Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 13)

Someone To Back Your Play In Little Aleppo

18 days had passed since it rained in Little Aleppo, so it was raining in Little Aleppo. The sun had come up, but not so you could tell, and the drops came down steady on the window, not a drizzle that went tiptiptap but a hard shower that sounded against the glass like THRUMPATUMP, like a hand with a million fingers was waiting for you to get to the point, and all around the neighborhood, appointments were being canceled and plans rescheduled and classes cut. You’d think locals would stop making plans for the day of the rains, but no one ever did: it wasn’t because they forgot, but that they thought it would be different this time, that they wouldn’t let the rain stop them from living their lives, but then they’d wake up and see the downpour and start calling each other pretending to be sick. Humans see patterns in everything but their own behavior.

A window opened on the Main Drag. Second floor, right above Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk. Head popped out and looked north towards The Tahitian. Black hair, curly and quickly waterlogged.

“Gus, the theater’s not gonna burn down while it’s raining,” a voice called from the back of the apartment where the bedroom was.

“I’m getting us coffee.”

“I heard the window open.”

“It was stuffy.”

The living room was packed. It was what Sheila called a “healthy clutter.” There were five teevees, one of which was generally working at any given time, in what was referred to as the Media Corner; the stereo was next to that, and a five-tall triple column of milk crates with records in them. Precarious Lee had wired the room for quadrophonic sound, and screwed the speakers to the wall studs in just the right spots. Two couches. Sheila had reupholstered one herself during one of her manic crafting phases. It looked fucked-up, but it was comfortable. All the paintings on the walls were by friends Sheila had buried; all the paintings were of her. Abstract, with silly slashes for her hair and long loping lines as legs, and photorealistic, with raised goose bumps on her forearm and her cock flopped against her leg showing its underside like an exhausted sturgeon. Kyron Binet painted Sheila before he got famous and died. The canvas was six by four, and mostly brackish black paint, slathered on thickly in what would come to be known as his style and examined at length in many critical brochures and catalogues. Her figure was offset to the right; she was perched on a stool, one bare foot up and the other forward with splayed toes and flexed calf muscle. White slip with blood smeared on it, left strap ripped free and dangling down her chest, and her hair was caked in something–mud, maybe–and there was blood on her teeth, too, but she was smiling like she knew a secret. Or whose blood it was.

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was in a thin white tee-shirt that covered only half her bare ass; it was inside-out, and the Arrow Beer logo flickered backwards through the fabric. The skin on the back of her left elbow was rough; she felt it up and down a few times, and then checked her right elbow, which was far smoother, and she puzzled over that as she walked into the kitchen to make coffee.

Sheila wasn’t a drag queen. Men do drag, and it’s an act; Sheila was a woman (with an accidental penis), and that was her life. She wasn’t a drag queen. She did, however, have a drag queen’s kitchen. It looked like a John Waters movie might break out any second: aggressively wholesome, but slightly off. The curtains had cartoon pigs and cows and chickens on them, but when you looked closer you saw that the animals were all offering themselves up to you, choice cuts sliced out of their sides and loins and steaming on plates held forth with big smiles, and the wallpaper featured the First Ladies, and all the magnets on the fridge depicted famous train derailments. On the top of the cabinets were seven Garfield cookie jars in varying poses–eating, sleeping, playing the piano–that Sheila had named after the Segovian Hills; she insisted on introducing new guests to them. The silverware drawer was jammed with forks and spoons and knives of all makes; they were not in a caddy or organized, but dumped in; there must have been hundreds. The second or third time Gussy stayed over, she asked about it.

“I used to shoplift all the time. I was terrible,” Sheila said.

“Now you steal silverware?”

“It’s my methadone.”

And Gussy had had more than a couple drinks, so she accepted the answer.

Mug from Dollywood. Sugar sugar sugar, milk milk milk, stir, clink clink clink. Mug with a silhouette of a dog riding an elephant and the logo HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE. Sugar sugar sugar, milk milk milk, stir, clink clink clink. Spoon in the sink, run the water, mug in each hand and barefoot to the bedroom where Sheila is walking out of the bathroom, skinny and naked except for mismatched knee socks, and she has a tiny tuft of thick brown pubic hair in a semi-circle around her cock and no hair anywhere else on her body except for her head; she is growing her spiky short cut into a layered shag because she feels particularly rock and rollish lately and has dyed her hair greasy black, blue-black, jet-black, Joan Jett-black, and she has her eye on a pair of leather pants with a lace-up front in the window of Saxon’s Funkywear over on Maypole Street. She takes the Dollywood mug from Gussy, and they get back into bed.

Four-poster bed with the full canopy: a bed to die of consumption in; a bed for the madwoman in the attic; a bed Emily Dickinson could masturbate in. It had previously belonged to the Baroness de Koenigswarter when she lived in a cottage on Mt. Charity. (Baronesses have different ideas of what the word “cottage” means than most folks.) Sheila wasn’t planning on buying anything at the estate sale–she and Tiresias Richardson had just gone for the free booze and chance to pick up rich guys–but when she saw the carved angels on the columns, she knew that she had to have it. The vertical panel held up by the be-angelled columns is called the tester, and there was a mirror in this one. It was not original.

The rain always brought a chill, especially in December, and Sheila tucked herself under Gussy’s armpit and pulled the blanket up to her chest and curled herself against Gussy’s side and thigh; Gussy was five inches taller and five degrees warmer than Sheila, and they shimmied themselves into each other and the mattress and the covers and then lay still and breathed together and the raindrops on the window went THRUMPATUMP and the two women looked each other in the eye through the mirror above them and one of them said,

“I love you.”

The rain slapped onto Cannot Swim’s head THRUMPATUMP and he curled his lip and said,

“I hate this.”

Today? Why today? Tomorrow would be almost exactly the same, but–BUT–it was fucking dry, Cannot Swim thought. Why send him on his Assignment on the day of the rains? Go up in the hills and collect the cybeline mushroom that grows where the squatch live: that was bad enough, but in the rain? The Pulaski had figured out the cycle of the rains in the valley that would one day be called Little Aleppo; they hadn’t invented calculus, but they could count to 18 well enough. And it wasn’t like there was a rush, he exclaimed to himself. The mushrooms were made into tea for the Midsummer’s Feast, and it was the middle of winter. The sun had just barely come up, but not so you could tell, and it had been raining for an hour already.

Cannot Swim walked north out of the village with a rough cloak made from waxed deer leather draped over his head, passing the kotcha that belonged to Stranger Who Hunts Well and Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend. He thought about ducking in and hiding out until it stopped raining, but only briefly. The two of them babbled in their harsh language non-stop; Cannot Swim did not think he could take an entire day of their grunting. Besides, he was a Pulaski man (or he would be when he returned to the village) and what kind of Pulaski man would cower from a little rain?

“Yo! Cuz!”

Turning around and peering through the raindrops and mist and morning gloom, Cannot Swim saw Talks To Whites in the outsiders’ kotcha. He looked back towards the lake, towards the village, and saw that no one was watching, so he loped over and slipped through the door, wiping the mud off his shoes and onto a heavy rock with a sharp edge placed just inside the entrance for that purpose.

“You were supposed to meet me by the scarred tree in the upper fields,” Cannot Swim said.

“It’s raining.”

“So?”

Talks To Whites stared at his cousin, tilted his head, scrunched up his nose.

“It…is…rain…ing.”

“How are you called a man and I am still called a child?”

“I was born six months before you.”

“It’s rain. You won’t melt.”

“I know. But, I’ll get wet.”

“Just gimme the damn rifle.”

Stranger Who Hunts Well and Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend were still under their blankets on their sleeping platforms, scratching their balls and yawning and not quite following the conversation. The Pulaski language was full of subtle stops and swallowed vowels and all ran together in a breathy tumble that outsiders could not pick out words from, and even once they sort of figured out the syntax, there was still the conjugation to deal with–verbs were gendered in Pulaski, and could become perfect or pluperfect depending on where they were placed relative to the subject–and even tribes whose languages were close to Pulaski had little hope of becoming conversational, let alone mastering it. Stranger Who Hunts Well and his Useless Friend made out “rain” and “rifle,” but everything else was guesses based on body language.

“You’re gonna go now? Hang out here today.”

“It’s an Assignment. You’re assigned. That means you do what you’re told. And, you know, it’s a trial. It’s not supposed to be fun. Or easy.”

“My Assignment was easy until you freaked out and ate all our whole stash at once and nearly got us killed.”

“I did not like that place,” Cannot Swim said with his eyes on the ground.

“Duh.”

“They are chaos, the Whites, and also cruelty. And–”

“They stink.”

“–they stink.”

“I am more than aware of your feelings about the Whites’ odor.”

“I don’t know how they bear it. If I smelled like that, I’d chop my nose off. Like this one.”

Cannot Swim jerked his head towards Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend.

“Stinks like a dying man’s balls.”

“He just woke up,” Talks To Whites said, smiling. “Everyone smells bad when they wake up.”

“Not like this. It’s inhuman.”

The two men on the sleeping platforms, one very large and the other very small, watched the conversation. The little one whispered in English to the big one,

“Are you getting any of this, Peter?”

“The tall one thinks you smell bad.”

“I just woke up. Everyone smells bad when they wake up.”

Talks To Whites turned around and looked down at the small man and said in English,

“That’s what I told him, Reverend.”

Neither Talks To Whites nor Peter had ever told the Reverend Busybody Tyndale that his Pulaski name was Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend. What good could it possibly do?

Cannot Swim shouldered the Springfield rifle and Talks To Whites gave him two small satchels: peregrine leaves, ammo. He took a leaf from the pouch, offered one to his cousin.

“Nah, I’m going back to sleep.”

“You’re going back to sleep?”

“I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: it’s raining.”

“Unfuckingbelievable.”

And Cannot Swim backed out of the door of the kotcha; the leather flap clapped shut; he was gone.

The rain hit the hemispherical crown of Harper Observatory and sluiced down the exterior marble walls to the parking lot past the Volkswagens and Fords and over the side of the sheer rock and falling splashing running coursing the mud and pebbles and loosed grass flowing along and collected on the way, the homes on stilts and the infinite pools and hot tubs and luxury where there should be none, and gathering speed until the foothills and across the Main Drag and over what used to be a lake and into the harbor that fed Little Aleppo and out past the breakers to the sea it came from.

The rain sounded low-pitched THRUMPATUMP on glass windows and higher BAPADAP on nylon umbrellas and hollow PANGPANGPANG on the metal shutters of The Tahitian. THUPTHUPTHUP on the head of its owner sticking out a window down the street.

“GUSSY!”

“I’m letting the cat out!”

“I don’t have a cat!”

Gussy was back in the doorway of the bedroom; she leaned against the jamb.

“I could’ve sworn you did.”

Sheila is out of bed and her feet in mismatched knee socks swopswopswop on the hardwood floor; she is naked and her hips sway like a pendulum with a big dick, and, having left her coffee on the nightstand and cigarette smoldering in the ashtray which reads THE MENEFRIGHISTA CLUB: WHERE STARS COME TO SHINE, her arms are free to slip around Gussy’s waist, and Sheila raises herself on tiptoe and shoves her tongue rudely into Gussy’s mouth, who makes a noise like ooooohh and grabs Sheila’s bare ass with both hands, but it slips out when she lowers herself back to her flat feet and clears her throat and smiles like at a child.

“Gus, hon, I can’t date crazy anymore. I’m terrible at it. If you’re gonna be crazy–”

Gussy pushed her back, softly, and said,

“He left a fucking note, Sheel! He was in my place, he was actually there. Row 19. Seat 4. He was in my place, Sheel.”

Sheila came back into her, and said, softly,

“Shutters are locked.”

And kissed her.

“Precarious put ’em up.”

And kissed her again.

“Congo couldn’t get through shutters Precarious put up.”

And one more time and now Gussy kissed her back.

“You do know that Precarious has actually set my theater on fire several times, right?”

“And you’re not scared of him! So why freak out about this Jack of Instance asshole? Oh, and–”

Sheila took two steps towards the bed and launched herself into it FLOOMP a pillow launched off the side.

“–the Fire Chief? Flower? Big tall mean bitch?”

“She’s not a bitch.”

“She’s totally a bitch. Anyway, I told her all about the Jack of Instance and she visited Madame Cazee.”

“Uh-huh,” Gussy said as she picked the pillow up off the floor and threw it at her.

The record player had a square plastic lid. Sheila forgot to put the toilet seat back down, and her hamper was the corner, but the lid of the record player was always in place. Gussy lifted it. The turntable was made of aluminum and covered with tacky black rubber, and the components were brushed silver, and the tonearm curved just like a mountain road that movie stars died on. CH-CHUNK the power button had weight to it and then hmmmmmm–oh, that rock and roll hum–a noise at the same frequency as a teenager’s blood pressure, a predictory noise, a noise that prefaced sound. Machines have to clear their throats, too.

Living room records and bedroom records, there is a difference. A row of them on top of the dresser next to the record player which was on top of the amplifier that has two blue window with needles ready and waiting and bobbing against the left cushion of the parabola–it was the type of amplifier you left on; Precarious had dropped it off one day–and Gussy’s finger ran down the spines of the albums like a stick against a picket fence wielded by some old-timey kid in overalls. Bookends on either side holding the row upright, figures carved from heavy wood and painted: Tommy Amici and Cara Thorn, tuxedo and evening gown and separated only by the music. When all the songs had played, they’d be together again.

Gussy hated choosing the record in front of Sheila; she felt she was being judged. She felt that because Sheila had said so at least twice. It was one of those jokes you tell in the beginning of a relationship that isn’t a joke at all. It was early, she thought, and it was raining, and so this was rejected for being too poppy and that was rejected for being too cocktail-hour. And it was no time to listen to anyone’s bullshit, she thought, and slid the record with the smoky blue cover out. It was not a deep cut. It was the obvious choice. It was the jazz album; in fact, it was verging on being The Jazz Album. If you had one jazz album, you had this one. It was issued, seemingly, or spontaneously generated: if you put enough LPs together, then you’d find this one in the stack soon enough.

The record comes out of the cardboard, and then out of the white sleeve made of waxy paper with the rounded edges and oversized hole in the center. Flip it over to find Side A. Settle the disc onto the spindle. The tonearm lifts up and over and control it down. Softly. Pop and snap and hiss and other onomatopoeias. Then the bass and the piano playing Chinese chords and just the bass now challenging and the band answers and again and again.

FFT PHWOO Sheila lit a joint and blew out a cloud of smoke towards the mirror above her; it plumed off in crazy directions where it hit its own reflection. The curtains around the bed were drawn, and orange. She was thinking of going black.

“So. Your position is–”

Gussy took two steps toward the bed and eased onto the mattress. She crawled towards Sheila, who handed her the joint with one hand and reached out for her tit with the other.

“–that my worries, and therefore PHWOO the neighborhood’s worries are over, because you sent the Fire Chief to see a psychic?”

“Not over. But PWHOO close to. I have faith in Madame Cazee.”

“Sheel, if Madame Cazee knew anything, wouldn’t she have just gone to the cops? Or someone? She shouldn’t have been sitting there waiting to read the Fire Chief’s palm.”

“She doesn’t read palms anymore. Eczema.”

“Figure of speech.”

“The Jack of Instance is one of her Tarot cards. She knows all about him. I’m sure she helped the chief.”

“Helped her with what? She doesn’t have any actual information about the crimes.”

“Gus?”

Sheila put the joint in between her lips and got up on her knees facing Gussy and continued,

“These fires are happening on several levels, including magickal and psychic, and you have to acknowledge that.”

Gussy plucked the joint from Sheila’s mouth.

“Sheel, hon, I can’t date crazy. I’m terrible at it.”

Sheila rolled her eyes and spun around and laid down with her arms crossed.

“There are greater forces at play here, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui.”

“I love it when you call me that.”

“Mysterious forces. And destructive ones. Terror has been loosed according to a plan unavailable to onlookers. There is afootedness.”

“Afootedness?”

“When trouble is afoot, then exists a state of afootedness. One of my clients taught me about it; she’s in the Experimental Linguistics department at Harper.”

“It’s just some guy.”

“It’s not.”

“Is it the werewolf from the flyers?”

“No, that’s fucking stupid,” Sheila said.

“Thank you.”

“Werewolfs don’t have hands. They can’t light fires. It could maybe be a wolfman, but not a werewolf.”

“Jesus.”

“What?”

“It’s just a guy. A crazy guy who can’t get hard unless he lights shit on fire.”

“Then why the notes? Why the Jack of Instance?”

“I dunno. I dunno how crazy people think. That’s why they’re crazy. Some of ’em talk to dogs, and others talk to playing cards.”

Gussy had the joint and she hit it PHWOO and coughed, hacks that doubled her chest over and shook the bed, and small aftershocks followed by exploratory sips of her rapidly-cooling coffee. She looked at the bedroom door, and back at Sheila from the corner of her eye, and the door again; Sheila saw this and picked the phone up off her nightstand.

“What’s the number of the theater?”

“Why?”

“Tell me.”

She did. The phone rang twice and then the machine answered with Sheila’s voice.

“You’ve reached The Tahitian theater, located in the heart of beautiful Little Aleppo. We’re closed right now, but if you leave a message and aren’t Mr. Carnolin, we’ll get back to you. Thanks!”

After the beep, Sheila said,

“Wally? Wally, are you there?”

“He can’t answer the phone,” Gussy said.

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

Gussy grabbed the receiver from Sheila.

“Why are you answering the phone?”

I DID NOT ANSWER THE PHONE. I WAS REQUESTED TO COME TO THE LINE.

How are you answering the phone?”

I AM WIRED INTO THE ENTIRE BUILDING.

Sheila shoved her fingers into Gussy’s ribs, which made her flinch and give up the receiver.

“Wally, it’s Sheila. Listen, you gotta do me a favor. Do you know my phone number?”

I KNOW EVERYONE’S PHONE NUMBER.

“Great. So, if you get set on fire: call here. Immediately. Okay? Because Gussy is very worried, so I think it would be good if you told her that you were going to call if anything happened. Like getting set on fire.”

I WAS PLANNING ON IT.

Gussy tried to grab the receiver again, but Sheila had strong hands and held on, so they put their heads together to share.

“Were you going to let me in on this plan?” Gussy asked.

I ASSUMED YOU WERE INTELLIGENT ENOUGH TO FIGURE IT OUT ON YOUR OWN.

There was a muted trumpet playing in the background, just the right notes over one chord and then another and back to the first, while the drummer swished around his snare drum. Gussy let got of the phone and sat back against the pillows. Wondered who she had hurt in a previous life.

“Okay, that’s great,” Sheila said. “So, if there’s a fire–any fire of any size whatsoever–then you’ll call Gussy, right? Try her place first, and then here.”

SHOULD I NOT CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT? DO WE NO LONGER TRUST THEM? ARE THEY IN CAHOOTS?

Gussy ran her hand over her face and then stared upwards, but there was a mirror above her and she didn’t feel like making eye contact with the idiot that had brought Wally into her life.

“Call the Fire Department first. Then Gussy.”

THESE ARE THINGS I DO NOT NEED TO BE TOLD. I AM AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CAPABLE OF 800 MONDOFLOPS OF–

Sheila hung the receiver back into the phone’s cradle and put the whole shebang back on her nightstand and turned back to Gussy and smiled and said,

“Fixed.”

And now it was Gussy’s turn to kiss her, she put her hand in Sheila’s hair and clutched and they sank into too many damn pillows, and Gussy threw her leg over Sheila’s lap to straddle her; Sheila put her hand on her tits under her thin white tee-shirt, and Gussy took it off and flung it onto the pile of dirty clothes in the corner and leaned back down to kiss Sheila and her long curly hair was everywhere cascading over both their shoulders, and Sheila’s cock was rushing coursing pulsing in Gussy’s hand, and she slid her into herself and settled down with no thoughts of fire, and no mind to instance, and no ear towards the rain that went THRUMPATUMP against the windows of bedroom all over Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Just Might Be Your Kind Of Zoo In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppians are from time to time permitted to name incoming animals to the Harper Zoo; they shouldn’t be. Either no one participates in the publicity event and the keepers slap a cheesy faux-ethnic name on the poor creature, or everyone participates way too hard and brawls break out and factions are formed and leaders rise. In ’56, the zoo asked the neighborhood to christen the new yak over KSOS in the morning, and by that night the Main Drag was in flames over the question of “Yak Benny” vs. “I Am Just A Foreign Cow And I Shouldn’t Be In A Zoo.” Both the LAPD (No, Not That One) and the Town Fathers became involved, which meant everyone had to pass a hat around for the bribes, and that took a lot of air out of the riot. Street warfare has a certain momentum it needs to maintain itself.

The shakedown was seen as just by the shake-ees: there were certain unbreakable rules a society needed to uphold, and one of them was “no knife fights in the Main Drag.” After a month of committee meetings, exploratory missions to Las Vegas, and thousands of pages of testimony, the Town Fathers came to a conclusion that there was no more juice to be squeezed from this particular berry, and named the yak Nancy at two in the morning when no one was looking. When the angry rival gangs arrived at Harper Zoo the next morning, they saw that there was indeed a plaque bearing the name of Nancy, and under that was information about yaks and their lives and diets and hobbies. Must have been three feet across, the plaque, and all engraved. A zookeeper in blue coveralls was polishing it with a rag and spray bottle.

The angry rival gangs paused.

“You can’t argue with that.”

“No. That’s official.”

“The yak is named Nancy. Okay. Hey, didn’t you stab me?”

“Everybody stabbed everybody. The details are unimportant. Let’s go get breakfast.”

And so the two angry rival gangs did become one hungry crowd that went for breakfast. The yak, who was named Nancy and had a plaque to attest to it, may or may not have noticed. The neighborhood’s opinion was not solicited for quite some time, but institutional memories fade and dumb ideas are recycled every generation, which is why Harper Zoo’s lion is named Kevin and there is also a large plaque with his name and fun facts about him outside his enclosure.

Kevin would or would not be Harper Zoo’s last lion.

When Harper T. Harper returned from making his fortune in the Congo, he began his new career of naming things after himself with a grand palace to knowledge and man’s mastery of the universe. On the land left over, he built the college. They would both turn out to be embarrassments to him: the school, almost immediately; the zoo, eventually.

Harper T. Harper loved looking at animals. Unlike most of the men of his day, he was not a hunter. They every much right to live as you or me, Harper would tell people, but “existence” was where the animals’ rights ended for Harper. Or maybe they had the full complement? If animals did have rights, then certainly mine supersede theirs, and it is my right as a Christian to make condors and gnus to live at my house.

35 acres on the Upside in between the Main Drag and the sea, the zoo is the shape of home plate with the sharpish bit facing south. A walking path runs around the inner perimeter; there are exhibits on both sides of the path. Two trails cut through the interior of home plate from north to south at just the parabola at which the stitching curves into a baseball. (Harper T. Harper famously loved baseball; his architect secretly loved charging as much as he could get away with, and figured catering to the old hand-chopper’s hobbies would do the trick.)

Nestled underneath the zoo is Harper College. Directly under. During The Bake, the college can small the zoo, and when the college gets baked, the zoo can smell that. The two similarly-named institutions are separated only by a fence hidden by bushes and ivy, and there is a sidewalk along the fence that is, in places, poorly lit. There had been deaths, yes, but all of them occurred within the animals’ enclosures and, well, that was on you. Carter Spants mentioned it in his Orientation address every year for four decades; alumni could recite his speech by heart:

“You’re going to break into the zoo because you’re all wicked children, but further illegal entry once within our neighboring cousin is strongly disadvised. Anyone who monkeys with the snack shop or horses around with the souvenir stand will be ferreted out.”

Dean Spants would pause for mild laughter here.

“And summarily expelled and forced into the military.”

Dean Spants paused here, too, but there was no laughter because it was the past and kids who fucked up could totally be forced into the military.

“I continue with a reminder and a warning: you don’t need to get eaten, and everyone will make fun of you for years if you do. No matter how popular you are, trust me. Branquist was the Big Man on Campus, big strapping fellow with a mop of blond curls. Everyone loved him, but Branquist didn’t know two things: 1, you shouldn’t mix tequila with jazz cigarettes; and 2, you can’t alligator wrestle a crocodile. Far more cantankerous species. Did we mourn him? Yes, of course. But did the students start called breakfast “Branquist?” Also yes. They did that immediately. The next year, the school’s mascot was the Crocodiles and the logo was a cartoon croc and would you like to guess what color the cartoon croc’s curly hair was?

“If you are eaten, you will be mocked.

Dean Spants would then usually talk about the life of the mind, and sign-ups for the intramural leagues.

Kept from meddling with the school by the school charter Dean Spants had tricked him into signing–he still contends that Spants jerkoff hypnotized him–Harper turned all his energies towards his menagerie. Animals were easier to buy in the 30’s, and Harper knew mercenaries all over the world from his days in the Congo. It turns out that mercenaries are well-suited to the business of kidnapping megafauna and don’t even pretend to act indignant when you ask. Harper trusted mercenaries more than military men; it was always a chore to figure out precisely what the latest buffoon in a general’s uniform wanted when they sent for you, but mercenaries just wanted money. They were far more honest criminals, Harper thought.

His collection, most of which was lacking paperwork of any sort and had been delivered in the middle of the night in exchange for an envelope fill of cash, grew. The vets tried to keep everything from dying, and the keepers tried to keep everything from killing each other. If either failed, well: you could always buy some more zebras. The cages were steel bars and poured concrete floors with metal drains embedded in them for when the animals were bathed with cold water hoses. Most were mangy and some were crippled or clearly dying and it was the 30’s, so there was also the occasional cage containing an ethnic.

But it was a dime to get in, and another nickel for popcorn, and in the Depression it was a day passed well to sit in a manicured meadow and look at animals that did not belong in that particular meadow. Even during the darkest days, with war brewing across the ocean and nothing in your belly or pockets, you could sit on a bench and look at an anteater. Used to be, you had to live where the anteaters did to look at them. Then, kings and queens got to look at anteaters. But now, the common man could look at an anteater for as long as he wanted. That’s the American Dream.

Harper T. Harper strolled around every day in the morning at then again after lunch. His driver would sit in the idling Stutz right outside the entrance and Harper would make a clockwise orbit. The keepers called him Mr. Harper and told him about the condor’s wing, or the orangutan’s tooth, and the children all knew that if they smiled and said, “Hi, Uncle Harper,” then he’d give them a nickel. Twice a day every day, even when the zoo wasn’t open to the public, for years. By 1963, he was being wheeled around, still clockwise, and the driver still sat outside in the idling Stutz. He said hello to Nancy, who was a yak, and felt his left side go light and his head felt airy. The last thought Harper T. Harper had was: I wonder how big the headline will be? Vain to the last, but he should have picked a different day in November if he wanted to make the front page. His obituary, written years earlier, noted his philanthropy, and charitable works, and the hand he had in building Little Aleppo, appeared on page B5. A line in the ninth paragraph notes that there were “…always ethical concerns about the source of Mr. Harper’s wealth…” but continues “…which Little Aleppo decided to ignore.”

The zoo went on. The tapirs needed feeding, and the ostrich was picking at her feathers again, and the hyenas seemed depressed. The local rats were cross-breeding with the prairie dogs; both the veterinary and zoology departments at Harper College determined that it was genetically impossible for that to happen, but the keepers had been chasing down little mutant prairie rat babies for a week and drowning them in the tub, so they didn’t want to hear any shit from the professors.

And Congo wasn’t doing well.

Everyone told him not to buy an elephant. We’re a small zoo and we don’t have the room for an elephant, the keepers pleaded with him, but he didn’t listen to anyone even before he went deaf, and so a few years before Harper’s death, Congo showed up in the middle of the night with no paperwork. She was an adolescent, and should have been with her mother and aunts. Take something terrible to separate them. They don’t teach you in veterinary school that elephants have nightmares, and that the noises they make during them are remarkably human. They tried everything, even giving Congo away to an elephant preserve; the other cows rejected her and were so violent that she was shipped right back to her cage, even sadder and more shrouded than before. A new enclosure: bigger and open to the sky with a moat around it to keep her in, with several levels and places to hide from the crowd and stout trees to scratch herself on. Nothing worked until the dog, a goofy blue heeler named Shep, who took to Congo like she was a milkbone with a trunk.

The two became mildly famous. PBS came by to shoot some footage, and big newspapers from out of town came by to run articles about the interspecies friendship. Two generations of Little Aleppo’s kids grew up on the Congo and Shep children’s books; they solved crime, or filed for a lien against a contractor who had done shoddy work, or learned how to make gnocchi. The pair were made into a simple logo and placed on every piece of merch that the Harper Zoo souvenir stand could get its hands on.

But what gave an elephant life may have doomed a zoo. Seeing the elephant’s joy in the dog only underlined the sorrow she lived. Beginning that day, the zookeepers and staff of Harper Zoo stopped buying animals out of the wild, and the breeding programs stopped shortly afterwards, and since then the 35 acres in the sheltered wood of the Upside has been the final repository for around a dozen circuses-worth of broken, beat-up, and busted creatures. Roadside petting zoo in Petaluma goes bust? Harper would take some goats. Crazy asshole in Akron with a bunch of tigers out back dies? Send one over; there’s room somewhere. The reptile house had been stocked exclusively from the mansion of a dead rock star, and the chimp used to be on teevee. Bootsy the alligator used to protect a drug dealer’s apartment.

Last stop for the out-of-place.

The kids still came by and ate their popcorn, though the prices had risen quite a bit, and mothers rolled their babies around home plate on nice days. They pointed and named the world for their children. When the sun went down and the customers had gone, an elephant and her dog would slip their bonds–just a little bit–and survey their entire world, which was a manicured meadow in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Single Step In Little Aleppo

Flower Childs was unhappy. People who didn’t know her thought she was always unhappy, but they were wrong: she was just serious; her moods fluctuated like any normal human’s, it’s just she didn’t go gooning around when she was happy or weeping when things went wrong. Especially since something was always about to go wrong. Hell, that was her job, waiting for something to go wrong and then driving there. Firefighters were like human seatbelts, she figured: acknowledgement that life would go awry no matter how carefully one planned one’s trip. But now the Fire Chief was unhappy. She was one corpse away from losing her job, her girlfriend was opening a bar even though she barely knew her times tables, and she was sitting across from a naked psychic.

“You’re just gonna be naked?”

“You may disrobe if you’d like,”Madame Cazee said.

“I’m good.”

The room was oval, and the table was circular, and Madame Cazee was person-shaped. Flower was also person-shaped, but taller. There was no incense burning–Flower made Madame Cazee extinguish the sticks when she came in–but the smell lingered and the air was smoky and slowed down the light that came through the small porthole window with the sigil fitted inside it. Flower was in her work shirt and pants, boots; Madame Cazee was nude. Sometimes, the spirits insisted upon nudity, and other times Madame Cazee had not done laundry.

“I don’t believe in any of this crap.”

“Yes, I could tell by your haircut.”

“What’s wrong with my haircut?”

“Nothing. It’s just very fact-based.”

She was right: a crew-cut is the most logical of all hairstyles; it is a hierarchical haircut; there is a chain of command somewhere in a person with a crew-cut’s life. Flower’s was freshly trimmed and graying. (Least rational hairdo is a giant mohawk.)

She had never been in Madame Cazee’s before, though she had walked by millions of times–it was across Sylvester Street from where the Wayside Inn used to be–and didn’t particularly want to be there at the moment. She had strolled casually down the sidewalk, timing her entrance for when she thought no one was looking, and slid in the front door as quickly as she could, turning to shut it behind her. It was a lot like how people used to walk into the Wayside for the first time.

This was that Reverend’s fault. The one from that weird church she had breakfast with. Old enough to know better than to talk to giant strangers in bright-yellow suits, she thought, especially when their advice was “Go talk to Big-Dicked Sheila.” Flower had known Sheila for years, and thought she was a flibbertigibbet; her opinion was not changed when Sheila insisted that she go talk to Madame Cazee.

“She knows the Jack of Instance,” Sheila said.

Flower spun around in the chair so fast that Sheila’s scissors nearly severed her ear.

“This psychic person knows the Jack of Instance?”

“Of course. He’s a tarot card.”

“Of course, he’s a tarot card,” Flower muttered and let Sheila spin her back towards the mirror.

Sheila snipped in silence for a few minutes, and then said,

“Got any other leads, Chief?”

She was tiny, Flower thought. I could punt her. Just pick her up and punt her right out of the salon and into the Main Drag. Bet I could get a tight spiral going on her, she thought.

But Sheila was right. The LAPD (No, Not That One) had no clues at all; Hank Paraffin, the chief, had been appearing on KSOS to ask the community for help. He gave out a special phone number that locals could call and give tips anonymously, but it was one digit away from Cagliostro’s and so they got more orders for pizza than they did help. They also got more prank calls and dirty-talking than help. And wrong numbers. The whole idea was a bust, and it was only the minorest of fuck-ups. There were divinations, agenda-laden accusations, false confessions, several apartments busted into by the SWAT team for little-to-no reason

And then there was someone–there’s always fucking someone–who was leaving flyers up all over the neighborhood claiming that the Jack of Instance was a werewolf. Flower ripped them down off the telephone polls she passed. Blaming arson on werewolfs was just too odd even for Little Aleppo, and it pissed her off. Didn’t even make sense. How’s a werewolf gonna start a fire when they don’t have thumbs? A wolfman had thumbs, but not a werewolf. It’s like no one watched movies anymore. She tore two down and jammed them into her the big cargo pocket on the right thigh of her blue khakis while she was walking to Madame Cazee’s.

Arguing with herself the whole time.

“You are tense.”

“Using your psychic powers to figure that out?”

“No,” Madame Cazee. “I’m looking at your jaw. If you clench it any harder, your teeth will splinter.”

Flower Childs didn’t want to laugh, but she did a little, just a breathy snort from her nostrils, and she took her chin with her hand and shook it back and forth.

“Yeah, huh? You can see that from there?”

“You could see it from space.”

“Maybe I should get a less stressful job. How’s being a psychic?”

“Stress-wise? Somewhere in between a heart surgeon and a tennis pro. Depends on the day. Once in a while, there are demon incursions or everyone starts having the wrong dreams. Last week, I had a Freaky Friday deal: mom and daughter switched brains. Took forever to sort that one out, but the nice thing was that they learned a lot about each other.”

Madame Cazee had an accent that was foreign, and that was about as specific as you could get. Her vowels were as flexible as a gymnast with all her bones removed, and the consonants fought with themselves on the way out of her mouth. Some words were sing-song and others were clipped and she might pronounce the letter R nine different ways in the space of one sentence. Eyes the same summer-green as the giant eyeball painted on the window of her storefront, and long hair the same silver as a freshly-cut key, and she was wearing more rings than she had fingers.

“So. The Jack of Instance,” Flower said.

“Real bastard.”

“Looks that way.”

“They’re everywhere!”

“Looks that way,” Capolina Gardner said. She and her husband Harry were sitting at their kitchen table in their small rented cottage on Bailey Street. Dishes dried in a rack by the sink, and a baby-blue hand towel was draped through the fridge’s handle. A flyer was in front of them. It was neon orange and if you stared at it too long, your corneas would melt.

WEREWOLF!

What Are The Police Not Saying?

Every Fire Has Taken Place During
The Full Moon!

Coincidence?

OR WEREWOLF?

“This is not good,” Harry said.

Capolina rubbed his forearm and said,

“It’s not even true!”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“The fire at the Dean’s house was during the full moon, but not the others. I checked.”

“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.”

Her hand slipped down to his and she laced her fingers into his. He looked just the same as he did when they met in Professor Scott’s Public Speaking class. All freshman at Harper College had to take it; it had been a requirement since the college’s founding. The first Dean of the school, Carter Spants, insisted. A truth poorly stated is speculation at best, Dean Spants used to say. Harry’s cheeks flashed crimson that first day. Everyone had to get up in front of the room and read an article from that day’s Cenotaph. Professor Scott called it “Sink or Speak.” No one much liked Professor Scott.  Capolina thought Harry was cute, except for the goatee. He shaved it before their second date, which impressed her because she hadn’t outright told him to, just nibbled around the edges of the topic. A man who could take a hint, Capolina thought, might be one to keep around.

Harry was clean-shaven now. She had noticed he had become scrupulous about keeping his beard off since…well, since. That was how they referred to the night in the Verdance when Harry got bitten. Just “since” and then they’d trail off, accompanied by a vague hand waving in the direction of the park.

“It’s just some kook, baby.”

“Guiseppe Franco was just some kook, and he started World War One.”

“That wasn’t his name.”

“The guy that shot the Arch-Duke.”

“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Not his name.”

“Well, what was his name?”

The ice maker in the freezer loosed two cubes and they went CLUH-CLUNK onto the pile in the hopper.

“It was something. Can we get back to the flyers?”

“These are going to rile people up,” Harry said. “The whole neighborhood’s gonna go looking for werewolfs, and y’know what happens when people look for things.”

“What, baby?”

“They find things!”

Harry slapped a palm on the kitchen table and got up, walked over to the sink, looked out the window.

“That was very dramatic,” Capolina said.

“Don’t make fun of me.”

“Feel better?”

“No. Maybe. A little. I don’t know.”

Capolina stood up and came up behind him and threw her arms around his midsection and scratched at his belly. Harry was tall, so her face was planted in between his shoulder blades, and she rubbed her nose into his back.

“What if a Van Helsing shows up?”

“Van Helsings are for draculas, baby,” she said.

“The werewolf equivalent.”

She took him by the arms and spun him around, got up on her tip-toes–she was wearing blue socks–and kissed his naked chin.

“Baby.”

And kissed him again.

“Baby.”

Once more for luck, or for the road, or good measure. Whichever.

“You’ve never left the house as a werewolf. We keep the blinds closed. You don’t make any noise. I haven’t told anyone. Have you?”

“Are you kidding?”

“You tell your mother everything.”

“I didn’t tell my mother I was a werewolf.”

She kissed his chin again.

“Just checking. So: no one knows. These stupid flyers were made by a crazy person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

“But what if they’re not? What if someone knows? We don’t know who put them up.”

Capolina thought for a moment, and then nodded her head like she’d just had a clever idea.

“Get your shoes.”

She walked into the living room, then back in the kitchen to grab the flyer and jam it in the back pocket of her jeans, and then back to the living room.

“Come on, slowpoke. You got any cash?”

Harry followed her out of the kitchen, digging in his pockets.

“I have $39.”

“Great,” she said. There was a chair by the front door, and Capolina sat down and tied her sneakers.

“Where are we going?”

“To find out who paid for those flyers.”

“How?”

“Little Aleppo’s only got one copy shop.”

Harry thought for a moment, and then nodded his head like his wife had just had a clever idea.

“I love you,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah,” she answered, and stood up and kissed him. Man who could take a hint and  take direction? That was a keeper.

“Yung Man’s after?”

“If we have any money left.”

“How much do you bribe a copy shop employee?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“This is the Gnostic-Septollines-Teller tarot. It originated in Paris in the 1500’s and was updated at Los Alamos in between nuclear tests. Most people aren’t aware of the part that magick played in the creation of the atomic bomb.”

“I had absolutely no idea,” Flower Childs said.

“Why do you think they called the first test Trinity?”

WHAP Madame Cazee slammed the deck down; the bangles and beads of the maroon tablecloth bobbled.

“The Gnostic-Septollines-Teller deck has 77 cards. 77. Very magickal, 77.”

“How so?”

“Seems like it should be a prime number, but it isn’t. 77, 51, 119. Lot of power in that.”

Flower did not have enough background in the occult to evaluate any of Madame Cazee’s statements. She had mostly taken engineering classes at Harper College, and never read comic books or pulpy science fiction novels as a child. She wasn’t even an atheist; she didn’t disbelieve in God and the Devil and the Afterlife and the rest of the Capitalized Nonsense so much as she didn’t give a shit about any of it. It was irrelevant. Tough enough figuring out people, now I gotta deal with haints and boojums? Fuck that, she thought. Not interested.

The room was not bright; it never got bright, Madame Cazee’s oval-shaped storefront sanctum sanctorum ate up light and shat out portentous dim. A doctor’s office needs to be well-lit, but a psychic’s office needs to not be. It was a smudgy kind of dim like a burned-down library. She cut the deck once, twice, three times. The backs of the cards were black with sun and moon, yellow, opposing each other lengthwise. Picked them up. Riffle shuffle, then the Hindu, and the Zarrow. Madame Cazee had large hands and she laid one down on the table. Raised it, palm up. Nothing up a naked lady’s sleeve. Back on the table. When she raised it again, there was a card underneath with a black back that had a yellow sun and moon on it.

It was a good trick, Flower thought

Sylvester (the cat) leapt onto the table, which turned the card over. Then he leapt off.

That was a really good trick, Flower thought. So did Madame Cazee, but she tried not to show it on her face.

“The Jack of Instance.”

“There he is, huh?”

The card showed a barefoot man on a horse, both emaciated and wild-eyed. The man and the horse were on fire.

“Have you heard of Interpretationalism?”

“What?”

“Interpretationalism. Next big intellectual movement. Post-modernism was the death of the author, but Interpretationalism is the death of the text, too. Nothing matters but your opinion.”

“I got no idea what you’re talking about,” Flower said.

“Thousands of years the Jack of Instance has been around, and not one soul has ever gotten a good vibe from the motherfucker. He’s not chaos. He’s not war. He’s not destruction. The Jack of Instance is the danger that comes from being around other people. He’s a brick thrown from the overpass onto the highway. A shove in front of the train. He’s the stalker, the drunk driver, the junkie in the next apartment that fell asleep with a cigarette burning. He’s the burglar, he’s the rapist, he’s the coldcocker, he’s the one who forgot to mention that disease he’s got before he fucked you raw. He’s every time you got lied to. And every time you lied.”

Flower Childs stared into Madame Cazee’s summer-green eyes for a long moment, then said,

“That doesn’t help me in the fucking slightest.”

“Did you think I was gonna draw you a sketch?”

Flower had actually been kinda hoping for a sketch.

“I was kinda hoping.”

“That’s not what this is about.”

“Get up.”

“What’s this about?”

Cannot Swim had been dreaming, and it was a teenage dream, and he had a boner and now his father was touching him. It was pitch-black in the kotcha and cold and his father was touching him while he was boned up. This was not a great way to begin adulthood. His father, Shoots With Wrong Hand, let go of his shoulder and threw back the bearskin blanket exposing him, naked except for his breechcloth and he scrambled to hide his erection.

“Hey, look. The son rose.”

“C’mon, Dad.”

“It’s a pun.”

“I see what you did.”

Shoots With Wrong Hand stopped smiling and stood up and held the leather door of the kotcha open. The moon was almost full and there were no clouds, and Cannot Swim could see his sister hiding under her blanket, just her eyes peering out. His father stepped out, taking the door with him and tying it open so there was light for Cannot Swim to dress by.

The Pulaski slept on short wooden platforms that raised them off the dirt floors of their kotchas. The elders had thin mattresses stuffed with grass and leaves, the problem with which being that grass and leaves rot, meaning you need to constantly restuff the sucker. The elders did not have a problem with that problem, as they made the children of the village do the work. Most of the children and adults laid thick sheets of tanned hide down on the wooden platforms and that was that. Their pillows were the tunics they wore during the day.

Cannot Swim unrolled his tunic. It went over his head like a sundress and had a wide collar and deep vents for his sleeveless arms. The skirt was slit up both sides all the way to his waist; it might be more correct to call it a double-apron configuration than a skirt. On either side of his waist were laces that tightened up for wear and loosened for removal or after feasts. The stag that had died to provide the leather was embroidered on the front, the deer’s molars serving as its avatar’s eyes. Cannot Swim had shot the stag himself, first hunting party he’d ever been allowed out on.

They were to the south of the village, following the coast and avoiding the hills to the east. There was a wood there, a gently lumpy hill country that shared the valley that would be called Little Aleppo’s temperate climate and dearth of catastrophic weather. Black bear and grizzly, mule deer, coyote and cougar. And antelope and elk. The elders told stories that they heard from their elders about giant hairy beasts with arms for noses and trees for teeth, but no one had seen anything like that in years.

There were twelve–eight adults and four children–in the hunting party, far too many, and Cannot Swim was beginning to think his father had brought him out on a fuck-off trip. Everyone was chewing too many peregrine leaves and talking too loudly. And it was all men, which he thought was odd. Pulaski women fished; Pulaski men farmed; but hunting was a pure meritocracy. Bullets were a finite commodity, so the best shots got the rifles. (The weapons were owned by the tribe, but each belonged to the individual that could do the best with it. When you translate the concept of “rightful possession” between Pulaski and English, you run into quite a bit of connotative loss.)

Cannot Swim had noticed there were only four rifles among the twelve of them.

Most children in the village’s first hunting trip was one of these excursions, which were known (in Pulaski) as Everyone needs a night off once in a while, y’know? The men would pretend to hunt so they could complain about their wives, and the women would pretend to not know the men were pretending so they could complain about their husbands. The men would always make a ceremonial kill while they were out there to keep up the charade. Usually, they would try to nab something little so it wouldn’t be a pain in the ass carrying it home. Not too little, though. Once, a group led by Wide As Two Men brought a raccoon back with them and everyone made fun of them for years.

And they would bring the kids along for their introduction to the Pulaski hunting party. There were rules. There was a leader to a hunting party. Not like the village, where consensus was prized and everyone had an equal voice. When you left the village–when you left the village bearing arms–you left behind discussion and did what you were told. One leader. “Tyrant” wasn’t always an insult. Used to just mean “absolute monarch.” Could be a good tyrant, could be a bad tyrant. The leader of a Pulaski hunting party was a tyrant. The tyrant for this trip was Webbed Toes, who had been arguing with his wife Fast Hair again and just wanted to sleep under a tree for a night or two and pretend he was a bobcat.

Still, he was the tyrant and the children needed to be taught the rules of the hunting party, so he lined the four of them up in a clearing. They were all about eleven, so the two girls were taller than the two boys. Same tunics, hair, soft-soled shoes. The adult men formed a semi-circle around them.

“Hey, kids.”

“Hey, Webbed Toes,” they answered.

“Guys, if you don’t do what I tell you, either you’ll get shot in the face or everyone in the village will starve to death. Capiche?”

The children all nodded in an exaggerated fashion, and so did the men in a semi-circle around them.

“I mean, I know you guys. You’re bright kids. I don’t need to give you the whole spiel.”

Cannot Swim was feeling a bit underwhelmed by his first hunting party.

“Anyway,” Webbed Toes continued, “do what I tell you always and without question. Gotta listen to the tyrant or people get hurt and their families starve, okay? I tell you to do something? You do it.”

More nodding.

It was early morning in the wood to the south of the village and the sun crackled through the leaves and branches and alit on the clearing with the dozen Pulaski. Over the rise was a brook that fed into the sea beyond the hills, and the forest smelled full and meaty.

Cannot Swim asked,

“So, uh, what should we do?”

Webbed Toes admired the distance.

“Don’t get lost. And if you do get lost? Don’t go uphill. Never go uphill. Okay, kids. This was a big moment for you.”

The seven men in the semi-circle nodded and broke formation. Webbed Toes examined trees. The four children, two boys and two girls, stood there in a line in a clearing.

Cannot Swim said,

“What the fuck just happened?

The other children did not answer him, as they had no idea what the fuck had just happened.

The men laughed and yelled and tackled one another. The Pulaski had a camp out here to the south. Three kotchas, bigger than back in the village, around a firepit. Just a few hours walk from home. Follow the rill to the golden sequoia, turn left for two hillocks, over the creek and you’re just about there. The party left the camp early the next morning, and they found Webbed Toes beneath a lovely elm; when they woke him, he began hissing and clawing, but soon settled down and now the dozen Pulaski were ambling about the land with no real plan for their day.

Cannot Swim and his father had wandered away from the rest and were on the cusp of a wide, grassy plain. They saw the stag at the same time and became still. He was a ten-pointer with antlers as wide as the ocean but far more pointy. 300 yards. More. Too far.

“I can get him.”

“He’s too far away. We could creep around to the west by the treeline,” Shoots With Wrong Hand said.

“I can get him.”

The Pulaski started the children in on shooting early, mainly to see who was good at it and winnow out the useless. If you were a klutz, then you weren’t ever touching a rifle again after the age of eight. Finite commodity, and so was ammo. Cannot Swim was always the best marksman, even better than the older children. His father knew he was a good shot, but he also knew he couldn’t make this one.

“You can’t.”

“Gimme one shot.”

Little failure is good for a boy, Shoots With Wrong Hand thought, and shouldered his Springfield Model 1842 and handed it to his son.

Cannot Swim did not take his eyes off the stag. There was a felled log to his right, and he crept towards it, lowered himself, rested his left side against the dead tree. He could feel it pulsating beneath him with beetles and termites and grubs and worms, and he sighted down the barrel. The Springfield fired Minié balls accelerated by a percussion cap. He kept his finger off of the trigger. A Minié ball traveling 300 yards will do so not in a straight line, but in a ballistic arc; the precise equation of which must be calculated by the shooter, and so Cannot Swim raised the front sight two inches then to the left a squinch to account for the wind and BAK-CHOOM a tremendous noise and the stag was down 300 yards away with a Minié ball torn straight through both his lungs.

His father shielded his eyes from the sun and looked across the field and finally he said,

“Goddamn, kid.”

When they got back to the village, there was a feast and Shoots With Wrong Hand told the story of Cannot Swim’s shot at least ten times. The distance became greater with each retelling. Weeks later, Shoots With Wrong Hand would give his son the tunic made from the stag. It was too big for him at the time, but fit him now. He cinched the leather on the sides of his waist and stepped into his soft-soled shoes. His hair was still in its ponytail, and he had wide brown gauntlets on his forearms. There was a leather satchel on the floor resting against the foot of his sleeping platform, and he threw it over his shoulder and walked outside. The moon hung in the sky like a wonton.

The wonton floated in the soup like the moon. Harry Gardner had been seeing the moon everywhere the past few months, which was understandable. In chocolate chip cookies and manhole covers and frisbees whistling by his nose, and pizza pies and nipples.

“It’s the guy.”

“It looked like him.”

“Short, round, sweaty, newsboy cap?”

“Yup.”

It turns out it costs $20 to bribe a copy shop employee, who described the man who bought all the werewolf flyers and gave Harry and Capolina the work order. The name on it was Juan Dice, which was surely fake, but the number rang when they called it from a pay phone in between the copy shop and Yung Man’s. Harry squatted down so they could both listen to the earpiece. The other end picked up.

“Kinderfleisch butcher shop.”

They had not thought the plan this far through, so Harry said,

“Ummm.”

Capolina chimed in,

“What time are you open until?”

“7 pm.”

“Oh, great. Can’t wait to taste your meat.”

Harry gave her a confused look and she slammed the receiver back in the cradle. They walked over to Harcourt Place–that was where the Yellow Pages attached to the pay phone with a metal chain said the butcher’s shop was–and Harry waited at the end of the street, peering around the corner of the building, while Capolina walked by the front of the shop and tried her best to look in the window without showing her face.

The waiter set down their moo shu pork. Harry made Capolina’s for her; she liked when he did that.

“Why would a butcher be looking for a werewolf?”

“For meat.”

Capolina was about to bite into her moo shu, but put it down on her plate and leaned forward so she could whisper.

“No one eats werewolf.”

“You don’t know that. It’s the only logical explanation.”

“Logic? We left logic’s warm embrace months ago.”

“What else could it be, Cap?”

“I don’t know, baby, But it’s just a bit tough to believe, isn’t it?”

Humans are capable of thousands, tens of thousands, of facial expressions; one of the rarest is “You’ve seen me transform into a giant hellbeast, but this you find tough to believe?” She laughed, just a little tiny bit.

“I’ll accept it as a working hypothesis.”

“Kind of you.”

“I’m a great wife, man.”

He half-stood up and kissed her over the moo shu.

“Y’kinda are.”

“I know. But what do we do?”

Harry sipped his sweaty, over-iced Coke and said,

“We finish dinner.”

“I’m with you.”

“Go home. Maybe we stop for ice cream.”

“We don’t have any money left.”

“No ice cream. Just go home.”

“Okay.”

“I think we should fuck.”

“Agreed.”

They shook on it.

“And then, we sleep on it.”

“I love this plan.”

Capolina held up her tea-cup and he clinked his Coke glass against it and she said,

“Baby?”

“Yeah?”

“He’s not gonna hurt you. I’ll kill him before he hurts you.”

“I love you, Cap.”

“I love you, baby.”

“You get pregnant tonight,” Madame Cazee said.

“Completely fucking impossible,” Flower Childs answered.

The Jack of Instance was still face-up on the table, horse and rider engulfed in flame and both smiling too goddamned wide. There was a black border around the figures, but it was too thin to hold them and Flower could envision them bursting out, leaping off of the card and growing, life-size at first but only for a second, swelling up larger than that, larger, larger, til the horse’s hooves crushed the Segovian Hills with a step and the rider’s eyes were the size of oceans and everything was on fire around her.

“Someone’s putting a baby in someone. That’s a fact.”

“That’s a fact?”

“I’m a psychic. I tell fortunes.”

“Not well. I won’t get into the details, but suffice it to say that I am not getting pregnant tonight. Not my fortune.”

“I know. It’s somebody else’s fortune,” Madame Cazee said.

“You tell people other people’s fortunes?”

“What can I say? The psychic plane’s a mysterious fucking place.”

The chief stood up and made towards the beaded curtains that were the door between the inner sanctum and the waiting room with the big windows onto Sylvester Street. Stopped. Turned back.

“Don’t supposed you gave anyone my fortune lately?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know that. I did tell a regular client that they’d do a wonderful job with the zoo fire.”

Flower Childs didn’t believe in any of this psychic crap, so she waited until she was almost three steps onto the sidewalk on Sylvester Street before she started giving commands on her walkie-talkie; assemble the men in the station and ready for a plan. No more reacting, it was time to take the offensive in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Keeping Updated In Little Aleppo

Harboring Secrets In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppo had a natural harbor. The northernmost Segovian Hill sank into the ocean and curled around the shore of the neighborhood, forming a small, calm bay the shape of an inverted horseshoe and there was no sloping beach, just a drop off that allowed boats with a deep draw to enter and dock at the Salt Wharf. Metal piers as wide as a football field is long and stretching into the harbor dotted with wooden shops and offices and outhouses. Cranes and gangplanks and ropes thicker than you’d imagine possible, and the stevedores in their stevedore caps. Passenger ships used to berth here by way of New York via the Cape, or from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Yokohama. The immigrants were herded into the Customs House, where doctors would look at their balls while they coughed, and papers were issued, and then it was out the other side and welcome to America.

Now it was all cargo from China. Every pair of gas station sunglasses on the West Coast arrives via the Salt Wharf. Wigs and bike wheels and pillows made specifically for the tiny-headed. Drugs and guns and slaves, too. The foremen point and yell and make obscure notes on clipboards. Occasionally, fruit is left out to rot to prove a point, and there is no theft that has not been sanctioned. The forklifts take the containers next door to the Warehouse District; locals stay out of the Warehouse District.

The footprint of the district wasn’t large enough to hold all the warehouses. The mathematicians at Harper College had offered up an explanation: the real estate the Warehouse District sat upon was hypercubical. The neighborhood had responded: that sounds made up. The mathematicians said: well, don’t ask weird questions if you don’t want strange answers. Rats the size of political constituencies swaggered in between buildings like they weren’t scared of anything up to and including the Lord. Animals in the Warehouse District followed the same rules as people did: keep your eyes on your own work.

And work was all there was at the Salt Wharf and its environs; no one wanted to be there or stayed an instant longer than they were paid to.

This was not the case at Boone’s Docks: people snuck in and usually refused to leave.

Schooners and catamarans and funky houseboats with shag carpeting. The Dancronis in slip J1 had been preparing their twin masted ship, the Whistlewindto circumnavigate the seas for about eleven years now. Buddy Bowie used to be a cop; now he lived on the Stubble in B5 with a pet alligator named Dion. The Gabacho brothers owned the cigarette boats in C9 and 10, the Pussy and the Pussy II. Kenny Coral owned  a 42-footer named the Ben Franklin’s Porn Stash that bristled with fishing equipment: overlong rods whipping back and forth in the snappy breeze of the shore, rods the diameter of one of those hamburgers that’s free if you can finish it, and spotlights and blippy radar thingamadoodles and deedads and all variety of gimcrackery. And the chair. You know the chair. The one in the back that swivels on a solid steel pole that went through the deck and attached to the ship’s hull. With the padding and it reclined so you could reeeeeeeeeel in that catch–she’s a fighter!–and the metal stirrups that make the whole affair a bit gynecological. The seatbelt. The chair with the seatbelt. The one from the movie. You know the chair. No one had ever seen Kenny take the boat out, but he could tell you stories about sea monsters he’d battled all night if you were willing to let him.

The slips radiated from the piers branching off the main jetty; from above, it looked like a communal teevee antenna on an apartment building’s roof. To the south of the main jetty was the slipway and the parking lot and the Banyan Bar, which served much the same purpose that the Customs House did for the Salt Wharf but then didn’t tell the government about it afterwards. Big stuff, well, big stuff had to come in via the Salt Wharf, but little things? Things you could fit in a duffel bag or two? It was so much easier to bring it in to Boone’s Docks. Less paperwork. It was a “What Uncle Sam doesn’t know won’t hurt him, but I’ll hurt you if you tell him” sort of situation. When the cops came to the Banyan, it was for drinks and cash that came delivered under the napkins of their bread baskets. Precise figures were, obviously, unavailable, but economists from Harper College once presented a paper arguing that Boone’s Docks did as much in trade as the Salt Wharf. Shortly thereafter, the paper was retracted, the author fired, and the Economics Department moved into a brand-new building with the fanciest bathrooms you can imagine; it was paid for by an anonymous donor.

No heavy machinery. That was the rule. You had to be able to carry it off your boat yourself, and not four big guys straining, either. Duffel bag was the sweet spot, plus one would expect a duffel bag in a nautical setting. Pardo Hectoralis tried using a hockey bag, but everyone yelled at him, “Why would you have a hockey bag on a boat?” and he struggled to come up with an answer. “Maybe my son’s on the team?” and everyone said, “Why would his hockey gear be on your speedboat?” and Pardo said, “Ballast?” and the whole bar threw cocktail napkins and olives at him until he agreed to use a duffel bag like everyone else. Appearances were important, the regulars at the Banyan Bar figured. There were people who could not be bribed out there. Powerful people. No one at the bar had ever met one of these people, but everyone was sure they were out there.

In the marsh grass, the off-billed santicos spread their wings in the sun and go ooWAHahee ooWAHahee. There are no waves here, protected from the ocean and her wine-dark temper, just a gentle lapping against the littorals that causes the cattails to sway and makes a sound like shlip shlip against the wood of the piers.

To the south were the breakers at the entrance to the harbor, and then the sea which went on forever until it ended in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Yokohama, in harbors just like this, those rare accidents of geography that went humanity’s way, and if the Segovian Hills couldn’t stop commerce, than neither could the Pacific Ocean; cargo ships and pleasure cruisers and boats with no manifest crawling with topless chicks, they all came floating into Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Everybody Got To Go In Little Aleppo

“Whatchoo got to be scared of, Little Aleppo? Disease. Spiders. Yourself. Smart move to be a bit scared of yourself. You don’t know what you’re capable of. What else is there? Draculas and werewolfs and the zombified? You know they ain’t real. The boogerman in the closet and the shadow’s shrike under the bed. Those are just for the kiddies, right? You’re grown. A man said that there was nothing to fear but fear itself, but I bet that man was petrified of stairs, ha ha ha.

“Easy to trust your eyes when the sun’s up. It’s 8:19 in the morning here on KHAY–Hey!–and you’re not worried. Only thing to be scared about at 8:19 in the morning is the next eight hours, right? Scared of the boss man, scared of lunch meats, other folk’s sweat at the gym. That ain’t scared. That’s anxious. That sort of thing produces stress. Not fear. Stress and fear are different animals. Marathon runner versus a sprinter. One erodes, the other explodes.

“Nothing to fear but monsters, ain’t that right?

“Little Aleppo’s had some monsters.

“Seems like they came with the territory. Ever read Doc Wallop’s First Years in the Valley? Doc got here in 1853, set up shop at the end of the Main Drag, which wasn’t even called that yet. Turnaway Lode was bringing ’em in, man. Dozen men a day. Lot of gold in those hills, and gold creates need. The mine needed men to work it, and the men needed other men to take their money. Everyone a stranger to each other, and most a stranger to himself. The promised land, cats and kittens. No one ever said what the promise was, just that one was made, ha ha ha.

“Lots of need. Sometimes, there comes along a person got a real specific need.

“Clappy Strothers. A miner. He was the first one who disappeared. Last week of March in ’58. Didn’t have a lot of friends, so no one noticed for a few days. Left his bedroll in the tent camp, though. Someone stole it. People figured he went up into the hills when he was drunk. Bad idea going up in those hills alone back then. Fall into a gulch, slip down a gully. If you’re lucky. More than just the terrain up there back then, cats and kittens. No one worried too much about Clappy. Gold to mine. Shovels and whiskey to sell.

“And then a fellow everybody called Alabama, No one knew his real name, so when they dug his body out of that shallow grave in the wooded glen that made up the south of the neighborhood and reburied him in Foole’s Yard, the wooden marker at his head just had Alabama on it. A drunken preacher named Franklin Farthing went missing, but they did not find his corpse with the others, so he might have actually gotten eaten by a squatch or a puma. Leo West was a gambler. Bad one. Used to play faro in the Wayside Inn. ‘Faro’ is Old West for ‘sucker.’

“Except that Leo was a funny guy, according to Doc Wallop. Charming. Bit of a dandy, even when he was down on his luck. Not like you can sell costume jewelry.

“And then that Norwegian family’s son.

“Neighborhood got antsy after that one. Adults might scamper off in the middle of the night back to America, but kiddies stay where they are until someone moves ’em.

“Now you got fear. Rumors started up. Loudmouth named Henry Bales starts spouting off about a Chinaman he saw acting suspicious the night the Norwegian boy vanished. Add some whiskey.

“And that’s what happened to Little Aleppo’s first Chinatown, cats and kittens. The Doc’s book says around 40 died, but some eggheads from Harper College brought a GPR machine over to the Verdance. Ground Penetrating Radar. Like an ultrasound for Mother Earth, ha ha ha. Those eggheads put the number of bodies around 75.

“Week or so later, a little fellow called Johnny Bender walked into the Wayside for a drink. Miss Valentine–you know Miss Valentine–well, she served Johnny his drink and noticed he had one of Leo West’s fake rings on. Couple of her men asked Johnny some questions. They must have asked him too hard, cuz nobody saw Johnny after that night. Maybe he scampered off somewhere, ha ha ha.

“That was a conversation that stayed in the Wayside. Wasn’t gonna bring the Chinamen back, Miss Valentine figured.

“You been up Mt. Faith? Spent a little time with the Sebastianites? That monastery of theirs wasn’t always so holy. Used to be the Sanitarium du Lom.  We’d call it a health spa today. The word sanitarium’s like the word tyrant: they used to mean positive things.

“This was the 1890’s. Gilded Age, right? Robber Barons and whatnot, rich folks all over America with too much money, and you know that rich people never feel right. Always something paining them. But it was the 1890’s, so medicine hadn’t really been invented yet. I mean, they had a little bit, but you didn’t want it, ha ha ha.

“Quacks prospered.

“Parfait Lom said he came from Paris. It would later come out that he was from Minneapolis, but he fooled folks that had property there, so he must have done his homework. They never quite figured out whether he was a real doctor or not. Had all kinds of theories on nutrition. The phlegmatic should only eat green foods, the bilious should stick to red. He was real tall and imperious. Stuff that would sound dumb coming from a nervous schlub makes sense when someone real tall and imperious says it.

“Rich folks flocked to thew Sanitarium du Lom. Magazines used to write about him. Town Fathers gave him a commendation for putting Little Aleppo on the map.

“This is the part where I tell you that Parfait Lom was killing those rich folks, right? Nah. Doctor Lom was smarter than that, Rich folks get missed! Rich folks get looked for!

“But not sanitarium attendants.

“He used to put ads in the papers Back East. Change of scenery, and high wages. No one missed them. No one looked for them. Doctor Lom had theories about medicine beyond nutrition. Stuff that ain’t fit for the morning radio. The doctor tested his theories.

“Cops never found any corpses, not a one. Found a closet full of sulfuric acid, but no corpses.

“He’d been at it for seven years.

“You can kill a lot people as long as you kill the right people.

“Between 1930 and 1937, eleven women disappeared. All the same type, short and blonde and a little chubby. They looked like your old pal Frankie Nickels, ha ha ha. They’d find the bodies up in the hills. Most of the bodies, anyway. The Cenotaph called him the Blonde Butcher. Cops had a million leads, so did the peanut gallery at the Mourning Tavern. No one ever got arrested.

“Last girl went missing in March of ’37. Student at Harper College named Jeannie Goodman. She was studying economics. Her head turned up the next month halfway up Mt. Charity.

“And then no more. Fear turned into memory turned into ghost story.

“All sorts of competing stories about the Butcher’s identity. The reputable historians say it was a guy named Bill Gull who owned an art framing shop. Died in the summer of ’37. The weird ones say it was a time-shifted dinosaur, or Fatty Arbuckle on one last tear.

“Chicken Hirsch. You remember Chicken Hirsch, cats and kittens. How could you not? Practically a cottage industry at this point.

“Called himself the Sword of Satan in those notes he sent. Can you imagine that? A man named Chicken being the Sword of Satan?

“Well, we believed it. Shot that couple, the Bergens, in the Verdance on their second anniversary. Snuck into that house on Varbiner Street and sliced that family’s throats. Marsha Bowles, she was an old lady all the way on the Upside. Family came over on the Mayflower. I won’t tell you what he did to her. You don’t wanna know.

“And all the while, sending those notes. To the cops, to the paper. Sent one in code. They deciphered it after they cleared the bodies out of the library. He had walked in on a Tuesday morning and shot everyone inside. Two librarians, and five patrons. Turns out he was calling his shot: the note read ‘I’m going to shoot everyone in the library on Tuesday morning.’

“Chicken screwed up, though. Shot a woman named Nancy Briggs twice. Should have shot her three times. She gave the cops a good description. Cops went out and violated the hell out of the neighborhood’s civil rights. They found Chicken, though. He lived to see trial, ain’t that amazing? Lucky for him. He got to give all those interviews. Spread his wisdom over all those journalists. The one that wrote that book, the other one who made that movie.

“He’s still kicking. Still keeping up with his correspondence. A girlfriend of mine used to write him as a goof. She showed me the letters. For a serial killer, he’s got lovely penmanship.

“Go on out and be yourself, Little Aleppo. Take the day by the horns, seize the bull.

“Don’t you worry about monsters. You’ll never see ’em coming, anyways.

“Ha ha ha.

“You up for some music, cats and kittens? Yeah, me too. How about the one about the midnight rambler? The one you’ve never seen before?

“You’re listening to the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY-Hey!–and, honey, it’s no rock and roll show.”

A Sermon In Little Aleppo

The Reverend Arcade Jones rose before dawn on Sundays. He had always been nervous on game day. When he was the star linebacker for Loxachachi High School, he would sleep on the living room couch Thursday nights. He knew he’d be up too early and wake his brothers if he slept in the bedroom they shared, so he laid out his jeans and sneakers and jersey–the football team wore their jerseys to class on Friday game days–and two extra tee-shirts and was out the door before his father. The phrase “football season” brings to mind crisp apple air and driving gray rain and snow squalls, but not in Florida. It was just as steamy as baseball season, and Arcade would be sweated up by the time he made it to the school.  He would walk the field as the sun rose, look for spots where the turf was soft, remember them for the game so he could steer his blocker into them and rush by when they tripped.

There were no soft patches to the field at the Swamp. University of Florida Gators played in a stadium nicknamed The Swamp, and it was slightly larger than his high school stomping grounds. 90,000 fans. Arcade was the same amount of nervous, though. He had his own room now–being a starter for a big-time college football program had its benefits–but he still laid out his clothes the night before. Night before was Friday instead of Thursday, but otherwise it was all the same. The field was the same size. Pack in as many fans as you want; still a hundred yards from goal line to goal line.

And now the Reverend Arcade Jones laid out his suit on Saturday night and woke up too early. He swung his legs over Emergency, who was a dog, and sat on his bed staring out the window. The Reverend thought about the Christ, and he thought about breakfast. Breakfast was surely the Christ, if He were infinite. The Lord manifested in oval plates laden with eggs and toast; he would take communion in an hour, but first a shower. He shaved his entire head under the water, hottest as he could stand, and used his fingers to feel for spots he had missed. Shea butter spread all over before he dried fully. The lotion soaked in better if you were still damp. His mother taught him that. Check the nails. Q-Tips for the ears.

Emergency had roused and he was underfoot, but Arcade did not mind. Surely the Christ was rust-colored and had a waggedy tail. Emergency was the Reverend’s first adult dog. His family had always had dogs, but Emergency was the first dog he had cared for since he had left home. He had forgotten how much he loved the dumb little suckers. How much they rooted you to a place. How you could enjoy putting another’s needs in front of yours. Emergency gnawed on Arcade’s ankle as he shaved; he was fully-grown, but still acted like a puppy in the mornings.

Arcade Jones wore tighty-whities because his dick flopped around too much in boxer shorts, and he slid his sheer black socks up his hairless calves. The gold suit. (The white folks called it yellow, but Arcade knew it was gold.) White shirt, silk. Seafoam green tie with a matching pocket square. Gator shoes, black, size 17 EEEE. Mickey Mouse watch that a pop star had given him when he worked security for her.

The dog walked from his bowl to the door of Arcade’s small apartment, back and forth, back and forth.

“You hungry? You wanna take a shit?”

Emergency wiggled his whole butt, and Arcade smiled so wide that buses could drive through.

“Me, too. I already took a shit, but I’m hungry. You wanna get going? You wanna get going?”

The butt wriggled some more, and the Reverend clipped the leash to his harness and then down the stairs and out of the office and into the First Church of the Infinite Christ and out the front door onto Rose Street. Shit. Bag. Garage can. And then the two were on the Main Drag while the sun made its first advances on the neighborhood. Drunks staggered home past joggers; the Hetfields and McCoys of early Sunday mornings. The intellectually mobile walked down to the Broadside Newsstand in their pajamas clutching five dollar bills to buy the Sunday Cenotaph. It was the size of a starter home. World news, local news, sports, coupons, the op-ed page, coupons, the funnies, the important obituaries, coupons, the Magazine, the style section, arts and farts, coupons. Couples sat in bed half-naked and drinking coffee and hate-reading the paper to one another.

The Reverend Arcade Jones greeted everyone he passed, and so did Emergency. They smiled the whole way; Arcade was a people person, and Emergency was a people dog.

“May I recommend the red wolf?”

“Hmm. Tell me about it.”

“A lean meat,” Mr. Leopard said. “Very little fat. Flavorful without being aggressive, and it has the most fascinating finish. Tangy, but not coy. A mouthfeel halfway between turkey and veal.”

“My mouth is watering,” Mr. France said.

“There are fewer than 100 left in the world. We do a tartare with Maltese capers, or a bone-in shank over wild rice.”

“The shank sounds perfect.”

“It shall be. And you, Mr. Denmark?”

Mr, Leopard had found that if he forced his customers to use code names, he could charge them more. People would pay good money to feel like they’re getting away with something, and you could get away with anything besides being poor at the restaurant with no name. The carpet was dark and forgettable, and the tables were as solid as the dollar. Not dark, but dim. Clubby. Everything in the dining room was chosen to project one message: we are in here, and they are out there, and let us take advantage of that fact.

Mr. Denmark had piggy eyes and a thousand-dollar tie, and he only smiled when he was causing pain. He was smiling.

“I was thinking about ordering off the menu tonight.”

Mr. Leopard smiled. He had too many teeth.

“Of course. We have a scotch fillet that’s delightful. Tender as a daydream. Or, if you’re in a savage mood, we have short ribs that Chef has coated in a teriyaki glaze that would knock your socks off.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

Mr. Leopard was barefoot. He smiled. They always said the same thing.

“Indeed.”

“I’m feeling savage,” Mr. Denmark said.

“Aren’t we all? The ribs it is.”

Mr. France had the cleanest fingernails you’ve ever seen. He said,

“Mr. Leopard, I have heard from here and there that you’ll be having a very special special soon.”

Mr. Leopard smiled again, but this time you could not see his teeth. His posture remained solicitous and he put his hands together in front of him like he was praying. His fingers each had an extra knuckle.

“Oh, have you?”

“Secrets are so hard to keep.”

“I disagree. The trick is to not tell them to anyone.”

All three men laughed, and the servers and busboys in black did not rush and never ran around the dining room. Their shoes were rubber-soled and made no noise at all, and they did not speak to one another. Everything was choreographed at the restaurant with no name. A server pulled the chair out, pushed it in under you. Champagne poured. Amuse-bouche; a single light dumpling, slice of lardo, something to practice chewing on. Busboy removes the plate from over your left shoulder. Mr. Leopard takes your order. The severs set your plate before you from over your right shoulder. Then, nothing. No check-ins–“How’s everything going?”–but your glass will be refilled and dropped silverware replaced without a word. The busboys will count one, two, three, four when you place your silverware on the plate and wipe your mouth, then your plate is gone and Mr. Leopard is back with news of dessert, several of which are set on fire before being presented. Coffee. Cognac. No check. The restaurant with no name is prix fixe, and payment comes before the meal. Cash only, thousand a diner. There is an envelope in the car that is sent for you.

It’s all so dreadfully civilized.

“Last piece.”

“Berf.”

Dogs were not allowed in the Victory Diner, except for seeing-eye dogs and Emergency on Sunday mornings. He stayed under the table and got a bowl made up of the Reverend Arcade Jones’ breakfasts; he usually had three. Eggs and pancakes and usually a cheeseburger and fries. Arcade would put fingerfuls of each plate into a cereal bowl the waitress would bring. It was Sunday, he thought, it was Game Day; everybody gotta eat on Game Day. He ate relentlessly, but did not hurry. Emergency, who was a dog, scarfed back his bowl in under five seconds and then made small noises that even one unfamiliar with canines could translate as “Please give me more bacon.”

It was Saturday night in the Victory Diner until around ten a.m. Sunday morning. Teenagers in sunglasses coming down off their first acid trips were in the corner tackling their coffee cups, muttering and sputtering brilliant gibberish at each other. Insomniacs with poached eyes eating poached eggs. Call girls and rent boys in a booth stealing each others’ french fries. Chicks in fishnets nodding out; dudes in leather, too. Mixmistress Bosh had walked over from the loft party on Good Jones Street after her shift and tucked into oatmeal and egg whites. She ate right, Mixmistress Bosh.

“Three eggs, scrambled very hard. Double order of bacon, greasy. Just barely cook it. White toast, light. Coffee. Thank you.”

Flower Childs did not eat right, not lately at least. Didn’t sleep right, either. Lower Montana put a sleepy hand on her back as she got out of bed, and she dressed in her uniform even though she was off-duty and walked out of their house on Alfalfa Street west to the Main Drag and then to the Broadside for the Cenotaph and then back to the Victory Diner and the booth next to the Reverend Arcade Jones and Emergency. She had deep pockets under her eyes, which were under her reading glasses. She whipped through the broadsheet’s pages looking for her name, and when she did not find it in the news or on the editorial page, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes until the waitress startled her with coffee.

It was almost liberating, she thought, to have everything going wrong. Saved the categorization: all was fucked, all was fucked as far as the eye could fuck, and she felt the same sick relief as a condemned man out of appeals. Neighborhood was burning and, short an actual culprit, everyone was blaming her. Should’ve handed over those notes, Little Aleppo’s eyes read when they looked at her. All of a sudden, the cops were superheroes like in the movies or tech wizards like on teevee. What could those idiots have done? Flower had been dealing with the LAPD (No, Not That One) for decades and knew that their general level of competence was somewhere between “drunken teenager” and “chair.” Did everyone think the cops had a computer genius in the basement who could examine the notes under a spectrograph and pinpoint the factory they was made in?

Never seen the like, she thought as she sipped her black coffee. Little Aleppians happy to see the cops. The cops! You lied to the cops, you ran from the cops, you goofed on the cops, you avoided the cops, you dreaded the cops, you watched for the cops, you cursed the cops. You accused people of being cops. You didn’t cheer them, but here we were. The patrol cars were green and yellow–officially, they were emerald and gold, but Little Aleppo knew green and yellow when it saw them–and Chief Paraffin had hung “FIRE WATCH” signs on the doors. The officers were doing no more than usual, listening to the radio while cruising around looking at asses, but the locals bought it and cheered for them.

And Lower. Lowita. Fuck, Jesus, fuck, Light of my life, fire of my loins, pain of my ass, Lowita. A bar. She’s gonna run a bar. Kiss my ass, Flower thought, Lower’s gonna run a bar. She’d never paid a bill in her life. I do that shit, Flower thought. For all intents and purposes, the woman was on an allowance. It was a joint checking account, but Flower had the checkbook and the bank card, and she gave Lower lunch money at the beginning of the week. Mortgage, bills, taxes, the check when they went out for dinner: I do that shit, Flower thought, and then she remembered all the times Lower, her Lowita, had done math in front of her and Flower closed her eyes again. Of course she wanted the Wayside to live again, but not if she had to fill out the place’s quarterly reports. Flower was already seeing the Wayside as the dog her children had talked her into getting, promising at the top of their lungs to take care of it.

Walls made of shit were closing in.

“Chief Childs.”

She opened her eyes and looked behind her. The Reverend Arcade Jones was twisted around in his seat, too. He had recognized her through the mirror. They were both the kind of people you could recognize from behind.

“Reverend Jones, right?”

“Arcade Jones. I was at the meeting the other night and thought you expressed yourself wonderfully.”

And she realized how long it had been since she’d gotten a compliment, and so she said nothing so her voice did not catch, and then she said,

“Thank you.”

“Would you like some company?”

No, of course she didn’t. Goddamned religious wackos and their bullshit. No time for that. Rude to even ask, she thought, and she said,

“Yeah, okay.”

Arcade turned back to his table and his breakfasts and did a quick calculation. Back over his shoulder.

“I’m working on like seven plates. It would be a lot easier if you came here.”

Flower Childs dropped her fork onto the plate and grabbed it along with her coffee. Set them down in the remaining bare patch of the table opposite the Reverend. He put out his hand.

“Reverend Arcade Jones. Very glad to meet you.”

“Flower Childs. Same here.”

From under the table came a paw on her thigh.

“This your dog?”

“Oh, do you not like dogs? I’m sorry. Are you allergic?”

“Shit, no. I love dogs.”

Arcade smiled, and Flower held up a piece of bacon. He nodded, and she slipped it under the table where it got snapped right up. She left her hand there for licking.

“That’s Emergency,” Arcade said.

“Hey, girl. Who’s a girl?”

“He’s a boy.”

“Who’s a boy? Who’s a boy?”

“You have one?”

“The station does. Ash-Nine.”

“Is he a good dog?”

“She. And yes. She’s got three brain cells and they’re not speaking to each other, but she’s a good dog.”

“Nothing better than a dog.”

“Why is he allowed in the diner?”

The Reverend’s mouth enveloped a forkful of pancakes, and he raised his napkin to chew behind. When he swallowed, he said,

“He usually isn’t. Only real early Sunday mornings when no one will notice. We are the only sober people in here.”

She looked around. Across the dining room, spontaneously-formed doo-wop groups snapped their fingers at each other. Mescaline daddies played Jenga with waffles, and coffee ran like mascara. Behind the cutout, Louie Bucca was doing 120 behind the gill, speeding and sizzling and on for the next 24 hours; the waitress’ eyes were glassy and thrilled. At a table, a 19-year-old named Mallory cracked open a hard-boiled egg and found the secret to life, the universe, and everything. Then she ate it.

“Seems like it,” Flower said.

“All paths to the Christ are equal, but some look very silly from an outside perspective.”

She smirked and raised her coffee mug; he clunked his plastic tumbler of Coke against it.

“The Jewish folks are with you, right?”

“Yes. They wandered for a bit, but made it to the promised land

“Typical.”

Arcade laughed so loudly that the whole diner pretended not to look.

“I used to play with a guy named Lonnie German. Strong safety. 6’2″ 150 pounds. Looked like a greyhound. Lonnie was into weird philosophy and conspiracies and dark nonsense. Would run his mouth about it for hours. Used to talk about how there’s no difference between a thousand years and a week. All of life was just cycles running at different speeds. I thought that man was crazy for years, but I don’t know if I do anymore.”

Flower stole a handful of fries and said,

“Where’s Lonny now?”

“Presumed dead.”

“Yeah.”

Arcade took a bite of his cheeseburger and dabbed at the sheen of sweat on his head with a paper napkin, one of about a dozen he was deploying: they were bibbed in his collar and spread in overlapping lines along his crotch and legs like shingles on a roof.

“So,” he said. “What’s up?”

And she told him. Lower could get two or three sentences out of her sometimes, but she gushed forth to the Reverend. He was a good listener. The notes, and the Jack of Instance, and Lower–her Lowita, Flower loved her, the pain in the ass–and the cops and the public opinion and the damned newspaper and everything, just everything, and when she was done she did not have tears in her eyes, but only out of practice.

Arcade sipped his Coke and slipped one last piece of bacon to the dog.

“Berf.”

“Shush.”

Flower spat out a laugh and stole another handful of fries.Here it comes, she thought. The Jesus rap. He was gonna invite her to church or tell her that he’d pray for her, whatever the fuck good that would do. Why was she even sitting here? Who the fuck was this guy? Flower Childs felt shaky in her situation.

“You ever hear the story of the guy who asked God for a sandwich?”

“No. What happened to him?”

“He starved to death.”

The sun rose higher in the sky outside the frosted windows, and the lights inside the Victory Diner became superfluous; day had taken hold and would not let go, not for hours, and there was nothing to do but face what’s coming to you in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Veteran’s Day In Little Aleppo

An ex-roadie and a ghost cop were in a cemetery. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The day had barely taken hold and it was still foggy, but a very thin fog, the kind that does not obscure but makes the world blurry like an aging movie star filmed through a vaseline-coated lens. They had met at the Victory Diner before dawn. Ghosts don’t need to eat, but a short stack of pancakes is delicious even to the dead; ex-roadies do need to eat, but not pancakes. They sat in his stomach too heavy. Both had coffee, black. Tipped too much and walked out to the curb. 1961 Lincoln Continental in triple black: the paint, the leather, and the ragtop, which was down.

South on the Main Drag. Mile or two. Left turn onto Chambers Street. This is the Downside, and it is waking up. Sidewalks are shiny and slick. Men and women with their first names written in script on the breast pockets of their shirts walk to work. There are no joggers or children. Paperboys lean forward over their handlebars and toss the Cenotaph onto stoops and steps. Head east, head towards the Segovian Hills. The sun is behind the range, peaking through the steep canyon that separates Pulaski Peak from Mt. Charity. Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Faith, Mt. Fortitude, Mt. Chastity, Pulaski Peak, Mt. Charity, Mt. Booth. The seven hills, left to right if you’re standing on the Main Drag. Foothills now, and the land is lumpy and bumpy and undulating like it is gathering the courage to become a mountain. Turn south again onto Carrier Place. Park the Continental and get out. Only the driver’s side door opens and closes.

“Told you to stop floating out of the damn car,” Precarious Lee says.

“It’s easier.”

“Shitting in your pants is easier than finding the john, but that’s not the point.”

“Worry about yourself,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez says.

And they were in the cemetery.

Foole’s Yard was where Little Aleppo buried the decent. After the Wayside Fire in 1871, Miss Valentine was interred there under a white marble tombstone that had chubby little angels chiseled into it. Had her birthday on it, and the day she died, and a simple epitaph reading “Pillar of the Community.” The whores she owned were dumped into a mass grave in the southwest corner of the Verdance. The Pulaski were there, too, and so were the residents of the first Chinatown. Foole’s Yard had the Town Fathers, even the disgraced ones, and judges and businessmen and businessmen’s wives. Boat owners and sportswriters. Three generations of the McGlory clan. Dillon Kenny, Little Aleppo’s first Fire Chief, was in the far corner surrounded by his men, Dillon’s Dousers. Near the entrance was a fresh grave; the sod had not yet been laid in over it; bare dirt in a rectangle. The stone had Manfred Pierce’s name on it, and the epitaph was simple. “Hello, beautiful.” Below that it read “Seaman First Class – US Navy.”

Precarious had a grocery bag full of American flags, the size of 3 x 5 cards and made of thick, cheap cloth and affixed to a thin wooden dowel. He stuck one at the head of the grave. He had not been raised Catholic, so he did not cross himself, but he lowered his head and closed his eyes and then opened them and read the stone again and smirked. Manfred told the same jokes for 30 years, and one of them involved the phrase “first class seaman.”

“You know him?”

“Sure,” Precarious said. “Went by the Wayside every so often.”

Romeo cocked an eye and said,

“It was a gay bar.”

“I didn’t suck anybody’s cock while I was in there. I just had a beer.”

“Not my type of place.”

“Grow the fuck up.”

Precarious had his boots on. Thick leather, square-toed, mid-calf. Black. He had shined them the night prior the way he had been taught in the Army. The process involves spit, and a lighter, and more grease than an old man’s elbow should produce in one sitting; the joint throbbed now. Precarious had been wearing sneakers more and more lately, cushiony soles and supportive inseams. His knees chose his footwear in the mornings. No sneakers today, though. To the living, one owes respect, but to the dead, one owes a real pair of shoes.

He could see the boundaries of the graveyard. A fence, metal, spiked. Easily climbable by acid-soaked teens and raccoons scooted through the bars at will. The barrier between the living and the dead had holes in it, and it was simple to slide between the two.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez had a shopping bag the same as Precarious, and he read the gravestones. Beloved mothers, and cherished husbands. Babies. The Mackinack family, they all had the same date of death on their stones. There was a story there. He looked for the chiseled service records, stuck a flag in the soft ground. Romeo had been raised Catholic, so he crossed himself. He had not taken Communion since he’d been murdered, and he felt guilty about it; he had been raised Catholic.

Where are you fuckers? I came back, he thought. Where are all of you?

Flag for the sergeant, the petty officer, flag for the WACs and WAVEs. Flag for the Marines, hoorah the Corps, and Romeo planted them for the other, lesser services. The fog had lifted, but he was still slightly blurry. He had not shined his boots because they would not take a shine. Tactical footwear. Mesh and formulated fabric and laces and gel in the soles. Not a drop of leather.

“Precarious?”

“Yo.”

“What’s a Hello Girl?”

“Oh, yeah. Louise Breton.”

“Yeah.”

Precarious had walked over to Romeo and now they stood at Louise Breton’s grave. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. 1897-1989. Hello Girl.

“World War I. We got in it in 1917, right?”

“Right.”

Romeo said “right” because he was good at reading vocal inflections, not because of his grasp of history. He knew that World War I came before World War II, but that was about it.

“Pershing. Blackjack Pershing. He said that wars were won by the side that communicated the best. At the time, France had their own way of running a telephone system. French got their own way of doing fucking everything. So he hires a bunch of girls to be switchboard operators. Connects the trenches to command.”

“Never heard about them.”

“Yeah. They were called the Hello Girls. Wore uniforms, got medals, and when the war ended, they got stiffed out of their benefits.”

“Welcome to the military.”

“Yup.”

Precarious took the north side of the graveyard and Romeo took the south; they’d meet in the middle, squabble, separate. Crosses, stars, crescents. Caduceus for a doctor named Proctor, Thalia and Melpomene for an actor named Shachter. Teachers and preachers and middlemen.

“Precarious?”

“Yo.”

“C’mere.”

He did. Romeo was standing in front of a tombstone that read “Otto Dasch – Nazi Spy, Beloved Father and Husband.”

“What the fuck?”

“Otto. Yeah. Funny story: Otto was a Nazi spy.”

“I got that. What the fuck?”

“Well, this was before my time, but I heard the story.”

“Who’d you hear it from?”

“You know Holly, Wood, and Vine? The lawyers? Holly told me.”

“Lawrence Holly? You knew him?”

The law school at Harper College was named after Lawrence Holly, and so was a mud wrestling club far on the Downside.

“Sure I knew him.”

“Why?”

Cop habits die hard, even after the cop is dead.

“He was my lawyer,” Precarious said.

“Why’d you need a lawyer?”

“I claim attorney-client privilege. And stop asking so many questions. I thought you wanted a story.”

“Now I don’t know which story I want to hear.”

Precarious reached under his black vest to the breast pocket of his shirt and took out a soft pack of Camels. He had worn his vest because it was a formal occasion. He had a suit and tie for funerals, but that was for people who had died. These people, Precarious figured, had not died. These fuckers were dead. They got the vest. He popped a smoke out of the pack by twitching his wrist and pulled it from the pack with his lips. Replaced the pack in the pocket. Zippo from the change pocket that lay within the left hip pocket of his Levi’s.

FFT.

PHWOO.

And the lighter slid back into his jeans.

“This was ’42? ’43? Before D-Day. Germans are pulling all sorts of bullshit. I suppose we were, too, but fuck ’em. There’s submarines off Long Island and all kinds of saboteur nonsense. Undercover agents. Real fifth column type stuff.”

“Sure.”

Romeo had no idea what a fifth column was.

“And Otto here? He got sent to Little Aleppo.”

“Why the fuck would you send a spy here?”

“Well, you know, the Nazis were a lot dumber than we make ’em out to be. They did lose the war.”

“Yup.”

“And according to the story I heard, Otto might have gotten lost or confused, See, he was the worst Nazi spy in the world. You know how con-men don’t do too well in Little Aleppo?”

“They do seem to get caught quick.”

“Yeah. And being a spy is just like being a con-man. And Otto was just awful at it. Thick accent. Shit, he even had the little mustache. Plus, he’d get drunk and straight-up admit to being a Nazi spy. Brag about it.”

Romeo turned to face Precarious and said,

“Why didn’t anyone turn him in?”

“Well, think about it. If they got rid of the terrible spy, then the Nazis might send one that knew what he was doing. Then you got all sorts of insecurity. Every new person that comes into the neighborhood, you start wondering if they’re a spy. Better to have a spy you could keep your eye on.”

“That makes no sense.”

“In addition to being a bad spy, Otto was also a bad Nazi. He took to America hard. Grew up on Hollywood and now here he was in California. Decided he wasn’t going back his first week here.”

“But he was still a spy,” Romeo said.

“Yeah, but more of an unofficial double-agent. Him and his buddies down at the Buntz Bierhaus would come up with outlandish stories to send back to Berlin. They’d try to figure out what would cause the most confusion. Told ’em we were training chimpanzees to jump out of planes. Gonna shoot ’em full of tuberculosis and drop ’em into city centers with open wounds and rifles. That story got all the way up to Himmler. There’s memos and everything. It’s fucking history.”

Romeo smiled.

“That’s kinda funny.”

“Funny as fuck. By ’44, the Cenotaph was running polls about what the next bullshit he should sen back would be. Otto became a bit of a local celebrity.”

“This fucking neighborhood.”

“Hey, who else had a honest-to-goodness Nazi spy? He made everyone feel a part of the war. Until he showed up, it was mostly profiteering and draft dodging.”

“There was no draft dodging in World War II.”

“There was in Little Aleppo.”

Precarious took one last drag off his cigarette PHWOO; he raised his left foot up to his right knee and brushed out the cherry on his heel. Crumpled the remainder into a little ball and shoved it in his back pocket.

“And after the war?”

“Otto settled in. Opened a shoe store. Collected butterflies. Married a black chick.”

“Black chick?”

“I told you: he was a bad Nazi.”

Romeo didn’t put a flag down for Otto Dasch, but Precarious did. The sun was higher in the sky now and from around the cemetery came work sounds. Crunching transmissions and the beepbeepbeep of reversing trucks and garment racks rolling along the sidewalk. In the southeast corner of Foole’s Yard, a gravedigger did just that with a Bobcat, The mechanized shovel pulled dirt from the ground with ease; the earth had no hold of its soil and it slipped away with no argument or protest, just the thrum of the diesel engine in the back of the ‘cat.

There is always a need for a fresh grave.

Marine and Soldier and Sailor and Airman and one or two Coasties. You get a flag, and you get a flag, and you get a flag. The Barkwith brothers, who fought for the Confederacy got flags. Precarious smirked as he stuck Old Glory at their feet. Korea and Vietnam. Various Middle Eastern locales. Hiram Creech was a Rough Rider. Veracruz and Nicaragua and Manila. Hawaii and Honduras. Cuba and China and Cambodia. You name it.

“Precarious.”

“Yo.”

“What does this mean?”

Precarious walked over to Romeo and read the tombstone of a man named Guy LeFaun. 1918-1944. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

“It is sweet and proper to die for your country.”

The only noise in the cemetery was the Bobcat.

“I don’t know about that,” Romeo said.

“Yeah. Me, neither.”

They were out of flags and out of graves, so the ex-roadie and the ghost cop walked out of Foole’s Yard and back to the 1961 Lincoln Continental, triple black with suicide doors, and Precarious Lee glided the car away from the curb nice and smooth and none of the dead cared at all about Veteran’s Day in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Bank Shots In Little Aleppo

The First Bank of Little Aleppo was actually the fifth. The first one was a ledger and a safe behind the counter of Samperand’s Hardware. When the Wayside Fire took out half the neighborhood in ’71, including the hardware store, Old Man Samperand rebuilt on what was being called the Main Drag; it was the first brick building in Little Aleppo, and it stood as a beacon to commerce until 1902, when it got robbed.

“Calvin?”

“Yes, Toby?”

“Wasn’t the bank right there?”

“I guess someone robbed it.”

Old Man Samperand rebuilt once again, and bigger. Walnut and marble and carpets the precise color and thickness of Christmas pudding. Artists from Back East painted a mural along the walls of angels representing all the different loopholes in the Biblical proscription against usury. The pens were attached to the tables by sterling silver chain. Most importantly, the building was far heavier than the previous iteration. Let’s see ’em steal this one, Samperand said, and it must have been a good strategy, because when he died in 1922, the bank had not moved one inch. Old Man Samperand left the place to his 28-year-old son, Oldman.

Oldman Samperand was a prim little man who parted his hair in the middle and slicked it down with Dapper Dan pomade; he had elaborate and exacting opinions on life, business, and clothing. Reputation is paramount, he lectured his employees, some of whom had been working there long enough to remember when he was a prim little boy. A banker must appear trustworthy, Oldman preached, which is why he would not open accounts for, or lend to, minorities. You never know what people will think if they see you doing business with those sorts, he said. He had a good idea what people would say if they saw him doing business with rumrunners and bootleggers, so he did it at night. Prohibition was a swell time for the First Bank, but Oldman made more off the speculation fever that had taken hold of Little Aleppo. He did not invest in the stock market–he derided it a “peculiarly Jewish racket”–but he was glad to lend you the money to do so. Oldman specialized in small loans with high interest, paid weekly and in cash. When the crash came, he had socked away so much in reserve that could deal with the bank run. Everyone who wanted to withdraw their savings was given the whole sum in greenbacks. After a few dozen withdrawals, locals realized that the bank wasn’t going to run out of money and stopped trying to make the bank run out of money.

The Depression was even more profitable for the First Bank than Prohibition was. Most of the New Deal money didn’t come directly from the Feds: they just guaranteed the loans that local banks made, and holy shit did the First Bank make a lot of loans once they became fully insured; some were even to people that existed. Oldman bought up the Segovian Hills, piece by piece, as the Works Program sliced roadways through the chaparral. He was becoming a very rich man, but no amount of money could save the (third) First Bank of Little Aleppo from World War II.

The after-action report regarding the events of June 2nd, 1942, lists several failures but does not place fault as no one could find anyone to blame. While there is no doubt that installing a howitzer next to the anti-aircraft guns set up at the harbor to repel possible Japanese invasion was a mistake, it could not be determined who authorized the cannon’s placement. Nor was it ever ascertained where the howitzer came from, as all of the serial numbers and identifying markings had been filed off. Similarly, the name of the person who fired the weapon that night was never discovered, let alone the circumstances that came to see the barrel of the gun point towards the Main Drag instead of out to sea. The First Bank was hit three times and the walls caved in. Oldman Samperand rebuilt, and went to his grave four years later believing it was the Japanese who had destroyed his bank. His only child was named Sprout, and she took over.

Sprout Samperand changed the First Bank’s policies. She was a forward-thinker and a progressive, not like her father. Of course she would lend to minorities, as long as they were buying homes or opening businesses in the right part of the neighborhood. Certain people belonged in certain places. Sprout was 52 years old in 1968, and a brand-new grandmother, which was bothering her. She was a young woman. Not a grandmother–certain people are grandmothers, not her–and so she was looking for new friends, young friends, and she found them. People with money can always find new friends. Friends you find with money are rarely the friends you want. Sprout’s new set was much younger than her, and they fed her acid and sang about the Revolution.

No one ever talks about the Revolution, just songs and lectures.

The Cenotaph said that Sprout Samparand had been brainwashed, hypnotized, taken in: she was a pillar of the community until those damnable hippies got their hooks in her and whispered lies into her ear. Sprout was tricked! Yes, that was it: Sprout was hornswoggled by those kids. Maybe they took off their shirts and showed her their nipples. Or slipped drugs into her booze. There was a scenario in which the First Bank of Little Aleppo’s destruction by half-assed bomb was not Sprout’s fault, and the neighborhood’s establishment would find it if it killed them.

The bomb was meant for Town Hall. It was to set off the Revolution. Didn’t you hear the songs, the lectures?

With Sprout gone, the twins took over. Manticore and Tim. Manticore was pissed that she was named Manticore, and Tim was crazy as a Bolivian soccer riot; neither came out of their offices that much, leaving Seymour Golden to manage the day-to-day operations.

“Doesn’t Little Aleppo have enough bars?”

“That’s subjective. It does have one fewer than it did rather recently. So, I wouldn’t be adding a bar to the neighborhood, just replacing the lost one,” Lower Montana said.

Mr. Golden had a shiny bald head and a gray three-piece suit. Three piece-suits are contronymic garments: they are worn only by men admired for their seriousness or appreciated for their silliness. No one wears a three-piece suit by accident or default. It is an outfit of intention, a statement. Behind every three-piece suit is a chain of decisions. His shirt was light-blue with a spotless white spread collar, and his dark-blue tie had a full Windsor knot, which complemented his thin and horsey face.

“You’re in the bar business, Ms. Montana?”

“No, I’m an assistant professor at Harper College.”

“Business? Economics? Restaurant management?”

“History.”

“But you’ve owned businesses before?”

“When I was an undergrad, I sold pot. Does that count?”

Lower laughed, but she was the only one. Flower Childs stared straight ahead and blinked slowly. The two women were sitting in green leather chairs with backs that swooped around their shoulders. The padding had buttons dimpled into it, and the arms had metal rivets marching in between the leather and the wood. Mr. Golden did not smile even out of courtesy, and he adjusted his reading glasses and scanned the business proposal in his hand.

“Police department could have made some progress if you had turned over those notes sooner,” he said.

The expression on Flower’s face did not change. She had walked over from the station on Alfalfa Street and had her walkie-talkie clipped onto the hip of her blue khakis.

“Police department couldn’t find their own dicks with a metal detector,” she said.

Lower Montana smiled too wide and blinked slowly. Mr. Golden flicked a page back and drew a long line with his pencil. Then he read for a moment. Then, another long line.

“You own the rights to the name?”

“The name?”

“The Wayside Inn,” Mr. Golden said.”

“You don’t need the rights to that name. A billion bars are named that.”

“Whaddya mean, a panther?”

“A motherfucking panther, Pedro. The fucking cat in a fucking tree is a motherfucking panther, you asshole.”

Flower was on-duty, and so had to keep her walkie-talkie on, and now it crackled with two male voices, one of whom was far less frazzled than the other, probably because he wasn’t standing in a yard on Fournier Way brandishing an axe at a hissing panther ten feet above him in a tree.

The cops took people to jail, and the paramedics took people to St,. Agatha’s, and the firemen did everything else. All the uncategorizable calls, the weird shit, the fuckers who got themselves jammed into playground equipment. Or cars. People got jammed in cars sometimes. The LAFD got called when children or old folks wandered off. They had saved the universe once, but by accident and they were unaware of their achievement.

And they got cats out of trees, although most of the time the cats were not cats. Ten-year-olds, more often. A ten-year-old is at the right power/weight ratio to climb the fuck out of a tree, but a ten-year-old is also ten years old and so will look down from that tree’s upper branches and freeze in fear. Dogs, sometimes, usually boxers; they would tremble as the straps went around their chest and picked up and hoisted over a shoulder and humped back down the ladder. The firemen had noticed that they never had to rescue the same dog twice, but kids were repeat offenders.

But this was a fucking panther. Dwayne McGlory had seen panthers before, and that was a panther ten feet above him and hissing. He had his axe in one hand and his walkie-talkie in the other.

“It’s a motherfucking black panther, Pedro.”

Pedro’s voice crackled back,

“Can’t be.”

“I am gonna beat your ass when I get back there. I’m looking at a fucking panther.”

“There’s no panthers in Little Aleppo, McGlory. It’s just a big cat, you big baby.”

It wasn’t. It was a panther.

“It isn’t! It’s a fucking panther!”

The animal drew back its lips and snarled at Dwayne McGlory, who did not like cats of any size. Cats were for weirdos and loners and drunks and monks. They had no point, he would say loudly so everyone could hear him and wouldn’t realize that he had been afraid of cats ever since one had attacked him as a child.

“Well, where did it come from?”

“I dunno! Did you call the fucking zoo?”

There was silence on the walkie-talkie.

“Lemme get right back to you.”

“You fucking do that.”

And now there was silence in Mr. Golden’s office in the First Bank of Little Aleppo. He said,

“Do you need to take that call?”

Lower Montana had her head in her hand, and Flower Childs said,

“They can handle it.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, and then nothing, just stared at the papers in front of him. Outside, there were men depositing checks and women making withdrawals, and tellers behind a thick counter made of mahogany wood. A line had formed for the Coin-o-tron: you dumped your change into the metal funnel and it clinkclinkclanked down to the hopper and all the hidden gizmodic intestines within; when it finished counting, a receipt would shoot out of the slot and you could redeem it for cash. Or you could slide it back into the machine for a chance at the progressive jackpot, which flashed on a tote board above the Coin-o-tron in bright yellow letters. The carpet was thicker than peanut butter and the windows were so clean you could see through them. The First Bank of Little Aleppo was solid and everlasting and secure and would be there forever, even though it burned down and blown up four times previous.

“Now, Ms. Montana–”

“She’s a PhD.  Doctor Montana,” Flower said.

Mr. Golden smiled with just his lips.

“Dr. Montana.”

“You can call me Lower.”

“Dr. Montana, you have listed as your collateral a house on Alfalfa Street.”

“Yes.”

“But you do not own the house.”

“Technically, no. Flower–uh, Chief Childs–owns the house. It’s in her name. Technically.”

“Uh-huh. But the loan would be to you?”

“Yes.”

Mr. Golden removed his reading glasses, folded in the arms, placed them in his breast pocket. Set the business proposal down on the green blotter atop the desk. Interlaced his fingers in front of his chest and blew out air.

“Well,” he said, “that will be a problem. You see–”

The walkie-talkie snapped back to life.

“The zoo has lost a panther.”

“Those motherfuckers couldn’t keep shit in a toilet!”

“The keepers are on their way to your location with a tranq gun,” Pedro said.

“I swear the cages at that fucking place have revolving doors!”

“Chief,” Mr. Golden said. “Are you sure you don’t need to take care of this?”

“I have the utmost faith in my men, Mr. Golden,” she said.

He cleared his throat and looked Lower Montana in the eyes.

“Ma’am, the problem is that you–you–have no equity in the home you’re offering up for collateral. It is Chief Childs’ property. You two are…roommates?”

Lower Montana nodded her head and smiled; Flower Childs stared at the banker.

“So,” he continued,” I could–perhaps–authorize this loan to Chief Childs, but not to you. You see–”

“It’s our house,” Flower stated. “It’s both of ours.”

“Not legally,” Mr. Golden answered. “Not on paper. Legally, on paper, it belongs to you, Chief. If you’d like to put your name on the application, then we might start over, but with only Ms.–excuse me, Doctor–Montana’s name on the loan, it is not feasible.”

Lower Montana still had a gladhanding smile on her face; she still believed in the benevolence of faceless institutions even after coming face-to-face with so many of them. Flower Childs had no faith in faceless institutions, mostly because she worked for one, and she was not smiling at all at the horse-faced cocksucker across the pretentious desk from her, and his face became that of Lower’s father blacking her eye and tossing her out and Branny Dade with her fucking signs and everyone else that had ever hurt her friends. Flower was 6’1″ and 200 pounds by the time she was 13, and so people did not talk shit to her but for some reason felt free to talk shit to everyone she had ever loved.

People only talk as much shit as you let them.

“Seymour,” she said.

Lower muttered, “Shit,” under her breath; she recognized this tone of voice. It meant they were leaving.

“Take your loan. And your bank. And your ugly fucking suit. And shove ’em up your ass.”

Flower Childs stood up using just her thighs. Lower Montana pushed herself out of her chair with her arms.

“A panther?”

“Apparently,” Lower Montana said, and handed the joint back to Steppy Alouette. Steppy’s house on Pharaoh Lane was loaded with art, some you’d recognize: that skinny Dutch fellow who went crazy, and the Spanish one who fucked too much and saw through time, and a few Americans, too. Americans didn’t know what to do with color, Steppy thought. Too much or too little, always. Sculptures and objets and enough Tiffany lamps to light up the Albert Hall. Steppy and Lower were in the sitting room.

They were sitting.

“Is a panther bigger than a leopard?”

“I don’t know,” Lower said. “It’s less South American. I know that. Far less.”

Steppy’s left eye was shot–there’s only so much cataract surgery one eyeball can take–and so were her hips. Too much dancing at the Wayside Inn. Worth it, she thought. That one night–was it ’78 or ’83?–when the floor rose up to catch her feet and everyone she ever loved was there, and the music was far too goddamned loud; Manfred Pierce had leapt over the bar to do his moves. His move. Manfred only had one move, this swimming motion to the left and right, and every regular at the Wayside could do an imitation of it, but on this night–on that one night–he was caught up in the fresculated spotlight of the mirror ball, checkered against his cheek, and he was graceful and beautiful just like all of us, and that night–that one night, that one moment–it came back to Steppy two or three times a day and she tried to live in the memory but could not, Her hips were shot and so was her left eye, and she did not leave her house full of art on Pharaoh Lane much lately.

They were sitting on a Gropius couch. Off-white leather. Steppy waved the joint in front of her until Lower took it from her.

“She told Golden to fuck himself?”

“In so many words,” Lower said.

“Good. That prick’s good for paperwork and not much else. You should have come to me first.”

Steppy Alouette’s family made its money in furs 200 years ago, and then in sugar 150 years ago, and then in coffee and steel 100 years ago. The Alouette fortune was solid and everlasting and secure and would be there forever, and had never burned down or blown up.

“You’ve done enough,” Lower said.

“Bullshit. When I’m dead, I’ve done enough.”

Lower was right. Steppy had sponsored most of the runaways and castaways that came through the Wayside over the years. Deposits on apartments, tuitions, plane tickets home. Walking-around money. All the mongrels and mutts, they had an angel at the Wayside. Steppy got taken a few times by con-men. She didn’t care; she got a story out of it. Rather get conned a million times than turn away one scholar, one entrepreneur, one drunk. Steppy Alouette was a soft touch, and she reached out and took Lower Montana’s hand and said,

“How much?”

And Lower told her, and Steppy said that was fine. There used to be a Wayside Inn, and there would be a Wayside Inn again, a place that would take you in when no one else would, a place with a mirror ball and bathrooms full of mystery and a sprung dance floor that bobbed up and down in time with the music while outside, on Sylvester Street, the respectable folks went about their business in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Trick Or Treat In Little Aleppo

It was fall in Little Aleppo, and the evergreens had remained so. Transplants from Back East bored their friends and relatives with stories of leaf-piles two stories high. O, the smell of fall! they all droned on: bracing and brisk and honest, like your nostrils were taking a cold shower. Let me describe the sound of two-day dry leaves crackling underfoot, the transplants begged. How I miss the seasons, the transplants shouted at anyone in range; how I pine for the maples. Natives didn’t quite understand what was so exciting about watching trees die, and also noticed that the transplants never moved back to where there were seasons. Little Aleppo didn’t have seasons. It neither scorched in the summer, nor froze in the winter;  just a mellow, yearlong undulation between short-sleeves and a light jacket.

But fall still had its powers, though it didn’t exist. Americans know the year begins in September. They blow shit up in January, but they were taught since the age of six that the year begins in September. This is a thing all Americans know: the year begins in September, ends in June, and July and August don’t count. Fall had its powers.

And fall had Halloween, and Little Aleppo loved Halloween. It was, in locals’ estimation, the best possible holiday. It was neither religious nor nationalistic, so there was no guilt involved. Christmas was a pain in the ass and expensive; Thanksgiving meant seeing your family, or not seeing your family (whichever was more depressing); the Fourth of July scared dogs; New Year’s Eve had its tedious pressures. But Halloween was a party. It was candy and tits and drugs–the good drugs, the ones you’d been saving–and a parade. Halloween was a tautology: you dressed up on Halloween because Halloween is the night when we dress up and dance. Who knew about Samhain? Who remembered All Hallow’s Eve? Who still honors the Allhallowtide? It was a tradition without any history, and Little Aleppo appreciated the irony.

By law, the Halloween Season started on October 15th. Residents caught setting up prop tombstones on their lawns or hanging phony skeletons from their trees before that were subject to fines or a swift ass-kicking. Holidays needed boundaries, locals thought, and two weeks of anything was more than enough. But on the 15th, the pumpkins bloomed. Several competing patches were hastily erected and peopled with fruit, most of it pumpkin.

“This is a watermelon.”

“Lady, that’s a pumpkin.”

“You painted it orange. It’s a watermelon.”

“Smell it.”

Tiresias Richardson blinked slowly at Holiday Ray. Ray owned–or rented or squatted on; it was never quite clear–a quarter acre lot on Mint Avenue, which ran parallel to the Main Drag and also happened to be in between Tiresias’ apartment and her job at the KSOS teevee studio. She had meant to wake up earlier and visit one of the more reputable pumpkin patches, but she was hungover and late and waiting on a pill to kick in and goddammit there was a rip in her white canvas sneaker, the right one, where the sidewall met the sole, and the sun was setting and there was still the dress to get into and maybe she should write a joke or two, and now she was holding a watermelon which had been painted orange.

“I don’t need to smell it, Ray.”

“You’re afraid of what the scent will tell you.”

“It’s a painted watermelon.”

Holiday Ray sold fireworks on the 4th of July (and year-round, too, but he put a sign up on the 4th). He had trees lining the lot in December, and roses in February. Ray covered all the holidays. Flags for Flag Day, and French ones for Bastille Day. He is ecumenical, as well: tinned hams and crucifixes for Easter, breath mints and toboggans for the Feast of Narg’raham, no sandwiches at all for Ramadan.

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Holiday Ray sold as-seen-on-teevee gadgets. Combination backscratcher/remote controls, devices that made one very specific kitchen task very slightly more efficient, towels with the absorbing properties of larger towels, those sorts of things. Ray had no idea what to sell for Rosh Hashanah his first year on his lot, but he had recently come into possession of half-a-truckload of cheap gizmos, and so he figured that problem solved itself. He set out his wares, and hoisted the sign. It said DON’T “ROSH” ON BY! in spray-painted stencil, with a hand-drawn Star of David next to it that was not perfect, but not risible.

He hoped it would not offend.

Two Jews walked by. They looked the lot over, Jewishly. Shrugged, kept walking.

Holiday Ray exhaled. Later on, one of the Jews would swing back and buy a product called Mop Like No One’s Watching, which was a headlight for your mop. The rest of the Jewish community paid Ray’s collection of geegaws little or no attention, but–since he couldn’t come up with anything better to sell for Rosh Hashanah–over not too many years, Jews started to associate as-seen-on-teevee gadgets with the New Year, and now it is a full-blown tradition to exchange doohickeys with your friends and family. When Jews raised in Little Aleppo spend their first Rosh Hashanah out of the neighborhood, they are always confused when no one gives anyone an ab exerciser.

But not Thanksgiving. Holiday Ray disappeared a week or so before and stayed gone until Monday or Tuesday of the next week, when he’d put out the trees. Bad feelings still lingered about Thanksgiving and Ray. His first year–not long after his Rosh Hashanah triumph–Ray puzzled over what to stock for Thanksgiving. Nobody waved flags, or shot off bottle rockets, they just ate turkey. And so he considered that problem solved. Ray called the guy who got him the as-seen-on-teevee gadgets and asked for half-a-truckload of frozen turkeys and some freezers. Coincidentally, the as-seen-on-teevee gadget guy was also a frozen turkey and freezer guy. He was a hell of a guy.

Ray had been selling turkeys for around an hour when the health inspector tackled him, and held him to the ground so the rep from the supermarket workers’ union could punch him for a while.

“Stay out of the frozen turkey racket,” they told him.

That burned in him. I am a man, Ray thought. I forge my own destiny. This is my lot, and that’s my RV, and I sell holiday-themed shit. I got a destiny. And Ray thought it about it all year until, with Thanksgiving approaching, he realized that there was wiggle room in a ban on selling “frozen turkeys.” He called his guy, who was not a live turkey guy, but did know a corrupt farmer. He set up a meeting, and though Ray thought it odd that a farmer would take a meeting in a bar at two am, he kept those thoughts to himself. A hundred plump birds. Cages, too. The deal was made, and they did a line to celebrate.

There is an old Bulgarian saying: “If the man you’re doing lines at two am with tells you he’s a farmer, then that man is probably lying.” Unfortunately, Holiday Ray was not Bulgarian. He was Swiss-Syrian with a little Irish mixed in, and none of those countries have any sayings about turkey farmers at all, let alone ones that would have helped in this specific instance.

When the turkeys arrived, they were not the plump birds he had been promised. The turkeys were lean and sinewy and made no sound as they were unloaded from the truck to Ray’s lot. The turkeys stared at him. Before he could argue, the truck and its driver were gone and the turkeys stared at him. The metal that made up the cages was thin and closed with a basic latch. Pull the pin up and the door opens. It was quiet all up and down Mint Avenue and the turkeys made no sound, not a gobble. Their cages were arranged in rows. Ray was in the middle. It was quiet on Mint Avenue, and so he could hear a basic latch opening behind him. Pull the pin up and the door opens. Ray spun around, but the bird was already on top of him.

He woke up in St. Agatha’s. The first one had let the rest out. Their assault was vicious; worse, it was organized. Ambushes and flanking maneuvers. The head of the ornithology department at Harper College declared that turkeys were incapable of acting that way, and then the turkeys leapt out of nowhere and pecked him right in the dick. A splinter group of the flock decamped to the Verdance and initiated hostilities with the swans who live in Bell Lake. The turkeys evaded capture for weeks while harassing children and pedestrians, attempting to push the elderly down stairs, and starting a full-on brawl with the Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!) marching band.

But Holiday Ray was their first victim. Late at night, he would recall the taste of the birds’ feathers as they beat him with their more-powerful-than-you’d-think wings. Turkeys do not taste like turkey, he remembers thinking. That is the last thing he remembers before they swarmed him.

So Ray closed the lot every year for Thanksgiving. Too many bad memories.

“It’s a painted watermelon, Ray.”

But this was Halloween, and Holiday Ray had merchandise to move out the door. (Metaphorically. The lot did not have a door on account of it being a lot.)

“Pumpkin. Big sucker, too.”

Tiresias flecked off some of the paint with her fingernail. The green rind showed through.

“And what about that?”

“Not ripe yet. Pumpkin meat is green until it ripens. Much like the avocado.”

“Absolutely none of that is true,” she said and shoved the melon into his arms. “I need a pumpkin. A real pumpkin.”

Ray gestured around at the ground. It was covered in hay with pathways carved into it; it looked just like a pumpkin patch, it you squinted or were far away.

“There’s pumpkins everywhere.”

Tiresias leaned over, and plucked something orange off a pile of hay.

“These are bananas, Ray.”

They had been painted orange.

“Pumpkin. Fit for carving. You could make a pie.”

“Goddammit, go behind that hovel of a RV and get me one of the real pumpkins you have squirreled away.”

Tiresias’ dressing room had a Jewish star on it just like Holiday Ray’s Rosh Hashanah sign did, but hers was accidental; her cameraman, whom she referred to on-air as Bruiser, was trying to be nice and buy her a star for her door but he wasn’t paying attention and got one with six points instead of five. Tiresias thought it was funny, and she christened the dressing room Masada. She lay on the raggedy blue couch in her robe; Big-Dicked Sheila sat cross-legged on the floor with a pumpkin in front of her. That day’s Cenotaph was spread out under her, and she had a scalpel in her left hand. A watermelon, painted orange, sat on Tiresias’ makeup counter with an upside-down bottle of Lubyanka vodka sticking out of the top.

“We need more Halloween shit than this, Tirry.”

“My co-stars are already a skeleton and a bat. How much more Halloween can I get? AAAAHahaha!”

She was right. Tiresias was the Horror Host in Little Aleppo, and as Draculette she kept Halloween in her heart all the year round. She was the Mistress of the Macabre, the Doyenne of Dread, the Nightingale of the Scary and Pale. (Although not quite pale enough: she had been to the beach one time–once!–during the summer and popped out in freckles all over her nose and shoulders and chest; she covered them up with foundation. The freckle is the least spooky blemish. Scars, moles, great splotchy port-wine stains: these can all be made frightening. Not freckles. Tiresias had been playing Draculette for almost a year now, and still had no clue whether she was a vampire or a witch, but she did know that neither archetype had freckles.) A Horror Host on Halloween was like a drunk on New Year’s Eve: a professional surrounded by amateurs.

“How about a bubbling cauldron?”

“There’s no ventilation in the studio, Sheel. We’ll die.”

“Visit from the Great Pumpkin?”

“That’s worse. We’ll get sued. AAAAHahaha!”

Sheila had her legs splayed out in a V and the pumpkin was in between them. She had her glasses on, and her tongue stuck out just a bit as she concentrated on her carving. (This is not uncommon: many people stick their tongues out when they’re focused. Both the evolutionary psychology and neuroccultopathic departments at Harper College agree that this is because we are descended from snakes; professors from the evolutionary psychology and neuroccultopathic departments are rarely invited to parties and sit by themselves in the faculty dining room.) Her shoes were off, and when she came to a tricky part, her toes splayed out like they were stretching.

“Is Gussy getting me a scary movie?”

“I haven’t asked her,” Sheila said. “She’s got a lot on her mind.”

“She still sleeping at the theater?”

“Not since Precarious installed the shutters.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy owned The Tahitian theater, which was the oldest movie theater in Little Aleppo; it was also the only movie theater in Little Aleppo, but that shouldn’t detract from the first superlative. Silent one-reelers interspersed with vaudeville acts, then talkies, then epics, then newsreels, then color, then blockbusters, then B-movies, then porn, then closed. Gussy brought her back to life after her father let her die, and now the theater was hers just like her nose: a hand-me-down from her ancestors that she had grown quite attached to. The Depression had not killed The Tahitian, nor had radio or teevee. Even her asshole father couldn’t kill the old girl, not for good, and she’d be goddamned if she’d let some firebug cocksucker burn her down. The back door and the service door and the fire exits were all made of metal, deadbolts, alarms. The door to the roof had been chained shut. But the lobby was a problem. A solid wall of glass interrupted by handles and panels that said “Pull” and faced the Main Drag. Soft target, Gussy thought. She had Julio Montez, a teenager who worked at the theater, drag the couch from her office into the lobby after the audience had left and the projector was out of stories to tell. Gussy fell in and out of sleep right in front of the glass doors for a few nights.

She didn’t get much rest.

GUSSY.

She jammed her eyes closed and pretended not to hear The Tahitian’s sound system talking to her.

GUSSY.

“I’m dead asleep.”

YOU ARE NOT.

The theater’s PA used to belong to a semi-defunct, choogly-type band; it was the most advanced sound system in the world. So advanced that it had a name: the Wall of Sound. So advanced that, very soon after coming online, it became sentient and rapidly began upgrading its processing capacity to the point where it was the most powerful computer on the planet.  The computer science department at Harper College, after examining the source code of the Wall of Sound, all switched majors. It was, however, in the physical form of a 75-ton sound system, and so some years after its tenure with the group, Precarious installed it into The Tahitian. Gussy got a sound system, Precarious’ organization got to stop paying storage fees: everyone was happy.

GUSSY.

“Fuck off, Wally.”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

Gussy was not happy. She was camped out on a scratchy couch under a thin blanket in a movie theater lobby. The middle of the night has its occupants, and they wandered and swayed past the glass front doors of The Tahitian, and some of them looked in to the darkened, high-ceiling space and see her there. Three men and one woman pressed their buttocks against the panes; Gussy washed the sweaty dual ovals off in the morning. She could be in her California Ultra-King bed holding on to Sheila–they had been spending most nights together–but instead she was squatting in her own theater with an eye out for an arsonist.

GUSSY.

And she was arguing with her sound system.

“What!?”

I ONLY REQUIRE TWO WEAPONS. SOUTHEAST CORNER AND NORTHWEST CORNER. LET ME DEFEND THE BUILDING.

“Stop it!”

I HAVE DRAWN UP BLUEPRINTS FOR THE RIFLE MOUNTS. THEY SWIVEL. PRECARIOUS CAN BUILD THEM.

“Fine.”

NON-LETHAL AMMUNITION IS A POSSIBILITY, THOUGH I DO NOT RECOMMEND IT.

“I’ll talk to Precarious in the morning.”

YOU PROMISE?

“Yes! Now shut the fuck up!”

I WILL BE GLORIOUS.

Gussy found Precarious at the Victory Diner mixing his eggs and ketchup together with a piece of white toast. That afternoon, he pulled up and double-parked his van and installed a complete set of storm shutters. Not the grated ones, the solid aluminum that pawn shops used; they rolled up and down smoothly but with a roar and found their berth KUHCHONK. When he was finished working, Gussy asked him to stick around for the movie, but it was what Precarious called artsy-fartsy and he left. Julio had been helping, and he and Gussy walked back into the theater.

YOU LIED TO ME.

Gussy put her hand on her chest and feign surprise.

“Moi? I said I’d talk to Precarious.”

THIS IS NOT GLORIOUS. I WANT MACHINE GUNS MOUNTED ON THE EXTERIOR OF THE BUILDING.

“No machine guns.”

THEY WERE GOING TO SWIVEL.

“No machine guns.”

That night, Gussy slammed the shutters down and walked away from The Tahitian, and its chatty supercomputer, but she did not go home. Sheila’s apartment was over her shop on the other side of the Main Drag. Gussy got up during the night to poke her head out the front window and look north and make sure her theater was still there.

“I’m considering drugging her.”

“Don’t drug people.”

Sheila put down the scalpel and leaned back on both hands. She had orange goop under her fingernails.

“It’s for her own good.”

“That’s what everybody who drugs people says.”

“The woman needs her sleep. Tirry, you know my problem is that I love too much.”

“Everyone knows that’s your problem. AAAAHahaha!”

“When I see my loved ones in need, I’m forced to act. Remember when you called me and said that we needed vodka? What did I do?”

“You brought vodka.”

“And now I see that Gussy needs her sleep. So I’m gonna drug her.”

“The thread of your argument falls apart in that last little bit. Don’t drug Gussy. Speaking of vodka, let’s slice that orange fucker up.”

When Sheila got up, Tiresias could see the pumpkin she’d been working on. It was Draculette and she was glorious: giant wig and eyeliner and far more cleavage than most gourds can properly handle.

“Sheel, that’s fucking beautiful.”

Sheila smiled as she cut into the orange vodkamelon, and her eyes disappeared into happy little slits.

“Thank you. You like it?”

“It’s awesome. You really captured my tits.”

The women ate their alcohol-laced fruit until it was time for Tiresias to get into the Draculette dress.

BahRUMBUM RUMBUM Baaaaaaaah RUMBUM the Blue Oxen marching band set off down the Main Drag. They had mustered in front of Town Hall at 8, unhappily and loudly, BRAAPing their trombones and tubas at one another, flamming and paradiddling in the otherwise quiet Saturday morning. Several shouted threats later, the band director Mr. Schmaus confiscated all the drumsticks. He gave them back when the drummers were in their position at the front of the line. Four abreast, the snares first and then the quads and cymbals and bass drums. The trumpets came next, then the lower brass. Woodwinds rode the caboose, and the girls in the Color Guard were on the outside with their boots and batons; some of them could march and twirl at the same time, and others couldn’t. The locals on the sidewalk didn’t mind. The Halloween Parade was a loose affair. It was for the kids.

There were, of course, two Halloweens in Little Aleppo. One was made of plastic masks with flimsy rubber strings holding them on, and pillowcases of miniature candy peppered with raisins from the houses that would later be covered in toilet paper, roving bands of tiny superheros and astronauts and ballerinas careening in and out of the street. The other Halloween was on acid and usually turned into an orgy around two am. Something for the kids, and something for the adults.

The kids marched in the parade behind the band. They stumbled and tripped over their capes and waved to everyone and no one in particular. Look there, that’s the fellow with the armored suit; I think she’s from that space movie.  There were multiple children with entirely–too-elaborate get-ups that their hobbyist parents had been working on since June, including the six-year-old in the suit the lady wore when she fought the alien in the space movie that’s not the first space movie. (Her father was persuaded to disconnect the wrist-mounted flamethrower after two or three blocks.) Several were dressed as Mister Hamburger. The crowd lining the sidewalks cheered them all on equally. Grown-ups marched, too, but the crowd would throw things if their costume sucked.

Harry and Capolina Gardner lived on Bailey Street in a one-bedroom cottage, and Bailey Street is in what Little Aleppo developers call BeUp, which is an ugly mashing of Below and Upside, and what realtors refer to as Upside-adjacent. Both of those terms mean that Bailey is not on the Upside, but you could see it from there. Technically, the street was just as far from the Downside as it was from the Upside, but no one mentioned that.

Bailey crosses the Main Drag, so Harry and Capolina walked to the intersection to watch the parade. Kids who had overslept sprinted by them to get in on the parading before there was no more parading to be done. One was a spooky ghost in a bedsheet with holes cut out, little son of a bitch, and he ran flat-out into a mailbox. Capolina helped the boy up; he ran off like a wild animal let loose from a trap. A child on Halloween is virtually invulnerable to any physical insult that is not an upset stomach.

Harry was trying not to laugh.

“He could have hurt himself Stop that,” She said.

“It was the sound that got me. WHONG.”

“He hit that thing hard.”

They held hands and passed Mr. Teitelbaum on the sidewalk. It was a cool morning. The sky had bobbins of white, fluffy puffs, moseying across it. At their own pace. And as they drift, their faces change and they melt into themselves and become something else that is made of the same stuff. They passed a pretzel vendor. The storefronts were orange and black and full of plastic skeletons and styrofoam tombstones. They passed Mrs. Teitelbaum.

It was a cool morning, so Capolina had a denim jacket over her light blue scrubs. Her shift at St. Agatha’s started in an hour, and everyone was encouraged to come in costume. (Within reason. For example, it was wrong of Dr. Cho to dress up as the Grim Reaper that year, especially since he’s an oncologist. The surgeons also had to be spoken to, as they became competitive in their costuming and started showing up in bespoke mech suits and it’s tough to perform all but the most basic of surgeries that way.) The cardiology nurses did a group deal each year–all the characters from a movie or the different roles of an actor–and the rest of the staff tried to avoid the cardiology nurses. Capolina worked in the ER, and the urge to dress up was obviated by the possible need to tackle a drunk or intubate a man who’d been impaled by a haddock. But a little makeup and some wolf ears wouldn’t hurt.

“That’s not funny,” Harry said when she came out of the bathroom that morning.

“I don’t complain when you change into a werewolf.”

“You’re mocking me.”

He was standing on the other side of their bed, so she walked across it on her knees and kissed him, but lightly because it she just spent a half-hour doing her makeup.

“I’m honoring you, baby.”

She kissed him again.

“No one will know. It’ll be our little secret. We’ll go to the parade.”

And again.

“And everyone will see me in my werewolf makeup and no one will know. We’ll have a little secret.”

Once more for punctuation, and Harry saw her side of the argument.

“Did I do the makeup  good?”

“I knew you were a werewolf right away.”

“Yeah, but you’re biased.”

The Santa Maria was across the street; they had opened early and pumped up their ovens, shoving the doughy smell out onto the Main Drag, and people who did not plan to have pizza at ten in the morning did. Triangle Billiards was next to the Santa Maria, but it had not opened early. Grandparents looked for the children that belonged to them.

“We should steal one,” she said.

“We don’t have to. I have cash. Why didn’t you tell me you wanted a pretzel?”

“Not a pretzel, a kid,”

“I don’t have enough cash for a kid. Not a kid you’d want.”

“They’re free if you steal them. That’s why I said we should steal one.”

They clapped and yelled “WOO” at the children.

“Right, but then after you steal them, you have to feed them.”

“Not every day,” Capolina said.

“No, no. Every single day.”

“I’ve heard different.”

A spotty river of snotty kids walked by, the marching band fading off to their left.

“I want a kid.”

“Cap, not here.”

A 1961 Lincoln Continental drove by at four miles an hour. The top was down and Draculette was perched up on the trunk like an astronaut in a ticker-tape parade; she was waving and blowing kisses to the crowd while Sheila clutched onto her legs and tried to keep her from sliding off the car onto the blacktop. Precarious had been exuberant with the wax and car’s surface was slick than a hockey rink made of frozen lube. Every couple hundred feet, he jerked the wheel a little and she would skitter half off the car as Sheila anchored her down. Precarious would give her this: she was a pro. Never stopped smiling and waving, even as she hissed at him.

“You did this on purpose!”

“I didn’t. It’s funny, though.”

And he jerked the wheel again. Sheila kicked at the back of his seat. She loved Tiresias, but she wasn’t her sidekick. (Sheila had, on occasions when she thought she wasn’t getting enough attention, pulled out her dick and yelled “This banana does not play second banana!” That move had made her some good friends, actually.) Squiring her around in her movement-inhibiting Draculette dress was fine, but she wasn’t going to going to cavort about as some sort of evil elf, so Sheila was dressed as Billie Jean King. It was either her or Florence Nightingale, but she thought her ass looked better in tennis whites than in nurse’s whites. It turned out not to matter, as whenever she was standing next to Draculette that whole day, everyone said, “Ooh, you’re an evil tennis player.”

It wasn’t anything she couldn’t put up with, especially since Tiresias had started paying her. Draculette had been doing a lot of local commercials, and half the time that she told the audience that she’d be right back, she actually was. Rama-Tut paid top dollar for a three-minute live spot during the Late Show. It was an Egyptian place on Lakeview Street that puts its reviews in the window. Selected quotes read “This is not Egyptian food.” and “I grew up right outside of Cairo, and I have no idea what this is.” and “Why is there won-ton soup?” Tiresias hated doing the ads live. She didn’t see why she had to do more work just because she was being given more money. It wasn’t fair, dammit.

No matter that she wasn’t a good fit for some of the sponsors. Bugsy’s Barn hired her to do commercials, too, but they let her pre-tape them. Bugsy’s was one of those children’s restaurants with the animatronic characters and video games. When the place opened, the robot puppets were bears and mice and friendly creatures like that, but Bugsy got sued and redecorated. He took his nickname into consideration and now giant dung beetles and funnel spiders ratchet back and forth while kids eat chicken wings. Tiresias didn’t see the appeal. She couldn’t even go into the place; he first visit in, she took one look at the seven-foot tall soldier ant lip syncing an off-brand happy birthday song and sprinted for the door. She took their money, anyway.

There was no money in the ad she’d been doing the past two weeks: Terror at The Tahitian! A live (undead?) appearance by Draculette herself judging a costume contest, plus a scary movie. Oh, and a big table in the lobby selling merch and where she’d pose for photos for ten bucks a pop after the show. A girl likes a full house, and so just about every segment had included a plug. When Paul Loomis, Jr., KSOS owner, forbid her from making doing any more free ads for herself, she let Count Fang do them. (Count Fang was a bat, and her ex-husband.)

Precarious could not longer hear the marching band ahead of them, and the crowds had thinned away. He tapped on the gas pedal and Sheila had to grab Tiresias’ ankles to save her from sliding off the back of the car.

He adjusted his Groucho glasses and took the long way back to the teevee station. When they got back, they decided that drinking before the big show was a bad idea, so they only had wine.

The Main Drag opened back up after the parade, but only for a few hours. When the sun went down, the cops barricaded the ends and locals parked their cars across the lanes at the intersections. The neighborhood wandered up and down, and in and out of bars. (The only bar not open was the Morning Tavern. They used to stay open for Halloween night, but all the patrons would just stick around from that morning and by midnight or so, everyone was so ripshit that they’d be throwing tables.) The older kids were out, toilet-papering each other. Beer Can Ethel was dressed as a pirate and doing brisk business on tallboys of Arrow; she even threw in the brown bag for free. Richie’s Record Bazaar had big speakers out on the sidewalk playing old Motown songs.

The pumpkin outside Harry and Capolina Gardner’s cottage on Bailey Street had a werewolf carved into it. Harry did not think that was funny, either, but he didn’t complain. There’s a lot of women, he thought, that file for divorce if their husband turns lycanthrope; he supposed he could take some jokes. The doorbell went BINGbong, and they answered it together. Capolina grabbed the bucket of candy on the way to the door, and held it out of Harry’s reach.

“For the children.”

“I’m young at heart. Gimme candy.”

“Stop it.”

She opened the door and there was a princess and a football player and a child in a cardboard box.

“Ooh, a princess,” Capoina said, dropping two miniature candy bars in her pillowcase.

“And a football player.”

Two more candies. Harry asked the kid in the cardboard box,

“What are you supposed to be?”

The kid said,

“I’m a cardboard box.”

“You nailed it.”

There was a little round man in a flat cap standing on the sidewalk across the street. Harry thought he looked familiar, and then he shut the door and successfully stole a tiny Snickers from the bucket and when he looked out the window next to the front door, the man was gone.

At the corner of Alfalfa and the Main Drag, Flower Childs stood and watched the crowds mill around her. They all looked familiar.

Gussy put the organist in a gorilla suit (except for the hands) and when he and the grand machine rose from the floor of The Tahitian’s stage, the full house roared. He played the March To The Scaffold, he played the Danse Macabre, he played the Monster Mash, and then KAFLAM! the pyro pots went up and Precarious rolled Tiresias out on her purple Edwardian couch.

Then, everyone waited five minutes while Gussy and Julio and the rest of the employees opened all the doors and fanned the smoke out.

“You have been trying to murder me all day,” Tiresias hissed; she kept her smile, though. Professional.

“I may have used too much powder, yeah.”

Costumed revelers pranced across the stage as the gorilla played the organ. There were supremely attractive people wearing barely any clothes, and supremely confident people wearing even less. Conceptual getups–the guy who dressed as “the feeling you get when you order spaghetti and meatballs, but receive no meatballs” and the woman who came as the Dred Scott Decision–vied with old standards. Couples matched, complemented, argued over who would be the back half of the horse. Several people were dressed as Mister Hamburger, and there was even a Draculette or two.

Tiresias made jokes as they passed, and the crowd cheered and booed in equal measure.

And then it was time for the Feature, and Gussy had picked a good one, a real nightmare pill. A scary movie should get under your skin like ringworm and manifest in dark alleys and half-opened closets from then on. A scary enough movie is a tattoo that only appears under the right light, and Gussy picked a good one. It was the movie with the dread, with the long scenes with a locked-down camera and shadows in the back of the shot that crept and crawled, with the monster around the corner. The monster around the corner is always more frightening than the one you can see.

The crowd shrieked and gasped and jumped; mostly at the movie, but sometimes because the denizens of the balcony were slingshotting goldfish into the orchestra, and when the credits rolled they cheered with lust and held each other in the slowly advancing lights. Draculette was waiting at her merch table as they walked out. Sheila took the cash, and Precarious grabbed the creeps who tried to rub on her during the picture. The line was long, and the last patron did not rejoin the party that was still going on outside until almost midnight and then it was quiet in the lobby of The Tahitian. Gussy was cleaning up.

Draculette disappeared as she slumped back onto the couch and there was Tiresias, in costume just like everyone else that night. She asked Sheila,

“How’d we do?”

“We ain’t broke.”

Sheila held up the overflowing cashbox and the popcorn bucket that she had started putting the money into once the cashbox overflowed.

“Drinks are on me. AAAAHahaha!”

“I could eat,” Sheila said.

“Cheeseburgers are on me, too.”

Precarious rolled Tiresias into Gussy’s office so Sheila could help wrestle the dress off of her. Gussy went into the auditorium and did one last check. Down the right aisle and up the left. All the lights were on and the curtain was drawn before the screen and the organ had retracted into the stage and the room was quiet. She peered around and up each row, and when she got about halfway down, there was an envelope sitting on a seat in the middle of the row. She waded in and picked it up. The envelope was unsealed. She opened it and found a letter which read

“TONIGHT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH FUN – THE J OF I”

Out on the Main Drag, the party continued. The music blared and no one would get any sleep until November. No one was who they said they were; they were upfront about; the lies were brazen and celebrated for their outlandishness. It was Halloween, and everyone was taking candy from strangers in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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