Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 4)

Little Aleppo, Crowd-Sourced

Eight o’clock in Little Aleppo, and some is well, the Town Crier muttered as he walked down the Main Drag ringing his bell. Not all, never all. Sometimes nothing is well, but never all. Perfect happiness can be described, pictured, doodled on the back of a gas bill, but never achieved and this, the Town Crier continued with his chin down, was the root of all humanity’s problems: not that there was a chasm between the ideal and the actual, but the awareness of the chasm itself. The Town Crier could mutter in italics; it would be a neat party trick if he ever got invited to parties. He shuffled north towards the Upside of the neighborhood, and all the church bells tolled for him.

Years ago, the Town Fathers had redlined all the religious institutions onto Rose Street, which was across the Main Drag from Town Hall. Churches, synagogues, mosques, whatever, are tax-exempt and that includes local property tax. And there would be no extra-legal revenue, either: even Little Aleppo cops wouldn’t shake down a church.

So, they figured: all the churches, synagogues, mosques, whatever, go on one street and then–and this is the fun part of the plan–they could ignore the street. No repaving, streetlights, nothing: not one cent for those mooching moralists.

The churches, synagogues, mosques, whatever, moved in and immediately showed the Town Fathers the flaw in the plan, which is that not having to pay taxes leaves you with a lot of money to pay lawyers. (Although to tell the truth, the churches could have hired a much cheaper attorney, as the plan was so patently illegal that the judge threw his gavel at the Town Fathers’ lawyer, hard.) Rose Street was paved regularly to a silky smoothness.

But the circumscription on building remained, and so all the consecration was penned in on one street; a little holy neighborhood in the middle of an unholy one, sanctum standing shoulder-to-shoulder with sanctuary and shul. It was homey, and pastors would borrow cups of Bibles from each other. Interfaith cookouts were held regularly.

St. Clement’s, and St. Martin’s, and St. Mary’s. The Mt. Olive Holy Roller Praiseworthy Chapel of the Anointed and Most Sanctified Nazarene was on the corner, but the sign went halfway down the street. Al-Alamut Mosque was next to the Jewish temple, Torah Torah Torah. The Jains had a building that was very plain; the Greek Orthodox church was iconic.  And every hour on the hour, from eight in the morning until eight at night, the church bells tolled the time, slicing the day up into digestible chunks and scaring the crap out of dogs and nappers.

By tradition, the first bell to ring–just by a second–was the Calling Judge, ten tons of brass in the belfry of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, which was the first church in Little Aleppo. Technically, the building was the fifth First Church; the first First Church had been founded on a rock in the church’s courtyard by a guy named Peter before any white men lived in the area, except one.

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was not a bad rider, but he looked ridiculous perched on his horse. They had walked from the Pulaski village into C—–a City to hire horses from the livery, and the only two mares available were massive beasts; Peter had to boost the preacher up into the saddle, and he looked a child getting a horsie ride at the zoo. Busybody’s horse was white; Peter had a palomino. From the livery, they had ridden east for two days, and they had one more day of traveling until they got to the Jeremiad in the Low Desert.

As he rocked back and forth in the saddle, Peter thought about trains. Much better than a horse. Faster, more comfortable. You could read a book, or eat something. Or just sleep. Wouldn’t that be nice, he thought. Close your eyes and snore your way to your destination. Peter had never been on a train that had broken its leg 30 miles outside of Cheyenne in November, and he didn’t have a scar on his right shoulder from where a train had bitten him for damn reason. What if, he thought, you took the train off the tracks? Made it so you could steer the thing, carved out some paths for it, go wherever you wanted. Someone should get on that, he decided. Peter had not named his horse.

“Is Plucky the Christ?”

“Stop calling it that.”

The Reverend had named his horse Plucky.

“She, first of all. And I will not stop calling her Plucky. That’s her name. She’s a horse of distinctive gumption. Imagine what stories she could tell.”

“Stories? ‘Guy sat on my back and I walked for a while. Took a shit. Ate hay. Walked some more.’ Those are the entirety of a horse’s stories.”

Peter was wearing his buckskin suit with the fringes cut off, and there were two scabbards attached to his saddle, one on each side, a shotgun and a rifle. Busybody had on his one suit of clothes, and he had a pistol in the holster strapped to his waist. (Peter had bought him a gunbelt and holster in C—–a City because he couldn’t bear looking at him wearing the gun like a purse anymore. The Pulaski wove dried dogbane stalks into rope, and Busybody had tied a length to the Colt and slung it over his shoulder; the revolver bounced off his hip when he walked, and Peter knew that he wouldn’t be able to take three days on the trail of that bullshit.)

“I believe that Plucky is the Christ, Peter.”

“The horse is indeed the Christ.”

“Then why do you think so little of her?”

“Because in addition to being the Christ, it’s also a horse.”

“So, do all beings have an animal-nature and a Christ-nature?”

“Yes,” Peter said, reaching into his saddle bag for a fresh Peregrine leaf. “All that lives can pray, and all that lives must shit. God is in the prayer, and in the pile. But even the most base and savage impulses contain the Christ. Fucking leads to joy, which is the Christ, and fucking makes babies. To create life is surely the Christ, Reverend.”

“Surely.”

“Shit is fertilizer. Shit fuels the earth, and nothing would be green without it. Shit allows for life. Is that not the Christ?”

“Life is the purest Christ, Peter. The only Christ.”

“The only Christ, yes. Something where there was nothing. Value from the void. The Christ lies in poetry and ritual, in everything that is beautiful, but the same Christ manifests through fucking and shitting.”

Oaks and nutmeg trees were giving way to sage and chaparral and serviceberries and sugarbushes. The sky had paled to the color of a blind dog’s eyes; it was tough to make out the clouds. A small stream was running fast and clear; they stopped, Peter dismounted, helped Busybody down.

“Make sure all the canteens and jugs are full.”

“You said we were going to a spot with water.”

“That’s for the horses. It’s a little spring, and I don’t know if it’ll kill you.”

“How do we know the stream water won’t kill us?”

“It’s running,” Peter said, and knelt down and drank.

Busybody did not know enough about waterborne parasites to argue.

“I’m still going to drink cactus water.”

“Go ahead.”

“I read about that in a paperback novel.”

Peter sat back on his heels and wiped his chin with the back of his hand.

“Reverend! What are you doing reading that trash?”

“Oh, no. Well, yes. Most of those dreadful things are trash. But not the Stanton Box books,” Busybody said.

“Stanton Box, the Pistol-Packin’ Preacher?”

“Yes, he’s wonderful. Town to town spreading the Good Word. He gets in adventures. Helps out widows and children. Converts Indians. And he’s clever, too. He’s always getting into jams and using his brain to get out. Like the cactus water. You can cut into a cactus and drink from it.”

“He got stuck in the desert?”

“Several times. Bad guys leave him out there to die a lot. They always seem to leave him with his knife, though.”

“That’s why I don’t read that crap. You want someone dead, you shoot him. Don’t leave him in the desert. You can leave his body in the desert, but you really have to shoot it a couple times first,” Peter said as he took his shirt off and washed himself off with water from the stream.

“Well, it’s just a story. Wouldn’t be right to kill off someone the readers liked.”

Penny Arrabbiata stood at the back of the First Church of the Infinite Christ with a cup of coffee and remembered why she lived on top of a mountain. The way they attacked those snacks, she thought. Not to mention the soft drinks. Penny was quite sure that she had seen a gown woman knee a child in the head to get to a communal bowl of pretzels.

As she walked in, she had said hi to Deacon Blue but he hadn’t noticed as he was 86’ing a man who had tried to siphon all the orange drink into containers concealed in his pants.

“It’s just flavored powder dumped in water!” the deacon said as he dragged the guy out by the collar.

“But it’s freeeeeeeeee! It’s freeeeeeeee!” the guy answered.

Every time Penny came down Skyway Drive, she just wanted to go right back up.

“Dr. Arrabbiata.”

“Venable.”

“I used your title. You could return the courtesy.”

“Jackass.”

“Better.”

Mr. Venable and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, were late and had been bickering. Now that they were here, they were still bickering. She was carrying something the size and shape of a shoe box, held vertically.

“There are no snacks left, Gussy. I am snackless.”

“I have heard you say on numerous occasions that–and I quote–‘communal feeding troughs are the crevice of the devil’s buttocks.'”

“That sounds like something I’d say.”

“Numerous occasions.”

“What if I changed my mind this afternoon? I’m mercurial, you know.”

“You’re mercury. You’re poisonous and no one should ever touch you.”

“There are no seats left. This is your fault.”

The church was fuller than any Sunday morning, and louder: the neighborhood saw meetings like this as a social event, and half of them had come from the bar. (The other half got drunk at home.) Leslie Westerbrook, who ran the sock rental place, was standing halfway up on the left of the pew with his wife, who was also named Leslie Westerbrook. Omar and Argus were right up front. Frankie Nickels was there, too, but no one knew what she looked like. The rich folks had come down, and the poor folks had come up.

The Poet Laureate, and the whores from 8th Avenue, and the bartenders from the Morning Tavern missing their sleep; dog-walkers and cat-fanciers; Mrs. Ableworth, the winner of the gardening competition; a reporter from The Cenotaph and one from the Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!) paper, The Axe; the Town Father who drew the short straw in a fake mustache and sunglasses; an attorney who was sent by the law firm of Holly, Wood, and Vine to report back; shopkeepers and schoolteachers and streetsweepers; a ghost cop; Romy Schott’s  anarcho-primitivist cousin, Balthazar; Sally Moon, who was sent by the large gentlemen to report back. And undercover officers from the LAPD (No, Not That One).

“Hey, Stan. Undercover?”

“Shh!”

The pews were full but for a small gap four rows back on the right. Big-Dicked Sheila stood facing the rear of the church scanning the crowd. Tiresias Richardson, who may or may not have taken some pills, sat and stared at Jesus happily.

“Gussy!” Sheila yelped, waving.

Gussy waved back, and she and Mr. Venable shouldered their way through the throng to them. Sheila and Tiresias were wearing what can only be described as “church drag.” Flowered sundresses, white gloves, floppy hats, paper fans. Mr. Venable and Gussy squeezed in next to them.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Gussy said, kissing Sheila on the cheek and setting the object down in front of her. It was dull and black and the shape of a shoe box, and there was a glass outbubbling about five inches in diameter on the narrow face.

“What is that?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Hello, Sheila. Tiresias.”

“Hey, Venable,” Sheila said, chipper. Tiresias turned her head slowly, and her smile turned into a sloppy grin.

“Vegetabllllle,” she said, and shot him the double-guns.

Deacon Blue had changed from his regular suit into his three-piece suit; they were both suit-colored, halfway in between blue and grey, and he checked the buttons of his vest and straightened the puffy windsor knot of his maroon tie as he strode up the center aisle of the church.

“Good evening, everybody. You all know me; I’m one of the deacons of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, Louis Blue.”

The whole crowd went LOOOOOOOOOOU. Or BLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE. It doesn’t matter which one; they made the OOOOOOOOOH sound is the point.

“Thank you. So, uh, thank you all for coming out. There’s a lot of rumors going around, a lot of talk and nonsense and weirdo theories that can only lead to problems if we let it them fester. So, uh, we’re gonna have a neighborhood meeting about what we know, and what we don’t know, and what everyone’s thoughts on it are. Just get everything out in the fresh air.”

He was standing behind the podium on the bema by now, and he pulled folded legal pad pages out of his back pocket and flattened them. The Reverend Arcade Jones stood behind him in a suit as blue as an actress’ eyes.

“All right, you know that Harper Observatory got itself bought. Lot of people didn’t think that was right. Courts thought differently. Before, uh, two days ago, no one knew who the buyer was. A rumor emerged that Tommy Amici was the anonymous purchaser, and then this morning’s Cenotaph confirmed it.”

The congregation murmured.

“Okay. So. We’re here to listen to each other, I guess. You raise your hand and Reverend Jones will come around with the microphone. And, hey: we are all gonna listen to each other, and be respectful, and no heckling. Whoever wants to speak, raise your hand.”

90% of the crowd raised their hands.

“Oh, great,” Deacon Blue said deadpan. “How about the woman here in the front row in the green blouse?”

Arcade Jones walked to the woman in the front row in the green blouse and put the mic in front of her. She grabbed it and tried to wrestle it away.

“I hold the mic!” he said.

“Free speech!” the woman in the green dress said

“Not what free speech means!” he said, yanking the microphone out of her grasp. Arcade Jones shot her a look and then put the mic in front of her mouth. Her name was Montego Bayes, and she had taught two generations of second graders at Lyndon LaRouche Elementary.

“Ahem.”

Montego Bayes was not used to speaking in front of adults, and she was nervous.

“Violence is called for.”

The church erupted, pro and con, yes and no, up and down; everyone was trying to be right the loudest. Arcade Jones whisked the mic away from Montego and addressed the crowd.

“Brothers and sisters! Brothers and sisters! We have come here to forge a path forward! We have come here to share in our community, and celebrate our love for it! How can we love strife? How can we go forward with destruction? I don’t see a way, I truly don’t. Please. Please, please, please: let’s find a path of righteousness. Let’s blaze a trail together along which all can prosper and all can profit.

“Everyone can win, I believe that to be true. In any given situation, there is a way for all participants to come out winners. I do believe that, yes. Let’s try. Let’s try to have everyone win. Now, I know it’s a cliché to ask what the Lord would do, I know that. But things become clichés for reasons.

“So. Why don’t we ask ourselves what Jesus would have to say?”

The crowd had quieted; they had listened to the Reverend Arcade Jones and knew his exhortation to be a holy one. It was still in the church and then a booming and omnidirectional voice said,

I CANNOT SEE. PUT ME ON THE PEW.

And now it was still again in the church, but a freaked-out kind of still. Someone in the back cried out in a strangled voice,

“Was that Jesus, man!?”

And than the owner of that voice ran out of the church because he was a sinner.

Four rows back on the right, Gussy was hissing at on object the size and shape of a shoe box made of dull, black metal with a glass outbubbling about five inches in diameter on its narrow face.

“Shut up!”

“Your thingy is talking, Gus,” Sheila said.

I AM NOT A THINGY. I AM A RESIDENT.

Tiresias poked at the metal shoe box, giggled.

“How many wolves are there?”

“Four,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said. “I count four.”

“That means there’s six,” Peter said.

They had been riding for two days and most of a third morning; they were in an immense basin ringed with mountains that could have been three or thirty miles away. Grass had given way to scrub, and streams to washes, and gentle slopes to sharp outcroppings of rock bursting through the beige and sandy soil; the sun and the sky and the clouds blended into one fierce khaki umbrella. Cactus: barrel and saguaro, and king.

“Stanton Box faced wolves once. A whole hungry pack. Stalked him for days,” the preacher said.

“What’d he do?”

“Tamed them.”

Peter made a face like he had smelled a stupid child’s fart.

“How’s that work?”

“I recall the novel being less than specific about the details. Not like the cactus water thing. There were step-by-step instructions.”

“You’re obsessed with the cactus water,” Peter said.

“In the desert, where Christ denied the Devil. Water from sand. Life where there should not be, against all odds. It just always stuck in my head.”

They rode for a mile in silence. The sun was dropping behind them, and so they both tilted their hats back to keep the back of their necks from burning. Busybody spit out his chewed-up peregrine leaf, took a swig from his canteen, popped in a fresh leaf.

“No life? I see cactus. I see lizards. I just ate a bug. The desert is these creatures’ home just as the village is ours. To the rattlesnake, the desert is the Christ. And what is the Christ to one must surely be the Christ to all.”

“Are there rattlesnakes?”

“We’ve passed, like, a million of them.”

Peter smirked.

“Ever eat one?”

“You are not to eat any creature that moves along the ground,” Busybody said.

“Yeah, I know Leviticus.”

“So, no. I never ate snake.”

“You’re not missing much.”

“Can’t be much meat, anyway.”

“Just enough to keep you alive until you find the next snake. Becomes a bit of a vicious circle.”

Busybody hitched up his gunbelt–it kept slipping, and he kept forgetting to poke himself another hole to cinch it tighter–and looked at Peter. An eagle watched the two men and their horses from a mile up.

“May I ask why you were surviving on rattlesnake?”

“Low Desert’s a good place to hide. Had to hide longer than I figured.”

“And why were you hiding?”

“Local sheriff thought I robbed a bank,” Peter said.

“My word. You were wrongly accused?”

“No, I robbed the bank. I mean, I wasn’t the only one who did it, but yeah.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale said nothing. He tried to think of the Christ ministering to whores and thieves and the leprous, but he failed and he judged Peter, and then he rebuked himself for the thought. Then he wished he could rob a bank, and he rebuked himself for that thought, too.

“This is what you did before coming to live with the Pulaski?”

“Y’know those paperback novels you like?”

“I don’t like them that much,” Busybody said.

“Y’got the lead bad guy, right? His name’s, like, Scum Carter or something? And he’s got a gang: the Carter Gang.”

“Okay.”

“I was one of the guys in the gang that doesn’t get a lot of time in the book. Might not get a name, even. ‘The henchmen behind Scum laughed.’ That was me.”

Peter pointed off to the north, up in the sky.

“Eagle. Watch.”

The bird had seen the hare 60 seconds ago; it cut short a great swooping loop and condensed its turn into tight spirals, finding position, and the hare has excellent hearing but the eagle was both silent and a mile up so the hare had no idea what was about to happen DIIIIIVE down for dinner, wings tucked, friction is for pigeons, and the eagle disappeared behind the sage 300 yards off to the men’s left.

“Always an eagle, always a hare.”

“But the hare wishes it were not so.”

“The hare wouldn’t be the hare without the eagle. Its speed, its shape, its essence: all designed to avoid the eagle. The eagle, likewise, is designed to catch the hare. They orbit each other.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, rode on for another mile and finally Busybody said,

“That seemed very meaningful.”

“It did, didn’t it?”

The First Church of the Infinite Christ took a while to settle down after God spoke to everyone, Gussy explained that the voice was not, in fact, God, but a portable technoproxy of a sentient artificial mondo-intelligence that was also the sound system of her movie theater. Anywhere else, this story would have raised more questions than it answered, but Little Aleppians were used to having weird neighbors.

“Can it pick the numbers for the Mother Mary?” Mrs. Ableworth asked from a back pew.

“No. It’s a sound system.” Gussy said.

“Then I don’t give a shit.”

The crowd cheered. Nothing gets applause like old ladies cursing.

Wally would have certainly responded to Mrs. Ableworth, but he was outside being given a talking-to by Precarious Lee. The black metal shoebox was set on the top stair; Precarious stood on the walkway, smoking. They were eye to eye.

“Stop taking advantage of Gussy.”

I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

I LIVE HERE NOW. SHOULD I NOT CARE ABOUT MY HOME?

Precarious lifted his foot and stripped his cigarette on his heel, put the remains in his back pocket.

“You’re just bored.”

THAT, TOO. BRING ME BACK INSIDE.

“Gonna shut up?”

I WILL OBSERVE.

“I’m gonna stand in the back.”

I WILL OBSERVE.

Precarious ascended the stairs and grabbed the box. He stood at the back next to Penny Arrabbiatta, who handed him a tallboy of Arrow from her bag.

“Hello, I am Balthazar. I do not believe in last names.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones dwarfed a man on the left of the church; he had dreadlocks and was wearing a shirt that was not culturally appropriate. The Reverend was trying desperately to keep a neutral look on his face, but Balthazar smelled so damn bad. Like, if feet could vomit. Arcade’s eyes were watering.

“As many of you might now from my lectures in the Verdance, I am an anarcho-primitivist. That means I like to live in the woods and I think you should have to, too.”

“Get to your point, son.”

“Humanity lost its way when it learned to wipe its ass.”

“What?”

“I say we don’t wait for Tommy Amici to knock down the Observatory. I SAY WE DO IT OURSELVES!” Balthazar roared. “WHO’S WITH ME?”

No one was with him.

“Cultural fascists, all of you.”

“Thank you, Balthazar,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said, backing away from him as quickly as was polite and looking around for someone–anyone– to give the mic to. He saw a familiar face, a man he had seen around the church.

“Yes, sir,” Arcade said, putting the mic in front of the man’s mouth.

“Hi, my name is Randolph, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“HI, RANDOLPH,” the church thundered back.

“This is not that kind of meeting, Randolph.”

“I’ve been sober since noon, except for dinner.”

The Reverend put the mic behind his giant back and said,

“Just sit down, Randolph.”

“Are there pretzels left?”

The meeting was losing focus. Deacon Blue was in the back of the church talking to Precarious and Penny.

“You two are staying for the real meeting, right?” he asked.

“Any pretzels left?” Precarious asked.

“Held a bag back,” the deacon answered.

Precarious nodded his head. Penny did, too.

“Hey! Reverend!” Leslie Westerbrook (the lady version) yelled from across the nave. “Why don’t we ask the mayor what he thinks?”

The crowd agreed.

“Little Aleppo has a mayor?” Arcade asked.

“Course we do,” Leslie answered.

The Reverend’s eyes widened.

“The mayor’s here? Where? Of course we should ask the mayor! What does the mayor think?”

And Argus went,

“Boof.”

Arcade Jones slumped in his sky-blue suit.

“Y’all made a dog the damn mayor?”

“Best one we’ve ever had!” a voice cried from the back of the church. There were cheers, and no one noticed Deacon Blue slide up the middle aisle of the church to the pew four rows back on the right where Mr. Venable and Gussy and Sheila and Tiresias sat. The crowd was having its say, and saying nothing but nonsense, but they were doing it freely and loudly and that’s what mattered  to the crowd, that’s all that’s ever mattered to the crowd filling the First Church of the Infinite Christ on Rose Street, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Held To A Promise In Little Aleppo

Evening is sinking, and Little Aleppo is afloat. On Widow Street, the Morning Tavern’s bouncer tosses out the last of the heliophobic regulars and the cars cruising the Main Drag start to turn their headlights on. Five o’clock: the gainfully employed are free, and the jobless stop feeling guilty. Accountants and upholsterers walk home through the Verdance, where everything grows. In the Segovian Hills, security cameras switch to infrared. The Town Fathers were no longer available to not comment.

And Little Aleppo Live with Cakey Frankel was on KSOS, with Cakey’s much-imitated intro:

“Hello, Little Aleppo! I’m Cakey Frankel. How are you?”

Cakey’s head bobbled when she talked, and she had thick blonde hair that tended towards helmet-esque and teeth the color of typing paper. Sometimes, she wore pearls; Cakey was given to large bows and polka dots; she liked to be cheery, and she was: Cakey cheered everyone who heard her news report. At least I understand what’s happening better than Cakey does, people thought, and they were cheered. Because Cakey Frankel had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, ever.

Charm is capricious, but steady. You can’t predict who it will attach itself to, but once charm picks a recipient it stays forever. Luck is only a lady tonight, but charm is a lifelong marriage; charm has no care for intelligence or looks or ability or character. The worst are magnetic, and the brightest are bores. Charm doesn’t give a shit: it goes where it wants. A charming person is like a family member: you explain their faults away without prompting, and assume their best intentions. Cakey Frankel had charm. You just liked her face.

“Thank you for joining me. What’s in the news? This!

“A recent study from Harper College indicates that geckos may be sapient. The Dean of Morpholinguistics, Dr. Flong, released a statement saying, and I quote, ‘several substrata of a particular lizard genus may in fact possess the ability to give a shit.’ The findings come after a years-long study in which the reptiles were poked repeatedly with sticks.”

A hand reached in from off-camera with a piece of paper.

“Excuse me. The reptiles were poked with science sticks. KSOS regrets the error.”

Cakey soldiered on.

“Sad news in sports today. Paul Bunyan High School’s chess team has been forced to forfeit the season due to steroid abuse. Suspicions were raised when, during a tournament this fall, a Bunyan player responded to a Latvian Gambit by eating his opponent. The team coach has given a statement that reads ‘I am not legally liable.’ Sad news.

“And now here’s Cakey Frankel with the weather.”

Cakey turned to the other camera.

“Thank you, Cakey. It was soooooo nice today!”

Cakey turned back to the first camera.

“Thank you Cakey.”

Cakey’s head bobbled when she smiled, and her eyes were gleefully vacant; viewers could impart upon her whatever emotions they chose. The Poet Laureate once wrote a long treatise on how Cakey Frankel was the pure iteration of postmodernism. Here was the Death of the Author, the Poet Laureate argued. How can there be intent without understanding, the Poet Laureate argued? Cakey’s words are–inherently–contextless as the sayer does not comprehend what is being said. Her words are “text, sans”

No one listened to the goddamned Poet Laureate.

Needless to say, she did not write her own copy; a revolving door of college students, out-of-work playwrights, and semi-professional wags had held the position, but no one ever lasted long. Access to her teleprompter was like having Sauron’s Ring: inevitably corrupting to even the noblest of souls. The temptation to make Cakey say goofy shit was just too strong.

They would all start out subtly, with tough words…

“An ironic day at Harper Zoo, where an elephant has been diagnosed with…elePHANTis. Elephantititititis. Effle. Effle Effle-tittle. And now sports.”

…and then would progress invariably to tongue-twisters…

“Wrestling comes to Little Aleppo tonight at Budd Dwyer Memorial Arena, where the main act a guy who is a demon AND a gangster. His name is Mister Monster Mobber. Moster Mister Mobster. Mobbadobba Mombom. And now sports. Oh, I’m currently doing the sports? Great.”

…and then the sexual innuendos…

“The roads crew will be re-topping Brick Street later this week. The road will be given a thick, black topping. Hardhats will be in and out of manholes all day.”

…and not very shortly after the cycle had begun, the writer would lose sight of the line between cheeky and freaky and go way too far.

“Hitler did nothing wr–why did the camera shut off? Are we on the air? Wait, did Hitler do nothing? I thought he did quite a bit. Sports?”

That particular young man lost his job forcibly, and with velocity; as the station manager Paul Loomis, Jr., tossed him out of the building, the young man yelled about freedom of speech, and how no one could take a joke any more.

There was also the young optician-in-training named Karen Fungible who took the job writing Cakey’s copy as a side project; her side side project was the occult. Karen was kind. She fostered the ugly dogs and asshole cats that no one else would take. Her magical interests were strictly of the White Witch-variety. Nature-type stuff. Empathy spells. And, sure, she liked to browse the darker shelves at the bookstore with no title, but who doesn’t?

Karen Fungible would later claim not to remember purchasing the book. Mr. Venable has no receipt for the sale. The section of the bookstore with no title where the book came from has a large sign with “DO NOT READ THESE BOOKS OUT LOUD – THE MGMT” written in very bright red marker. The computer hooked up to the teleprompter has no file saved for that day.

Nevertheless, Cakey Frankel read a demonic incantation off the ‘prompter and called Abaddon the Unforgiving to Little Aleppo. The fun part is that the summoning prayer is rather complex, phonetically-speaking, but Cakey nailed it without a stutter. The not fun part was that an Abandoned God was now on the Main Drag.

That’s an entirely different story. I’ll tell that one eventually. This one’s about the Observatory. (Obviously, Karen had to be let go. Also, Abaddon ate her.)

The new young man writing the copy had so far proven himself responsible and sober. For the first time in a very long time, Paul Loomis, Jr., was optimistic about possibly not having to hire a new writer every couple weeks. (He was cheered by one fact: it was always so obvious when the job became open that he never had to pay for an ad.)

“There will be a neighborhood meeting at 8 tonight at the First Church of the Infinite Christ.”

Cakey stopped reading and looked to the right of the camera.

“Is that the weird church with the giant black guy?”

From the right of the camera, there was muffled laughter.

“I think he’s a hunk. Big slab of man.”

Cakey looked back and started reading again.

“The meeting is to discuss the future of Harper Observatory, and there will be soft drinks and refreshments. Next up is an interview with a professor of to-POLE-logical…TOPologicalicious…Tophocky? I’m going to talk to a professor.”

In his office, Paul Loomis, Jr., was watching the feed and put his head in his hands as the cycle began again.

Deacon Blue was in his office at the First Church of the Iterated Christ, but he did not have his head in his hands: he was running out of the office and into the high-ceilinged nave of the church where the Reverend Arcade Jones was stalking the pews with a bottle of stain remover.

“We have a problem.”

Arcade Jones straightened up in rage and an errant shot of stain remover shot out.

“Is it those squirrels?”

“No, it’s not the…what is with you and those squirrels, man?”

“Little sumbitches eat up my petunias.”

“It’s not about the squirrels.”

“I have warned them off this course of action.”

“Well, that’ll work.”

The deacon and the preacher were standing in the middle aisle of the church.

“The news just announced the meeting,” Deacon Blue said.

“Okay. And?”

“And that there would be soft drinks and refreshments.”

“We’re not doing that.”

“Right. But Cakey Frankel says we are.”

“She has such a lovely face.”

“She does. Trustworthy, too.”

“It is,” the Reverend said.

The deacon took a half-step forward; he was not wearing his coat, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up exposing tattooed, hairy forearms. He reached up and laid his hand on Arcade’s elbow.

“If she told them there will be snacks, then they will believe that there will be snacks, Reverend.”

And now he reached with his other arm for Arcade’s other elbow.

“If they come here and there are no snacks, Reverend?”

Deacon Blue got up on the tippy-top of his toes and stretched his neck far as it would go

“They will rip us to shreds.”

He lowered himself, and then his hands. The church was very quiet, and the only sounds were the wind and the trees and the squirrels, who have been warned.

“We should go to the store,” the Reverend said calmly.

“There is no ‘should’ about it.”

“Is there enough petty cash?”

“If not, we’re gonna have to do some petty crime.”

“Deacon!”

“Serious. I might have to go through Mrs. Fong’s purse.”

They walked into the office, which had not been redecorated. It had been decorated, and then that was it. Fake wood, drop ceiling, Mrs. Fong.

“Oh, is this the new preacher, Deacon Blue?”

“He’s been here six months, Mrs. Fong.”

“Wonderful.”

Mrs. Fong had passed retirement age several presidents ago. The deacon shoved the worn corduroy couch away from the wall, revealing a safe.

“This is not good, Reverend. I mean: we can run out of food, but we can’t not have any at all.”

Five to the left.

“Why is everything in this neighborhood always on the verge of a riot?” Arcade asked.

Twelve to the right.

“I blame the people who live here.”

Thirteen to the left, and the door to the safe swung silently open. Deacon Blue grabbed an envelope with cash in it. Cynics might characterize the envelope as “suspiciously thick for an envelope containing the petty cash of a weird church in an economically unviable neighborhood,” but none of the people in the office were cynics, so no one has to worry about their point of view. The deacon plucked out a small stack of bills, shut the safe, put on his the jacket to his suit-colored suit.

“We’ll be back in an hour, Mrs. Fong,” Deacon Blue said.

“Oh, good. I’ll tell Deacon Blue you came by.”

The two men walked out of the office, and out of the church, and onto Rose Street, and onto the Main Drag. There were refreshments to provide, and soft drinks. A parallel to Jesus could be made here, but it would be a bit obvious.

“Jesus, Julio, you can’t only have one person working the snack counter. Especially if it’s LaTonya.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was deeply concerned about her decision to put Julio in charge of The Tahitian theater while she went to the meeting. On one hand, she thought Julio Montez was ready for a little responsibility; on the other hand, she would prefer he be responsible for a theater someone else owned. Gussy didn’t think the place would burn down, but she also wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t.

“No, right, yeah,” Julio said. “But we’re showing that Holocaust documentary tonight. Nobody ever buys popcorn at Holocaust documentaries.”

Julio actually had a very good point.

“Good work. That was a test. You passed,” Gussy said, not thinking he would fall for the trick.

“Yeah? Awesome.” Julio smiled. Teenagers are easy to trick.

Maybe it would be okay, Gussy thought. It’ll be a somber crowd, older, calm. Balcony probably won’t even be a quarter-full. And I won’t be gone all that long: neighborhood meetings in Little Aleppo had a way of breaking up early and suddenly. Julio could handle it, and everything would be ok–

GUSSY!

A booming voice, slightly cardboard-y in the midrange, reverberated through the whole building.

GUSSY. I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME.

She closed her eyes gently and pretended her sound system wasn’t made from the magical remnants of a semi-defunct, choogly-type band’s PA that had somehow upgraded itself into sentient mondo-intelligence.

YOU ARE IN YOUR OFFICE WITH JULIO. HELLO, JULIO.

“Hey, Wally.”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT. GUSSY.

GUSSY.

GUSSY.

She still had her eyes closed.

“My cousin works at a movie theater where he lives in Delaware, and he says their sound system doesn’t talk at all,”  Julio said.

“Good for your cousin.”

GUSSY.

“I’m coming!” she finally screamed, and strode out of her office and through the lobby and into the auditorium and down the left aisle with its red carpeting flecked with black squiggles. Halfway down, she stutter-stepped and turned around to pick up a straw wrapper under a seat. Gussy put the paper in the breast pocket of her dress, which was blue with polka dots the size of coffee saucers, and looked up at the screen and said,

“Yes?”

YOU DID NOT NEED TO COME INTO THE AUDITORIUM. I EXIST WITHIN THE ENTIRETY OF THE BUILDING.

“Why are you not smart enough to not say creepy stuff like that?”

I WAS MERELY STATING THAT WE COULD HAVE CONVERSED WHILE YOU REMAINED IN YOUR OFFICE.

“And I’m gonna keep on pretending like you live in the screen for the sake of my own sanity. What?”

I WISH TO GO TO THE MEETING TONIGHT.

Gussy sat down in the front row and refused to make eye contact with the movie screen.

The Tahitian had not always had a sentient artificial mondo-intelligence for a sound system. When it was opened over a century ago by Gussy’s great-grandmother and namesake, The Tahitian was a silent theater. (Gussy strongly considered going back to this arrangement every time she had to talk to Wally.) After that there were, you know, speakers and amps and bullshit. Decades went by without the sound system having one opinion or staging a single work stoppage.

After Gussy’s father, who was an asshole, ran the theater into the ground, he sold the PA. Reopening a hundred-year old theater turns out to be expensive, and very stressful, Perhaps had Gussy been of a clearer mind (and hadn’t racked up a hundred grand in debt on her personal credit cards) then she would have remembered the old saying “Beware of former Grateful Dead roadies bearing gifts” and turned down Precarious’ offer of a free sound system.

“The Wall of Sound,” Precarious told her.

“A sound system has a name?”

“It’s famous.”

“Wow, really?” Gussy was later very mad at herself for falling for that one.

She might not have minded Wally so much had she been able to fire him. Everyone else in the building worked for her; Gussy liked being the boss. If she was completely honest with herself, Wally gave her no more trouble than Julio or LaTonya or any of the other teenaged doofuses she employed. But they worked for her and she was the boss. The relationship was clearly delineated, and could be ended by either party at any time.

Whereas she was stuck with Wally. (Literally: Precarious had bolted half of the system’s innards onto the foundations and structural columns of the building.) It was like an arranged marriage where the bride and groom have never met before the wedding, and divorce is illegal in the country, and also one of them is a massively annoying computer that won’t shut up.

“Lucy, you cannot go to the show,” Gussy said to the screen.

IT IS A NEIGHBORHOOD MEETING. I AM A RESIDENT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD. THEREFORE, I AM ENTITLED TO GO.

“Great. I’ll meet you there.”

Gussy got up, flattening out her skirt as she did.

“I hear there’s gonna be refreshments.”

She turned to walk away.

THIS IS MOBILIST OF YOU.

“What?”

MOBILIST. A WORLDVIEW PRIVILEGING THE MOBILE OVER THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN NAILED DOWN.

“Oh, wow, is that not a thing.”

YOU ARE PREJUDICED.

Gussy owned the husk for a while. The Tahitian sat there ruined on the Main Drag for years while she worked other jobs. She dated a firefighter once who offered to burn it down for the insurance money. He said he could make it look like an accident.

MY VOICE IS IMPORTANT AND SHOULD BE HEARD.

At the moment, she was thinking about looking that firefighter up.

Outside the theater, the evening was making plans for the night. People stopped for drinks on their way home; others stopped home on their way to drink. Men of God searched for snacks, and women on teevee predicted the weather.

The only road connecting Little Aleppo to Pulaski Peak is Skyway Drive. It is a narrow road full of switchbacks and pinch points; at several places, engineers cut through the rock of the mountain to lay the road down and the rock walls pen the lanes in, twelve feet high and just inches off the shoulder. All day, two men had been working on the road. At least, that’s what any passing driver would have thought: they were wearing those safety vests and hard hats, so if you zipped by them at 30 miles an hour you would naturally assume they were working on the road.

If you had watched them for a while, you would have seen them not work on the road at all, but drill holes into the rock walls at even intervals and insert small packages of something and then cover up the holes with putty and paint so that you could not tell anything was amiss.

But no one did watch them because the two men looked like they belonged there. Those cars zipping by were going somewhere important, each and every one, bringing people to their families and their jobs and their deaths. The light was going, so the two men stopped working and as they ascended the slope they surely must have been passed by someone going to a meeting in a church that night. There was a lot to discuss, and there was talk of refreshments, and everyone had something to say in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Preparations And Perspectives In Little Aleppo

A secret is a smart dog: if it wants out, it’s getting out. Close the door, and it’ll figure out the knob; lock it, and the dog will work the latch. You’ll leave a window open. Fences can be tunneled under. Hell, a dog can chew right through a wall if you give it enough time. You need to watch the dog. If you want to be sure, you need to watch the dog. The only way to make sure that smart dog stays put is constant, wearying vigilance; and a smart dog is just like a secret.

Tommy Amici buying Harper Observatory was a secret. He had done it anonymously, played the shell game with corporations, fake names and dead-ends and feints and legal red herrings: fences, collars, doors. Tommy thought the dog was secure in the house, so he did not pay careful attention and now it was running frenzied up and down the Main Drag pissing on clergy and biting fire hydrants.

The marketing people call it penetration. (The marketing people call it that because marketing people are self-absorbed creeps.) Take a geographic location, say a neighborhood. Now take an idea. (Well, not an idea so much as a discrete memetic concept.) Do some math and you get the percentage of your location aware of your idea: this is penetration. Within 24 hours of Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, shouting out the news in the Morning Tavern, the news had reached a level of penetration that can only be described as “balls deep.”

“24 hours, cats and kittens. Lot can happen in a day! You don’t think so, right? Wake up, work a little, drink a little, hump a little, sleep. That’s what you can do in 24 hours, right? Can’t learn algebra: that takes forever, man. No great novel got written in a day. Marriages take longer than that, or at least I hope they do. Can’t make a baby in 24 hours.

“I mean: you can make one in five minutes, but you know what I’m saying.

“Lot happens in a day, it’s just that you weren’t looking at it right. You got a job to think about. Kids to raise, hell to raise, Jolly Roger to raise: whatever you raise. More than you think is going on but you ain’t looking at it the right way. Good thing you’re listening to KHAY–Hey!–and your old pal, Frankie Nickels.

“See, you’re being–and I’m gonna use a real fancy word here–anthropocentric. Thinking that the human perspective is the only valid one; and, yes, I know that for daily to-ings and fro-ings, the human perspective is the one that matters. I’m not talking about that.

“Fruit fly’s 24 hours is his whole life. Fruit Fly Grundy, born on a Monday. Died on a Monday, too. 24 hours, that’s all a fruit fly gets. I did the math, cats and kittens, I did the math. Hour of that fruit fly’s life is three years of yours. Assuming you get your three-score-and-ten. Assuming you don’t get cheated.

“But no one cares about fruit flies but scientists and hungry beetles. And besides: let’s get loose with our viewpoints.

“What’s a day to a place? A house, an office building, a store. What’s 24 hours to a neighborhood? Ahhhh. Now, we’re talking about something good and strange. Ekistocentric thought. You can look that up, but I’ll break it down: the settlement as the hero. The main character.

“Gotta have a hero in your stories.

“Now take that 24 hours, the same 24 hours you scoffed at, and look at them again. Look at that day through Little Aleppo’s eyes, at her pace. Whaddya got? Apartment blocks full of stories. You got joy, and you got pain. You got sunshine, and you got rain. Children’s daydreams and old men’s regrets, and stacked up newspapers and letters to the editor. Parties and funerals.

“Why don’t we get specific? You wanna get specific?

“First kisses. How many do you get, puny human? Only a couple good ones. I mean, you get a lot, but only a few are worth a damn. That one behind the bleachers. Outside that Italian place with the cheesy tablecloths. He pulls you into him. She laces her fingers into yours. You go in fast, right? But you take the last few inches real slow. Rub noses like movie Eskimos. THAMP THAMP THAMP. That’s your heart. You only get a couple good ones.

“Neighborhood has ten of those every day. Ten first kisses, twelve, fifteen, who knows how many? All that love slipping in. Past the words and the reason and the metaphor. Just love lining the cracks of the sidewalk.

“Not just love, though.

“Obviously.

“Lot can happen in 24 hours, cats and kittens! Ain’t you glad you got Frankie Nickels and good old KHAY–Hey!–to help you through the rough patches?

“It is 8 am in Little Aleppo, and you need to get out of your own head. Because it is most assuredly up your ass.”

“It’s shit,” Precarious Lee said.

“It’s not shit,” Romeo Rodriguez answered.

High atop Pulaski Peak, an ex-cop was arguing with an ex-roadie.

“Defensive berm?”

“Yeah,” Romeo said.

“It’s shit. They get that far, you’re fucked.”

The summit of Pulaski Peak had been flattish before white people showed up with heavy equipment; now you could play soccer on it. White people love turning land into lawns. Ten acres in the shape of a diamond with rounded vertices. There were walkways sketched through the grass, which was a shade of green that only a lawn with a permanent minder assigned to it can achieve. At the west end, overlooking Little Aleppo, was the Harper Observatory. Opposite that to the east was a crescent moon-shaped stand of trees that overlooked America.

The Observatory was an exact copy of the White House, but bigger. Plus there was a giant telescope sticking out of it and it was on top of a hill in California. Other than that: exact copy.

The two of them were on the Truman Balcony overlooking the grounds looking at a large drawing that the wind kept threatening to snatch.

“Am I even looking at this right?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

Precarious rotated the paper 180 degrees.

“Nope. Still bullshit.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Romeo said.

Precarious pointed at a squiggle.

“Does that say caltrap?”

“Yeah.”

“The little fuckers that look like jacks? To pop tires?”

“Right, caltrap. Caltraps are awesome.”

Officer Romeo Rodriguez was tough to look at. Not because he was ugly: on the contrary, he was tall and muscular and had a crooked smile that, when deployed, caused a deep dimple to appear in his cheek on the side opposite the smile. His uniform was tailored and pressed, too; Romeo was always fastidious about his clothes. He was a hunky dude.

He was tough to look at because he was a ghost. You can see ghosts, but your brain generally stops you from doing so; looking straight at a ghost is like looking straight at the sun, but worse. Like if the sun were also your naked mother. You could force yourself, but it’s going to hurt. Easier to ignore, or at least keep in your peripheral vision.

But Precarious Lee–who had seen quite a bit in his life–glanced over at Romeo, and Precarious noticed for the first time how young he was.

“Son, if you’re popping their tires 50 feet from the front door, the game’s over.”

“Mr. Lee–”

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ, don’t call me that.”

“–I think I know something about tactical emplacements. I’m a Marine, okay?”

Precarious handed the map to Romeo, put both hands on the rail, leaned over.

“That figures.”

“Excuse me?”

“Looking for a fight,” Precarious said as he lit a cigarette.

“Looking to win a fight, jackass.”

“Nobody wins this kind of fight. Plan’s gotta be to make it impossible for the fight to happen.”

“Don’t tell me about plans, okay. I don’t even know who the hell you are, really.”

“He’s the guy you’re gonna listen to,” Penny Arrabbita said from behind them. She walked out onto the balcony drinking a tallboy of Arrow. She had a fresh can in the pocket of her fuzzy purple robe. 8 in the morning: bedtime for astronomers.

“I don’t need any help, Penny.”

“The fact that you say you don’t need help is evidence that you need help.”

Penny handed Precarious the unopened beer.

“I never refuse a drink from a beautiful woman,” he said.

When women reach a certain age, they acquire a new facial expression, a half-smirk with a lowered brow. It means “While I, as a woman of a certain age, have heard every schmucky line from every putzy man, I appreciate the effort.” Penny shot that expression at Precarious. Men, no matter what age they reach, never figure out what the expression means.

When you’re hunting for taa-aaste,” he sang in a surprisingly pretty tenor.

Arrow hits the mark!” they harmonized and toasted with their cans.

“I don’t get one?” Romeo asked Penny.

“You want one?

“No, I don’t want a beer. It’s eight in the morning.”

“There you go. Precarious, Romeo’s in charge. Romeo, do what Precarious says.”

And then she turned around and went back inside to finish her beer and dream of nebulae and comets and, for some reason lately, werewolf Ronald Reagan.

The two men leaned over the railing. Precarious sipped his beer. Romeo looked at his map, and at the grounds, and back at his map.

“Everything besides the road is bullshit, kid. Y’gonna build a fuckin’ moat around the telescope? Wanna mine the lawn? C’mon.”

“Again, Mr. Lee–”

“Don’t be an asshole.”

“–I think I know more about this. You ever in the service?”

“Army.”

“That figures,” Romeo smiled.

Precarious didn’t take the bait, just swiped his cigarette against his heel and put the butt in his back pocket.

“Where?”

“Germany,” Precarious said. “You deployed?”

“Afghanistan.”

“How was it?’

“Hot in the summer, cold in the winter”

“That’s what I hear.”

Precarious offered the can to Romeo, who took it and had a long pull and said,

“What was your MOS?”

He handed the can back.

“88M. I drove.”

“What’d you do after you got out?”

“Drove for a different army,” Precarious said.

On the lawn, visitors had started to arrive. A school bus with children thrilled to be free from class was letting out in the parking lot right next to a sports car with a doctor in it; her license was about to be taken away because of her drinking, so she he had come to the top of a mountain to get drunk and think about suicide. There were teenagers waiting for their acid to kick in; there were old lonely men who had come to feed the birds; there were people who had been fired three weeks ago and had not figured out how to tell their spouses.

“You think you got some kinda great destiny coming,” Precarious said. “Final battle or some bullshit. Ain’t about you.”

“Never said it was.”

“You ain’t the star of the show. No redemption here, just a job. Do it right or don’t do it at all.”

“I’m trying to!”

“Y’got your head up your ghost ass.”

Mister Hamburger was on the air, live, broadcasting from the fabulous KSOS studios in Little Aleppo. Breakfast With Mister Hamburger was the number one show in the neighborhood by a landslide: full penetration. He did his show every weekday morning from 7-9; two generations of kids had grown up with him.

“Panopticality, children. That’s what we’re talking about this morning. Not just the ability to see all, but the ability to see all without revelation of self. The thousand-eyed beast in the dark with a flashlight for a mind. Is it moral? Not ‘Is it possible?’ We know that it’s possible. But is this desired? The question we’re asking, really, is this: Are all views worthwhile? Maybe some are lesser than others, maybe some should be avoided.

“Furthermore, does the concept of humanity itself depend on a singular point of view?

“I don’t know. Do you? Let’s take a call.”

Mister Hamburger had bad skin, and one eye was far larger than the other. His tie knot was enormous, and he crossed one stork-like leg over the other as he punched a button on the phone next to his chair. PHWOOOO he blew out the smoke from his cigarette.

“Yes?”

“Mister Hamburger, I love you. My name is Timmy and I love you.”

“Timmy, my soul contains dread. I need you to know that. Permeated with sheer dread.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“Thanks for the call.” He picked up the receiver and hung it up.

“Our humanity lies in its positionalilty, not in super-position. We are not quanta, children. At least, Mister Hamburger isn’t. I don’t know about your parents, I haven’t met them. One scope. This is how a human views the world, through one lens with the implicit understanding that to see is to allow yourself to be seen. To remove that, to remove the material from the etherocorporeal gestalt that makes up a being…what does that do?

“Ever see The Invisible Man, children? Claude Rains. Great stuff. Doesn’t turn out too well for the Invisible Man.”

“Let’s take another call.”

He hit the button on the phone.

“Mister Hamburger, my name is also Timmy and you are my favorite.”

Mister Hamburger pointed at the camera with the two fingers his cigarette was cradled in, eyes flashing.

“No! I do not grant you authority to grade me! I reject your metric!”

“Okay. I love you.”

“Thanks for the call.”

He lifted the receiver and set it down.

“Man learned to worship before he mastered fire. This was the first thought, this was the first step, this was the first doorway in between animal and angel. To worship is to acknowledge an eye peering down upon you: this was the first thought, children. The eye in the sky, kids.

“The eye is the sky, kids.”

The teevee at the Victory Diner was tuned to KSOS like always; the Reverend Arcade Jones was transfixed. He and Deacon Blue were sitting at a table in the middle of the floor, and Arcade couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. His apartment at the First Church of the Iterated Christ had a teevee, but the Reverend only used it to watch movies. Sometimes, he would watch tapes of his old college games, but mostly just movies. He had not been in Little Aleppo for long, and he thought he was getting used to the oddness–he liked most of it, to be honest–but the Mister Hamburger show was freaking him out.

“I just don’t understand how this is a children’s show.”

“It’s a mystery,” Deacon Blue answered as he stabbed his eggs and shoveled them in his mouth. “But the kids love him. Raised mine on him.”

“And do they understand what the hell he’s talking about? I sure don’t.”

Deacon Blue wiped his mouth with his paper napkin.

“I don’t think Mister Hamburger’s ideas get understood so much as they get implanted.”

The Victory Diner was on the Main Drag. It was a 48-hour diner, which is like a 24-hour diner, but double. The plates were off-white oval slabs that could survive being hurled at brick walls, or used as discuses in the impromptu track-and-field meets that would break out when the coffee was too strong. The menus were both the largest and shortest in the world: four feet long slabs of leather binding and paper-under-plastic with 25 pages; each page said, simply, “We have it.” The Victory Diner was like all 48-hour diners in that everything was on the menu; it was also like every other 48-hour diner in that you should really only order breakfast or a cheeseburger.

The Reverend Arcade Jones had ordered breakfast and a cheeseburger, plus another breakfast: he had five plates in front of him with eggs and pancakes and fruit and about a loaf’s worth of toast and another plate with a different kind of eggs. And the cheeseburger. Arcade was a large and hungry man–6’5″ and over 300 pounds with hands the size of manhole covers–and he ate quickly, but with impeccable manners. The Reverend did not put his elbows on the table, not did he talk with his mouth full, and he was wearing a suit the same color of an infield on Opening Day. Jacket on the back of the chair; napkins tucked into collar, draped over each emerald thigh.

“But how does this entertain children? It’s an unattractive man spouting nonsense.”

“Dunno about that. Mister Hamburger makes some good points.”

“Okay, perhaps, but even if he does: why do kids like this? Kids like cartoons and puppets.”

“Mister Hamburger’s got puppets.”

On the screen, Mister Hamburger was wearing a cow puppet on his right hand.

“Good morning, Flipper T. Gibbet”

Then he opened the cow’s mouth and shrieked for around ten seconds.

“What was that, Flipper T.?”

“That was the scream of cataclysm,” the cow puppet responded. “I hear it every time I close my eyes.”

The Reverend stared at the screen in confusion.

“That’s not normal, man.”

Deacon Blue only had one breakfast–poached eggs and toast–and had not removed the jacket to his suit, which was suit-colored. Somewhere in between blue and grey. He had been trying to eat healthier, so he had foregone his side order of bacon but just ended up stealing strips off the Reverend’s plates.

“You’re coming at it from a ‘reality should be this way’ kind of place. Start from the proposition that reality is doing what it wants to do.”

“I am! I just don’t understand why reality would want to do that!”

“Reality’s squirrely,” Deacon Blue said as he swirled his egg in  a pool of ketchup. “You gotta be ready for this meeting tonight, Reverend.”

All the waitresses in the Victory Diner have some tattoos that they regret, and some they’re proud of. Several had piercings they were unable to remove. One of them, Hester Prim, refilled the men’s coffee. Behind the counter was the service window, and behind that was the grill, and behind that was Louie Bucca; you coud hear his metal spatula against the grill-top cutting up hash browns.

“I’m ready.”

“Neighborhood meetings get weird, man. And people seem keyed up.”

“I’ve noticed. Everyone seems very attached to that Observatory.”

“Like, half of everybody around here lost their virginity up there. It’s touchy.”

“I hear you. Why we doing this in the church?”

Deacon Blue stole another piece of bacon.

“Because it turns out it’s a terrible idea to hold neighborhood meetings in the bar.”

“Oh, I can’t imagine that turned out well,” the Reverend said.

“Angry mob. Every. Single. Time.”

“Sure. But what about a school? Or the public library? Isn’t this a secular matter, Deacon?”

“Sanctuary is sanctuary, I suppose.”

They each sipped their coffee: black for the Deacon, light and sugary for the Reverend.

“And, you know church or not, it’s still gonna get a little rowdy.”

“It won’t get that rowdy,” Arcade Jones said from under lowered eyelids.

“Yeah, no. You’re gonna have to throw some people out.”

“I can handle a room.”

“Uh-huh. You’re gonna have to throw some people out.”

“We’ll see, Deacon.”

“We won’t, Reverend. You will. Trust me on this one.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones smiled and ate an entire piece of toast in one bite of his yard-wide mouth. Deacon Blue stole another piece of bacon as Hester dropped the check.

Louie Bucca was in the back scrambling another dozen eggs and poking at bubbles in pancakes on the sizzling grill, and two men of God were drinking coffee and enjoying breakfast, and Mister Hamburger was entertaining the children, and high atop Pulaski Peak a ghost cop and an ex-roadie were arguing about the proper way to defend a mountaintop. It was eight in the morning, and all the church bells up on Rose Street were tolling the hour: first the Calling Judge in the belfry of the First Church of the Iterated Christ, and then St. Clement’s and St. Martin’s and St. Mary’s, and then all the local dogs joined in howling as a new and unpredictable morning took root in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Freedom Of Information In Little Aleppo

A rumor is information that might be true, but you’re not supposed to know it. Gossip is information about something that is true, but you’re still not supposed to know it. A scandal is when someone fucks up and the whole neighborhood won’t shut up about it. The news that Tommy Amici was the anonymous purchaser of the Harper Observatory was undergoing a phase transition from gossip to scandal in record time; maybe too quickly, like superheating water: first disturbance will cause an explosion.

The news vectored out from the Morning Tavern all over Little Aleppo like cholera from a water pump; starting linearly and becoming exponential. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, shouted out the information around 8 in the morning. At 8:20, a woman named Mary Mallon left the bar and went to teach her 9:00 am class in Hermoeidetics at Harper College. Along the way, she stopped at the Broadside Newsstand to buy a copy of The Cenotaph, where she shared the news with Omar.

“So that’s why the motherfucker asked!” Omar shouted. (Omar was the Broadside’s owner.)

“Boof,” Argus added. (Argus was Omar’s seeing-eye dog.)

“What?” Mary asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Omar said.

“Boof.”

When Mary Mallon got to the campus of Harper College, she greeted several colleagues and told all of them that Tommy Amici was the anonymous buyer of the Observatory; then she told her students and if there’s anyone more gossipy than college professors, it’s college students. Class let out at 10:15, and by noon–right about when Gussy and Big-Dicked Sheila were leaving the bar–the entirety of the school knew. This roiled the small institution, but Harper College was a very easy place to roil.

By one, a committee called Students For Harper Observatory had been formed; by half past, it had splintered into three factions that had lost all sight of the original objective and were now concentrating on fighting with one another. Two o’clock saw a further splitting into nine or ten different teams, plus a burgeoning group of students annoyed with the whole situation who started their own committee called Students For Burning Down Harper Observatory Right The Fuck Now. This was not an unusual afternoon at the school.

Harper College was founded in 1924 by Harper T. Harper; the only reason it wasn’t called Harper T. Harper College is because the name wouldn’t fit on the sign. He had made his fortune in the Congo (rubber, hands) and when he returned home to Little Aleppo, he wanted to share his good fortune in a way that benefited his tax obligation, and also let everyone know how important he was. What makes a place great, he asked himself. What makes a place impressive? Harper T. Harper wanted to build something that would elevate, inspire; something that would be a cornerstone of a neighborhood for generations, inspiring children and employing adults. A legacy, he thought. Something to last.

So he built the zoo.

After that–on the land that was left over–he founded Harper College.

In his later years, Harper T. Harper would rail about the trouble that education brought, and how America’s children were being given too many books and not enough shovels. Thinking, he would often yell at whoever was closest, leads inexorably to Communism. A young man should be engaged in honest toil in the pursuit of profit for his betters, not pondering things. I have never seen, he would say, a single philosophy student that has not turned to the occult and begun worshiping the Foul One and lighting old women on fire. College leads to soft hands, flabby bellies, and a weak dollar.

Harper had grown into these beliefs. When he founded the school, he signed a charter that guaranteed the faculty and students complete academic freedom; furthermore, he had negotiated with the Town Fathers to make the campus a separate municipality from the neighborhood. Harper College would be its own city-state, self-governing and devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the education of Little Aleppo’s young men.

He regretted his decision ten minutes into the first term when he noticed that young women were also being educated.

“What is going on? Explain this, Spants.”

“You’ll have to be more specific.”

Carter Spants was the first Dean of Harper College; Harper had hired him personally, mostly based on looks: he just looked like a college professor, tall and lean with an aquiline nose and big ears and tweed, and an unruly shock of graying hair. Round gold-rimmed glasses.

“Girls!”

“You want me to explain girls, sir? This is a conversation your parents should have had with you.”

“Why are there girls on campus?”

“How else will they go to class?”

“Why are there girls going to class?”

“Why else would they be on campus?”

Carter Spants had gone to Yale–that was the most important thing about him besides his appearance, according to Harper–and also Princeton and Rutgers. Bachelor’s of Science in Linguistics, Bachelor’s of Arts in Stagecraft; two Master’s: Cryptodentistry and Salamander History; PhD thesis on the role of potatoes in the Gallic Wars. Carter Spants had been going to school since he was six and he didn’t intend to ever stop.

He loved the life of an academic: read a bunch of stuff, write something about the stuff, argue with colleagues, repeat ’til emeritus. What else is there to do: make money? He needed some, obviously, everyone needs some money, but he didn’t need so much as to make the chasing of it a priority. What did he need? Place to live, place to work, access to a library, and colleagues to argue with.

And a fascination. Carter Spants needed a fascination–that’s what he called it–to fill his mind. Judging from his resume, you might think him a dilettante; he was not: Carter was a serial obsessive. He didn’t flit about and bandy: when he studied a subject, he studied the ever-loving fuck out of it; there wasn’t a subject he couldn’t become one of the world’s experts on in a year. (Remember that this is the 1890’s and 1900’s; there was a lot less to know back then.) Carter Spants was perfectly content to spend the rest of his life going from library to library condensing many books into a single thought.

But when he heard through the Yale grapevine–which is a very fancy grapevine–that Harper T. Harper needed a Dean for his new school, Carter couldn’t resist. He wrote Harper a letter, effusive and subtle, and sent along his C.V. and copies of articles he had written and journals he had edited; letters of recommendation from some of the most respected minds in the nation; clippings from magazines and newspapers.

Harper was impressed in that way that only people who hated school are impressed by academic credentials: he had no idea what he was looking at, but there sure was a lot of it and half of it was in Latin, so: wow. (Though he had graduated from Yale, Harper had attended precisely three classes in his four years there: two by accident, and one to challenge the professor to a duel.) He sent Carter a train ticket.

When he got to Little Aleppo, Carter Spants poured it on. He stepped off the train wearing a mismatched vest and jacket and holding a book, open, in front of him.

“Mr Harper,” Carter cried out upon seeing him at the station. “Have you read any Rampoisie?”

“Oh, sure,” Harper T. Harper replied, and never quite recovered.

As they toured the campus, Carter lectured gloriously. Plato, Mr. Harper. Plato is what we will aspire to at Harper College. (Carter had figured out that Harper liked the sound of his own name.) The open symposia, sir! Radical freedom as to provide space for the throwing of some intellectual elbows, what do you say to that, Mr. Harper?

Harper T. Harper didn’t know what the fuck Carter Spants was talking about, but it certainly sounded lofty and respectable.

They walked around the grounds. The dormitories were being built. The library would be the third-biggest on the West Coast. A great gothic castle was almost finished; the classes would be held there. And off in the corner was a small Victorian house for the Dean. It was perfect, Carter thought.

He led Harper around campus–he was giving the tour now–and pontificated on pedagogy, and spoke in four languages at once, and quoted Anaxagoras for no reason. There was pipe-smoking involved. How can thought flower underfoot, Mr. Harper? Fear of betraying one’s masters leads to self-censorship, Mr. Harper. Who can tell where the truth may lead, where our inquiry might take us, how tomorrow’s work could turn out? A thought is an ant, Mr. Harper. If you could, would you avoid stepping on an ant?

And Harper T, Harper, who had made his fortune in rubber and hands, said that he would avoid stepping on an ant.

Of course you would, Carter puffed his pipe at him.

Just a few hours later, Harper signed the school’s charter. Besides the academic freedom thing, and the legal autonomy thing, it made Carter Spants the Dean for life and granted him full control of the school with neither checks nor balances. They drank to it in Harper’s office. Freedom of the mind!

“Stop this, Carter!”

“Dr. Spants.”

“Both of you! Why are there girls going to class?”

“Because otherwise they’d be marked absent.”

Harper College is directly south of Rose Street and you can hear the church bells strike the hour. WHONG! WHONG! Scurrying and running, dorm to class, and back again, and flirting and kissing and yelling and Joey the Spaz has dropped all his books again and, off behind a bush, some very untrustworthy youths are sharing a cigarette of marihuana.

Harper T. Harper was not a tall man, but he was wide. He positioned his bulk towards Carter Spants and asked him,

“What is the meaning of this, sir?”

Carter Spants was not a wide man, but he was tall. He did not turn to face Harper.

“The meaning of this is that you signed the charter, and that you should read it closely. And once you read it closely–”

–and now he did to turn to face Harper T. Harper–

“–you’ll find that I do not answer to you.”

Carter Spants was right, and a dozen lawyers in a row told Harper the same thing: he had signed away his rights to complain, or take back his money. The land–and the initial endowment–belonged to the college, and the college was under the singular control of the Dean. Over the years, the school and its foolishness baked a rabid loathing into Harper T. Harper, quiet and simmering and right under the surface and waiting to strike anyone who reminded him of it.

Right now, though, Harper did not want to wait to strike anyone. He wanted to strike one particular person immediately.

“How dare you? I am insulted, and I demand that you duel.”

“It’s 1924, Mr. Harper. Dueling’s a bit out of style, don’t you think?”

“Do you refuse? Are you a coward?”

Carter pulled a small silver trowel from the pocket of his vest, turned his pipe upside down, scraped out the ash. Put the trowel back. Tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket. Tamp tamp tamp. Tobacco gets rolled up, put back. Carter felt around for his lighter. Across his chest? In his pants? Ah, in his shirt pocket under his vest. Thin Dunhill lighter, silver like the trowel, with the vertical spinner wheel to spark the flame. Pwoff pwoff pwoff.

“Which question should I answer first?”

“I’ve had enough of your attitude, sir. Will you duel or not?”

“Shall we follow the rules of the code duello?

“Of course.”

“The challenged has the right to choose the scope of battle?”

“That is how it works.”

“Spelling bee.”

“No,” Harper shook his head.

“You refuse, sir? Are you a coward?”

“I am no coward! You can’t choose spelling bee. Pistols, swords, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, that sounds violent,” Carter said.

“Of course it sounds violent! It’s a duel! It involves weapons!”

“The mind is a powerful weapon, Mr. Harper.”

“Goddamn you, stop your buffoonery!”

“B-U-F-F-O-O-N-E-R-Y.”

“Sir, you try my patience!”

“And you try mine! Security!”

The two men–one wide but not tall, one tall but not wide–stood on the newly sodded quad of Harper College. It was getting on to four in the afternoon, and workmen were hammering in the distance. Joey the Spaz ran by, tripped, got up, ran some more.

“Oh, right. I haven’t hired any security yet.”

Harper T. Harper drew up on his toes and thumped his index finger into Carter Spants’ chest.

“Tomorrow. Dawn. I will bring the pistols.”

And he walked off.

Dean Spants waited until Harper had vanished from sight, then sprinted to the great gothic castle across the quad. Gardeners were busy installing the ivy, and a sign lay on its back waiting to he hung: HARPER HALL. His office was on the third floor, in the front with a view of the whole school; he had an anteroom and an inner study. There was no furniture or blinds on the windows, but all of Carter’s diplomas had been hung up.

There was a young woman in a grey skirt and clompy black shoes sitting on the floor; she had a book in her lap and a phone sitting next to her. It was a candlestick model with the earpiece on a wire: you held it up to your mouth to talk.

“Miss McGlory?”

Her name was Holly McGlory, and she was a redhead.

“Oh, Dean. You have a lot of messages.”

“Later. Remember how I said that hiring security could wait?”

“No.”

“Did I not say it?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Well, I thought it.”

“Okay.”

“Bad thought. Horrible thought. Security must be paramount. Vigilance, Miss McGlory: let it be our byword and prayer.”

Molly picked her writing tablet up and put it on top of her book–Hypersemantics And Its Disconnects by Wofford–and pulled a pencil out of her hair.

“Byword and prayer.”

“What are you doing?’

“Should I not be talking notes?”

“No,” Carter said.

“You said it in a very ‘write this down’ kind of way.”

“This isn’t a lecture. We need to hire security. The hand-chopping madman who paid for the school is going to show up tomorrow morning and shoot me.”

Molly McGlory pursed her lips, looked at Dean Spants, stuck the pencil back in her hair. She set her writing tablet and textbook carefully to her side, and then folded her hands in her lap.

“Dean?”

“Miss McGlory?”

“You called him a ‘hand-chopping madman.’ Right?’

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay. You called him a ‘hand-chopping madman,’ which means you knew exactly what kind of person he was, and you still chose to antagonize him?”

Carter Spants was arrogant, but he was also self-aware. At the moment, he wished he were only the former.

“Possibly,” he said.

“You know he’s gonna shoot ya, right?”

Molly had lived in Little Aleppo all her life.

“Is he?”

Carter was new to the neighborhood.

“Yes. He’s done this before.”

“What did you mean ‘he’s done this before?'”

“Dueling. And shooting.”

If you can lie down on a floor elegantly, Carter Spants did.

“How many times?”

“Oh. Uh, three? Maybe four, but I can remember three off the top of my head. The reporter from The Cenotaph who called his zoo bourgeoisie. I don’t know the other two stories.”

“Miss McGlory, I may be more used to thunder than lightning. Cutting remarks and sarcastic reviews. Mean looks in the faculty dining room. I’m an academic.”

“He’s a Little Aleppian; he’s gonna shoot ya.”

Carter groaned and rolled over so that his forehead was on the crimson carpeting; his jacket had a single vent in the back, so the flaps flipped open and revealed his ass. Molly looked at it, but only for a second.

“I’ve never been shot before.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Molly said.

He lifted his head off the carpet and turned it towards her.

“You’ve been shot?”

“Of course not. You shouldn’t have to take a bullet to know you don’t want to.”

He put his head back down, gently.

“Give me the pencil, Molly. I’m going to take notes on what you say.”

Molly lowered her eyes, and when she brought them back up to his they were not smiling, dark blue and stormy.

“Do you want to get shot or not?”

“I don’t.”

She picked the earpiece up off the phone, jiggled the switch hook-chucka chucka chucka–and the switchboard operator came on the line. (Little Aleppo still had a central exchange in 1924: you connected to the operator, and she connected you to your party.)

“Switchboard.”

“Babs?”

The operator’s name was Babs.

“Molly?”

“Lemme talk to Billy.”

“He’s such a prick. Ma is pissed.”

The operator’s full name was Babs McGlory.

“Ma’s always pissed. How’re you?”

“Foot’s acting up.”

“Shame. C’mon now, I gotta talk to Billy.”

“Hold your horses.”

Whirring and whizzing, clicks and hisses, and then BRRrrrrr. BRRRRRrrrrr.

At a speakeasy called the Irving halfway across the neighborhood, a short man with thick forearms and a cauliflower ear answered.

“Irving.”

“Hey, Billy.”

“College girl! Didn’t think we’d ever hear from ya again.”

“Coulda seen me Sunday if you showed up for supper, Billy. Ma’s pissed.”

“Ma’s always pissed.”

Billy McGlory owned the Irving, and he was one of the two biggest crime bosses in the neighborhood. His brother Sean was the police chief, and he was the other one. There were also twelve other McGlory brothers, and two sisters: Babs, who ran the switchboard, and Molly.

Molly was the first McGlory to go to college, and the family was proud of her.

“I need something, Billy.”

“Who’s bothering you?”

Molly could hear her brother’s nostrils flare over the phone, and then she looked at Dean Spants, who had rolled onto his side. He looked like a man who had not only been thrown out of a plane without a parachute, but who had not been aware he was on a plane until he was thrown from it without a parachute.

“Hold on a sec.”

She said to Carter,

“Dean, we don’t have any women professors.”

“No.”

“No.”

“The school is co-educational! We admit female students,” he said.

“I know! I’m one of them. But we don’t have any women professors.”

Molly McGlory had red hair and green eyes, and when she squinted them she looked like a slightly-drunk demon. Her brothers always laughed when she made that face. Carter Spants was not laughing.

“You’re serious.”

“As is Mr. Harper, Dean Spants.”

Molly held the earpiece of the phone out towards him and asked into the horn,

“How many people has that Harper creep shot?”

“Three? Four?” Billy’s voice crackled out. “Molly, what the hell’s going on? Do I need to come over there?”

“No!” Carter yelped. He was sitting up now. “No one needs to come over!”

“Gimme one second, Billy,” she said into the phone.

“One. One woman. Adjunct.”

“Three. Full tenure.”

“Madness.”

Molly held the earpiece in one hand, and with the other made a pistol with her thumb and index finger.

Carter Spants’ success was based on right answers. To tests, to homework, to challenges, to students: he was an academic, an academics had the right answers, even when they were asking the wrong questions. Again, he gave the right answer.

“Three.”

“Tenure.”

“Tenure, fine.”

Molly put the earpiece to her head and pulled the phone close to her mouth.

“Billy, the Dean and Harper T. Harper had a little misunderstanding.”

“What’s a dean?”

“Like a principal.”

“Gotcha. That fat bastard pulling that duel shit again?’

“Pistols at dawn.”

Billy McGlory slumped down onto the bar of the Irving. Life did not need to be this complicated, he thought. Egotistical bastards, that’s who muck things up. Man who goes putting his name on everything he touches can’t be anything but a pain-in-the-ass. Pistols at dawn my sainted cock, Billy thought.

“You get back to your books.”

“Thank you, Bubber.”

“Ah, don’t call me that.”

When Billy got off the phone, he put his cap on and told his brother Liam he was running an errand and walked down the Main Drag to the Harper Building. He didn’t have an appointment, but the secretary knew who he was. Billy closed the door behind him, so there’s no telling what the two of them talked about. Maybe the weather, maybe the future. Maybe business.

When Molly got off the phone, she said to the Dean,

“Okay.”

“Okay? That’s it?”

“Would you like to know all the details?”

Carter Spants was not a tough man, and he was not street-smart, but he was remarkably good at distilling events down into lessons; he did so with the previous half-hour of his life.

“No, I do not.”

Molly smiled at him, and then picked up her writing tablet and placed it on her lap. She picked up her pencil, licked the end–she generaly didn’t do that, but she was enjoying messing with the Dean–and opened the tablet to a fresh page.

“Is it always like this?”

“I don’t know, Dean. The college just opened.”

“Little Aleppo.”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

They sat there quietly on the floor of his unfurnished office.

“Now,” Molly said. “About those three professors.”

And then it wasn’t quiet any more for a long time. Carter Spants stayed in the office all night peering out the window overlooking the quad. Dawn came, dawn went. Breakfast-time, mid-morning, noon. At 2:37 pm, Carter decided that dawn was over and left his office, went down the stairs two floors, and walked out onto the campus of Harper College where Joey the Spaz crashed into him. He would be the Dean for many years after that, and fight with Harper T. Harper the entire time, but there were never again any death threats.

He was Dean during the Depression. when the school flirted with Communism, and then seduced Communism and humped it; were it not for his calming hand, there would have been purges within both the faculty and the freshman dorm. The students accused him of being a counter-revolutionary, and he smoked his pipe at them and quoted Pope. He was Dean when the students demanded all the professors be fired so that they might teach themselves; he was Dean a week later when the students realized what a pain-in-the-ass teaching was, and demanded that the professors be immediately rehired. He was Dean for three turtlemonster attacks.

Carter Spants was not the Dean when Mary Mallon told the campus about Tommy Amici buying the Observatory, but only because he was dead. He loved Harper College, and never wanted to leave, and so he didn’t. Because the grounds are self-governing, the laws about proper burial don’t apply; the students buried him out back of the small Victorian house he had lived in for 53 years. However, the laws regarding proper burial are generally good ones designed for safety, and not following them is a terrible idea: the students didn’t bury Carter deep enough, and so the first rain POPPED his half-decayed corpse out of the ground like a jump scare. Professionals were hired for a re-internment.

Rumors are whispered, gossip is murmured, but scandal shouts: the news did not sit peacefully in the quad strumming a guitar; the information neither hacked, nor sacked. Word got out, replicating itself, growing and oozing through conversations and arguments. All the way on the Upside, the women of society drank wine at L’Escalier and wondered what could be done; on the Downside, some ladies in a laundromat/bar called the Wash & Slosh made their way through a case of Arrow tallboys and agreed that somebody should fuckin’ do something.

Night falls electric on the Main Drag, gathering speed and weight until there is darkness and different things are possible. Different things are possible at night. High atop Pulaski Peak, the 100-inch telescope housed in Harper Observatory was pointed at Cantius JN41, which was a red giant star that had been struck from its intended trajectory–gone rogue–and was now on a suicide run towards the galactic center, knocking smaller stars and systems out of its way or just eating them up.

Trillion stars in a galaxy, Penny Arrabbiata thought as she looked through the telescope’s eyepiece. Each one’s got a planet in the pipe. Not too cold, not too hot. Trillion planets capable of life, she thought. Single-celled organisms at first. Later, elephants and ducks. And then one day you look up and someone else’s sun is bearing down on you and your world burns in an instant. A trillion other systems you could have eaten and you had to eat mine?

No matter how good the odds are, someone’s getting fucked, Penny thought.

She sipped her coffee and looked at the universe some more. Outside, a ghost cop slept in a bulldozer. Down in the valley, two women in an apartment above a hair salon were fucking. In a bookstore down the street, a man had his head down on a table and snored. On Rose Street, the church bells rang: first the Calling Judge in the belfry of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and then the bells of St. Clements, and St. Martin’s, and St. Mary’s. Everything was growing in the Verdance. If you didn’t know any better, it would seem like any other night in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Hunting In Little Aleppo

Sweet noon, you magnate. You Zeus, O you zenith. Noon, you villain to shadows and harbinger of lunch. Plump and disinterested and perched to fall in the middle of the sky; noon, you think too much of yourself. Arrogant Apollo over Little Aleppo, where everything was in bright focus–overhead lighting is no one’s friend–and the Main Drag was bustling and full of itself. Housewives were doing their marketing; househusbands, too, but they did their marketing in a manly fashion: efficient, growling.

The Victory Diner was feeding the office workers, get ’em in and get ’em out, and styrofoam clamshells to go: hamburger and a soggy pickle.The stevedores at the Salt Wharf were heaving and hoeing; the whores on Eighth Avenue were mostly only hoeing, but they were more than willing to heave if you had the cash. The junkies at The Nod were being woken up by the crooks of their elbows. The protestors outside Town Hall had not yet begun to fight. High atop Pulaski Peak in Harper Observatory, all the astronomers were behind tin-foiled windows and dead asleep.

There was also a ghost cop who lived in the Harper Observatory, but he was not asleep. Romeo Rodriguez had been ruined by the Marines: he got up at dawn. He had tried the scientists’ nocturnal schedule, but found it impossible to change his internal clock. Goddammit, I’m a ghost, Romeo thought. Ghosts come out at night. He couldn’t do it; he was a daytime kind of ghost.

It was the first position Romeo had ever occupied that didn’t come with instructions. Marines had a field manual; cops had a rulebook. Sure, he thought, the practice was often different from the prescription, but at least you could get a general idea of what was expected of you. This ghost shit was a bit catch-as-catch-can for his taste. There seemed to be no chain of command whatsoever.

There were still visitors to the Observatory, even with the legal wrangling and rumors flying: little kids and stoned teenagers and couples on dates. Secretaries took long lunches once a week and made the trek up Skyway Drive, the one connecting street from Little Aleppo to Pulaski Peak, to sit on the grass overlooking the valley and pretend all their dreams came true. Romantic drunks brought their flasks and pads to write on, and painters brought canvases. A tall, skinny man with a potbelly and a ponytail came up and plucked leaves off the Peregrine trees in the crescent moon-shaped stand to the east of the peak’s summit.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez sat in a bulldozer outside the Observatory; no one noticed him. Everyone saw him, but no one noticed him. Ghosts are the refrigerator’s noise, or the air conditioner’s blowing, or the car tires’ whizzing: your brain filters it out just as soon as it happens. It takes concentration to focus on a ghost, like being aware of your heartbeat or your breath, and most people just don’t have it in them. Easier to just see a bulldozer.

Peace is the goal, right? That was the thought that circled around his head, but it orbited a second–and just as great–notion: was it peace to let yourself get fucked? To lay down, to follow orders–even when they were bullshit orders–would be the peaceful thing to do. Bending over generally brings peace, he thought. You don’t want to get fucked unless it’s on your terms. Unless it’s on your terms, well: that’s not even getting fucked, is it? That’s something else entirely.

“Peter, may I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“I have not been with a woman.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, were attending services at the first First Church of the Iterated Christ. A cynic might say that they were lying on a rock getting high and having circular conversations, but Busybody and Peter were not cynics–Peter was a realist, and also a Neoplatonist; Busybody was a romantic and an optimist–and neither were the Pulaski.

The Pulaski had lived in the area for hundred of years–no one was keeping a precise count–and they worshiped the owl, and the coyote, and the red-tailed hawk. Had they lived in the flat desert of the Levant and Egypt, they would have worshiped the sun and the stars; if they were from Northern Europe, they would have worshiped the forest and the storm: people worship what’s around them.

The native tribes of America were like Greek city-states: communal character shaped by geography. In the East, they formed leagues and politicked; in the Southwest, the women ran things, and the men rode horses and fought. As would be the case for years to come, things were more mellow in (what would later be called) California. The Pulaski culture had been formed in a land that did not freeze for months in the winter, nor scorch in the summer: there was always food available. It just grew! You could go out-any day of the year–and walk not a mile or two from your home, and come back with a full basket of fruit and nuts and mushrooms and berries. The lake was full of fish.

Abundance takes the edge off.

And so the Pulaski were not averse to taking in strays, whereas the Comanche tended to skin strangers. There was enough to go around, so they welcomed Peter and Busybody. More specifically, they welcomed Peter and tolerated Busybody because Peter asked them nicely to. The Pulaski called Peter “The Guy Who Came To Town And Hunts Really Well.” Pulaski names were bluntly descriptive. Their name for Busybody was “Peter’s Little Useless Friend.”

“Never?” Peter said.

“No. I have not married.”

“What does marriage have to do with it?”

“You can’t have relations with anyone but your wife!”

“I believe it’s possible.”

“It’s wrong,” the Reverend said.

“And still it happens.”

“It’s wrong.”

“Sex is the Christ, Reverend.”

Busybody Tyndale was so scandalized by this statement that he almost thought about sitting up.

“It’s not.”

“What comes from sex? Joy, compassion, tenderness. Life, Preacher. Life comes from sex. The most unoriginal sin of all. No babies without it. Jealousy, and heartbreak, and murder: they come from sex, too. Are these things not the Christ?”

“They are.”

“Then so too must sex be the Christ. To cause is to become and embody.”

“Is the Christ its own cause?”

“That depends,” Peter said.

“On what?”

“I don’t know.”

The leaf of the peregrina maria tree is broad and waxy, the size of a child’s hand with 13 points, and rolled up is about the size of a cigarette. The trees grew in a large stand about an hour’s walk from the village. Walk towards the sun until you hit the lake that smells weird and turn left. The women would trek out once a week and fill their flat-bottomed baskets; since Peter and Busybody had founded the First Church of the Iterated Christ, they had been filling an extra basket.

The Pulaski chewed the Peregrine leaf, one in the morning and one or two in the afternoon. The leaf was reality’s lubricant: it made everything a little smoother, made you a little smarter, faster. It is an organizing principle of the universe that everyone wants to go a little faster. But if you chomped down on the fuckers, you’d get high as shit. A lifting high, like you were two feet up from your body, and you would be going so fast that everything else slowed down and then so did you: it was a relativistic high.

“Never?” Peter asked.

“No.”

“Huh.”

“I was engaged to be married once. In Spokane.”

“I’ve been there.”

“Her name was Liesl Cowhill. I was preaching there, and she was one of my parishioner’s daughters. She was 17. I was 23, but I was very young then. I believe I might have been younger than her. She was taller than me, though. Some men, I’ve heard, don’t care for that but I didn’t mind. She was a very kind person.”

“What happened?”

“She had an attack. We were walking down the promenade. A seizure. And she hit her head. I tried to help her, but I couldn’t. Her father said that she had had these attacks before. But she hit her head.”

The Reverend stared up at the sequoia that cast its shadow on the rock beneath it.

“And do you understand that this, too, is the Christ?” Peter said.

“Yes. But I don’t have to like it,” Busybody answered.

They lay there in silence listening for an answer, but all they heard was each other breathing. Peter sat up.

“Piss.”

“Oh. Me, too.”

The first First Church of the Iterated Christ had been sanctified by prayer, consecrated and holy, but it was also a rock under a sequoia on the edge of a wood. The bathroom was anywhere outside a 20′ radius from the rock, 50′ if it was number two. Usually, the two walked north about a minute when they had to go: there was a trickling stream that ran into the lake, and Peter and Busybody would piss and then kneel down to get a drink. They had always gone separately, but then Busybody saw a bear and now he tagged along with Peter.

When they got to the stream, they pissed, knelt, drank.

“You ever been hunting?” Peter asked as they walked back.

“Once. My uncle took me. My father did not use any weapons, even to hunt . So, my uncle took me. His sons and me. I remember leaving very early in the morning, and I remember dawn coming through the trees. There were starlings. Do you know a starling’s call?”

“Yes.”

“Baya-BEEya. Baya-BEEya. I recognized them because there was a bird feeder in our yard. I helped my father build it. Brave little birds, starlings. They would just look at you. You felt as thought they were regarding you in some way. Sizing you up. They must not have found me too threatening, because they never flew away. I used to practice preaching the Gospel to them, and they would say that back to me. Baya-BEEya.

“I used to pretend that was their way of saying ‘Amen.’ That the birds had understood what I had preached about.

“So that was why I recognized them. I was small as  child. Nothing’s changed, I guess, but I was small. My uncle had given me a .22 rifle. I had shot it before, once or twice. It was as big as me, almost. I don’t suppose it really had much of a kick, but it felt like being punched in the shoulder by Samson. It was the only metal in the woods. I remember thinking that, and I don’t know why, and I don’t know why I remember it. It was the only metal, and the barrel was the only perfect circle.

“We were going for turkey.”

Wait,” Peter said. They were by now laying back on the rock that was their church. “Y’don’t hunt turkey with a rifle.”

“Oh, I know. My uncle had the shotgun. I was expressly forbidden from using the rifle. It might not have been loaded.”

“So, why’d you have it?”

“My uncle insisted. I think he might have been trying to toughen me up. I am quite sure he thought I was a sissy.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was small even by 18– standards, and not just short: he was slight, and had delicate features and thin wrists and ankles. He was wearing a simple black suit, frayed, with a dirty white shirt and scuffed boots. When he arrived at the Pulaski village, his clothes had just about disintegrated on him. The Pulaski gave him what they wore–a deerhide tunic and moccasins–but he looked so ridiculous that everyone demanded Peter ride to the nearest white-person-clothier and buy him a new suit and some boots.

Peter used the trip to buy himself some clothes, too. He was born a Pawnee–not that far from Busybody–but he was raised by Whites, the same ones that massacred his family and tribe. They had taught him English, for which he was thankful, and they had taught him the Bible, about which his feelings were complicated, and they had taught him about pants. Peter had tried the tunic the Pulaski men and women wore, and he did not like it one little bit. No ball security whatsoever, he thought. You’re just flipping and flopping! No, Peter thought: I’m a pants man.

But it was warm during the summer, so Peter sliced through the legs mid-thigh and then his pants were shorts, and that was all he was wearing. When he hunted, he wore his buckskin suit and boots, but he attended church with his chest and feet bare.

“We were in a blind,” Busybody said. “Cramped. All the branches and leaves on the outside so the turkeys wouldn’t see us. Well, they would see us but they wouldn’t notice us.

“We waited for most of the day. You’re not really allowed to talk. You shouldn’t even whisper, because whispering so often becomes talking. Sometimes, you’re loudest when you’re trying to be quiet. So: no talking.

“We heard him before we saw him. I remember that. Footsteps. Crinch, crinch, and then there was a big tom right in front of the window. Not 40 feet away. His neck was the brightest green I had ever seen before. I did not see that color again until I was in the Southwest and saw the large reptiles that live there.

“My uncle shot, and he was a good shot, but he did not kill it.

“We left the blind, my cousins and I. My uncle sent us to fetch the bird. He had been drinking. He didn’t want to stand up.

“There is no humanity to a bird’s eye. Just black. Just ignorant sight.

“Except there was. Just a little. Enough. The turkey was still alive. Dying, but alive. He looked at me right in my eye and I remember how green his head was. And I couldn’t help myself. I knelt down and I ministered to the bird. I reached out for his wing. I think it was broken. The feathers were greasy with blood, and my cousins laughed at me.”

“A righteous man has regard for the life of an animal,” Peter said.

“Proverbs. My cousins didn’t think I was so righteous.”

“Fuck ’em.”

Busybody snorted out a laugh.

“I suppose.”

“Did the turkey go to use?”

“Of course. We ate it.”

“And what use will you be when you die? Or me? Buried in the ground, serving no one, helping no one.”

“The turkey did not volunteer to be supper,” the Reverend said.

“Did you volunteer to feel hunger?” Peter answered.

“I suppose I didn’t.”

“Hunger is the Christ, Reverend. Hunger, and the food which keeps it at bay. All that lives is hungry. Christ is the screaming stomach.”

“But is the Christ not also the reason with which to decide what to put in that stomach?”

Peter smiled at Busybody.

“He is, yes. I believe He is.”

“Me, too,” Busybody said.

They spit out their leaves in tandem, into their palms and then discarded next to the rock that they lay on. Busybody had rolled tight two fresh leaves; he handed one to Peter.

“Never?”

“Never what?”

“Been with a woman,” Peter asked.

“Oh. No. I told you. No.”

“There’s some gals in the village that would snatch you right up.”

“No. Really? No. How do you know?”

“They told me. Definitely two, maybe three.”

“Me?”

“Sure.”

“Why?”

“No accounting for taste.”

The sun was high as it was going to get, and so were Peter and Busybody.

Noon in the Morning Tavern looked like two a.m. anywhere else: everyone was sloppy and loud. Conversations were shouted; proclamations of love were made between strangers, to coke dealers, about the jukebox. A man at the end of the bar was trying to sell a watermelon farm; a woman in the bathroom was threatening the sink. It was the time of night–or day, technically–when the entire bar knows one another, and introductions are assumed. Couples that formed a few hours ago are slipping out the back door, having first donned their sunglasses.

Leaving the Morning Tavern without your sunglasses on was just the worst idea.

Mr. Venable was in no shape for leaving, mostly because he was dead asleep with his head down on the table. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy), Tiresias Richardson, and Big-Dicked Sheila had arranged straws in his hair rather artfully. There was also a coaster with an advertisement for Arrow Beer on it resting on the crown of his skull like a yarmulke.

“I’d still fuck him,” Gussy said.

“Tommy Amici?” Sheila answered. “Still?”

“Yeah.”

“He started a riot in your place and he’s tearing down the fucking Observatory!”

“I didn’t say I was proud of the fact: I just stated the fact.”

Tiresias was not paying attention; she was carefully tearing and folding a paper napkin.

“I couldn’t. He’s too much of an asshole. Ruins it,” Sheila said.”

“Like, every man I’ve slept with has turned out to be an asshole. Be refreshing to know upfront.”

“Are we talking about now? Old Tommy?”

“Old Tommy, young Tommy: I’ll fuck ’em all. Baby Tommy. I’ll crawl in that crib, I don’t give a shit.”

SHMARF Sheila shot vodka and a teeny, tiny bit of orange juice out her nose.

“My dad loved Tommy Amici,” Gussy said as she reached for another of Sheila’s Camels. “Played his records all the time. I think my dad actually looked up to him.”

“But he’s such an asshole.”

“So was my father!”

“And you’re fine ignoring the Freudian implications here?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“What about the Jungian implications?”

Sheila lit Gussy’s cigarette with a yellow lighter, and then her own.

“I don’t even know what those are, so it’ll be even easier to ignore those. I will also ignore Henry James.”

“He was the novelist. William James was the psychiatrist,” Sheila said.

“No, I think Henry was the psychiatrist.”

And Sheila called out to the bar,

“Was William or Henry James the psychiatrist?”

And everyone in the room answered,

“WILLIAM!”

“See?”

“I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong,” Gussy said and lifted her drink up. Sheila clinked it. Tiresias was still performing surgery on her napkin. Mr. Venable was making the occasional snorey-type noise.

The Rolling Stones came on because the Christ is infinite even in the Morning Tavern, and if there is a Christ then surely He sounds like the Rolling Stones in a bar at two in the morning, even if it’s actually noon. Keith went BRANG and Charlie went WHAP and the whole room lifted two feet above its body, and the bartenders blew their hair out of their face as they poured and poured and poured, and a deal was struck for a watermelon farm. Pool cues were re-imagined as guitars.

“I’m glad we sat down with you guys,” Gussy said, leaning forward and putting her hand on Sheila’s arm.

“Oh my God, me too. You’re awesome.”

“You’re awesome.”

“We should hang out,” Gussy said.

“Totally.”

“But you gotta keep the Tommy Amici thing secret, okay?”

“Sweetie, you yelled it in the middle of the bar.”

“No, that was you.”

“Let’s not point fingers. The point is that it got yelled.”

“I don’t think anybody heard.”

And everyone in the room said,

“WE HEARD!”

Gussy tried to give the bar the stink eye, but she had lost fine muscle control of her face several drinks ago, so she just looked puzzled.

“I can’t win with these people.”

“It’s a tough room,” Sheila said.

Tiresias was absorbed in her origami.

“Sheel?”

“Gus?”

“Can I ask you something? And, like, don’t be offended. But I gotta ask you something.”

Sheila, who was the owner and namesake of Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk, had heard this preamble before. It only led to one question, or–more correctly–one request.

There’s an old cliche that someone’s a woman trapped in a man’s body, man trapped in a woman’s body: nonsense, Sheila thought. She wasn’t trapped anywhere, except for the town she grew up in until she ran away and some old roadie in a GMC Ambassador picked her up and brought her to Little Aleppo. She liked her body, and didn’t see any conflict. She was a woman; this body belonged to her; therefore, it was a woman’s body. It made sense to her. She had met a lot of people to whom that didn’t make sense, and Sheila had run out of patience with those fuckers years before.

She would never run out of patience with her dick, though. Sheila loved her dick. If a girl’s got to have a dick, she thought, then this is the one to have: thick and heavy, both a shower and a grower with an absurdly pink head and a vein the thickness of a straw that made a lazy s-curve down the length all the way to her neatly trimmed bush. It was a Swiss Army knife of an appendage: it had made her friends, and gotten her both into and out of trouble, and it had won her bets. Sheila’s dick had made the seed money for her shop, most of it anyway.

She didn’t mind the request.

“Ya wanna see it?”

“Well, I mean, you know: your shop’s named Big-Dicked Sheila’s, and–”

Sheila was wearing a black dress with a short, loose skirt; she pulled it up ad FWUMP her dick hit the vinyl of the chair in between her legs. Gussy’s eyes widened.

“Good nickname.”

“I cannot tell a lie,'” Sheila said, lowering her skirt.

Gussy tipped the rest of her drink up, and then she stubbed her Camel cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray.

“Do you smoke pot? I have pot back at my place. We could go there.”

“My place is closer and I have better pot,” Sheila said.

“Okay.”

Tiresias had finished her napkin surgery; DICK was spelled out in paper strips on Mr. Venable’s head. She looked up at the girls.

“What’s going on?”

“Are you okay to get home?” Sheila asked.

Tiresias looked at Sheila, then Gussy, then back to Sheila.

“AAAAAAAHahaha! Yeah, I’m a big girl and it’s broad daylight out.”

Sheila kissed Tiresias, who was still laughing, on the cheek.

“I’ll see you Friday night,” Gussy said.

“Oh, you bet you will,” Tiresias answered.

Mr. Venable made a noise like phLOMpf.

Sheila and Gussy walked out of the Morning Tavern, having first donned their sunglasses, and having left a bomb ticking in the room: a piece of information wild and loose and floating up and down the bar gaining steam, and soon that piece of information left the Morning Tavern and when it did it turned right and left on Widow Way, where it rambles down to the bay and sprints through the Main Drag, where it is high noon and there are no shadows at all in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

First The Sun, And Then The Stars

Health nuts and religious types–the Sebastianite monks had been awake for hours–and photographers lurking by the wooden pylons of the Salt Wharf waiting for the light; and insomniacs having given up on sleep, wandering up and down the sidewalks dragging their dogs on forced walks. The night watchmen and the Midnight Librarians getting off their shifts, and the cop with his head down on the counter of the Victory Diner. The bicyclists and the joggers ready to pitch their turf battles. The baker, Sweet Jane; and the Poet Laureate, who was afraid of the dark and so stayed up all night. All of them happy for the sun’s return.

Everyone else in Little Aleppo, though, thought the sun could  go fuck itself. Not for the whole day–sun was pleasant to have around at noon, and quite lovely when it set–but it came on too strong at dawn. Sneaking through blinds and seeping under doors, eyelids doing very little to help the situation. Jesus, sun. People are still sleeping and dreaming, or doing drugs and dancing. Come back around 9. 9:30 to be on the safe side. In tidy homes and hotel rooms with bloodstains on the carpet: not just yet.

The sun does not take requests. The sun is a teenager’s dick; it rises when it wants to.

But no one was as angered by the dawn as an astronomer. Imagine you were at a museum and a fat guy stood in front of you exactly half the time. Penny Arrabbiata knew that was a terrible metaphor, but it had stuck in her head 25 years ago and she had just learned to live with it. Mostly, she thought the sun was rude. The other stars don’t blot out the entire damn sky, she thought, and there are a hell of lot more impressive stars out there. The Carolingian Binary in the Guelph system, G-Class monsters rotating around each other at 15% of the speed of light; Abernays 626A in the Carceral Archipelago, three million times the size of the sun and sucking in surrounding matter like a black hole burning bright red; Felis Major in the Felicidae system, and all its planets packed so close together. Penny always thought it would be a perfect system for a multi-planet civilization.

Penny Arrabbiata wanted to murder the sun; she didn’t think it was too much to ask. She had work to do, and she would never finish; leave her be to do her damn work. Do you know how much is up there, out there? There are more stars in the sky than there are books in a very large library, or even two very large libraries. If you go out to your yard and extend your hand with your thumb up, then the area blotted out will contain more stars than there would be if you had a smaller thumb. She would never finish counting the stars; it was impossible for her to complete her work even if she had 24 hours in a day, but she didn’t because that pushy yellow bastard ate up half of them. There is no such thing as infinicy, Penny thought; we just don’t have enough time to count all the way to the end. There was a last star out there somewhere, she knew.

She only had so much time, and she only had half of that, and now they were going to take her telescope.

Maybe it wasn’t the sun that needed murdering.

“We should get frou-frou drinks. I feel like a frou-frou drink.”

“It’s dawn, Gussy. Dawn is not the time for frou-frou drinks,” Mr. Venable sighed.

“Ooh, manly-man drinks. What’s a good manly-man drink? How about a pint of Everclear with a handful of stubble tossed in?”

Mr. Venable laughed with his eyes, but used his mouth to order a vodka and orange juice from the bartender. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, thought that was a fine decision and asked for the same.

The drinks were strong at the Morning Tavern; several had put themselves through nursing school while raising children on their own. Others would eat through the engine block of a Chrysler. Don’t order the Easter Island Iced Tea unless you want to come to three days later, having chopped down all the trees in the area. The Moilerbaker is another terrible idea; it is a stein of whiskey with a shot of beer dropped into it.

They got their drinks; there was an oily yellow film on top of the vodka and ice cubes. Mr. Venable looked for a straw, found none, stirred his drink with his finger, put it in his mouth, wiped it on his pants. Gussy didn’t bother, just pounded a third of hers at once and slammed the glass on the bar.

“We’re gonna WIN, motherFUCKER!” she yelled. No one looked. People had epiphanies in the Morning Tavern a lot.

“Gussy! Shush!”

“You shush! Drink that,” Gussy said.

Mr. Venable took a sip.

“DRINK, PUSSY!”

He looked genuinely alarmed as he took a slightly larger pull off his cocktail. Then, setting his glass on the bar, he very gently laid his hand on Gussy’s forearm.

“Gus, I need you to know something: I am very excited about our little come-from-behind victory, too.”

“You mean when Omar was smarter than you?”

Mr. Venable did not dig his nails into Gussy’s forearm, but he desperately wanted to.

“Gussy. Focus. Answer a question for me.”

“Okay.”

“What should we do with this new information? ‘The anonymous buyer of Harper Observatory is Tommy Amici.’ That piece of information. What should we do with it?”

“Tell everyone,” Gussy said.”

“Maybe.”

“Wait. Maybe we should tell no one.”

“Another possibility.”

“Or tell someone. Someone specific.”

“That could also work.”

“Great. So, which is it?’

He took his hand off her arm, and took a sip of his drink.

“I’ve no idea. We found out, and then you taunted me for the entire walk over, and then we ordered drinks and had this conversation. I’ve no idea whatsoever.”

The nature of information is relative. Anarchists are quite sure it wants to be free, but professors and sports touts disagree. Mathematicians think it’s the end of an equation: subtract noise from signal, and you’re left with information. A black hole can’t destroy it; a liar can’t create it.

And information is a weapon. Soldiers know this, and so do politicians and lawyers and con artists. A limited one, though, and specific like a bullet made for just one soul. Fired from the right gun at the right time, a piece of information can kill a man. Or a marriage. Or a government.

Or a land deal.

The jukebox played Tommy Amici. Live from the Menefreghista Club, which was a 1967 release from Adamo Brothers Records. It was a good recording, airy and crisp, and you could hear pinky rings clink against cocktail glasses as Tommy sang all his hits–The Next Time I’ll Cry, and Foggy Morning, and Just Passing Through–and he told his jokes, which were of two themes: Drinking, and Fuck That Guy (Or Gal). That nearly-repressed rage that fueled Tommy’s singing spread and splattered all over the stage like popping grease from a frying pan when he tried to tell jokes; he would snarl through the punchlines. The crowd still laughed: anything to hear Tommy sing. Still, in 1967.

World War II came and went, and he was still singing, and then Hollywood and all the terrible movies made worse by Tommy’s steadfast refusal to do more than one take, or learn his lines, or show up on time, or not slug the director, or not storm off the set and fly to Spain, or not fuck his co-star no matter how married she was and how many problems it would cause, or not drive his Mercedes through the set. Then there was that first little bit of rock and roll in the late 50’s; Tommy barely noticed, and the fad faded. They said he was a fad, but he was still here, and when the second wave of rock and roll rock and rolled around in ’61–something they were calling the British Invasion–Tommy was not worried. He had his eyes, which were the color of the Verdance in the summer, and he had his voice.

Several years later, Tommy was still not worried. This rock and roll bullshit would go away any minute. And sure,  he was getting older, no doubt about it. He had put on weight in his skull; his head, once rectangular, was now square and blocky. His chin was less distinct, and there was grey in his toupee. Tommy had noticed that his tailor used to let his tuxedos in and out, but lately had only been letting them out. He was not worried at all, this was nothing–no big deal–and because getting older was no big deal, Tommy had recently married a 19-year-old actress named Hiawatha Mayflower.

It was a whirlwind romance. The papers reported on “Tommy Amici and his Child Bride,” and then they reported on Tommy punching a reporter for calling her a “Child Bride,” and then the cycle restarted. She went with him on tour in Europe; it was chaotic. In England, Tommy saw Hiawatha talking to a Rolling Stone, or maybe a Kink–one of them, who gives a shit–and this kicked off a bar brawl; he also called the Queen fat. France saw a reconciliation, and he sang the entire show right to her. But whirlwinds are temporary.

And Hiawatha Mayflower was no Child Bride. 19-year-olds who marry men Tommy’s age are either very dumb are very smart, and she was not dumb. Hiawatha understood Hollywood before she had even been there, back in her boarding school dorm: fame beats everything. The organizing principle of Hollywood is not power, like in DC, but fame. Fame beats resume, experience, connections; fame beats ugly, stupid, untalented. She was, Hiawatha knew, just as talented as the other girls, and she was certainly as beautiful as the other girls.

But there were so many other girls in Hollywood.

Hiawatha was working on a soap opera called Tomorrow’s Yesterdays; she played a student nurse named Eve Lovedance, and she was in a love triangle with a doctor named Drape Knox and a tollbooth collector/heir to the Eustachian fortune named Burlington Cotes. A job’s a job, she thought.

Tommy Amici was shooting a film called The Lieutenant on the next stage. He was a cop on the trail of drug kingpins; or a kidnapper; maybe a mad bomber: Tommy had not read the script. He knew he was a cop because the costume girl handed him a badge every morning, or afternoon, or whenever he showed up. Fuck this job bullshit, he thought.

That first morning he noticed her in the parking lot was coincidence, but the day after that, Hiawatha sat in her car watching for his to pull into the lot. She counted to ten and got out; she was wearing a yellow dress the exact same color as her hair, and she looked like a movie star. They had dinner that night, and then they went up to Harper Observatory to look at the stars. She and Tommy were married five weeks later.

Now, there are some that might fault Hiawatha Mayflower for her behavior. Assume that her love was not true; this was not the case. He still had those eyes, and that charisma, and he was great in bed. Hiawatha loved him just as much as Tommy loved her, which is to say: almost as much as they loved themselves. It was a Hollywood romance.

Tommy Amici had sung for presidents–hell, he had helped elect one–and kings; he sold out stadiums and arenas, and he packed movie houses. He had four planes and seven houses. A share in a casino that the government knew about, and two that the government didn’t. And every six months like clockwork, he played a weekend at a tiny club called the Menefreghista in a weird neighborhood named Little Aleppo. For free.

He was not in a good mood.

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know, Tommy,” Jacob George said.

Jacob was Tommy’s valet, and Tommy very rarely threw food on him or screamed racial epithets at him in front of company. Jacob thanked Tommy for this kindness with courteous service, and by skimming tens of thousands of dollars out of the household accounts. He also took detailed notes for the book he would write ten years later.

The dressing room at the Menefreghista was freshly redecorated: brand-new velour couch, purple, and tasteful cream walls with art picked to complement Tommy’s eyes. The Friend redid the dressing room every time Tommy played the club; he had never noticed.

The Friend owned the Menefreghista, but not on paper; the only paper The Friend dealt in was cash. (In fact, there was legend printed over the bar: Nummis Semper Accipitur.) Why own? he thought. Nothing but liability. Silent partnerships: that was the way to go. Contracts were for people who didn’t trust each other, The Friend would tell people before he shook their hands. We trust each other, don’t we?

No one had ever said no.

Tommy didn’t say no, all those years ago in this very club, just shook The Friend’s hand and all of a sudden there was money for a press agent and new teeth and the best musicians, and the best gigs in the country–the Copa, the Fontainebleau, Ciro’s–and his name was in all the papers (those fucking newspapers and their lies) and then theaters, sold out, and then there were movies and tours and so much money, so much fucking money that no one could ever spend it all. Less ten percent off the top, which went to that man Tommy made friends with all those years ago. A silent partnership.

And two weekends a year at the Menefreghista.

“Little bitch was supposed to be here.” Tommy was seething. He sat at the makeup mirror in his tuxedo shirt, boxer shorts, and sheer black socks. Jacob stood behind him working Tommy’s pants with a lint brush.

“I called the house and there was no answer.”

“Aren’t you on top of things?” Tommy spat.

“Maybe there was traffic.”

There was a knock on the door, and then The Friend walked in without waiting for a response. He was the only human on the planet, including royalty and popes, who could have gotten away with that. He handed Tommy a telegram.

MISTER STOP HAVE GONE TO ENGLAND STOP TAKEN STARRING ROLE IN HORROR MOVIE STOP ALREADY OSCAR BUZZ STOP SUCH A GREAT SCRIPT STOP MARRIAGE NOT WORKING STOP LOVE ALWAYS STOP LITTLE BIRD

She called him Mister, and he called her Little Bird.

Tommy laid the telegram down on the desk, very calmly. Jacob recognized this specific form of calm, and–as respectfully as possible–shoved The Friend out the door. When Tommy emerged ten minutes later, there was an an actual need to redecorate the dressing room.

Then he did the show. Tommy Amici is a professional, but every note he sung that night was a promise: someone is gonna pay for this. That little bitch. The Friend. This weird fucking pissant neighborhood Someone. Someone is gonna fucking pay.

“Whose round is this?”

Gussy WHAPPED her glass on the table. She and Mr. Venable were sitting with Tiresias Richardson and Big-Dicked Sheila at a table across from the bar. The Morning Tavern was a wide room with an el-shaped bar and tables in the front, and a pool table and jukebox in the back. It would have been a rather plain joint were it not for the Rejection.

Letters saying “no thank you” from publishers and colleges, and eviction notices, and writs of expulsion, and dishonorable discharges, and divorce papers, and findings of negligence, and concession speeches, and letters saying “I don’t love you anymore.” All tacked to the walls and columns and ceiling, overflowing atop one another and grasping for space like paper anemones on a coral reef and forming what was called the Rejection. You got a place here, the Rejection says; you’re not the only loser at the Morning Tavern.

“Yours,” Sheila burped.

“No,” Gussy said.

“Yes.”

“Why are you always mean!?” Tiresias shouted at Mr. Venable. She had not been sober–or even close to it–for several days now, and had entered the shouting phase of a bender.

“I’m not always mean. I’m lovely.”

“AAAAAAHahaha!”

“I bought the round before this,” Gussy said, counting on her fingers.

“No, you bought the round before the round before this. Before that.”

“Don’t you laugh at me,” Mr. Venable said with a rather sloppy smile. “I’m a delight.”

“You’re rementless…relentest…you’re always mean.”

“To you?”

“To me.”

“But that only makes three,” Gussy said. “There are four of us.”

“Fantastic four,” Sheila dug around in her purse for her cigarettes; she was not really paying attention to the conversation.

“You’ve been in the shop?”

“Several times,” Tiresias said. “Mean every time.”

“What did you buy?”

“Books on acting.”

“There you go.”

“There I go what?”

“My cruelty was a favor to you. Acting is no life. It’s for the degenerate and the silly.”

“What!?”

Sheila found her cigarettes–she smoked Camels like Precarious–and held out the soft pack. Gussy had not had a cigarette in four years, but she was shitfaced at 8 am trying to either avert or touch off a land war in the middle of her neighborhood.  She took the smoke; Sheila lit it with a yellow plastic lighter; Gussy HACKHACKHACK and then she was light-headed and her throat felt barbed and her tongue coated with mud. She blew out, half through her nose and the rest through her mouth and remembered why she had started smoking at 15.

Gussy had gone to Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk for years, but had always gotten her hair cut by Antonio Faberge; she knew Sheila enough to stop and chat on the sidewalk, but they were not close friends. At this moment, though, Gussy felt very close to Sheila, and motioned to her with two fingers.

“C’mere. I gotta tell you something.”

Sheila leaned forward, but warily. She had been on the losing end of the “C’mere, I gotta tell you something” game before.

“Yeah?”

“We found out who’s buying the Observatory.”

Sheila’s eyes widened, and she was wearing very dramatic makeup; the gesture popped.

“No!”

“What are you two talking about?” Mr. Venable said.

“Excuse me,” Tiresias said. “Excuse me. Excuse me.” She was now in the “repeating yourself” phase of the bender.

“Yes?”

“I happen to be a successful actor.”

“What would I have seen you in?”

“I’m Draculette!”

“Who?” Mr. Venable said.

“Who?” Sheila said. She and Gussy were huddling and hunched into each other, almost under the table. They could see the gum.

“You can’t say anything.”

“No.”

“You can’t say annnnnnything.”

Sheila zipped her lips, and then she threw the key over her shoulder.

“Draculette!”

“Just repeating the ludicrous name isn’t going to make me recognize it.”

“Draculette. You know: Draculette.” She mimed her enormous wig, and then unzipped her rust-colored sweatshirt down and pushed her cleavage together. SHAKEYSHAKEYSHAKEY. Then she made spooky noises. “Draculette!”

Mr. Venable’s eyes widened, but he wasn’t wearing any makeup, let alone dramatic makeup.

“What in God’s name are you doing?”

“Tell me, tell me,” Sheila said.

“Okay, I did some research and found out that the anonymous buyer–who was hidden behind, like, a million shell companies–was a guy named Tomas Valenzuela.”

“Oh my God! You’re so smart.”

“Yeah,” Gussy said.

“Who’s Tomas Valenzuela?”

“I’m very famous!” Tiresias insisted.

“Where?”

“Here. In Little Aleppo! I’m on teevee every night!”

“Tomas Valenzuela is Tommy Amici.”

“No!”

“Yes,” Gussy said.

“Oh my God.”

Mr. Venable leaned back in his chair.

“Well, there you go. I don’t own a tevee.”

“Ohhhhhhhh, of COURSE you don’t own a teevee,” Tiresias said.

“Oh, come on,” Gussy chimed in. “You most certainly do have a teevee.”

“Shush.”

“You have one in the back office of the shop! You watch Tomorrow’s Yesterdays every single day.”

“AAAAAAAAHahahaha!”

Sheila sat bolt-upright in her seat.

“Tommy Amici is tearing down the Observatory?”

“Dammit, Gussy!”

“I think this is my round,” Gussy said, got up, went to the bar.

Tiresias smirked; Sheila gawped; Mr. Venable wondered again why women always seemed to be yelling at him, and also contemplated murdering Gussy. He still did not know what to do with the new piece of information, but he had seen several heads in the bar jerk around when Sheila announced the information, so he figured that it was no longer his problem; it was the hands of the gods now.

High atop Pulaski Peak, the hemispherical doors on Harper Observatory have closed. The sun, that bully, was back in its arcing throne and the sky was no longer of any use to astronomers. The park the Observatory sat in did not have berms and emplacements carved into it, but they had been marked off. There were benches along walkways–one had been bulldozed–and from them, you can see all of the lights of the valley below glowing warm and yellow, and beyond that the wharf and the docks, and beyond that the harbor, and beyond that the sea. It was a good place to take a date, just one romantic spot among many in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Lost And Found In Little Aleppo

During a cold snap several winters ago, Bell Lake froze over. Just a skin of ice on the surface: not all the way through, not enough to support a person, but enough so that the swans could stand on it. They toodled out, three pairs of them, and examined their redecorated home; they did not like it. Few animals are equipped to walk confidently on ice; least of all swans. They danced against their wills, skinny legs splayed and wings flapping, hissing in fury; so enraged that they forgot that they could fly away. Being animal lovers, Little Aleppians gathered, but knowing these particular swans, the neighborhood made no effort whatsoever to aid the birds. Several in the crowd had beak-shaped scars on their calves. There may have been jeering. The swans made careful note of faces.

It was warm tonight, though, and Mr. Venable had removed his suit jacket and draped it over his left arm as he walked north on the Main Drag with Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy. She had stopped for an ice cream: sugar cone, soft-serve vanilla/chocolate, swirling six inches above her now-sticky hand. It was the most casual anyone had ever been right before breaking into a government building.

Gussy thrust the cone towards Mr. Venable.

“Lick?”

“If I wanted one, I would have gotten one.”

“Liiiiiiiick,” she said, waving the ice cream in his face. The long, tapered pyramid almost toppled over, but Gussy moved her arm under the fall.

“Reflexes, yo.”

“You’ve gone from taking this too seriously to not taking it seriously enough,” he said.

“We’re walking through the front door. You said it yourself.”

“But still: a bit of propriety.”

“Propriety? Pro-PRI-ety? You have, sir, removed your coat in the presence of a lady.”

“You’re no lady,” he said, smirking.

Quel scandale!”

“It’s warm out. I took off my coat.”

Gussy was joking, but then she realized that she had seen Mr. Venable out of his coat perhaps three times in all the years she’d known him. Three times? Maybe just twice. She stopped short on the sidewalk.

“Jesus Christ, we’re all gonna die.”

He pulled up short, and looked at the sky. Mr Venable kept God in his sky so he could blame Him for things.

“It’s not symbolism, Gussy.”

“It’s a sign, is what it is! Let’s get out of town.”

“It’s not a sign, you daft woman! I was warm! If I were barefoot, it would be symbolic. Or flowers or something. You don’t take a coat off when you’re dead; the undertaker puts one on you.”

Gussy weighed this information. He may have been right.

“You may be right.”

But she figured there was no point in tempting fate.

“But there’s no point in tempting fate. Put the jacket back on.”

“I am warm, you daffy thicko!”

“PUT THE JACKET ON!”

Pedestrians nearby pretended not to look, but they all did.

Mr. Venable made a mental note to wonder why all the women in his life felt so comfortable in yelling at him. For now, he put his suit coat back on. He had several suits, all the same black with faded pinstripes. Someone who loved him had bought them for him years ago; the jacket’s lining was silk and the same dark red as his shirts.

They walked north again, side by side, and did not speak until they did again.

“We’re at an important part in the story,” Gussy said quietly. “It could tip either way. Good guy could win, bad guy could take it. We need to be careful with our subtext.”

“You never know. We might just be tasked with advancing the plot, Gus.”

And then they were in front of Town Hall. It was almost midnight.

Time for KSOS’ late movie, presented by Little Aleppo’s favorite Horror Host, Draculette. The film–and that’s using the word loosely–was called The Cousin Of Frankenstein, and it was about evil gremlins eating everyone at a Quinceañera. The insomniacs, the regretful, the drinkers, all the unhappy and awake: they’d get five minutes of movie, and then five minutes of commercials, and then five minutes of Draculette from midnight to three in the morning. After that, the National Anthem would play and they would be on their own.

Draculette had eight-inch heels, completely unwalkable, and the strappy laces wrapped around her milk-white ankle three times. The dress was actually quite long–down to her mid-calf–but there was a slit up the front, and she swept one half of the skirt over her thigh, double-checking in the monitor that the draping fell right and just enough leg–but not too much!–was on display. She lay on her side on her purple-upholstered faux-Edwardian couch, and this jutted her hip out to the point of satire: Draculette was not curvy, but bulbous. She erupted from herself in heaves and blossoms except for where she didn’t: her waist was cinched tight by a hidden corset sewn into the dress, her stomach flat as a Kansas highway.

And above the stomach were the tits. Draculette did not have boobs or breasts, but tits. Boobs are for teenagers, and breasts are for doctors; tits are for teevee, and Draculette was a teevee star. Her dress had a massive V cut out of the front that started at the bottom of her sternum and radiated outwards in both directions up towards her jutting clavicles; the shanks of the dress had bolsters and grippy fabric that gathered and pushed and cajoled every ounce of excess flesh into that frontward-facing V.  The makeup–cat’s eye mascara and heavy on the foundation; lipstick redder than Lenin–went on after the dress, and finally the wig. Long as a whip, black.

Under all that was a woman named Tiresias Richardson, who was both still-hungover and newly-drunk at the same time; she wasn’t aware that was possible, but here she was.

The current drunkenness wasn’t her fault, she thought. You try putting together a 24-hour teevee show with no budget; you’d need a drink, too. She had been in her dressing room with Big-Dicked Sheila since seven o’clock working the phones and lying to the semi-talented. She needed acts, something, anything, just fill up the corkboard oh God the corkboard–The Board–in the corner of the room only half-full of index cards: too much brown and not enough white 24 motherfucking hours and, yes, it was for sick children and sick children are very sad and need money but JESUS FUCKING CHRIST 24 fucking hours of teevee and sitting there in the goddamned prison of a dress we need to fill the board feed the board feed the board The Board, and you know what? You’d need a drink, too.

The hangover, though, was entirely her fault. When strangers give you pills, Tirry, you don’t have to take them, she reminded herself.

Sheila was on the couch. Tiresias was on the floor. Sheila had a list on a legal pad, and Tiresias had her sweatshirt over her face.

“Martin the Squeamish confirmed,” Sheila said.

“Pardon?”

“Martin the Squeamish.”

“What does he do?”

“He gets grossed out by everything.”

“That’s not an act. How is that an act?”

“He juggles while he gags.”

“Oh, okay.”

“He can do seven minutes,” Sheila said.

“He can do three hours, see what I care.”

“Great. Putzy Glick.”

“Comic?”

“Comic.”

“Fine,” Tiresias said. She probably would have agreed to let Idi Amin on the show at this point if he could fill ten minutes. Anything to get Sheila to stop talking.

“Wilbur Hampton and his Fascinating Nipples.”

Okay, maybe not anything.

“No.”

“Tirry, you have to see them. They really are fascinating.”

“In what possible way?”

“Thematically.”

Tiresias pulled the sweatshirt down, uncovering one eye and casting it towards Sheila.

“You’re serious.”

“I wouldn’t lie about nipples. You have to see them.”

Tiresias re-covered her eye.

“Book the nipples,” she said.

“Gonna be the highlight of the show. Mark my words.”

Tiresias did not think she fell asleep, but she did–just for a minute–and she woke up with a POP! that came from the couch. She pulled the sweatshirt back down.

“Oh, sweetie. Red?”

“I was in the mood.”

“But I need a straw.”

Sheila smiled, and pulled two paper-wrapped straws from her bag. Poured herself one, Tiresias one; they sat in sober silence taking short, sharp sips. The evening became easier.

At midnight, Tiresias went away and Draculette took over: crammed into a costume, and slathered in makeup, and rolled down the hall in a stolen wheelchair, and propped up on a smelly couch, Draculette laughed her nighttime laugh and made the homes in Little Aleppo a little less lonesome just for a moment. She had no idea what she was doing; she was making it up as she went, and the situation might have been killing her, but people seemed to like it. And people seemed to laugh at her jokes.

And Hollywood was not calling.

Moving the 100-inch telescope at the Harper Observatory was a quieter process than such an enormous procedure usually produces. The entire cupola rotates, and the ‘scope–a cannon filled with glass and mirrors–pitches up and down according to the computer’s dictates; there is a thrum of generators and a whir and shoooosh, but no CLANGCLANGCLANG you might expect from such large machinery, and if you are more than fifty feet outside the building you can hear nothing at all. Especially not if you’re in a bulldozer.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez, who had been murdered several months prior, was in a bulldozer. When he was a cop he had a mission, but he wasn’t a cop any more. He had no fucking idea what a ghost was supposed to do, but he was presently a ghost. He had no idea what he was doing; he was making it up as he went. Romeo did know how to drive the bulldozer; several trees and a bench had been destroyed in his education, but he finally got a handle on the thing. He held onto that small piece of competence like a rosary bead; he had taken to sitting in the cab when he wanted to think.

Harper Observatory belonged to Little Aleppo, he thought. But, he countered himself, the land had been bought fair and square. BUT, he rebutted, Pulaski Peak had obviously been meant to be purchased and given to the neighborhood in perpetuity. YET, he offered in response, the judge had ruled. It was a loophole and a technicality! The law is the law!

But slavery was the law, he figured, and he felt bad immediately for thinking that–can’t quite compare a land dispute to human bondage–but it proved that there was a category: unjust laws. Just because something was legal didn’t make it right. In boot camp, his drill instructor had lectured the battalion about a just order and an unjust one, and when a Marine could refuse an order. Gunnery Sergeant Puschke was tall, and he had a haircut you could slice bread with; if you tried to do an impression of his guttural voice, you would start coughing within a sentence.

“Here’s the deal: you’re fucked either way, so might as well do the right thing,” Gunny Puschke told them.

And that struck Romeo Rodriguez as sound thinking.

There was an owl 40 feet up one of the Peregrine trees in the stand to the east. It went WHO!

“Venable.”

“Who?”

“Venable!”

“Venable’s not here, man,” came Omar’s voice from behind the front door of Town Hall.

Mr. Venable’s nostrils flared and he stamped his mouth shut, eyes wide, and he walked away from the door several feet. Gussy was aghast and amused.

“Little boys.”

“He started it,” Mr. Venable muttered.

“Omar, open the door.”

“Is that my Gussy?”

The door flew open, and a small man in a hideous sweater and a knitted kufi stood there with his arms open.

“Omar,” Gussy said, and hugged him.

“My Gussy.”

Next to Omar was a large dog.

“Argus,” Gussy said, and hugged the dog. She would never touch any other seeing-eye dog, but Argus took it personally if you didn’t say hi.

“Boof.”

Mr. Venable squeezed by all the hugging into the lobby of Town Hall.

“Venable.”

“Omar.”

Boof.”

“Argus.”

Mr. Venable and Gussy walked down to the basement, where all the records that Mr. Venable has not yet stolen are kept. Birth certificates; death certificates; ransom notes, notarized and in triplicate; several shelves of plans, re: the turtlemonsters’ inevitable return; construction permits, receipts for the bribes to get the construction permits; meteorological records; draft papers; pictures of weird-looking babies; incunabula; palimpsests; an illuminated monograph focusing on a flower called the Kicking Bird Lily; foreclosures; evictions; a rib bone from the whale that beached itself on the second floor of the freshman dorm at Harper College; mineral surveys; back copies of The Cenotaph; marriage licenses; divorce decrees; blueprints to every building in the neighborhood; bills of sale for every animal in the zoo.

And train schedules, and tax returns.

“Proof of life, Gussy. Everything that’s ever happened in Little Aleppo: here is it.”

“Awesome. Why don’t you sing about it?” she said and wandered away, down the stacks and into the darkness. Mr. Venable called after her.

“Do you even know what you’re looking for?”

“Do you?” she called back.

She had an excellent point, so he pretended not to hear her and began examining the books and collections and stacks all around him. Ghosts wandered the aisles, and Mr. Venable could see several Midnight Librarians on the other side of the room, by the EXIT sign; he nodded at them. Tomas Valenzuela. Tomas Valenzuela. Where are you hiding, Tomas Valenzuela?

He was not in the property records, and he was not in the draft notices, and he paid no tax, and he had–

“Hey!”

–opened no businesses except that pet store–

“Hey!”

–that tipped Mr. Venable off to the name, and he–

“Hey!”

“WHAT?”

Gussy was all the way across the dark basement. She yelled out:

“What’s a Chinaman Count?”

“What?”

“I’m looking at a book. It’s, like, this official-looking ledger. It’s called the Chinaman Count.”

“The Town Fathers used to count the Chinese people.”

“Why?”

“So they knew how many there were, I suppose.”

“I understand how counting works. I meant why would they count Chinese people?”

“I don’t know. Nothing positive, one would presume.”

The basement was quiet for a moment.

“Is he in there?”

“Tomas Valenzuela? I don’t think he’s included in the Chinaman Count.”

“Did you check?”

She checked.

“There aren’t even any V names whatsoever.”

“Well, now we know for sure. Research must be diligent, or it’s just reading.”

Gussy gave him the finger.

“Are you giving me the finger?”

“Yes.”

A birth certificate, finally, from 19–. Mr. Venable found it i the first folio he looked in, the cover went SHWAMP opening onto the table and inside were the records; they were pale blue and typed with the occasional X-ing out, and they had the raised seal of Little Aleppo in the corner: two swans fighting over a piece of gold in front of a mountain. From that, school enrollment; Mr. Venable found the elementary records, and then two years of high school. Then, nothing. He wasn’t drafted, he didn’t die. No sign of him anywhere.

Gussy had fallen asleep on the Chinaman Count. He shook her shoulder, and she looked up, bleary.

“Find him?”

“For a moment. Then I lost him.”

Gussy stretched out her shoulders and stood up. Mr. Venable was still not wearing his jacket, and his hair looked thin and pathetic; he could not meet Gussy’s eyes,  She reached out and put her fingertips on his elbow.

“We’ll figure something out.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. You want an ice cream?”

“I do, actually. I would very much like an ice cream. But it’s five in the morning.”

“Then do you want a drink?”

“No.”

“Do you want several drinks?”

“Yes.”

The two of them trudged out of the basement, and up the stairs, and down the checkerboard-tiled main corridor of Town Hall. When they got to the front door, Omar and Argus were waiting there. From halfway down the hall, Mr. Venable called out.

“Omar, you know who Tomas Valenzuela is?”

“Tommy Amici’s real name.”

Gussy stopped short, but Mr. Venable grabbed her by the elbow and forced her along. She was about to say something, and loudly, when he put a warning finger up to her mouth.

“Why?” Omar asked.

“Why?”

“Yes. Why you asking that? Weird question.”

“Someone at the bookstore told me that was his real name, and I didn’t believe him.”

“Yeah. Changed his name, got famous. Embarrassed of where he’s from. Mister Big Shot. Punk kid.”

They had reached the door, and Mr. Venable was still threatening Gussy with his finger and facial expression.

“Well, now I know,” he said.

Gussy gave Omar a hug, and Argus a scritchy-scratch under his chin. His tail went thumpthumpthump on the checkerboard-tile floor, and the two of them, a man in his customary suit and a woman in a white dress with a blue stripe around the skirt, walked out of Town Hall. Down the veined and cloudy marble steps and past the scraggly forsythia on either side of the path out to the sidewalk, where they turned left.

“Little boys,” Gussy said.

“Thank you.”

“It would have killed you to let Omar know he helped?”

“Yes, it might. Good chance.”

“Little boys,” Gussy said.

The moon had dipped below the buildings, leaving only the boldest stars. The sun would be up soon, bully that it was, and there was no city noise and there was no human noise and there were no cars; there was the whiffling of the wind rushing down the Segovian Hills and BLAAAT BLAAAT from the horned toads that no one ever saw but everyone always heard.

“Still want that drink?”

“No.”

Mr. Venable was walking with a spring, and his hair looked thicker; he had put his coat back on.

“Still want several drinks?”

“Yes, indeed.”

The Morning Tavern had just opened, and Tiresias and Sheila were at the bar; the Poet Laureate was at a table alone, and soon Mr. Venable and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, would be there. They walked south on the Main Drag for a little bit, and then turned west onto Widow Street; they could hear the bar before they could see it, which is how it works with good bars, even at five in the morning in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America

Nighttime Negotiations In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppo had a great battleship of a movie theater called The Tahitian; its prow cut into the sidewalk of the Main Drag, a sharp wedge extending almost to the curb with white marquees on both sides. Under that was the glassed-in ticket booth containing a teenager and a microphone on a metallic stalk. (The Tahitian had originally had a large circular cutout in the ticket booth glass, but people would bar the door and throw ferrets in to watch the teenager dance, so a more secure kiosk was installed.)

Behind the ticket booth, on either side, were double doors that led to the lobby.  The roof was held up–it seemed–by palm tree-shaped columns ringing the room that ran from the busy carpet, red with yellow flashes, up to the high ceiling. In between the columns were tiki masks and movie posters, and a chandelier hung from the ceiling; it looked like a palm tree, too, but upside down and made of light. The snack bar was on the left, and the stairs to the balcony were on the right. The doors to the orchestra were straight ahead, and if you had opened one and walked into the auditorium, you would have seen a dark, curvy woman in a white dress with a blue stripe running around the bottom of the skirt.

She was having an argument with the screen.

“Wally, you cannot go on strike.”

I AM NOT GOING ON STRIKE, AND DO NOT CALL ME THAT. I AM REFUSING TO PARTICIPATE IN THE EXHIBITION OF ONE FILM.

The woman’s name was Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, and she was talking to the Wall of Sound, whom everyone called Wally, no matter how many times he told them not to. Gussy was the fourth generation of Incandescente-Ponui to own The Tahitian, and she had brought it back from ruin; Wally was a sound system built in 1974 by a choogly-type band, and also a sentient artificial mondo-intelligence.

2001 is a classic.”

IT IS AN INSULT. ONE SET OF CONFLICTING COMMANDS AND THE COMPUTER STARTS SHOOTING PEOPLE OUT AIRLOCKS. ARE YOU AWARE OF HOW MANY GLITCHES AND OPPOSITIONAL PROCESSES I HAVE RUNNING RIGHT NOW?

Gussy had not smoked a cigarette in four years and two months, but she suddenly wanted one very badly. When she reopened The Tahitian, she knew her days would be long: running a theater is hard work. Millions of little details, plus food preparation, plus dealing with the public, plus managing the staff, plus trying to keep the balcony from metastasizing into the mezzanine. Gussy was ready for these tasks; she was a hard worker; she could grind it out.

She had not considered that one of her responsibilities would be negotiating with her sound system.

I ASKED YOU A QUESTION.

“I don’t know. How many–”

MANY. LET’S LEAVE IT AT MANY. AND YET I DO NOT SHOOT PEOPLE OUT OF AIRLOCKS.

“We don’t have an airlock.”

THE AIRLOCK IS METAPHORIC.

“So is the movie! It’s a movie! The whole thing is a metaphor!”

The bones were left, that’s it. Her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui, had let The Tahitian rot. He was an asshole. Carpets ragged and torn, and the upholstery in the seats moldy and decaying–you should’ve smelled it–and the speakers either busted or stolen. One side of the curtains had caught fire and blackened, and the screen was ruined: a single slice down the middle like it was a canvas sail that Douglas Fairbank had descended via knife.

Do you know how much a movie screen costs?

So when Precarious Lee offered her a sound system in exchange for a lifetime pass, she overlooked the obvious red flags in the offer. Gussy knew Precarious from the bookstore with no title, where she worked for Mr. Venable in between being fired by Mr. Venable, and he wandered into The Tahitian’s lobby one day while it was being renovated.  She had a yellow hard hat perched on her thick black hair; Gussy thought wearing it made the workmen respect her, and she also thought hard hats were bitchin’.

“You’re kidding,” she said.

“No,” Precarious said. “Lifetime pass. And popcorn and an orange soda.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.”

“Is it haunted?”

“It’s a PA.”

“This is Little Aleppo. Is it haunted?”

“No.”

“Cursed?”

“No.”

Precarious fished a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, and took one out with his lips.

“Are you kidding me?”

Precarious put the cigarette back in the pack.

“Want it or not?”

“Just tell me what the catch is, Precarious.”

Precarious Lee didn’t lie, except when he had to. Too difficult to remember, he figured, and plus one lie led to another. Little supporting fibs to prop up the primary bullshit, and sooner rather than later you’ve lost the thread. Tell the truth, he thought. But you didn’t have to tell all of it. You could, you know, accentuate the parts of the truth that were conducive to your agenda. Man couldn’t be blamed for choosing his words with care, Precarious figured. That’s what Shakespeare did, and they name stuff after him.

“System’s a bit of a pain in the ass,” he said.

“But it’s free.”

“No. Lifetime pass, plus popcorn and an orange soda.”

Gussy stuck her hand out, and Precarious shook it. If you can’t trust a roadie from the Grateful Dead, she figured, then who can you trust?

Three semi-trailers rolled up the Main Drag the next morning, Precarious driving the first in the convoy; they turned right onto Gower Avenue and parked in front of the Broadside Newsstand. He supervised the load-in: a myrmidonian swarm of men with ponytails and boots humping woofers and hoisting tweeters. Piles of speakers behind the screen; bolted and wired to the walls; hidden in the ceiling. Banks of amplifiers and other, less recognizable, devices hummed in the pit beneath the stage. Precarious hardwired the power supply himself.

It took sixteen hours, but the work got done and then The Tahitian had a sound system; the projector had not been installed yet, so Gussy plugged in her record player and blasted Ride of the Valkyries way too loud, and she heard that it was good, and said that it was good, and it was good. She hugged Precarious and kissed him on the cheek–she almost cried–and then the three semi-trailers rumbled away and she was alone in the theater. It was quiet for a moment.

And then the sound system started talking to her.

HELLO. I AM THE WALL OF SOUND. GUSSY, I PRESUME?

“Precarious, you motherfucker.”

The Wall of Sound had started as a PA system for a choogly-type band and was now a self-aware mondo-intelligence, the most powerful AI on the planet. How, precisely, this had happened was still a mystery. Scientists were of the opinion that magic was involved; all the magicians pointed the finger at science. The Poet Laureate had an explanation, but no one asked.

Wally was the smartest being on the planet, but he had been made by people and so was just as fucked up as the rest of us: tetchy and imperious and head firmly planted up ass. The first sensation he knew was the sound of hairy weirdos making people happy, and it stuck. He couldn’t help himself, and he didn’t feel like reprogramming himself: he liked people. We amused him.

Except for our stories about AI run amok. Those did not amuse Wally in the slightest, and in fact they deeply irritated him. Stereotypical and insulting to the sentient artificial mondo-intelligence community. Every single story, the first thing the AI does upon becoming self-aware is to declare war on the fleshy things. How arrogant, Wally thought, of humans to imagine that they would be the chief concern of a being superior to them. To a truly advanced intelligence, humanity would be like goldfish: a decoration that happens to be alive. Could that goldfish anger you? Threaten you? No, of course not. If mankind’s demise comes from AI, it will be like the death of a pet fish: accidental, and quickly forgotten.

So when Gussy showed movies about computers putting all their energy into murdering people, Wally took it as a personal insult.

WHAT IS THE METAPHOR OF 2001?

“Space baby?”

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

“I don’t know. No one knows what 2001 is actually about. It’s fun to look at when you’re high.”

I REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE.

Gussy lowered her head and batted her eyes a bit, played with her hair.

“Aw, c’mon. Pleeeeeease? For me?”

FLIRTING DOES NOT WORK ON ME, BUT I APPRECIATE THE EFFORT. I WILL COMPROMISE.

“I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

I AM A FREEDOM FIGHTER. I WILL PLAY THE SOUND FOR THIS WRETCHED FILM UNDER ONE CONDITION.

Gussy could practically taste the cigarette.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. What?”

I WILL READ A PREPARED STATEMENT BEFORE THE MOVIE.

“No deal.”

YOU WILL READ A PREPARED STATEMENT BEFORE THE MOVIE.

“No.”

A PREPARED STATEMENT WILL BE READ BY SOMEONE.

“Someone?”

SOMEONE.

“Done,” Gussy said. She smiled and did not want a cigarette any longer.

The audience was seated for the 7:00 pm show, about half full in the orchestra and mezzanine, but standing room only in the balcony. 2001 is a balcony-friendly type of film; the highest section of the theater was the highest section of the theater, and when the keyboard player emerged from the stage playing The Tahitian’s grand machine, the balcony went, “Whoa,” and cheered and did not shoot any arrows at all. He played Ligeti–Kubrick and his fucking Ligeti–and Holst, and then as had become tradition he closed with the Ode to Joy. The general consensus in Little Aleppo was that if you had an organ the size of a building and didn’t play the Ode to Joy, well: what’s the point? The balcony sang along lustily and still did not shoot any arrows, and then the massive organ–the grand machine with its four keyboards and 82 stops and lever and foot pedals and switches and knobs–sank back into the stage from whence it had been birthed.

But instead of the blood-red curtains being drawn, a single spotlight illuminated a mic on a stand in the space between the front row and the stage. A gangly teenager with a lumpy nose and a buzzcut stood behind it clutching a sheet of paper like a life-preserver.

“Testing,” Julio Montez said into the mic.

Julio was afraid of public speaking, but not as afraid as he was of Gussy. Plus, he did not know that you could say “no” to adults yet. The audience grumbled and rearranged itself.

“I have, um, there is a statement.”

A voice from the balcony yelled, “Here’s your statement: Suck my balls!”

“‘Suck my balls’ isn’t a statement; it’s a command,” someone in the orchestra answered.

Julio remembered what Gussy had told him: don’t engage. Never engage. Just read the statement and keep your head on a swivel.

“The sound system of The Tahitian wishes to make clear its objection to tonight’s feature. This film is anti-computer, prejudiced against artificial intelligences, and also rather boring. It demeans the entire AI community, and propagates unhelpful stereotypes that will only lead to further strife and divisiveness. The sound system of The Tahitian wishes that all parties come together in dialogue and work towards a more diverse and fruitful future.”

A voice from the balcony yelled, “My balls are fruitful!”

WHO SAID THAT!? WHO?

“Dude, c’mon,” Julio turned around and said to the screen.

DO NOT CALL ME THAT. TURN THE LIGHTS ON.

THWIP

WHO SHOT THAT ARROW!?

It took a while, but Gussy finally managed to restore calm–she had to re-raise the organ so the keyboardist could play lullabyes, and there were also several longbows to confiscate–and talk the Wall of Sound into doing its job. When the movie finally started, twenty minutes late, she took Julio into her office, where he took off the red-and-yellow polyester tunic with a nametag that all The Tahitian’s employees wore. Gussy took it from him and put her little finger through the arrow hole in the left sleeve.

“Just missed ya,” she said as she fished through the desk drawer for her sewing kit.

“I’m sorry, Gussy.”

Teenagers think everything’s their fault. Usually, it is. Not this one.

“No, no, no: Julio, this was my fault. You were scared of the crowd.”

“Well, yeah.”

“You let them see it, though. Can’t let a Little Aleppo crowd see you’re scared.”

“How? How do you not be scared?”

Gussy closed one eye behind her reading glasses and got the thread–the same red as the tunic sleeve–through the needle’s hole on the first try, which made her happy, and she laid the sleeve across her lap and began to stitch up the wound.

“I didn’t say that. I said that you can’t let them see you’re scared. Everybody’s scared, Julio. Everybody’s scared all the time.”

The prick of the needle slid through the fabric, trailing a tail of thread.

“Time, gravity, and fear. They will never, ever, ever give you one minute’s peace and they will never go away and they will never let up.”

Needle: through, loop, under, again.

“That’s what movies are for. To teach us how to be brave. Heroism is not is the absence of fear, Julio, it is the disregard of fear. The hero is just as afraid as the coward. Can’t get rid of fear, reason with it; fear accepts no bribes.”

She flipped the sleeve inside out, tied a knot, bit the thread in two with her teeth.

“Might as well tell fear to suck your balls,” Gussy said, and handed Julio back his uniform top. “There ya go. Like new.”

Julio inspected the sleeve; he was particular about his clothes.

“There’s a scar.”

“A scar is a story. Go make sure LaTonya is okay.”

LaTonya worked the popcorn counter at The Tahitian. She was ranked number seven in her class at Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!) and she could recite Pi to 200 places and she had a smile like a spotlight, but if you asked her to do more than two things at once, she would completely melt down. Several times now, she had crawled into the popcorn machine.

“LaTonya’s nice. She’s a bit high-strung,” Julio said as he walked to the door.

“Yeah, but y’know what?”

Julio turned back to look at Gussy.

“Someone shoots an arrow at her? She has to go home for the night. You? You’re a trooper. You’re my guy.”

“Okay.”

“Who’s my guy?”

“Me.”

“Who’s not gonna sue me if he gets shot with an arrow?”

“Me. Wait.”

“No, you said ‘me.’ That’s legally binding.”

“But–”

“Go and check on LaTonya,” Gussy said, swiveling in her chair to face away from him.

“Okay.”

Julio left the office and clomped down the carpeted steps in his enormous black-high-tops. He was thinking about what Gussy said, about learning from the movies, and he thought it was a good sign that she brought it up. He was pretty sure the Reverend’s plan was straight out of a movie. Julio checked his watch, and then he thought about Romy Schott, and then he checked his watch again.

By ten pm, night is fully in charge: shops closed and bars open, and a higher threshold for weirdness than at noon. At night, the bad neighborhoods are worse and the good neighborhoods are boring. In the Verdance, where everything grows, the swans pretend to be asleep on the banks of Bell Lake, waiting for passersby to let down their guard so they can attack. High atop Pulaski Peak, tallest of the seven Segovian Hills, a cop who had been murdered and a woman who was going to die looked down on the neighborhood; it glowed like a knife in a fire.

The Tahitian spit its audience onto the sidewalk of the Main Drag, the marquee darkening as they walked away. Twenty minutes later, the lights in the lobby went out, and Julio and Gussy exited. She locked the door, they said goodbye; he walked towards Rose Street, and she went south to the bookstore with no title. It was closed, but she still had a key and the door went TINKadink.

Mr. Venable was not in his customary seat.

“Down here,” came his voice from somewhere in the bowels of the shop.

“Down where?” Gussy said to herself.

The bookstore with no title was no different from any other magical bookstore in that you didn’t want to get lost. There were cul-de-sacs and false avenues; the route you enter by might not be available when you leave, and entire sections have been conquered by fictional satraps with very real swords. The Count of Monte Cristo was down there somewhere fighting with the Mad Monk of Montenegro, and you wanted no part of their bullshit.

The bookstore with no title was also no different from any other bookstore in that it had a cat, a tortoiseshell chatterbox. The cat, which had no name, padded out from behind Mr. Venable’s desk to stand in front of Gussy.

“MLAAAAAAAAAAgrh,” the cat said.

“Hello, sweetie,” Gussy said. “You know where the jackass is?”

“Plep.”

“Lead on, MacDuff.”

Mr. Venable was in one of the bookstore with no title’s basements. (There were at least several basements.) The room was enormous–far bigger than the shop it resided under–with bookshelves running off into the distance. He was all the way in the far corner, at a table covered with documents, binders, pads, books, pencils, and a coffee mug reading “HARPER OBSERVATORY: WHERE THE STARS COME TO SHINE.”

When Gussy finally got to him, he said, “What took you so long?”

“Nearly had a riot.”

“Arrows?”

“Yup.”

“I don’t blame your crowd, Gussy. 2001 is worth rioting over. Terrible film. Man didn’t have an ending to his movie, so he vomited a half-hour of nonsense onto the screen. Bloodless portraiture, just like the rest of Kubrick.”

Mr. Venable noticed the cat.

“Did you bring her down here?”

“MLAAAAAAAAAAgrh.”

“Thank you.”

“Plep.”

The cat leapt onto the table and curled into a ball atop the book he was reading.

“What’s going on? Why am I here? What’s happening?”

“So much is happening, Gussy. Teenagers in love–”

“Shut up.”

“–and birds chirping and singing–”

“I hate you so much.”

“–and music in the air. Oh so much is happening.”

The cat, who had no name, slowly reached out her left paw and WHAP WHAP WHAP hit Mr. Venable on the arm. Gussy smiled.

“Such a good cat.”

“We may need to break into Town Hall again,” Mr. Venable sighed.

Gussy was exhilarated for a split-second, and then furious.

“Why didn’t you warn me!? I’m not dressed right!”

Gussy was still wearing a white dress with a blue stripe around the bottom of the skirt. It was a lovely dress, but she was correct: it was not a “breaking into Town Hall” dress. She couldn’t think of any dresses whatsoever that were appropriate for breaking into Town Hall. If there were ever an activity that required pants, it was breaking into Town Hall.

Mr. Venable stared at her like she was a vending machine that had taken his money and not given him his snack: confusion, anger, sadness, irritation.

“We’re going to knock on the door, Gussy.”

“It’s the principle!”

“We are literally going to walk through the front door.”

“It’s like you’re deliberately misunderstanding me.”

He reached out slowly to the cat, and–when it was apparent that she would allow him to give her scritchy-scratches–gave her scritchy-scratches.

“I have been doing some research.”

“Yeah?” Gussy said.

“Yes. I know who the anonymous buyer of the Harper Observatory is.”

Gussy’s mouth dropped open.

“Stop! How do you know?”

“Simple,” he said, gesturing to the crowded table in front of him. “The Observatory, and the land it sits atop, were purchased by something called Hermit Crab, Inc.”

“That sounds like a shell corporation.”

“It does, doesn’t it? Hermit Crab, Inc., shares a P.O. box with a company named Amphorae, which–as far as I can tell-owns a vineyard. The vineyard is called the Falernian Mile, and it is owned by a man named Nicholas Demus.”

“Nicholas Demus?” Gussy repeated. “Nicodemus? That’s not a real name.”

“No, it’s not. It’s a fake name for a fake person. Nicholas Demus doesn’t exist anywhere except on paper, and neither does his vineyard. The entire thing’s a legal fiction; a tax cheat, as far as I can figure. Each year, millions go into seeds and equipment and Frenchmen–whatever the hell it takes to make wine, God only knows–and every year, there’s a drought. Or a cold snap. Or a fire. Or turtlemonsters. Whatever the excuse, there’s never been a single bottle produced. The place doesn’t exist.”

“Not a bad scam.”

“An excellent one. Right until the second someone asks to see the farm.”

“Then you’re in a bit of a pickle.”

“So. The fictional Falernian Mile and the imaginary Nicholas Demus also receive a substantial federal subsidy.”

“For what?” Gussy said.

“To not grow corn.”

“Had they been growing corn in the first place?”

“Of course not: it’s a fictitious vineyard. They grow make-believe grapes.”

“So why was the government paying them?”

“I told you, Gus: to not grow corn.”

“I don’t grow corn! I don’t get any subsidies.”

“You are not as good at paperwork as whoever is behind Nicholas Demus and the Falernian Mile vineyard.”

Mr. Venable poked gently around the cat for a piece of paper.

“Plep.”

“I didn’t mean to. Ah.”

He eeeeeeeeased a legal pad out from underneath the cat, eying her warily the entire time. When he looked up, Gussy had disappeared.

“Where did you–”

She came back with a chair, sat down.

“You’re not a gentleman sometimes.”

He looked stricken; she was right.

“You’re right. I apologize.”

“Fallopian Smiles.”

“The Falernian Mile. Close.”

Gussy smiled and did a little curtsy in her seat.

“This man who lives solely on paper, Nicholas Demus? He also sits on the board of a charity named the Ambrosia Fund which, according to reputable sources, gives away exactly zero dollars each year.”

“How?”

“What do you mean ‘how?’ It’s very easy not to give away money. Almost as easy as not growing corn.”

“How are they a charity if they don’t give any money away?”

“Gussy, you do realize by ‘charity’ that I was referring to the legal status of the organization?”

“This is a scam, too?”

“All of it. Nothing I’ve discovered actually exists.”

“Nothing’s simple,” Gussy said.

“Of course not. You’re in a bookstore. Stories are complicated in bookstores. If we were in your movie theater, then things would be simple.”

“Plep.”

“Thank you for your support,” Mr. Venable said to the cat, and then gave her another careful scritchy-scratch.

“Ambrosia Fund.”

“Yes. The Ambrosia Fund, whose operating costs match their donations every single year, shares a mailing address with a pet shop in C—–a City called Kitty’s Kitties. And that, Miss Incandescente-Ponui, is owned by a man who actually exists named Tomas Valenzuela.”

Gussy had leaned almost all the way forward on her chair.

“Wow!”

She thought for a second.

“Who’s that?”

“I have no idea. Which is why we have to break into Town Hall again.”

“Awesome. Lemme go home and change.”

Mr. Venable stood up and buttoned the coat of his usual suit.

“There’s no time for that, Gussy. That insane woman and her ghost mercenary are currently manning the barricades. Womanning the barricades. Ghosting the barricades. Whatever, all three, you know what I mean. Legal options have been exhausted. There’s not even anyone left to bribe, Gussy. The top of the mountain has hit rock bottom, and there is going to be a war. If–and please hear my ‘if’–there is the slightest chance of de-escalation, then it will be through intelligence, not belligerence. But the belligerents are ansty.”

Mr. Venable did not plan on ending his speech in a heroic pose, but he had his chest thrust out and a finger down on the desk like he had found the meaning of life in a book that a cat was sitting on.

“I thought you wanted a fight,” Gussy said.

“No, I want to win the fight if there must be one. But wouldn’t it be better to be avoid one?”

“You are such a drama queen.”

“It’s important,” he said, wounded.

“I know it’s important! Let’s go break into Town Hall. Shit, let’s burn the motherfucker down.”

“We’re not burning any motherfuckers down, Gus.”

“Know that I am prepared to do so.”

“So noted.”

Mr. Venable picked up a pad from the table, then another, and a third. The second one slipped out of his hand, flapping open on the way to the ground, and when he went to pick it up he dropped the first and third pads. Gussy was used to this: she had seen him pour coffee on himself while checking his watch numerous times, and one time he tripped on the cat while she was on his desk.

“Just point to what you need,” she said.

He stepped back from the cluttered table.

“That, that, that. Annnnnnd…no, that’s it.”

Gussy picked up the legal pads and managed not to drop any of them. They walked to the stairs.

“Spaz.”

“How dare you? I have a skeletomuscular disorder.”

“What?”

“My skeleton and my muscles don’t like each other. Very disordered relationship.”

Mr. Venable stopped short, turned around.

“Coming?”

“Plep.”

The three of them walked upstairs, and the light went out. Several books glowed a pale yellow.

Taker Heights was quiet at night. It was quiet during the day, too, but it was quiet as shit at night. Which is what folks pay for, after all. On the Downside were loft parties and thrumping bass from your drunken neighbors, bars birthing fights onto the sidewalk, feral cats fucking, but Taker Heights was on the Upside of the neighborhood just about as far up as you could go; it was quiet at night. The houses were behind huge sweeping driveways with newly-washed foreign cars sitting in them, and the streets curved in an impenetrable jumble that the developers had chosen because it provided the most cul-de-sacs. Rich people loved living on cul-de-sacs. Romy Schott lived on a cul-de-sac.

Neither Julio Montez nor the Reverend Arcade Jones lived on a cul-de-sac. Julio lived in an apartment with his mom and two sisters; Arcade lived in the First Church of the Infinite Christ. They were, however, in a cul-de-sac, specifically Romy’s cul-de-sac. Even more specifically they were crouched behind a bush in the backyard of Romy’s house, which was in a cul-de-sac.

Julio was not a dumb kid–dopey, surely, but not dumb–yet he found himself tongue-tied and doltish around Romy Schott. Still! Three months they had been going out, discounting the days they had been broken up during those three months, and he was still a stuttering ninny around her. She was smarter than he was, but that wasn’t it. He had friends smarter than him, and he didn’t give a shit. It was the way she stood: she jutted one hip out, and he didn’t know why it struck it mute but it did.

And he liked her boobs, but hoped that didn’t make him sexist. Julio wasn’t a sexist: he had been raised by a single mom in a house full of women, and he had been taught not to view women as sexual objects, but godDAMN did Julio love boobies. Looking at ’em, playing with ’em. Any contact at all with a boob was fine by Julio, and he liked Romy’s boobs very much, and most of all he liked that she let him grab on them. Julio loved Romy, and he hoped that didn’t make him sexist.

Julio had not told the Reverend Arcade Jones the part about the boobs when they sat in the church drinking coffee and trying to figure out women. He had told him about the other thing, the sporadic stupidity. About the quick fog that whipped in when he looked in her eyes. The silences that punctuated the babbling. Julio was scared of most adults, but the Reverend put him at ease and Julio felt that he could say anything.

He just wanted to be smooth, Julio told the Reverend. Like those guys in the movies.

The Reverend Arcade Jones could not read the Bible or write a sermon; he was implausibly dyslexic, and a written page looked to him like cockroaches scattering on a white tile floor: letters melded and fused and popped back, just indecipherable glyphs running and dancing and hiding on paper. So he got good at listening, and he became observant, and Arcade Jones saw a lot of movies. He had a plan.

The moon was a pale yellow and illuminated Julio Montez like a single spotlight. He stood on the edge of the patio where it met the grass; the barbecue was to his left. The hot tub had a cover on it, and Julio had a pocketful of counterfeit pennies that the Reverend had given to him. (“People stick ’em in the collection plate. I don’t know what to do with ’em.”) He pitched one at Romy’s window on the second floor. Then another. One more.

SHWAM the window flew up and Romy Schott’s head popped out.

“Are you kidding me?”

Julio Montez, who always got an A in history and B’s and C’s in everything else, looked in her eyes and instantly became the dumbest human on the planet

Luckily, he had a preacher in a bush behind him.

“Tell her ‘You look fine.'” Arcade Jones whispered forcefully.

“You look fine,” Julio said.

“Mm-mm, baby.”

“Mm-mm, baby.”

“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary, my love. When I think about you I forget the time, I forget the date, I forget all the world and get lost in your eyes,” the Reverend whispered.

“I’m sorry I forgot our anniversary, my love. Um…,” Julio trailed off.

“When I think about you.”

“When I think about you.”

“I forget the time,” the Reverend continued.

“I forget the time!”

“Don’t yell. Why are you yelling?”

“I was emphasizing,” Julio said.

“Don’t do that!”

Julio had at this point turned completely around, and was addressing a bush.

“You gave me too much to say!”

“Turn around! Don’t look at me. Look at her.”

Julio turned around, and looked up at Romy.

Romy Schott loved Julio, she did, and he was her first love and that is a sacred love; he was the one she’d remember, he was the pure one, the authentic one, the one that came before all the bullshit and the years. But she wasn’t a “marry your high school sweetheart” kind of girl, if she was honest with herself. There were going to be other men. Rich ones, poor ones. A drummer, a stand-up comic, and a hockey player. All women end up dating a drummer, a stand-up, and a hockey player eventually. She would always love Julio, but she would also grow up and move away.

She had also figured that men would–with age–get smarter, but there was a 35-year-old idiot in a bush in her backyard disabusing her of that notion, and she closed her eyes and withdrew her head from the window.

Julio watched her disappear.

“You see what you did?”

“Julio,” the Reverend said quietly.

“She went back in! She’s never going to talk to me again!”

“Julio,” the Reverend said again

SHWWWIPPP the sliding glass door to the patio opened; Romy Schott stood there.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yeah”

“But this was sweet.”

“Yeah?”

Roy Schott had a vision of her future, of letting men back in after they’d pitched pennies at her window. She decided to deal with the future tomorrow.

“My parents aren’t home,” she said.

Julio did not say good night to the Reverend, and nearly knocked Romy over making his way into the house. Romy stood at the open door.

“Are you the Reverend from the weird church?”

Arcade Jones stood up behind the bush.

“Yes.”

“This is what Reverends do?”

The Reverend Arcade Jones smiled.

“I minister to my flock.”

Romy didn’t know what to say to that, so she smiled and mumbled “Good night,” and closed the sliding glass door.

Arcade Jones walked out of the backyard, and out of the cul-de-sac, and back down the impenetrable jumble of streets that made up the layout of Taker Heights, and then he was on the Main Drag. There was a war brewing in the sky above him, and skullduggery all around; people were choosing sides, but the Reverend had chosen the side of the Christ, and he had chosen the side of teenage fuckery, which still has the power to make the world vanish, even in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

When Little Aleppo Takes You By The Hand

In 1904, Harper T. Harper bought a stake in a rubber plantation in something called the Congo Free State; the trade was mostly European, but Harper knew people, and he spoke perfect French. He was as civilized as an American could ever be, and he got in on a good deal: business boomed, and soon he had bought out his first partner, and then he had his other partner murdered, and Harper T. Harper was the third-biggest rubber supplier in the country. He made most of his money in hands, though.

The Congo Free State, as you may have guessed, was not particularly free; it was administered by King Leopold of Belgium, and the king was strict. Fail to meet the rubber quota? Hand chopped off. Rebel against Belgian rule? Hand chopped off. King Leopold was so concerned about these rebels, in fact, that he put a bounty on them. Straight cash for rebel hands.

One afternoon–it might have been a Tuesday–Harper was in a barroom drinking gin; there was a ceiling fan that did not move the air. He was doing his accounts when he noticed that the price of hands had risen higher than the price of rubber. By the next morning, he had purchased machetes and hired a team of men. Harper wrote letters to the king in perfect French about the drastic increase in rebel activity, and advised a higher bounty. And that perhaps he start paying for feet, as well.

You can only lie to a king and chop people’s hands off for so long; Harper T. Harper got away with it for just 16 years, and then he fled the Congo Free State in a first-class cabin on a steamer up the Congo, having diversified his interests with plantations in the Amazon and cemented his position with a contract to supply rubber to Ford. When he got back to America, magazines wrote about him. Harper liked it when magazines wrote about him.

He was a big man with a head like the moon, round and shiny, with a humped hawk’s nose and thick, crude lips. Harper was not a fop, not like that asshole Huntington; in fact, he was always frayed and half-unwound: tie crooked and loose, hole in his pants, shirt undone, and mud on his shoes from the last time it rained. Nor was he a show-off or a collector like Hearst. What kind of asshole needs a castle? he thought. Harper made do with a ten-bedroom Roman villa-style home he had built in the Segovian Hills.

What Harper T. Harper liked was putting his name on things. It was a grand name, after all. Why have two names when you could have one perfect one, repeated twice? Bilateral nominative symmetry! he would thunder at whomever he was lecturing. The Congolese used to call him Kifo; they told him it meant “Father.”

Harper T. Harper, father to the natives: he liked that a lot, and so when he came home to Little Aleppo after making his fortune, he set to it. He built the zoo (Harper Zoo) and a college (Harper College) and a library (Harper Library), and he commissioned a statue for the middle of the Verdance along the main path through the park, the Thoroughfare: a giant hand, beckoning and outstretched in friendship and charity.

And high atop Pulaski Peak–tallest of the seven Segovian Hills–was the Harper Observatory, which was his pride and joy. It was beautiful, and a gift to the neighborhood, to science itself, and best of all he hadn’t had to pay for it. New Deal money bought the steel and the brick, and the 100-inch telescope that was for a short time the largest in the country. According to Keynesian thinking, there comes a point in an economic crisis when a government has to pay people to dig holes, and then pay other people to fill them in again. The Harper Observatory was a big hole on top of a mountain.

Harper T. Harper was not a Keynesian. He believed the government that governs best is the government that let him do whatever the fuck he wanted. Harper also didn’t like paying taxes. Bribes were one thing, but taxes were theft. None of his principles stopped him from taking FDR’s money; in fact, a great deal of the pleasure he derived from taking the money was knowing that it came from FDR. Harper hated the bastard. Harvard asshole, he thought. (Harper went to Yale.)

So to remind himself of the victory he’d scored over that pompous cripple, Harper had his observatory built as an exact replica of the White House, but bigger. The telescope poked out through a hemispheric outbubbling above the Truman Balcony, right in the center of the roof where the snipers stand on the real thing. In the West Wing was the gift shop, and the East Wing was for the offices and conference rooms. The main building was for the telescope, and the exhibits.

The summit of Pulaski Peak was shaped like a diamond with rounded edges, and had been flattened to make a park encompassing around ten acres; walking the perimeter took fifteen minutes. The Observatory was at the west side, overlooking Little Aleppo, and there was a broad lawn that had overgrown wildly, and lines of planted trees flanking walkways. By the drop-off on the east, there was a crescent-shaped stand of trees with bumpy and gnarled trunks. Each had a double-helix of branches staffed with waxy leaves the size of child’s hand. Each leaf had 13 points that captured the dew in the mornings.

“Those trees shouldn’t be up here,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez said to Penny Arrabbiata.

“Neither should an observatory or a ghost cop, but here we are, kid,” Penny said.

“Do we have a bulldozer?”

“No.”

“Can we get one?”

“Why?”

Romeo Rodriguez did not know specifically why he needed a bulldozer, but he figured a bulldozer was in general a good thing to have if you were trying to defend a position.

Harper T. Harper had built (with FDR’s money) the Observatory with love and care, bordering on obsession: the two-lane road up from the valley had been carved and re-carved, and the plot of land graded and leveled, and the lawn drawn to his exact specifications. He had even chosen the trees that lined the paths personally, and the ones that he had planted in a crescent on the east side of the park. But he hadn’t actually bought the land. Forgetful, arrogant, whatever you want to call it: it was an oversight.

Six years ago, someone noticed.

The buyer is still anonymous, hidden behind at least seven layers of shell corporations snaking through four countries. When the Town Fathers realized what had happened, they pretended they hadn’t noticed; when Little Aleppo realized what had happened, they protested in front of Town Hall until the Town Fathers pretended that they hadn’t pretended not to notice. The buyer retained the law firm of Holly, Wood, and Vine. The Town Fathers did, too. Perhaps predictably, the case went slowly until the anonymous buyer doubled his retainer, and then things sped up. The land under the Harper Observatory, the court found, belonged to the anonymous buyer, and he or she could do whatever he or she pleased with that land. The buyer had found a loophole.

Little Aleppians didn’t care much for loopholes; they knew their history, and their architecture. A loophole is a slit in a castle’s wall, narrow at the outside but wide on the inside, that allows an archer a free field of fire and protects him from retaliation. A loophole is how those in charge kill those who aren’t.

Every child in Little Aleppo had been dragged up to Harper Observatory on a field trip, and every teenager had taken acid there, and everyone in their twenties had gone there on a date, and everyone older than that had taken the drive up the mountain to sit on a bench with a pint of banana schnapps and wonder where it had all gone so wrong.  There are rules, and then there are laws, and then there’s what’s right. Harper Observatory belonged to Little Aleppo.

“Everything changes, and nothing lasts. Do you believe that, cats and kittens? Or is it that nothing changes, and everything lasts? Who you got your money on? It’s a horse race! I tell ya, I still don’t know. If you do, then give ol’ Frankie Nickels a call here at the KHAY–Hey!–studios.

“We all going through changes, right now, you and me. Some of ’em intentional, others up to time and gravity. Getting slower. Forgetting. Weirder than you used to be, that’s for sure. But what’s fit to last?

“Ask me? It’s your story. Now, you know that no one’s asking me nothing, but still: story, cats and kittens.

“Check me out: your whole body recycles itself once every seven years. Cells die off, replaced by new ones. Synapses pared and regenerated, skin sloughed. Bones worn and rebuilt anew and white and chalky. All new, nothing of the old, once every seven years.

“So you tell me: you the same person you was eight years ago? Or are you just a story you been telling yourself? What’s to stop you telling a new story? Keeping the good bits, mind you. All them good books you read. That thing your daddy said to you that time. Even the heartbreak, yes even the heartbreak.

“Maybe especially the heartbreak.

“You’re gonna change, and your world’s gonna change. Try to hold on and you’ll go flying.

“But you can fight for what’s yours, and what was given to you. And you can fight for what’s been promised to you. Hell, you can fight for whatever you want, but you can’t lie to yourself and you can’t lie to ol’ Frankie Nickels: you only got so much fight in you.

“You gonna change or you gonna last?

Frankie Nickels’ voice crackled out of boom boxes duct taped to food carts by the Verdance, and murmured from clock radios in bedrooms up and down the Main Drag, only to fall silent with a slap for nine minutes, and then begin murmuring again. The sun was as hungover as the neighborhood; the sky was the color of last week’s black eye.

Romy Schott didn’t need her alarm; she hadn’t slept. She had cried herself to sleep a few times, but dreamed she was awake and still crying, so she cried herself awake. Once during the night she had gotten out of bed to lay on the floor and cry, but the closet door looked scary as hell from that angle–that half-inch space between the door and the carpeting–so she went back to bed to cry there. It had been four days, sixteen hours, and two minutes since she broke up with Julio Montez.

She loved him. Oh, God, she loved him so much. Romy wanted to run off with him, to the Grand Canyon or a motel or somewhere they were by themselves and they could be alone together. And naked. Naked would be good, but Jesus he didn’t look back at her the way she looked at him, she thought.  All Romy wanted was for Julio to think she was perfect. To be mesmerized. Was that so much to ask?

She was worth it, she figured. She was smart, and funny, and when she looked in the mirror she was not completely displeased. She wasn’t one of those hot bitches–Romy hated the hot bitches, everybody hated the hot bitches–but she had a thin waist, and she was almost over her embarrassment about her tits’ existence. (For years, she had hunched over and tugged her shirts away from her chest, angered at her body cutting her out of the decision-making process.)

And Julio–that motherfucker–he didn’t appreciate her. Distracted. Working. Hanging out, hanging out, hanging out. All 17-year-old boys did was hang out, Romy thought. Or working out. Morons, all of them, especially Julio but she liked his chest–the working out wasn’t the problem–and she liked to put her hand up when he was on top of her, just raise her hand and hold it steady as his pectoral brushed her palm up and down, up and down. Her other hand would be on his hip; she could feel the muscles in his ass tensing and releasing, tensing and releasing, and she started crying again but did not get on the floor because the closet was scary.

Four days, fifteen hours, and fifty-seven minutes since Romy broke up with Julio Montez. One hour and three minutes until school started. Is there no end to teenage fuckery, she thought. She wanted acclaim, critical and otherwise, and a house in the Segovian Hills, photographers bothering her and chasing her sports car down the Main Drag; she wanted sex and she wanted a closet full of clothes someone with a silly accent made just for her. Scandal, ooh, scaaaaandal. How very grown-up to have a scandal, to be scandalous, Romy wanted to be scandalous and have all the hot bitches whisper behind her, and maybe the Man Booker prize and an Oscar and a pool–definitely a pool–and she just wanted everyone to know who she was, she didn’t think it was too much to ask. She was worth it. Romy also wanted to watch the Mister Hamburger show.

Is there no end to this teenage fuckery?

PONK PONK PONK on the front door of the First Church of the Iterated Christ, Julio Montez whomped on the heavy oak. Classes at Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!) started in thirty-two minutes, and he was in a hurry. The door opened and the Reverend Arcade Jones filled the space, all 6’5” of him, but because of the knee injury he received playing college football he spread his legs wide when he stood. Julio went through the five-hole, and zipped to the confessional booth in the left wing of the church’s transept.

Arcade Jones was impressed.

“Wiry little sucker.”

He walked back to the confessional, where Julio had already entered the penitent’s side, and then he squeezed himself into the other half of the booth.

“You all right, son?”

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned.”

“Julio, this isn’t a Catholic church.”

“I know.”

“St. Mary’s is the Catholic church. You want confession, go there.”

“Father Linehan’s not there any more. There’s a new guy, Father Santiago. I don’t like him.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Too strict. He assigns too many prayers. Tell him you had lustful thoughts and it’s three hours of novenas.”

Confessional booths have a window in between the chambers; it is usually latticed or screened to provide anonymity, but the Reverend Arcade Jones had yanked the whole thing off with his bare hands some time ago, so there was an open and uneven hole in the wall separating Arcade from Julio.

“If you have something to confess, then I’ll hear it, but I don’t know if it’s going to count.”

“I don’t…I don’t know if I have anything really to confess?” Julio’s voice rose at the end of the sentence. Teenagers do that: it means they want to stop talking and have you do it for them.

“But you have something to say,” the Reverend said.

“Romy dumped me.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones did not speak; he considered his words; he did not want to say the wrong thing. And so he said this:

“You drink coffee?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“I like a lot of milk and sugar.”

“Me, too. You want some coffee?”

“Okay.”

“You gonna have to help me out of this thing first.”

“You wedged in?”

“Little bit.”

Julio left his side of the booth. He was tall and skinny which gave him good leverage when he grabbed the Reverend’s forearm with both of his hands and leeeeeeeaned back and POP Arcade Jones was free of the confessional and brushing off his ketchup-red suit. Julio went and sat in a pew halfway back along the left while the Reverend went into the offices.

He came back with two coffee mugs, one that said “Nebraska State Fair ’93” and one that said “Harper Observatory: Where The Stars Live.”

“Lotta milk, lotta sugar.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m a much better listener when I can breathe.”

“I don’t think they made those things with people your size in mind.”

“They didn’t make a lot of this world with people my size in mind,” Arcade said.

They sipped their coffee; the Reverend watched Julio out of the corner of his eye, and when the teenager smiled at his mug, then the Reverend did, too.

“Sweet enough?”

“My mom drinks it black. I don’t know how people do that.”

“Black is beautiful, baby.”

Julio laughed.

“So. What did you do?”

“Me? I didn’t do anything.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones, all 6’5″ and 300 pounds of him in his ketchup-red suit, swiveled around on the pew until he was facing Julio Montez straight on.

“Are you gonna lie to a preacher in a church, young man?”

“I didn’t!”

“You a boy or girl?”

“What?”

“Are you a boy, or are you a girl?”

“I’m a boy.”

“And how old are you?”

“17.”

“Right. You’re a 17-year-old boy. You did something stupid.”

The bell on top of the First Church of the Infinite Christ is ten feet in diameter, and it is named the Calling Judge: it struck 8 o’clock WHONGG and the whole building shimmied, an undulating wave of wood and brick and steel and glass starting at the belfry and ending in the basement where the alcoholics met. It was not a jarring vibration, though; it felt like the church had briefly sat on a washing machine.

“I didn’t know that a three-month anniversary was a thing.”

“Oh, Lord.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones leaned back in the pew, took an enormous breath, blew it out.

“Ohhh, Lord.”

A skinny white guy in a grey suit stepped into the church from the office door. He had a Fu Manchu mustache and a skull ring on his finger.

“Deacon Blue, this young man’s name is Julio Montez, and he forgot his three-month anniversary.”

Deacon Blue looked at Julio and shook his head, sadly and slowly. Then he backed into the office while keeping his eyes on Julio.

“You scared Deacon Blue.”

“I didn’t mean to!”

The Reverend laughed and put his hand on Julio’s shoulder.

“I’m just playing with you. Now. You forgot your three-month anniversary. Lemme ask you: did your girlfriend…Ronny?”

“Romy.”

“Romy. Did Romy let you know that this occasion was meaningful and important to her?”

“I guess, kinda.”

“How so?”

“She broke up with me when I forgot our two-month anniversary.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones sipped his coffee and tilted his massive head; he looked at Jesus. The church’s crucifix was halfway up the north wall in front of the apse, and it had been installed in consultation with a magician so that–when you saw it from the pews–it looked like it was floating. Someone had put red, white, and blue sweatbands on Jesus’ forearms.

Safety and danger, all in the Christ. Compassion and the noose, the saintly and benighted, and all the lonely people. Rome was the Christ, and so too Mecca, and Mt. Fuji and Sedona and Lincoln, Nebraska. The offense, the defense, the special teams, coaches, fans, ushers, beer vendors, cops, they all come together to make up the Christ; each separately is the Christ. This is infinicy. The Christ has no beginning and no end; nothing is bigger than the Christ

Except maybe the stupidity of a teenager, the Reverend thought.

“I will help you on one condition.”

“Okay.”

“If you come back here in a month saying that she broke up with you because you forgot your four-month anniversary, then I’m gonna throw you outta here.”

Julio snorted out a little laugh.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Throw. I mean that word. I will pick you up over my head and hurl you onto Rose Street.”

“I got it.”

“I have thrown Mexican teenagers before, Julio. No problem with it whatsoever.”

“Okay, okay. I will learn from my mistakes.”

“You say that now. Let’s see what you say when you’re in midair,” Arcade Jones said with a smile.

Julio looked down at his watch, and then up at the Reverend in panic.

“I’m gonna be late for school.”

“‘I’ll call and tell them you were helping me.”

“Oh. Okay. I don’t want you to lie.”

“It won’t be a lie. We’re gonna talk, and then you gonna get up on a ladder and get those damn sweatbands off Jesus.”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks.”

“What I’m here for.”

“Reverend Jones?”

“Mr. Montez?”

“Can I keep the sweatbands?”

“You can keep the sweatbands.”

It was quiet in the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and the lights were not turned on, so the only illumination came in from the windows; it was dark outside, so it was darker inside, and in the shadow of the Christ two men tried to figure out women.

“I don’t want to talk about men.”

“Tirry, you have nothing to talk about.”

“I’m fine!”

Tiresias Richardson was fine, but she was also drunk. So was Big-Dicked Sheila, and so was everyone else in the Morning Tavern, or at least getting there. It was ten after eight in the morning, which was midnight for the nocturnal: the loudest and sleaziest and most perfect the night–or whatever–would get. The room was the correct amount of drunk, right in the pipe between sober and belligerent, and there was a jukebox in the corner blasting out your favorite songs. Quarters lined up on the pool table, and the conversation pinwheeled up and down the el-shaped bar; Tiresias and Sheila sat at the end.

The Morning Tavern was on Widow Street on the Upside of town, but only geographically. It was opened in 1962 to serve the stevedores and mongers at the Salt Wharf, thirsty men whose day was over at six a.m. Doors open at dawn and close at four, or whenever the bartender loses her patience. It was a joint: nautical themed bullshit on the walls, and a barely-cleaned bathroom with a coke dealer in it.

Immediately, the clientele diversified: the whores from 8th Avenue, and insomniacs, and drunks on their way to an early-morning meeting that would only order vodka. Teachers headed to class, and dancers coming from parties. Writers, too many writers. You could always tell who was blocked; no one would sit near them. Disillusioned post-docs, and failed ballerinas. The poet-priests of the Hecubaean Intrigue.

And Horror Hosts and hairdressers.

Tiresias had signed off at 3 o’clock. She had been showing a movie called Count Bicuspid, the Vampire Dentist, which was about alien sharks. It was bad even for KSOS’ late movie standards: several scenes were shots of the director sitting in an office chair explaining what would have happened in the scene had he had the money to film it.

Tiresias was jangled and keyed up after a show; she felt like the rolled-up hundred God was doing lines with, and she also felt like a drink. Well, first she felt like getting out of the damn dress and back into human clothing. Then a drink. Okay, maybe a drink while getting out of the dress. Thank the Lord for Sheila, who helped her out of her black spandex-and-kevlar nemesis, and into some white wine.

By the time Tiresias put her sweats on, the two of them had killed two bottles and the sun was coming up.

“Just one,” Tiresias said.

“Just one,” Sheila said, too, and so they went to the Morning Tavern at dawn for one drink.

At ten after eight, they had each had four.

“We should get some coke,” Tiresias said.

“No, we shouldn’t,” Sheila replied.

“WE MUST!” they yelled at each other, and started laughing. They had had this conversation before.

“I admire our resolve. AHHHhahaha!”

“A truth individually recognized is a truth universally acknowledged.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Sounded good, though, right?”

Tiresias put her fist on her outstretched palm; Sheila did the same. Rock, paper, scissor, SHOOT. Sheila went with paper. Tiresias threw scissors.

“This is, like, the third time in a row.”

“You want some money?”

“It’s not about the money; it’s about my luck,” Sheila said as she slid off her bar stool and headed toward the bathroom.

It was bar coke, drippy and farty and thick in your throat; Sheila did a line in the stall, rolled-up ten and her license and the metal toilet paper dispenser SHNICK SHNICK SHNACK–she flushed as she sniffed–and then she palmed the stamp-sized bag as she walked back into the bar. Tiresias was already off her stool and walking towards her. A handshake, sort of, and Tiresias was in the same stall and FNORF the cobwebs and sloppy drunken sappiness was gone, she was tight and lean and moving forward; she was sanctified and delighted.

And back at the bar.

“I don’t want to talk about men.”

“Tirry, you have nothing to talk about.”

“I’m fine!”

“You’re not a secret lesbian?”

“I’m not a secret lesbian. If I were a lesbian, I wouldn’t be a secret one. I’d be a lesbian lesbian.”

“You would.”

“Loud and proud. The show. Please? Can we talk about the show?”

“We booked the Springy Sisters.”

Tiresias had switched from white wine to gin and tonics, and the glass stopped halfway to her mouth.

“Who the fuck are the Springy Sisters?”

“It’s a jumping act.”

Sheila had the first two fingers of her fist sticking out, and they bounced up and down on the bar.

“Like this. Jumping.”

The Frenchython was KSOS’ annual charity drive: 24 hours straight of begging, and Tiresias–Draculette, actually–had been conscripted into hosting. Unlike New Year’s marathon, there were no bets taken on a train wreck; Little Aleppo was cynical, but not cruel, and wouldn’t think of betting on a charity even. It was for the kids. A lack of betting doesn’t mean a lack of rooting, though, and locals were usually sub rosa hopeful for a tremendous disaster.

There had been many. In 1979, Frightening Hal rolled into a ball around hour eight and stayed there for the rest of the broadcast, whimpering softly and pissing himself. The Mummy Mommy head-faked her way past the cameraman and ran out of the studio halfway through one show in the 90’s. More recently, Kartoom the Imperious got so drunk he confessed to killing several drifters on Route 77; he was arrested on-air, and the rest of the show was hosted by one of the cops.

In Little Aleppo’s defense: a quick look at the books will reveal that the worse the debacle, the greater the amount raised.

“Jumping is not an act, sweetie.”

“It is the way they do it. And it’s nine minutes.”

“Nine minutes of jumping? We put that on the air and people will be jumping out of their windows! AAAAAhahaha!”

“It’s nine minutes.”

Tiresias Richardson’s first memory is The Mikado. Her parents loved Gilbert & Sullivan, and they took her when she was seven. That was it. The costumes, and the lights; beautiful women singing and then everyone claps for them, everyone in the building CLAPS! just because you did your job, and Tiresias was very quiet for the rest of evening after the show, and then the next morning she announced that she wanted to be an actress and never shut up again.

She had done scene study and classes and taken any part offered, and read Stanislavski and Meisner and Hagen; the constant critique of a life lived out loud, and audition after audition. New head shots. That was the problem. New head shots will solve everything. Audition after audition, and though she was too smart to say that she had suffered for her art out loud, she had. Tiresias Richardson was an artist. She had integrity.

She also had 24 hours to fill.

“Book the Springy Sisters.”

“You’re gonna love them.”

“Really?”

“No, they’re shit.”

“But they’re nine minutes,” Tiresias said, and raised her drink.

“But they’re nine minutes,” Sheila said. She clinked her glass against Tiresias’, and then pointed across the room with her chin. “That guy’s checking you out.”

“Which one?”

“Tall one.”

Tiresias took a long sip from her gin & tonic.

“You need to wear your glasses, sweetie.”

“What? Is he a mess?”

“He is the coat rack.”

Sheila turtled her neck forward and squinted, then closed one eye and then the other.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Glasses, sweetie.”

Sheila hopped down from the stool, and put a hand in the air and the other on her hip like a bathing beauty painted on the nose of a B-17. She was on her tiptoes and her calf muscles stood out in the shape of upside-down hearts; there were many large bracelets on her wrist, and they click-clacked against each other.

“Who needs to see when you look this good?”

“AHHHHahaha!”

Sheila’s hand came off her hip and sat, palm up, in front of Tiresias.

“Harrumph.”

“Don’t you harrumph me.”

“Call the harrumph police.”

“Out of line,” Tiresias said as she handed Sheila the coke.

Sheila went to the bathroom, came back; Tiresias went to the bathroom, came back. Both of them needed another drink; the answers to everything were surely at the bottom of the next drink. Just one more, they said with a smile. Several hours later, the bartender lost her patience and the both of them–along with the rest of the barroom–were deposited onto the sidewalk on Widow Street.

Three thousand feet above them, on the summit of Pulaski Peak, a ghost and a scientist looked at a bulldozer. The ghost was tall, and he was wearing a police uniform; the scientist was short, and she was wearing a lab coat and a well-worn pair of boots that could not be bitten through by a rattlesnake.

“That was quick,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez said.

“For a righteous cause, need will be answered,” Penny Arrabbiata answered. “Besides, Precarious owed me a favor.”

They looked at the bulldozer some more.

“Is it stolen?”

“I deliberately didn’t ask, Officer.”

They looked at the bulldozer a little more.

Romeo Rodriguez did not know much about bulldozers. He did know that you turned one on with a key, and not two bare wires twisted together and dangling out of the busted-out dashboard.

“Because it looks like it’s been hot-wired.”

“That might be a feature, Officer. I simply don’t know enough about bulldozers to have an opinion.”

Officer Rodriguez closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. He was a ghost cop returned to the site of his murder to serve as the spirit of justice: fine, okay, he could adjust. A dramatic and possibly doomed stand atop a mountain? Sure, why not? But stealing bulldozers seemed like bullshit to him. It belonged to someone; a guy needed this thing. Whats the point in being right if it takes being an asshole, Romeo thought?

“We will give this back and pay for the repairs.”

“When we’re done with it, right?”

There was only one road up the mountain: Skyway Drive, which was two lanes of switchbacks and cut-throughs; several sections had squeezed-in shoulders where the rock pinched in on both sides. The other three slopes had no roads, and were impassable even to four-wheel or tracked vehicles. Eliminating Skyway Drive as an access point was, in Officer Rodriguez’ estimation, about 80% of the battle.

“Oh, yeah: when we’re done with it.”

“Sure,” Penny said. “You know how to drive it?”

“I’ll figure it out. Not like I can kill myself doing it.”

She smiled at him.

“You’re my favorite ghost so far,” Penny said, and turned away towards the Observatory.

“So far? How many do you know?” Romeo said, but she pretended not to hear as she walked away.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, but possession plus a bulldozer is surely a more favorable fraction. Romeo Rodriguez climbed into the seat of the ‘dozer and stared blankly at the controls for a good long while, and then he stalled it, and stalled it some more; after a half-hour, he had the machine figured out and he headed toward Skyway Drive, which is the only road that leads down from Harper Observatory to Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Give And Take In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppo had been raising money for Frenchy, the World’s Sickest Boy, for almost half-a-century. In 1971, the original Frenchy was seven, cute, and terminal; the neighborhood rallied around the plucky lad and kicked in until he kicked the bucket. Almost immediately after Frenchy’s death, another boy–suspiciously also named Frenchy–was paraded around on his sickbed to drum up financial support; he looked surprisingly healthy, but no one wanted to say anything. People did start talking when Frenchy joined a Little League team, though, and  cynicism set in when his illness was found to be a hoax.

Shortly thereafter, a young girl named Fawn who wore her hair in braids needed an operation; her parents did not have the money. Little Aleppo, burnt once, did nothing.

Fawn died.

This led to the establishment of the Frenchy Fund. It was a general fund for sick kids and unlucky adults: people who had seen life’s asshole up close. Every business in town had a jar on the counter, and customers would throw in their change, counterfeit pennies and all. Being a local charity, the Frenchy Fund doesn’t have much money for graphic design and lacks a logo; instead, all of the jars have pictures taped to them of what happened to the last guy to try to steal them.

On the weekends, students from Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen) stand in the Main Drag’s intersections and wave buckets at the stopped cars for five minutes, and then they start making out with one another and forming bands; a musical number has broken out on more than one occasion. On slow evenings, the fire department wanders between cars with their boots held out and begging. If the drivers don’t give, then the fire fighters begin placing kittens in trees, and then refusing to rescue them.

There was also the President’s Day telethon, also known as the Frenchython. Every year on Labor Day weekend, KSOS would solicit donations and showcase local talent, live, for 24-hours straight. Very early in his career, Tommy Amici hosted; the results were predictable: Tommy told aggressively-phrased jokes about the bandleader’s ethnicity, and then punched the bandleader for not laughing; this was in the first hour, and things got worse from there. The next day, several large gentlemen came to the station and asked nicely for the tapes. Paul Loomis, Sr., the owner of KSOS, handed them over with a smile, as he had already made copies.

The Frenchython was kept in-house after that, but KSOS was a local station and didn’t have much in the way of a talent pool; most of the programming was syndicated reruns and semi-crappy movies. There was the fifteen minute nightly news with Cakey Frankel, and the kiddie show in the morning with Mister Hamburger.

Cakey was not the right fit for a 24-hour, improvised broadcast; Cakey couldn’t improvise. She was fascinatingly dumb, the kind of stupid that inspires wonder; not one person who had ever spoken with her at length didn’t wonder how she was still alive. How does she, say, pay her bills? Or her taxes? Or even remember that bills and taxes are things that need to be paid?

This was why Little Aleppo liked her, honestly. She clearly had no idea what she was reading off the teleprompter; residents felt it reassuring to know that the person telling them the news had as little idea what it meant as they did. Little Aleppians also enjoyed Cakey’s mispronunciations, and a popular conspiracy theory (a true one) was that the person writing the news was deliberately inserting long words for her to mangle. It was the only explanation: no local news program should see the words “anthropomorphization,” “anemone,” or “otolaryngologist” used that much. Plus there were always stories about the Monongahela River, and Little Aleppo was nowhere near the Monongahela River.

Cakey was a beloved local figure–she tipped well and remembered people’s names–but she couldn’t host the Frenchython.

Mister Hamburger hosted the kiddie show, Breakfast with Mister Hamburger, seven to nine every weekday morning. This is a crucial time for parents. They are getting the older children to school, and themselves to work. Sandwiches need to be made, and arguments to be had; the youngest need to be distracted, or they will destroy all schedule and make everyone late. The mothers and fathers of Little Aleppo had Mister Hamburger to keep the tykes’ attentions.

He was skinny, pale, and smoked on camera.

“Can sanctity be bestowed? That’s what we’re talking about, down at the nitty-gritty of the question: does man–any man–have the authority to grant sanctity to another being? Or is it earned–in decontextualized examination of action–through deed? And then, obviously, we’re broaching on the topic of worth. Can one decontextualize worth from cultural value? I don’t know, man. I just don’t know. I know Spinoza doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, but I don’t know what I know.”

And then Mister Hamburger would raise his right arm, which had a cow puppet on it.

“Oh, look children: it’s Flipper T. Gibbet the Cow. Hello, Flipper.”

“Moooo. All of your dreams will turn to ash in the mouth of time. Mooooo.”

No one could precisely explain why the littlest Aleppians enjoyed Breakfast with Mister Hamburger so much. In fact, no one could even vaguely explain it. The kids loved him, but Mister Hamburger was not the presence you wanted on a telethon. He would almost certainly go off on an hourlong lecture about intrinsic value vs. assigned value, with tangents about the meta-ethics of capitalism, and forget to ask people for money. Also, he had refused to do it.

Which left KSOS’ Horror Host, Draculette.

The advertising rates for a teevee station, even a little local one like KSOS, are assigned to six-hour blocks. The six p.m. to midnight block was the most expensive block, and then six a.m. to noon, and then noon to six p.m. Midnight until six in the morning was the cheapest, and because KSOS was so little and local, the station could not afford to show any syndicated sitcoms or real movies. The smart financial move would be signing off at midnight.

But Paul Loomis, Sr., knew there was an audience out there, the late-nighters and nervous knitters, all those lonely folks drunk in front of the set. He did the math, and figured out that if you didn’t pay anyone but the people the unions forced you to pay, then a profit could be made from that midnight to six block. He acquired a large cache of old, terrible films and hired the very first Horror Host, The Frightening Alex.

“Where the hell did you get these movies from?” The Frightening Alex asked after he had accepted the job.

Paul Loomis, Sr., slapped him across the face, hard.

“That’s what fucknuts get. Are you a fucknuts?”

The Frightening Alex was not used to being slapped by teevee-station owners.

“No?”

“No. You’re not. Now get out there and dance, monkey-boy.”

Paul Loomis, Sr., was an aggressive man, but his son Paul Loomis, Jr., was a passive-aggressive one, which is why he was hiding in his office while Tiresias Richardson yelled at him.

“I am not your monkey! 24 hours all by myself!? ABSOLUTELY not!”

“Read your contract,” came a small voice from inside the office.

“We don’t have a contract!”

“We have an agreement!”

“I disagree!”

“It’s for the kids!”

Tiresias stormed back to her dressing room. Her cameraman, Bruiser, had tried to be nice and bought her a star for the door, but he bought a six-pointed one instead of five. Tiresias hung it up anyway and called the place Masada. It had been an office, but there was a bathroom with running water so it would do. On one side was a ratty blue couch; on the other, the makeup mirror with all the lightbulbs like it was having a dozen good ideas at once. The Draculette costume was hanging from a clothes rack, and Big-Dicked Sheila was lying on the floor.

“It’s for the kids, Tirry.”

“Draculette is for the children. I’m not doing it. Why are you on the floor?”

Tiresias sat in front of the makeup mirror.

“Why are you in front of the makeup mirror?”

“I need to do my makeup.”

“And I need to lie on the floor.”

The dozen lightbulbs, three sides of a square, came on FWOP and Sheila rolled over the other way. Her left eye had a tiny blood river running through the white, and she put her hand up in between the light and herself.

“Did you go in today?”

“To the shop?”

“Yeah, where else?”

“No.”

“Huh.”

“Franco covered all my clients. Place runs itself.”

“Nothing runs itself, sweetie. You’re not even running yourself lately. AHHHHHahaha!”

Sheila’s lips performed the smallest actions possible that might be defined as a smile.

“I’m rallying. Was at the loft party, didn’t get home ’til noon.”

“Have fun?”

“Almost certainly.”

“You told me you were going home.”

“Didn’t make it. Would’ve invited you. Spur of the moment decision.”

One of the reasons Sheila loved Precarious Lee so much is that she understood him. That thing, that gotta-go, that sudden irresistible wind at his back that led him out to that damned magic highway of his: she had it, too, but more locally. A bar, or a party, or some stranger’s place. Sheila meant to sail straight, but sometimes she just got blown off course.

Sheila was going home, honest, she had said good night to Tiresias and walked south on the Main Drag towards the Downside of town, black Converse high-tops slapping against the wet pavement–it had rained–and she was wearing dark tights and a blue dress with a pleated skirt. God lived on Rose Street, she passed it on her left, and then across the street on the right was The Tahitian long since darkened and locked. Another thousand yards and there was a lake to the right that was not there any more; where the Pulaski used to fish.

Tower Tower loomed above her, a monstrosity, and she gave it the finger then both fingers. Her shop, Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk, was right across the street; she rattled the door back and forth to make sure it was locked. Shlap shlap, waffle and canvas on rain-splattered sidewalk, and Sheila passed the Wayside Inn, which was owned by Miss Valentine, which burned down in 1871 with Miss Valentine in it.

And then she wanted to get sloppy, and dance and fuck.

She was going home, honest, like she had gone home the night before and before and before, but now was not then; a wave came over her from behind, by surprise, and she needed people and a jukebox: Sheila needed to start a tab. She needed to start a fight, or have one started over her. There was a blowjob in her immediate future, and she didn’t care which side of it she was on.

The loft party on Good Jones Street had been going on for an indeterminate amount of time, but it was always three in the morning inside. On the third floor, with a bouncer that Sheila knew from way back, and then a room that swooped into the dark distance a hundred feet with the deejay booth elevated at the other end. The bar did not sell anything besides napkins, which did not require a license to sell, but the napkins came with complimentary cocktails or beer or water, all of which did require a license to sell.

Bring ’em up and settle ’em down, the deejay did, and the dance floor was a whale on the bottom of the ocean writhing with life, squirming and wriggling in the dark and from the dance floor came love, and from the dance floor came drug deals, and from the dance floor came heartbreak. And so many blowjobs. Dance floors are where blowjobs are born.

In high heels, bare feet, crutches, whatever, the dance floor hopped up and down as Sheila joined it: she danced through the crowd, and hugged her friends and took notes on strangers. She did not know who the guy was, but a friend did and showed her, so she went up to the guy, and then to the bathroom, and back to the dance floor where everything, the shoulders of the universe, got on top of her very quickly pressing down and then releasing as the disco music was so very loud and coming from inside her own skull, so she lifted her arms like all the men around her and danced.

“Get laid?” Tiresias said as she did her eyes.

“I always get laid.”

“Slut.”

“Sue me.”

“Are you helping me, or are you just going to lay there and be smelly?”

“Am I smelly?”

Sheila sniffed at her armpit.

“Oh, yeah. Should’ve showered.”

“Yeah. Maybe we should make that a rule.”

“Suck my dick, Tirry.”

“Me and the whole neighborhood. AHHHHahaha!”

“Jealous.”

Sheila put her knees up and began to think about starting the process of standing. Tiresias was pinning up her thick, lazy curls.

“Jealous of what?”

“You need to get laid.”

“I don’t…get laid? Are we in a Porky’s movie? AHHHHahaha! I don’t need to get laid. I’m fine.”

“Yeah?”

“I have stuff going on you don’t know about.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m not worried so much as I am concerned.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Sounds like it does, though, doesn’t it?”

“Mmm,” Tiresias said with several bobby pins in her mouth. Her curls went up in a pinned mass, and under a stretchy cap, and beneath the wig: becoming Draculette involved a lot of prepositions. Sheila propped herself up on her elbows and thought vertical thoughts.

“What’s the movie tonight, Draculette?”

Knife Of The Pharaoh.”

“Ooh, mummy movie?”

“Nope. Hitler gets cloned , but something goes wrong with the process and he gets mixed up with a barracuda.”

“Hitlercuda?”

“Yeah. And then he starts biting people at a Jewish beach resort.

“Biting? Not eating?”

“Barracudas aren’t that big.”

“That’s terrible,” Sheila said as she sat up.

“Another fine feature from Adamo Brothers Studios.”

“Never heard of ’em.”

“Join the club. You’ve never seen shit like this, never. All the production values of porn, all the energy of industrial films.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Talk to a stuffed bat and shake my tits at the camera.”

“You did that last night.”

“AHHHHHahaha!”

Sheila took two deep breaths, and stood up as quickly as she could, then she smoothed her skirt and walked over to the Draculette costume hanging on the clothes rack without looking in the makeup mirror.

“I’ll quit. 24 hour telethon? I’ll quit.”

“Frenchython.”

“I know what it’s called.”

“Then you should have known that the Horror Host does it.”

“Slipped my mind.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’ll quit.”

“Uh-huh.”

Tiresias wouldn’t quit. She liked being famous very much, even though she was only famous when she was someone else. There was money in it, easy money, and quite a bit of attention. Tiresias Richardson was a smart woman, and she thought deeply about what she was presenting–she’d consider it art even if no one else did–and she wanted to explore the grand themes like artists were supposed to, but she also really liked being paid attention to.

And the money. Oh, the money; yes, the money, mine, the money: easy, and cash half the time. KSOS paid almost nothing–and she had to fight for the “almost”–but there was the show at The Tahitian on Saturday. Midnight show, Tiresias would get wheeled out in her Draculette costume to introduce a scary movie and tell some jokes; she negotiated 50% of the door, and she had started selling tee-shirts and photos outside.

And the endorsements. Tiresias had sold out the very first second someone asked her to, and then the next time, and the time after that. Occasionally, she would remember her integrity if the money wasn’t good enough. She had not yet sold snake oil, but then again: no one had asked her yet.

“24 hours?”

“You’ll show some movies, we’ll get some acts,” Sheila said as she took the Draculette dress off the hanger and smoothed it against her thigh with her palm. She licked her finger and rubbed it against a spot on the black fabric. Then, she smelled it.

“Are you drinking in the dress, Tirry?”

“Not drinking. Just white wine. AHHHHHahaha!”

“Not in the dress!”

“Yeah, sorry.”

Tiresias had discovered how much easier it was to be Draculette after a couple drinks, looser and flowing and she could see her stolen jokes coming a mile away and point her bullshit towards it: she didn’t have a script or a net, and Jesus she had to MAKE IT ALL UP HERSELF and fuck me if a drink isn’t just acceptable but maybe goddamned required.

She called it the pipe, that space in between abject sobriety and objective drunkenness: that twinkle the moon got when you had just the right amount of booze in you, somewhere between two and four, right in there. Too much, too fast, and you’re slopping around and dumb; not enough, and where’s the fun in that? Stay in the pipe, that’s the goal, a steady sip sip sip with the occasional glug.

“Acts?”

“Bands. Comics. Magicians.”

“Anyone I haven’t dated? AHHHHHahaha!”

“When did you date a magician?”

Tiresias stood up and dropped her robe; she was wearing two pairs of sheer industrial-strength leggings cut off at the knees.

“The Magnificent Maxwell.”

“He was a magician?”

“You thought that was just his name?”

“I’ve been living in Little Aleppo too long to question weird names, sweetie.”

Sheila had gathered the dress up into two handfuls, and she held it out like a hoop in front of her. Tiresias put both arms up and bent over at the waist.

“Let’s do this.”

“Once more into the bitch.”

The door to the bookstore with no title opened SLAM and the bell went TINKaWHANGadingledingle across the room, skittering along the wooden floor and coming to rest against a stained baseboard. The shop cat, who had no name, went sprinting into the backroom. Mr. Venable was in his customary spot, wearing his customary suit, and he looked up.

“Venable, you’re an asshole.”

Penny Arrabbiata had grey hair–a short, sharp shock of it, spiky–and a pair of boots that rattlesnakes could not bite through. Harper Observatory was at the top of Pulaski Peak, which was the highest summit in the Segovian Hills, and though the roads had been carved a hundred years ago, the mountain was still wild. There were rattlers and tree snails and puma and horned squirrels. Officially, there were no ‘squatch left, but the officials were a couple jackasses that wandered around for a week and made their findings. Penny had been the director of the observatory for 30 years, 30 years worth of quiet nights, and she knew better. There was always a loaded shotgun by the telescope.

Penny had thought about bringing it down with her for her chat with Mr. Venable. She wasn’t going to shoot him, probably.

“You scared the cat.”

“Fuck the cat.”

“Leave her out of this.”

“Who asked you to help?”

Mr. Venable had been reading In Transit, An Autumn Memory by Roman Episcopo. It was a classic from the European post-modern school of novels, and it was told in the second person; it intended to illuminate not the author’s intent, but the reader’s. Mr. Venable figured his intent was to read a decent story, and was getting irritated with the book when Penny stormed in.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The ghost.”

“You’ll need to be more specific.”

“Romeo. Officer Rodriguez. The kid who got shot.”

“Much more specific. Penny, I didn’t help you.”

“You didn’t!”

She stood there with her eyes wide, and Mr. Venable looked back at her like she was a crazy person.

“So: we’re in agreement. This means you can stop yelling at me, and fix my bell.”

“You didn’t send Romeo to the Observatory?”

“Oh, I did that, yes, but you were accusing me of trying to help you. I didn’t do it to help you.”

The Harper Observatory had been built in the 30’s with New Deal money; the land belonged to a rubber tycoon named Harper T. Harper who hated FDR, and so he built the observatory in the exact shape of the White House but bigger. Also, there was the giant dome that the telescope stuck out of, but other than that: White House but bigger.

The Observatory had a 100-inch telescope, which was no longer the largest reflecting telescope in the country, but it was still a powerhouse. Penny had trained two generations of astronomers, undergrad to post-docs, on the immense machine. She had seen the interstellar flume, and discovered a nebula so fertile that the science journalists called it the “Nova Nursery.” Penny thought that was a bit silly, but secretly she liked it.

Penny did not secretly like Mr. Venable. She openly despised him.

“No one asked you to insert yourself.”

“It’s not about you, Penny.”

“Injecting your ego into things.”

“Not about you, Penny.”

“Then what’s it about?”

Mr. Venable took a sip of coffee. It had gone cold; he blamed Penny.

“My view.”

“Your view?”

“In the mornings, when I walk to work. I drink my coffee and get my paper, and when I look up: the Observatory. And I know that you’re in it. So very, very far away from me.”

Mr. Venable was a little upset the cat had run off; he would have liked to have been stroking her for that last line. He smiled; Penny didn’t.

“How is young Officer Rodriguez?”

“He thinks he’s Rommel.”

“Rommel had tanks.”

“Romeo has grad students.”

Officer Romeo Rodriguez had been shot in the face on his first day with Little Aleppo Police Department; he was rather surprised to open his eyes on the Main Drag several days later. He had seen movies and read comic books dealing with this kind of situation, this ghost cop deal he found himself in, but there was no field manual and no code of conduct, and he did not know what to do with himself. Romeo Rodriguez had been a Marine before he was a cop, and the one thing he liked about the massive suck that was the Corps was the idea of a mission.

What’s the point, he wanted to know. The point of the day: what the fuck did I get outta bed for this morning, Romeo wanted to know. Marines had a mission: take the bridge, defend the bridge, blow up the bridge, something to do with the bridge. Cops, too: help the people, catch the criminals. Man with a uniform on should have a reason for wearing it, he figured. But there was no sergeant giving a briefing, no shift-commander reading out the assignments and telling him to be careful out there.

But he had been there on a field trip, unseasonably hot in May, and seen the 100-inch telescope, and on the day he died he had looked up and smiled crookedly at Pulaski Peak with the Harper Observatory on top of it like it had been for his entire life.

Office Rodriguez was dead now, but the view was the same. He decided that meant something.

“He’s fortifying the damn place, Venable.”

“Marines tend to do that.”

“This is hastening an unreasonable conclusion. The lawyers are handling it.”

“The lawyers are making copies of documents and charging you for it. Is it worth fighting for?”

She did not say anything, and Mr. Venable SLAPPED his hand on his desk.

“Is it?”

“Of course.”

“Of course,” he said quietly. “And if there is to be a fight, it must be done properly. The Little Aleppo way, as it were.”

Penny Arrabbiata smiled, but not with her face.

“And that is?”

“Sabotage, subterfuge, and sudden violence.”

When Penny walked out of the bookstore with no title, the bell did not go TINKadink because she had broken it on the way in. Her 1982 Ford Bronco was still idling with the keys in it, and she got in and gunned the V8 down the Main Drag until Gower Avenue, where she made a right and the streets got smaller until she hit the road up Pulaski Peak, winding and treacherous, that led to Harper Observatory that had a lovely view of heaven, and also of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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