Ceder Rapids sounded nice. Quiet. Get a job managing the sanitation department for the city. Cottage on the outskirts of town, and a barbecue and a backyard. Rake leaves. Man, I could rake the fuck out of some leaves.
Buy a boat. Be one of those assholes. Put Little Aleppo sternward and aim for the second star to the right. Go to Tahiti, hope that the visit went better than Captain Cook’s. Already know a shitload of knots. Skim across the water when the wind blows, and sit there when it didn’t. Man can find himself on the water. Maybe write a book. Not enough books about middle-aged white people having realizations about themselves. Middle-aged? Shit. That was pushing it. Maybe for one of those big turtles.
Still had friends in England. Some of them were dead, but not all. Lady Erin was still alive. Best part of 1972. And ’74. And ’81. 1990, too. Go on back, woo some nobility, live in a castle. Carry an umbrella everywhere, a long black one with a curved handle. Was it still as easy to get laid in England with an American accent as it was to get laid in America with an English accent? Used to be simple, but a lot of things used to be simple.
Used to be easier.
And then Precarious Lee stopped feeling sorry for himself. Nothing was ever fucking easier. It’s just that you were younger, he told himself. Wasn’t like he was going anywhere, anyway. Precarious had never run from a problem in his life. The cops, debt collectors, marriages: yes, he had fairly sprinted from these, but problems? Never. He’d be damned if he would stop daydreaming about it, though.
Florida. Yes, Florida, yes. A real retirement. Planned development with a shitload of rules, and surly security guards watching the gate. Trash on Tuesdays, and recycling on Thursdays. Learn how to play canasta. Vote Republican and drive with the windows up.
“Are you paying attention?”
Precarious was not, so he said,
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, pursed her lips at him and she was about to say something when she had a terrible realization: there were no grown-ups.
Maybe it was the movies. Someone always knew what to do; someone always saved the day. Gussy had seen a million movies, even before she owned The Tahitian. When she was a kid, she would go to the theater with her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, who was an asshole. It was a shitstain of a place back then, seats sprung and carpets stained, and the worst schlock on the stained screen. It didn’t matter to Gussy; she sat there in love with a world full of heroes and villains.
She watched them all: B-movies on the KSOS Late Show, and art films at the C—–a City Film Festival, and VHS tapes rented from the Video Drome. Silent one-reelers, and experimental Polish films that lasted 36 hours. Brazilian horror, and Canadian animation (Canimation), and Australian porn. Amateurish genre pictures with explosions and tits, and studio blockbusters with explosions and tits. When Gussy got to Harper College, she got to Trauffaut and Eisenstein and Cassevetes; none of them told their stories the same, and sometimes there wasn’t a hero and there wasn’t a villain, but there was always a protagonist and an antagonist.
Guy wants to do something. Somebody else wants to stop the guy. Sometimes, the “somebody” was nature, or man’s inhumanity to man, or war, or whatever. Guy wants to do something. Somebody else wants to stop the guy. That’s what movies are.
Maybe she was optimistic. Maybe she was naive. Gussy believed she was a character in a story, and that structural rules applied, but now she didn’t all of a sudden. She knew that there were no heroes, but now she did not think that there were any protagonists, either, and she now believed that none of this made any fucking sense. There was no story, not in life, and there was no conflict: people bounced off one another, absorbed in their own bullshit. There was no one who knew what to do, and no one to save the day.
Gussy remembered something Mr. Venable had said to her a long time ago. “Little Aleppo fails with forward momentum, lurching from one catastrophe to the next,” he said; she did not pay him mind then, but now his words were tattooed on the inside of her forehead. There were no grown-ups, she thought. Life was just a series of moments, and all of us hanging on for dear life.
And Gussy thought, fuck that. There weren’t any grown-ups because no one stepped the fuck up to be one. Randomness was cowardice, she thought, and it took a hero in this godforsaken town. Someone who cared about the greater good, the general welfare, all that bullshit, and if it had to be her, then it had to be her.
She said in a confident voice,
“We need a plan.”
“Okay,” Precarious said. “Got any ideas?’
Penny Arrabbiata snorted out her nose. It was all fucked. Her work, her home, her purpose. Person’s got to have a purpose, and Penny’s was in the 100-inch telescope that stuck out of Harper Observatory like a nipple in winter. Fucked, now. Gone and behind her and it was too late to start over, she didn’t have it in her and just wished everyone would leave her the fuck alone to do what she was intended to do.
You study things. After a while, they get to be yours. Life flakes off and shatters, and your hair turns gray. World gets wired for power, and the forests burn, and the tides corrode the land where they are tangent. Continents kiss, withdraw, come back together and give birth to mountain ranges. What remains is what’s in your head.
“We need to handle this gently.”
“You need to knock off the fucking floating,” Precarious said.
Officer Romeo Rodriguez was about a foot or so off the ground.
“Didn’t notice I was doing it.”
When he glided down to the ground, he did not stand on it. He was on top of the grass, but not on it. Ghosts look like the actors in old driving scenes, the lighting on them was off, somehow, and they didn’t match their surroundings. Officer Rodriguez did not mind the floating, not at all, even though he had imagined it would be more exhilarating. Flying like Superman probably would be, but either ghosts couldn’t do that or he hadn’t figured it out yet, and all he could manage was a gentle, directional weightlessness. He also didn’t mind not having to iron his uniform anymore. Since he had returned to the neighborhood, the green trousers and white short-sleeve shirt of his LAPD (No, Not That One) uniform had remained perfectly creased where they should be, and perfectly smooth where they should be, no matter how many cliff faces he drilled explosives into or vans he rode on top of.
“Like I was saying, we need to handle this gently.”
“You hit like a girl.”
“I am a girl, asshole.”
“You hit like a little girl.”
“Listen to me–”
“Why should I listen to you?”
“Because I’m the one with the knife and you’re the one who’s tied up.”
“I’m not tied to the chair. I’m taped to the chair.”
“You want me to listen to you, but you’re confused about basic facts.”
“I’m not confused about shit. Now, listen to me.”
“No. Fuck you.”
“Listen to me!”
“Fuck you, pantyhose head.”
“How’d you even know it was her?”
“We went to high school together,” Romeo said. Precarious had forgotten how young he was; he looked away, took out his pack of Camels, lipped a cigarette out of the soft pack, offered it down the bench. Gussy took one, and Penny, too. Precarious flipped the top of his Zippo and FFT lit Penny’s, and then Gussy’s smokes. Closed the lighter, then opened it again FFT and lit his own. Three on a match was bad luck, so three on a Zippo must be catastrophic.
“This whole neighborhood smokes too much,” Romeo said.
“And drinks too much,” Penny said.
“Don’t forget the drugs,” Gussy added.
“The cockfighting,” Precarious said, and Romeo snapped his head towards him and asked,
“Is there really cockfighting going on?”
“Every Tuesday night at Mister Slammer’s.”
Penny managed a smile, and Gussy laughed and put her hand on Precarious’ shoulder and said,
“That’s a different thing, honey.”
“Can you still wager?”
“Hell, yeah. I won a hundred bucks there one night.”
When they looked up, Officer Romeo Rodriguez was floating there in the posture universally acknowledged to mean “I can’t believe you fucking idiots are fucking around.” It is a posture common to high school music teachers. Arms out, and hands splayed, and forehead beetled down into the eye sockets.
“You wanna be serious?”
WHY NOT JUST CALL THE AUTHORITIES?
In between Precarious and Gussy was a matte-black object made of metal with no seams. It was the size and shape of a mailbox on its side, and there was a glass outbubbling five inches in diameter on what could be considered its face.
“Cops go in, save Tommy, and what? What does that get us? Besides,” Romeo said, “the Boones own half the neighborhood.”
“It’s politics, Wally,” Precarious said.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW THIS IS A POLITICAL MATTER.
“When you’re rich enough, everything’s political,” Gussy said.
“This Boone girl…what’s her name?”
“Melisandre,” Romeo said.
“Melisandre. Her family owns half the town and controls half the Town Fathers.”
THERE ARE FIVE. THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE.
Gussy pointed at Precarious accusingly and said,
“This is the shit I have to put up with all the time. You didn’t tell me what a pain in the ass he is.”
“Would you have let me install him in your theater if you knew?”
“There you go.”
Penny coughed into her hand, and then she stubbed out her cigarette on the cement under the bench and said,
“Police will arrest Melissa–”
“Melisandre,” Romeo corrected her.
“–whatever her name is, and then all hell will break loose and Tommy will be even more pissed.”
“You know anything about Julius Caesar, sweetheart?”
“Don’t call me sweetheart. You’re a big talker for someone taped to a chair.”
“Taped. Right. You got it right. Good. Now, answer my question.”
“Ask it again.”
“You know anything about Julius Caesar?”
“Funny. You’re funny. See, before Caesar was Emperor, he got kidnapped. 25 years old. Around your age, huh?
“You have a point?”
“Sicilian pirates. They set the ransom at 20 talents of silver.”
“What’s a talent?”
“An amount. May I continue?”
“Caesar laughs at them. They got no idea who he is, he tells the pirates. Makes them demand 50 talents. Now, that’s a lot of silver, so it took his friends a month to come up with it. Caesar’s stuck there with these assholes, right? But, he’s Caesar. Won’t take being treated like a prisoner. Asserts his natural right of authority. By the end of the month, the pirates are taking orders from him.”
“You think you’re gonna wind up in charge here?”
“Ha. No. That’s not the point of the story. Didn’t get to that because you interrupted me so rudely. See, the whole time Caesar is with the pirates–getting to know them and making friends with them–he keeps telling them, ‘I’m gonna crucify all of you.’ Every day. And he’d say it like a joke, and the pirates would laugh and he would laugh. Ha ha ha.”
“And his friends came with the silver, so he was let go. Caesar went back to Rome and raised a navy. You were allowed to do that back then if you were rich and powerful enough. Guess what happened.”
“He crucified the pirates.”
“No. He didn’t. Caesar was not a cruel man. He slit their throats.”
It is called the surgical theater for a reason: originally, it was a show. Just like the Roman games, you had the savagery in the center and civilization surrounding it. Early surgeries were communal affairs, with the whole hospital invited in to sit on the pews that cirlcled the bed and the blades and the blood. Doctors were called doctor, but surgeons were called mister, and they killed almost everyone they touched. Surgery was invented before antiseptics were invented, and before anesthetics were invented. It was a terrible idea to need surgery back then.
To give the doctors credit, they knew that they didn’t know what they were doing, and so they did not operate on people that mattered. Only bums and whores.
Human nature is stagnant, and culture is cyclical, but technology goes in one direction (at least since the Renaissance) and that is upwards and betterwards. A scalpel is technology, but one that is free of germs is a more advanced technology. Dulling pain with opiates or blotting it out with alcohol is an inferior technology to disconnecting the consciousness from the nerve endings.
The spleen is an wedge-shaped organ. It is in between the ninth and 11th ribs, located in the left hypochondrium and partly in the epigastrium; it can be removed laproscopically, but open surgery is recommended for trauma cases. Xiphoid process to the umbilicus, which means the bottom of the breastbone to the bellybutton: that is an upper midline incision, and it is recommended in trauma cases.
You can lose one of anything you have two of–kidneys, lungs, balls–and keep on choogling down the road, but of the singular organs, the spleen was in an exclusive club alongside the appendix: you could live without it.
Surgery is not performed on human beings. You can’t do that, cut into another human, it’s uncouth and unholy and even surgeons–who are assholes, every single one–could not do that, no, so they drape the body with sterile blue gowning, and there is a window to the organs inside. The surgeon operates on organs, not on humans.
The anesthesiologist sat on a stool by the patient’s head. Surgeon stood at his waist. Nurse next to the surgeon.
Tie off the veins, then sever them.
Slice through the ligaments.
The spleen connects to the stomach through gastric vessels; these must be ligated, and cut.
The anatomy was easy, and the technique could be acquired; the trick was keeping infection out. It wasn’t the hands poking around in the chest cavity that were the danger, it was the shit under the fingernails. Also helpful was not leaving surgical instruments in the patient, or operating on the wrong limb.
“I own it.”
“Yeah? Says who?”
“Ha! The people. Fuck the people. I got a receipt. Bought it fair and square.”
“That’s what the lawyers say.”
“What the lawyers say is what matters.”
“The law is not the truth.”
“Oh, Christ, you’re in college, aren’t you?”
“Harper Observatory stays like it is.”
“College. Jesus, nothing good ever comes from college. Pampered little fucks.”
“You’re talking about being pampered?”
“I earned my life, sweetheart. I’ve succeeded in everything I’ve ever done. Singing? I sold out the biggest rooms. Dozens of hit singles. Acting? I got an Oscar, and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Fucked the most beautiful women on the planet. What have you done except go along with bad ideas?”
“I’m not going along with anything.”
“Yeah? You’re the brains of the outfit? Ha! Yeah, no. I don’t get that feeling.”
A MAN’S LIFE IS IN DANGER, AND YOU ARE CALCULATING THE BENEFIT OF VARIOUS RESPONSES.
“Well, you know, he is a real prick.”
AND BECAUSE TOMMY AMICI IS A PRICK, HE IS LESS WORTHY OF RESCUE?
Precarious lit another joint FFT and inhaled PHWOO and handed it to Gussy. She knew that the glass outbubbling of Wally’s technoproxy wasn’t technically his face, but she still avoided looking at it. Penny had her head back and stared at the stars.
“It’s complicated,” Gussy said.
ARE YOU CURRENTLY CALCULATING THE POTENTIALITIES OF HIS DEATH, AND HOW IT MIGHT AID OR HARM YOU?
I HAVE NOTHING FURTHER TO SAY.
Gussy handed the joint to Penny, and Precarious looked at Romeo, even though it felt like overclocking his eyeballs. A stopped watch was right twice a day, but an artificial mondo-intelligence in the physical form of a sound system was right more than that. Precarious didn’t want to admit it, though. Wally was prone to smugness.
“That gun do anything?”
Office Romeo Rodriguez was caught up in the question. It was a good question, and so he said,
“That’s a good question.”
“You’ve never fired it,” Precarious said.
“Of course I have.”
“Since you’re a ghost.”
“So, your pistol could fire, like, zippity-zaps instead of bullets?”
“Kiss my ass.”
If Romeo Rodriguez had been a cop longer than a day, he would have learned how to win arguments through yelling, implied violence, and outright violence, but he had been murdered his first day on the job, and so was still able to be persuaded.
“I could go let off a couple rounds.”
Penny’s head snapped up.
“Do not fucking do that,” she said.
In the parking lot, teenagers fucked in the way back of their parents’ Volvo station wagons: the shock absorbers got a short, but intense, workout. Two cats, both black with yellow eyes and mean as hell, patrolled the ten-acre park atop the mountain. A junkie in a Toyota was getting clean tomorrow, but getting high now; she had the window cracked just a bit, and tried to ash her cigarette out but missed and now the glass was stained and smeary. There were post-docs from Harper College in the Observatory, and members of the Astronomy Club from Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!).
The moon was a crescent, and to the northeast, and Precarious said,
And he stood up, fixed his tee-shirt.
“I’m going,” Gussy said. She stood up, too.
“Got a gun?”
“I have pepper spray.”
“You’re not coming.”
“You have a gun?”
“Shit like this.”
I AM GOING, TOO.
Precarious nodded at Officer Rodriguez, and he kissed Gussy on the cheek, and then Penny. He walked off towards the parking lot, and Romeo floated.
“Could you walk like a fucking person, please?”
“I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”
WHY ARE YOU LEAVING WITHOUT ME? I SAID THAT I WAS GOING.
Next to a bouncing Volvo, there was a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. It was Jennifer Blue and had doors the size of washing machines; Precarious opened his, and Romeo phased through the passenger door.
“Just open the fucking door, please.”
“It’s easier this way.”
“It’s fucking creepier that way.”
Precarious thumbed the electric locks, and all the doors except the passenger’s went CHUNK.
“And you fucked up the electrical system.”
“Oh. I didn’t know I did that.”
“Seems to be a running theme with you.”
Cadillacs don’t roar to life: they clear their throats, and take the road as if it had been promised to them. Precarious pointed the massive hood out of the parking lot and towards the single lane access that led to Skyway Drive.
“You wanna know where the warehouse is?”
“We’re picking someone up first.”
Gussy sat in between Penny and the metal object Wally was projecting his consciousness through on a bench above her home. She had been born in St. Agatha’s, which was there, and gone to high school at Paul Bunyan, which was there, and then Harper College, which was there, and The Tahitian was there. Her whole life, right in front of her and beneath her, and her grave, too. Gussy’s father left her brothers the money; she got the theater; they all got plots in Foole’s Yard, so the family could be together in death the way they chose not to be in life. Her whole life, right below and above her, and once again everything was out of her hands and lost to the whims of imbeciles and bad actors and men. Men were the problem, Gussy thought, but we let them get away with it, so fuck us, too.
“You want to look through the telescope?”
And Gussy answered,
“Fuck, yeah, I do.”
The two women got up off the bench and walked towards the Observatory.
Gussy went back to the bench and picked up Wally, and then the two women and the sound system walked towards the Observatory. It was rotating, so slowly that you could not see it unless you looked away, and the stars wheeled around above Pulaski Peak, which is high atop Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.