The man in black moseyed across the Main Drag, and the pickpocket followed. Not too close, and not quite precise–the pickpocket wandered and weaved and pretended to read his folded-up Cenotaph on the move–but the man in black never left his sights. He had chosen a tough mark for his Mark, or at least a tough day: the rain made everything except gardening more difficult, but this would only improve the pickpocket’s status if he could succeed.
Picking a man’s pockets caused cognitive dissonance in Little Aleppians. The act was, according to any honest onlooker, technically impressive, not even mentioning the balls it took. While clipping wallets didn’t have the panache of cat burglary or confidence artistry, it was at least a semi-stylish crime; even if it produced the same effect as a mugging, it wasn’t as rude. Hell, everyone in the neighborhood had read the Fingers Foy books. (Fingers was both the best and worst pickpocket in the world: best in that no one ever caught him; worst in that he always managed to steal some sort of valuable macguffin–secret plans, maybe, or an evil microchip–in the first chapter that thrust him into another dangerous adventure.)
On the other hand, one’s pockets were sacrosanct.
So the rules came to be: locals were to be left alone (commuters and regular guests counted as locals) and only the correct visitors could be relieved of their possessions. Teens from neighboring locales who came in to see a show at the Absalom could not be robbed, but the band definitely could. A potential homebuyer along with the real estate agent were off-limits, but the asshole from the chain coffee place looking for a site from which to overcharge people was fair game. Any and all journalists that didn’t work for the Cenotaph or KSOS were stripped of their wallets and watches with haste and glee.
The pickpockets drank at the Seven Bells on the Downside, which was Little Aleppo’s home for semi-organized crime. Organized crime was the purview of the large gentlemen at Cagliostro’s, and unorganized crime didn’t have a set meeting place, but semi-organized crime was run out of the Seven Bells. Gloria Daio tended bar; she could nod at the right scumbag for you if you had a twenty and weren’t a cop, fifty if you were. The kid had impressed the older criminals: he looked like a pickpocket, which is to say completely unnoticeable even if you were looking right at him, and that is the toughest hurdle of the racket. Techniques can be learned, but if you were weird-looking or too big or too small, then you couldn’t be a pickpocket. And he was not a quick-hitter, which is to say a sneak-thief who used a razor blade to slice pockets and watchbands, no: he fanned and feathered and dipped and snagged. This was preferable: a cut-open back pocket left no doubt as to the whereabouts of the victim’s wallet, but an intact one provided only mystery. (“Perhaps it fell out,” some marks would say, and not file a police report. Others would go to the LAPD (No, Not That One) and the officer taking the report would say, “Perhaps it fell out.” Because they were good citizens, and community-minded, the pickpockets from the Seven Bells gave a healthy contribution to the Policeman’s Benevolent Fund each year.
They took pride in their work, the pickpockets did, or at least they took pride in their skills. Better to be the best at doing wrong than merely adequate at doing right, they thought. The killers made their bones, and the Pulaski served their Assignment, but the pickpockets chose their Mark.
“We play the real art shit when it rains.”
“Figured it out,” Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, said. “The truly punishing movies? The nine-hour Polish meditations on death and berry allergies? The stuff with, like, necropsies edited in because symbolism or whatnot? Everything Andy Warhol ever made?”
She took a hit off the joint and PHWOO blew it out and handed it to Big-Dicked Sheila, who was in the next barber’s chair.
“That shit has an unshakable audience. The people that wanna see that shit would walk through Hell to be there when the curtains open. Little rain won’t stop ’em. Unlike the rest of these pussies.”
“I disagree,” Sheila said. “Not pussy at all to not want to go out in the rain. That’s the sophisticated stand.”
“Yeah.” PHWOO. “Ever watch one of those nature documentaries where the wildebeest or whatever is just standing there while it rained? And you just think, ‘What a putz.’ Humans know enough to get in out of the rain. It’s one of our redeeming features, Gus.”
Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk had six chairs, three on each side, and two shampooing stations behind them. Up front was the register, and four chairs to wait in. Magazines were on the table, and polemics, too. Several manifestos had entered the public realm through Sheila’s waiting room. The floor was shiny black, and the walls were stark white; occasional and dramatic neon highlights: Sheila was the very first person in America to do a retro-80’s thing. She redecorated every 18 months, but always kept the pictures on the wall: there was the cranky bass player, and the actor who keeps gaining and losing weight, and that tennis player that went nuts.
“As is our invention of the umbrella, Sheel.”
“Do you know that the umbrella was originally used as a weapon by Filipinos?”
“You’re thinking of yo-yos.”
Sheila stared at a point in between her nose and God and said,
The women’s chairs were swiveled towards each other, and Gussy reached her foot out to Sheila’s shin, ran it up and down. Smooth as newly-poured highway. Sheila was not naturally hairy, but what follicles did thrive had been electrocuted long ago. Arms, legs, face, balls: zap that shit. Why fight a rearguard action when you could bomb the headquarters? she would have thought were she given to military-themed analogies. Sheila had a vision of herself in her mind, and if her did not agree, then her flesh could be made to agree.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care how much it hurts.
“Pretty much,” Sheila said. “Might get a walk-in, but all the appointments cancelled.”
“All of them?”
“And this happens every time it rains?”
“Every 18 days.”
“Why do you even take appointments, then?”
“Baby, I’m a slut for hope.”
The shop opened up onto the Main Drag, sodden and murky, where the man in black was bumped–Excuse me! My fault!–by a passerby on the sidewalk. Man smelled drunk, no wonder he’s sloshing around the way. What kind of neighborhood is this, anyway? And all around him were the most unnoticeable of sorts.
That was the wallet. The pickpocket had made its location immediately: it was a manly wallet, thick and packed with photos and receipts and lists and credit cards that no longer worked, must have weighed a pound and weighing down the right ass-pocket of the man in black’s trousers. That was the wallet. That was one, three to go.
Neither woman in the hair salon noticed, and, soon enough, Gussy had to leave for The Tahitian. She did not want to, wanted to go back upstairs to Sheila’s apartment and be naked, be naked and fuck until the sun went out, and she almost did not because when she kissed her goodbye, Sheila rushed her hand under her dress and started rubbing her pussy, and she grabbed Gussy’s hand by the wrist and shoved it under her dress so it was clutching her cock–Sheila was not playing fair in the slightest–and Gussy backed off but didn’t want to, and kissed her again and again, but then she put on her shoes and kissed her one more time, and out the door and left onto the Main Drag. Grabbed an umbrella on the way out.
Sheila’s salon was on the west side of the street, and The Tahitian was on the east. Three blocks between them. Gussy was annoyed with the umbrella. Black. Gussy hated black umbrellas. It was already raining, she thought. Why not be cheerful? Her dress was blue, and tight in the hip and low on her chest; the skirt was just above knee-length. Galoshes, childish-yellow, that she loved and made her almost–almost–look forward to the rains. (The pair of pumps in her backpack were the same shade.)
There was Arbogast and Nethers, the bespoke millinery; theories abounded as to how a store that only sold hats to rich ladies survived in Little Aleppo, but it had been there forever. Sheila thought they were aliens; Mr. Venable agreed. Precarious Lee was flat-out scared of the place.
Randy’s Record Barn did not have its crates of records out on the sidewalk for obsessives to flip through. You could not wash your chile rellenos down with a plastic pitcher of Arrow at the four little tables that usually sat outside of Mendoza’s.
The (fifth) First Bank of Little Aleppo, and the corner where Spotty Anthony was crushed by the piano in what local historians refer to as “the most needlessly over-complicated mob hit ever.” Vague and semi-evocative graffiti starring Gallic pituitary cases. The vacuum cleaner place, We Suck, and the hair dryer place, You Blow.
A lot can happen in three blocks.
It was neither Tuesday nor Friday, and so there was no Mother Mary drawing, and so the Broadside Newstand–which ran along the south wall of The Tahitian on Gower Avenue–was closed. Omar would not stand out in the rain all day like a dog. Argus (even though he was a dog) wouldn’t, either. When customers complained the day after the rains–and they always did–Omar would say,
“Yes, yes, You have a point, but I don’t give a shit.”
And Argus would back him up.
Occasionally, the customer would launch into a harangue about the pioneer spirit, and the hardships faced by our common ancestors, but Omar stuck to his guns.
“Tough life back then. But I don’t give a shit now.”
The shutters were down on the Broadside, and the shutters were down on The Tahitian; Gussy unlocked them and SHAKSHAKSHAK slid them up, one on each side of the box office, which had a thick wooden door latched shut behind the window with the circular cutout. The light switches were on the other side of the lobby, so she walked through darkness. No footsteps on the red carpeting with yellow shooting streaks, and no sun coming off the Main Drag; the high ceiling ate up all the light, and you could not see the chandelier. It was still.
And then it wasn’t.
“Whaaaaaat? I just walked in the door, Wally.”
DO NOT CALL ME THAT. I HAVE BEEN THINKING.
Gussy flicked the row of switches: there was the lobby, same as it was in 1906 when her great-grandmother Augusta Incandescente-Ponui, who was also called Gussy, opened the theater. The carpet was different, and the paint, too, plus the snack bar was on the other side originally and the video games weren’t from 1906, obviously, but other than that everything was exactly the same.
“Of course you have. It’s artificial intelligence, not artificial stupidity.”
SPOT ON. YOU GET ME.
She ignored him and walked into her office. Switched her galoshes for her pumps.
I WOULD LIKE TO SOLVE THE ARSON PROBLEM FOR THE NEIGHBORHOOD.
“I would like you to do that, too.”
YOU STYMIED MY PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS AT ASSISTANCE.
Wally used to be the Wall Of Sound, which was a sound system so famously silly that it got its own name; somewhere along the way–experts think Atlanta, or maybe that fronton in Miami–sentience was achieved and, it turns out, self-aware mondo-computers are much like ducks in that they imprint on the first creatures they see. Wally saw a gaggle of bush league hippies, and he’s been off-kilter ever since.
“Your previous attempts at assistance all included machine guns.”
There was a stack of photocopied paper on Gussy’s neat desk, in a wire basket top left, and she peeled off the top sheet and stuck it in the clipboard that was in the center of the desk. A pen was attached to the clipboard with red yarn and scotch tape. Checklists. Can’t go wrong with a checklist. Are there this many soda cups? If yes, check; if not, get more cups. Are there that many popcorn buckets? Has the balcony been booby-trapped?
THIS ONE DOES NOT.
NOT NECESSARILY, NO.
“What does that mean?”
WEAPONRY MAY BE INVOLVED, BUT IT IS NOT A GUARANTEE.
Gussy thought about having a cigarette, but Wally’s voice came through the walls and it wasn’t like she could hide from him anywhere in the building, so she walked out to the lobby.
I WISH TO PROJECT MYSELF THROUGH A PASSABLY HUMAN ROBOT AND CRACK THE CASE SAM SPADE-STYLE.
“Go to it.”
EXCELLENT. WILL YOU HAVE A PASSABLY HUMAN ROBOT CONSTRUCTED FOR ME?
I WILL HIT THE STREETS FOR JUSTICE.
“Good for you. Not interested.”
Gussy scooped coffee grounds into the percolator. Art film fans loved coffee.
WHY DO YOU HATE JUSTICE?
“I can’t build you a robot. Have you tried calling Precarious?”
HE HANGS UP ON ME.
“The man ain’t dumb.”
The man in black exited Gildersleeve Spire, which everyone called Tower Tower and was the tallest, ugliest, and most hated building in the neighborhood. Concrete and steel on the outside; real estate developers and ad agencies inside: something for everyone to despise. It cast–for 17 days out of every 18–an immense shadow over the Main Drag, sweeping parabolically and according to the season.
He popped his black umbrella. It immediately became tangled with another, one held by a woman, a dainty orange number. He said, Pardon me, and she smiled and laughed–a very friendly laugh–and while they were entangled, the pickpocket lifted his watch. Two down, two to go.
“Circulonuminous inversion of the limbostratus.”
“It’s a real thing,” Rabbi Levy said. “Or, at least, people believe it’s a real thing. It’s real thing-adjacent.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones cocked an eyebrow and said,
“I took a meteorology class at college.”
“Me, too! Fascinating stuff.”
“And I’m almost positive that what you just said is made up.”
“It might be. There’s a whole bunch of explanations as to why it rains every 18 days.”
The rabbi and the reverend were in the First Church of the Iterated Christ, which was west of the Main Drag on Rose Street. The gloom sulked through the stained glass in the sanctuary. The pews were in shadows, and the crucifix above the bema, too. There was a necktie on Jesus; it was pink, with a brunette Vargas girl painted on.
That day, Lenny Levy, who was a rabbi, had counseled a young couple who were going to be married the following week; Arcade Jones, who was a reverend, had broken up two knife fights at the Knifefighters Anonymous meeting, and prayed deeply about whether or not he could continue hosting that particular group. Earnest Hubbs, who was a handyman who had arrived at the First Church with the Jews, unclogged the downstairs toilet–this was also the fault of Knifefighters Anonymous–and laid on his neatly-made bed reading a cheap science-fiction novel, one of those space operas where inertia doesn’t matter. Kischka, who was a cat, took three big naps and six small naps. Emergency, who was a dog, took two naps but mostly stuck close to the reverend. Mrs. Fong, who was Mrs. Fong, answered the phone, but not well, and also took two naps.
“The Communists say that the People are responsible. The Capitalists say it’s the Market. Geologists say the mountains are the key, but the oceanologists think the harbor is the important factor. Philosophers swear that the rains mean something, but gardeners just depend on them. Hell on small business-owners, but great for novelists: hang a story on ’em, set the mood, whatever.”
“Whole lotta whatever to Little Aleppo, Reverend.”
There were two couches in the office, and they were sad items. Springs cock-eyed and cushions turned over again and again. One was brown-and-orange, and the other was orange-and-brown; they did not match at all; both had served previous, more dignified, careers in private homes before being donated to the First Church years ago. Rabbi Levy sat on one, and the Reverend Arcade Jones took up all of the other except for a little corner that Emergency had wedged himself into. He was the color of rusty gold with a wet black nose, and he was dog-sized. Some dogs are the size of horses, and they only live for a few years; other dogs are the size of rats, and they are little shits, but the best dogs are the size that dogs should be. The proper size for a dog is like pornography: you know it when you see it.
Emergency had his head laying on Arcade’s thigh.
“I didn’t grow up here.”
“You’re fitting in quite nicely,” the rabbi said, and the reverend threw back his head and laughed so loudly and suddenly that he startled Mrs. Fong, who was beginning her third nap. She snatched up the receiver of the telephone.
“First Church of the Iterated Christ?”
“That wasn’t the phone, Mrs. Fong,” Arcade said.
“First Church of the Iterated Christ? Hello?”
“That wasn’t…um, wrong number. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, okay. Bless you!”
Mrs. Fong hung up the phone and reintegrated back into the nap she had begun.
“I could eat,” the reverend said.
“My treat,” the rabbi said
“I could definitely eat.”
The day had been dark, and now the evening was darker; still pissing down all regular and constant and rhythmic, and the sky blackened like a checked-off box. They were both in suits: the rabbi’s was dark and modest; the reverend’s was lilypad-green and less so. Two black umbrellas held at staggered heights. The only pedestrians on Rose Street and WHONG WHONG the ten-foot bell in the belfry of the First Church of the Iterated Christ named the Calling Judge rang out eight times.
They turned south at the Valentine Courthouse, onto the Main Drag, without noticing the man in black descending the stairs with a stricken look on his face, nor the man ascending the same steps who bumped the man in black rudely; nor did they notice the unnoticeable pickpocket liberate the man in black’s bankroll from his right trouser pocket. Three down, one to go.
“The movie’s shit, Paul.”
“They’re all shit.”
“But this one is especially shit,” Tiresias Richardson said, and she was correct: Instability Manor was a dreadful film even by the standards of the KSOS Late Movie. It was about a haunted house, which was an okay premise, but all the spirits captured in the decaying manse did was make people slightly dizzy. In the first act, a young blond child toppled over, unconvincingly, and the second act was some sort of extended commercial for Chesterfield cigarettes, and then–this was the big climax–Lon Chaney III wandered around the house while blowing his nose.
“We owe our viewers better than this,” she said.
“We don’t. Fuck ’em.”
Paul Loomis, Jr., didn’t want anything out of life anymore besides a cabin. It could be in the desert, or the mountains, or maybe an island; he didn’t care, just as long as his nearest neighbor didn’t exist. Maybe some animals to befriend, or eat, or hump, or whatever. He could leave the map behind and name his own surroundings. Downed Tree to the north, and Triangle Lake off to the west. The Tall Mountains off in the distance. (Paul didn’t have much of an imagination.)
But he did not have a cabin, and he bore the brunt of other people’s names.
“It’s raining, Paul,” Tiresias said.
“I know. I love the smell.”
“We have more viewers when it rains.”
“Fuck all of ’em.”
He did not know why she wouldn’t leave his office. There was mace in his desk drawer, and he had used it on talent before. His father would yell; he wished he could yell. Paul Loomis, Jr., did not yell. He knew he’d be laughed at if he did.
Behind him was a Daytime Emmy his ex-wife had bought as a gift to humiliate him; the ceiling was made of perforated tiles.
Tiresias stormed out while throwing him the finger over her left shoulder, and Paul smiled and thought about macing himself.
It was — hundred miles to Los Angeles, she thought on the way down the hall to her dressing room, which had a six-pointed star on the door and was called Masada. Her little Honda could make it in an afternoon. She had that agent’s number, and he had a sharp suit and a spiffy business card, and Tiresias knew that she was just as talented as any other girl in town. She could stay at the Beverly Hills Hilton, and take her phone calls by the pool. International phone calls. Heated pool. She was just as pretty as any other girl in town. She could be a blind item. Bemoan the paparazzi. Canoodle. All those other girls were just as talented as pretty as she was, though, she thought. Maybe it’s better to be a big-titted fish in a small pond.
It was a predicament.
Required a drink.
White wine. More specifically than that is irrelevant, Tiresias believed. There were three kinds of wine: red, white, and champagne; the first two cost five bucks or less a bottle, the third should be splurged upon. Simple corkscrew. The metal twistajigger attached to a black plastic handle that read HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE in white. Bottle against the hip of her faded jeans, and the elbow of the opposing arm out and THWOP she chucked the ‘screw with the cork attached onto her the makeup table in front of the vanity mirror with all its lightbulbs. BLUGBLUGBLUG into the stemless glass, and then warmth in her belly and out to her shoulders and hips, and arms and legs, and Tiresias unbuttoned the top button of her jeans as she flopped onto the ratty blue couch.
One side of the table held a piece of fish, broiled, with a side of rice pilaf. Water and coffee to drink. The other had a chicken marsala, and a turkey sandwich with far too much Russian dressing on it, and a bowl of onion soup. There was also a cheeseburger, but it was not a bacon cheeseburger because the Reverend Arcade Jones was sensitive about the kosher situation.
“Get the bacon,” Rabbi Levy said.
“I don’t want to make you pay for bacon.”
“I can pay for it. I just can’t eat it.”
“You sure? Zay gezunt.”
The reverend took a swig from his Coke and asked,
“Never broke your kosher?”
“‘Broke my kosher?’ You’re asking if I’ve eaten trayf.”
“Can Jews not eat trayfs, too? I thought it was pork and seafood. What’s a trayf?”
The rabbi laughed and said,
“Trayf. It means the non-kosher food. It’s not lunch, it’s a category.”
“Trayf,” the reverend rolled the word around in his mouth.
“I had a shrimp cocktail once.”
“Didn’t see the big deal.”
“It’s all about the sauce with a shrimp cocktail.”
“I’ve been told this.”
Rabbi Levy had curly hair that met itself in the middle of his forehead at a widow’s peak. He was slim: when he was a child, his mother reminded him to eat; and when he was in rabbinical school, his roommates did; now, his wife forced him. During any given meal, he would use his fork for gesturing more than consuming.
“We were discussing this, yes.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones had no hair on his skull except for his brows and lashes, and was not slim.
“You told me–”
He stabbed some chicken into his mouth, covered up with a napkin, chewed, chewed, chewed, removed the napkin.
“–what the philosophers and the weathermen and all the crazies think about why it rains every 18 days. You told me what everyone thinks.”
Another swig of his Coke.
“But you didn’t tell me what you think.”
The rabbi set his fork on his plate and took a sip of black coffee. Reset the cup on its saucer.
“Alef, bet, vet, gimel, dalet, hay.”
“First six letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Also the first six numbers in the Hebrew numerary. This was way before the Arabs came up with one, two, three, and so on. Each culture had their own number system.”
“Okay,” the reverend said.
“And the 18th letter is chai.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I felt like I was gonna spit on you when I was trying to say it.”
“That means you were doing it right.”
It was an in-between time for the Victory Diner: there were several a day. Packed for breakfast, and then a lull at around eleven until the lunch slam; three o’clock in the afternoon was quiet but would ramp up steadily until there were no tables available at 6:30, and then back down to stillness until the drunks and weirdos started pouring in when the sun went down.
“So, these ancient Hebrews? Well, they knew that language was magic. That writing something down changed it, made it real, birthed it. Man changes the page, and then the page changes men. So they worshiped God, but they also worshiped their letters. And these letters, which were also numbers, must mean something. Man would never worship anything without meaning, would he?”
The rabbi smiled, and continued,
“So each number got a secret history. Can’t be important without a secret history. The number 18, according to men who lived a long time ago, is inexplicably bound up with the concept of life.”
“The universe, everything. All that is, all that was, and the gnarly bits.”
“Respectfully, a question.”
“Hopefully, an answer.”
“Why not 17?”
“17 isn’t a very optimistic number, is it?”
They sat there in silence while the diner made noise around them.
“So, you think that’s why it rains every 18 days?”
“No,” the rabbi said. He sipped his black coffee. “It’s a bit on-the-nose for God.”
The door to the Victory Diner opens outward onto the Main Drag, and inwards came the man in black. He nodded at the host without seeing her and walked stiff-legged to the counter. Took a stool. Stared ahead.
The man in black did not respond.
“Hey. Pal,” the average-looking man on the stool to his left said. “You okay?”
The man in black turned to the stranger, shook his head.
“I’ve had the worst day. I’ve lost my wallet, or had it stolen, and my watch is gone. I’ve just had the worst day.”
The waitress behind the counter. The man in black instinctually felt for his cash, which was not there.
“Hey, buddy, what’s happening?”
“My money’s gone! Oh, God my money’s gone,” the man in black said.
The waitress departed.
“What the…what the fuck? My wallet..my…Jesus, what the fuck?”
The man next to the man in black swiveled towards him and said,
“That is fucked up. I am sorry that happened. I tell ya what: lemme buy you dinner.”
The man in black was still patting his pockets.
“Please,” the forgettable stranger said. “I feel terrible about what’s happened to you. I live here, a couple blocks away, and I’m embarrassed this happened here. Please let me buy you dinner.”
“Okay. Uh, sure, I guess. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Four down, none to go. In a booth by the counter, several older criminals smirked and toasted one another and the kid at the counter, but not too conspicuously. It took skill to steal a wallet, and dipping a bankroll took balls; technique was required to cop someone’s watch.
But getting them to thank you afterwards? That took talent.
The man in black ordered a BLT, and the pickpocket paid for it with money he had stolen from the man in black. The rain pounded the Main Drag outside, but it would soon stop and life would be back to normal in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.