Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 4)

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.

High Atop The Segovian Hills

To the west of Little Aleppo was the harbor, and to the east were the Segovian Hills, all seven peaks. The summits were close together, and the passes steep and not particularly passable except for Christy Canyon, which had the only road transecting the range: two lanes of terror, switchbacks, drop-offs, blind corners. Other than that, there were just tight-squeeze residential streets barely fifteen feet across and access roads that washed out at the first hint of a drizzle.

Before it was America, and before it was Mexico, and even before it was Spain, Little Aleppo was inhabited by the Pulaski. They lived in the wide valley between the Segovian Hills and the harbor, where the neighborhood is today. They did not live in the hills. There were ‘squatch in the canyons, and wendigo howled at night from under cover of ridges, and also it was an enormous pain in the ass getting up and down them: chaparral and brush crowded the ground up to your waist, and there were rattlesnakes and poisonous lilacs. The Pulaski chose to live around the lake, which was on level ground that was not actively trying to harm them.

Several dozen kotchas were around a communal hearth, teepees made from wide strips of redwood bark, with a family in each one except the one all the way off to the north separated from the rest of the tribe by a half-mile: that was where the Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter lived. They used to live closer to everyone else, but they would stay up late having theological arguments at the top of their lungs, so they were exiled about 3000 feet. As exiles go, it wasn’t too bad.

Busybody Tyndale was not a Pulaski, obviously, and neither was Peter, whose name was not Peter. He was a Pawnee raised by the white folks who had orphaned him. America had chased him all the way west. The tribe let Peter live with them because he was a powerful and skilled hunter, and kept the village in meat. They let Busybody stay because Peter asked them nicely not to kill him.

The two of them had consecrated the fist First Church of the Iterated Christ on a cool flat rock to the west of the village. Boulder, more rightly: it was half-buried under a sequoia where the clearing met the trees, and it stayed cool and welcoming on the hottest days. Peter and Busybody Tyndale would lay there in the afternoons chewing the leaves of the Peregrine tree and reflecting on refraction.

“Is Christ the water or the pebble thrown into the water?”

“Yes. And the ripples,” Peter answered.

“All three?”

“Triune pond.”

“Is the Christ equal in all things?”

“You speak of gradations of sanctity.”

“Yes.”

“Yes. All is infinitely holy. All is infinitely the Christ. But you must remember that the Christ is infinite; He contains joy and death, sorrow and hope. All things within the Christ, who is within all things.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale thought that over for a minute while rolling up a new leaf. He spit out the old one into his hand and threw it to the side.

“And does He control our actions?”

“No,” Peter said. “We manifest Him through our actions. Our deeds are the Christ.”

Busybody put the fresh leaf in his mouth.

“Heavy.”

“Tell me about it.”

The area that would one day be Little Aleppo was temperate; it never got much above 80 in the summer, or below 50 in the winter. In the mornings, the ocean waved the fog towards the hills, and it rained every 18 days. You might describe it as clockwork, but the Pulaski would not as they did not have clocks.

After the rains came, the hills bloomed: manzanita and ivy and broomweed and sparkthistle and ultraviolets and gooseberries and wild rye; green and spiked browns limning the hills and framing the rills, plus blues and pink heathers and yellow to attract the bees. And psilocybin cybelenis, which was a peculiar species of mushroom.

The caps were the color of a week-old banana, dingy yellow speckled with brown, and they were flipped up like a broken umbrella; the sticky ribs on the underside of the canopy were full of raindrops. The stalk was the peculiar part I was talking about, though: twisted like a pig’s tail, one loop only. The fungi bloomed overnight three days after it rained, and only on ‘squatch droppings, which were softball-sized clumps with nuts and seeds sticking out of them.

The problem being, of course, that ‘squatch droppings occur where there are ‘squatch. The Pulaski did not live in the hills.

Peter had seen worse. Killed worse, matter of fact, and he was not afraid of any damnable skunk-ape. He was also as armed as a man could be in the middle of the 19th century: two Colt pistols and a Winchester lever-action rifle, plus several knives. The first time he and Busybody had gone up the hill, he had handed the Preacher a small Smith & Wesson .22 caliber as they were walking away from the village.

“You know how to use this?”

“I don’t want a gun. Don’t give me a gun. I am a man of God.”

“So am I. God didn’t want us to have guns, why’d He give us the ability to make ’em?”

If the Preacher had more time, he could have come up with a good answer, but instead he just said this:

“Nuh-uh.”

“Good point. Take the gun.”

Busybody examined the pistol; he closed one eye and looked in the revolving chamber.

“Is there only one bullet in there?”

“Yes.”

“What good am I in fight then?”

“You’re no good in a fight at all. If there’s a fight, I’ll be the one doing it. You hide behind me and don’t even think about touching that gun. It’s for if I lose the fight. You don’t want to be taken alive by a ‘squatch.”

“Why not?”

“They play with their food.”

“Oh.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was a small man even for the time, and the gun looked like a cannon in his hand.

“Can I have a holster?”

“I only have one.”

“Well, where am I supposed to put this thing?”

“Pocket.”

“It’s heavy! The pocket will rip right out!”

“Then stick it in your belt.”

“You hold it for me,” the Preacher said.

“What?”

“You’re used to holding guns. You carry it.”

Peter reminded himself that, until they met, he and the Preacher had led very different lives.

“The whole point of having a gun is actually having it. On you. It’s why they call it ‘carrying’ a gun.”

Busybody had an idea.

“I have an idea,” he said, and walked back to the village.

The Pulaski picked dogbane in the spring; when you dried it and wove the stalks together, it made a cord strong enough to use as a bowstring. Busybody had tied both ends of a length to the trigger-guard of the pistol, and then shrugged the cord over his neck and shoulder to wear like a lady’s purse.

“Is the Christ not found in adaptation, Peter?”

“Gimme ten minutes before you talk to me, okay?”

“Sure.”

Peter led them up the hill, but not by much: his size put him at a disadvantage. The scrub cluttered thickly around him; the smaller Busybody just turned sideways through the brush. They tried to stay on the lines of schist bursting through the ground, and in some steep spots were forced to skitter on all fours, search for handholds.

Busybody was again better-suited to the activity than the heavy, and heavily-laden, Peter; he scampered ahead.

“C’mon, Peter. Keep up.”

“Yeah. Uh-huh. Do you even see the puma?”

“What puma?”

“The one 500 yards above and to the left of you.”

“Oh, that puma.”

Busybody stopped climbing and let Peter catch up.

“How did you survive until you met me?”

“The Lord.”

“Must be.”

They clambered up a little bit more until they came to a walkable slope, and then a small valley–the size of a football field at most– with a wall of jagged granite sticking up through the grass. There were caves broken into the wall, and the caves were very dark inside.

On the opposite side of the valley, where the drop-off was, were thousands of psilocybin cybelenis.

“So much shit,” the Preacher said.

And so much shit: a long line of it stretching the length of the valley, fresh shit on top of fried shit, a vertical rainbow of brown going to white and sweet Jesus the smell.

Human beings have crude olfactory abilities, and this reflects in our language. Most of the words you might describe a smell with are borrowed from other senses: sweet, sharp. A scent is captivating; an aroma, enticing; an odor, off-putting. Fragrances waft, because that’s the law.

And then there is stink, and stink kicks you in the face like a camel with a toothache.

Peter pulled his bandana up from around his neck to over his nose.

“Do you have an extra bandana?”

Peter pulled the bandana back down.

“What?”

“Did you bring one for me?”

“You’re kidding.”

“No,” Busybody said.

“How do you not have a bandana? It’s 18–. Everybody has a bandana.”

“You didn’t tell me about the smell.”

“I told you the mushrooms grew on shit!” Peter yelled.

The two of them looked at the caves that were very dark inside.

“I told you the mushrooms grew on shit,” Peter whispered.

“You didn’t emphasize it. You should have made it a real point in the presentation.”

“Breathe through your mouth.”

They were silent as they plucked the mushrooms from the shit; each had a satchel made from deerskin that was bulging by the time they were done. They wiped their hands off on their pants. One more look at the caves, and they walked off towards the north end of the small valley, where there was a goat path that led upwards and an hour later they were at the summit of the tallest of the Segovian Hills, which would come to be called Pulaski Peak after all the Pulaski people had been murdered.

The toppermost tip of the hill was broad and flat and grassy; yellow dandelions here and there, and outcroppings of granite just like the rock that the First Church of the Iterated Christ had been founded upon. Peter and Busybody spread the mushrooms, with their blown-out caps and curly stalks, out on one of the rocks to bake in the mid-morning sun. The two men thought that was a good idea, so they took off their shirts and baked in the mid-morning sun, as well.

The sky had never heard of clouds.

In the afternoon, Busybody built a fire while Peter diced the mushrooms into pieces and mixed them with corn porridge. They ate with their hands, and wiped their hands on their pants. The moon was full in the northwest, and past that was the Pacific Ocean; to the east was America.

It was quiet, and so the stars were not afraid to come out; families of them, clusters, a crab and a hunter and a bear and a kitchen utensil: it was amazing how much the stars looked like us. The Milky Way was a scar across the sky going north to south, and Peter and Busybody could see them echo off one another: there were lines connecting the stars and galaxies, highways of light a single photon wide that blinked in and out of existence with each flutter of your eyelid.

They lay on the grass a few feet from their dying fire.

“Is the Christ unknowable?”

“I’m not sure,” Peter said.

“Is He indescribable?”

“I can’t say.”

The fire went POK! and TAK! and above them stars shot PHWEEEEEEeeeeee from west to east.

“Look, Preacher. What do you have? There are stars, and there is space. Only stars: no life. Only space: no life.

“He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.”

“Psalms.”

“My favorite book.”

“You’re a romantic.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“They die of broken hearts.”

Peter had rolled his jacket up beneath his head; so had Busybody. They lay on the ground in between a rock just like the one the First Church had been founded upon and the fire. Everything was above them, and they were far from home.

“All the same Christ,” the Preacher said. “The stars, the space, us. All made of the same thing. All holy.”

“Same material, different mixture.”

“All the Christ.”

“The puma, too?”

“The puma, too.”

They were quiet for a second, and the Preacher sat up quickly.

“Oh, is the puma back?”

“He never went away. Over there.”

Peter pointed at the puma.

“I see him.”

“Oh, good. Pay attention. It’s dangerous out here.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale had seen all of America, and been to Montreal one time. Jesus came to him as a child in W——g, Ohio, when he was five or six; he had fever, and what passed for a doctor at the time told his parents not to expect much. The doctor told them to pray, so they did. Busybody got better.

What more proof do you need?

He had seen the Lord at work, you understand–actual evidence of intercession in his existence–and had to spread the Gospel. To not do so, he thought, would be a slap in Jesus’ face. And, yes: He would turn the other cheek, but you still shouldn’t slap Jesus. So he preached, and no one listened about the miracles he knew that Christ could perform. Busybody Tyndale was a man of whom the cliché “he was just trying to help” could be said sincerely. Naturally, people hated him for it.

He forgave them all, he forgave them all, he forgave them all as the sky wheeled and sparked above him. It was a lovely view of heaven.

Which is why they built Harper Observatory there. Roads were carved into the Segovian Hills in 1922, and in 1924 Pulaski Peak was bought by a rubber tycoon named Harper C. Harper. (1923 will forever be known by Little Aleppo as the year that the ‘squatch used the nearly-created roads to stroll into town and start eating people.) Previous to Harper’s ownership, no one had owned the top of the mountain, because owning the top of a mountain is just silly. You can’t own a mountain, the Pulaski whom the mountain was named after would argue. The white people who had murdered the Pulaski and then named said mountain after them would disagree, and since there were no more Pulaski to argue with them, they won.

A big, high plot of land with a fine view of the sky: Harper C. Harper thought it was a splendid place to stick a telescope. He and his rich friends would often make the drive up the pitted trail to gaze in wild wonder at the night above them. Sometimes, Harper thought of building something for everyone to enjoy, so the whole word could see the fantastic spectacle going on right over their heads. He just didn’t want to pay for it.

Luckily, the Depression broke out. Roosevelt (who Harper thought was a bolshevik and a traitor to his class) was throwing money at public works all over the country, and why not Little Aleppo? In 1933, Harper brought the neighborhood an observatory on the government’s dime and named it after himself; locals loved him for it. Plus, to cock his nose at Roosevelt (that crippled pervert sonofabitch), Harper built the observatory in the shape of the White House. But bigger. And a giant dome with vertical retracting plates, lippy metal mouth, that opened and closed.

The road was also made solid, and the last of the ‘squatch culled.

It was a sturdy building made of stone and steel, and could have lasted forever, but if a mountaintop can be owned, then a mountaintop can be bought; someone did, and the Harper Observatory, which had seen the Pleiades and the Septunarians and the Erisian Disappearance and that time Saturn turned orange, was scheduled to be torn down.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez, who had been murdered several months before, had been to the Harper Observatory as a kid. Third grade field trip: the 100-inch telescope at the heart of the main dome looked like an interstellar cannon, and he imagined shooting aliens out of the sky with it, defending Earth and saving his mother from the evil Martians. Most times, revisiting a place from childhood leads to disappointment; not here: the space cannon still loomed overhead zeroing in on all the evil in the galaxy.

Still, though: gotta keep the cop face on. Cop face. Officer Rodriguez knew what cops were supposed to do, even though he had only been a cop for about seven hours before getting shot; he had no idea what ghost cops were supposed to do, and he had been one for several months now. Romeo was having a rough year.

Then he got tackled by an astronomer.

“Hey!”

“Who sent you!?”

“Get off me, lady!”

“The Town Fathers or the Cat People?”

“No one…get off me!”

Officer Rodriguez shoved the woman away from him, and sprang to his feet. The woman he had shoved also sprang, but to her feet. You can’t spring to someone else’s feet, even in Little Aleppo.

He drew his sidearm.

“Put that away, jackass.”

“Stand down, ma’am.”

“Where?”

“What?”

“Stand down where? Downstairs?”

“Just…just…don’t. Just don’t.”

“Can you even shoot me with that thing? It’s a ghost gun.”

Officer Rodriguez didn’t honestly know.

“I don’t honestly know.”

“So put it away. That’s very aggressive, pointing ghost guns at people.”

He holstered his sidearm.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the director of the Observatory, Penny Arrabbiata.”

“That’s not a real name.”

“I attended your funeral; don’t lecture me on what’s real and what’s not.”

“Okay.”

Penny Arrabbiata had been the director of the Harper Observatory for 40 years. She had discovered a star, Amphiates-1142, that pulsed like a bullfrog’s throat: every 18 months it would swell out to twice its size and then retract, all in a week’s time. She was the first to map out the Vertillian quadrant. She had wrangled funding from bureaucrats and donations from rich guys for three decades; it had turned her short hair grey. She was not afraid of cops, especially if they were 26-year-old ghost cops.

“Why are you here?”

“Do you know the guy at the bookstore?”

“Oh, that motherfucker!?”

Penny stalked out the door of the Observatory onto the lawn in front. She was tall with long legs, and she stalked forward when she walked like a stork. Officer Rodriguez followed. Since the land’s sale, maintenance had ceased; the grass was wild and overgrown and there were yellow dandelions here and there.

“Venable!” she yelled down at Little Aleppo. “Asshole!”

“I take that as a yes.”

“Don’t be smart.”

“That’s rarely my problem, ma’am.”

Penny liked that. She smiled at him.

“You’re looking right at me. You’ve been looking right at me.”

“Where should I be looking?”

“I don’t know. But people can’t look at me. It…they say it hurts.”

Penny walked two steps close to Officer Rodriguez on the scruffy lawn of Harper Observatory, staring in his eyes the whole time.

“What is your name, young man?”

“Romeo Rodriguez.”

“Romeo, would you like to see the universe?”

“Okay.”

They went inside and she showed him stars with planets whirling ’round like nunchucks, and pulsars with a grudge against spacetime itself, and galaxies shaped like heartbreak. A pinprick, just a speck insignificant, and then press your eye to the piece and SHWOOM it was alive and pregnant with stories just like the neighborhood that Romeo had grown up in, and then his eyes were teary and he could not see the stars any longer.

“Do you understand?” Penny Arrabiata asked him.

“Okay.”

“After all that, ghost cops aren’t a big deal.”

The two of them walked back outside. The stars were there, too, but smaller.

“How do you knock this down?” Romeo said.

“With a wrecking ball and a rich asshole,” Penny said.

Officer Rodriguez gave the area a 360-degreee sweep. The entire park around the Observatory was about an acre, and there was only one road in that wound up the north slope. Furthermore, the south, east, and west faces of the hill had impassable sections of sheer rock, or craggy drop-offs that made getting vehicles up them impossible. Additionally, the road–being carved into a mountain–had any number of choke points.

Before Romeo Rodriguez was a cop, he was a Marine. He could recognize a defensible position.

“It’s not an observatory. It’s a fortress.”

Penny Arrabbiata said nothing, but smiled; then she yelled down towards Little Aleppo,

“Venable! You’re still an asshole!”

There was work to be done, grad students to be marshalled and post-docs to be corralled, and there were maps to be made and contingencies to be dreamed up. The boobying of traps lay before them.

Harper Observatory was built with someone else’s money on someone else’s mountain, and so it belonged to Little Aleppo; it was stolen and soiled like everything else, and had been paid for over and over again. It had been promised, and Little Aleppians were good at holding the world to its promises. It couldn’t be taken, only won.

On top of Pulaski Peak, which was named to honor a tribe buried in a mass grave without their names, a ghost cop and an astronomer compare notes and plan for a fight. Stars whirl and wheel above them, and below is Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Temporary Occupation Of The Main Drag

There were always protests going on in Little Aleppo; the neighborhood was populated with the most rousable rabble you’ve ever met. There were organized marches that shut down the Main Drag, and disorganized brawls that shut down the Morning Tavern. The stevedores once formed a picket spheroid around the Salt Wharf, and the employees of the Camphor Brothers Mimeograph Company remain on strike to this day, even though the business closed years ago and the factory was sold to a Japanese firm that makes really tiny sex dolls. Protests were so much a tradition in Little Aleppo that the Poet Laureate once noted that it was more transgressive not to protest; no one paid any attention to this proclamation.

Some of the forms that social action in Little Aleppo took were recognizable to outsiders. Placard-bearing strolls were common, and everyone would try to come up with the wittiest sign to hold; the food trucks would do stellar business.

But mostly it was sneaky and weird, or sudden and terrible.

When the sanitation department wanted a raise, they didn’t stage a work stoppage. They went in the other direction. Garbagemen, garbagewomen, and Big Jack the Garbagedog entered people’s homes and apartments to take their trash out for them. They did this rather aggressively, and sometimes they defined “trash” as “your couch,” or pooped on your kitchen table. Within hours, the Town Fathers realized that the money they had repeatedly told the sanitation department didn’t exist actually did.

(It should be stated for the record that Big Jake the Garbagedog did not poop on anyone’s kitchen table; he is a good dog, and knows better than that. The garbagemen and garbagewomen, however, are not good dogs. They are people who poop on strangers’ tables as a means of settling a labor dispute.)

Bartenders protested a beer tax by dropping paper umbrellas into pints and selling them as cocktails; when the Third Bank of C——a City tried to build a branch on Valentine Street, the locals snuck into the construction site at night and undid all the day’s work like Penelope unraveling her burial shroud to stymie the suitors; in search of better hours, the lifeguards at the public pool let several children drown. (That last one backfired.)

But there were also riots.

You have a person. Person might be smart, stupid, a complete whackadoodle: you never know what a person’s going to do. Add another and you have a couple. Two people–that bonded pair–are twice as predictable as that single person. Someone is going to be the reasonable one; a couple regresses to the behavioral mean of the culture they occupy. (Leaving aside Bonnie and Clyde, or Sid and Nancy; we’re talking about the average folks here.)

Add a third and they are four times as predictable; one more person makes it sixteen times more predictable. This is the inverse square law of human interaction: the more people you have, the easier it is to figure out what they’re going to do. Enough people makes a crowd, and crowds are simple, dumb creatures. Give a crowd a song and it will sing. Give it a game and it will cheer.

Piss off a crowd and it will riot.

“Nazis, Tirry.”

“I hate Little Aleppo Nazis.”

Tiresias Richardson was slumped into one of the chairs at Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon for Rock Stars and Their Ilk. She was wearing sunglasses with frames the size of dinner plates, and the hood of her rust-colored sweatshirt was pulled low on her forehead. She had not gotten to bed until ten am.

“Jokes are funny. You’re very funny,” Sheila said as she bent Precarious Lee’s right ear down so she could snip at the hairs behind it. Sheila took great care when giving Precarious a haircut; she knew it was the only one he would get for months.

Precarious Lee drank his coffee black, and he could work for 24 hours straight–drive for twice that–and he had been punched in the face many times. He was in the army, and he was in the Grateful Dead, and he had raised children and divorced wives; Precarious had had many friends’ coffins on his shoulder. He kept his word, which is maybe why he said so few. Precarious Lee had been an adult for a very long time.

But if you waved a barber’s cape and scissors at him, Precarious would run the other way like a little brat.

Semi-retired and creaky as he was, he still had a thick head of hair. Thanks, Mom, he often thought when he saw his contemporaries’ bald spots and pates. It was straight Okie hair, and he would be perfectly content to tuck the whole steel-grey sheaf of it under a bandana and go about his day, but Sheila wouldn’t let him.

“You look like a retired roadie,” Sheila would say.

“I am.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to look like one, sweetie.”

And just to shut her up, Precarious would let her cut his hair every eight months or so. He would pout the entire time.

“Too short,” he said.

“Shush. Tirry, these are Nazis. Not just assholes you call Nazis. Nazis.”

“Right.”

“Armbands and jackboots, Tirry.”

“So last season. AAAAAHahaha.”

Scissors stopped mid-snip.

“You’re not seeing the humor in this.”

“There’s no fucking humor in this,” Sheila said. “There’s no fucking HUMOR in NAZIS marching down the MAIN FUCKING DRAG, Tirry!”

Sheila slapped the scissors onto Precarious’ shoulder, and ran out the front door of the shop.

Little Aleppo had been founded upon free speech. That, and the gold mine. Also the harbor. In an economic sense, the neighborhood had been founded upon mineral extraction and the easy access to the sea, but in a very vague and noble way had also been founded on free speech. There was nothing Little Aleppians loved more than talking about free speech, and nothing they hated more than hearing it.

Usually, all the free speech was confined to Shrieker’s Corner in the northeast corner of the Verdance. The Verdance is oval-shaped and has three paths running though it–it looks like ≠ from the air–and in the toppermost right part, the little bitty section that no one has to pass through to get somewhere else is Shrieker’s Corner. Street corner preachers and drunken ufologists, all on their regulation soapboxes and screaming the secrets of the unknown world as loudly as possible. At lunch, Little Aleppians would often come by to heckle while they ate; the shriekers were glad for the company.

Free speech outside of the Corner would cost you $20 for a permit.

The C——a City Nazi Party had $20, and they sent their least Nazi-looking member into Town Hall to fill out the paperwork; everything was notarized and stamped and official, and he walked out with a permit to march on the Main Drag for two hours on the first Saturday of February. Around two weeks after the permit was issued, a Town Hall clerk named Mrs. Pelfrey finally glanced at the paperwork. Then she looked at it. Then she stared at it. Then all hell broke loose.

The Town Fathers immediately revoked the permit; the Nazis, anticipating this, had hired the law firm of Holly, Wood, and Vine. The court case came down to “Freedom of Assembly” vs. “But Nazis” and judges tend to side with the Constitution over common sense, so the march was on.

The debate, too. In the Morning Tavern, the drunks and PhD students argued about the limits of tolerance until no one could take it any more and everyone started swinging pool cues at each other. The junkies in The Nod took time out from shooting up and stealing from one another to discuss the dangers of normalizing deviant philosophies. In the PoliSci class at Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!), the teacher was absent so they watched a movie.

The bell in the tower of the First Church of the Iterated Christ is six feet in diameter and named the Calling Judge, and it goes WHONGGG on the hour. It had just struck five when the Reverend Arcade Jones came out of the back office. The church reverberated along with the bell, and the light melting through the stained glass windows illuminated all the dust in the air, dancing and praying. The pews were empty except for a small woman with spiky black hair sitting up front.

The Reverend walked up the middle aisle and stopped alongside her.

“Hello, Sheila.”

“Hey, Preacher.”

“Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Well, you know: Precarious let me cut his hair. Miracle, right?”

She had been crying, and there were small, circular tear marks in the Bible she held open on her lap.

“Can I sit with you?”

“It’s your church.”

“It’s everyone’s church.”

He sat down.

“You all right?”

“No. No. You think…you think you find someplace that’s…not safe, but…home? Where you belong? And it follows you. All the shit–excuse me–all the crap you left, it follows you. Why here!? WHY!?”

The church reverberated along with her voice, and the light melting through the stained glass windows illuminated all the dust in the air, dancing and praying.

“I don’t know. Ask the Lord.”

“He doesn’t return my calls.”

“Join the club.”

Sheila twisted on the pew to look straight at Arcade Jones.

“What if it was the Klan? What about that?”

The Reverend Arcade Jones looked straight back at her.

“Young lady, I grew up in Loxachachi, Florida, so don’t you dare lecture me about the Klan.”

They both looked up at the crucifix suspended above the altar. Someone had put a speedo on Jesus, and also stolen the church’s ladder; Arcade Jones had been meaning to get to it for a few days.

“It’s evil. They’re evil, and they’re coming to town.”

“It’s people. They’re people, and they’re coming to town.

The Reverend looked down at the Bible in Sheila’s lap.

“Reading or skimming?”

“‘Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.’ Ephesians 6:11.”

Arcade Jones nodded his head and smiled.

“Bit of an obscure verse.”

“I always liked it.”

“That’s the thing about that book. You can find just about anything in there. Anything you wanna do, there’s a verse backing you up. I always figured it was more honest to look at the general themes.”

“And what are they?”

“Depends on what you wanna do!”

The Reverend Arcade Jones shook the church with his laugh, his head tilted up towards the interior pinnacle seam of the arched roof, mouth wide open so you could see that he had no fillings at all.

“I believe that the Christ is within them,” he said when he had stopped laughing.

“The Nazis?”

“Yes. I’m angered by the hurt they’re causing. But I cannot hate them. Even Nazis are the Christ. Even them. All or nothing at all.”

“I’m not there, Preacher.”

“But you’re here. And so am I. We could pray if you want.”

Arcade Jones held out his hand, palm up, and Sheila put hers in it: it looked so tiny that she laughed.

“What are we praying for, Preacher?”

“I never pray for anything. I just pray.”

“Yeah, okay.”

And they did.

On the Tuesday before the first Saturday in February, three people tried to rob the Broadside Newsstand; Sally Moon and Argus made a quick hash of them, but everyone was unsettled: no one had ever tried to rob Omar before. On the Wednesday before, the snakes at the Little Aleppo Zoo staged a breakout. On Thursday, the farmer’s market drove through the old folk’s home while screaming “Turnabout is fair play!” On Friday, the swans that lived in Bell Lake wandered into Town Hall and nearly pecked Mrs. Pelfrey to death.

The Nazis were pushing a bow wave of mean and dumb in front of them, and it was sloshing all over the neighborhood.

On Saturday morning, the door to the bookstore with no title opened and the bell went TINKadink. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui was wearing an America flag dress, and she carried a stick with a sign attached that read LITTLE ALEPPO CHOOSES LOVE on it in red and blue marker.

“Fourth of July came early this year?” Mr. Venable said. He was sitting in his customary spot, wearing his customary suit.

“Are you going?”

“Hardly need to, do I? The whole nauseating spectacle will march right past my front door. It’ll be like watching the salmon run, if salmon were chinless flecks of shit in bomber jackets.”

“I think they’re wearing their dress uniforms.”

“Oh, very spiffy. Hugo Boss.”

“I’m sure they’re knockoffs.”

“Oh, no, Gussy. Nazis tend to be sticklers about intellectual property rights.”

She dropped her sign on the cluttered desk and went to the coffee machine.

“You no longer work here. Your access to coffee ended when your employment did.”

“Uh-huh.”

She poured herself a mug; there was about a half-inch of coffee left in the pot when she was finished.

“You’re kidding me,” Mr. Venable said.

“What?”

“You’re not going to make a fresh pot?”

“I no longer work here.”

Gussy held the mug in both hands and took a big gulp without breaking eye contact with Mr. Venable. He did not smile, but did something that might be described as “smiling.”

“This is Little Aleppo’s finest day,” she said.

“How so? How exactly so, Gussy? There are Nazis parading down the Main Drag. That’s not even a good day, let alone the finest one.”

“You’re against this?”

“Of course! They’re Nazis, Gussy.”

“It’s America, Mr. Venable. Government may not blah blah blah freedom of speech. It’s one of our bedrock principles.”

“I sensed the importance from the ‘blah bah blah’ part.”

“Freedom of damn speech. You own a bookstore!”

“And any book whatsoever that starts a world war and attempts to exterminate a race of people shall be expunged from the shelves.”

“That’s Mein Kampf! You have that book.”

“I have many of that book. Original German and translations in a dozen languages. I even have one in Braille.”

“Really?”

“Yes, but it’s tough to read when you’re saluting.”

“Funny.”

“Books are not the question here, Gussy. No book ever killed anyone. Ever read Mein Kampf? Actually read the thing?”

“No,” she said.

“It’s dreadful. Fevered gibberings of a nutter. Anyone entranced by the vision put forth in that horrid thing would have been an asshole no matter what.”

“But you carry it.”

“I carry The Bible and Catcher in the Rye, too. Can’t blame books for the assholes that read them. Look at them, Gussy.”

Mr. Venable waved his arm towards the back of the shop, with its two towering double-sided shelves creating three aisles, and the dogleg left to the backroom, and the ladder to the annex, and the stairs to the basements (of which there were more than one).

“Some say to love one another, and others teach you how to make bombs. There is Plato and L. Ron Hubbard, just about every thought humans have had for the past three thousand years. Everything time has not stolen from us is back there, Gussy. People choose which book to believe in. Like I said: I’ve read Mein Kampf. And yet I do not heil anyone, let alone an Austrian speed freak with one testicle.”

“You’re making my point!”

“I’m not, as you’re conflating ideas with actions. Those–”

He pointed to the books again.

“–are ideas. What’s going to go down out there–”

He pointed out the window towards the Main Drag.

“–is an action. An idea is ungovernable and flits about like an oiled-up snake, but an action? The cops can put a stop to that nonsense if they’re ordered to.”

“And you think they should be ordered to?”

“For everyone’s safety, yes.”

Gussy set her mug down on his desk, hard, and picked up her sign. She walked halfway to the door and said,

“This will be a peaceful day. We are going to protest and show our strength.”

“Oh, it will be peaceful,” Mr. Venable said.

The door to the bookstore with no title went TINK–

“Eventually,” he continued.

–adink.

It was a nice day for a Nazi march, especially for February: the sun was weak but large in the afternoon sky, and there were no clouds. The sky was bigger and bluer than the ocean, but contained fewer sharks. The neighborhood had come out, poured out, onto the Main Drag for the march: there were protestors, and counter-protestors, and buskers, and pickpockets, and teenagers trying to not look stoned. The righteously indignant was there, and the mildly curious. Reporters from The Cenotaph canvassed the crowd to find its stupidest and least-informed members, so that they could be interviewed.

Cops from the LAPD (No, Not That One) were in uniform and spaced out in the gutter between the sidewalk and the macadam. Undercover cops mingled with the crowds, but everyone knew who they were.

“Hey, Stan. Undercover?”

“Shh!”

The church bells on Rose Street began to ring two o’clock. First the Calling Judge of the First Church, and then St. Clement’s and St. Mary’s and St. Martin’s. When the churches were quiet, the Nazis began to march.

They weren’t even two dozen strong, all men, and mismatched. Some were wearing the black Panzer coats, and others had on the dull-green general staff coats with the leather strap across their chests; both wore armbands. One had a desert uniform like he was with the Afrikakorps, and another was in a black satin shell coat and Doc Martens; both wore armbands.

Needless to say, their marching was atrocious.

There was quite a bit of yelling, back and forth from the street to the sidewalk, but everything was cool as the Nazis strolled up the Main Drag like they owned it. On the corner of Rose Street was an enormous black man in a bumblebee-yellow suit; he was standing next to a small white woman in a black dress and green Converse sneakers.

The two Nazis leading the march saw the couple, and laughed. They were leading the march because they had the spiffiest uniforms: gleaming knee-high boots, and a black tunic topped off by a hat with a death’s-head skull on it. One leaned into the other and asked just what the fuck that was. The other one said that he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. They were both speaking louder than necessary, so that everyone could hear.

Sheila started towards them, burning tears in her eyes and fists rolled up, but she was stopped by Arcade Jones’ enormous hand on her chest.

His fingertip was at one armpit and his palm at the other; he pushed her back just very slightly, and he could hear 100,000 fans leap to their feet as they realized he had a clear shot to the quarterback because he was 19 again wearing the blue and orange of the University of Florida and had two fine knees unbroken by gravity or time and cleats taped to his feet a helmet strapped to his head hamstrings tight and powerful grinding into the grass that wasn’t grass but the macadam of the Main Drag and the quarterback not the quarterback but still churning against the ground and like his mother taught him back in Loxachachi he mashes his face into his man’s chest and drives drives drives while wrapping up gotta wrap your arms up like a hug and face in the Panzer tunic and driving your man down and following through.

The Reverend Arcade Jones knocked that Nazi’s dick in the dirt.

The neighborhood took this as a starting gun.

The cops pretended to put up a fight.

About a half-mile south along the Main Drag, a man in a worn black suit stood on the sidewalk with a cup of coffee watching the riot. There was a tortoiseshell cat crouched in between his feet.

“I told her so.”

“Plep.”

The First Church of the Iterated Christ has a bell named the Calling Judge, and it rings on the hour. It had not stopped echoing noon when Sheila walked in. The Reverend Arcade Jones had found a ladder and was attempting to take the speedos off of Jesus, but ladders were not built for people his size and the whole thing was shimmying and shaking; collapse was imminent.

“Preacher, c’mon. Lemme do that.”

“Hello? Oh, Sheila. I’ve been meaning to come by your shop and talk to you.”

He descended the unsteady grey metal carefully.

“You got scissors?”

“No.”

“How were you getting the bathing suit off?”

The Reverend hadn’t thought of that.

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

Sheila reached into her bag, and came up with a knife. She flicked out the blade, climbed the ladder, and cut the turquoise speedos off of the Son of God.

“Thank you,” the Reverend said.

“We’re even.”

Arcade Jones liked that, and he threw back his massive head and laughed.

“I’m not proud of what I did.”

“I’m proud of you.”

“It goeth before a fall, y’know.”

“Then I’ll get off this ladder.”

Sheila came down off the ladder, and they began to walk down the central aisle of the church.

“Why the change of heart, Preacher? I thought that even Nazis were the Christ.”

“They are, they are.”

“So why the tackling?”

The Reverend Arcade Jones stopped walking and turned to face her. He looked down, smiling.

“The thing about Christ? He got the shit kicked out of Him.”

Sheila looked up at the Reverend, and then she slipped her small hand into his large one; they walked down the central aisle of the church, and out the door onto Rose Street, which ran into the Main Drag. The sun had done all it could for the day and would drop towards the ocean soon, but for now it was just a Tuesday afternoon like any other in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

One Morning In Little Aleppo, Iterated

The First Church of the Iterated Christ in Little Aleppo was nondenominational and independent. It would be more precise to say that the church was omni-denominational, and no other house of worship wanted anything to do with it, but in the interests of propriety people in the neighborhood say that the church is nondenominational and independent. The fourth First Church of the Iterated Christ was not only nondenominational, but also became nondimensional after one of the congregants read from a Bible he had gotten from the section of the bookstore with no title that bore a large handwritten sign reading, “Whatever you do, don’t read any of these damned things aloud in a consecrated building.”

And so the fifth First Church was raised on the site of the fourth; none of the applicants for the preacher position were given a solid answer as to why the post had become available. Nor were the round of applicants after that, or after that, etc. For some reason, the fifth iteration of the First Church couldn’t keep hold of a preacher.

There had been several con men appointed to the post; the neighborhood saw them coming, and quickly sent them packing. Little Aleppo could spot a crooked Man of God a mile away: the righteous preacher wears the best suit he can afford; the wicked one wears the best suit you can afford. Had it not been written into the building’s lease that it could not be lost in a card game, the church would have been lost in several card games.

Also the true of faith came to preach at the First Church. Terrence Mompkins was from a family church of revivalist Pentecostals in Baton Deluge, Louisiana. Those of you in the big cities might sneer and call them snake-handlers, which would be insulting and wrong. Okay, not specifically “wrong;” more like “not entirely right.” The Mompkins’ family church did handle snakes, but they also handled everything else they could get their hands on: eels, catfish, one time Terrence’s aunt threw a full-grown gator at his uncle. (There may have been reasons other than religion involved in that last one.)

His great-uncle Theophilus was the leader of the church, and had translated his own Bible from the ancient Greek; he had not done a bang-up job. Theophilus had trouble with telling the subject from the object, so Jonah ate the whale and Jesus did the crucifying; he also had trouble with verbs, and mistranslated “assembled” in the story of Noah to mean “fuck” so Noah fucked two of every animal; nouns were also a concern, and where most normal crazy people saw the part about handling “snakes,” Theophilus saw handle “all them critters.”

So in the barely-reclaimed swamp outside Baton Deluge, the Mompkins would spend Sundays in their tiny church on their family land praising Jesus by waving possums at one another.

All worship is correct, and any step taken towards the Lord is in the right direction; all paths are the true path. God will find you in the language you were taught as a child. Still, you didn’t want to be there when they broke out the raccoons.

Terrence had grown up in that tiny church on his family land listening to his great-uncle’s version of the Bible. He had not been to many places, and he had met very few people, but he knew that the world would accept the Gospel that he wanted to share with them. Theophilus had been in the Navy for 20 years; he had been to many places, and met many people, and he knew the world would think his Bible was weird as shit.

“You may wanna reconsider, Terry.”

“My bags are packed, Great-Uncle Theo.”

“My Greek is much better now. Gimme six months to take another pass at the sucker.”

But Terrence Mompkins was no liar: his bags were packed. He traveled the country preaching the Gospel he knew, and handling animals. In Schenectady, he told the congregation about the time Jesus turned wine into water; he then violently shook a chicken until everyone was uncomfortable. He went to Boise to preach of the time that David blew Goliath, and flung a turtle like a discus right into the organist’s head; he was not invited back. In Gallup, New Mexico, he began the service by punting an armadillo into a pregnant woman.

He was too weird for America, and so he left the mainland and went to California.

And it is here that you might be expecting the epiphany, the comeback story, the duckling’s blossoming into the swan, but Terrence started off his first sermon at the First Church of the Iterated Christ by throwing owls at the congregation–he got a nice tight spiral on them, too–and that’s not acceptable even in Little Aleppo.

He didn’t have to go home, but he couldn’t preach there; Terrence Mompkins was shown the church door.

(It worked out okay for him, though. He works at the Little Aleppo Zoo; he was great with animals once he stopped throwing them at people, plus he continues his ministry: all the hippos have been baptized numerous times. I’ll tell you about the zoo one of these days. It’s an interesting story.)

But a church needs a pastor like a bookstore needs a cat, and so the deacons had to hire someone before Sunday.

There was Mistress Bubonsky, who described her background as “syncretic Proto-Platonism mixed with Ante-Supplicationist underpinnings and a shmear of Buddhism.” The deacons had no idea what she was talking about, but she was available and willing to accept the salary. Her first sermon was on the topic of Cosmophony, and by the time she finished speaking nine hours after she began, the church was empty and the “Preacher Wanted” sign was already back up in the stained glass window.

The deacons hired a whirling dervish next, but Little Aleppians like to pre-game before church and everyone ended up vomiting. Rabbis, shamans, a transgendered imam from Missoula, and several disgraced televangelists. There was a Buddhist who would not answer any questions, and a Catholic priest who had all the answers.

A recent graduate from the University of Chicago’s divinity school was hired, and everyone in the neighborhood was very impressed until he started preaching, at which point they were bored. Little Aleppians did not believe in thinking about God, and would tolerate very little theological debate; God–it seemed obvious to the congregation–was just a Macguffin in the story. Maltese Falcon was just a paperweight, but that wasn’t the point: the search for it was.

The deacons tried to explain the Iterated Christ to the recent graduate; they told him of the Infinicy of Jesus.

“I don’t think that’s a word,” he said.

“This isn’t going to work out,” the deacons said.

The phone in the church’s back office rang and one of the deacons excused himself; the recent graduate was arguing for his job.

“First Church of the Iterated Christ. Oh, hello, Precarious.”

“Yes, we need one. Why?”

“You did? Where?”

“Figures. You’re vouching for him?”

“Then shepherd to us our new shepherd, Precarious.”

He hung up the phone and went back out to the church; the recent graduate was still arguing for his job.

“You’re still here, son? The position’s been filled.”

The other three deacons turned to look at him.

“It has?”

“Friend of mine from the old days knows a guy.”

The recent graduate from the University of Chicago’s divinity school stared at the other men in confusion. People from the University of Chicago were not used to being fired.

“That’s how you run your church? ‘Friend of mine from the old days?’ That’s the resume you need to be hired here!?”

The fattest of the deacons leaned across the table.

“Deacon Blue had some very interesting old days, son.”

The recent graduate noticed for the first time that the deacon who had taken the phone call had a fu manchu mustache and a skull’s-head ring on the middle finger of his right hand.

Early the next morning, a cherry red Ford Mustang with white leather seats drove down Rose Street; the top was down. Skinny white guy with a cigarette dangling at the wheel. Enormous black guy missing the left sleeve of his suit jacket in the passenger seat. Tweed briefcase with a small and familiar insignia inlaid near the handle on the back bench. The tires did not touch the curb when the driver eased to a stop in front of the First Church of the Iterated Christ.

The Mustang’s radio was blasting Little Aleppo’s local radio station, KHAY; Frankie Nickels was on the air.

“You find the song, or does the song find you? When you hit on it, when you hear it that first time–Jesus, that first time, it never comes again–and it gets its claws in your heart: did you find that song or did that song find you?

“You know the one I’m talking about. The song you don’t listen to in front of people. The one that’s the tempo of your mother’s heartbeat, and the guitars sound like that morning you woke up in love.

“You know the song I mean.

“I’m talking about love, L-U-V, and it comes in all flavors. Least it does in English. You go somewhere else, somewhere you can’t hear the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–Hey!–and they probably got a dozen words for love. Family love, friendly love, frisky love. You can be more specific in your affections in foreign tongues, they tell me.

“But this is love American-Style, and if you went to Paul Bunyan High like I did–go Blue Oxen!–then you only know English, too. Guy I know who owns a bookstore once told me that Little Aleppo had ‘a poverty of polyglots.’ He likes to talk all fancy.

“Love got a lot to do in English, man! You love a sandwich, your cousin, a sunny day, that little puppy of yours, and certainly that fox or fella you can’t wait to be alone with. Love! Swiss-army knife of a word.

“Look at all love’s iterations.

“And you love that song, right? That song that barged into your heart like a wacky neighbor on some old-fashioned sitcom: no knocking, no by-your-leave, doesn’t even wipe his shoes.

“They choose us. Songs choose us. People choose us. Love chooses us.

“Gotta keep your ears open, y’know?”

From the tenement windows, KHAY blasted like it did every morning. Frankie Nickels scruffed-up alto doppler shifted up and down the Main Drag from car speakers, and you could hear her voice play peek-a-boo as the door to the Morning Tavern opened and closed. She sounded like coffee and cab rides home, a little bit of nighttime in the dawn: Frankie Nickels’ voice reminded you that just because the sun was up didn’t mean things were going to be any clearer.

The Reverend Arcade Jones did not listen to KHAY in the morning–he preferred gospel music–but he was out of bed well before 8:00 a.m. His small apartment on the second floor of the church was right under the belfry, and the First Church’s massive bell, the Calling Judge, began its daily tolling at 8. You didn’t want to be asleep when it rang: it was like having a space shuttle launch for an alarm clock.

(Eight was the earliest that any of the houses of worship were allowed to start bothering people. For years, the church bells had begun at that time due to an informal agreement among the pastors, but then the Baptists hired an early-riser to lead their congregation and he started ringing his bells at five in the morning, leading to an emergency meeting of the Town Fathers to pass a law. According to Mr. Venable, it was the only time in Little Aleppo’s history that governmental action had stopped a riot.)

Arcade Jones liked the early morning, quiet and thoughtful, and he shaved his head and face in the shower; he had no mirror, and so he kept his eyes closed and used his fingers like a racoon, prowling all over his head and jaw to find sharp stubble. The sixth pew on the right needed to be fixed. The Ladies Auxiliary needed an answer on the date for the bake sale. The church mice were quiet; too quiet.

There is always work for an honest man in Little Aleppo, though not nearly as much as there is for crooks.

And then the suit: the Reverend Arcade Jones was a sharp dresser; his suits could poke your eye out from a block away. The Reverend was a 6’5″, 300-pound black guy and his closet was full of colors only a 6’5″, 300-pound black guy could wear: creamsicle orange, and lilypad green, and banana yellow, and ketchup red. (Not purple, though: as a kid, he had worn a purple shirt one time–one damn time–and his brothers called him Grimace for years. Never purple.)

Down the tiny staircase he barely fit into, and into the back office with the fridge that needed to be cleaned out and Polaroids on the wall of people 86’ed for trying to boost the collection plate, and then the reception area where Mrs. Fong answered the phone, and then into the church. The Reverend liked to straighten up in the morning, and while he did he named the parts of his home.

The semi-circular dome with stained glass in the east was the apse. In front of that was the raised platform that he and the deacons sat on during services; this is the bema. If you were to look at the church from above, it would form a cross; the space running north-south that made up the tee-bar of the cross is a transept. The open part with the pews is the nave, and behind that is the vestibule called a narthex.

And in the narthex was a confessional booth, and no one so far had been able to explain to Arcade Jones what it was doing there.

“It’s a confessional,” he said to Deacon Blue the first time he saw it.

“Yup.”

“Is this a Catholic church?”

“No, but it’s a catholic church,” Deacon Blue said.

The Reverend had not been in Little Aleppo long, but he was beginning to get the feeling it was impossible to get a straight answer out of the neighborhood.

The doors to the booth were always open, both of them, but not this morning when Arcade Jones came downstairs in a suit the same shade of green as the leaves of the Peregrine tree. This morning, one of them–the penitent’s door–was closed. He went over and knocked.

“Father?” came a man’s voice from inside the booth.

“Oh, no. I’m a…wait, hold on.”

Arcade squeezed himself into his side of the confessional. It was like watching an elephant get into a hot tub.

“Ooh, tight in here!” He wrenched his arm free from between his body and the wall of the booth, and slid open the door to the small latticed window.

“Okay, got it. Let’s do this.”

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” the man said.

“Oh, I’m not a priest.”

“It has been…what?”

“I’m not a priest. This isn’t a Catholic church. It’s a nondenominational and independent church that I haven’t unlocked the doors yet, so tell me who you are and how you got in here before I kick your ass.”

The man in the penitent’s side of the confessional held his face right up close to the window so the Reverend could see it through the lattice; when Arcade looked him in the eyes, his brain felt like it was bursting with greasy popcorn and his nose started running.

“Hello, Officer Rodriguez. I heard you were back.”

“Seriously, you’re not a priest?”

“Am I wearing a collar or a fine silk tie?”

“I can’t see. Lean forward.”

“Take my word for it.”

Arcade Jones put a massive hand up against the screen.

“What sin could you possibly confess, son? I think you’re square with the Lord.”

“Sloth. The sin of sloth.”

“The cuddliest sin.”

“I’m here for a reason, I have to be. A ghost cop needs a mission. Justice or something. I gotta, I dunno, crack my last case. That sort of thing.”

The Reverend had a voice the size and depth of an Olympic swimming pool, but he was good at modulating it. He spoke very softly and tenderly.

“Son, are you getting your theology from John Woo movies?”

“Is that where I saw that?”

“I think maybe.”

“What does the Bible say?”

“About ghost cops? Not much.”

“About ghosts in general.”

“I think there’s a story about a guy who dies and comes back to life.”

“Are you saying I’m Jesus Christ?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes. But so is the man who murdered you. And your mother who cried over you, and the funeral home director who overcharged her. You are the Christ, son. We are all the Christ in this church.”

Officer Rodriguez was quiet for a second.

“Preacher, no offense, but that is not helpful at all.”

“Sometimes the truth isn’t helpful. Sometimes the truth sits there on your chest and won’t let you breathe. Sometimes it slaps you around. Truth has its own agenda.”

Officer Rodriguez was quiet again, and Arcade Jones worked the tips of his fingers into the holes in the lattice divider; when he had a bit of a grip, he pulled and CRACK it came off and he set it on his lap.

“Another thing to fix,” the Reverend said, and he reached his hand through the hole he had made and offered it to Romeo Rodriguez, who realized he had not shaken anyone’s hand since he had been murdered and so he began to cry as he took Arcade’s hand.

“You like football?”

“What?”

Officer Rodriguez coughed and wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve.

“Yeah, yeah. I like football.”

“Me, too. Used to play a little.”

They sat there for most of the morning talking about football and God, and they also talked about boats for a while for some reason, while the sun melted through the stained glass windows in the apse of the First Church of the Iterated Christ, casting harmonized colors on the pews in the nave. The sixth one on the right needed to be fixed. Behind the pews was the narthex, and then the doors that led out to the front yard where the Christmas tree still stood, and beyond that was Rose Street that ran east off of the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Activist Archivist

Little Aleppo hated laws, but loved rules. Gravity, or time, or not hitting someone with a sword: these were laws, and they had no ear for your stories. Laws are binary propositions, but a rule? Little Aleppians saw in rules a comfortable amount of wiggle. Rules were just sentences with the backing of punishment, written by men who may or may not have been drunk. A rule could be appended or amended; you could even bribe the guy who writes the rule to write it the way you want. If there were enough rules, you could set them against each other and get them to fighting.

Little Aleppo actually had so many regulations, stipulations, executive orders, dispensatory notices, and other sorts of rules that the neighborhood could be said to be simultaneously anarchist and fascist: everything was against the law, but the laws contradicted one another so much that everything was also legal. At times, reality depended on how good a lawyer you could afford. It wasn’t so much Hammurabi’s Code so much as it was Schrödinger’s.

All of these confusing rules were contained in the codicil to the Neighborhood Charter. It ran to thousands of pages, and took up three shelves in the basement of the bookstore with no title. Mr. Venable had borrowed them from Town Hall years ago, never intending to return them. He also did not tell anyone he was borrowing them, and did so in the middle of the night. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, came with him; she was thrilled.

“We’re stealing the Declaration of Independence!”

“We’re doing no such thing.”

“I feel like Nicolas Cage,” Gussy said.

“You look ridiculous.”

Her clothes were all black, including the wool cap she had tucked her hair into, and she was also wearing gloves. This was definitely a glove situation, but Gussy did not own any tactical gloves, so she wore fuzzy red ones. They had snowmen on them, and the fingertips were white.

Mr. Venable was wearing a dark suit that was at one time pinstriped, and an oxblood shirt with an open collar. This was his customary suit.

“We’re heisting!”

“We are not heisting. And that’s not a verb, anyway. Take care with the language, please.”

“Of course we’re heisting!”

They were walking north on the sidewalk along the Main Drag toward Town Hall, which is all the way past the Verdance. Everyone could hear their conversation.

“A heist is for financial gain, Gussy. Not every theft is a heist, just like every murder is not a hit. Can’t call it a heist if there’s no money.”

“Heist!”

“No.”

“We’re Venable’s 11.”

“There’s only two of us.”

“We should assemble a ragtag band of charmers. Like, a computer expert and a master of disguise.”

“A computer expert? So we’re doing the remake, not the Sinatra version?”

“You ever actually watched the Sinatra version?”

“Not the whole thing,” Mr. Venable said as the walked past the building that would one day be The Tahitian theater once more, but was at the moment a ruined husk that Gussy deliberately did not look at.

“Shitty flick. Boring and disjointed and amateurish and dated. Remake’s better.”

“And Bernie Mac is in it.”

“And Bernie Mac is in it, yes.

It had drizzled before, so their footsteps went SHPLAK SHPLAK against the sidewalk. Gussy did not step on cracks in the pavement; Mr. Venable didn’t either, but he was less obvious about it.

It was the middle of the night in Little Aleppo, and the stores were closed and the bars were open. All the way on the Downside, the printing presses–massive beasts from the last war–roared and shoved the news into the morning; there was genteel puking on the Upside. Mr. Venable and Gussy passed the Verdance, where everything grows: it is not empty at night. There are the Rambles, where men go to fuck strangers, and the Rumbles, where strangers go to fight men.

Outside the front door to Town Hall is a sign that says “No Fighting.” The building was a public works project during the Depression, and so it looks like every other town hall: brick and with a jutting porch surrounded by three columns. (Originally four, one was sent to a casino in Pahrump, Nevada, to settle up a Town Father’s gambling debt.) It was set back from the Main Drag forty feet; there is a lush lawn in between which has not needed to be mined for several years now

Up the steps they went, and Mr. Venable and Gussy stood at the locked doors of Town Hall.

“Do we have a plan?”

“No,” he said.

“Do you?”

“Yes,” he said, and knocked on the glass door. A few moments passed, then from inside the darkened lobby was the sound of two feet shuffling, and four feet padding along. The latch unlocked KLATCK and the door opened.

“Venable.”

“Omar.”

“Argus.”

“Boof.”

“You have to be kidding me,” Gussy said.

“Boof.”

“Oh, sorry. Hi, Argus.”

Gussy bent down and gave Argus a quick scritchy-scratch. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to pet seeing-eye dogs, but it seemed rude not to greet Argus with a little head rub, mostly because if you didn’t he would give you the stink-eye for the rest of your conversation.

“Gussy? This is my Gussy?”

“Hi, Omar.”

He extended his hand, and she took it, and then leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.

“Gussy, your father was an asshole.”

“I know, sweetie.”

“Real prick.”

“What are you doing here?”

“A blind man can’t be a night watchman?”

“No, he can’t.”

Mr. Venable clucked his tongue at her. “Very discriminatory, Gus.”

“The word ‘watch’ is in the job title.”

“Argus does the watching,” Omar said.

“So Argus is the watchman.”

“Argus can’t be the watchman. He’s a dog.”

Mr. Venable clucked his tongue at him. “Very discriminatory, Omar.”

“Shut up, you.”

“Boof.”

“How did you get this job? Gussy asked.

“Remember how the last night watchman saw the Town Fathers taking all those bribes?”

“Yes.”

“I haven’t seen one bribe.”

“Logical.”

“What are you doing here?”

Mr Venable answered, “We’re taking the codicil to the Town Charter.”

“Why?”

“Safekeeping.”

“You’re not going to sell it?”

“Never!”

“Never?”

“I suppose there’s a number that could change my mind.”

“You’re only human, Venable.”

“You, too, Omar.”

The men smiled at each other; Gussy was pulling her gloves off with her teeth.

“Do you know where it is?”

“I own a magic bookstore: I can find it.”

“If you get caught, I never saw you.”

“Boof.”

Omar and Argus walked back into the darkness they had come out of. Mr. Venable set off down the main corridor of Town Hall towards the back where the stairs to the basements were.

“Are you coming?”

Gussy jogged to catch up to him; she had a half-smile.

“It’s a wonder everything doesn’t burn down.”

Mr. Venable stopped, worn heels squeaking on the checkerboard tile floor.

“It does burn down, Gussy. Little Aleppo has burned down a dozen damn times. This system–if there even is one–doesn’t work. It just refuses to break down entirely, so we patch it up until the next time. Nothing around here works! Little Aleppo fails with forward momentum, lurching from one catastrophe to the next and sometimes that catastrophe is fire. Little Aleppo has burned before, Gussy, and it will burn again.”

His voice echoed off the vaulted ceiling, and the checkerboard tiles on the floor, and the mural that took up the whole north wall depicting Victory Over The Turtlemonsters.

“Okay,” Gussy said.

“Some of our history is in stories, but some of it is made out of things. Both should be cared for.”

“All right.”

“Sorry to yell.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence, and when they got to the doors to the stairs Gussy said, “How big is this particular thing?”

“Quite large.”

“So how are we getting it back to the store?”

“I was going to call a cab.”

“This is the worst heist I’ve ever been on.”

The codicil was indeed quite large: 23 foot-thick volumes, and most of them had loose sheets of paper and parchment and post-it notes cascading out of them. Mr. Venable tsked over the state of the bindings while Gussy found a cart. It took them an hour to get everything out to the curb, and then loaded into the taxi; they sat in the back with the books that did not fit in the trunk and the passenger seat on their laps.

“I meant to tell you: the bookworms are acting up again.”

“I’ll pick up some ammo on the way in tomorrow,” Gussy said.

“It might be too late for that. They’ve gotten loose.”

“Ooh.”

“Yes. And they’re fighting with the earworms from the record shop.”

“In public?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Not good for business.”

“Oh, no. Could be worse, though.”

“How?”

“They could stop fighting and start breeding.”

“What does that make?”

“Do you know how to walk without rhythm?”

On their left was the ruin that would one day be The Tahitian again, and beyond that were the Segovian Hills, and beyond that was east the dawn, the sun coming up and they could hear the Salt Wharf working. Whether it was still last night or tomorrow morning depended on your point of view.

By the time Mr. Venable and Gussy got the codicil installed into the bookstore with no title’s basement (one of at least several), it was inarguably the next day outside. A mile off the coast, illuminated by the sleepy sun, turbines spun like windmills always have.

“Safest place in the neighborhood,” Mr. Venable said as they walked up the steps.

“There’s a copy, right?”

“Many. It’s all on computers now. The law form of Holly, Wood, and Vine has created a loophole-bot to spider its way through the codicil to get their clients off.”

“They’re the best.”

“That’s what their commercials say.”

Gussy opened the front door of the bookstore. It went TINKadink and then Gussy was part of the morning Main Drag traffic; dust dancers caught the light, shimmying and juking, and some came to rest on dictionaries.

Mr. Venable made fresh coffee, standing over the machine until just enough was in the pot to make himself a cup; he took it black, and walked to his customary chair, which was occupied by a tortoiseshell cat who looked very comfortable.

“Plep.”

“Oh, plep yourself,” Mr. Venable said, but he made no move to dislodge the cat, who had no name. The front door of the shop was flanked on either side by bay windows, and he stood at the one on the right drinking his coffee and watching the Main Drag, which runs through the center of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Nighttime In Little Aleppo, And Its Assumed Properties

Little Aleppo is darkest before the dawn, especially if the locals have been shooting out the streetlights again. It is not a time for the respectable or recognizable.

Most normal humans regard the middle of the night as they do Antarctica: they’ve never been there personally, but have seen evidence of its existence. Featureless and blank and deadly, most people believe of both, but they are wrong. Antarctica has mountain ranges, and an ice shelf that gallops back and forth, and the biggest desert in the world. There is a river in Antarctica called the Onyx, and a lake called the Vostok. The world is more granular than you think.

The middle of the night has a topography, too, much of it dependent on what time the bars in the area close. Midnight is for muggers and romantics; two is for drunks and whores; four is for speed freaks and poets, dribbling and scribbling until the sun–bastard that he is–ruins it all.

Five percent? ten? Who’s up all night? Cops and waitresses and cashiers and junkies. Bass players and repo men and the union members who run the newspaper presses. Bartenders and their flocks. Everyone else is a tourist.

The Midnight Librarians stalked through the neighborhood’s peripheral vision; you could always see them at night in Little Aleppo, but you couldn’t look at them. Nine feet tall and made of late fees, they indexed the dreams seeping out of apartments and catalogued the broken hearts. (Novel, unfinished; phone call, unreturned; ring, returned.)

Once a month, there were werewolfs. Other werecreatures, too: a woman named Henrietta who lives on Tanglewood Street is a werepanda; every full moon, she refuses to breed.

In the middle of the night, the streets dreamed of being avenues; the avenues of being boulevards; the boulevards thought about the alley they made out with that time at a party. Everyone was someone else at 3 a.m.

The Poet Laureate was up, light streaming from the dirty window of a stinking apartment. Maybe a sonnet, or some free verse. Shitty rhymes and plastic lines about humanity, or a fuck from the previous century, never to be read or cared about. Certainly never to be paid for. In a few hours, at dawn, the Poet Laureate would kneel and pray for someone to sell out to.

Frankie Teakettle is awake, as always; he runs the Hotel Synod, which everyone calls The Nod. It is the junkie’s hotel, and Frankie’s precise legal standing vis-a-vis the place is shaky. He might own the place. He may be banned from the premises. Either way, he’s there. Frankie Teakettle is always there, and there is a counter four feet wide in front of him and a cubbyholed wall behind him with messages and mail sticking out of slots.

Upstairs there are alliances being made and transactional fucking. The couple in room 311 is writing a hit song; the couple in room 228 is hitting each other. The college dropout in 201 does not understand what he’s gotten himself into to as the skin covering the crook of his elbow refuses to cooperate with the needle, twice-used and battered but the only one he has, which probes and pokes for sanctuary; there is a promise in the barrel.

Oh, number-notched and full round–bullet in your chamber–find my vein heart mind, but mostly vein and I will see the reckoning in the crimson cloud like a rose like broccoli like an olive tree that flows and flowers inside the barrel, number-notched, when the point hits the highway: the blood flows backwards through the needle and into the chamber (it’s just fluid dynamics, physics, there are rules to this sort of thing) and if it does not you can check: thumb and ring finger to balance the whole works, and you lift up the plunger with your first and second, chewed-up nail against the plastic.

And if you have hit the vein, then a mushroom cloud of blood will rise backwards into the syringe’s holding cylinder. Red means go.

The index finger on the plunger–the cord ’round your bicep is in your teeth, you used the telephone cord this time–and sloooooooowly because this is new shit and you don’t know how strong the new shit is so you go sloooooooowly and before that plunger is halfway to home you can taste the new shit and it sounds like a tidal buoy in your lungs BOOOOOOOwhaaaaaaa and you need to swallow hard, and also cough, but there is at least one milimeter left in the chamber and your mother taught you that to waste not is to want not, and you do not want to think about your mother so your index finger pushes down the plunger just a little bit more.

Not much time, get it out get it out, and your knuckles graze your forearm as the needle comes out; you had a wad of tissue paper–single-ply–from the bathroom sitting there, and so you grab it and jam it down on the crook of your elbow and close your fist towards your shoulder and make a noise like this:

“Whooooph. Whooooph. Whooooph.”

And then it’s the middle of the night. It’s always the middle of the damn night at the Nod. Outside, there are stars in the sky and slight breezes.

Where is your leg? The left one. At what angle do the tibia and fibula meet the femur? And the ankle: what of your ankle? You are aware of your leg, the left one, now. It is not pleasant, is it? What to do with the foot, the knee; where to place the leg in relation to the other and OH GOD now you’re aware of both legs. It was nicer when they were just kind of in charge of themselves, wasn’t it?

This is proprioception. Where your limbs are, adjusting them for balance, jiggling them now and then to keep them from falling asleep: proprioception, and it is all done without the conscious command of the higher brain. In fact, the higher brain is terrible at moving your arms and legs around; it’s exhausting and not as accurate as muscle memory. You’d rather let your left leg take care of itself.

That’s how it is with ghosts. People see them if they make an effort, or notice them when some wiseass points them out; otherwise, they can take care of themselves. Easier that way. Little Aleppo has enough trouble with the living; let the dead solve their own problems.

Which means Romeo Rodriguez was on his own. He was a ghost. And he was a cop. He was a ghost cop. Officer Rodriguez secretly thought that was pretty neat, being a ghost cop, but then he remembered that he was solving his own murder and figured he should be dour about the whole thing. Someone had shot him in the face, he reminded himself, and he was now a spectral champion of justice on the trail of his own killer, but then he would walk through a wall, or float up to a rooftop or something, and he would be like, “Awesome,” and then he would feel bad about being happy and be a miserable ghost again.

“I stalk the nigh-HACH-HACH-HACH!” Officer Rodriguez was trying to do a growly Batman voice, but he was a natural tenor and started coughing.

The fact is that Romeo Rodriguez was enjoying being a ghost. He could fly–literally fly: he would pick a point way above him and kinda will himself there–and walls had no substance any longer, and time was becoming a bit more malleable than he had remembered it. He could control his size, and he did not need to eat or sleep but could choose to do either. He was also still wearing his uniform, and there were several girl ghosts that found him quite fetching in it.

It was a lot better than he’d imagined, death. He knew he had been returned to Little Aleppo to do a job, for one last assignment, for his final case. He knew he should be taking this more seriously. Maybe get a trenchcoat, a fog machine. He had definitely envisioned the afterlife as way more foggy.

And his killer was already in jail.

Romeo Rodriguez walked back into the Little Aleppo Police Department’s headquarters on his first day of ghostiness and logged into the system; his account was still active. If this was a movie, he thought, they’d play that fact for sentiment; he was annoyed, though. Basic security, fellows: deactivate the dead guy’s account.

Officer Rodriguez thought he’d be in for some snooping–he was already wondering where he’d get a corkboard and yarn in the afterlife–when his murderer’s mugshot popped right up: he’d been caught minutes later, and tried, and convicted.

So what am I here for? he wondered. Case solved. Justice served. That just left revenge, and Romeo Rodriguez was pretty certain he didn’t want any part of that. He figured that you could either live in a society with revenge or with cops, but not both. Be a bit hypocritical to go seeking extrajudicial satisfaction while wearing a police uniform.

If the guy was still out there assholing it up, Officer Rodriguez thought, then I’d hunt him down day and night. But they had a damn trial, jury of his peers, judge banged the gavel, the whole deal.

Vengeance? Is that it? Go into the jail and kill the guy with my ghost powers? And then, what? Does he become a ghost criminal and come back to seek revenge on me? That sounds like a very Little Aleppo thing to happen, and I want to avoid that.

Under a street lamp on Mott Street that had not been shot out yet, Officer Romeo Rodriguez stood in a small circle of light.

TINKadink the door of the bookstore with no title opened.

“Get to the point! Get to the point! Get to the point and stop speaking French!”

Mr. Venable was sitting in his customary seat, wearing his customary suit. Every year, he attempted to make it through Remembrance of Things Past, and every year he wound up yelling at Proust around four volumes in.

“Would it kill you to throw in a sex scene, Marcel? Stop remembering things and make up something interesting!”

“I remember everything.”

Mr. Venable took off his reading glasses, but did not look up from the book on the table in front of him.

“Are you trying to be spooky?”

“I just feel like there’s certain standards I’m not living up to.”

Mr. Venable glimpsed Officer Rodriguez in the top of his peripheral vision; looking directly at him directly exhausted you in seconds, like being at the beach all day.

“Of being a ghost?”

“Right, yeah.”

“Well, throw a sheet over your head and be done with it.”

“Come on.”

“What? You want to be a spooky ghost? Find an old, rich family and wander around their mansion going ‘OOOOOoooooOOOOOOoooh.'”

“Stop.”

“Oh, I know. You should do the bit with the medicine cabinet mirror. You know that one?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s closed, right? And so the girl–it’s always a girl in this bit–is alone in her bathroom, and she opens the medicine cabinet for floss or mascara, whatever, and then she closes it and BOOM there you are in the mirror.”

“I said I knew it.”

“Oh, that’s scary. Gets me every time. Is that what you’re going for?”

“No.”

“No.”

Romeo Rodriguez had barely been an adult before he was a cop, and he was barely a cop before he became a ghost, but he knew he could be good at something if he just had the chance to settle in. But, Jesus, it would be nice to know what was expected of him.

“Well, how are ghost cops supposed to act?”

“According to their individual nature?”

The church bells on Rose Street sounded eight o’clock.

“The guy who shot me?”

“Mm?”

“In jail.”

“Oh, yes. Big trial. Many tears.”

“Justice.”

“That’s what they call it.”

“Aren’t I supposed to have some sort of purpose?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, what is it?”

Mr. Venable did not look up, but he smiled slightly.

“You tell me mine, and I’ll tell you yours.”

The door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink but the door did not open, and the shop was still except for the sound of a tortoiseshell cat batting a wad of tissue paper about, which was barely any sound at all.

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