the drink. But we should go get her.”
Gussy gets up on her knees, goes to Sheila, kisses her, and again, and again.
“Are you fucking her?”
Sheila had a low, stuttering laugh–she hated it, thought it was coarse–that went Huh-uh-uh; not the polite laugh or the “I’m agreeing with you,” laugh, the real one that gets forced out at the point of a sharp incongruity. Sheila laughed, and then she took Gussy’s whole head, grabbed it with both hands under the ears and locked it in place: fast, she came in for a kiss and their noses jammed together. Gussy made a small noise like “Mmmm.”
“Holy shit, no. So much no,” Sheila said. “No a million times.”
“Methinks the big-dicked lady doth protest too much.”
“Oh, honey, no. No. I’ve known Tirry for years. She’s my friend, that’s it.”
“Am I your friend?”
Sheila kissed her and said,
“Perish the thought.”
There were other things said. Mimosas were mentioned, and the prospect of not drinking at all was discussed further, but when they got to the Morning Tavern, there were shots waiting for them and there was a bathroom stall waiting for them and by noon all three were shitty and in need of tacos.
The seven o’clock show had just been seated, and the movie was ratcheting up. Soon, a cartoon would advise snack purchases: you could hear the auditorium through the thin door of Gussy’s office. It was a wasted day–she had been wasted all day–and she lay there smiling and thinking about getting fucked the night before, and thinking about getting fucked that morning, but she was also thinking about the walk over to the Morning Tavern from Sheila’s apartment: she lived above her shop, and so the door to her building emptied out right onto the Main Drag. Gussy thought about turning left and heading to the Upside, and she thought about Sheila taking her hand and not letting it go for the whole trip, and Gussy wondered if her heart would get broken again. They do that. Sometimes, it seems like all hearts do is break, even in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.