18 days had passed since it rained in Little Aleppo, so it was raining in Little Aleppo. The sun had come up, but not so you could tell, and the drops came down steady on the window, not a drizzle that went tiptiptap but a hard shower that sounded against the glass like THRUMPATUMP, like a hand with a million fingers was waiting for you to get to the point, and all around the neighborhood, appointments were being canceled and plans rescheduled and classes cut. You’d think locals would stop making plans for the day of the rains, but no one ever did: it wasn’t because they forgot, but that they thought it would be different this time, that they wouldn’t let the rain stop them from living their lives, but then they’d wake up and see the downpour and start calling each other pretending to be sick. Humans see patterns in everything but their own behavior.
A window opened on the Main Drag. Second floor, right above Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk. Head popped out and looked north towards The Tahitian. Black hair, curly and quickly waterlogged.
“Gus, the theater’s not gonna burn down while it’s raining,” a voice called from the back of the apartment where the bedroom was.
“I’m getting us coffee.”
“I heard the window open.”
“It was stuffy.”
The living room was packed. It was what Sheila called a “healthy clutter.” There were five teevees, one of which was generally working at any given time, in what was referred to as the Media Corner; the stereo was next to that, and a five-tall triple column of milk crates with records in them. Precarious Lee had wired the room for quadrophonic sound, and screwed the speakers to the wall studs in just the right spots. Two couches. Sheila had reupholstered one herself during one of her manic crafting phases. It looked fucked-up, but it was comfortable. All the paintings on the walls were by friends Sheila had buried; all the paintings were of her. Abstract, with silly slashes for her hair and long loping lines as legs, and photorealistic, with raised goose bumps on her forearm and her cock flopped against her leg showing its underside like an exhausted sturgeon. Kyron Binet painted Sheila before he got famous and died. The canvas was six by four, and mostly brackish black paint, slathered on thickly in what would come to be known as his style and examined at length in many critical brochures and catalogues. Her figure was offset to the right; she was perched on a stool, one bare foot up and the other forward with splayed toes and flexed calf muscle. White slip with blood smeared on it, left strap ripped free and dangling down her chest, and her hair was caked in something–mud, maybe–and there was blood on her teeth, too, but she was smiling like she knew a secret. Or whose blood it was.
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was in a thin white tee-shirt that covered only half her bare ass; it was inside-out, and the Arrow Beer logo flickered backwards through the fabric. The skin on the back of her left elbow was rough; she felt it up and down a few times, and then checked her right elbow, which was far smoother, and she puzzled over that as she walked into the kitchen to make coffee.
Sheila wasn’t a drag queen. Men do drag, and it’s an act; Sheila was a woman (with an accidental penis), and that was her life. She wasn’t a drag queen. She did, however, have a drag queen’s kitchen. It looked like a John Waters movie might break out any second: aggressively wholesome, but slightly off. The curtains had cartoon pigs and cows and chickens on them, but when you looked closer you saw that the animals were all offering themselves up to you, choice cuts sliced out of their sides and loins and steaming on plates held forth with big smiles, and the wallpaper featured the First Ladies, and all the magnets on the fridge depicted famous train derailments. On the top of the cabinets were seven Garfield cookie jars in varying poses–eating, sleeping, playing the piano–that Sheila had named after the Segovian Hills; she insisted on introducing new guests to them. The silverware drawer was jammed with forks and spoons and knives of all makes; they were not in a caddy or organized, but dumped in; there must have been hundreds. The second or third time Gussy stayed over, she asked about it.
“I used to shoplift all the time. I was terrible,” Sheila said.
“Now you steal silverware?”
“It’s my methadone.”
And Gussy had had more than a couple drinks, so she accepted the answer.
Mug from Dollywood. Sugar sugar sugar, milk milk milk, stir, clink clink clink. Mug with a silhouette of a dog riding an elephant and the logo HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE. Sugar sugar sugar, milk milk milk, stir, clink clink clink. Spoon in the sink, run the water, mug in each hand and barefoot to the bedroom where Sheila is walking out of the bathroom, skinny and naked except for mismatched knee socks, and she has a tiny tuft of thick brown pubic hair in a semi-circle around her cock and no hair anywhere else on her body except for her head; she is growing her spiky short cut into a layered shag because she feels particularly rock and rollish lately and has dyed her hair greasy black, blue-black, jet-black, Joan Jett-black, and she has her eye on a pair of leather pants with a lace-up front in the window of Saxon’s Funkywear over on Maypole Street. She takes the Dollywood mug from Gussy, and they get back into bed.
Four-poster bed with the full canopy: a bed to die of consumption in; a bed for the madwoman in the attic; a bed Emily Dickinson could masturbate in. It had previously belonged to the Baroness de Koenigswarter when she lived in a cottage on Mt. Charity. (Baronesses have different ideas of what the word “cottage” means than most folks.) Sheila wasn’t planning on buying anything at the estate sale–she and Tiresias Richardson had just gone for the free booze and chance to pick up rich guys–but when she saw the carved angels on the columns, she knew that she had to have it. The vertical panel held up by the be-angelled columns is called the tester, and there was a mirror in this one. It was not original.
The rain always brought a chill, especially in December, and Sheila tucked herself under Gussy’s armpit and pulled the blanket up to her chest and curled herself against Gussy’s side and thigh; Gussy was five inches taller and five degrees warmer than Sheila, and they shimmied themselves into each other and the mattress and the covers and then lay still and breathed together and the raindrops on the window went THRUMPATUMP and the two women looked each other in the eye through the mirror above them and one of them said,
“I love you.”
The rain slapped onto Cannot Swim’s head THRUMPATUMP and he curled his lip and said,
“I hate this.”
Today? Why today? Tomorrow would be almost exactly the same, but–BUT–it was fucking dry, Cannot Swim thought. Why send him on his Assignment on the day of the rains? Go up in the hills and collect the cybeline mushroom that grows where the squatch live: that was bad enough, but in the rain? The Pulaski had figured out the cycle of the rains in the valley that would one day be called Little Aleppo; they hadn’t invented calculus, but they could count to 18 well enough. And it wasn’t like there was a rush, he exclaimed to himself. The mushrooms were made into tea for the Midsummer’s Feast, and it was the middle of winter. The sun had just barely come up, but not so you could tell, and it had been raining for an hour already.
Cannot Swim walked north out of the village with a rough cloak made from waxed deer leather draped over his head, passing the kotcha that belonged to Stranger Who Hunts Well and Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend. He thought about ducking in and hiding out until it stopped raining, but only briefly. The two of them babbled in their harsh language non-stop; Cannot Swim did not think he could take an entire day of their grunting. Besides, he was a Pulaski man (or he would be when he returned to the village) and what kind of Pulaski man would cower from a little rain?
Turning around and peering through the raindrops and mist and morning gloom, Cannot Swim saw Talks To Whites in the outsiders’ kotcha. He looked back towards the lake, towards the village, and saw that no one was watching, so he loped over and slipped through the door, wiping the mud off his shoes and onto a heavy rock with a sharp edge placed just inside the entrance for that purpose.
“You were supposed to meet me by the scarred tree in the upper fields,” Cannot Swim said.
Talks To Whites stared at his cousin, tilted his head, scrunched up his nose.
“How are you called a man and I am still called a child?”
“I was born six months before you.”
“It’s rain. You won’t melt.”
“I know. But, I’ll get wet.”
“Just gimme the damn rifle.”
Stranger Who Hunts Well and Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend were still under their blankets on their sleeping platforms, scratching their balls and yawning and not quite following the conversation. The Pulaski language was full of subtle stops and swallowed vowels and all ran together in a breathy tumble that outsiders could not pick out words from, and even once they sort of figured out the syntax, there was still the conjugation to deal with–verbs were gendered in Pulaski, and could become perfect or pluperfect depending on where they were placed relative to the subject–and even tribes whose languages were close to Pulaski had little hope of becoming conversational, let alone mastering it. Stranger Who Hunts Well and his Useless Friend made out “rain” and “rifle,” but everything else was guesses based on body language.
“You’re gonna go now? Hang out here today.”
“It’s an Assignment. You’re assigned. That means you do what you’re told. And, you know, it’s a trial. It’s not supposed to be fun. Or easy.”
“My Assignment was easy until you freaked out and ate all our whole stash at once and nearly got us killed.”
“I did not like that place,” Cannot Swim said with his eyes on the ground.
“They are chaos, the Whites, and also cruelty. And–”
“I am more than aware of your feelings about the Whites’ odor.”
“I don’t know how they bear it. If I smelled like that, I’d chop my nose off. Like this one.”
Cannot Swim jerked his head towards Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend.
“Stinks like a dying man’s balls.”
“He just woke up,” Talks To Whites said, smiling. “Everyone smells bad when they wake up.”
“Not like this. It’s inhuman.”
The two men on the sleeping platforms, one very large and the other very small, watched the conversation. The little one whispered in English to the big one,
“Are you getting any of this, Peter?”
“The tall one thinks you smell bad.”
“I just woke up. Everyone smells bad when they wake up.”
Talks To Whites turned around and looked down at the small man and said in English,
“That’s what I told him, Reverend.”
Neither Talks To Whites nor Peter had ever told the Reverend Busybody Tyndale that his Pulaski name was Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend. What good could it possibly do?
Cannot Swim shouldered the Springfield rifle and Talks To Whites gave him two small satchels: peregrine leaves, ammo. He took a leaf from the pouch, offered one to his cousin.
“Nah, I’m going back to sleep.”
“You’re going back to sleep?”
“I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: it’s raining.”
And Cannot Swim backed out of the door of the kotcha; the leather flap clapped shut; he was gone.
The rain hit the hemispherical crown of Harper Observatory and sluiced down the exterior marble walls to the parking lot past the Volkswagens and Fords and over the side of the sheer rock and falling splashing running coursing the mud and pebbles and loosed grass flowing along and collected on the way, the homes on stilts and the infinite pools and hot tubs and luxury where there should be none, and gathering speed until the foothills and across the Main Drag and over what used to be a lake and into the harbor that fed Little Aleppo and out past the breakers to the sea it came from.
The rain sounded low-pitched THRUMPATUMP on glass windows and higher BAPADAP on nylon umbrellas and hollow PANGPANGPANG on the metal shutters of The Tahitian. THUPTHUPTHUP on the head of its owner sticking out a window down the street.
“I’m letting the cat out!”
“I don’t have a cat!”
Gussy was back in the doorway of the bedroom; she leaned against the jamb.
“I could’ve sworn you did.”
Sheila is out of bed and her feet in mismatched knee socks swopswopswop on the hardwood floor; she is naked and her hips sway like a pendulum with a big dick, and, having left her coffee on the nightstand and cigarette smoldering in the ashtray which reads THE MENEFRIGHISTA CLUB: WHERE STARS COME TO SHINE, her arms are free to slip around Gussy’s waist, and Sheila raises herself on tiptoe and shoves her tongue rudely into Gussy’s mouth, who makes a noise like ooooohh and grabs Sheila’s bare ass with both hands, but it slips out when she lowers herself back to her flat feet and clears her throat and smiles like at a child.
“Gus, hon, I can’t date crazy anymore. I’m terrible at it. If you’re gonna be crazy–”
Gussy pushed her back, softly, and said,
“He left a fucking note, Sheel! He was in my place, he was actually there. Row 19. Seat 4. He was in my place, Sheel.”
Sheila came back into her, and said, softly,
“Shutters are locked.”
And kissed her.
“Precarious put ’em up.”
And kissed her again.
“Congo couldn’t get through shutters Precarious put up.”
And one more time and now Gussy kissed her back.
“You do know that Precarious has actually set my theater on fire several times, right?”
“And you’re not scared of him! So why freak out about this Jack of Instance asshole? Oh, and–”
Sheila took two steps towards the bed and launched herself into it FLOOMP a pillow launched off the side.
“–the Fire Chief? Flower? Big tall mean bitch?”
“She’s not a bitch.”
“She’s totally a bitch. Anyway, I told her all about the Jack of Instance and she visited Madame Cazee.”
“Uh-huh,” Gussy said as she picked the pillow up off the floor and threw it at her.
The record player had a square plastic lid. Sheila forgot to put the toilet seat back down, and her hamper was the corner, but the lid of the record player was always in place. Gussy lifted it. The turntable was made of aluminum and covered with tacky black rubber, and the components were brushed silver, and the tonearm curved just like a mountain road that movie stars died on. CH-CHUNK the power button had weight to it and then hmmmmmm–oh, that rock and roll hum–a noise at the same frequency as a teenager’s blood pressure, a predictory noise, a noise that prefaced sound. Machines have to clear their throats, too.
Living room records and bedroom records, there is a difference. A row of them on top of the dresser next to the record player which was on top of the amplifier that has two blue window with needles ready and waiting and bobbing against the left cushion of the parabola–it was the type of amplifier you left on; Precarious had dropped it off one day–and Gussy’s finger ran down the spines of the albums like a stick against a picket fence wielded by some old-timey kid in overalls. Bookends on either side holding the row upright, figures carved from heavy wood and painted: Tommy Amici and Cara Thorn, tuxedo and evening gown and separated only by the music. When all the songs had played, they’d be together again.
Gussy hated choosing the record in front of Sheila; she felt she was being judged. She felt that because Sheila had said so at least twice. It was one of those jokes you tell in the beginning of a relationship that isn’t a joke at all. It was early, she thought, and it was raining, and so this was rejected for being too poppy and that was rejected for being too cocktail-hour. And it was no time to listen to anyone’s bullshit, she thought, and slid the record with the smoky blue cover out. It was not a deep cut. It was the obvious choice. It was the jazz album; in fact, it was verging on being The Jazz Album. If you had one jazz album, you had this one. It was issued, seemingly, or spontaneously generated: if you put enough LPs together, then you’d find this one in the stack soon enough.
The record comes out of the cardboard, and then out of the white sleeve made of waxy paper with the rounded edges and oversized hole in the center. Flip it over to find Side A. Settle the disc onto the spindle. The tonearm lifts up and over and control it down. Softly. Pop and snap and hiss and other onomatopoeias. Then the bass and the piano playing Chinese chords and just the bass now challenging and the band answers and again and again.
FFT PHWOO Sheila lit a joint and blew out a cloud of smoke towards the mirror above her; it plumed off in crazy directions where it hit its own reflection. The curtains around the bed were drawn, and orange. She was thinking of going black.
“So. Your position is–”
Gussy took two steps toward the bed and eased onto the mattress. She crawled towards Sheila, who handed her the joint with one hand and reached out for her tit with the other.
“–that my worries, and therefore PHWOO the neighborhood’s worries are over, because you sent the Fire Chief to see a psychic?”
“Not over. But PWHOO close to. I have faith in Madame Cazee.”
“Sheel, if Madame Cazee knew anything, wouldn’t she have just gone to the cops? Or someone? She shouldn’t have been sitting there waiting to read the Fire Chief’s palm.”
“She doesn’t read palms anymore. Eczema.”
“Figure of speech.”
“The Jack of Instance is one of her Tarot cards. She knows all about him. I’m sure she helped the chief.”
“Helped her with what? She doesn’t have any actual information about the crimes.”
Sheila put the joint in between her lips and got up on her knees facing Gussy and continued,
“These fires are happening on several levels, including magickal and psychic, and you have to acknowledge that.”
Gussy plucked the joint from Sheila’s mouth.
“Sheel, hon, I can’t date crazy. I’m terrible at it.”
Sheila rolled her eyes and spun around and laid down with her arms crossed.
“There are greater forces at play here, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui.”
“I love it when you call me that.”
“Mysterious forces. And destructive ones. Terror has been loosed according to a plan unavailable to onlookers. There is afootedness.”
“When trouble is afoot, then exists a state of afootedness. One of my clients taught me about it; she’s in the Experimental Linguistics department at Harper.”
“It’s just some guy.”
“Is it the werewolf from the flyers?”
“No, that’s fucking stupid,” Sheila said.
“Werewolfs don’t have hands. They can’t light fires. It could maybe be a wolfman, but not a werewolf.”
“It’s just a guy. A crazy guy who can’t get hard unless he lights shit on fire.”
“Then why the notes? Why the Jack of Instance?”
“I dunno. I dunno how crazy people think. That’s why they’re crazy. Some of ’em talk to dogs, and others talk to playing cards.”
Gussy had the joint and she hit it PHWOO and coughed, hacks that doubled her chest over and shook the bed, and small aftershocks followed by exploratory sips of her rapidly-cooling coffee. She looked at the bedroom door, and back at Sheila from the corner of her eye, and the door again; Sheila saw this and picked the phone up off her nightstand.
“What’s the number of the theater?”
She did. The phone rang twice and then the machine answered with Sheila’s voice.
“You’ve reached The Tahitian theater, located in the heart of beautiful Little Aleppo. We’re closed right now, but if you leave a message and aren’t Mr. Carnolin, we’ll get back to you. Thanks!”
After the beep, Sheila said,
“Wally? Wally, are you there?”
“He can’t answer the phone,” Gussy said.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT.
Gussy grabbed the receiver from Sheila.
“Why are you answering the phone?”
I DID NOT ANSWER THE PHONE. I WAS REQUESTED TO COME TO THE LINE.
“How are you answering the phone?”
I AM WIRED INTO THE ENTIRE BUILDING.
Sheila shoved her fingers into Gussy’s ribs, which made her flinch and give up the receiver.
“Wally, it’s Sheila. Listen, you gotta do me a favor. Do you know my phone number?”
I KNOW EVERYONE’S PHONE NUMBER.
“Great. So, if you get set on fire: call here. Immediately. Okay? Because Gussy is very worried, so I think it would be good if you told her that you were going to call if anything happened. Like getting set on fire.”
I WAS PLANNING ON IT.
Gussy tried to grab the receiver again, but Sheila had strong hands and held on, so they put their heads together to share.
“Were you going to let me in on this plan?” Gussy asked.
I ASSUMED YOU WERE INTELLIGENT ENOUGH TO FIGURE IT OUT ON YOUR OWN.
There was a muted trumpet playing in the background, just the right notes over one chord and then another and back to the first, while the drummer swished around his snare drum. Gussy let got of the phone and sat back against the pillows. Wondered who she had hurt in a previous life.
“Okay, that’s great,” Sheila said. “So, if there’s a fire–any fire of any size whatsoever–then you’ll call Gussy, right? Try her place first, and then here.”
SHOULD I NOT CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT? DO WE NO LONGER TRUST THEM? ARE THEY IN CAHOOTS?
Gussy ran her hand over her face and then stared upwards, but there was a mirror above her and she didn’t feel like making eye contact with the idiot that had brought Wally into her life.
“Call the Fire Department first. Then Gussy.”
THESE ARE THINGS I DO NOT NEED TO BE TOLD. I AM AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CAPABLE OF 800 MONDOFLOPS OF–
Sheila hung the receiver back into the phone’s cradle and put the whole shebang back on her nightstand and turned back to Gussy and smiled and said,
And now it was Gussy’s turn to kiss her, she put her hand in Sheila’s hair and clutched and they sank into too many damn pillows, and Gussy threw her leg over Sheila’s lap to straddle her; Sheila put her hand on her tits under her thin white tee-shirt, and Gussy took it off and flung it onto the pile of dirty clothes in the corner and leaned back down to kiss Sheila and her long curly hair was everywhere cascading over both their shoulders, and Sheila’s cock was rushing coursing pulsing in Gussy’s hand, and she slid her into herself and settled down with no thoughts of fire, and no mind to instance, and no ear towards the rain that went THRUMPATUMP against the windows of bedroom all over Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.