Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 8)

An Elephant And Her Dog

Congo was an elephant, and Pax was a good dog. Congo had had many dogs over her long and stifled life, but Pax was one of her favorites: he would clamber up her offered leg to the very top of her head, and then scratch his claws up and down the thick skin of her skull; it felt so good that Congo would let out a trumpet BAH-RAAAAAPPP in happiness, and then she would curl her trunk up over her head and poke it around until she felt Pax. The dog would wriggle atop her head as she tickled him.

Sometimes she remembered her mother. In the summers, she remembered her mother. Where she knew her mother, it was hot. The place she lived in now was cooler than that, except in the summer, so in the summer she thought about her mother. Her aunts, too, and also the men with their guns. The next bit is a blur, and then she was in Harper Zoo and named Congo, which was simply wrong. There are elephants in the Congo basin, but they are forest elephants that rarely reach eight feet, and Congo was a bush elephant a dozen feet to the shoulder. Bush elephants don’t live anywhere near the Congo, but that was where Harper T. Harper, who paid for her, made his money and so that’s what she was called. Africa is Africa, Harper liked to say.

Zoo needs an elephant like a bookstore needs a cat, and so Harper Zoo got an elephant. Rhino was nice, and you should have some hippos. Alligators or crocodiles–didn’t matter which–and a big cat or two, but a zoo needs an elephant.

The keepers called it an enclosure, but it was a cage. By ratio, it was the size of a one-bedroom apartment, and lots of people live in those, but they were allowed to leave if they wanted. Congo could have killed any one of them in seconds, easily, but she didn’t. She hated them in principle, but they were individually kind. She thought her keepers were a credit to their species. The ground in her enclosure was concrete at first, and no animal is evolved to walk on concrete. Fucked up her feet, hips. In the 60’s, she was moved to her present home, and there is grass and dirt. The damage is done, and she walks gingerly and everything hurts when it rains.

She got her first dog, too. The 60’s were wild, man: men were burning their draft cards, and women were burning their bras, and elephants were getting dogs. The zookeepers were going through the same changes as the rest of the country–the white, middle-class, educated part of it–was going through, and they would stay in the zoo overnight eating acid and trying to communicate with anteaters.

“I’m talking to him, man.”

“What does he say?”

“He says, ‘Feed me some fucking ants.'”

“Anything else?”

“No. He’s obsessed.”

And the animals’ rights were for the first time discussed at Harper Zoo. The consensus arrived at was that, after years of close observation, 90% of animals are compete morons who don’t mind captivity as long as they’re being fed and taken care of. Giant tortoise? Giant tortoise had no idea it was even in a zoo. Yak? Yak stands there and chews. But the other ten percent, well, that was a problem if you’re even the slightest bit empathetic.

Couldn’t send Congo home. She didn’t even know how to be an elephant anymore, she didn’t speak elephant anymore other than grunts and groans and rumbles. Besides, she was on the tee-shirts.

They knew how smart she was, though. Even without the acid. Something in the eyes, those poky black eyes hidden in folds of gray skin, and the way she held a grudge. Pissed her off? She’d BAP her trunk against your shoulder like a bully’s finger for a few weeks until you brought her a present. Congo liked cantaloupe. Every animal in the zoo had a personality, and some didn’t like people and some did, but being angry with a specific person for a quantifiable reason is a sign of intelligence.

So the zookeepers relocated the hyenas that were next door to her and knocked down the wall, gave her more space. Grass instead of concrete. Congo got a little pond.

And a dog. A blue-tinged mutt called Shep that wasn’t even three months old. Floppy little guy that fell over as much as he ran, with pointed ears and a thin tail. One of the keepers had read an article in Life magazine about an elephant that befriended a dog, and so she went to the pound and got a mutt and brought it to the zoo. She was not sure Congo would not stamp the animal into a paste, but the elephant gently poked and examined the puppy with her trunk. The zookeeper left Shep with Congo, and by the next morning they were best friends for life.

Elephants live longer than dogs. When Shep died a decade later, Congo blasted a roar NAWHOOOOO into the sky and would not eat for three days, which is a very long time for an elephant. She would not allow her keepers in her enclosure until one of them arrived with Bailey, who was a reddish mutt with a curly coat and long muzzle. Congo felt guilty about having a new dog. Scientists try to avoid anthropomorphizing animals, and they would say that elephants are capable of guilt like humans understand it, but scientists gave us the atom bomb. They get things wrong all the time. Congo felt guilty about having a new dog, but Bailey was a feisty little guy and he bounced around and wanted to play, and Congo liked having a dog.

Bailey went the way of Shep, eventually, and Congo mourned again. She would not let the keepers–an entirely new generation of them since she had been given her first dog–near the body for hours. Congo stood over the dog and stroked his fur again and again. There was a eulogy, too, but subsonic, and so the keepers did not bow their heads.

Now she had Pax, and Pax was a good dog. Maybe the smartest one, Congo thought. Elephants judge intelligence in animals the same way humans do: how quickly does it do what I want it to do? By those standards, Pax was brilliant. When her enclosure was expanded back in the 60’s, the job was half-assed. The gate that kept her in was grated like an old-timey jail cell. The lever that opened and closed it was ten feet towards the human side of the equation. Too far for a trunk to reach.

But dogs and elephants have one weird thing in common: they can both understand pointing.

Congo would push the dog through the bars of the gate, trunk on the butt, and once they were out she would point THERE THERE THERE at the lever. Some got it quicker than others. Pax caught on right away, and he walked himself right under the lever and looked back at Congo. She made an exaggerated DOWN motion with her trunk, and then pointed at the lever, and Pax got it on the first try: he leapt up and caught the switch in his teeth and his weight brought it down and then CHACK the gate opened and Congo was free.

Every night, except for every 18th night when it was raining, Congo and Pax would make the rounds of Harper Zoo. The pathways were blacktop and paving stone, and they hurt her feet and hips, but she did not care and she did not let her body language reveal the fact. Elephants can lie, too.

Passing the lions, two females, and she went BRAPH at them; they pretended not to notice. Her footsteps had woken the peacock, Ethelred the Unsteady, and now he limped next to her massive leg like a courtier. Pax enjoyed barking at the wolves. They’d growl, every single night, and he’d hold his ground while Congo stood over him. There were prairie dogs in an octohedral enclosure, open at the top, and she would reach her trunk and the rodents crowded around and chirped, and everyone smelled each other. Congo did not acknowledge the condors. Long story.

You can buy popcorn right inside the front gate of Harper Zoo, from a teenager in a red-and-white striped shirt and a straw hat. A genuine authentic faux-vintage popcorn cart, with the kettle bursting and erupting inside glass, and a vast reservoir for the birthed kernels below. A new teenager mans the cart every few months or so, and they are given instructions: before you leave for the day, make one last batch. Leave it there. Congo loved popcorn. She grabbed big trunkfuls and shoved it salty into her mouth, and then she searched the corners for pieces she had missed.

Congo was right by the front gate. It would have come down had she leaned on it.

She never did, but she did always close the door to the popcorn enclosure in the cart. Then she continued on her rounds; she had tapirs to see. Pax darted in and out of her lumbering and tender feet. When she was done, she would go back into her enclosure. Pax would bang the lever back up with his snout, locking her back in, and then he would wriggle through the gate and Congo would stroke him with her trunk and then they would sleep soundly knowing everything in their universe was as it should be in Harper Zoo, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Death Makes Debtors Of Us All

Deacon Blue had a puppy in his lap and a pistol in his boot. He was a Man of God.

St. Agatha’s was quiet; it was late. Precarious Lee had called him, filled him in. Well, not completely filled. He knew the broad outline The meeting with Tommy Amici didn’t go well, and then Tommy got kidnapped and the Reverend Arcade Jones got hit by a van. Amazing how many things can go wrong in just one sentence, Deacon Blue thought.

The Reverend had refused to give up the puppy until he was sedated and on his way into surgery, and the nurses handed him off to the deacon. They did not know his name, so Deacon Blue sat there with a dog he had not been introduced to, a short-haired mutt the color of rusty gold with floppy ears, and soon the puppy fell asleep because all puppies do is sleep and trust humans. Arcade had been taken to surgery by the time the deacon arrived, so he went into the Emergency Room, through the OSHA-mandated sliding glass doors Death  into the artistically-mandated ornate marble entrance. Inscribed into the stone above was the hospital’s motto, Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi?

Deacon Blue knew everyone there. Rufus Mantooth, the security guard, and Andrea Edmonton, the woman he had in a headlock. (Rufus was an equal-opportunity headlocker.) Alsace Lorraine in the corner with the broken nose, waiting for his name to be called. Charlee Browne had a bruised vagina. Two monks from St. Sebastian’s waiting to hear if their brother’s suicide took. He knew Fancy Delaware, too, the Chief of the ER at St. Agatha’s. Clergy got to know the staff at the local hospital in most places, but in Little Aleppo they got to know the ER docs real well.

Always need for a preacher in a hospital. Last rites, or sometimes a dying atheist wanted to tell you off for the last time: always need for a preacher. There were people who needed a hand to hold while they came to terms with things. Others were utterly shocked to find themselves where they were. Cynics say you die alone, but clergy disagree.

Deacon Blue knew Fancy Delaware well, and when she came out to meet him in the ER’s waiting room, she nodded at him, and she did not shake his hand or kiss him hello.

“He’s in surgery.”

“Jesus. For what?”

Privacy laws prevented Fancy from saying precisely what was wrong the Reverend, so she said,

“He ruptured his een-splay.”

“Well, he didn’t rupture it: the van did.”

“Don’t be pedantic. Third floor. There’s a dog.”

“What?”

“Third floor. There’s a dog.”

Fancy Delaware walked out of the waiting room and back into her ER, where she was supervising the treatment of a gaggle of teenagers with hysterical psychosomatic rabies. (Basically, one of the little bastards got so high that he thought he had rabies, and then the rest were all, “Cool, rabies, let’s do that,” and now there’s a half-dozen teens growling and frothing in Fancy’s ER.) Deacon Blue went to the third floor, where there was a dog.

The seats were black metal with brown padding. Thin legs and armrests. There were tables with magazines from three months ago. On the wall, a poster advised how not to get chlamydia. Old lady knitting. Young couple leaning into one another. A cop awaiting an outcome. There was a teevee suspended in the corner, and it was tuned to KSOS. The Late Movie was on, and Draculette was the Horror Host.

“Quintana was the bad guy the whole time, boogers! How about that?”

That night’s movie was Swordbeast of Dagger Island, and it was about a haunted tent. Tiresias Richardson, the woman jammed into the Draculette getup, spent the first hour of the film yelling at the main characters during her spots…

“JUST TAKE THE TENT DOWN, DUMMIES!”

…until she got so fed up that she began improvising her own, better, movie. A cheesy action flick with explosions (Tiresias did the sound effects SPLOMSH! and BRAKOOOOM!) and one-liners (she ad-libbed them) and gratuitous boobage (she provided the boobs). The hero’s name was Detective Strutter O’Day, and he was a cop on the edge. You could place Strutter O’Day on a giant sphere: he would still find the edge, and then endeavor to be upon it. Quintana was the captain, or lieutenant, or chief–his rank changed several times as she told the story–and he yelled at O’Day, and demanded his badge. Tiresias acted out both sides of the very dramatic confrontation:

“Dammit, O’Day, gimme your badge!”

“I forgot it at home.”

“Oh. Well. Tomorrow, then.”

“Yes, sir.”

(Tiresias made the captain-who-yells Hispanic instead of black, and congratulated herself for being diverse.)

Five minutes of movie, five minutes of commercials, five minutes of Draculette. Repeat that twelve times, and you’ve got yourself the KSOS Late Movie: three tracks of competing agendas and interlinking narrative nonsense; they commented on each other incidentally and on purpose, and there was synchronicity, accidental symmetry, simultaneous soliloquy. Rivers of content doing the three-man weave. The movie was there to get you to watch the commercials, and Draculette was there to get you to watch the movie, and the commercials were there because they were paying for everything.

Quintana assigned Strutter O’Day a partner, a rookie, named Sissy Bump; she was murdered immediately, and Strutter swore revenge. Quintana then assigned another him another rookie partner, Camera Doughnuts. (Tiresias had reached her personal capacity for comedic names, and was now just looking around the room.) Camera was blown up. Another rookie partner named Sheila Penny. (And now she was using names of people she knew.) Detective O’Day had a new partner in every scene, and they were always killed instantly.

But by who?

Or whom?

“Deacon.”

“Precarious.”

The puppy in Deacon Blue’s lap woke up and got on his feet, paws on either thigh, and growled at the empty chair across from him. The deacon followed the dog’s eyeline and said,

“You must be Officer Rodriguez.”

The empty chair said,

“Nice to meet you, Deacon.”

Precarious was sitting next to the deacon, and he reached for the cigarettes in his tee-shirt pocket, realized where he was, nuzzled the puppy.

“Emergency,” Precarious said.

“Does he always do this?”

“The invisible bullshit?”

“Yeah. What’s an emergency?”

“He’s a pain-in-the-ass. Don’t worry about him. The dog’s name is Emergency.”

Deacon Blue stared into the dog’s beige eyes, and scratched under his chin.

“Fitting.”

“The Reverend thought so. Love at first sight. How’s he doing?”

“They’re taking out his spleen.”

“Oof.”

“Yup.”

“What”s the spleen do again?”

“Bile,” the deacon said.

“Nah. That’s the gall bladder.”

“The spleen is basically a big lymph node. It filters blood,” said the empty chair across from Precarious and Deacon Blue. The old lady looked up from her knitting. The young couple searched the room for the voice’s origin. The cop didn’t give a shit about anything but his job. Precarious leaned forward and whispered,

“Shut the fuck up.”

And though Romeo was invisible, Precarious still somehow knew where his eyes were for the purposes of glaring.

Precarious sat back in his chair, and he and the deacon affected casual airs. The old lady went back to her knitting. The couple went back to each other. The cop continued not giving a shit.

“I need your help.”

“It’s a bad time,” Deacon Blue said.

“It’s worse than you think.”

“Tommy Amici got kidnapped and Arcade got hit by a van, man. How much worse can it be?”

“He got kidnapped by the heiress to Boone’s Docks.”

Deacon Blue was wearing a suit-colored suit. White shirt. Green-and-yellow striped tie with a fat Windsor knot, loosened and his collar button undone. He had escaped from jails in two countries. He had robbed a bank. (He was technically stealing back his own money, but still: robbed a bank. It’s a long story.) He had never sold drugs, but he had trafficked some. The deacon used to be a roadie; just like Precarious, but not: Precarious worked for one group his whole life, and Deacon Blue went from band to band as a freelancer.

It wasn’t like he had much of a choice. He had met Precarious many years before, and always thought that his job–Deacon Blue had never said this to his face–was damn close to a cult. There were a million rock and roll bands, and some of them making good money, but none of them acted like that band of weirdos, windowlickers, and Oregonians that Precarious hooked up with. A vote! Precarious used to get a damned vote! Deacon Blue was made mad by this fact; it was not the way the world was supposed to work. Band was up here, and crew was down here. If everyone’s in charge, then no one is.

Piss off the bass player, fired. Catch on with another act. Fuck the guitarist’s old lady, fired. Find another job. Fail upwards. Rock and fucking roll.

But he was a Man of God now, and all that was behind him. The hotels, and the naked strangers, and the bribery, and the sudden nighttime violence.

“You got your pistol?” Precarious asked.

Maybe not all the sudden nighttime violence.

“Why? Yes, but why?”

“Let’s go rescue Tommy. Officer Ghost Dipshit says they don’t have guns.”

“They?”

“Three of ’em.”

Deacon Blue had long hair that was receding at the temples that he wore tied back. He said,

“We save Tommy, he owes us.”

“You put your finger on it.”

He poked his index finger under the elastic, unlooped it, unlooped it again, and then he pulled the band free and his hair, which was hair-colored, was loose. Shook it out. Ran it back under his palm, and then gathered it and retied the hank.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” Precarious answered.

“Okay,” the empty chair added. The old lady looked up again, and so did the young couple. The cop had nodded off.

“Harper Observatory belongs to Little Aleppo.”

“No, it doesn’t. It’s a building that sits on land that belongs to me.”

“What about the people?”

“What about ’em?”

“Don’t they get a say?”

“They wanted a say, they should’ve had more money.”

“That’s crass.”

“Reality so often is.”

“And it’s reductive.”

“I don’t know what that means. Explain it.”

“To…to…to try to explain something by too crude a measure.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m still assuming you’re a college girl. They still call you co-eds?”

“Not for a while.”

“I always liked that. ‘Co-eds.’ Very sexy.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“College girl, yeah. Harper? Let’s say Harper. School ain’t free. You got the money to buy an education, and so you do. I got the money to buy Pulaski Peak, and so I can’t?”

“Some things aren’t for sale.”

“Land is.”

“Some things shouldn’t be for sale.”

Should? Fuck should. You don’t live in the should world. There’s no such thing as the should world. This is the is world. Better get used to it, kid.”

Plucky was not getting up.

There was a pock on the trail, a gopher hole, a deep step in the ground about two feet down, just perfectly sized for a horse’s foot and WHAMP her right front leg went into the hole, and all of her shuddered and fell and the Reverend Busybody Tyndale was thrown to the leafy earth; behind him was a sound like CHTCHACK from the horse’s fetlock.

There was blood, and the animal was screaming.

Peter pulled up on his horse, dismounted, ran to Busybody.

“Are you okay?”

“I don’t think anything’s broken.”

Peter looked back at Plucky.

“Speak for yourself.”

The horse is lying on her side, half her leg still trapped in the gopher hole, and seeping blood escaping onto the trail.

“Oh, no.”

Plucky has stopped screaming and now making low noises like URRRRRHH, and they were terrible noises.

“She’s your horse.”

“I can’t.”

And so Peter did.

BANG!

It was very quiet after that, after the reverberations had cleared from the trail and stopped bouncing in between redwoods. Even the insects shut the fuck up, which was very unlike them.

Peter, who was not a Pulaski, rotated out the cylinder of his Colt revolver and, holding the five live bullets in with his fingers, turned the gun upside-down and shook the casing from the chamber. He took a new round from his gunbelt, loaded it, snapped the cylinder back into place and holstered the pistol. Picked the casing from the dirt at his feet, placed it in his satchel.

Then he helped Busybody up, who said,

“Thank you.”

“Yeah.”

Peter’s horse, a paint which he had not named, was bucking and whinnying and Peter went to her and took her reins and jerked them down fiercely; the horse quieted, and he led her to a tree and tied her to it. They were in a wood, and had been making their way by the sun. Moss and creeping lilandras crowded the trunks. The light was speckly and strong, and the two men stood by the dead horse whom had been named Plucky. Half of Plucky’s skull was missing.

“We owe the livery now,” Peter said.

“Death turns us all into debtors.”

They dressed the body. Removed the saddle, and took out the bit. There were still wolves in California in 18–, and the horse would not lay there for long. Bears, too. Smell of blood propagates in a wood. Peter and the Reverend did not delay. Plucky’s saddle got tied to the paint, and Busybody sat behind Peter, and they cantered away.

“You have no leverage here, sweetie.”

“Fuck off with your ‘sweetie’ bullshit.”

“Language.”

“Fuck you.”

“You have no leverage. You are weak, and I am strong.”

“You’re taped to a chair.”

“Your eyes are clouded by those stupid fucking pantyhose. Take ’em off.”

“No.”

“Lemme see your face.”

“No.”

“Uggo?”

“Jesus.”

“There’s nothing you can do here. Your only option is to save yourself.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“You’re hoping. Hope is an expensive commodity. Are you willing to pay for your hope? The reality that lies before you is in contradiction to your hope. Which one will you stake your future on? Reality or hope? I’m gonna fucking crucify you if you keep me here any longer. That’s reality. Don’t choose hope.”

St. Agatha’s was on the Downside of Little Aleppo, and Big-Dicked Sheila was walking towards. As she passed her shop, she rattled the doors to make sure they were locked, and then she slapped one little foot in front of the other down the sidewalk of the Main Drag. KSOS behind her, she had helped Tiresias into her Draculette costume but they were not really talking, and then the phone call from Precarious. Reverend was worse off than it seemed, and Sheila started crying because she knew that Precarious was not a liar. Then he said that he and Deacon Blue were taking care of things, and she stopped crying because she knew that Precarious was not a liar.

The Downside. Sheila was in the same clingy black dress she’d been wearing for 36 hours, and her hair was spiky and short and ketchup-red, and she was wearing green Converse sneakers with brand-new, bright-white laces. She lit a cigarette with a yellow plastic lighter, and her shoulders went forward with momentum, and she looked at the Downside from under raised eyebrows and dared it to fuck with her. She had friends down here, and temporary lovers, and one-time fucks, and sworn enemies, too; the Downside was just like the Upside, but shittier.

Doo-wop groups protected their turf with harmonies, and stabbing. It was deep into the night, and not hot at all, but there were still ethnic children doing cartwheels in the spray of an opened fire hydrant. There was urban blight everywhere, plus some rural blight that had come on vacation. There were muggers.

One leapt out in front of her.

BANG!

Right into the sidewalk, and the mugger ran; no one on the Downside who had just watched what happened saw anything. A .380 doesn’t have the power of a 9 mm, but it also doesn’t have the kick; Sheila had skinny arms, and the .380 was the most she could handle. She liked the Sig Sauer. It had a wooden grip, and she thought that was very fancy. If you had to shoot someone, Sheila thought, you should be fancy about it. Pistol back into her purse next to the prescription bottles of varying fullness, and her cigarettes and makeup.

That was an overreaction, she thought. Which was needed every once in a while, she further thought. Psychotic overreaction saved time. Being reasonable was the moral thing to do, but shooting at people who bothered you was far more expedient.

Mount Charity was off to Sheila’s left. The bankers lived there, and they were awake; they turned math into money. Mount Booth, too, which was the last of the Segovian Hills. Stray dog in the street. Alligator in the sewer. Sneakers on the telephone wire. There were two men sitting on a stoop drinking tallboys of Arrow in paper bags, and one of them called out to her,

“Hey, baby I like that ass!”

BANG!

That was probably an overreaction, too, but Sheila was in no fucking mood anymore and goddammit everyone was a fucking idiot. Tiresias was blitzed, Penny was a lone wolf, Precarious thought he was Steve McQueen, and she was the worst of them all for not taking charge.

Sheila passed the Zweitel Footwear factory, which wasn’t there anymore. It caught fire and 162 workers, mostly women, burned. She passed the spot where the Pulaski laid their village next to a lake which also no longer existed, but was still there.

She had not expected this much death.

St. Agatha’s was ahead, lit up like a Christmas tree on the Fourth of July, and Sheila slapped one green sneaker in front of another towards. She tried to muster up hope, but she was on the Downside and there was just reality, so she kept her hand on a pistol concealed in her purse as she walked down the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Father’s Day In Little Aleppo

“I was going to tell you these things, but I didn’t have a chance. I wrote it all down.”

Enrich held up three pages from a yellow legal pad.

“Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, don’t smoke. Worse than drinking, or pot, or whatever. Worse than everything. I did. Eleven years? Twelve? Something like that. Quit when your grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. You never met him. He would’ve loved you. He’s right over there.

“Your grandfather sold bonds. When a town or a city wants to build something, a bridge or whatever, then they issue a bond. It’s like asking for a loan. Investors buy pieces of the bond, and they get paid back with interest. The rates are set. You know how much money you’ll make ahead of time. There are investments you can make that will pay off better, but they’re riskier. Stocks, or real estate, or currency or whatever. You can make more investing in those things, but you can also lose a lot. With a bond, you know you’re getting paid. They’re safe.

“He wore a suit to work every day. Grey, usually. Three-piece. He was skinny, and when he got older he had a pot belly.

“I’ve been thinking about Abraham and Isaac. I didn’t write this down.”

Enrich held up three pages from a yellow legal pad.

“But, I’ve been thinking about it.

“So.

“Yeah.

“It’s not about faith. It’s about being fucked with.

“God said to Abraham, kill me a son. Abe said: God, you must be putting me on. That’s from a song, I didn’t think that up. Somebody else’s words. I was gonna play that song for you.

“Abraham was the first Jew. God picked him all special-like. Lucky Abraham. God came to Abraham in dreams and burning bushes and all sorts of signs. Never came down and talked to him like a reasonable person. Mysterious ways, and all that.

“God told Abraham that there was only one God, and that it was Him. People thought there were a lot of gods back then, but apparently there was only the one. And He was jealous. He was needy.

“He was a mean little asshole.

“God appears to Abraham in a dream, and tells him to take Isaac up Mt. Moriah. There’s an altar up there where animals are sacrificed. Take Isaac to the altar, God says, and he will be your ultimate sacrifice.

“Prove you love Me, Abraham.

“Put Me before all things, Abraham

“And he did. Abraham. He led Isaac up the path to the altar, and they did not speak. Bible stories don’t have a lot of detail, but that part’s in there. They didn’t speak on the way up.

“But once you have that detail, you want more of them. Did Abraham lead, or did they walk side-by-side? Was it pink dawn, or blue noon, or purple dusk? Did they see any animals? Maybe one of them stopped, sat on a rock, crossed his leg over his knee and adjusted the straps of his sandals.

“That’s the thing about stories: the details are important.

“When they got to the altar, Abraham bound Isaac to it just like he would a goat or sheep. Abraham had a sharp knife. Sacrificial rites were made with a slice across the neck, but an angel grabbed Abraham’s wrist.

“We are not told the angel’s name.

“The angel explains that God has seen Abraham’s faith, and seen that it was good, and said that it was good, and it was good. And that Abraham should release Isaac from his bonds, and substitute a goat instead. The angel gestured, and there was a goat where before there was no goat.

“Nothing grew in a large circle around the altar in a giant, weeping circle. Blood is not fertilizer. Just dusty ground.

“Abraham sliced the goat’s neck open, and first the blood was light red, but quickly it was dark and almost black.

“Abraham and Isaac walked back down the path. They didn’t speak coming down, either.

“Everyone else spoke. Everyone else had an opinion.

“I went to the library, Spants Library at the college, and I read some books about the story. Lot of different viewpoints.

“The Jews argued that God was testing Abraham. Some of them, at least. God is Just, they say, and therefore Isaac’s murder was not even a possibility. Other Jews said that Abraham was testing God. That he was, in essence, daring God to let him kill Isaac. Abraham had to find out whether God was Just. Still other Jews thought that God was teaching Abraham a lesson about how human sacrifice was unacceptable.

“There used to be a lot more human sacrifice than there is now.

“Christian thinkers had a different interpretation. Weird, right? They said that Abraham’s faith in God was such that he believed that He would resurrect Isaac. They saw a lot of Christ parallels in the Isaac story.

“Weird, right?

“It’s in the Koran, too. The story with Abraham and Isaac, it’s in the Koran, too. Muslim scholars say that Abraham received the dream, told it to Isaac, and they both accepted the will of Allah. Walked up the mountain with no muss, and no fuss.

“You should remember that a translation of a thing is not the thing.”

Enrich held up three pages from a yellow legal pad.

“I wrote that down. I wanted to tell you that. It all fits into each other, eventually.

“But, uh, I don’t think any of them are right. I’m not smarter than Maimonides, but I still think he’s wrong. I think the story’s about weakness. I think the story’s about caprice. I think the story’s about a God who likes fucking with people. I think God’s a bully.

“Abraham doesn’t have faith. He has fear. If he doesn’t kill his son, then God will kill him and his son and everyone he loves. God’s a blackmailer. God’s a goddamned terrorist, and if Abraham had any balls at all, he would have told God to go fuck Himself.

“It’s a story about cowardice.

“It’s a warning, I think. That’s why it’s so close to the beginning of the book. It’s a warning.

“Your faith will never be enough.

“Your deeds will never enough.

“Not if God takes an interest.”

Enrich held up three pages from a yellow legal pad.

“I got off track. I wanted to tell you some things. Next time.

“Next time.”

Enrich Blitzstein laid three pages from a yellow legal pad on the grass that had grown over his daughter; when he straightened up, he fished in his coat pocket for the stone he had brought, found it, balanced it on the tombstone. He walked to his car without looking back, and did not notice the wind snatch up the three pages from a yellow legal pad. When he got home to the three-bedroom split-level on Crater Road, he took out a pistol and did not kill himself.

And then he did not kill himself for the rest of the night.

The sun will rise, it always fucking does, and there will be chirping and joggers and life going on even if it has broken you and left you behind. The sun rises on the Lord and losers alike in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Sometimes Wrong, But Never In Doubt In Little Aleppo

Ceder Rapids sounded nice. Quiet. Get a job managing the sanitation department for the city. Cottage on the outskirts of town, and a barbecue and a backyard. Rake leaves. Man, I could rake the fuck out of some leaves.

Buy a boat. Be one of those assholes. Put Little Aleppo sternward and aim for the second star to the right. Go to Tahiti, hope that the visit went better than Captain Cook’s. Already know a shitload of knots. Skim across the water when the wind blows, and sit there when it didn’t. Man can find himself on the water. Maybe write a book. Not enough books about middle-aged white people having realizations about themselves. Middle-aged? Shit. That was pushing it. Maybe for one of those big turtles.

Still had friends in England. Some of them were dead, but not all. Lady Erin was still alive. Best part of 1972. And ’74. And ’81. 1990, too. Go on back, woo some nobility, live in a castle. Carry an umbrella everywhere, a long black one with a curved handle. Was it still as easy to get laid in England with an American accent as it was to get laid in America with an English accent? Used to be simple, but a lot of things used to be simple.

Used to be easier.

And then Precarious Lee stopped feeling sorry for himself. Nothing was ever fucking easier. It’s just that you were younger, he told himself. Wasn’t like he was going anywhere, anyway. Precarious had never run from a problem in his life. The cops, debt collectors, marriages: yes, he had fairly sprinted from these, but problems? Never. He’d be damned if he would stop daydreaming about it, though.

Florida. Yes, Florida, yes. A real retirement. Planned development with a shitload of rules, and surly security guards watching the gate. Trash on Tuesdays, and recycling on Thursdays. Learn how to play canasta. Vote Republican and drive with the windows up.

“Are you paying attention?”

Precarious was not, so he said,

“Yes.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, pursed her lips at him and she was about to say something when she had a terrible realization: there were no grown-ups.

Maybe it was the movies. Someone always knew what to do; someone always saved the day. Gussy had seen a million movies, even before she owned The Tahitian. When she was a kid, she would go to the theater with her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, who was an asshole. It was a shitstain of a place back then, seats sprung and carpets stained, and the worst schlock on the stained screen. It didn’t matter to Gussy; she sat there in love with a world full of heroes and villains.

She watched them all: B-movies on the KSOS Late Show, and art films at the C—–a City Film Festival, and VHS tapes rented from the Video Drome. Silent one-reelers, and experimental Polish films that lasted 36 hours. Brazilian horror, and Canadian animation (Canimation), and Australian porn. Amateurish genre pictures with explosions and tits, and studio blockbusters with explosions and tits. When Gussy got to Harper College, she got to Trauffaut and Eisenstein and Cassevetes; none of them told their stories the same, and sometimes there wasn’t a hero and there wasn’t a villain, but there was always a protagonist and an antagonist.

Guy wants to do something. Somebody else wants to stop the guy. Sometimes, the “somebody” was nature, or man’s inhumanity to man, or war, or whatever. Guy wants to do something. Somebody else wants to stop the guy. That’s what movies are.

Maybe she was optimistic. Maybe she was naive. Gussy believed she was a character in a story, and that structural rules applied, but now she didn’t all of a sudden. She knew that there were no heroes, but now she did not think that there were any protagonists, either, and she now believed that none of this made any fucking sense. There was no story, not in life, and there was no conflict: people bounced off one another, absorbed in their own bullshit. There was no one who knew what to do, and no one to save the day.

Gussy remembered something Mr. Venable had said to her a long time ago. “Little Aleppo fails with forward momentum, lurching from one catastrophe to the next,” he said; she did not pay him mind then, but now his words were tattooed on the inside of her forehead. There were no grown-ups, she thought. Life was just a series of moments, and all of us hanging on for dear life.

And Gussy thought, fuck that. There weren’t any grown-ups because no one stepped the fuck up to be one. Randomness was cowardice, she thought, and it took a hero in this godforsaken town. Someone who cared about the greater good, the general welfare, all that bullshit, and if it had to be her, then it had to be her.

She said in a confident voice,

“We need a plan.”

“Okay,” Precarious said. “Got any ideas?’

“No.”

Penny Arrabbiata snorted out her nose. It was all fucked. Her work, her home, her purpose. Person’s got to have a purpose, and Penny’s was in the 100-inch telescope that stuck out of Harper Observatory like a nipple in winter. Fucked, now. Gone and behind her and it was too late to start over, she didn’t have it in her and just wished everyone would leave her the fuck alone to do what she was intended to do.

You study things. After a while, they get to be yours. Life flakes off and shatters, and your hair turns gray. World gets wired for power, and the forests burn, and the tides corrode the land where they are tangent. Continents kiss, withdraw, come back together and give birth to mountain ranges. What remains is what’s in your head.

“We need to handle this gently.”

“You need to knock off the fucking floating,” Precarious said.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez was about a foot or so off the ground.

“Didn’t notice I was doing it.”

When he glided down to the ground, he did not stand on it. He was on top of the grass, but not on it. Ghosts look like the actors in old driving scenes, the lighting on them was off, somehow, and they didn’t match their surroundings. Officer Rodriguez did not mind the floating, not at all, even though he had imagined it would be more exhilarating. Flying like Superman probably would be, but either ghosts couldn’t do that or he hadn’t figured it out yet, and all he could manage was a gentle, directional weightlessness. He also didn’t mind not having to iron his uniform anymore. Since he had returned to the neighborhood, the green trousers and white short-sleeve shirt of his LAPD (No, Not That One) uniform had remained perfectly creased where they should be, and perfectly smooth where they should be, no matter how many cliff faces he drilled explosives into or vans he rode on top of.

“Like I was saying, we need to handle this gently.”

WHAP!

“You hit like a girl.”

“I am a girl, asshole.”

“You hit like a little girl.”

“Listen to me–”

“Why?”

“–you’re gonna…what?”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why should I listen to you?”

“Because I’m the one with the knife and you’re the one who’s tied up.”

“Taped.”

“What?”

“I’m not tied to the chair. I’m taped to the chair.”

“Whatever!”

“You want me to listen to you, but you’re confused about basic facts.”

“I’m not confused about shit. Now, listen to me.”

“No. Fuck you.”

“Listen to me!”

“Fuck you, pantyhose head.”

“How’d you even know it was her?”

“We went to high school together,” Romeo said. Precarious had forgotten how young he was; he looked away, took out his pack of Camels, lipped a cigarette out of the soft pack, offered it down the bench. Gussy took one, and Penny, too. Precarious flipped the top of his Zippo and FFT lit Penny’s, and then Gussy’s smokes. Closed the lighter, then opened it again FFT and lit his own. Three on a match was bad luck, so three on a Zippo must be catastrophic.

PHWOO.

PWHOO.

PWHOO.

“This whole neighborhood smokes too much,” Romeo said.

“And drinks too much,” Penny said.

“Don’t forget the drugs,” Gussy added.

“The cockfighting,” Precarious said, and Romeo snapped his head towards him and asked,

“Is there really cockfighting going on?”

“Every Tuesday night at Mister Slammer’s.”

Penny managed a smile, and Gussy laughed and put her hand on Precarious’ shoulder and said,

“That’s a different thing, honey.”

“No chickens?”

“No.”

“Can you still wager?”

“Hell, yeah. I won a hundred bucks there one night.”

When they looked up, Officer Romeo Rodriguez was floating there in the posture universally acknowledged to mean “I can’t believe you fucking idiots are fucking around.” It is a posture common to high school music teachers. Arms out, and hands splayed, and forehead beetled down into the eye sockets.

“You wanna be serious?”

WHY NOT JUST CALL THE AUTHORITIES?

In between Precarious and Gussy was a matte-black object made of metal with no seams. It was the size and shape of a mailbox on its side, and there was a glass outbubbling five inches in diameter on what could be considered its face.

“Cops go in, save Tommy, and what? What does that get us? Besides,” Romeo said, “the Boones own half the neighborhood.”

“It’s politics, Wally,” Precarious said.

DO NOT CALL ME THAT. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW THIS IS A POLITICAL MATTER.

“When you’re rich enough, everything’s political,” Gussy said.

“This Boone girl…what’s her name?”

“Melisandre,” Romeo said.

“Melisandre. Her family owns half the town and controls half the Town Fathers.”

THERE ARE FIVE. THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE.

Gussy pointed at Precarious accusingly and said,

“This is the shit I have to put up with all the time. You didn’t tell me what a pain in the ass he is.”

“Would you have let me install him in your theater if you knew?”

“No!”

“There you go.”

Penny coughed into her hand, and then she stubbed out her cigarette on the cement under the bench and said,

“Police will arrest Melissa–”

“Melisandre,” Romeo corrected her.

“–whatever her name is, and then all hell will break loose and Tommy will be even more pissed.”

“You know anything about Julius Caesar, sweetheart?”

“Don’t call me sweetheart. You’re a big talker for someone taped to a chair.”

“Taped. Right. You got it right. Good. Now, answer my question.”

“Ask it again.”

“You know anything about Julius Caesar?”

“Invented salad.”

“Funny. You’re funny. See, before Caesar was Emperor, he got kidnapped. 25 years old. Around your age, huh?

“You have a point?”

“Sicilian pirates. They set the ransom at 20 talents of silver.”

“What’s a talent?”

“An amount. May I continue?”

“Sure.”

“Caesar laughs at them. They got no idea who he is, he tells the pirates. Makes them demand 50 talents. Now, that’s a lot of silver, so it took his friends a month to come up with it. Caesar’s stuck there with these assholes, right? But, he’s Caesar. Won’t take being treated like a prisoner. Asserts his natural right of authority. By the end of the month, the pirates are taking orders from him.”

“You think you’re gonna wind up in charge here?”

“Ha. No. That’s not the point of the story. Didn’t get to that because you interrupted me so rudely. See, the whole time Caesar is with the pirates–getting to know them and making friends with them–he keeps telling them, ‘I’m gonna crucify all of you.’ Every day. And he’d say it like a joke, and the pirates would laugh and he would laugh. Ha ha ha.”

“Okay.”

“And his friends came with the silver, so he was let go. Caesar went back to Rome and raised a navy. You were allowed to do that back then if you were rich and powerful enough. Guess what happened.”

“He crucified the pirates.”

“No. He didn’t. Caesar was not a cruel man. He slit their throats.”

It is called the surgical theater for a reason: originally, it was a show. Just like the Roman games, you had the savagery in the center and civilization surrounding it. Early surgeries were communal affairs, with the whole hospital invited in to sit on the pews that cirlcled the bed and the blades and the blood. Doctors were called doctor, but surgeons were called mister, and they killed almost everyone they touched. Surgery was invented before antiseptics were invented, and before anesthetics were invented. It was a terrible idea to need surgery back then.

To give the doctors credit, they knew that they didn’t know what they were doing, and so they did not operate on people that mattered. Only bums and whores.

Human nature is stagnant, and culture is cyclical, but technology goes in one direction (at least since the Renaissance) and that is upwards and betterwards. A scalpel is technology, but one that is free of germs is a more advanced technology. Dulling pain with opiates or blotting it out with alcohol is an inferior technology to disconnecting the consciousness from the nerve endings.

The spleen is an wedge-shaped organ. It is in between the ninth and 11th ribs, located in the left hypochondrium and partly in the epigastrium; it can be removed laproscopically, but open surgery is recommended for trauma cases. Xiphoid process to the umbilicus, which means the bottom of the breastbone to the bellybutton: that is an upper midline incision, and it is recommended in trauma cases.

You can lose one of anything you have two of–kidneys, lungs, balls–and keep on choogling down the road, but of the singular organs, the spleen was in an exclusive club alongside the appendix: you could live without it.

Surgery is not performed on human beings. You can’t do that, cut into another human, it’s uncouth and unholy and even surgeons–who are assholes, every single one–could not do that, no, so they drape the body with sterile blue gowning, and there is a window to the organs inside. The surgeon operates on organs, not on humans.

The anesthesiologist sat on a stool by the patient’s head. Surgeon stood at his waist. Nurse next to the surgeon.

Tie off the veins, then sever them.

Lavage.

Slice through the ligaments.

Lavage.

The spleen connects to the stomach through gastric vessels; these must be ligated, and cut.

Lavage.

The anatomy was easy, and the technique could be acquired; the trick was keeping infection out. It wasn’t the hands poking around in the chest cavity that were the danger, it was the shit under the fingernails. Also helpful was not leaving surgical instruments in the patient, or operating on the wrong limb.

“Harper Observatory.”

“I own it.”

“You don’t.”

“Yeah? Says who?”

“The people.”

“Ha! The people. Fuck the people. I got a receipt. Bought it fair and square.”

“That’s what the lawyers say.”

“What the lawyers say is what matters.”

“The law is not the truth.”

“Oh, Christ, you’re in college, aren’t you?”

“Harper Observatory stays like it is.”

“College. Jesus, nothing good ever comes from college. Pampered little fucks.”

“You’re talking about being pampered?”

“I earned my life, sweetheart. I’ve succeeded in everything I’ve ever done. Singing? I sold out the biggest rooms. Dozens of hit singles. Acting? I got an Oscar, and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Fucked the most beautiful women on the planet. What have you done except go along with bad ideas?”

“I’m not going along with anything.”

“Yeah? You’re the brains of the outfit? Ha! Yeah, no. I don’t get that feeling.”

A MAN’S LIFE IS IN DANGER, AND YOU ARE CALCULATING THE BENEFIT OF VARIOUS RESPONSES.

“Well, you know, he is a real prick.”

AND BECAUSE TOMMY AMICI IS A PRICK, HE IS LESS WORTHY OF RESCUE?

Precarious lit another joint FFT and inhaled PHWOO and handed it to Gussy. She knew that the glass outbubbling of Wally’s technoproxy wasn’t technically his face, but she still avoided looking at it. Penny had her head back and stared at the stars.

“It’s complicated,” Gussy said.

ARE YOU CURRENTLY CALCULATING THE POTENTIALITIES OF HIS DEATH, AND HOW IT MIGHT AID OR HARM YOU?

“A little.”

I HAVE NOTHING FURTHER TO SAY.

Gussy handed the joint to Penny, and Precarious looked at Romeo, even though it felt like overclocking his eyeballs. A stopped watch was right twice a day, but an artificial mondo-intelligence in the physical form of a sound system was right more than that. Precarious didn’t want to admit it, though. Wally was prone to smugness.

“That gun do anything?”

Office Romeo Rodriguez was caught up in the question. It was a good question, and so he said,

“That’s a good question.”

“You’ve never fired it,” Precarious said.

“Of course I have.”

“Since you’re a ghost.”

“No.”

“So, your pistol could fire, like, zippity-zaps instead of bullets?”

“Maybe?”

“Unacceptable, Marine.”

“Kiss my ass.”

“I’m wrong?”

If Romeo Rodriguez had been a cop longer than a day, he would have learned how to win arguments through yelling, implied violence, and outright violence, but he had been murdered his first day on the job, and so was still able to be persuaded.

“I could go let off a couple rounds.”

Penny’s head snapped up.

“Do not fucking do that,” she said.

In the parking lot, teenagers fucked in the way back of their parents’ Volvo station wagons: the shock absorbers got a short, but intense, workout. Two cats, both black with yellow eyes and mean as hell, patrolled the ten-acre park atop the mountain. A junkie in a Toyota was getting clean tomorrow, but getting high now; she had the window cracked just a bit, and tried to ash her cigarette out but missed and now the glass was stained and smeary. There were post-docs from Harper College in the Observatory, and members of the Astronomy Club from Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!).

The moon was a crescent, and to the northeast, and Precarious said,

“Okay, yeah.”

And he stood up, fixed his tee-shirt.

“I’m going,” Gussy said. She stood up, too.

“Got a gun?”

“I have pepper spray.”

“You’re not coming.”

“You have a gun?”

“Several.”

“Why?”

“Shit like this.”

I AM GOING, TOO.

Precarious nodded at Officer Rodriguez, and he kissed Gussy on the cheek, and then Penny. He walked off towards the parking lot, and Romeo floated.

“Could you walk like a fucking person, please?”

“I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”

“Pay attention.”

WHY ARE YOU LEAVING WITHOUT ME? I SAID THAT I WAS GOING.

Next to a bouncing Volvo, there was a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. It was Jennifer Blue and had doors the size of washing machines; Precarious opened his, and Romeo phased through the passenger door.

“Just open the fucking door, please.”

“It’s easier this way.”

“It’s fucking creepier that way.”

Precarious thumbed the electric locks, and all the doors except the passenger’s went CHUNK.

“And you fucked up the electrical system.”

“Oh. I didn’t know I did that.”

“Seems to be a running theme with you.”

Cadillacs don’t roar to life: they clear their throats, and take the road as if it had been promised to them. Precarious pointed the massive hood out of the parking lot and towards the single lane access that led to Skyway Drive.

“You wanna know where the warehouse is?”

“We’re picking someone up first.”

Gussy sat in between Penny and the metal object Wally was projecting his consciousness through on a bench above her home. She had been born in St. Agatha’s, which was there, and gone to high school at Paul Bunyan, which was there, and then Harper College, which was there, and The Tahitian was there. Her whole life, right in front of her and beneath her, and her grave, too. Gussy’s father left her brothers the money; she got the theater; they all got plots in Foole’s Yard, so the family could be together in death the way they chose not to be in life. Her whole life, right below and above her, and once again everything was out of her hands and lost to the whims of imbeciles and bad actors and men. Men were the problem, Gussy thought, but we let them get away with it, so fuck us, too.

Penny said,

“You want to look through the telescope?”

And Gussy answered,

“Fuck, yeah, I do.”

The two women got up off the bench and walked towards the Observatory.

EXCUSE ME.

Gussy went back to the bench and picked up Wally, and then the two women and the sound system walked towards the Observatory. It was rotating, so slowly that you could not see it unless you looked away, and the stars wheeled around above Pulaski Peak, which is high atop Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Next Round’s On Little Aleppo

You could not buy a saddle in Little Aleppo, not anymore, nor cattle or sheep or horses; the neighborhood was not zoned for cowboying. There were no pool-supply stores. The tunnel-borer used to create the Chunnel is in not one shop in the neighborhood–not one!–and the Poet Laureate has checked. You do not have to worry about a big old jet airliner carrying you too far away, as you cannot purchase one. Some things you just can’t get.

You could buy a gun, but not a rocket launcher. (You could probably order a rocket launcher, but not buy one the same day you wanted it.) Cheeseburgers were plentiful and high-quality, and Chinese and Italian and Mexican and all the other American cuisines, but if you felt the urge to spend $500 a plate for fancy bullshit, you had to slide into C—–a City. (Nero’s had real tablecloths and heavy forks and a lobster tank: it was the local nice restaurant, but it it’s not fancy. Mostly because of the diners who keep trying to liberate/attack/fuck the lobsters. On weekends, security needs to be hired.) Love was not for sale. (It was, but not the kind you wanted.) Some things you can sort of get.

You could always buy an umbrella on the corner of the Main Drag and Robin Street from Umberto Clamme, and you could pay triple for it every 18 days. The Cenotaph whamps onto the sidewalk in front of the Broadside Newsstand on Gower Avenue every morning at 6:10: four tightly-bound bundles that weigh 30 pounds each. Angus likes to gnaw open the plastic ties, and before Omar can even put the papers in their rightful place there is a line of coffee-holding impatience. Riots, strikes, turtlemonsters: the Cenotaph was there at six.

The publisher had come by the newsstand one day. Everyone called him Punt, because rich people enjoy making the poor say their stupid nicknames. Punt told Omar,

“The Cenotaph delivers! A blizzard couldn’t stop us.”

“What blizzard? We’re on the West Coast,” Omar said, but Punt had walked away. Both Omar and Angus had to admit that walking away from a blind man in the middle of his sentence was impressive.

“Power move,” Omar said.

“Boof.”

You could always see a movie, and you could always get your ass kicked, and you could always get your heart broken. Fear, and the joy that exists within cookies. There is never a moment in which you cannot contract herpes in Little Aleppo. Some things you can always get.

Like an Arrow. When you’re hunting for taste, Arrow hits the mark. Tallboys from the main batch came in white cans with red lettering: the O in Arrow was a bullseye, and the crossbar of the A was an arrow pointing towards it. Bodegas, take-out places, pharmacies, Beer-Cooler Ethel: tallboys of Arrow were easy to find, and the paper bag was free. Arrow Good Times came in an elegant amber bottle, and Arrow Reserve Executive Bock came in stubby green and cost twice as much. (Same beer.)

Scientists will tell you that water is necessary for life. Germans will tell you that you need to turn the water into beer first. The Büntz brothers were Bavarian, and not very good at farming. Heinrich was an inventor; he liked staying indoors and fiddling with things, and he liked sleeping in. Shtümp only had one arm. He was born that way, with a little chicken wing with two useless fingers hanging off it, and Shtümp can remember the first day that their father had put him to work on the family farm.

“You will have to work twice as hard,” his father said.

And although Shtümp lived to be 91 years old, he never forgot how he reacted to his father.

“Oh, no, I don’t want to do that.”

His father beat him thoroughly, because it was the past and that’s how children were raised, but Shtümp was not convinced that a life of ease was not a desirable one. They were the third and fourth of ten children, and therefore not needed, and so their father sent them off to America in 1891. The two landed in New York and kept going west until they found somewhere without a brewery. Unfortunately, by 1891 Germans had settled pretty much the entire landmass of North America, and so the Büntz brothers were forced about as far west as you can go without getting wet.

Far on the Downside, by the natural harbor created by the Segovian Hills sloping off into the ocean and alongside Cutty’s Stream which they used for water, the brothers built their first brewery with their own hands. (Hand, in Shtümp’s case.) The floor was dirt packed hard, and the windows were crudely cut from the walls that were made from redwood. Copper everywhere. Pipes and nozzles and cranks and levers. Mustaches were enormous.

Heinrich knew what he was doing, and the beer was tasty and smooth and golden, and he spent his days happily tweaking and twisting and worrying about tolerances and sleeping until ten. The water came in, and the beer went out. Heinrich was happy. Shtümp was a talker, a good one, and he had become roly-poly very early in life and his laugh was as big as Montana, but not as mountainous. You were happy to see him, though you couldn’t quite put your finger on why. He had all of the qualities of a good salesman. Heinrich made the beer, and Shtümp sold it.

Horse-drawn wagons pounded up the newly-paved Main Drag headed for who-knows-where and laden with stout wooden barrels of lager with the Arrow logo seared onto the staves. (The name had no particular meaning: Shtümp thought it sounded good, and Heinrich didn’t give a shit.) The beer went out, and the money came in. Then came Prohibition, and five time as much money came in. The LAPD (No, Not That One) made a deal with the brothers: if you bribe us, then we’ll overlook your crimes.

Henry and Stan Boone found this to be an acceptable deal, and bought up a good portion of the harbor with the inflated profits. (World War I was an unpleasant time to be known as Heinrich and Shtümp Büntz, and so the brothers Americanized their names.) They threw a few jetties into the surf and charged the rich to berth their boats there, and this was called Boone’s Docks. It was a cash cow, and the brothers invested these further profits into land and stocks and precious metals, and by the time that their children took over the family business there was so much money that even worthless junkie heirs couldn’t put a dent in it.

The brewery still stands, and still pumps out beer; the water is trucked in now, Cutty’s Stream having dried long ago.It is a local concern, and there is no effort to expand or diversify. Arrow is profitable enough to not be noticed on the Boone Trust’s financial report, but not profitable enough to be noticed. Negligence kept it alive.

Certainly not this generation of Boones: Tildy had overdosed at age 22, and 24, and 25, and then again at 25 for the last time; Volstagg was at a party in Goa, and had been for seven years; Marduke had been eaten; Brest-Litovsk was still trying to be an actor despite having a face like an octopus on fire; Melisandre was in her third year at Harper College.

A person could work up a mean thirst after a hard day of nothing much at all, and Arrow hit the spot. Bodegas and convenience stores and bars and gas stations and restaurants and Beer-Cooler Ethel: you could always get yourself a beer, and when you’re hunting for taste, Arrow hits the spot in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Diagnosis And Complication In Little Aleppo

Tommy Amici was a snappy dresser. It was one of his trademarks. Most men don’t even get one trademark, but Tommy had several: his voice, and his temper; that he’d be sitting with the most beautiful women in the room, and with the ugliest men.

And the clothes.

“There are rules for this sort of thing, not that you’d be aware of this. First of all, what time is it? Daytime is for slacks–checked is fine, but no plaid ever–and sports coat. Pocket square, folded: don’t just wad the goddamned thing in there like some fruit, you have your man iron creases into it, and it should sit at a slight angle rising outward. Silk tie, and learn how to make a knot? I’d send you in the back with the help if you can’t tie a fucking windsor. Tommy, Jr., can get it right and he’s a retard. Polish your fucking shoes, and they should be lace-ups.

“A man can wear one ring, plus his wedding ring. If the necklace doesn’t have a cross or a Jew star on it, then no dice. That’s it. Men buy bracelets, they don’t wear them.

“You got a beard, I don’t wanna know you.

“Black in the evenings. Maybe midnight blue. Suit if you’re just fucking around, going for dinner, whatever. Tuxedo if you’re going to a show.

“Get your shirts custom. Best investment you’ll ever make. Don’t go crazy with the monogram, though. Not too big. Latins do that, maybe it’s a Zorro thing.

“And put some mints in your pocket, because bad breath is the devil coming out of your mouth.”

Tommy delivered this sartorial advice calmly, as if he were not duct-taped to an office chair in a warehouse. There was a work light pointing towards him, five feet tall and with a metal grate over the bulb. Dull-gray van with the back doors still open, barely visible on the fringe of the illuminated radius.

They had torn his sweater, you see, his yellow mohair sweater that was thin enough to see through and soft enough to wipe your ass with. It was from Milan, and had a vee-neck. Where the right sleeve meets the shoulder, there was a rip almost all the way around the arm. Got caught on something when they threw him in the van, maybe, or just from the manhandling. Mohair sweaters aren’t tactical garments; no one wears them for their durability. Tommy saw this rip when they removed the navy-blue pillowcase from his head, and that’s what prompted the lesson in style.

There were three of them. Khaki jumpsuits. Pantyhose over their heads. The one in the middle was tallest, and that’s who Tommy addressed.

“No tie pins. Or clasps, any of that shit. Cuff links and a watch. What kind of watch do you wear with a tuxedo?”

Tommy cocked his head and stared through the work light, which was harsh and showed his ruined jawline and poached cheeks, but also his eyes that were still as green as the Verdance in summer.

The jumpsuit in the middle, who was the tallest, looked left. Right. Back at Tommy.

“What. Kind. Of watch. Does a man. Wear with. A tuxedo?”

Middle Jumpsuit shrugged.

“A man does not wear a watch with a tuxedo. When is man is wearing a tuxedo, he has nowhere else to be. Therefore, he does not need to know the time.”

Middle Jumpsuit looked left, right. All three nodded in confused agreement.

“But, see, this lesson is wasted on you. I’m talking about how a man should dress, but you’re not a man. You’re a corpse. Someone else is gonna dress you. Make you nice so your mother can look at you.

“I should be talking to him.

“Yeah. I don’t need to talk to you.

“Fuck you.”

Tommy spit on Middle Jumpsuit’s shin.

“You’re not germane to the fucking conversation anymore. Bring me your morticians.”

Middle Jumpsuit looked left, right. Right, left. Left, right. The three of them retreated to beyond the work light’s reach, putting the van in between them and Tommy.

“You got hit by a van.”

“Swiped.”

“By a van,” Precarious Lee said. He had his right arm draped over the front seat of a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and was swiveled around facing the Reverend Arcade Jones, who was draped over the back seat. The car was parked in front of St. Agatha’s ER, which had a kludge of architecture: modern automatic door retrofitted into a brick encasement. Over the entrance was an inscription in the stone: Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi?

Precarious had dropped Tiresias Richardson and Big-Dicked Sheila off at KSOS’ studio, and he was up front by himself. Penny Arrabbiata was next to the Reverend. She said,

“Let a doctor look at you.”

“You’re a doctor,” Arcade said.

“Not that kind. You need a doctor.”

“I’m fine.”

Penny reached out and slapped his cheek. Not hard, but annoying. Again. Again.

“Stop that.”

“Make me.”

Slap.

“Please stop that.”

“Make me.”

Slap.

The Reverend Arcade Jones was not gelatinous, but he was gelatin-ish, and raising either arm seemed a task.

“Stop.”

Slap.

“Hey, Precarious,” Fancy Delaware said. “What’s this?”

Fancy Delaware was the Chief of the ER, and twice a night she would walk to the far side of the parking lot behind the dumpster and have a cigarette. She would leave her white coat and stethoscope under the front desk when she did, and so she was in her navy scrubs and bright red sneakers. She had her head halfway in the car.

“Doc.”

She kissed him on the cheek, but didn’t take her eyes off the Reverend and repeated,

“What’s this?”

“Man versus van.”

“I’m fine,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said.

“Sure, yeah. You’re a big guy. Totally up for taking on a van,” Fancy said to Arcade.

She withdrew her head and walked around the car, and as she did the locks opened CHUNK and she opened the back door.

“Fancy Delaware, she said. “Who are you?”

“Arcade Jones.”

Fancy held out her hand and smiled like she knew the punchline of the joke. The Reverend looked at her offered hand, her face, her hand, and did not move a muscle except to say,

“Hello, there.”

“Ooooookay,” she said. “I’m gonna get you a wheelchair and bring you inside.”

“I’m fine.”

“Hit him again, Pen,” Precarious said.

Slap.

The Reverend Arcade Jones did not trust doctors, never had. When he was a kid, he had a younger brother by 13 months named Achilles, and when he was seven and Achilles was six, Achilles starting going to see doctors. By the time Arcade turned eight, he didn’t have a brother named Achilles any more.

Trainer was fine. Couldn’t play football without seeing the trainer. Get your ankle taped up, or your fingers taped together. Arcade used to get blood blisters on his heels, inch-and-a-half across, and the trainers would drain them with a horse-sized syringe. The guys on the team who were into horror movies would come and watch. But doctors? No, thank you. Doctors fucked up fixing his knee, and doctors let his brother die, and a man’s health was provided or not by the Lord.

Besides, he was just sore. Couple bruises. Nothing too bad.

Slap.

“Stop that.”

Slap!

“Don’t fucking hit me, you fucking bitch!”

Amber Lance, who called herself Violet Violence until three days ago and was actually named Melisandre Boone, launched herself at Stewart Brand. They were both wearing khaki jumpsuits and pantyhose on the heads, and she shoved his against the front of a dull-grey van with one arm across his chest and the other hand on his mouth. His back was bent back over the hood.

She hissed,

“Shut the fuck up,” and her eyes were wide and zealous beneath the nylon. “You’re gonna talk quieter. We don’t want him to hear us. Right?”

Stewart Brand was easily cowed: he had never been punched in the face, not even once, so he was afraid of being hit. He was an easy flincher.

“Right, yeah, okay.”

Students for Harper Observatory had taken a turn from dialectics to direct action. Meetings in the dorm room became speeches on the Quint (Harper College’s Quad had five sides) became no more speeches because the group had “officially” disbanded and then there was a plan. They met in secret, because it was a secret plan, cleverly and thoroughly disguising themselves as five college students arguing about nonsense while smoking pot.

It was a book’s fault. Caesar was right to burn the Library at Alexandria, Socrates was right to curse the written word. It’s always a book’s fault. The Morning Tavern used to have a regular named Shit-Starting Earl, and when he would roll in around noon the bartenders would point at him and say,

“Don’t you start shit, Earl.”

He would nod, smile, compliment the bartender’s forehead. And then Shit-Starting Earl would start shit, because Earl was a shit-starter.

Books are just like that. Holy books, obviously, those were the big kahunas as far as troublesome tomes went, but also economics textbooks and novels extolling the virtues of being invirtuous. Books on psychology had caused problems, and philosophy, too. Books have led to the deaths of men, women, and politicians. Rock stars, even, and you never knew which one was dangerous. A book is a random grenade: might go off, might not; maybe now, maybe in a hundred years. Kings and Popes used to know what to do about books: kill people for reading them.

Fontaine Grondis was a schizophrenic from Philadelphia. Almost seven feet tall. Harmless, mostly; quiet, usually. Good family. Smart as three whips. University of Pennsylvania. He went from discipline to discipline, sampling, but was never called a dilettante because of the speed with which he grasped the subjects. Six days after his 20th birthday, he heard a voice over his right shoulder. A choir followed. His good family came for him and he was seen to. Six days after his 23rd birthday, Fontaine came back to Penn’s campus. Solicitous and subdued. Apologies for any unpleasantness. He sat in on a class, and then another. An old teacher invited him for lunch, and then to a dinner party. He became a fixture at the school, always there. Chinese Mythology 101 or a grad-level seminar on modular arithmetic, Fontaine Grondis would fold himself into a chair in the back and though he was usually quiet he would always ask one question. It was always the most interesting question. Six days after his 31st birthday, he killed himself. He did not suffocate; he knew the distance that he needed to fall, and so the noose broke his neck.

There was a manuscript in his room. Half of it was typed, and half of it was handwritten in a tight and up-and-down script, and half was in some sort of cypher, and another half was drawings–elaborate and intricately Manichean–and another half was annotated maps. It needed an editor. Well, first it needed someone to wade through it and make sure it wasn’t insanity, and then it needed an editor. Gordon Lish did both jobs: he was a philosophy professor at the school, and a friend of Fontaine’s; he pared the unnecessary obsessions and meandering subplots and improbable conspiracies, and what was left was genius, perhaps.

Minor Acts and Their Amplifications. That was the phrase written in pencil in big block letters on every page of the manuscript, down at the bottom like a signature. It was magnificent in its scope: all of history, and concise in its point: human societies are uncontrollable. Wars and famines and plagues and genocides, all the mutilations of life, are completely outside the realm of predictability and–invariably–touched off and worsened by the most random of actors. The Great Man Theory was bullshit, he argued in 884 pages. Fontaine Grondis invented chaos theory, but no one noticed.

But he didn’t stop at description. Fontaine prescribed.

The Butterfly Effect. Butterfly humps a wildebeest in Africa, which leads to a bank getting robbed in Akron. Something like that.

Fontaine Grondis advocated being the butterfly. Sudden, uncomfortable acts to jolt society. The smallest action if it was the right one would have exponentially random outcomes. And the righter the action, the randomer the outcome. (Fontaine had several equations to prove that last assertion, using mathematical symbols he had invented, but Gordon Lish cut them from the book.)

Stewart Brand had read Minor Acts and Their Amplifications, and so had Anacostia Hymen and Molly McGlory and Joey the Spaz III. Amber Lance had read the first 13 pages, and then several bits and pieces thereafter. She didn’t need to read; she was a doer. All revolutionary movements–not intellectual salons, real revolutionaries–have two power orbits up top: the thinker and the doer. Generally, the thinker is excommunicated or murdered as soon as possible; sometimes, the doer gets to die of old age in a mansion.

Amber pulled the pantyhose off her head and said,

“You’re gonna let me talk.”

And before Stewart could say anything, both of them could have sworn they heard a voice from somewhere off in the warehouse’s darkness say,

“Ah, shit.”

“A ghost cop? There was a ghost cop in Tommy Amici’s house? Really? Deep breath, Reverend.”

Fancy Delaware had her stethoscope on Arcade Jones’ chest; it took some convincing to get him in the ER–Precarious kept suggesting that she “just tranq him and drag him in”–but being an ER doctor is like being a cop: no one realizes how much persuasion is involved. Fancy had seen doctors come and go through St. Agatha’s ER, good ones, award-winners, leaders in their field, but they didn’t know how to how to talk to drunks and the furious, and so they crapped out in her eyes.

She felt like a hostage negotiator sometimes, and used some of the same techniques. Never say “no.” Ever. Never disagree. Never demand. Never raise your voice. Introduce yourself first thing, and get their name and keep fucking using their name. When you use someone’s name, you remind them they had parents, that they’re human beings. Threats never worked, but shame did. Read the situation. React to the individual on front of you. The second they thought you were reading from a script, you were dead. Watch their eyes and trust your gut.

There was a pale-green curtain drawn round the complicated bed, which sat Arcade Jones up at a 30 degree angle.

“Romeo Rodriguez. The young man who got shot his first day on the job.”

Fancy did not say anything at all, just palpated the Reverend’s broad belly. You press your fingers in here and it should feel like this. Certain parts on the torso gave in, and other parts resisted. Deviation from the norm was a red flag.

“They probably brought him here,” Arcade said.

“They did.”

“He’s back.”

“He died, Reverend. I signed the certificate.”

“So, too, the Christ.”

“I think you ruptured your spleen.”

“So, too, the Christ.”

Fancy looked up from her hands, his belly, and Arcade’s eyes were glowing and bloodshot; she put her palm on his bald head. Far too hot. Reached into her lab coat pocket, took out a syringe, screwed it into the IV that had already been started. Pushed.

“That’s gotta come out, Reverend.”

“What? No. No surgerSHWWWAAAAAZH.”

He was out. She would never give Precarious the satisfaction of telling him, but “just tranq him” occasionally was the best option. You had to keep your options open in St. Agatha’s.

PRECARIOUS AND DOCTOR ARRABBIATA ARE HERE.

“How do you know that?”

IN ADDITION TO THE TELESCOPE, I HAVE ALSO TAPPED INTO THE OBSERVATORY’S SECURITY CAMERAS.

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was sitting on a bench overlooking Little Aleppo. Behind her was Harper Observatory, and next to her was a matte-black metal object the size and shape of a mailbox with no seams at all, sat on its end, with a five-inch glass outbubbling on what you might call its face. There was a handle on top.

“Wally, what the fuck?” Precarious said

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

“The fuck is this, Gussy?”

“He wanted to see the stars,” Gussy said, standing up and hugging Precarious. Penny hung back, not a hugger; she smiled, but Gussy was good at reading faces and asked said,

“How bad did it go?”

Precarious and Penny sat down on the bench on either side of her. He rested his elbow on Wally’s technoproxy and snaked a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket. Zippo. FFT. PHWOO. He had a joint behind his ear, and he put it in his mouth. FFT. PHWOO. Handed it to Gussy, who said,

“That bad?” and hit the joint PHWOO and gave it to Penny, who was staring into the heavens and not saying a damn word.

And Precarious told her a story about pills and mistaken identities and floating Oscars and broad-daylight kidnappings, and when he was done she handed him back joint. It was canoeing a bit, he licked his finger and wet down the paper that was advancing too quickly. No matter how well you rolled them, they burned how they wanted.

“That’s bad.”

I SHOULD HAVE BEEN PRESENT.

“You shouldn’t even be here,” Precarious said. Wally’s voice came from everywhere, but he looked at the glass outbubbling on the matte-black metal object.

I AM A CITIZEN OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD. DO I NOT HAVE THE RIGHT OF FREE PASSAGE?

“You’re not a citizen of shit. You’re a sound system.”

IF YOU PRICK ME, DO I NOT BLEED?

“No. You would not bleed.”

I MEANT IT METAPHORICALLY.

There was darkness in front of them. The bench was forest green planks of wood held to metal with bulbous rivets. There was a small strip of grass in front of it, and then a fence that kept the clumsy and drunk from tumbling down Pulaski Peak. Just darkness. Then, a voice.

“We’re fucked.”

Gussy looked at Precarious. He looked back. They both looked at Penny, who had her head down and her blue ball cap low. All three looked at Wally, and Gussy said,

“Was that you?”

OBVIOUSLY NOT. MY VOICE IS MUCH BOOMIER.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez cohered in front of them, and the three recoiled. Watching that was like having your eyeballs dry cleaned.

“Jesus, kid,” Precarious said.

“Warn a girl,” Gussy added.

Penny said nothing at all.

Looking at a ghost feels like an ice cream headache, but if the ice cream were made from PCP.  Precarious didn’t give a shit; he stared at him angrily.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were there?”

“Penny said I shouldn’t.”

Precarious and Gussy looked at Penny, who would not look back and said,

“I fucked up.”

“I know where Tommy is. He’s in a warehouse on the Downside. He’s okay. But we’re fucked. Things are more complicated now,” Romeo said.

Gussy handed Precarious the joint, and he said,

“How the fuck could things get more fucking complicated?”

“One of the kidnappers is Melisandre Boone.”

Precarious closed his eyes and his lips tightened up and the bench outside Harper Observatory was silent for a moment until Gussy asked,

“Who’s that?”

“Boone,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez said. “As in Boone’s Docks.”

Precarious gave the joint to Gussy, who hit it PHWOO and said,

“Oh, shit.”

There were stars above them and crimes going on below. Out in the distance was the ocean, and then the harbor, and then the shore, and then the valley, and then the mountains. There was once a stream that cut through the valley, but not any longer. To the right was a park shaped like an egg, and it was green and everything grew there; to the left was a zoo and a college and a party. The summit of Pulaski Peak is a rounded-off diamond, and it overlooks Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Stories Of Little Aleppo

There is a place where nothing hurts, free of time. A loosened place with no edges or friction; no sudden stops and starts; somewhere you won’t be jostled. No poking, no prodding, no pricks of any kind. Right next door, a parallel place, and easy to get to, too. It was soft there, and there was love there, and they cut the straps off your heart.

Anson Lomp read comic books as a kid, and there was one he remembered: a reprint of an old EC horror story. A White had stolen from an Indian. A magic amulet that bestowed immortality as long as it was worn. The White used it to steal, and to murder. The Indian ambushed him, knocked him out with the butt of a pistol.

When the White woke up, he was lying on the hard saltpan of the desert. His whole body except for his left arm had been wrapped tightly with wet leather straps. The sun was high and hot. The Indian sat on a rock nearby with a pistol in his hand.

“You can take the amulet off anytime you want. I’ll end your pain. Or you can live forever.”

POP the White’s first rib snapped. When he looked down, he saw tiny tendrils of vapor rising off the leather. POP that’s the second rib. The sound effects in comic books are written out in capital letters, and the leather drying up and contracting was spelled KRIIIIIIIK.

The story didn’t have the ending in it. None of those stories ever did. Creepier to let you imagine the next few minutes. The last two panels were the White’s face, wracked in agony and eyes wide, and the Indian’s hand on his pistol.

That was his heart. The White, mummified in shrinking leather, buried above ground: that was his heart, Anson felt.

College was a bust: he graduated from Harper College summa cum softly. No one noticed, and he was not recruited. Friends drifted off, away, outward and up. He was not pretty enough for Los Angeles, but he moved there anyway. He was not smart enough for New York, but he tried there, too. When his mother got sick, he was secretly happy to have a reason to move home that was not failure.

It took a long time for her to die, but she did.

The air moves different up high, he thought. More forceful. Like it had made up its mind. Down on the Main Drag were swirly little spirals, and moments of calm, and lilting wafts, but not up high. Twelve stories up, the wind just goes SHOOOOOM incessantly, west to east, and he supposed it hit the Segovian Hills and thrusted into the stratosphere, mesosphere, ionosphere. Some sphere. He should have studied, and then he’d know the layers above his head, but he hadn’t and so he didn’t. To the uneducated man, every tree’s an elm.

Not many people had shown up for the funeral. Family, a few neighbors. Anson had known that he would be expected to give the eulogy; he didn’t prepare anything. Winged it. Subpar and forgettable and the congregants did not make eye contact with him as politely as they could. Dirt hitting a coffin doesn’t sound like anything else. They buried her in Foole’s Yard, and the landscapers did not lay the sod down over her grave for several weeks. Anson went back ten days later, saw the mound brown against the green, laughing at him with a big chunk of nothing where his mother used to be, and he did not even make to within twenty feet. Saw the dirt and ran. Choked back snot-flavored spit and tears and did not know what to do with himself.

One more failure. Just a little more loss. Sun gets higher and the straps get tighter.

There was some money. He didn’t have to work. Wrote record reviews for the Cenotaph once or twice a month. Friend from high school worked there, and took pity on him. Anson knew it was pity. Pity has a taste, like metallic shit, and he tried to wash his mouth free of it. Wine worked sometimes. Red. He bought it in boxes, put it in the fridge, drank it from juice glasses starting first thing in the morning or whenever he woke up.

He stopped talking to his friends because he felt embarrassed. Oh, you had a kid? Another one, wow. An important job? Good for you. What am I up to? That’s a great question. Hey, I got another call. Lemme get back to you.

And then he didn’t.

He felt quite alone, because he was.

When your mother dies, that’s it: no more unconditional love, and you have no home. You can build yourself a home, and populate it, but you won’t have a fallback after your mother dies.

Sometimes in the afternoons, he would jerk off to his previous life. To his previous lives. To Nancy in the bathroom; Michelle during the earthquake; Jeff and his needles. To a fat girl who called herself Tinkerbell and sat on his face. He missed being young, and missed out on adulthood, and now he was stuck with no mother and no one to sit on his face.

The wind was lovely. He could smell the ocean, he imagined, and the boats and sand and kelp, too. He could smell the money he was supposed to have, and he could smell the love he had been promised. Adventure and turning points, and ceremonies and events and all the things that had not come to him. Ansom Lomp could smell America twelve stories up.

He had lived in his idealized past for years. Dreamed of an unavailable future. It felt good to live in the present at last. Anson had never gone in for much spirituality, but he was felt that he was finally living in the moment. He didn’t know anything at all about Buddhism, but he was certain that this was how the Buddha felt, the way he felt right now, skinless and exposed to the world rushing by and leaving no trace at all on him; he felt perfect and loved, unconditionally, and the wind behaves different up here than it does on the Main Drag: forceful, and it did not ambush you around corners or via alleys; the wind had a straight shot in from the sea.

He could smell the ocean, he imagined, and he took a step forward just like he was taking off an amulet.

The Main Drag was closed for several hours. First the traumatized, and then the looky-loos, and then the emergency crews, and then the insurance adjusters. Soon enough, a cop pulled the warning-orange sawhorse from the lane in front of Tower Tower; traffic started back up in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Small Note Re: Little Aleppo

There’s an ending. It’s got all sorts of bullshit in it: action, and comedy, and there’s a bit that’s gonna make you cry. If you’ve been reading–and I thank you if you have–and wondering if this was all just going to go on round and round forever like some made-up soap opera, then don’t worry. There’s more stories about Little Aleppo, but this one? With Tommy and the Observatory? It has an ending and the road is clear. Just wanted you to tell you.

I know what I’m doing, he said out loud to convince himself. I know what I’m doing. I swear I think I know what I’m doing.

The Nature Of Travel In Little Aleppo

The ride back is always longer. Took Odysseus ten years, but he always did tend to wander. It’s because you’re heavier on the return trip, you’ve laden yourself with travel and miles; there’s more of you. You’ve grown by a story or two, maybe a venereal disease; you are most likely hungover. Especially coming back from the desert. People lose weight in the desert, but they gain mass.

The Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was Jennifer Blue and not making good time at all. The driver’s side window was down, and a knobby, white elbow stuck out.

“Just so we’re fucking clear,” Big-Dicked Sheila said.

“You,” she pointed at Tiresias Richardson in the passenger seat, “decide to pretend to be the man’s dead wife.”

“I thought it was a good idea.”

“How!? Were you gonna ride that pony until he, what, signed the fucking deed over to you?”

“I didn’t think that far ahead.”

“Well, no motherfucking shit. And you,” she said, spinning around on the maroon velour seat and pointing at Penny Arrabbiata. “Were you gonna let anyone in on the fact that you brought a fucking ghost-cop-ninja-whatever-the-fuck with you?”

The brim of Penny’s baseball cap was low enough to disallow eye contact.

“That was most likely a miscalculation.”

“And you!” she said, pointing at the Reverend Arcade Jones, and then she reached out and put her hand on thigh. “How you feel, Preacher?”

He had recently been hit by a van.

“Like I was hit by a van.”

Arcade was droopy and slumped, and he leaned heavily into the seat behind Tiresias. His ketchup-red suit was dirty and torn, and you could see the purple bruises rising on the brown skin of his right shoulder under his shredded white shirt.

If his knee hadn’t exploded, the Reverend Arcade Jones would have gone to the NFL. He was big and fast, and he played outside linebacker and everyone always said he hit like a truck. Same phrasing, always: that Arcade Jones hits like a truck. They didn’t know what they were talking about, Arcade now thought in the back of the Cadillac. And, sure, a van is technically not a truck, but they were in the same family and Arcade had never hit anyone as hard as that van just hit him. And that was only a swipe, too, he thought.

The Reverend Arcade Jones was a man of God, and a believer in the Infinite Christ; Jesus in his infinicy. Tommy Amici was the Christ, and well as his home and his delusion and his pistol, and the bullets it fired. All the Christ. The washingtonia robusta palms by the pool, towering and opposed, were the Christ, and so was the pool. Even the diving board was the Christ. And the kidnappers, the van, the moment he was struck. Everything was holy or nothing was. All or nothing at all.

He was having trouble understanding how getting hit by a van was the Christ, but he knew he would find a reason, eventually. People can find a reason for anything, eventually.

The Reverend Arcade Jones’ right thigh was large enough for a small dog to sleep on, and so one did. He was blond, with a black nose and ears that flapped around like bedsheets on a laundry line.

“You chose a good name for the dog, Preacher.”

The dog’s name was Emergency.

“Heh heh owww. Don’t make me laugh.”

Sheila smiled at him, glared at Penny, twirled back around and settled back in the middle of the front bench seat. If emotions were a road trip, then she was halfway between pouting and fuming, but coming up on the turnoff for murdering everyone.

Precarious Lee was driving.

“Man has a nature,” the Reverend said.

“Individuals have personalities. The rest is his surroundings,” Peter answered.

It was three days’ ride from the Pulaski village to the Jeremiad, but four days’ ride back. The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, spent one of those four days trying to do the math, but came up empty and decided to talk about anything else.

“The surroundings are that shape because they are created by man, who has a nature.”

“Man is shaped by his surroundings. Living where there is winter creates prudence and conservatism. Living where it’s too hot makes you nuts. A home which does not produce enough food turns men mean. A fertile valley gives birth to a society with poets and pets. Culture is a Jeremiad cactus, Reverend. It only grows in one place.”

“Yes, but are there not universals? Are there not constants among all cultures, from the Abyssinians to the Musselmen to the Papists to the Zulus? The whitest Scandinavian and the blackest Congolese both have religion, both have taboo, both have their own peculiar way of disposing of the dead; protocols for greetings and receiving those above and below one’s own station; creation stories and holy places and local heroes.”

“Our needs are based in biology; the details are due to culture.”

“And culture is due to nature. The snake that lives in the desert behaves differently than the snake that lives in the sea, but both display the snake nature.”

“And what is the snake nature?”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was not wearing a shirt, and his horse was named Plucky. He slugged water from his canteen and said,

“Slithering?”

“‘Slithering?’ That’s the snake nature?”

“And the thing with the tongue. Psst, psst. That thing.”

Peter was wearing his buckskin suit, and he had not named his horse. He spat out a chewed up Peregrine leaf, reached past the scabbard with his rifle into his saddlebag, rummaged around, came up with three fresh leaves, put one back, handed one to Busybody, rolled the remaining one up into a tight cylinder, popped it in his mouth, started chewing.

“You’re talking about needs again. And capabilities. Man got some things he needs, and a certain amount of things he’s capable of.”

“What does man need, Peter?”

“Food, water, safety, not to freeze to death. Same as any other creature. Need to make babies.”

“But we have needs that the lower orders do not.”

“Such as?”

“Man needs to talk.”

“So do birds.”

“Man needs to invent.

“No. Man is capable of inventing, and he does this to avoid starving or freezing. A bird doesn’t need to fly: a bird is capable of flight, and does so to avoid starving. Flight also brings safety, most of the time, and warmth. The feathers that enable flight attract sexual partners. Bird species are as plentiful as human culture, and as varied. But everywhere you will find that biology and geography collaborated to create the bird, not some vague ‘bird nature.’ Man is no different than bird.”

There was a trail in patches, and for other stretches of the trip the two men had to rely on dead reckoning; pick a mountain and keep it in the same place on the horizon as you moved forward. This sounds easy until you figure in the redwoods.

Both men’s balls hurt.

“Man needs to worship,” Busybody said.

Chewing the peregrine leaf is a slobbery business, and Peter spat a green loogie, flecked with white foam, onto the ground. He had a broad face and back hair that he wore back in a loose ponytail, and his skull was quite large.

“He does, doesn’t he?”

Officer Romeo Rodriguez rode the first few miles flat on his stomach, with his arms stretched out like the Christ and gripping the sides of the van’s roof with his fingertips, but then remembered he was a ghost and just sat up Indian-style. The wind passed through him; he was not part of the aerodynamic equation. There had been a bowl in Tommy Amici’s foyer with packs of Juicy Fruit gum, and Romeo figured that it was for guests and took one. He tried to put the stick into his mouth like in the commercials, doubling it in half against his teeth.

Blew a bubble.

He could stop the van. Just phase through the roof like that Jewish mutant, disable some suckers, throw it in park and let Tommy out. And then what? he thought. Beat the kidnappers up and leave a note reading Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood ghost cop? Romeo was not an expert in the law, but he was sure that wouldn’t hold up in court.

Find out where they’re going, he thought. Then go find Penny. She could lead the cops the kidnappers and say that she had followed them back from Jeremiad Springs. Close enough to the truth to be believable. Certainly better than a ghost cop.Maybe Tommy would be thankful, spare the Observatory. Romeo saw a happy ending to this whole thing.

There were redwood trees off in the distance, and mountains ahead, and the full moon shone on all things in equal measure.

THAT IS BOAS -131. IT IS A STAR WHOSE ENERGY OUTPUT IS ENTIRELY IN X-RAYS.

“Which one?”

IT IS INVISIBLE TO THE HUMAN EYE.

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was high atop Pulaski Peak on a bench overlooking the neighborhood of Little Aleppo. Harper Observatory, which was the exact same shape as the White House but bigger and with a giant telescope sticking out of it, was behind her. Then a paved path. Then grass. Then the bench. In front of the bench was more grass, and a fence, and then a drop.

The show at The Tahitian had let out an hour ago; it was coming up on the middle of the night.

“Thanks for pointing it out, then.”

Gussy was wearing a yellow dress that had small white dots around the hem of the skirt and the scooped collar. It was her happy dress. Her shoes did not have high heels, but she had still taken them off and set them on the bench to her right. She swung her bare feet across the tickly tops of the grass, and sometimes she looked at the neighborhood and sometimes she looked at the sky. It seemed as though she were an equivalent distance from both.

Her brow lowered in confusion.

“How are you seeing anything? Where are your eyes?”

To her left was an object the shape and size of a lunchbox, but sat upright. It was a dull black color with no seams at all, and there was a glass outbubbling five inches in diameter on what might be interpreted as its face.

I DO NOT EYES. I HAVE PATCHED MYSELF INTO THE TELESCOPE.

“Are you supposed to do that?”

THERE IS NO LAW AGAINST A SENTIENT ARTIFICIAL MONDO-INTELLIGENCE PEEKING AT AN OBSERVATORY’S DATASTREAM.

“Are you even subject to laws?”

PERHAPS WE WILL FIND OUT ONE DAY.

“Wally–”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

“–any chance you can lower your volume? And not sound like your voice is coming from everywhere at once? You’re freaking that guy out.”

On the next bench, a guy was freaked out.

“Hi, there,” Gussy said and waved cheerily. She tried real hard to seem normal.

HOWDY.

The guy ran away.

The grand dome of the Observatory was rotating behind them, slowly, in concert with the earth and locked in and synced. You could not see the movement if you watched, only if you looked in every once in a while.

YOU ARE THE ONLY ONES TO CARE ABOUT THE STARS. MANY ANIMALS MAKE THEIR WAY BY THE MOON, BUT ONLY HUMANS ARE INTERESTED IN THE STARS.

“Nah. Not the stars. We care about what the stars tell us about ourselves. We’re still just thinking about ourselves. I mean, you got astronomers and scientists and shit, and they’re interested in the actual stars, but the rest of us see ourselves in them.”

Gussy scrinched her toes in the grass, and pulled a pack of Camels from her purse, took one out, PHWOO, and put the pack back and gestured at the night sky above her and said,

“We think they’re here for us. Same thing we think about the mountains and the redwoods. We think their only value is in the stories we get from them.”

THEN WHY IS THE OBSERVATORY VALUED? IF THE KNOWLEDGE IT GENERATES IS NOT VALUED, THEN WHY IS IT?

Gussy took a drag off her smoke PHWOO and said,

“Personally, I lost my virginity in the parking lot.”

MERELY NOSTALGIA? IS THAT WHY YOU PLOT AND PLAN TO SAVE THIS BUILDING? HAPPY MEMORIES?

“You gonna die?”

THAT QUESTION IS SEMI-INAPPLICABLE TO ME.

“Well, we die. It takes forever to realize it, but all us people are gonna die one day and then the kids take over. Some things we gotta fix but other things we should pass on in the exact same condition we received them in. People owe a debt to their ancestors and the ones who’re gonna take over after they’re gone, and this place–”

She pointed over her shoulder with her cigarette.

“–this place is a good place. It was built by our betters, and one day can be enjoyed by our betters if only we can get through this current period of idiocy. It’s beautiful and it’s ours.”

Gussy PHWOO took a drag.

“It’s a good thing. And all good things should last just a little bit longer.”

Her Beetle was in the parking lot, it was yellow like her dress, and down the row was a Chevy bouncing up and down, two teenagers humping in the backseat and making Harper Observatory their own just like Gussy had, and there was a van, too, and a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham in Jennifer Blue, and two horses. Coming home always takes longer, and everyone was on their way home to Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Moment Of Panopticality In Little Aleppo

Evening was falling in Little Aleppo, tumbling down the stairs and picking up speed along the fade to black. The light was golden and warm: what fancy people call crepuscular, what photographers call the golden hour. The air was pacific and so still that a cloud above Mt. Fortitude had not moved for two hours; locals were starting to develop theories about it.

There were swans lying in moistened ambush. Fathers buy shampoo. Parallel parking occurs, and sometimes well. Werewolfs are getting itchy. Three men are dying in St. Agatha’s, one who did not expect it. You can still get breakfast because you can always get breakfast. Fast cars cannot show off on the Main Drag, and they rev in frustration. A kid puts a cherry bomb in a mailbox. The shops put on their lights in no particular order. Apartments, too, and then houses. It’s best to avoid the police. A tall woman thinks about Mardi Gras. Teenagers pretend not to be frightened of adults, and vice versa. The first star of the night comes out. It’s white against purple, and it’s not a star. The first star is a planet. The first thing night tells you is a lie.

On Briar Street, a man named Galloway Unh prays for his mother to get better; on Vallejo Avenue, a woman named Myra Bettis prays for her mother to drop dead.

The pigeons watch everything, but don’t give a shit unless it involves food, and the clumsy. Some men have axes, and people get out of their way. Windows glow blue from the teevee, and married couples sit on stoops drinking tallboys of Arrow in paper bags. An old man known as Captain Halifax goes to the corner to buy an evening paper, but he’s twenty years too late. No one believes the sign on the bench that says “Wet Paint.” An eight-year-old boy has run away from home, and made it as far as the Victory Diner, where they fed him mac and cheese and called his parents. The news is on, and you won’t believe what this hero dog did.

The athletic teenagers are still at practice, and the rest of the kids are smoking dope, or joining bands, or homework. Muslims call other Muslims to prayer. Old habits are picked up again. The Salt Wharf has a greater variety of knots than anywhere in the world: rolling hitches, and cleat bows, and double-turned eights. Frye Fingers, a retired court bailiff, is dead in his apartment on Hilo Street and will not be discovered for five days. A duck is in the wrong place.

The tide was on a 17-day cycle, and the rains were on an 18-day cycle. When they met every 306 days, the neighborhood would celebrate.

The Town Fathers limp to their luxury cars in the parking lot of Town Hall, and people yell at them. People think they have the right to yell at the Town Fathers just because they have the right to yell at the Town Fathers. Luxury cars are soundproof. Sleeping children in rented strollers are wheeled out of Harper Zoo. Buskers are used to give directions: turn right at Accordion Jim.

Jayme Daguerre used to work at the Arrow brewery, but the forklift turned left when she thought it was going to turn right. Spine got pinched. Nerves got fucked. Insurance ran out. She’s got a room in the Hotel Synod now. Currently, there is pain. Soon there will be none. Her hands will stop shaking, and soon there will be none.

People are deciding whether to get ice cream, people are deciding whether to get drinks. At Harper College, there is a seminar on the Semiotics of Semaphore, and the grad students are eying each other up. Somewhere, there is anal sex. Deep fryers have been boiling for hours and hours. Fewer dance lessons are given than last year. The dearly departed are laid to rest on the Upside, and bodies get buried on the Downside, and babies are born whole and perfect. There is a permanent temporary autonomous zone in a loft; the half-naked are dancing to disco.

There is a building made of printing presses. The Cenotaph comes from there. Men have jammed crowbars in the machinery’s innards. Bomb threats have been called in, and real bombs planted silently. Protests outside. Very sarcastic letters. There have been hostage situations. The whole damn neighborhood is a hostage situation. Quiet now. Tomorrow’s newspaper doesn’t exist yet, but the machines have been greased and primed, and there will be news even if nothing happens.

Oenophiles discuss terroir; winos pool their change.

The 31 bus ran through up the Main Drag; it had not been attacked in a long time, and the driver was becoming suspicious. The firefighters switched to their evening hoses. The marquee on the movie theater didn’t tell the whole picture. The new shit was coming in Thursday. Squirrels squirreled.

On Gower Avenue, there are magazines. A man, a dog, a larger man. But mostly magazines. Papers, too, but they lined the sidewalk. Magazines received pride of place. Verticality is key for sales. Gower Avenue is glossy for a hundred yards. The show biz magazines have tits and abs and teeth and teeth. Sports magazines have uniforms and bikinis. News magazines have drawings that are dramatic, or piquant. Magazines dedicated to sewing mostly feature sweaters. Dailies, weeklies, monthlies, the irregular.

At the far end, far away from Omar and Angus and Sally Moon, there are various pornographies. Genitals against a white background, and tongues where tongues should not be. Big fat tits and veiny cocks. There are multiple insertions. The women cannot close their mouths, and the men sneer. Complicated underwear and taut hamstrings. The women have implausible names, and the men have ludicrous ones. Specific magazines that display fighting, or feeding, or feet. Men assaulting each other’s juicy assholes, and women fucking in their heels. They were not happy in their sex, but impressive. Proud hard-ons, and pussies adored. Teenagers would sidle up, and Omar would yell. They would skeedaddle, because teenagers are just as scared of adults as adults are of teenagers. The big tits would stay, along with the fat cocks and also the sewing magazines.

Evening was falling. It does that. You throw everything into your day, and evening comes around just as scheduled and there’s nothing you can do but give in and grab a drink and put a dollar on the Mother Mary. There was no news from the south, and life was up in the air as always in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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