Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 15)

The Second Little Aleppo Novel

  1. Hey, Baby, It’s The Fourth Of July
  2. Home Is Where They Have To Take You In
  3. The Bravest Of Little Aleppo
  4. Frankie Nickels Is Live And On The Air
  5. Circular Motion
  6. For Telling Fortunes Better Than They Do
  7. Sometimes, Decisions Are Made For You
  8. Breakfast In A Neighborhood In America
  9. A First Time For Everything
  10. Waking Dreams
  11. Who Was Last Shall Be First
  12. Reading Back To Front
  13. Fever And Flirtations In Little Aleppo
  14. Untold Fortune
  15. Exiles On The Main Drag
  16. A Conference No One Wanted To See
  17. Class
  18. Fully Involved
  19. Check-In Time
  20. Setting Out And Settling Down
  21. Freedom And Speech
  22. On The Road Out Of Little Aleppo
  23. No Substitutions
  24. Shelter From The Storm
  25. Bringing Out The Living
  26. You’ll Never Make Us Run
  27. A Raising Of Stakes
  28. The Cold War
  29. A Horror Story
  30. An Afternoon Date in Little Aleppo
  31. Predator And Prey
  32. Fit To Print
  33. The Pre-Show
  34. The Band You’ve Known For All These Years
  35. Breathing In And Out
  36. Cats And Dogs 
  37. Head Games
  38. Delivery In Little Aleppo
  39. Government Work
  40. How Do You Take It?
  41. Trick Or Treat
  42. Bank Shots
  43. Veteran’s Day In Little Aleppo
  44. A Sermon
  45. Harboring Secrets
  46. A Single Step
  47. Just Might Be Your Kind Of Zoo
  48. Someone To Back Your Play
  49. A Local Tradition
  50. Lost In The Flood
  51. A Wonderful Night In Little Aleppo
  52. Appointments Made And Avoided
  53. Iterating And Its Processes
  54. Raining And Reigning
  55. Got My Teevee Eye On Little Aleppo
  56. All Around The World
  57. The Beginning Of The End
  58. A Retreat
  59. Animals And Their Uses
  60. An Interlude
  61. An Important Warning
  62. The Final Ascent
  63. A Last Chapter

A Last Chapter In Little Aleppo

The sun, and the sky and then the ground and rocks battling against his skull. He looked for the horse, and then nothing, disconnected blurs and flashes that whirled and then nothing again. His back was bleeding from being dragged along the dirt, and there were pebbles and clumps embedded into his skin; he had lost his tunic and one moccasin. His head felt battered and tender, and his jaw was not broken, but only just. The light hurt his eyes, but he could make out a figure in the semi-circle of illumination. A cave. He was in a cave. The back of a cave, and something’s in the mouth. Someone. The figure adjusted itself, and he could see that it was mostly human-shaped, almost, but hairier.

The Pulaski language does not have the word “motherfucker” in it.

“Motherfucker,” Cannot Swim said.

Before the Pulaski were the Mi-oh. Before the Mi-oh were the Shan. Before the Shan were the Tarka. The valley in between the sea and the mountains has been inhabited by humans for eight thousand years. Within a century of the first footstep in America, there was a village on the land that would one day be the neighborhood of Little Aleppo. There were fields bursting with fruits and berries, and trees bearing nuts and seeds, and woods full of game, and a lake full of fish. It became unbearably hot for only three days in the summer, and never froze in the winter. There were quakes, but no tsunamis because of the natural harbor. Each tribe that occupied the valley worshiped the quakes, but they did not fear them. The quakes were not worshiped like those who live under a volcano worship the volcano. The quakes could not harm them. None of their structures were heavy enough to kill someone caught in a collapse, and the villages were always far enough back from the mountains to make rockslides negligible. The Tarka thought the quakes were the Bear God laughing; the Shan took them as starting guns for orgies. The Mi-oh would, at the first rumble, sprint to the center of their village and begin singing. It was a sacred melody, and it was powerful magick, the Mi-oh thought; every time they had ever sung it, the quake eventually stopped. The Pulaski said that the temblors were The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again reminding them of his predominance. Many peoples, many reactions to the same phenomenon.

But for the 8,000 years humans lived in the valley, nobody went up into the hills.

And then the Whites showed up.

Nothing could induce a White into sallying forth faster than a Native saying, “Don’t go there because you’ll die.” The Natives told the Whites not to go into the Amazon, and so they lashed together some canoes and died of yellow fever. The Natives said that the ice thickens around October and that the ship will become lodged in, and the ship became lodged in and everyone ate each other. The Natives said not to follow the Nile into the jungle, and the Whites immediately hit the river and became lost and began presuming at one another and died. Had there been natives in Antarctica, they would have told the Whites not to try walking across the continent, because they would die, and if there were, the Whites would have ignored them, and attempted to walk across Antarctica, and died. The Whites gave the men who ignored Natives a title of glory: they were called Explorers. Sometimes, the Explorers roped a Native into helping them explore, but the Natives were not called Explorers. They were Guides.

Hannah Speke did not have a Guide. No Pulaski would accompany him up and down the hills to map them, partly because they had all been murdered and dumped in a common grave the year before.

“Pulaski Peak.”

“Fuck you.”

“He who summits the mount, names her,” Hannah Speke said.

“We got the same rule around here,” Miss Valentine said, smiling. The whores were hanging over the railing listening in.

“In honor!”

It was early in the morning, and the first Wayside Inn was only speckled with drinkers talking quietly at the tables, and the faro game had not started yet. Piano player was still asleep. Miss Valentine and her guns were drinking coffee and reading the Cenotaph. She was behind the bar, and Hannah was in front of it.

“Those fucking savages didn’t have any honor.”

“They were a proud people,” he said.

“They’re a dead people.”

“Pride does goeth before a fall, Miss Valentine.”

When she smiled, her sliced face creased up and the scars took new angles. She didn’t show her teeth when she smiled. Poured him a drink of whiskey and then one for herself, and they both drank their whiskey down and replaced the glasses on the wooden bar.

“It was an arduous trek, ma’am.”

“Arduous? Please. It can’t be 5,000 feet up.”

“Treacherous feet.”

“Jesus.”

“Grizzly, Miss Valentine. I saw three on my ascent. And puma. One shadowed me for my entire journey.”

“Which was a treacherous one.”

Miss Valentine wasn’t a madam; she wore black trousers, and a white shirt with gray suspenders over it. Brown boots that had been shined the night before. She was neither large or small for a woman of her era. Knife on her belt where you could see it; knife in her boot where you could not. Her shirt did not have a collar. They were separate garments at the time. There was another knife in her pants pocket. She glanced upwards, and the whores recoiled from the railing and away from her gaze.

“Frightful and perilous, yes. But I witnessed a creature in those hills–”

“Fuck off with that, Speke.”

“–ne’er before seen in Christendom. The beast that the Indians spoke of.”

“Bullshit. The only monsters in Little Aleppo live on the Main Drag.”

Hannah Speke reached for the bottle of Braddock’s whiskey, stopped himself.

“May I?”

“It’s going on your tab. Pour me one, too.”

He did, and they drank.

“They are not bear, Miss Valentine, nor are they North American ape. Lives above us a new category of creature, ma’am. Haunches like Heracles. The loins of Leonidas. Furry as Fenrir.”

“You’re a tedious fuck, Speke.”

“Hear me out. You back a hunting expedition. We’ll construct a trap for the animal, and bring it back alive.”

The largest of Miss Valentine’s killers, Canadian Bill, handed her a roll-up cigarette. He struck a match ZHWOP and lit hers first, then his, and then checked out the level of coffee in her cup.

“Why the fuck would I do that?”

“I don’t suppose ‘the spirit of scientific inquiry’ would satisfy you.”

The only science Miss Valentine had any use for was medicine, which wasn’t anything close to a science in 18–, and that’s only because medicine kept the whores alive and working. She also tolerated chemistry, as you could make bombs using chemistry, and sometimes you needed to blow up a rival’s bar.

“Excellent supposition.”

“You could keep the thing in a cage and charge people to see it.”

Miss Valentine had a rule about ideas: they were to be considered without regard to their origin. Just because an idiot presented it–and she thought Hannah Speke was a complete fucking idiot–didn’t mean the concept was inherently flawed. She used to run a place in Tulsa. Had a mermaid. It was the top of a dead kid stitched to the bottom of a catfish. Folks came from miles around to see it, and drank and fucked while they were there. When Miss Valentine told the story, the punchline was “Finding a dead girl was a snap, but it took us three days to catch the fish!” Everybody always laughed when she told that story, no matter how many times they’d heard it before.

And, she figured, if she was paying for the little trek, then she could pick the men. She’d send her men. The Turnaway Lode down in the valley was spitting out gold, so surely there must be some in the mountains. Prospectors had gone up, and come back empty and spooked. Some hadn’t come back, and soon the Whites on the Main Drag were just as scared of the Segovian Hills as the Pulaski had been.

Fuck ’em, she thought. More for me. Ain’t no such thing as monsters.

Miss Valentine hired three mountain men to accompany Hannah Speke, and paid for a cage to be made of iron. Several drunkards were brought on to hump the cage up the tallest of the seven hills, which the Cenotaph had only recently begun referring to as Pulaski Peak. The team was heavily-armed, and they were hard men of the outdoors, except for the drunks, who were drunks, and Speke, who was in his tweed hunting suit with the high, black boots that he wore on the outside of his trouser legs.

The cage returned three weeks later, it was sitting on the Main Drag when everyone woke up; the boots were within, and the bars were crumpled and bent. No more hunting expeditions were sent into the hills for a very long time.

“Is this one of those stories where someone dies at the end?”

“Dunno,” Flower Childs said to the starved man on the horse.

“I hope so. Those are the best kind.”

He was on fire, the starved man, and so was the horse. The flames looked like water. They flowed up from the ground, over the animal’s shrink-wrapped shanks, and over the man’s legs and up the shrunken chest and corded neck and gaunt cheeks. There was a hat. The hat was on fire, as well.

The summit of Pulaski Peak had been flattened in 1934 to facilitate Harper Observatory’s construction. When he feels like it, man is an irresistible force, and mountains, though they look it, are not immovable objects. You can absolutely move a mountain. It just takes money, and in 1934, the New Deal money was flowing into Little Aleppo just like the rest of the country. Use the money to buy dynamite and bulldozers. Use the dynamite to blow up the tippity-top of the mountain. Use the bulldozers to push to push the rubble down the slope. Repeat until you have ten acres of flat land, diamond-shaped with soft angles, room enough for a park and a parking lot and churro stand and maintenance buildings and several antennae and an observatory and a crescent-shaped stand of trees.

The 100-inch telescope, once the largest on the West Coast, sat in a building that was an exact replica of the White House, but bigger.  Harper Observatory was named after Harper T. Harper, and Harper T. Harper thought Franklin D. Roosevelt could go fuck himself. He got a White House? Bam: I got a White House, too, and it’s bigger than yours. And I can fucking walk, you class-betraying sumbitch. Plus, I made you paid for it, dumbass.

The observatory was on the west side of the diamond; it overlooked Little Aleppo.

The trees were Peregrine Maria trees, and they were knurled and knotty and the bark looked tumorous with bulges; their branches spiraled up the 100-foot trunks in a helix. The trees grew leaves plentifully, and the leaves were 13-pointed and the size of a child’s hand. Deep green and waxy on the front side, and pallid olive on the other. The Pulaski had chewed the peregrine leaf, when the tree grew in the valley. The Whites felled them, without knowing what they were, to lay down Sammartino Street. The peregrine does not grow naturally on the top of Pulaski Peak, and even if it did it would have been uprooted during the leveling of the summit. No one knows who planted them, but they are now protected by the federal government.

The trees were on the east side of the diamond; they overlooked America.

In between was the park, which had blacktopped trails running through it, and here was an elm and here was an oak; benches, and a small bandstand where jazz combos played in the summer, and teens got high in all year. During the day, Yuri ran the churro stand, but it was dark out now and he was not there. There were furtive lovers and first daters and the parking lot was half-full of hotboxed station wagons. None of them paid any attention to the Fire Chief and the Jack of Instance. They were in the middle of the park, the middle of the summit, out in the open field of grass where the astronomers played pick-up games of soccer at dawn.

“You’re the Chief. You’re in charge. Chief.”

“You got a name?”

“If you could pronounce it correctly, the sound would drive you mad.”

“You’re a tedious fuck.”

“Wish the churro guy was still around.”

Flower Childs was over six feet tall, and almost 200 pounds, and she had an axe and a dog. The dog was a dalmatian named Ash-Nine, and she was the direct descendant of Ash, who was the very first Fire Dog in Little Aleppo. Ash was a mean little fuck; she’d bite anyone who got in the way of the wagon when they were rolling to a job, dashing back and forth in front of the massive horses nipping children and chomping on looky-loos. When the firemen worked, she watched the gear, and she did not growl if you got too close, just bit you. She’d snap at the firemen, too, but they’d sock her in the snout. It was the past, and dogs were allowed to bite people, and people were allowed to punch dogs.

No one would ever punch Ash-Nine, and she would never give anyone a reason to: she was a sweetie, and as deaf as she was stupid. The firemen brought her to the grade school to teach children how to stop, drop, and roll. They dressed her in silly outfits to raise money for worthy causes. She came along on calls because firemen are superstitious–it surely must be the worst of luck to try to fight a fire without a dalmatian–but mostly she napped on her favorite couch in the common room of the station on Alfalfa Street, and whined for food in the kitchen.

Ash-Nine was hiding behind Flower Childs’ legs.

“Are you going to hit me with the axe?'”

“Probably.”

The Jack of Instance had a lance. The butt was resting on the ground, and the point was above his head. It was just as on fire as he and the horse were.

“Do you think that’ll work?”

The horse snuffled, and flames shot from its nostrils.

“Because I don’t think that’ll work. Shit, I wish that churro guy was still around.”

“You pissed yourself, Sidney.”

“Piss off. Haaaaa ha ha. Piss off.”

Sidney Shines was missing an ear and taped to a wall. He was having a terrible night. He had had a plan, and he thought it through a hundred times, and it ended well for him each time. A rifle, a knife, meat, delivery, payment. Sidney did not see what could possibly go wrong, and he was now duct-taped to a wall in a rented house and missing an ear. The left one. Capolina Gardner sat Indian-style to his right. Her husband, Harry, was to his left.

Harry was a werewolf.

There might be werewolfs everywhere. If your next-door neighbor was a werewolf–a conscientious one, a werewolf that did not roam around eating chickens and drunks, a hairy and fanged metamorph that just stayed inside and watched teevee with the curtains drawn–how would you know? You don’t understand the human you share a mattress with. The fucker next door is a complete mystery. Anything at all could be happening next to you.

He growled; it sounded like a bus drag-racing. Capolina reached out and gave him scritchy-scratches on his muzzle. Sidney lolled his head from right to left.

“Piss off.”

“Oh, Sidney. Don’t.”

“Piss…”

He was stupefied and nodding and drooling.

They were in a living room on Bailey Street, five houses down from the one-bedroom cottage that Harry and Capolina rented. There was a clear line-of-sight between the two. The olive-green curtains were pulled and the room was its own universe: captive, captor, werewolf. A rifle laid on the muted-red carpet by the window. Capolina had brought a flashlight, but she decided that turning the lights on in the house was less noticeable than a single beam bouncing around within shuttered windows.

“This will not do, Sidney. Up and at ’em.”

More drool.

“You force my hand.”

There was a towel in front of Capolina. It was a hygienic towel, a towel that promised antisepticism and modernity, and it was laid out with no wrinkles whatsoever.  Syringes laying upon. Swabs, and ties, and wipes. A scalpel, too, and pliers in plastic wrap to keep them sterile. There were eight syringes, and one was empty. Seven full. All labeled in her small, neat handwriting; blue ballpoint pen on white tape. She chose the third from the left. Held it up to the light to see if there were air bubbles. There were. Flicked it with her middle finger, and the bubbles jumped up towards the needle. She pushed, slightly, on the plunger. No more air, just thick serum that was milky-white. She wiped his neck with an antiseptic swab, and thought that she should have started a line. Next time, she thought. Next time someone tries to eat my husband and I’m forced to torture information out of him, I will start a line, she thought.

She didn’t have a line. Just a syringe with a 23g needle and a 2 cc barrel, which slid into Sidney’s jugular vein. Blood flowed, just a drop; Capolina blotted it with gauze. There was a rush of crimson into the chamber, so she pushed with her index finger and the substance that was in the needle was now in Sidney and he HRAPH HRAPH coughed and now his eyes were open and his head no longer lolled, and he knew exactly what was happening to him. He sucked in air like a landed fish.

“Feel good?”

Sidney’s heart was thramping and near damnation. WaPAH WaPAH. He felt like his chest was under assault from within, a cardiac fifth column, and there was sweat in his eyes. Everything was open, all that he had, from his asshole to his lungs; he breathed deeper than he had in years. His pupils were the size of teachers.

“Yeah, you feel good. I have some questions.”

Harry licked the spot on Sidney’s head that used to bear an ear.

“He has some teeth.”

“You can’t do this to me,” Sidney said.

“We’re doing it to you.”

“I’ve got rights.”

Capolina swabbed his neck once more and slipped a needle right into his jugular vein. Pushed. Sidney’s eyes rolled back.

“You’ve got rights. I’ve got drugs and a werewolf. Guess who wins in the short run?”

Harry smelled meat and cigarettes. Must from unwashed clothes. Sidney had been to Yung Man’s two days ago. No, three. Booze, too, but Harry didn’t drink enough to place the scent with any specificity. The blood from his neck. He had dried cum in his shorts, or on his balls. Gasoline. How did animals do it, he wondered? To be able to differentiate all these smells, but not have the words for them. He could tell the dried sweat from the new sweat.

“You’ve gotta understand: there was a lotta money at stake,” Sidney said. He turned to Harry and said, “It wasn’t personal.”

Fraction by fraction, little bit at a time, Harry opened his cavernous mouth while inching his head forward until Sidney’s face was secured within his jaws.

“Baby, no.”

He bit down gingerly and one of his four-inch long canines, the right one, pierced Sidney’s forehead and blood started. Harry blotted his tongue against the flow without moving his teeth.

“Harry! Don’t eat his face!”

He withdrew, but slowly.

“Sid. Sidney. Siiiiiiiiid.”

Capolina was smiling and her hair was still in its work ponytail.

“Do you know what this is for?”

She held up a length of blue rubber tubing, stretchy and medicinal.

“It’s a tourniquet.”

“It is. Good eye, Sid. But I’ve been hitting you in the neck. Can’t use a tourniquet on a neck, obviously. So what did I bring the tourniquet for?”

His legs were duct-taped together, so she had to thread the rubber tubing between his knees, and then wrapped it tight around his right leg; the rubber was tacky and caught against itself. Circulation stopped and he looked at his leg, her, the werewolf, his leg, her.

“Did you figure it out?”

“This isn’t right.”

She removed his right shoe, which was black and steel-toed. The sock, white with a hole.

“Have you figured it out yet?”

Harry was drooling.

“Don’t do this.”

“I don’t want to, Sidney! I totally don’t want to do this. Neither does Harry.”

“Hrooo.”

“Okay, Harry wants to eat you. But he doesn’t have to. You can make all of your problems go away, Sid. All you have to do is tell the truth. The truth shall literally set you free, Sidney.”

“You’ll let me go if I tell you who hired me?”

“Yes,” she lied.

“What does it even mean?”

“What?”

“Jack of Instance,” Flower Childs said.

“Oh, you know: the god of the sucker punch. I’m the phone call at four in the morning. I’m the car that skips the curb. I’m the flood. I’m the cave-in. Life changes slow most of the time, but sometimes your whole life changes real fast. In an instant. That’s me.”

Ash-Nine had begun to whimper, and Flower’s knuckles were white around the axe. She had on no jewelry except a black digital watch, and her blue twill pants were cuffed above heavy black boots. There were radii of sweat under the arms of her white button-down shirt with the nametag and the pockets.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you setting my fucking neighborhood on fire?”

“Well, someone has to. I drew the short straw. My cousin? He’s the god of sexual reunions. You know: you haven’t seen someone you used to fuck in years, and then you see them and fuck? That. He’s the god of that, and I will be totally honest: much better gig. There’s more joy in his work, at least. But, hey: we deal with our lot.”

“Uh-huh. Can you fuck off?”

“Are you even listening? I’m a manifestation. I don’t live within reality; I’m created by reality. I can’t go someplace else because I’m already there. And if I went someplace else, I’d still be here. I got a real ‘omni’ quality to me.”

“Why the notes?”

“I was bored.”

And Flower Childs hurled the axe at him, one-handed and overhead, and end-over-end it flew true right into the Jack of Instance’s chest SHWOP and it quivered a bit. He looked down, at the axe sticking out of his torso, and then back at Flower.

“I didn’t think you were gonna do it.”

“I did,” she said.

“Yeah. Huh. Good for you. Moxie.”

He pulled the axe from his chest and held it out towards her. They were maybe ten feet from each other.

“You want this back?”

“Fuck you.”

“Seriously. This looks expensive. Take it.”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m not tricking you. I’m not gonna bite you when come over here.”

“I’m good. Fuck you.”

“I’ll toss it to you.”

“Don’t toss a fucking axe at me.”

“Gently, I’ll toss it gently.”

“It’s an axe, jackass. There’s no gently.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll throw it over there.”

The flaming man chucked the axe well to Flower Child’s right; it landed on the grass with a PLUMPF. She stood fast for a moment, two, three, and then she rolled her eyes and walked over and picked up the tool, gripped it tight again, and walked back to where Ash-Nine was crouched trembling in her own piss.

“As I was saying–”

SHWOP the axe was in his chest again.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“It slipped.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a fucking asshole?”

“Plenty of people.”

“They were right.”

“Probably. Did I kill you this time?”

The Jack of Instance pulled the axe out of his chest, and the horse reared a bit.

“No, you didn’t kill me.”

“Gimme the axe back.”

“No, now you don’t get it back. Dick.”

Over in the bandstand were three teenagers, one of whom was narrating the action between the fiery rider and the Fire Chief, and two of whom were refusing to pass the joint to the first one any more.

It was just a dinky cavity in the north face of what would later be called Mt. Chastity, not more than a dozen feet deep and likewise high. Half that wide. Proportions of a thick textbook, chunked out of the mountain’s side, and Cannot Swim was propped against the back wall. He was half-naked. His right moccasin was gone, and so was his tunic. His breachcloth was twisted halfway around his hips, and his dick was out; bare ass on the chilly clay of the ground inside the cave. His arms ached, and his head felt like rocky morning, but it wasn’t morning any more. The light had waned, the angle shifted, outside the cave’s mouth.

There was a squatch sitting in the cave’s mouth.

It was wider than a man, and its head was bulbous. The mouth was part of a snout–not vulpine, just subtle, but a definite snout–and the nose took up half the face above. Cannot Swim could not see its eyes. The ears were covered in a thick fur that, in the light, was the color of a redhead swiftly going gray. Silvery-orange. It was unlike a gorilla in that its chest was fully hirsute; the pelt got even thicker in the abdomen, and so Cannot Swim could not tell if it was a male or female. One knee was on the ground, and the other pointed towards the ceiling of the cave, and it was leaning on its right arm. Cannot Swim had not anticipated that squatches would sit so casually.

There was a noise from the animal, an elongated and varied one with pauses and breathy plosives. Cannot Swim had not heard many languages in his life. Pulaski, of course. He knew the White tongue by sound, and could imitate it with nonsense noises–“Hurrah hurrah hurrah”–and had been fascinated by the sounds that came from the men his cousin Talks To Whites told him were called Chinese when he was in C—–a City, but none other than that. It didn’t matter: gooey bits deep inside his brain lit up and buzzed and (though the Pulaski language does not have a word for motherfucker in it) Cannot Swim thought, This motherfucker’s saying something.

The boy pointed to his chest.

“Cannot Swim.”

And the squatch pointed back with gnarled fingers and made a noise that was almost precisely, but not exactly, Caaaanuh Swih.

The Pulaski did not give thumbs-up. Gestures are cultural. They touched their thumb to their middle finger, hand pointing up and palm out. Cannot Swim did so, then tapped on his chest again.

“Cannot Swim.”

The squatch made the noise again. Caaaanuh Swih.

“You got it.”

Now the beast in the mouth of the cave slapped its chest, not hard, and made a sound. Prah-nlah.

“Prah-nlah.”

It made the sound again, and slapped its chest. It did not point, because gestures are cultural. Cannot Swim repeated,

“Prah-nlah.”

The squatch pounded the hard ground with its palm, twice, three times, and hooted upwards. Cannot Swim figured he should do the same, and so he did. They hooted together for a moment.

It was all a lie, Cannot Swim thought. There are no monsters swimming in the harbor, and there are no beasts stalking the mountains. His father had lied, and so had his mother, whose name he would not say, and the elders. These were not demons of the mountains, they were men like the Pulaski. There was nothing to fear. They were just like us, he thought.

The squatch made like he was holding a great imaginary sandwich, and then took exaggerated chomps from it ROMF ROMF and then disengaged its hands from the sandwich configuration to point–double guns-style–at Cannot Swim while nodding up and down with a smile on its face. Then, back to sandwich and ROMF ROMF and then one more thick index finger towards the boy, and then towards its open mouth, and the boy, and its mouth.

Gestures are cultural, but there was no mistaking that bullshit.

Cannot Swim scrambled to his feet. He was wobbly and lightly concussed, and he searched in the shallow light for a rock to use against the squatch, who was standing and so much bigger than he was when he was sitting down; there was nowhere to juke or jive, and the walls held no crags to use for position. His satchel and rifle were at the creature’s feet, out of reach, and then it advanced and then BLAM its head exploded into the cave. Two small pieces of brain landed on Cannot Swim’s stomach.

It stood there for a second, face like a prolapsed asshole, and then fell forward with dead muscles and landed in a clump.

Other shots now, from outside the cave, BLAM BLAM BLAM, and PAP PAP and SHBOOM. Multiple guns. There is howling outside, and though the Pulaski language does not have a word for “motherfucker” in it, someone outside was calling the squatches motherfuckers at the top of his lungs. His breechcloth is still twisted and his dick is hanging out; he steps over corpse and puts his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun outside the cave.

A horse is kicking a squatch to death; its chest is caved in and leaking on the grass of the small plateau. There are two dead squatch on their backs off to his right, and more–alive–running towards a crack in the mountain rocks that conceals a path upwards, and then SHBOOM from right in front of him.

His cousin with a rifle.

“Hey.”

“I’ve saved your life twice now.”

“Okay.”

Cannot Swim was not in shock, but he was not far from shock, either. He was close to shock and WHAP Talks To Whites slapped him, hard, and Cannot Swim recoiled in pain; his eyes focused. Stranger Who Hunts Well and Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend were flanking the horse. Stranger Who Hunts Well had revolvers and he was BLAM BLAM winging shots at the retreating beasts. His Useless Friend had a pistol, too, but he was reloading it poorly.

And then it was quiet. The smoke from the guns was harsh for a moment, but it was windy in the hills and in less than a minute, you’d never know anything happened; even the cordite smell was gone.

“He okay?” Stranger Who Hunts Well called out in English.

“Yeah,” Talks To Whites answered.

There was a sound like SHMLARF RONCH RONCH.

“Praise the Lord,” Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend said.

“Yeah, you do that,” Talks To Whites said.

There was a sound like SHMLARF RONCH RONCH and the four Pulaski men, two of whom were not Pulaski, and one of whom was not technically a man yet, looked around the small grass-covered plateau to find the source, which was Easy Life eating the squatch he had kicked to death. The chest cavity was meaty paste, and the horse would riiiiiiiiip chunks off and crunch them up, muscles and tendons and ligaments all at once, with his broad teeth.

Easy Life looked back at the four, spat out a piece of rib bone, went back to his meal.

“Is that normal for horses?”

“I don’t know,” Talks To Whites said in Pulaski. “Grab your shit. We need to go.”

Cannot Swim picked up his rifle and tossed his satchel over his bare shoulder.

“Your dick’s out, cousin.”

Cannot Swim rotated his breechcloth so that his dick was no longer out.

“How are you here?”

“Easy Life got us.”

“You can speak Horse, too?”

Talks To Whites squinted at his cousin, and then he took him under the armpit and hustled him across the small grassy plateau. Stranger Who Hunts Well had reloaded both his Colt 1851 Navy revolvers, and scanned the horizon with them. Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend had an 1848 Colt’s Dragoon pistol, and he was still trying to get the chamber open. When the boys had made it to the trailhead of the path that led down the hill, the men retreated and followed them. The four descended until they realized the horse was not with them, and then Talks To Whites scampered back the quarter-mile to the plateau and yelled,

“We’re leaving, dummy!”

Easy Life was enjoying his meal–squatch might be tastier than chipmunk, he thought–but he looked around and there were no humans around; much as he hated people, he was also used to being around them, and so he took one last big hunk out of the squatch’s shoulder and trotted over to Talks To Whites while he chewed.

They walked along, the five of them. Cannot Swim removed his remaining moccasin and tread barefoot, cautious of his step. The two who were not Pulaski led, and they spoke the White language to one another. The two cousins spoke Pulaski. The horse said nothing at all.

“I have failed my Assignment.”

“You haven’t.”

“I have. I was sent to retrieve the mushrooms with the curly stalks that grow on squatch dung. I did not. I have failed.”

“Dude, it’s okay. They,” he waved at the two men in the lead,” “have a stash of mushrooms in their kotcha. We’ll grab some.”

Cannot Swim did not know what to say to this. It seemed like cheating, but he had almost been eaten less than an hour before, so rules seemed more like guidelines at the moment.

“What happened?”

“Stranger Who Hunts Well says that one of ’em ambushed you about halfway up. He’s a good tracker, dude. He, like, read the ground and everything. We followed your trail up. I’m just glad you’re okay, cousin.”

They stopped and hugged each other, and then started back down.

“What are they like?”

“The squatch?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re wide.”

The tall lamps that illuminated the park in front of Harper Observatory had tops on them that looked like coolie hats, thick and metal and painted black on both sides to suck in the lighting and direct it downward to keep it from poisoning the telescope. Headlights flashed across the grass as cars exited Skyway Drive and turned right into the parking lot.

The Jack of Instance was on fire, and so was the lance he carried, and so was the horse he sat atop. The axe, which was in his left hand, was not on fire.

“Chuck it back,” Flower Childs said.

“No. You’re gonna throw it at me again.”

“Naaah. Hey, if I chop your head off, will you die?”

“I’m definitely not giving the axe back after that question.”

“Why the notes? You’re some bullshit…fucking…manifestation or whatever. Spirit of fire or some shit.”

“I’m not the spirit of fire.”

“Why the notes?”

“Because we’re the same, you and–”

POK!

“Ow! Was that a rock? Did you throw a fucking rock at me?”

“Don’t gimme that ‘we’re the same, you and I’ shit, you flaming asshole. Don’t gimme that ‘for the light to exist, so too does the dark’ shit. Fuck that. Fuck you for even thinking it. We both made choices, and mine was better than yours. Don’t drag me into your bullshit.”

He chucked the axe well right of her. It landed PLUMPF in the grass.

“We have a connection.”

“We don’t.”

“You can deny it.”

“I will. To my dying fucking day.”

“We have a connection.”

POK!

“Fuck you.”

“Stop throwing rocks!”

“Fine. The axe.”

Flower Childs walked over to the axe, picked it up, and the park was empty when she straightened up. No man, no horse, and nothing at all was on fire. Three teenagers were getting high in the bandshell. There were secret drinkers in Fords in the parking lot. The telescope had astronomers crowded ’round it. There were owls in the peregrine trees to the east. Everything was quiet and dark.

“C’mon,” she said to Ash-Nine, and tapped her on the head because the dog was deaf. They walked to her red-and-white Mustang; she set the axe on the backseat, and the dog rode shotgun. Out of the parking lot, back down Skyway Drive, and into the valley where the fire station on Alfalfa Street was. Flower lived on Alfalfa Street, too, and when the sun was about to start coming up, Pedro Sanpedro relived her, and she walked east to her house. She took off her boots before she eased the front door open, and padded into the front room in her white socks. Unbuttoned her shirt, and then the blue twill pants, and then unlatched her bra and took down her underwear and slipped into bed behind Lower Montana, who was almost still asleep and said,

“Mmm.”

And Flower snaked her arm under Lower, and the other one went around, and she held her tight.

“I’m proud of you, Sidney. You made the right choice.”

Sidney Shines still had two feet, and Capolina Gardner had a name. Mr. Leopard.

“And what good does it do you? He’s a Town Father. You can’t do shit to him.”

“I’m sure we can’t. But just in case I’m wrong, you’re going to take us to him.”

Sidney was full of 89 chemicals, and his head felt like Mercury spinning ’round the sun; there was pressure and heat and speed. His skin was tingling, and he had to keep looking at his shoulders to make sure they were still there. His vision was rangy and weird; Capolina flipped between close-ups and wide shots.

“Wha? No. No, nuh-uh.”

“Would it help if I said ‘Please?'”

“Fuck you.”

Harry bit off his big toe.

“AAAAH!”

Capolina was quiet for a moment as she watched her husband eat the man’s toe.

“Sid, I’m not gonna lie. That was fucked up.”

She rubbed Harry behind his triangular ears, and then under his muzzle.

“Hrooo.”

“We were doing so well, though.”

She stanched the bleeding.

“We were getting along so well. And then you had to go and be a dick.”

“Hrooo.”

Sidney was breathing shallow and often. He was sweating. His chest rose and fell under the duct tape that held him to the wall. Capolina picked up a syringe from the towel.

“Scopolamine, Harry. It’s a hypnotic. Tends to make one a bit suggestible.”

She pierced the skin on his neck.

“Plus some other stuff.”

And drove the needle home into the vein. Plunger down. Sidney took a breath, two, three, and then his eyes glazed over.

“Sid. Siiiid. Sid? Over here, buddy.”

Capolina snapped her fingers an inch from Sidney’s nose a few times. He looked at her dully.

“Sid, let’s go for a drive.”

“Okay.”

Cloudy Eyes was singing a song she had written just for Cannot Swim, and the whole village listened and swayed and ate, except for the drummers behind her. They had tom-toms made of cedar wood and deerskin, and hoop drums made of bear rawhide. 4/4 time. The children danced at the edge of the fire’s light. Cannot Swim was no longer one of them, as he had passed his Assignment. The feast was in his honor. He smiled and greeted all his relatives, and listened to Cloudy Eyes’ song. He thought he was too upset to eat until he smelled the food. No one else had any problem with the day’s events, from the looks of it: Talks To Whites was sniffing around after Too Long Neck like usual; Stranger Who Hunts Well and his Useless Friend were still babbling at each other in the White language; Easy Life was laying down and dead asleep by the communal storehouse.

Cannot Swim felt like a failure. He had not harvested the mushrooms that he presented to the elders; Stranger Who Hunts Well had parceled them out from his stash.

He wandered down to the lake; it held the full moon captive, and there were blips and ripples upon the surface. Off to his right was the mountain that would be called Mount Lincoln sinking into the sea, and to his left was black and night and nothing. The sky held all the stars in the world.

“How’d it go?”

Cannot Swim leapt, just a bit, and tried to pretend he hadn’t. Here And There was standing next to him. She was wide and barefooted and the only Pulaski with freckles.

“Not well.”

“You dead?”

“No.”

“So, how bad could it have been?”

“I was captured by a squatch. I had to be rescued.”

“That sounds awesome.”

“It was not. I should have been able to complete my Assignment by myself.”

“Your Assignment was to go up into the hills and bring back mushrooms. You did.”

“I cheated.”

“I guess you should go back up and do it again, then.”

Cannot Swim was silent for a moment.

“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

“There you go. All the Assignment is is a pre-planned traumatic experience. The key requirement for a boy to become a man is that the boy not die. Did you die?”

“No.”

“Today, you are a man.”

Here And There was barefoot. Cannot Swim was wearing his father’s old moccasins; they fit well. She turned to face him, and he could have sworn she looked hin in the eye even though she was a foot shorter than he. Here And There said,

“Tell me, cousin: what have you learned?”

“Everything outside the village is dangerous.”

“Don’t be so sure of the village.”

And he blinked and she was gone. Cannot Swim walked back to the feast.

Mr. Leopard was in the kitchen of the restaurant with no name; he was eyeing the telephone hanging on the wall, and hissing at a cook. There was a way to cut shallots, he stated in a cold voice, and whatever this is isn’t it. Service had begun and he had more important things to worry about, but he was forced to deal with the shallot issue. He had four tables in the dining room–two four-tops, a threesome, and a couple–and instead of catering to them, he was worrying about the shallots. Goddammit, man, the shallots.

It was tough being a perfectionist, Mr. Leopard thought, but someone had to be.

There was quiet from the dining room where once there had been conversation, and Mr. Leopard’s bald head cocked. He checked himself in the mirror by the door that led out of the kitchen, and then out the swinging doors, and now he is in the dining room which is empty except for a woman in dark-blue scrubs and a ponytail sitting at the table in the middle of the room. Table Six.

He stood there, briefly, placed a hand to his chest, attempted a smile. Held up his index finger, which had an extra knuckle, and backed into the kitchen. Pots simmered, and pans sizzled, and there was no one in the kitchen.

Mr. Leopard straightened his tie.

Back into the dining room.

“This is a private eating club, ma’am. Are you a member?”

“Sit down, asshole.”

He did.

“Do you even know my name?”

“I don’t,” Mr. Leopard said. He smiled. He had too many teeth. “Your last name is Gardner.”

“My married name is Gardner.”

There were half-eaten plates in front of them, forks with meat still quivering on the tines. The wine glasses had fingerprints and lip smudges on them.

“Which means you’re the wife of…”

“The werewolf.”

He tidied up the setting in front of him.

“Harry. His name is Harry. You were going to turn him into dinner for rich assholes. Harry.”

“What a sturdy name.”

Capolina held the water-glass up to the light, turned it this way and that, shrugged, sipped from it.

“I’m a Town Father,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means I can do far more for you alive than dead. You’re wearing nurse’s scrubs. I assume you work at St. Agatha’s. How would you like to be Chief of Nursing? Harry, his name is Harry, your husband is Harry. Do you travel? Little Aleppo is looking for a trade representative. You would promote the neighborhood all over the world. The good parts of the world. Your own personal Town Father. You and Harry are young. Just starting out. Think of what a powerful friend could do for you.”

The dining room was calm and still, and the carpet was very thick and so was the wallpaper, and so there was no noise at all when Harry, who was a werewolf, placed Sidney Shines’ head on the plate in front of Mr. Leopard.

“Y’know what? We’re gonna pass,” Capolina said.

Harry smiled. He had too many teeth.

SIX MONTHS LATER

Everyone loves a grand opening, and no one opened grander than the Wayside Inn. Same location on Sylvester Street, across from the Wash-N-Slosh and Madame Cazee’s, and same layout as the old one. The deejay booth was in the corner, and the dance floor was in the middle, and the bar stretched along the east side of the room. A few tables, some booths. Bathrooms where they should be, with a coke dealer standing outside. The disco ball was disco balling.

Precarious Lee was behind the bar. Lower Montana had started off the night as the bartender, but she did not know what drinks were made of and became flustered. Some people become smarter when they are yelled at, and others become dumber. He spelled her, and sent her onto the dance floor to thank people for coming. Lower was a much better host than bartender. This is not to say that Precarious was any good at bartending. You could have an Arrow beer, or you could have a shot of something. Any order more complicated would be refused. Big-Dicked Sheila, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy), and Tiresias Richardson heckled him as he popped caps off frothy bottles and measured out tequila, whiskey, vodka.

There was a silhouette box behind the bar, above the top-shelf liquor, and there was a drawing. Lower Montana had pictures of the old Wayside, the burnt Wayside, and she researched the medals and ribbons that Manfred Pierce had earned, and shopped around at yard sales and gun shows until she had the complete set. She framed them in a silhouette box just like they used to be. The drawing was of a photograph of a young woman, tall, and with her friends. She was happy.It hung above the bar, and people had taken pictures of it.  Lower paid one of her students a hundred bucks to sketch what was in the photograph, and then she hung it right in the same place the original was.

Some things should never change.

“Do you want another one?”

“I want three more. At least,” Steppy Alouette said.

Flower Childs got to her feet, mostly, and walked over to the bar. Precarious was at the far end bantering with his idiot friends, and she was thinking about reaching over the bar and grabbing the drinks herself, and then there is a figure in front of her that she had trouble focusing on. It shimmies in and out of existence. It has a mustache and row of neat, white teeth. It says,

“Hello, gorgeous.”

She smiled, and there was a beer in front of her. She raised it, and there was a CLINK from somewhere.

 

THE END

The Final Ascent In Little Aleppo

Werewolfs don’t growl so much as rumble sharply. There are subsonics and hyperpitches in the snarl that your body and brain feels without your ears hearing them: it hits you in the chest and in the amygdala, thick and sloppy. A werewolf’s growl is a Last Sound. The rattle of a snake, the rush of a wall of water, the FWOOMP of the sudden ignition: the Last Sound. Tires screeching, and sudden footsteps behind you: the Last Sound. Your cerebral cortex is the newest part of you, the weakest part of you. It’s the part that cares about fashion, and goes to philosophy class. Your cerebral cortex invented agriculture, and church, too. Your cerebral cortex forgets it’s installed into an animal, but the amygdala never does. Fuck, fight, feed, or flee: that’s all the amygdala does.

Flee, Sidney Shines’ amygdala told him. His cerebral cortex answered that his body was drugged and trussed up in the empty living room of a rented house on Bailey Street. Under the window, there was a rifle with a silencer the size of a human femur attached to the barrel, and a thick scope screwed to the top. The carpet was gray, except directly under Sidney, where it was dark, wet gray. He was propped up against the wall opposite the window with his hands cuffed behind his back, and his legs duct-taped together straight out in front of him. There was a nurse on his left, and a werewolf on his right.

Sidney had had a plan. Smoke ’em out, he figured. Seal off the back door of the cottage, set a fire, wait for the meat and the wife to come out the front, shoot the meat, shoot the wife, drive the van out of the garage, throw the meat and the wife in, shoot them both a couple more times for good measure, drive away, make sure he wasn’t followed, head to his shop, clean the meat and the wife, go to the restaurant with no name, re-negotiate the deal now that the wife was included, count his money.

It was a terrible plan.

Not because silencers only made rifles slightly less than the loudest thing in the world, and not because the silver bullets Sidney had commissioned were soft and certainly wouldn’t fly right, and not because werewolfs weigh around 600 pounds which means you can’t just “throw them in” the van, and not because there were at least a dozen houses with a clear line-of-sight to his sniper’s perch, but because during the very first part–setting the incendiaries for the “smoke ’em out” section of the plan–Sidney had completely neglected to look the fuck around, and not noticed Capolina Gardner. She had been squatting in the bushes of the house that shared a backyard plot with her cottage, but she was not a spy or a hunter and so was noticeable were you paying attention. Sidney was not paying attention. His attention was on his payment. Sidney saw Harry Gardner’s head through the window. There was a timer on the bomb that Sidney attached to the back door of the cottage, and he wedged shut the jamb with wooden chocks and super-glued the lock and hinges. Capolina followed him back to the house across Bailey Street with the good line-of-sight that he was renting. She looped around back, a big circle, and then she was peering out from behind the Teitelbaum’s house opposite Sidney’s perch, and she saw the flash of the rifle and the glint off the scope, and she made another big loop to the back of their cottage, where she whistled for Harry. He popped his head out the kitchen window.

“I know where he is.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too, baby. There’s a bomb on the house.”

“Oh, shit,” Harry said, and popped his head right back inside.

It’s easy enough to make thermite. Mix some aluminum powder with some iron oxide powder. Utterly stable unless ignited, and the flash point is high enough so it’s hard to light by accident. Burns at around 2500 degrees. Coffee can will do for a bomb casing. You can make a timer from a travel alarm clock, and a detonator from a couple buck’s worth of magnesium. It’s easy enough to make a bomb.

She was still in her dark-blue scrubs, and still had her hair back in her work ponytail, even though she had not actually clocked in at St. Agatha’s that morning, just let Sidney Shines follow her and Harry down the Main Drag to the Victory Diner, and then to the hospital. He kissed her in front of the sliding doors under the brickwork that read Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi? and ambled north. It was the toughest amble of his life, and Harry was an excellent ambler. He could also mosey and bop along. He was duck-footed unless he concentrated, which he was doing because he was trying really hard to look casual and not like he knew he was being followed.

Which he was, of course, and behind Sidney was Capolina, who had exactly as much experience with following people as Harry did in being followed. The movies make this look like more fun, Capolina thought. This was not fun at all, this spying and sneaking. It was no fun at all to be prey, and she suddenly understood why deer always looked so tense. She stayed a block behind, and then took a shortcut through little Plummer Park and alongside houses until she was well-hidden in a bush on the backyard behind their own, and that’s where she waited for not too long before Sidney showed up with his incendiary device, and then she followed him back to his nest, and then back to Harry, who was now peaking gingerly out the kitchen window.

It was a little before noon.

“Why is he trying to blow us up? I thought he wanted to eat me. No one hunts with explosives.”

“He’s not. I think he wants to smoke you out the front way,” Capolina said from the backyard. She was standing on the cement patio; the tiling was crapped out. There were two wooden steps up to the backdoor, which did not have a screen. There was a tee-shaped metal rack for hanging wet laundry that they did not use and Harry had been meaning to take down since they moved in.

Harry thought about that and said,

“In the front yard?”

“Yeah, uh-huh.”

“Won’t everyone on the street be outside because of the explosion?”

“Probably,” she said.

Harry thought about that and said,

“It’s not a great plan.”

She walked up right under his window and got up on her toes, and he leaned out, and they kissed.

“I think he’s as new to this as we are.”

“Even for a beginner, it’s a mess.”

She kissed him again. The blood was starting to rush to his head.

“God only gives us what can handle. And apparently all we can handle is a complete idiot.”

“We’re not out of this yet,” he said. “We could still totally blow it.”

They kissed one last time, and Capolina said,

“We could. Speaking of blowing things, can you grab me a knife, baby?”

“Why do you need a knife?”

The coffee can full of thermite was duct-taped to the door.

“I’m gonna take the bomb off our house, baby.”

“Yeah, okay.”

She did, and then Harry handed her a big spoon because they did not own a shovel, and she dug a hole for the coffee can with the flapping duct-tape, and buried it within. The door’s lock was glued shut, so he grabbed her hand and pulled her in through the window. They both fell over, and they were so nervous that they fucked on the kitchen floor without taking their clothes off. Capolina had to concentrate, but she came. Harry didn’t have to try to cum, he just did, and then did not roll off of her, he lay there with his weight on her on the yellow and white tiled floor. It was just after noon, but all the curtains were pulled tight in their one-bedroom cottage with the living room up front and the kitchen in the back, and it was dim and quiet and there was their breath together and nothing much else, nothing much else at all except the guy down the street with the sniper rifle.

Cannot Swim loaded his rifle. The sun was a squinch past directly overhead, and he and Easy Life had made good progress up the third of the chain of seven mountains that formed the easternmost barrier of the Pulaski’s world just as surely as the harbor on the west did. The ground was still muddy from the rains of the previous day, but it was firm and did not play tricks. The two had started out just after dawn from the base, and now they were about a fifth of the way up.

The Whites who would come to live in the valley named the seven mountains the Segovian Hills, but only because it sounded good. A hill is a rolling lump, a bumpy hump, you sled down it come winter. Wildflowers grow in the grass on hills, and teenagers lay hand-in-hand falling in love with each other, the world, love itself. A hill is an earthen buttock: you grab it, you treasure it, you take comfort in its plumpness. The Segovian Hills were not hills, at all. They were fucking mountains.

Rock and dirt, alternating with no pattern, and steep gave way suddenly to sheer, and the peak was out of view if you got too close to it: you can only see a mountain if you’re nowhere near it. Otherwise, you’re lost in the trees–there were trees fucking everywhere–which blot your view after a few hundred feet, as do the rises and drops and craggy faces that have eroded away into boulder prayers, and you can gain no vantage. They took the straightest path they could manage. When they went through a wood, Cannot Swim lead. When they went through the brush, Easy Life plowed a trail through, and also ate some of the brush.

The Pulaski did not go into the hills unless they had a very good reason, and there were only two: death and mushrooms.

There was only one trail blazed in any of the seven hills when the Pulaski occupied the valley. The fourth mountain was the tallest mountain, and therefore it was the holiest. There was a plateau about a quarter of the way up with an easy, sloping path to it. The grass and bramble had long ago been tramped down into dead dirt. The body was wrapped in a deerskin shroud with a fox embroidered on it, and it was carried by the strongest member of the immediate family. The highland was flat and faced south towards the hunting fields, and there was a boulder sticking up from the grass a little off-center. The stone was half-buried, and what was above ground was wedge-shaped like a sedimentary doorstop.

The body is laid upon the rock. They say the names of the dead one last time, and then never again. The shroud is unwrapped and removed, and the body is naked upon the rock. On the way back down, a song about The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again is sung. The Turtle used to control every human like a marionette, and since The Turtle was perfect and good, so humans were perfect and good. One day, The Turtle would retake his place at the junction of the universe, and take over once more, and man would live through his command, and sin no more. But The Turtle was not in charge at present. The song’s lyrics don’t translate directly to English, but the gist was Come back, Turtle, but not today. Or tomorrow.

And then the father, mother, child, human, is meat. Pumas from two hills over smell it, and so do the black bears and grizzly, but the crow and the magpie get there first and they go for the eyes and lips and genitals–the soft parts–which they wrench loose from the capturing flesh and throw back their toothless mouths and swallow whole before the king of the hills arrives, and even the condors step back.

In the Pulaski language, the hills were called There are squatch up there; Jesus Christ, don’t ever go up there. It sounded prettier in Pulaski.

They were not ten feet tall, and could not cover a hundred yards in five seconds, and they were not possessed of any magick at all–their eyes were not mesmers; they could not shift their shapes–and they did not hurl boulders like Poseidon’s bastard child, and they did not move in silence. Cannot Swim had been told these stories as a child.

“All those stories were bullshit,” Shoots With Wrong Hand told him when he was 12.

“Then why did you tell them to me?”

“To make sure you stayed out of the hills.”

“Anything else you lied to me about?”

They were a quarter of the way up what the Whites would name Mt. Chastity, but the Pulaski had no individual name for. To name something was to give it power, and the mountains had quite enough power, thank you, the Pulaski thought. A plateau, small, and covered with waist-high brush. Cannot Swim’s father cradled his loaded rifle in the crook of his right arm, and kept his hand wrapped around the stock, but his finger off the trigger. He spun around slowly while they talked, scanning his surroundings. Cannot Swim did not have a rifle, but he rotated, too.

“No monsters in the harbor.”

“None?”

“There’s weird fish. But no monsters. We just tell the children that to keep them out of the water. There’s currents in there that’ll pull you right under.”

“Next you’ll tell me that Here And There is just a lady who knows some conjuring tricks.”

“Oh, shit, no. She’s a real shaman. Stay the fuck away from her.”

“I do!”

“But if you can’t avoid her, be polite,” Shoots With Wrong Hand said. “She knows real magick. Good and bad.”

Cannot Swim was 12, so he was not supposed to chew the peregrine leaf, but his father gave him one; they both rolled the leaves and popped them in their mouths, and then they looked around the plateau some more.

“She’s my cousin, right?”

“Here And There?”

“Yeah,” Cannot Swim said.

“On your mother’s side. Twice-removed, I think. Maybe once. I don’t know: she’s kinda your cousin. One day, I’ll tell you how she got to be the shaman.”

“Tell me now.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Tell me!”

Shoots With Wrong Hand was still taller than his son, and his ponytail whipped around as his head did. Cannot Swim lowered his eyes.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t look at the ground. Pay attention. Everything outside the village is dangerous, and you have to pay attention.”

Harry Gardner kept his eyes on the sidewalk, and told himself he was safe. West on Bailey, and he had his hands in his pockets and then out and then in. Which was more casual? he thought. Definitely not inserting and withdrawing them nine times a minute. Stop doing that. Just walk casual. Walk like you usually walk. How the fuck do I usually walk? he thought, and now Harry was consciously herky-jerking his legs forward. The sun was going down, and he turned south on the Main Drag. Sidney Shines was behind him, and then hidden as Harry picked up Capolina from in front of the hospital (where she had run to after sneaking out the back window of their cottage not a half-hour before), and the couple retraced his steps, back north up the Main Drag with a canvas shoulder bag bearing rock band buttons under her arm, and then into their house and straight through to the back window (which had a ladder leaning up against it by now) and a big loop to around back of the house that Sidney was camped out in.

It was still unlocked.

The house was carpeted, and he did not hear Capolina coming. One of the syringes in the shoulder bag was full of midazolam, and then the syringe was empty and Sidney Shines was full of midazolam. He was sitting in a metal folding chair by the open window, he had his rifle, he had his scope, and he tried to turn around, but the stock of the gun got tangled in the curtains–olive green–and he spat out “You bitch” and then he slumped to the floor. He made almost no noise. This is great carpet, Capolina thought. We should get carpet.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Harry said.

“Jesus!” she leapt in fear, as she was all amped up on adrenaline and had not heard him come up behind her. This is unbelievable fucking carpet, she thought. It was muted red, like black cherry, and wall-to-wall.

Harry had her canvas bag, and he took out a pair of handcuffs that had been purchased for sexual purposes, used once, and left in the nightstand drawer. Sidney’s flat cap had fallen off his head, and straggly strands of dyed hair were loose and floating around his head like a nimbus. Capolina probed her index and middle finger up into his carotid under the jaw, and then she took the bag from Harry, kissed him, and dug around for a stethoscope.

She listened at his chest.

“He’s alive.”

“Wha?”

Harry was squatting next to her, and squinched up his face in confusion.

“Was that in question?”

“I didn’t know how much he weighed,” Capolina said. “I had to guess how much sleeping potion to use. I guessed right, I guess.”

And he had tears in his eyes, and he said,

“I don’t like any of this.”

And then she did, too, and she said,

“But you love me?”

“Yeah.”

“Then we can get through this. All marriages have rough patches.”

“Okay.”

“Now help me hogtie this fat fuck. Quick.”

Bailey Street was almost fully dark, and purples had given way to black, and the full moon was almost sovereign. There were no lights on at all in the rented house, and all three faces were in shadow. Arms behind the back. Duct-tape around the ankles, and the knees, too. They rolled him–it was easier than dragging–to the back wall of the living room, and then taped him to the wall. He was sitting up with his bound legs in front of him.

“I’m gonna go in the bedroom,” Harry said, kicking off his shoes, and Capolina kissed him quick, He walked down the hall, shedding clothes as he went. She shut the olive-green curtains and sat cross-legged next to Sidney, who was snoring loudly. She inventoried her shoulder-bag. Eight IV needles, full and labeled. Length of surgical rubber, blue, for use as tourniquet. Antiseptic wipes. Scalpel. Pliers. Suture kit. Towels. Large-bore syringe used to drain abscesses and knees. Kidney-shaped metal pan. Notebook. Two blue ballpoint pens, one black sharpie marker. Battery-powered tape recorder with a built-in microphone. A Polaroid camera, a Supercolor with a built-in flash, and enough film for seven pictures.

A metal icon the size of a dime, but oval, with a stamped woman holding a tray bearing her severed breasts, and around her was the inscription PRAY FOR US, ST. AGATHA. Capolina was not a Catholic. She had been raised either Presbyterian or Episcopalian, she couldn’t remember, and now she and Harry attended the First Church of the Infinite Christ semi-kinda-regularly. Most of the nurses and doctors at St. Agatha’s weren’t Catholic. Most of them carried the medallion with them all the time.

And then the sound of breaking bones from the bedroom, and a muttered howl; Capolina concentrated on her supplies because she would not cry this month, so she concentrated on her supplies, and then wondered how much the carpet cost, and then he was there over her shoulder, 600 pounds and bristly black fanged nightmare with a bare, wrinkled muzzle the size of a rugby ball; no separation at all between the pupil and iris, and the ears were furry and gray-skinned and pointy, and the skull is wide under the eyes and the brow is too thick. A werewolf doesn’t look anything like a wolf.

She hugged him around his muscled neck.

“Hi, baby.”

“Hrooo.”

She recoiled.

“You don’t have anything to eat. Oh, no, baby. You don’t have any food.”

Turning into a werewolf was hungry business, and Harry was now desperately hungry, but he bobbled his head as if to say that it was no big deal.

“It is a big deal, baby. You have to eat.”

“Hrooo.”

“I’m gonna run back to the house and get you something, okay? Watch the asshole.”

Harry looked at the taped-up Sidney, growled.

“Don’t eat him.”

“Hrooo.”

She walked to the front door, and Harry went,

“BORF.”

She stopped.

“I should go out the back door.”

“Hrooo.”

She did, and he settled down facing Sidney Shines. The carpet really was a dream.

Skyway Drive is the road that connects the valley to Pulaski Peak. The speed record was 11:03, set in 1983 by Jumping Jack Bruce in a modded-out Volkswagen Beetle, one of the suckers with the engine sticking out the back and plumped-up tires. It was black except for the hood, which had Jumping Jack’s smiling face painted on. The switchback a quarter of the way up has been called The Jumping Jack since 1984, and the hood with his air-brushed face is still screwed into the rock-face, and he still has fans that keep up the wooden cross implanted into the tiny line of dirt in between the road and mountain. You’re not allowed to set speed records on Skyway Drive anymore, but teenagers still do. There are crosses all up and down Skyway Drive.

“It’s almost like you’re not supposed to go up here,” Lower Montana said.

She said that years ago. Decades. Flower Childs looked around the Mustang; she could hear Lower’s voice echoing. Just her and the dog and the axe. It was one of their first dates. Lower was still living with Manfred Pierce, and Flower was at Harper College. She had a ’61 Ford Starliner, which was rusting and missing the backseat. Just bare chassis back there. It didn’t leak oil, but it did burn oil, so Flower had to put in a fresh quart every time she filled up, plus the radiator had the stamina of a chain-smoking leper, so the car was exclusively for use in-town.

Flower picked her up at Manfred’s place on Fantic Street. He had gone to the Wayside; it was almost 7 pm. She beeped the horn, and Lower–who had been waiting at the window–ran out, locking the door behind her, and she wanted to kiss Flower through the window, leaning in from the curb, but she didn’t. The car had a fastback roof and the light inside was not on, so Lower kissed her when she got in.

They went to Yung Man’s and had shrimp fried rice and lo mein, and they discussed becoming vegetarians and Manfred Pierce. Lower Montana had told him that she was going to be studying for an English test. They were reading The Iliad, which Lower was fairly certain had not been written in English, but she was still responsible for the first few chapters. She was not studying, though. She was eating Chinese food on the Downside with her girlfriend. At least, I hope she’s my girlfriend, Lower thought as she sipped her over-sweetened tea in the cup with a handle too small to use. I’d like her to be my girlfriend.

But she didn’t want to lie to Manfred–he had put her up when her parents had thrown her out–and she also wanted his blessing, because she was only sixteen and wanted an adult to tell her she was doing the right thing. Flower liked Manfred an awful lot, but truly didn’t give a fuck what he thought of her; she cared about Lower, though, and so they drove over to the Wayside Inn after dinner.

“I thought you were studying for a test,” Manfred said to Lower when they walked in.

“I lied. I’m sorry. But I do know the book,” she said.

“Who is Patrocles?”

“Achilles’ boyfriend.”

“You passed the test,” he said, and flashed a row of neat, white teeth. His mustache was still firmly brown.

“I’m on a date. I’m sorry.”

Manfred got Flower Childs a bottle of Arrow, popped the top off, set it down atop a cardboard coaster, said to her,

“Cradle-robber.”

Flower smiled and drank her beer, and Manfred made the sign of the cross towards them and said,

“You walk with the Lord. Go forth and do whatever the hell it is lesbians do to each other.”

Flower smiled some more and said,

“If you’re confused, we’ll let you watch.”

He made a face like he was gagging and said,

“You know I love you, but it’s all slimy and weird down there. No thank you.”

She only had half the beer. Of all the things to remember, she remembered that. She set the bottle down on the cardboard coaster on the bar when it was half-full, and then they left. No one wore seatbelts then, and the Starliner didn’t have any, anyway, so Lower sat all the way across the bench seat right next to Flower Childs, who draped her right arm over Lower and held her tight as the ruined V8 chugged and puttered up Skyway Drive and past all the wooden crosses implanted in the tiny line of dirt between the road and the mountain.

“It’s almost like you’re not supposed to go up here,” Lower Montana said so many years ago.

They sat on a bench telling each other their life stories, and then Lower looked to make sure no one was looking, and no one was so she kissed Flower because she wanted her to be her girlfriend, and then they were. Flower moved out of the dorm the next week into a one-bedroom apartment on Hebrides Way, and Lower moved out of Manfred’s and they had slept in the same bed every night ever since.

Flower Childs wanted to be in her bed. She wanted to be in their bed. She did not want to be on a mountain with a monster. She hoped she would see their bed again.

Capolina had made Harry a meatloaf. She loved him, so she made him a meatloaf. It was his mother’s recipe, and he always pretended like she got it exactly right. Capolina had meant to make Harry a few gallons of mashed potatoes, too, but had forgotten. He didn’t mind: the raw potatoes were just fine. He chomped them back into his enormous mouth and RONCH RONCH made short work of them with his teeth the size of half-dollars. The meatloaf went in three bites, and his massive tongue searched all over his muzzle for crumbs. Capolina watched him eat, and it made her happy. Love was not an emotion, she thought: it was an expression.

“I got a bag of pretzels, too, but they’re for later.”

“MURF.”

“I said: later.”

“Hroo.”

Harry smelled something, something had changed in the taped-up, cuffed-up, would-be butcher in front of them, and he leaned back on his haunches and his hackles started hackling, and his black lips pulled back from his terrible teeth. Sidney Shines fluttered his eyes open, and Capolina leapt to her feet with the Polaroid Supercolor camera with the built-in flash. It went PTCHAK and then the picture slid from its innards ZHWEE and she flapped it back and forth a few times. Then she knelt down on Sidney’s left. Harry crept up to Sidney’s ear on the right.

“Your name is Sidney Shines. You own the Kinderfleische butcher shop on Harcourt Place. You paid for and distributed flyers falsely accusing werewolfs of setting all the fires in the neighborhood. You’ve been stalking us.”

Capolina ripped open the foil on an antiseptic swab, and then wiped down the skin on Sidney Shine’s neck where it covered his brachiocephalic vein. Harry’s nose was brushing Sidney’s ear. She held up a syringe and squirted some out just like she’d seen in the movies.

“This isn’t the movies, Sid. There’s no such thing as truth serum.”

She flicked her middle finger against the barrel of the syringe. An air bubble loosed, and she tapped the plunger up just a tiny bit.

“But this is sodium amytal mixed with dliaudid, and then I threw some benzos in there. Little bit of speed to keep you awake. I’m gonna get you so fucked up you can’t help but tell the truth.”

“Fuck you,” Sidney said.

Ears aren’t attached all that solidly, especially if a werewolf is tugging at them. Harry began to chew.

“Spit it out!”

“BORF!”

“Gimme!”

She dig into his mouth and pried his jaws open and grabbed the ear. She was still a nurse, she thought. Do no harm and all that. Then she remembered that this asshole wanted to eat her husband, and she tossed the ear back to him. He snapped it out of the air and RONCH RONCH put it back. Sidney was too scared to scream. He was in shock.

“You look like you’re in shock,” Capolina said. She held up her syringe. “I got just the thing for that.”

She leaned in with the needle, and Sidney went to scream but Harry was already growling and nothing else could be heard in the living room of the rented house with the rifle in the corner and the drawn curtains on Bailey Street, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

An Important Warning In Little Aleppo

The Tahitian was lit up. The marquee was blaring white and the lobby, too, broadcasting illuminance onto the sidewalk of the Main Drag. The full moon has nothing on a fully-operational movie theater. It was the end of the evening, and evenings did a magic trick in Little Aleppo: you’d blink your eyes and it would be night. Locals used to say it was like the sky pulled a rabbit out of its ass, until The Spectacular Gordon actually pulled a rabbit from his ass during his routine at the Magic Fortress. The sun going down was not like that at all, locals thought. Nothing was like that. (The Spectacular Gordon doubled his price after that show, as from then on, promoters would pay him extra not to do that particular trick.)

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, had been to the Magic Fortress years ago. Right after college with a guy she knew from college, some dipshitty fuck named Browner. That was his first name, and he was too tall. Gussy liked tall guys–everybody likes tall guys–but he was duck-beneath-doorways tall, clothing from specialty shops tall. But he had invitations from the Magic Fortress, and you needed an invitation to get in, and Gussy had been living under the building’s spooky-ooky glare all her life. It was a third of the way up Pulaski Peak, the tallest of the Segovian Hills, sprawled across half the west face of the slope. Grays and blacks and midnight blues, and eaves and gables and widow’s walks, and windows that didn’t connect to rooms, several Escherite columns, and an outbuilding you could’ve sworn was on the other side the last time you looked. There were the Hills, and there was what was on them; there was the land, and there were the marks upon the land. Harper Observatory up top, the Magic Fortress below. All her life, there they were. They existed just the same way that the moon did, or the harbor.

She was 23, and her father was dead; she was ambivalent about both of those facts. She felt way too old, and far too young; she loved her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, even though he was an asshole. It takes a lot to get a girl to stop loving her father, and he did not reach those depths. He was not wicked. Her bedroom door was never opened late at night. He was not physically violent towards her, or her brothers, or their mother. He was just an asshole. He never laughed, and he never listened to music, and called the people he loved “stupid” all time. He yelled and he sneered. He hated men for specific reasons, and women in general. But Gussy remembered him running behind her cheering the first time she pedaled her bike down the street without training wheels, this disconnected memory, and so she still loved him and missed him. Her father was dead and she was 23, and she floated through the neighborhood drinking too much, and smoking too much dope, and fucking all the wrong people.

Like Browner. Gussy wasn’t attracted to him, but she found his gorkiness fascinating. And was a bit of a size queen. She was rewarded in that assumption, but it took 20 minutes of sucking and licking and stroking to get him within spitting distance of erect; when Gussy heard that he came out of the closet several years later, she was happy for him, but mostly just vindicated. Relationships and love and all that were confusing, but I know how to suck and lick and stroke, Gussy thought. You’re not hard after my sucking and licking and stroking, well: that’s on you.

But they hadn’t fucked yet, they were still at the Magic Fortress. The lobby is unmanned but for a larger-than-life statue of Houdini with his hand extended as if to shake. The carpet is very busy, and there are bookshelves along the walls.

“Hello?”

“Anybody home?” Gussy said.

They looked around, and then at Houdini’s hand, and then each other, and then Gussy shook the statue’s hand. The bookshelf to their right swung open, revealing a maitre d’ in a tuxedo.

There was a dress code, and so everyone in the dining room was in suits, ties; dresses, heels. Gussy was in red, and Browner had a blue blazer with little gold buttons, the ones with anchors on them. Gussy tried her hardest not to make fun of them, and made it almost all the way to the entree. The food was beside the point. He was drinking bottles of Arrow beer, and she was drinking Lubyanka vodka with chocolate milk; she called it a Brown Russian.

“You gotta have one!”

“No. It sounds awful.”

“Brown Russian! Your name’s Browner! You gotta fucking have one!”

“I’m really okay.”

Browner was a pill, and Gussy began to tune him out after his reluctance to even try her delicious concoction, but she was still going to fuck him unless he called the waitress a cunt or said something really racist or whatever.

And then the shows. The Big Room had the big tricks, the ones that required a stage and setup and a pulchritudinous assistant wearing, for some reason, a bathing suit and high heels. The magicians made the women disappear. They sawed the women in half. Anyone could do magick, but magic was just for the boys. He threw a curtain up around her, and then she was wearing an evening gown, and the curtain went up again, and now she was in a spacesuit, and once more, and now she was wearing the same tuxedo as the magician. This got a laugh, for it was absurd. Gussy was bored. Just quick-change outfits. She did enough theater when she was at Harper College to not see the velcro seams and bulges.

She led Browner out of the Big Room, and at a table in the anteroom was an old man. The kind of old man they don’t make anymore: tiny and wizened and well-dressed. The Grand Imbrogliaro’s dusty evening coat had two sleeves, but only one of them was full; the right one was sewn tight to the side of the jacket and the cuff was in the pocket. He lost the arm in the Old Country. Which particular Old Country, the Grand Imbrogliaro would not say. He was not missing any hair at all, though it was stark white. There were two chairs on each side of the table, except for the side he occupied, and he smiled and invited Gussy and Browner to sit. They did, to his right.

“I need you to watch carefully,” he said.

He wasn’t holding a deck of cards–Gussy would swear to that–and then he was. His hand was bigger than Browner’s, and his fingers were muscled and long. Fresh manicure, the slightest crescent of edge above the pink plate. The pinky and the fourth finger hold the pack in place, and the thumb and first withdraw the cards, and then the empty pack is flicked across the table and the Grand Imbrogliaro blows a raspberry at it.

“Useless,” he said, and the cards flung themselves around his knuckles: they fanned out in a perfect circle, and then cascaded over one another trying to get back to their original position; he flashed their suits to Gussy and Browner, and then the backs–royal blue–and then they were in two piles, equal in number, and back again into one via an interriffling in which no corner caught corner, and then spread out in an equally-spaced line across the table’s green felt surface. Face down. The Grand Imbrogliaro smiled at the couple and his hand passed over the cards like he was giving benediction and SHWOP picked one from the line faster than you could see: it was the Two of Hearts, and he smiled at the couple again. There was a tip jar on the table.

He took the Two of Hearts and ran it along the line and the cards kicked in sequence like dancing girls, and now they were face up. The Two of Hearts is placed face down in front of Gussy, and he gathered up the rest of the deck in his great hand and FAMP slapped it down on the table. He pointed at Gussy’s card with all of his fingers, and said,

“Would you mind?”

She flipped the card. Seven of Clubs. He flipped the top card on the deck. Two of Hearts.

“You need to watch carefully.”

He handed Browner the deck.

“Shuffle. Please.”

He did, clumsily. The Grand Imbrogliaro could not help but wince. Browner placed the deck in front of him, and he shuffled it now, in his one hand, with his fingers working in unison and independently and in parallel. FAMP onto the green felt, and then he dealt the top four cards. All kings.

“Watch carefully.”

He took up the four kings and fanned them out and showed both sides of the cards, then laid them back down and showed the palm and back of his right hand. Gathered up the cards and threw them in an even line, face down, one above the other vertically. The palm, and the back of his hand. Then he flipped the cards face up. All queens.

“Things can change so quickly when you don’t pay attention. Were you paying attention?”

They protested that they were, and the Grand Imbrogliaro smiled.

“I’ll do it again. I’ll do it slower,” he said.

And he did. The shuffle, the pull, the fan, the spread, the palm, the toss, the reveal. He did the trick at half-speed, and Gussy and Browner bulged their eyeballs out at his hand and refrained from blinking.

“Did you see it?”

“No,” Gussy said. “Do it again.”

“How about even slower?”

His hand shifted in increments. His knuckles flexed and extended. The only impediment to his tempo was gravity; if only he could make the cards fall from his hand to the table less rapidly. And still: Queen queen queen queen.

“Even when you know it’s a trick,” the Grand Imbrogliaro said, “you still trust your eyes.”

The movie was playing in the auditorium, and Gussy lit a cigarette in her tidy office; there was an explosion, just pretend, but all the same it rocked the building that blared light onto the Main Drag, which had recently fallen into night. A Mustang, driven by a woman with an axe, was headed up into the Segovian Hills, past magic and onto magick, and a horse was, too, in the company of a boy with a rifle. Gussy didn’t know about either journey, just knew what was in front of her eyes, even though she had been warned against trusting them in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

An Interlude In Little Aleppo

Big-Dicked Sheila was barefoot, and it was a pronounced barefootedness. She had bought the pants, the leather ones with the lace-up crotch, from Creepy Ernie’s House of Inappropriate Trousers on Arimorto Street. They were priced at $400, but Sheila paid $340 because she let Ernie watch her try ’em on. They were the ones she’d been thinking about. Tight under her ass and around her thigh and across her calf, and the hem was below the protruding bumps of her skinny ankles, and the leather was so black that it accentuated her pale foot. Her toenails were also black, and so was her spiky hair. Sheila’s lips were redder than Communist Santa. She was feeling very rock and roll at the moment. She was barefoot.

Left ankle over right up on the ratty blue couch. Sheila is a lefty, and so she put her left ankle over her right up on the ratty blue couch. The carpet is brown–ish–and worn, but clean. The wine is red, and she does a sit-up to sip from the glass, and lays back, and replaces it on the shitty carpet to her left. Vintage tee-shirt. The Snug: Live at Absalom. It was black, too, except for the exciting parts, and it was a size too small, so you could see the bit on her arm where the bicep turns into the shoulder.

“Did they move the walls in?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Seems like it. You should ask.”

“I won’t,” Tiresias Richardson said. She was also barefoot, but it was less noticeable because she was in a robe that had flopped halfway open so you could see all of her leg; the nudity of the foot did not disagree with its context. The robe was black, and softer than an impotent chinchilla. Tiresias’ nails, all twenty of ’em, were black as Sheila’s, but it was not because Tiresias was feeling rock and roll. She was Draculette the Horror Host, and so was contractually and dramatically obliged to wear black nail polish.

She was laying on the ratty blue couch. Sheila’s feet were by her left hip, and her hand was on Sheila’s ankle. Her other hand, the hand attached to the arm nuzzled against the back cushions of the couch, held her red wine. The glass needed refilling.

They were watching that evening’s movie, The Desert Has Teeth, which was about a haunted high school. The lockers chased freshmen; they were bearing machetes and furious for having been repeatedly slammed. The vice-principal’s office generated digestive acid. Several classrooms contained krampuses, and not just at Christmas.

The teevee was on a table along the wall, both of which were covered with tapestries. The walls in Tiresias’ dressing room were beige, or maybe tan–the color of a poor person’s teeth–and it did nothing for her, and less for her complexion or mood. KSOS’ owner Paul Loomis, Jr., refused to repaint. The tapestries were red and yellow and swirling green. The teevee was color, but the movie was in black-and-white. Tiresias looked down at it. Sheila looked left.

At the pep rally, the cheerleaders formed a human pyramid, and then sealed the quarterback inside.

“This school is haunted as fuck,” Sheila said.

“At a certain point, you’d expect parents to start pulling their kids out. Like when the French Club got skinned. AAAAHahaha!”

A chair behind Sheila’s head. Wooden legs with no casters. Padded back and seat, white. In front of that, the vanity with the makeup mirror. Lightbulbs the size and shape of grapefruit to the left, right, top of the reflection. The vanity was white like the chair, but not the exact same white–the two pieces were not originally of a set–and the surface had only a clean hand towel, also white but a third shade, laying on it. Tiresias’ makeup was in the drawers, lined up and organized in the drawers which had fresh paper towels laid down on their bottoms.

The chemistry teacher was turning students into human soup; they were the consistency of neither consomme nor chowder. Somewhere in the vicinity of bisque.

“Is soup a beverage or is it food?”

“Depends on how much stuff’s in it,” Sheila said.

The soup-teens shlopped down the hall, still human-shaped but far more liquid and nutritious: they were part of a balanced diet of terror. They came upon a janitor and stuck spoons in him, ladled out all his blood, sprinkled oyster crackers over the corpse.

“Are oyster crackers made with oysters?”

“No. By them.”

“That’s why they’re so small?”

“Yeah,” Sheila said. She put her bare feet on the shitty brown carpet and pushed against the bottom of the couch so she squiggled across the floor a few inches, and then stretched her arm above her head towards her bag, which was black and leather like her pants but not as complimentary to her ass. Her fingertips brushed a fold of the purse, and she streeeeeeetched a little further so her tee-shirt rode up her belly and showed off her navel. Which was an innie. She walked her shoulderblades backwards and up and there it was, she had the bag in hand and she yanked it towards her side and then hoisted it up on her stomach and began rummaging through.

“Come to LA with me.”

“We’re in LA,” Sheila said.

“No, not this one.”

“LA sucks.”

“I know, but it’s where they keep all the money and the cameras. AAAAAHahaha!”

Pack of Camels with six smokes left. Unopened pack. Lighter: Bic, plastic, black. (Sheila was feeling very rock and roll lately.) Nail clippers, nail file. Scissors for hair and a comb. Three pill bottles of varying fullness and prescription. Dead blue pen, also Bic. Appointment book. Business cards. Tissues. Sig Sauer .380. Receipts. Lipstick. Eyeliner. Compact missing the applicator poof, compact with. Wallet. Folded-up flyer warning of arsonist werewolfs. Flick knife. Cigarette case

She bought it at a thrift shop in the Low Desert, right outside of Jeremiad Springs. Antique, the woman who owned the store said. Silver and brilliant and with seven pinstripes etched vertically down the front. Elastic belts on the inside to keep your ciggies safe. And on the front was an inscription. FOR CA.

“Cara Amici,” the woman told Sheila.

“She never changed her name.”

“That’s what he called her.”

Sheila was 99% sure that the woman had a boxful of identically-inscribed cigarette cases in the back, but she bought it anyway. In the mornings, she’d roll six doobies and capture them behind the elastic for use throughout the day. Sheila believed marijuana was topical: apply as needed. Sometimes, she ended the day with all six joints intact. Other days required a second doobie-rolling session over lunch.

There was one left. FFT. PHWOO. She sat upright using only her abdominal muscles: the joint was in between her lips and she wrestled the bottom of her shirt back down to her waist. Spun on her ass like a ballerina with no legs. Buttock-walked backwards until she was reclining on the base of the couch. Tiresias fixed Sheila’s collar, then left her hand on her shoulder.

Sheila handed Tiresias the joint PHWOO she did not hold the smoke in her lungs for very long. She had a show that night, and she was a professional.

The guidance counselor at the high school in The Desert Has Teeth was named Arnie Bladder, and he wouldn’t stop reading kakosacrial rites over the PA system; each morning’s announcements ended with him summoning demons. Today’s was the hobgoblin, Ampusa.

“What’s a hobgoblin?”

“They outrank regular goblins, I think. Come to Los Angeles with me. Two months.”

“LA suuuuuucks.”

“Granted. We’ve established this. But it’s Pilot Season.”

“Is that like Fleet Week?”

“Not at all,” Tiresias said.

“No cute guys in uniform?”

“Cute guys in military costumes. ”

“I can get that here. Pass.”

The wig was across the room from them, next to the vanity with the makeup mirror on it. Real hair. That was as much Sheila would ever tell Tiresias.

“It’s real hair.”

“From?”

“From reality.”

Eventually, Tiresias stopped asking. The wig averaged the aesthetic space between Evil Dolly Parton and a goth lion. It was enormous, and heavy; it altered Tiresias’ center of gravity and her neck would ache after a few hours strapped into the itchy nightmare. She wore two wig caps at a time. They were the color of a cartoon white person’s flesh, and diaphanous and clingy. Both would be soaked through by the end of the show, and she threw them out. New pair the next night. On the weekends, she would take the enormous hairpiece home and sit it out on her balcony to let the stench bake off.

The wig was on a styrofoam head on a short, three-legged table. There was a small bin below it, a dresser-less drawer, with the dress. It could not be thrown in the washing machine, and Tiresias did not trust the dry cleaning process. She sprayed it down with fabric de-stinkifier until it was dripping every night, but the funk had interlaced with the garment’s DNA and the only way to truly get the smell out was via the cleansing power of fire.

Don’t ever smell show biz.

Sheila passed the joint back to Tiresias PHWOO and then she turned around and leaned over Tiresias’ stomach to grab her almost-empty wine glass. The bottle was on the vanity. She was sitting cross-legged and stood up unspooling herself upwards. To the wine and back. A tremendous journey, and she sat back down.

“Thank you, sweetie.”

“Mm.”

“Come to LA.”

“I have a business to run.”

Tiresias waved her hand at that.

“You have a show to do.”

She waved her hand at that, too.

“They’ll show reruns. No one’ll notice.”

“Your stalkers will notice.”

“That can’t be helped. Stalkers are by nature observant. AAAAHahaha!”

Tiresias handed Sheila the joint over her shoulder, and they sat there watching the black-and-white movie on the color teevee. The dress and the wig were waiting, stinking but neat, and the door was closed and locked. Shortly, the show would go on, but for now it was calm in a dressing room in a television studio on the Main Drag of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Animals And Their Uses In Little Aleppo

Full moon out tonight. Bound to cost a life. The brain, you see, is mostly water–the human body is mostly water, but the brain even moreso–and the full moon pulls upon those cerebral juices just as it does the tides in the harbor. Induces criminality in several ethnicities, the full moon does. The emergency room at St. Agatha’s fills, and the Main Drag wobbles, and the drunk tank bogs down in the mud. The sun was still out, but there she was. Low in the sky, skulking and pock-marked. Anaxagoras and Aryabhata figured out that the moon was just a big rock that reflected the sun’s light, and everyone said “Thank you for figuring that out; we’re going to continue to believe in magick.”

Capolina Gardner believed in the power of the full moon long before her husband became a werewolf. She was a nurse at St. Agatha’s, an emergency room nurse, and she knew what went on every 28 days behind the modern glass doors wedged into an art deco brick entranceway with Quid hoc fecisti, ut modo tute? chiseled into the arch. Men came in encased in skin that had armadillofied. Women had emergent scurvy, or imminent dropsy. These patients did not present without a full moon, Capolina thought. The statistics department from Harper College disagreed. They had run a study. The metastatistics department agreed with the disagreement. They had run a metastudy. It was determined–to several p-values–that there was no correlation between the full moon and the intake of the emergency room at St. Agatha’s.

Whatever, Capolina thought. So it wasn’t more crowded. But it was fucking weirder.

Like that boy from the garage explosion. He and his father were rebuilding a 1972 Datsun 240z. Father was teaching the son to weld. Open can of paint thinner, kid stumbled and fell, and when they brought him to St. Agatha’s, he had blackened and molting skin and his eyes had melted closed. Pork. It smelled like burnt pork, and Capolina prayed as she tried to find a vein in his scorched arm to start the line, and then the boy stopped writhing and sat up. Casually. Cocked his head. Nodded once, twice.

“You’re all doing wonderful work here,” the burned boy said.

There were two nurses and a doctor tending to the boy. They stopped what they were doing and listened to him. He was so calm, and he said,

“There are worlds beyond pain.”

He smiled, and his teeth were stained with fire, and he took the needle from Capolina and found the vein in the inside of his elbow on the first try. She connected the line to the IV bag, opened the flow, squeezed, and he smiled wider.

“There are worlds far beyond pain.”

And that was it for the boy. Died in the burn ward eleven hours later. You could hear him screaming from down in the ER. She couldn’t eat bacon for months afterwards. Full moon.

They walked by Bixby’s, where the nurses all ate, and McNeal’s, where they all drank, and turned north on the Main Drag and they held hands and Capolina squeezed Harry’s tight because he was afraid and she knew it, and she had a canvas shoulder bag wedged under her elbow, not allowed to dangle on the strap. There were pins on the flap: a cartoon blue ox on a yellow background, and Madonna, and The Snug. She still had her hair in her work ponytail, and his was cut short; he was seven  inches taller than her, and had to shorten his step to make them even in their stride. They both pretended not to stare at the moon, early as it was in the daytime sky. Almost all of those fucking flyers blaming the fires of werewolfs were gone, but there was one left high up on a telephone pole at Swann’s Way and they pretended not to see that, too.

Cannot Swim saw everything, and then the stupid horse clonked him on the head with his jaw and he wobbled a bit; he turned around and said,

“Why?”

“Pluff.”

Easy Life had gotten used to his easy life and was proactively self-sufficient to the point of ornery-ness. He was born in a livery on Tanner Street in C—-a City, and his name was Snowy. His head and shoulder and flank were all solid brown, but his ass was white and so the Whites that owned him called him Snowy. Men paid other men for his services. He was ridden. He was whipped. Prodded, and yoked to the bit. Afterwards, he would be groomed. Shod. Poked at a bit. People, Easy Life thought. What pains in the balls they are. Not that he had balls. Easy Life was forever a little disappointed with himself that he did not kick to death every motherfucker he saw for that indignity. But he was a horse, and so had a much less causal and chronological system of memories than humans, and so was just generally annoyed every time he saw a person. Or maybe he was just broken.

The man who looked after him put the packsaddle on his back, tightened it. Easy Life did not blow up his belly with air to make it difficult for the man. Accepted the saddle. There were those things loaded onto the frame. The things that make that terrible and sudden noise, the long things. And satchels full of assorted whatever. Not too heavy. Not too bad. About the same weight as a man, and well-laid. The man put a leather halter around his muzzle and skull and led him from the livery, and then Easy Life, who was still at the time called Snowy, was in the hands of Talks To Whites, who had absolutely no idea what to do with a fucking horse.

The Pulaski were not a horse tribe. They had encountered them, knew they existed, but they had no need for them. The occasional herd had ambled through the pass in what would come to be called the Segovian Hills, and the Pulaski had eaten one or two of them, but that was as far as the contact went between species. The valley in between the hills and the ocean had everything the tribe needed: game and fowl from the woods, and fish from the lake, and the ground was supple and giving so that anything would grow with little effort. For hundreds of years, there was nothing the Pulaski needed.

And then Wanders Away wandered back into the village with a Springfield 1842. The barrel had been rifled, and so the shot flew true. It was a percussion cap weapon. Bullet shoved down the breach, hammer cocked back, cap placed on the nipple, bang. Shorter reload time than the old powder and flint method. Shot in all sorts of weather, too.

They discounted it at first, the rifle. The elders said it was bad magick and the hunters agreed. The old ways are the good ways, the hunters said; the elders agreed.

“I understand that,” Wanders Away said. “But watch this.”

He pegged a deer in the skull at 150 yards, and the elders withdrew their objections.

“Sometimes, good magick looks bad at first glance.”

And the warriors said,

“Are there more of these things or is this the only one? Also: can I hold it?”

The rifles, Wanders Away explained, were neither bad nor good magick, but White magick. Which could be purchased with the gold-colored rocks from the streams that fed the lake. The elders took little time in making a plan: Wanders Away would return to the White village and buy as many rifles as he could, plus ammunition.

“Did I show you the White knife?”

“You didn’t,” the elders said.

“Slipped my mind. Sorry. You’re gonna love this,” Wanders Away said.

Comparing cultures is fool’s folly. The Whites demanded their crops march in straight lines, and the Pulaski grew everything all on top of each other in the Verdance; neither way was objectively correct. The Whites had the Christ, and the Pulaski had The Turtle Who Was And Would Be Again; the deities responded to prayers in equal measure. But the Bowie knife? The Bowie knife beat the living shit out of the flint knife, and that’s just a fact.

Wanders Away had returned to the village wearing the clothes of the Whites, mostly. Black trousers and a black vest with no shirt; he wore the hard shoes of the Whites, too, but had kicked them off the instant he was back on the soft grass of the valley. He dug in his satchel and pulled out the knife. The handle was bone, and smooth, and there was a vertical guard that separated the handle–and the hand–from the blade. 19 inches long, and tapering to what was called a clip point. It was in a tan leather scabbard, and when he unsheathed it, the edge of the blade caught the light and the elders became wary of bad magick once more. Wanders Away drew a whetstone the size and shape of a child’s eraser from a pocket in the front of the scabbard and FSSHT FSSHT FSSHT ran the blade in an angle across the whetstone’s face, and then he walked up to a kotcha. The Pulaski’s kotchas had rough bearskins for doors, but the knife slid right through from head down to the ground, and Wanders Away pulled the two fresh sides apart.

The elders decided that the knife, like the rifle, was good magick. The hunters all wanted one. One Eyebrow said, “Dude, that was my fucking door,” but no one paid him any attention.

Wanders Away spent a week or two with his family and friends, and then the tribe threw a great feast. There was dancing and stories and Stormy Eye sang a song she had written. Many speeches were made, and Wanders Away was given a leather pouch full of the gold-colored rocks he had said were so important, and in the morning he walked east from the village to buy more rifles and ammunition, and also knives.

A year later, Wanders Away had not returned He had made it to Boston, and then Nantucket, where he struck out on a whaling ship. He gave his Pulaski name to his shipmates, which they pronounced Kwee-kweg; he didn’t correct them. The elders, after much chewing of the peregrine leaf, decided that they were at least partially to blame for the outcome. We should have foreseen that Wanders Away would wander away, the elders agreed. They chewed the leaf well into the night, and the next morning, High Noon was pushed towards the pass in the hills that was the only path to America with a sizable Assignment: learn the White language and bring back some rifles and ammo, and also knives.

“That’s, like, so much stuff,” High Noon argued, but they wouldn’t stop pushing him, and so he went over the hills and out into America where he found a farmstead run by a man named Caleb Greenwood and his son Johnny; he traded a few of those magickal gold-colored rocks (and labor) for room, board, and English lessons. Learning a language is like learning to swim: the fastest way is the most traumatic. Complete immersion. Sink or speak, man. After three days, High Noon could pick out one word from another during Caleb’s monologues about “the bankers Back East, fancy fucks that they are” and around a week in, he started putting together simple sentences. Idiot’s conversation before a month, and before half-a-year had gone by, High Noon was fluent as fuck, and with a decent accent except for the “ch” sound, which the Pulaski language did not have and he found impossible to conjure, so he said “tursh” instead of “church” and “matsh” instead of “match.”

English was a simpler language than Pulaski, he thought. Imprecise. Run. The boy runs. Does he run towards something or away? Is he running alone or with others? If he is running with others, are they his relatives? Run doesn’t tell you. And the nouns were static, whether they were the subject or the object of the sentence, and the adjectives were not gendered.

He also learned the word “fuck,” which confused him greatly.

“So who can I say ‘fuck’ around?”

“Men. Just men. And only some men. Y’don’t wanna go cursing ’round a preacher or nothing. And you can only say it in certain ways.”

“This is a complicated word,” High Noon said. The Pulaski did not have dirty words. There were thoughts you didn’t express in public, and names you didn’t call your friends, but no word had the inherent taboo that “fuck” did.

“Y’can’t tell people to fuck theyselves, or to fuck off or whatever. But y’can say ‘What the fuck’ or whatever the fuck.”

“I guess.”

“And never around women.”

“Can’t fuck women.”

“No,” Caleb Greenwood said. “Y’can fuck ’em, but you can’t say ‘fuck’ around ’em.”

“I’m lost.”

“Oh, unless they’re whores. Y’can say ‘fuck’ around whores. And y’can fuck ’em.”

“Aren’t there some chores to do?”

“Fuck, yeah.”

It was a farm, and this was the past, so there were always chores to do. The horse was a nag named Chester who plowed the fields and slept in a rickety one-stall barn next to the house; she trudged along in the heavy harness with Caleb behind, whipping and saying “fuck” in the presence of a lady. Chester was the first horse that High Noon had gotten to know. He did not learn to ride because Chester refused to take a rider.

At the end of six months, High Noon packed his things–Caleb had given him a knife; Johnny, a Bible–and put on pants and a shirt and a jacket. Caleb said that he would be better received in the White village, which was called C—–a City even though it was still barely a town, if he were wearing their clothes. He tried a pair of boots with hard soles and heels, and fell over several times before deciding that he would stick with his moccasins.

Caleb had taught him how much the rocks, which were not rocks but nuggets, were worth to the Whites. He used pebbles. This size, you trade for ten bullets. This size, rifle. And if you got one this size–Caleb held up a rock the circumference of a golf ball–then you can get yourself a horse and a packsaddle.

“Actually, make it a li’l bigger. They’re gonna cheat ya.”

He was right: the Whites in C—–a City double-charged High Noon, but his pouch of nuggets was up to the tariffs, and he walked east out of town leading a horse named Snowy who was bearing rifles and ammo, and also knives. They walked until High Noon was sure they were not followed, and then hooked southwards in a great loop that was well out of sight of the Whites. They sneaked through the foothills going north until they came to the pass, where they turned west and soon enough they were back in the Pulaski village, where a celebration began and High Noon received his village name: Talks To Whites.

He unloaded the horse and the warriors made off with the rifles and the ammo, and also knives, and some of the children helped him take the packsaddle off of the horse’s back, and then the lead harness, and then the two of them stood there looking at each other.

“Welcome home, I guess.”

“Pluff.”

He could not be called Snowy anymore, because the Pulaski had never seen snow and so did not have the word in their language. The tribe had little use for him, and they paid him little mind. Sometimes, he would watch the women fish in the lake. He napped with the dogs. There was more than enough to eat, and he nibbled all day. The men chased him from the oval plot where they grew vegetables and gourds daily; he would sneak around the side where no one was and start munching on bean stalks and corn. They would yell, and he would leave without a fight. Bird’s nests on lower branches were a particular treat, especially if there were eggs in there and even moreso if the mother bird was sitting on them: he’d take the whole meal in his mouth in one chomp, his head tilted sideways, it was almost delicate, and then he’d RONCH RONCH the noisy mess with his flat teeth. The Pulaski were more attuned to nature than modern man is, but even they thought that was disgusting.

Two or three times a year, Talks To Whites would get out the packsaddle and the lead harness, and the two of them would make a round trip to America.

It did not take too long before the tribe had named the horse Easy Life.

Some of the animals in Harper Zoo were having easy lives, and others were trying to.

Yusef, who was a panther, was going through some shit. He had escaped a few days before and found the outside world less pleasant than the zoo, which he had not thought possible. He had been born out back of a double-wide in Ohio and sold to a drug dealer in Miami where, after a few years, he became a piece of evidence in the government’s case against the drug dealer, and eventually moved on out to Little Aleppo like some sort of feline witness protection program. Technically, he was a jaguar, but he was all black and so was called a panther. He could have killed caiman with one bite, leaping into the river from an overhanging branch and swimming the meal back to the shore, wrestling it up the muddy banks, and into the underbrush, and then up another tree. He might have snapped tapirs necks with one bound. He may have fucked some lady panthers. But he was born in Ohio and lived in a cage in Miami, and now a slightly larger cage in Little Aleppo.

There was a world that fit him. There was a world that fit him outside these doors.

But there wasn’t, just more of those upright fuckers that fed him and locked his cage, and there was strange ground that was smooth and terrible to walk on, and monsters speeding by so fast he could barely register them. And nothing smelled right. Nothing smelled right at all, and Yusef with no way to redress his grievances. He was almost happy when he woke, groggy from being shot with tranquilizer, back in his enclosure.

“You gonna eat that?”

“Yes.”

“All of it?”

“Every last bit,” Dwayne McGlory said, and gnawed a big hunk off of a chicken sandwich; he had advised Pep Oneida to make one before they walked over to Harper Zoo for their overnight shift, but probies never listen–this is true in professions other than firefighting, too–and so he could suffer. “Then I’m gonna lick all sauce off my fingers. You want that?”

“No.”

“You can lick my fingers when I’m done.”

“Kiss my ass,” Pep said.

“I’ll get ’em extra goopy for you. Practically a whole meal.”

Pep got up off the bench they were sharing in the entrance plaza of Harper Zoo. The turnstiles and ticket booths faced onto Loring Street, and beneath them the ground was made up of thick timbers cut and laid 60 years before, placed perfectly and right and with care and so there were no gaps in between them; to the west was the shuttered souvenir shop, to the east was the darkened snack shop called Congo’s Cafeteria. In the middle of the plaza was a popcorn cart with a full hopper; Pep stood before it.

“I wouldn’t,” Dwayne said.

“Just a little.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“Couple handfuls.”

“Your decision.”

“It smells so fucking good,” Pep said.

“That it does, probie. Good nose on you.”

TAP TAP TAP on Pep’s shoulder. He turned around. An elephant was giving him the stink-eye, and that is a large stink. On top of the elephant’s head was a dog, who seemed similarly peeved.

“Better nose on her, though,” Dwayne said.

Pep Oneida had grown up in Little Aleppo; his mother had read him the series of children’s books starring Congo and her dog. First the Congo & Shep books, and then Congo & Bailey, and right at that moment parents were reading Congo & Pax‘s adventures to their kids. He had rolled around Harper Zoo in his stroller, and then toddled around, and then he had gone on school trips. Even a couple dates. Girl named Lydia had dumped him by the capybaras. That morning, Pep drank his coffee from a mug with a cartoon of an elephant with a dog on her head, and the inscription HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE.

The elephant swung her head and glared at him with her other eye.

It was like having Santa call you an asshole, Pep thought. Congo can’t be pissed at me. I love Congo, he thought, and so he hugged her trunk.

Congo and Dwayne McGlory made eye contact, shrugged.

She lifted up her trunk with the probie still holding onto it and deposited him out of the way of the popcorn stand, towards Dwayne, and shook him loose. Pep went to pet her, but she had turned her head back to the popcorn. The tip of her trunk slipped into the plastic-encased hopper without any bumps; it was like a ballet dancer made of lips, and so very gentle. Congo scooped up the popcorn and brought it to her mouth, and then back in the hopper for more, and then back to her mouth, and then she lifted a trunkful up to Pax–she dropped it lightly on her flat top of her skull–and then back  and into her mouth, and then back.

Pep was still standing there gooning at her. Elephants are physiologically incapable of rolling their eyes, so Congo rolled her mind’s eye and dipped back into the hopper and swiveled her trunk over to Pep. His face lit up and he cupped his hands in front of him; she released the popcorn, and he looked from it to her to it to her and back. Pep about-faced and rushed over to the bench where Dwayne was still sitting. Brandished the popcorn.

“We bonded.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m friends with Congo,” Pep said. “We’re best friends now.”

Dwayne flipped his head forward and tried to snap away some of the popcorn, but Pep was quick. He drew his hands to his mouth and ate the kernels as though they were Communion wafers.

“This is the best popcorn I’ve ever had.”

“Seriously: shut the fuck up.”

His walkie-talkie went FEEK. It was the size of a brick and attached to his belt like a cop would wear his gun. There was a thick, curly cord from it to the mouthpiece hanging from his shirt pocket, which was black with a silver button that you pressed to talk and did not press to listen. He unfastened it and pressed the button with his thumb and said,

“McGlory here. Over.”

“Hey. How’s it going over there?”

The sun had just about set, and the probie was leaning against the elephant with his arms spread wide.

“I love you, Congo.”

The elephant, who had a dog on her head, was eating popcorn.

“Everything’s fine. Over” Dwayne said.

“All right,” Flower Childs said over the walkie. “I’ll send someone over with coffee later. Over and out.”

“Chief?”

“I said ‘Over and out,’ McGlory.”

“Noted. Why are we here again?”

“Credible threat against the zoo. I told you this already.”

“You did. But you didn’t say where the threat came from.”

Flower Childs did not say where the threat came from because the threat was not so much a threat as it was a fortune that came from a psychic on Sylvester Street named Madame Cazee. There was no rule book to being the Chief of the Fire Department, but if there were, Flower figured “Don’t tell your men their assignments are based on the babblings of fortune tellers” was surely one of the chapters.

“Credible threat. Keep the line clear. Over and out.”

The firehouse was quiet. The ladder truck and the pumper sat in their berths, and her Mustang was out front. One of the doors was down, but the other was up and let the sounds of the early evening in. People got ready. Flower Childs got up from the desk in the office on the first floor–it was open to the garage–and the dalmatian called Ash-Nine saw her from the couch, and stretched, and joined her at her left heel. The two stepped out onto Alfalfa Street, and when Flower looked east towards the Segovian Hills, she saw a flame atop the highest one, which was called Pulaski Peak, and then it died. Rose up again. Died. She could see the diamond-shaped summit of the hill, and the lawn with the stand of trees in a crescent on one side and the Harper Observatory on the other. She could read license plates in the parking lot, and serial numbers of dollar bills in the gift shop. And there he was, aflame and whole, on top of his rotten horse; he had his lance, pike, spear, whatever. The horse snuffled and pawed the ground by the visitor’s center, and the man rolled his shoulders.

And the man cocked his fiery head.

Flower Childs strode back into the station, and Ash-Nine followed. The garage door closed, and then the two walked back out the door; Flower locked the door behind her. She was not wearing her walkie-talkie. She had an axe. The passenger door opened, and the dog hopped up, and then the passenger door closed. Red-and-white Mustang SSP goes THRUGGADUM when it starts. Flower Childs flicked the switch that rotated the red lights, and pulled away from the curb and then she and Ash-Nine were driving east with a purpose through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Retreat From Little Aleppo

Brother Yup had tried gardening. He was a Sebastianite monk, and they needed metaphors. The path to the Christ is surely paved with stories, the brothers believed, and so it was necessary to have an analogy at hand. The Christ is like the storehouse, the brother who ran the storehouse taught: there is everything that you need and nothing that you do not. Brother Gwee disagreed: the Christ more closely resembles the library that she was in charge of, full of knowledge and resistant of order. Brother Stiv took care of the chicken coop and preached a Christ gallinaceous and preening, a Christ feathered and warlike and plump, and the other monks usually tried to steer new arrivals away from Brother Stiv. Gardening is rife with symbolism and meaning and all variety of whatnot; squeeze some serious bullshit out of a garden. That was where the bullshit started, at least according to the Bible, so Brother Yup tried gardening.

It hurt his knees.

The workshop was a possibility. Trees turn into beds. That which was broken is repaired; that which could not be repaired was recycled. Can’t make a religious parable out of that, you should get out of the business. Brother Yup sustained multiple splinters his first day, one of them rather nasty, and he decided that he could not hear God in a workshop. The kitchen was never on the table.

The wooden church faced east to west and sat diagonally within the four stone walls of the monastery. The penitents, the supplicants, the applicants: they hiked up Mt. Faith along the barely-beaten goat path that jigged and jagged around rocks and looped under fissures in the rock face where the grass would not take. Some crawled, others were carried, none came with pride (they thought) and all were bloodied and burred along the way. Which was the point, or at least part of it: can’t put a monastery on the Main Drag. Come one, come all, come on come on, come on up; we’re taking all comers. We will accept your wounds, the Sebastianites said to Little Aleppo.

They banged on the door. Southeast wall. Arched and wooden and massive with a human-sized cutout in it. Little window at eye-level that popped open and shut. You know what the door looks like.

The brothers made their own clothes, but Brother Yup couldn’t figure out the sewing machine, and they made their own sandals, but Brother Yup wanted nothing to do with feet. He forgot to carry the one too many times for bookkeeping. After he had failed, quit, or refused every job available, the abbot of the order came to Brother Yup and said,

“Brother Yup.”

“Abbot Costello?”

“Work the door.”

So he did. He liked the work, mostly that there wasn’t any of it, but yet it could still be turned into an elaborate religious metaphor. It was like having his Christ and eating Him, too, Brother Yup thought.

There was a ritual to the door. The penitent, the supplicant, the applicant: they WHAMP WHAMP WHAMP with their palms, and then the peep-window opens up to release insults and refuse entrance, and then the peep-window shuts. Further knocking leads to continued abuse, generally of an over-the-top and comic nature. Waste water or food remnants may or may not be tossed at the pilgrim, but nothing to drink or eat; no shelter is provided at night. If they’re still there after three days, then they can come in.

WHAMP WHAMP WHAMP his first penitent, supplicant, applicant, and he swung the peep-window open. A small man with brown skin and long black hair was standing there; he had only one shoe. Brother Yup said,

“Howdy.”

The man said,

“Hi.”

And then he didn’t say anything.

“You, uh, wanna come in?”

The man looked around, confused.

“Just like that?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

“Aren’t you supposed to call me names? And, you know, insult me? Make me sleep on the steps for a while to prove I’m sincere?”

“I guess I could if that’s what you want.”

“It’s just traditional.”

“Sure,” Brother Yup said. “Call you names. Okay. Hey, what a jerk you are, jerk.”

“Really?”

“What was wrong with that?”

“Everything.”

“Maybe I just don’t want to insult you. What’s your name?”

“Prakash Farr.”

“Hello, I’m Brother Yup,” he said, and thrust his whole arm out the peep-window with his hand extended. Prakash just looked at it.

“You’re not supposed to shake my hand, I don’t think.”

“Why? Do you have a cold?”

“Y’know what? Just lemme in. Just open the door.”

Brother Yup smiled.

“Absolutely.”

He slapped the peep-window shut and opened up the human-sized cutout of the massive wooden door. Prakash Farr walked in, and Brother Yup hugged him.

“Welcome.”

“I was expecting an entirely different experience.”

“Who wasn’t? I think the kitchen’s still open. Go get some grub, slugger.”

And then Brother Yup whapped Prakash Farr on the ass like it had been a good game.

“Is there someone I can complain to?”

“Try by the chicken coops. You’re looking for a guy named Brother Stiv.”

The abbot came by the door not too long after that. Brother Yup was on a bench nearby reading a book. He held the slim volume up carefully in between his eyes and the sun, and his sandals were off and his legs were crossed. The abbot was a large man; you could tell he was the boss monk because his robes were the humblest. The abbot was proud of how humble his robes were.

“Brother Yup.”

“Abbot Costello.”

“You opened the door wrong.”

“How can you open a door wrong?”

“By opening it at all.”

“So, the right way to open the door is to leave it closed?”

“Exactly.”

“We should brick it up, and never be wrong again.”

The abbot was the only monk with a tonsure, and his pate turned red in the sun. It turned red when he talked to Brother Yup.

“Three days. They stay outside for three days.”

“Very symbolic number of days.”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Sure.”

“Three days outside.”

“In a row?”

“Well, obviously.”

“What if it’s raining? Does that count as two days? I think that should count for two.”

“No. Rainy day is one day.”

“What if it’s real hot?”

“A day is a day.”

“Abbot?”

“Brother?”

“There are pumas out there. Listen.”

They did.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Of course not. The puma hunts by stealth. That’s how you know they’re there, when you can’t hear them.”

“The aspirants wait outside for three days. That’s how it’s done.”

The abbot strode off, and Brother Yup returned to his book. It had just over a hundred pages, and there was not much text on each of those pages. A line, a stanza, an epigram here and there. These were the Teachings of Brother Fin, who had founded the Order of St. Sebastian and established the monastery and built the walls, the church, the kitchen.

The important thing to remember is that
You’re going to die.

Equally important is to forget this fact.

The warrior monks were at it again. Everyone sort of hated the warrior monks, but even the blind one could kick your head off its perch–the blind one was actually the best fighter, somehow–so everyone just put up with their antics. Scuttlebutt around the refectory said that they had acquired some sort of magickal amulet this time. The warrior monks were always being entrusted with cursed swords or crowns that bestowed immense, but vague, powers upon the wearer. This would, of course, draw ninjas trying to steal the mystical doohickeys; Brother Yup idly watched a mess of them punch each other in the face from across the cloisters.

It was late in the afternoon, and bugs were screaming.

When you have no regrets,
When you have no fears,
When you are without guile,
When your mind is clear,
Then you are dead.
Until then, do the best you can.

The courtyard was empty, except in the places where it was full. Brother Mab walked with Brother Tiant; they were fucking. Brothers Howard and Dunn were in the garden; they were fucking, too. The same amount of fucking goes on in monasteries as goes on anywhere else, even though it is forbidden. Possibly, more fucking goes on because it is forbidden, and therefore so much hotter. There was coitus in the chapels, and uncountable furtive handjobs in the bathrooms. Group stuff in the storehouse.

“Brother Yup.”

“Brother Lopsang.”

She was Karen Blitzstein when she lived on Crater Road with her husband and daughter, but her daughter was in Foole’s Yard and she did not know where her husband was, and she had taken the name Lopsang even though she shouldn’t have. She wore the robes. A white cord belted it together. The sandals that were made in the workhouse. Same as everyone else.

Except the warrior monks. Most were shirtless with loose pants and insubstantial shoes made out of canvas, and several were on the roof of the library whacking at assorted ninjas with various weaponry of an improvisatory nature. One was taking on three opponents at once with a ladder employed in imaginative ways.

“Amulet this time, right?”

“Not an amulet. A broach,” Brother Lopsang said.

“What’s the difference?”

“Amulet is a necklace, broach is a pin.”

“What’s the substantive difference?”

“None.”

The robes have pockets big enough to fit two oranges. Brother Lopsang handed one to Brother Yup, and he sat up on the bench and shimmied over to make room for her. She sat down, and they peeled their oranges and watched the quick-moving brawl, which was now moving in and out of the kitchen. A ninja WHONGED a monk on the head with a frying pan; carving knives squared off with cleavers; boiling water was weaponized.

“The Broach of Balthus.”

“There’s your problem,” Brother Yup said.

“What?”

“Never name jewelry.”

“Sure.”

“What does it do?”

“It’s very powerful.”

“I assumed.”

The fight had progressed to swords.

“But what does it do?”

“Glows,” Brother Lopsang said.

“What?”

“When it’s being used, it glows.”

“But what does it do?”

“It’s very powerful.”

They had finished peeling their oranges and bit into them. The flesh of the fruit gave way; this is the way of all flesh, but tasty and full of vitamins. Lopsang remembered her mother at the funeral. It wasn’t fair, she said over and over. It wasn’t fair. Her father was dead, and her mother had a granddaughter, but now she was dead and it wasn’t fair. She repeated it during the service, the eulogy, the burial, they had to sedate her. Lopsang did not know that was really a thing, sedating someone, she thought it was something that only happened in movies about rich people, but her mother had to be sedated, and she was, because she was right that it wasn’t fair. Brother Yup thought about his orange.

Christ is surely the river, 
The dull man says.
Christ is certainly the riverbed,
The learned man says.
Is there anything to eat?
The wise man asks.

“They’re headed for the brewery.”

“Mm-hmm,” Brother Yup said.

“Drunken boxing?”

“Drunken boxing.”

Brother Lopsang finished her orange. When she was Karen, her daughter was named Perdita, but those names were gone and so was her orange. The sun was still blasting onto the bench by the door, and she squinted her eyes against it.

The warrior monks threw shadows like titans, and the ninjas kicked them.

In the old days,
People worked, got sick, married, wandered, wrote poetry, feared.
They do that now, too,
But think they deserve an explanation.

It was getting too dark in the library to read, so Brother Gwee closed up and walked into the chapel with a book under her arm. She paid no mind to the shuriken swishing by her head, and disappeared into the fire-lit church. The Sebastianites did not eschew electricity–they were neither anchorite not ascetic–but they were the only people who lived on Mt. Faith, and the power company refused to string up a line for only one customer.

“Have I ever told you that the Christ is like a doorway?”

“Many, many times.”

The sun was scampering west the same it did the day before, and the bell atop the church that sat diagonally inside the square of walls that protected the monastery bangled to life and BONG just once, the brothers only needed it to ring the once, and the men in their robes and the women in their sandals walked to the chapel to pray the same prayers they had prayed the day before, and back to their cells surrounding the courtyard with its cloisters that were the same as the day before around halfway up a mountain named Mt. Faith, the third of the Segovian Hills surrounding Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Beginning Of The End In Little Aleppo

Cannot Swim awoke before sunrise. He knew it was not raining because the horse was dry. He didn’t know why the horse was there, but it was dry and so he knew it wasn’t raining any more. That was good, at least. He had slept tucked into a shallow depression in the rock that would, in a million years, be a cave; just a bare dimple into the muddy cliff, but it sheltered him from the drops that had let up in the middle of the night. It was not morning now, not yet, not for an hour: just a rumor of light behind the hills in the east and the world was grainy and faded and everything was misty. Was the horse a dream?

It turned headlong towards him and shook its mane and said,

“Herfpbpbpbpb.”

The horse was not a dream.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Pluff.”

Easy Life wandered off into the morning fog; there was, he remembered, a particularly tasty bush that grew in the foothills. Little purple berries that grew in clusters, just rip the whole thing off in your teeth, so yummy. He had also noticed a lot of chipmunks, and he was absolutely gagging for one. Salty and good, he liked to stomp on ’em real quick and sneaky-like, then he’d slurp the gooey mess up. And grass. Easy Life loved him some grass: it was a classic for a reason, he thought. Couldn’t improve on it.

Cannot Swim decided to wonder about the horse after he had taken a piss. He slipped his feet into his moccasins and walked south from the cave about ten feet and pulled aside his breachcloth. Steam issued from the junction of the stream and the tree. He was bare-chested, and the chill had miniaturized his nipples. His hair was loose, and touched his collarbone. There was a leather bracelet on each of his wrists, green-and-yellow beading. He shook his dick, pulled the breachcloth back, stretched. Mouth tasted like a dead fish’s asshole, so he kept going south to the small stream a few hundred yards off.

There were finches and sparrows and rails and coots. There were aspen and pine and nutmeg and oak, and above them the redwood asserting its prerogative. Jackrabbit 50 feet off, twitching and staring, and Cannot Swim picked up a rock and swiveled to throw it but remembered that he had not built a fire and chucked the rock high. The rabbit skittered off into the fog.

He would have nailed it, too. The Pulaski had only recently been introduced to rifles and metal knives, and the tribe’s hunters still practiced the old ways. Just in case. Bullets were finite, but there’s always the old ways. Up to around 10 pounds? Rock would do it. Trick is not missing. The Pulaski threw sidearm, because that is the natural way of throwing, and thus no Pulaski at all ever required Tommy John surgery. They had the sling. Not a slingshot with a boingy rubber carriage–the Pulaski did not have rubber–but a sling made from one long string of braided dogsbane. In the middle was a rectangle of deerhide, slightly depressed to cradle a stone, and the thrower would gather both ends in his hand and whirl once, twice, and then release one end of the cord. It was easier to take a deer with a bow than with a sling, but only because you had more target: an arrow could hit the brain or the lungs or the heart for a kill shot, but the rock had to hit skull. And it usually wouldn’t kill the deer outright, just massively concuss it, so sometimes you’d have to follow the staggering animal for a few miles until it dropped. The Pulaski had several ways to fish; the women did the fishing. Hooks made from bone, and spears topped with flint. They only took from the lake, not from the harbor with its steep dropoffs into the water and deep draw.

And the bear.

The last California grizzly died in 1922. Bird-watcher said he spotted one in 1924, but there was no scat or hair or other evidence. The Whites shot them indiscriminately. Set traps for them and bashed their heads in with the butts of their rifles. Poisoned the bears, regardless of whether they were boar or sow or baby, and sold the pelts without eating the meat, or carving the bones into jewelry and fishhooks, or cooking with the fat. The Pulaski were exterminated long before the grizzly was extirpated; the bears still walked the hills around the village and the rolling fields and forests to the south. Cannot Swim had been on several bear hunts.

The dogs did the work. Black Eyes was the lead. Gray and over a hundred pounds with a patch of dark fur across her eyes like a burglar’s mask. Three others, just as big but not as smart. Nine Pulaski men and women and children following the dogs. Long wooden spears with sharpened points. The whole party wandered around the woods until Black Eyes got the scent, and then her shoulders edged downwards and her ass stuck up with her tail straight towards the sky, and the other dogs would mimic her, and the humans crouched, and then there was a trail that the humans could not see but it was there that led to the grizzly. The dogs would harry it but the grizzly would not climb a tree like the black bear. The grizzly would fight, and that is what the dogs were for. They would work as a team, circling the bear, snapping at it and dodging and biting and exhausting it. Then came the spears.

Cannot Swim had no spear, and he had no knife, and he had no rock in hand. Just a taste of shit in his mouth and a bare chest and loose hair. He knelt at the stream and put his head down to drink. The water was frigid and fast, and he swirled it around in his mouth, spat, swirled, spat, scooped it up and splashed it on his face. When he opened his eyes, there was a man on the other side of the stream, he was on a horse that was bones with the skin draped over and the man was similarly emaciated, but with a wild beard and eyes the color of cannibalism, and both the man and the horse were on fire.

He blinked and then they weren’t there at all.

“Goddammit.”

“I was so ready.”

“I was psyched,” Harry Gardner said.

“You look psyched, baby,” Capolina Gardner told him. He didn’t; Harry was pale and sweat had stained the armpits and neck of his burgundy tee-shirt. He was not good with confrontation, and Harry and Capolina had come to Harcourt Place to do some confronting, but there was a CLOSED sign hanging in the window of the Kinderfleisch butcher shop, even though it was getting on to noon and all around them was commerce. The two of them deflated in the doorway, peered into the darkened shop with its long, glass case and heavy, metal scales and hanging, tubular meats. They had come to speak to Sidney Shines. Harry and Capolina had seen Sidney, spherical with a flat cap and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, out of the corners of their eyes: he was across the street, but then gone; in the booth across the dining room at the Victory Diner, facing the opposite direction but sneaking peaks via the mirrors. He owned the shop, and had been stalking Harry for a few weeks and also had plastered the neighborhood with scary flyers about werewolfs.

Harry was a werewolf.

So they had come down to Harcourt Place to engage in direct action, which is the best kind of action and the most efficacious kind of action and also occasionally leads to everyone in the country starving to death. Petitions, protests, pamphleteering: all worthwhile and something to do on long afternoons, but for best results? Direct action is your choice. When the people practice direct action, it’s called a movement; when just a few people do, it’s called terrorism or a surgical strike, depending on who’s telling the story. All the editorials and sermons in Boston didn’t affect the British as much as a dozen drunk assholes in Indian costumes hucking beverages into the harbor.

But Harry and Capolina weren’t particularly skilled in, or suited for, direct action. She was a nurse, which meant she was a reactor by nature, and he enjoyed staying inside and drawing happy goats. They were neither Machiavellians, nor Leninists. They had not read the Melian Dialogues. They were not schooled in power, and so had not come up with much of a plan for confronting Sidney Shines besides walking into his shop and saying “What the fuck, man?”

They had argued about whether or not to bring a gun.

“What if we need it?”

“We’re not gonna need a gun,” Capolina said.

“But what if we do?”

“We don’t have a gun.”

“We’ll get one,”

“We won’t, baby.”

“He’ll have a knife. It’s a butcher shop.”

“No gun. Drop it.”

He was sprawled on the couch in the living room of their cottage on Bailey Street staring at the ceiling; he was barefoot and shirtless, and his left arm draped over the back of the sofa, and Harry said very softly,

“Maybe we just get out of town for the full moon.”

Capolina was getting ready for work, and everything she needed was everywhere. She was going to be an organized person, she really was, and it was going to happen any minute. Until then, her wallet was in the kitchen for some reason, and her shoes were in the bedroom, and her backpack was in the living room, so she was wandering around the house picking up after herself when Harry said that. She said,

“Baby.”

And she walked to the living room where the couch was, where Harry was, and laid on top of him in her scrubs. The belly of her top rode up and the skin of her stomach was pressed against his, and she stuck her face right in his, kissed him, pulled back, said,

“We run this month, we run next month.”

Kissed him again, and he didn’t mind.

“And forever. Fuck that.”

Lips.

“Fuck him. We live here. We’re not running.”

“Okay.”

Harry kissed her back, a greedy kiss, and she said,

“And we don’t have the money to go way every month.”

He sat up, throwing his arms around her, and then they were both upright on the couch and he said,

“We could go camping. That’s cheap.”

Capolina pushed herself away from him and snorted and said,

“First of all, you don’t even like going outside. Second of all, I do not camp. When have you ever heard me talk about camping in any sort of positive manner? I don’t wanna sleep in the woods, baby. Third, camping stuff is expensive. For the money it would cost to buy camping stuff, we could stay in a hotel.”

“Motel.”

“Yeah, probably. Still better than sleeping in the woods.”

“I’ve actually never been camping.”

“Me either. But I know it sucks,” Capolina said. “So we’re too poor for hotels, and too civilized for the forest. I guess–”

She kissed him.

“–we gotta stay here.”

And they stayed there for a little while, loitering in the doorway of the shop, knocking on the glass and rattling the door handle, until they began to feel self-conscious of the pedestrians’ assay and walked north on Harcourt Place until they hit Ataturk Street, where they began holding hands, and headed west for two blocks until they hit the Main Drag.

“Should we go back later?”

“I gotta work, baby,” Capolina said.

“I don’t wanna go alone.”

“No.”

She was sure that the butcher would walk Harry into the freezer and chain him up if he went alone. Harry had been talked into time-shares and multi-level marketing schemes and couldn’t resist a good three-card monty game, which is why Capolina did not tell him where the checkbook was. She loved him, but he was suggestible.

“I think he’s coming for me tomorrow,” Harry said.

“Yeah.”

“Tomorrow night.”

“Yeah.”

They walked around an impromptu wrestling match between two women, both named Angela. Greco-Roman rules were in effect, and there was wagering; no one on the Downside had enough room in their apartments to get up to serious bullshit, and so they took it to the street.

“How do you think werewolf tastes?”

“Like werechicken,” Capolina answered, and he kissed her because he loved her, and then Harry said,

“I want ice cream,” because he wanted ice cream, and she thought that was a terrific idea and said,

“That’s a terrific idea,” and kissed him back.

Little Earl Callaway opened up the Grande Marquis in 1962 on the junction of the Upside and the Downside: the place was real clean, but also took food stamps. The Grande Marquis–no one had the balls to tell Little Earl that “Grande Marquis” did not mean “Supermarket” in French–was Jet Set-era convenience: all your food at once. In the old days, you went to the butcher’s, and the baker’s, and the dry goods place, and then got kicked in the head by a horse or scalped by a Comanche. Leave the old days in the old days, Little Earl used to bellow. An American should be able to get all the components of a sandwich in one trip, he would further bellow. Fresh meat, and seafood. The produce was misted with water once an hour to make it look delicious and new, and there were signs next to the produce explaining where it was from and the voyage it had taken to get to the neighborhood. There was a pharmacy that no one ever thought to rob. Occasionally, old folks would entomb themselves in the freezers in hope of achieving some sort of cut–rate cryogenesis, but only occasionally.

Little Earl employed a small but fiercesome army of bounty hunters to retrieve purloined shopping carts.

Harry Gardner opened the freezer door and reached in: there was tutti-frutti, and cookies-and-cream, and rocky road, but beyond that was peach, which is what he wanted, and the pint slid past the others and on the label was a man and his horse, drawn and deathly the both of them, and flames all around them which would not consume them no matter how long they burned, and the man held a pike and the horse held the man, and the fire did no damage but belonged to them entirely, and he said,

“Cap?”

But she was in the cereal aisle, and did not hear him.

“Assure me that I have your complete attention.”

“You want me to jerk off while I stare in your eyes?”

“I’ve never told you how much I appreciate your sense of humor,” Mr. Leopard said.

“You haven’t.”

He looked at The Purveyor, said nothing, scratched at an imperceptible imperfection on the blotter of his empty desk. Mr. Leopard’s office in the restaurant with no name was just as barren and impersonal as his office at Town Hall, but there wasn’t even a window. Desk with a chair behind it. Chair in front of the desk. Pad, empty. Phone. Calendar on the wall. File cabinet.

“So. You will deliver tomorrow night.”

“Maybe.”

Under the desk, Mr. Leopard’s feet were bare, and his toes flexed.

“Maybe?”

“The deal is fucked,” The Purveyor said.

“The deal is the deal.”

“That’s reductionist.”

Above the desk, Mr. Leopard engaged in no motion. He was still in his black suit, and his back did not touch the chair; he had proper posture.

“I don’t know anything about philosophy,” Mr. Leopard said. “I’m just a simple restaurateur.”

“I want more money,” The Purveyor said.

“Don’t we all?”

“I followed them to my shop this morning. They’re on to me. They’re gonna be fucking careful and it’s gonna be more difficult.

The full moon was the following evening and The Purveyor was not letting his quary out of his site until then, so he had closed up his shop.

“This is not my problem.”

“Fuck whose problem it is. It’s your responsibility.”

Outside, the kitchen was spotless and quiet, the most junior cook doing the prep: carrots and potatoes and radishes, all chopped in very particular ways. The dining room was waiting and still.

Mr. Leopard tented his fingers in front of him. Each one had an extra knuckle.

“I’m getting the message that you are incapable of the task.”

“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

“How did you know about my horse?”

“I want more fucking money.”

“Sidney–”

“The Purveyor!”

“–you’ll just waste it.”

The Purveyor unscrewed the cigarette from the corner of his mouth and ashed–tap tap tap–on the carpet and said,

“I know you’ve already sold the meat. You got a big party coming in expecting werewolf. Your reputation’s on the line.

He screwed the cigarette back in.

“I want more fucking money.”

Cannot Swim was on his ass. The stream was in front of him and his hands were behind him, holding him up; he searched around for the starved man and horse, and the fire that belonged to them, but there were just squirrels and maples and jackdaws and jays and thrashers fighting for space in the branches of the wood; the fog was burning off and he could see for miles through the brown trunks of the trees and the green afros of the shrubs, and there was no one there at all.

“Pluff.”

There was a horse.

“You see that?”

“Herfpbpbpbpb.”

Cannot Swim stood up and brushed himself off, and then he walked over to Easy Life and scratched his neck. In the small depression where he had slept were his satchel and his tunic, and Cannot Swim fetched them and dressed himself while praying to the Turtle That Was And Will Be Once More, and then he began walking up what would be called Mt. Chastity. Easy Life followed him.

“You’re coming?”

“Pluff.”

“Okay.”

The boy and the horse went up the mountain, one of seven that would one day be called the Segovian Hills, and form a natural barrier against the rest of the world for a place called Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

All Around The World In Little Aleppo

“They say it’s a small world, but you can’t trust ’em. Never listen to what they say! They tell you that you only use ten percent of your brain, and they tell you not to talk to strangers, and they tell you that you can’t be a man cuz’ you doesn’t smoke the came cigarettes they do. They? Nothin’ but trouble, cats and kittens.

“Listen to your pal Frankie Nickels on KHAY–Hey!–cuz you know she ain’t gonna steer you towards the rocks. And if I do, well: you know where I am. When they tell you lies and falsehoods, you got no recourse. I sell you a bill of goods, you can come find me in the Victory Diner after the show.

“So. They say it’s a small world, but that’s a lie. World’s the size of a damn planet. Here’s how big the world is: you can fit Texas inside it.

“25,000 miles. Which, for all you metric system folks out there, is a certain number of kilometers. I don’t know, and I ain’t looking it up, and I resent you even asking ha ha ha. Look down, look at your feet. See where you’re standing? Start walking. Doesn’t matter which direction. Keep walking, and when you are finally back in that same place you started: 25,000 miles.

“This is assuming you are the Lord Christ, of course, since there’s a bit of water in your way.

“So you can’t hoof it. That means for the first 99% of human history and pre-history–all that time we was a-percolating in Africa and a-propagating ourselves outward–nobody did it. Gotta invent boats first, and I mean good ones. We figured out canoes and kayaks and all sorts of little skiffs to go fishing off the coast with, travel up and down the river, but this is open ocean traveling that Frankie Nickels is talking about! There’s krakens and whatnot out there!

“Whole lotta other stuff gotta happen before you cross the ocean. Gotta invent the compass. Chart the stars. Figure out latitude. Longitude ain’t as important. You can get along without longitude, but you’re stuck in the harbor without latitude. Gotta invent sails. Can’t row across the Atlantic.

“A boat’s just a floating pile of other people’s discoveries, ha ha ha.

“So now you got a boat. Now you can cross an ocean.

“But why would anyone want to?

“The spice, cats and kittens. Ginger and cinnamon and tumeric and pepper. Nothing had any damn flavor back then, cats and kittens, least not in Europe! Rabbit, goat, couple different kinds of birds. I suppose you got beets. Celery. Not much to arouse the palate, you get me? But there were spices, wild and exotic flavors, and they was growing like weeds in Asia. He who controls the spice, controls the universe. And he who controlled the spice was the Arabs.

“It mostly came overland, but there were some sea routes. From Java and Maluku and India. The spice came in via the Byzantine Empire, which was really just the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire, and it landed in Venice, which was really just the remnants of the Western Roman Empire.

“Easy-peasy.

“Until 1452, when the Ottomans took Constantinople. Suddenly, life got a lot more complicated for all the good Christian merchants and businessmen in Europe. What we gotta do, they thought, is find a way around the Middle East. Go directly to the source. Hit up those heathens on the Spice Islands our ownselves, ‘stead of being end users.

“Portuguese were leading the pack. They always were a seafaring people. First Europeans to sail to India. Take a left at the Cape of Good Hope, can’t miss it, ha ha ha. Then they sailed around India, too. Made it to China and the Philippines. Got all the way to Japan. Africa financed all their adventures. Portuguese found gold. Sugarcane. Portuguese found Africans. Healthy market for all three commodities, and the caravels spread all across the globe.

“In 1511, they took a port city on the Malay peninsula called Malacca. It’s all strategic and whatnot. That’s not important. I’m just setting up the context of what I’m talking about here. Can’t play the game ’til someone paints a field, right?

“Malacca was controlled by a Sultan, but 1200 men and 8 ships firing their cannons at you’ll put an end to that Sultan nonsense toot sweet. Now Malacca belongs to the Portuguese, one of whom was a fellow you learned about in grade school named Ferdinand Magellan, ‘cept he wasn’t named that cuz he was Portuguese so his name was Fernão de Magalhães, but I can’t pronounce that right so we’ll just call him Magellan.

“Anyway, the winners plundered the city. As winners often do, ha ha ha. Magellan got himself some titles and a whole hunk of gold and jewels and finery, but the important bit is this: Magellan got himself a slave.

“Who is the hero of our story.

“This fellow’s actual name is lost to history. Dunno what his mother called him, but Magellan called him Enrique. He might have been from Sumatra, which is the next island over from Malacca. No one’s ever gonna know. Magellan baptized him, but the record does not show whether it took.

“Either way, Enrique follows Magellan back to Europe and here’s where you gotta start thinking about what kind of man this Enrique fellow is. Couple years they’re together, in a whole lotta locations. Morroco being one of them. Now: Enrique was working in Malacca, which was controlled by the Arabs. We’re assuming he wasn’t just some dude Magellan picked up off the street. Meaning Enrique probably spoke a little Arabic, but he didn’t ditch out on Magellan while they were in Casablanca.

“Maybe it was a beautiful friendship, ha ha ha.

“Long story short, Magellan’s working for the Spanish. Wore out his welcome back home. You know how that goes, cats and kittens. Happens to the best of us.

“Portuguese went east? The Spanish are gonna go west. They know the Americas are there, and they knew the Pacific was there, but they didn’t know how much Pacific there was.

“Five ships set out from Seville in August of 1519. The Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepcion, Santiago, and VictoriaTrinidad was the flagship, and that’s the one Magellan and Enrique were on. You know those boats they got nowadays with the ice skating rinks and comedy clubs in ’em? Yeah, well, these weren’t those. Three masts and hardtack and buggery.

“Took ’em until December to reach Brazil, and once they got there half the damn crew started mutinizing. Magellan had the captains who led it crucified.

“Remember, we’re talking about the old days here.

Santiago gets wrecked. Through Tierra del Fuego to the this giant blue forevermore before them, and Magellan calls it Mar Pacifico. We been calling it that ever since. The San Antonio sees this immense bit of nothing in front of it and decides to desert.

“Three ships set out for Asia. How far could it be?

“They left South America in November and landed in the Philippines in March. There ain’t nothing in between those two addresses, cats and kittens, at least nothing that Magellan and his crew came upon. Just that ocean paying you no mind day after day. Gives me the shivers.

“Anyway, they get to the Philippines and Enrique can kinda speak the language. He’s translating the best he can when Magellan gets himself into some dopey intertribal warfare, and wouldn’t you know: that man got himself killed. This is a place called Cebu. Now, Magellan had left a will and in that will, he had freed Enrique, but the next in command didn’t quite see it that way. Guy named John Serrano. Said Enrique was too valuable to the mission, and that Enrique belonged to him now.

“And Enrique said, ‘Yes, boss. Sure, boss. What’s the plan, boss?’

“So this John Serrano fellow sends Enrique to go make peace with the natives who killed Magellan.

“Enrique says, ‘Sure, boss. Whatever you say, boss.’ Goes ashore, talks to the natives for a bit, comes back to the boat with great news. ‘They want to apologize. They want to throw you a banquet, boss.’

“This fellow John Serrano takes a whole bunch of the crew and goes ashore.

“Bad idea, boss.

“The ships hoist sail and skeedaddle, but there’s so many dead that they don’t have enough crew for all three ships. The Concepcion gets burned and left behind. Trinidad gets wrecked off Africa. Only the Victoria makes it home, three years after it left. But who cares about them? We’re talking about Enrique.

“Cebu, you see, is only about 1,500 miles from Malacca. Enrique started in Malacca. Went west to Portugal. West to South America. West to the Philippines. He went west for 23,500 miles and talked some strangers into shooting the bastards who caught him up in the first place.

“You think he couldn’t find his way another 1,500 miles?

“I think he did. I bet Enrique had a bit of gold secreted away. He spoke a whole bunch of languages. There was trading going on all over the area. Quick hop from Cebu to Brunei to Singapore to Malacca. And then maybe even back to Sumatra. I bet Enrique got to hear his momma call him by his real name at the end of his adventure.

“And that’s all the way around, cats and kittens. Circumnavigation, your grade school teacher called it. Can’t be proven, but it’s as good a story as any you’re gonna hear for free, ha ha ha .

“You wanna hear some music?

“Yeah?

“Me, too. Let’s get some rock and roll music going on the Frankie Nickels Show on KHAY–Hey!–where it don’t matter where you came from, but where you end up.”

Got My Teevee Eye On Little Aleppo

In the desert, an old man sat in the dark. There was nothing between your eyes and the universe, not in the desert, nothing blocking the sun or blotting the stars, and the horizon was without towns and highways, so nighttime was still a motherfucker, out here in the desert, out here in the Low Desert in a modernist house slung low around a pool and cut off from a street called Pinyon Way by a ten-foot wall made of expensive cinderblock and topped with fan-tail palms that spread their fronds like photosynthetic jazz hands. Nothing to see here.

Two washingtonia robusta trees shared a root system, all twined into one another. Each was a hundred feet tall with seams every eight feet and a great green crown atop, and each leant away from the other in the acute angle of a set-top teevee antenna.

And the cameras were there, he was in the studio, he was in Studio City, the guard on the gate was named Terry, he was sure of that, Terry. He drove himself in those days. The microphones weighed hundreds of pounds. Dressing room over here–the walls were temporary, but the couch was swanky–and the band was over there. Control room was beyond the lights which got so hot. The air conditioner rumbled between takes. Had to cake on the makeup in those days, this grey-bluish chalk that took three washings to get off.

The Tommy Amici Show was a half-hour, or sometimes the full hour; once it was 45 minutes long. Television hadn’t gotten its shit together in ’52; the world was much less professional. 8 o’clock on Tuesday nights, live and in two colors, to almost a million sets across America. Tommy had been a bust in movies, and so they gave him a television show.

Jews ran the movie industry, but television was still based out of New York, and so Wasps were in charge. Colonel Lumley ran the Network. It was 1952 and the bastard hadn’t taken his uniform off yet. Closest he got to the fighting was negotiating with the Musicans’ Union over the late show at the Stage Door Canteen on 44th Street. The colonel didn’t care for Tommy, but he had a slot to fill and Tommy had a sponsor, Arrow beer, and so Tommy had a show.

It was what they called a variety show–they don’t truly exist any longer–and they were vehicles for celebrated personalities, usually singers. As many songs as they could get away with, plus a skit or two and some light banter; Tommy was supremely capable of the first, but the second and third requirements were well beyond his grasp. He could sing, and women wanted to fuck him; neither skill lent itself to sketch comedy, especially because Tommy was not funny. Which is not to say people did not laugh at his jokes: they did, and loudly. But Tommy was not funny, and so the audience would not laugh. This would confuse him. At rehearsal, all the guys had laughed their asses off at that line! It was funny! Ah, what do these hayseeds know? And then Tommy would try giving the crowd the shpritz, but all of his jokes were stolen from his buddy, the insult comic Herbie Slott (formerly Herschel Slotnick), but ethnic insults are different coming from a tiny, bald, spherical man than they are from a clearly enraged nightclub singer who arrived to the taping surrounded by goons.

The audience had cooled on Tommy Amici. America had cooled. The last string of movies were all flops. The Modern Man’s Guide To Dames was supposed to be a Cary Grant-style comedy, but Tommy fought with the director and fucked his costar (and also fought with her) and couldn’t do comedy no matter whose style it was. Southwinds! was a musical, which should have worked, but the music was treacle and, instead of letting him sing, the director had Tommy dance, which Tommy could not do. He played a doctor who falls in love with his nurse in Heart Surgery; this is often regarded as one of the worst casting mistakes of all time because Tommy: A, did not know how to pronounce any of the medical words, and B, refused to read his script, rehearse, or do more than one take.

And there were character issues. This was 1952: there were different rules for celebrities. Certain things they could get away with as long as they maintained a proper sense of decorum. Drunkenness, fucking around on your wife, that sort of thing. Don’t bring your hooker to Chasen’s, basically. Other hobbies, such as homosexuality and hopheadedness, were completely inexcusable. Ixnay on the Communism, obviously.

But Tommy didn’t give a fuck about the rules, except for the ones about Commies, homos, and drugs. Tommy hated Commies, homos, and drugs. (“Drugs,” of course, meaning marijuana and dope, and not the pills his doctors prescribed.) And he also followed the rule about not getting too drunk in public, but that was due to his constitution.

It was the fucking around that got him.

He’d met Cara Thorn at the Borderline Casino & Lodge in Lake Tahoe; she was waiting out a Nevada divorce, and he was singing and checking out an investment opportunity. Headliners make a lot of money, but not as much as the guy who pays them, and Tommy wanted to be the boss, but he didn’t have the cash to be the boss, so he called a friend, who was called The Friend.

“It’s the perfect business.”

“A casino? Yeah, I know,” The Friend said. “I own several.”

“So let’s buy this one. It’s for sale.”

“Is it?”

“Everything’s for sale.”

“Ah.”

The pants of Tommy’s tuxedo had creases that would slice a hummingbird in half, and they were on a cedar hanger across the dressing room. Sheer black socks reached just below his knees and stuck out from under his thick yellow robe. He sipped from a itty-bitty cup of espresso. The Friend did, too, but he was in a suit.

“Tommy, you don’t have any fucking money.”

“I’m doing okay,” he huffed.

The Friend set his itty-bitty cup on the makeup mirror in its saucer, next to his borsalino hat, which was dark-blue on dark-blue.

“Oh. Because I own ten percent of you, Tommy. And lately, that ain’t shit. So…are you telling me that you’re ripping me off?”

You could hear the orchestra warming up through the closed door.

“That’s not what I’m saying. No. That’s not–”

“Tommy, I’m fucking with you!”

“–what I’m saying…you’re funny.”

“Maybe I should write you some jokes.”

“I got Jews for that,” Tommy said, dreaming of the moment when he would be the most important person in the room again. Tommy Amici used to be Tomas Valenzuela from Little Aleppo, and then he met The Friend, and now he lived in New York and Los Angeles and wherever else he fucking wanted, and all it cost him was ten percent off the top. Amazing what a good friend could do, and The Friend had ’em all over the place. Teamster’s locals that used to throw Tommy’s rivals’ records out the back of the truck when do one was looking. Men who owned nightclubs and radio stations, and the men who hauled away their garbage; the latter could be deployed against the former in case of recalcitrance. Cops and reporters, too. It was always good to be friends with cops and reporters.

Tommy continued,

“You see that crowd out there?”

“You can surely pack ’em in, kid.”

“And it’s a class crowd. Money crowd. I hang around, do some shows every month or so, bring in some pals. We’ll make a fortune.”

The Friend picked up his itty-bitty cup, threw back the dregs of the coffee.

“Tommy, this is a legitimate place. You need a license here. All kinds of paperwork to get through, and you know how I hate that.”

“License’ll be in my name. That’s the whole selling point. It’s gonna be my place.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Places, Mr. Amici.”

Tommy stood up and slipped off his robe. The shirt had just buttons, no studs poking through the buttonholes like a groom at a middle-class wedding, and he fixed his bow-tie in the mirror. Pants on, and then The Friend helped him into the jacket with its high arm-holes and creamy silk lapels. One last look in the mirror, and The Friend had the door open for Tommy.

The hallway was full of his goons. Everyone waited in the hallways when Tommy talked to The Friend.

“Fuck ’em up, kid.”

“Always. You’ll think about it?”

“I’m thinking about it as we speak,” The Friend said, which was not true: he had already decided to buy the casino. As it related to Tommy Amici’s career, this would prove the second most disastrous decision made in the Borderline Casino & Lodge that night. The first was when the maitre d’ of the showroom sat Cara Thorn all the way up front. Especially in that yellow dress.

What’s wrong with falling in love besides everything?

If they had snuck around, maybe. Neither knew how. They stole a police car that night. Fights in nightclubs, and screaming matches on jets to Spain, and more screaming on jets out of Spain after being thrown out of the country for calling Franco a queer, and heated reconciliations in crowded restaurants. They fucked on the buffet at Archie’s one night, which the gossip pages translated into “canoodling.” Tommy still had the balls to act incredulous when Theresa slapped him with the divorce papers. It was one thing for two Hollywood nutjobs to split up after 8 months of marriage–that was precisely what Cara was doing–but to leave your family for some sexpot movie star?

Records stopped selling, and without hits you don’t get first choice of material, which led to weaker singles, and this in turn brought sales down even further. The movie studios were delighted to stop calling. No more drunken, surly Tommy wandering around the lot fucking his way through the steno pool and having his boys throw writers through windows? No more directors in tears because Tommy called his costar a whore and won’t learn his lines? No more crackly, expensive international calls with panicky details about Tommy’s latest disappearance from the set? Good riddance to Little Aleppo trash, the movie studios thought.

Tommy didn’t care. Followed her to Paris. She was shooting Begin The Baguette. She was miscast, he told her. She threw a lamp at him. The next morning, Cara told the director she had been miscast and demanded to switch roles with the blonde, Lila McTear. He refused; Tommy threw a lamp at him. She flirted with the lead, a big chesty fellow named Roy Strompers that usually played cowboys, and Tommy fucked her makeup girl and they chased each other through the 8th Arrondissement in stolen Citroens. The Friend had no friends at all in the 8th Arrondissement, and so there were pictures in the papers.

No movies, and not even a radio show. The clubs–he’d always have the clubs–but his price had dropped for the first time.

And now the cameras–two of them!–with their rude lights all pressed up into your face, and all these wandering nobodies, technicians, whoevers filling every nook of the stage under the crude, harsh lights with B-list guests. June Mayfield, the Irvine Boys, Topper Most: no one was buying a set for those names. Tommy wouldn’t piss on ’em if they were drowning, but now he was sharing a spotlight with ’em. Doing sketches. Jesus, sketches. Not like goofing around onstage with Herbie and Geno, no: there were setups and punchlines and timing involved, the kind of shit that required rehearsal, but if Tommy wasn’t going to rehearse for a movie then he certainly wasn’t showing up for rehearsal for telefuckingvision.

It was ten o’clock Back East, and the announcer cried in the profoundest bass,

“IT’S…the Tommy Amici Show! With Tommy’s special guests: the Hayworth Triplets! Ansour Fine! Gerry MacGillicuddy! Music by Van Cantwell and the Radford Orchestra! And now…here’s Tommy!”

And there he was. Still godawful skinny and wearing a downright teenaged toupee. His jaw jittered back and forth, and he had no idea what to do with his big hands: into the pockets, clasped in front, down at sides, random gestures; his skull bandied about. There was no color teevee in 1952, but the audience in the soundstage didn’t know that, just stared at Tommy’s eyes, which were green as the Verdance in the summer, and they forgave him for everything and anything just as long as he’d sing.

Tommy wouldn’t forgive them. He didn’t forgive people he liked, so why should he grant absolution to strangers? He smiled and sang and suffered sketches, all the while seething for two seasons. Teevee. How fucking dare you make me do teevee? Because I left my wife? Fuck you; you never did for a woman what I did for Theresa and the kids. They got the house, they’re taken care of. None of them are ever gonna want for anything. Fuck your moral bullshit. Jealous. You wanna fuck her, he thought. Or be her.

But you can’t. She’s mine.

She’s mine, an old man mumbled in the dark. The Low Desert gets dark at night; there is not much civilization and there is so much desert, so it gets very dark at night. The nurse was in the next room. She had the pills, and she flipped the records. His records. The turntable was in the next room, with the nurse, and she would come in if he called out, but he did not, just smiled for the cameras that pressed themselves into his face even now in the Jeremiad Springs, which is three days by horse from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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