Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 5)

Little Aleppo Has Friday On Its Mind

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, lived at 19 Robin Street and her living room window overlooked Cagliostro’s, which was a pizza place, among other things. There were always large gentlemen sitting outside at the tables, and sometimes cars that were too fancy for the neighborhood would pull up. When that happened, everyone on the sidewalk would find something else to look at. Gussy liked her street, and she liked living across from the large gentlemen outside Cagliostro’s. Police stations are always on the most dangerous blocks, but the streets where large gentlemen gather are always the safest in town; when she walked home alone late at night, she would turn off the Main Drag onto Robin and when she smelled pizza she knew that she would make it home safely.

She was safe in bed now, at ten in the morning on a sunny and quick day in Little Aleppo; it was Friday, and everyone was wrapping up their affairs, getting their ducks in a row, putting a bow on things so that nothing was hanging over their heads for the weekend, the glorious sainted promised declarative performative restorative weekend, that was coming up fast. Monday through Thursday, people count the days til the weekend, but on Friday they count the hours. You can hear Saturday night from Friday morning.

Gussy was not alone. Her nose and upper lip were pressed into the back of Big-Dicked Sheila’s neck, and every time Gussy breathed in she could smell Sheila’s sweat and hair dye–Firetruck Red this week–and she spooned against Sheila’s back, both of them on their right sides. Sheila did not have hips, but her ass plumped out, and it rubbed against Gussy’s pubic hair, which was black and thick, and Gussy rubbed back. They were half-asleep and half-fucking. Gussy was bigger than Sheila, but so were most: Sheila was 5’4″ in the tallest heels she could walk in (she usually didn’t wear heels) and slight everywhere except her cock, which Gussy was holding.

There was a ceiling fan, and on the dresser was a teddy bear from Gussy’s childhood named Wilbur.

She kissed the back of Sheila’s neck, still asleep but not; her right arm was under Sheila’s head, and she leaned into it and put her lips on Gussy’s bicep and sucked, and Gussy made a very small noise from her nose and pressed her pubis against Sheila’s ass and stroked the back of her ankle with her foot. The bedroom was in the back of the apartment, and still dark. Gussy had thick curtains, quilted blue with white fluer-de-lis embroidered on; they blocked the light and muffled the sound from the alley. Cats fucking and bums going through the trash, and sometimes fucking.

And the bed. There was nothing bigger than an Ultra King, so Gussy bought the Ultra King. She had not had a real bed since moving out of her parents’ house, just futons and floor-mattresses. Once, a tatami mat, but Gussy woke up with an aching back; she didn’t understand how the Japanese did it. When The Tahitian started to make money, it was the very first thing she bought. The bed was as broad as Kansas, but offered more lumbar support: it would sleep four comfortably, or eight people could fuck on it.

“Gus?” Sheila murmured.

“Mm?”

“What time is it?”

Gussy lifted her head and looked past Sheila to the clock on the nightstand .

“Little after ten.”

Sheila smiled and said, “We were up late.”

Gussy bit her on the shoulder, not hard, and pulled her in tighter and said, “Yeah,” and squeezed her cock, and squeezed it again, and squeezed it again until it pushed back against her hand, plumping in her grip.

“You’re up now,” she said into Sheila’s ear, and then stuck her tongue in it.

“Fuuuuuck,” Sheila said and turned over.

The door to the bookstore with no title opened, and the bell went TINKadink.

“Deacon.”

“Venable.”

Deacon Blue was not tall, and he was not wide; he was dense. Solid. He radiated a size his body didn’t possess, and if you asked people how big he was when he was not present, they would peg him for a larger man. He was in his shirt-sleeves–it was a beautiful morning–and his forearms were tattooed: an old and faded naked woman on the left, a fresher cross on the right. The deacon’s hair was long, graying, receding at the temples, and pulled back into a ponytail. His fu manchu mustache was also graying, but very neat, and the skin where his neck met his chin was creased and bumpy from overshaving.

Mr. Venable was sitting in his customary spot, wearing his customary suit.

“I need a book.”

“I can’t help you. This is an ice cream shop.”

Deacon Blue ignored him and said,

“On Tommy Amici.”

“You didn’t strike me as a fan.”

“Oh, the man’s got a voice like an angel.”

“One specific angel, I’m thinking,” Mr. Venable muttered into his coffee as he took a sip of coffee from a mug that read HARPER OBSERVATORY: WHERE THE STARS SHINE.

“Where am I looking?”

“Middle aisle. Then turn left. Down three rows. Left again. Ladder up to the annex. Go right, but if you hit the Foreign Pornography section, you’ve gone too far. Then you’ll meet a sphinx. It will be small, but please do not underestimate it. Answer the riddle. Take the ladder back down. Turn right. If you see ducks, ignore them. You should be in the Poetry section. That’s wrong. You got lost. Get out of the Poetry section. Then come back here.”

Mr. Venable leaned forward and pulled a gently-used copy of Tommy Boy: My Life With Mr. Amici by Jacob George out from under a pile of books and papers on the table in front of him.

“And I’ll give you this.”

Tommy and Jacob were on the cover, Jacob standing behind the seated Tommy, who was in his photo shoot hairpiece. They looked so happy. When the tell-all was published, Tommy tried to have a hit put out on Jacob.

“It really is the customer service that keeps people coming back.,” the deacon said.

“I aim to please. I miss, but it’s the aiming that’s important.”

Deacon Blue picked up the book, riffled through it, stopped at random and read:

Mister A. had set himself a challenge that awards season. He wanted to fuck all of the Best Actress nominees, and even though one was a lesbian and one was 70, Tommy got it done. Wow,” the deacon said.

“That’s mild,” Mr. Venable replied Deacon Blue flipped forward a few pages.

In addition to my normal supplies, I also made sure I always had some thick foundation makeup and a few pairs of ladies’ sunglasses; sometimes girls would come out of Tommy’s room in the morning with some bruises. Lovely guy,” he said, and leafed through the book some more. “How much of it you think is true?”

“Oh, a jilted employee would never lie, would he?”

Mr. Venable swiveled around in his chair and plucked a hardcover from the shelf behind him. It was The Singer, a classy and well-researched biography of Tommy. It had appendices and footnotes and an overflowing bibliography; it was nowhere near as fun as Jacob’s book. THUMP it dropped on the table. The dust cover was embossed and glossy, and the pages were thick.

“This is the respectable version. Many respectable publications wrote respectable things about it. There were awards, I believe.”

Deacon Blue scratched his ear; he had scars on the lobe from where the piercings had grown over.

“Can’t argue with an award, I guess,” he said, and picked the book up and held it with the other. “What’s the damage?”

“Twenty.”

The deacon pulled a neat fold of bills from his front pocket, snapped off a twenty, handed it over.

“Stay for a cup of coffee?”

“Got some reading to do,” Deacon Blue said, and the bell on the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink.

“How do you take it?”

“Sweet and creamy,” Sheila yelled back.

Gussy padded down the hall and into the kitchen, naked, shielding her eyes against the sunlight slipping in from the living room. The tiles on the floor were yellow and white checkerboard, dingy but clean, and she opened the jar shaped like an elephant where she kept the coffee and scooped it out into the filter, and then water, and then the switch, and the wait, and then there would be coffee. Gussy brought it home from The Tahitian in gallon-sized baggies; she had no idea why anyone would order coffee at the movies, but some people did, and so the theater always had a percolator going.

Her bellybutton was sticky, and she idly picked the flaking, dried cum from the fine hairs below her navel. She was on the pill, but didn’t trust it, and made Sheila pull out.

The Tahitian’s schedule was held to the fridge with a magnet from Graceland, and ticket stubs and pictures. Her mother, dead almost two years, and her brothers. One was in Phoenix doing something she was pretty sure was insurance fraud; she had no idea where the other one was. None of her father. The front page from The Cenotaph the morning after the grand reopening. A black-and-white glamour shot of Cara Thorn.

Gussy got two mugs from the cabinet: one said HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE, and the other was dark blue. Milk and sugar. Milk milk milk and sugar sugar sugar. Coffee. Coffee. She carried them back to the bedroom, where had left the door ajar and flipped it open with her foot. Sheila was half-under the covers and smiling sleepy. Gussy could see her flat, skinny chest–a boy’s chest–and her cock draped on her thigh–a man’s cock–and somehow it still read as feminine: the angle of her shoulders or the jut of her jaw, something Gussy could not quite articulate but was still there and radiating from Sheila: pure Yin, woman through and through, and Gussy did not quite understand it but she went with it. 90% of life in Little Aleppo was going along with things you didn’t quite understand, Gussy thought. She handed the dark blue mug to Sheila, got into bed next to her, close.

The women sipped their coffee and tried not to fall in love with each other.

“So…”

“Oh, God,” Gussy said.

“What?”

“Is this gonna be some kind of ‘Let’s be friends speech?'”

“No, it’s…no.”

Sheila put her coffee on the nightstand and got up on her knees. She leaned over and kissed Gussy.

“I don’t wanna be friends.”

And she kissed her.

“I don’t wanna be friends.”

And she kissed her again, and Gussy did the thing she was trying not to do.

Sheila laid back down. She was nestled into Gussy, face half on her shoulder and half on her tit, and she picked up her coffee and took a sip.

“I was just asking about the meeting. The one at the Victory Diner.”

“You gotta see Reverend Jones eat. It’s amazing.”

“He’s a good man.”

“I like him.”

“We should go to services one week,” Sheila said, and that was the first plan that she had suggested to Gussy, the first suggestion that their relationship projected into the future past coffee and a lazy morning fuck; Gussy liked that, but she had a good poker face and sipped her coffee.

“Mm-hmm,” she said.

“How’d it go?”

“Wha?”

“The meeting.”

“Good. Good.”

Gussy was rubbing the crown of Sheila’s head with her chin, back and forth softly.

“No details?”

The ceiling fan spun above them. It clicked on and off with two little chains, and Gussy had attached pink fuzzy dice to them. They swayed in the breeze.

“Sheila.”

“Gus?”

Gussy put her coffee down and sat up. She knew this tone of voice: it was the same one her teenaged employees used when they had fucked something up.

“Ask me what you want to ask me.”

Sheila put her coffee down, too, and pulled herself up; she sat cross-legged to the side of Gussy and stroked her naked thigh with the fingertips of both hands. She said,

“You’re gonna think this is funny.”

“We’ll see, won’t we?”

In a souvenir ashtray from Monk’s Casino on the nightstand, there was a half-smoked joint from the night before. Sheila leaned over Gussy’s lap slowly to fetch it, and she hesitated there with her ass sticking up in the air; Gussy ran her hand up the back of Sheila’s thigh, and brushed her fingers against her balls and smacked her ass, not hard but firmly, and Sheila made a little noise and smiled as she FFT flicked the yellow lighter and relit the joint and then she settled back on her heels in a posture like a Japanese lady at a tea ceremony with the smoke still in her lung; curlicues of white smoke flared from her nostrils as she leaned over and Gussy opened her mouth and she PHWOO shotgunned the pot smoke into her mouth and then kissed her as hard as she could.

Sheila sat back and decided that the truth was the easiest path to happiness. Sheila had often found in her life that path through avoiding the truth, or ignoring it, but this time the facts seemed to be the most expeditious method.

“Tiresias completely spaced during the meeting and she has no idea what the plan is.”

“Really?”

“What?”

“That’s it?”

“It’s a big deal,” Sheila said, and took another hit off the joint; she brought her lips to Gussy’s and PHWOO the smoke went into her mouth throat lungs, and Sheila’s tongue followed: she took up Gussy’s tit in her hand, and rubbed her thumb over the hardening nipple and when she opened her eyes, she found that Gussy’s eyes were open, too, and so she kissed her some more.

“Okay,” Gussy said. “It’s a big deal.”

“We must defend our island.”

“We shall fight them on the Main Drag, we shall fight them in the Segovian Hills, we shall fight them in the Verdance.”

Sheila kissed her again.

“But, really, her whole part in the plan is to wear something low-cut. Laugh at Tommy’s jokes, that sort of thing. Reverend Jones and Doctor Arrabbiata are gonna do the talking.”

Gussy took the joint from Sheila, ashed it, handed it back.

“Uh-huh. She’s gonna start talking.”

“That’s not the plan.”

“Guarantee you she’s gonna start talking.”

“I don’t think she’s supposed to.”

“We’re not talking about perfect worlds here, baby, we’re talking about Tiresias. I’ve known her a while, and she doesn’t shut the fuck up. She’s, like, loquacious.”

The joint had just hit Sheila.

“Loquacious.”

“Sure, yeah. This is good weed.”

“I’m surprised you don’t recognize it. It’s from Precarious.”

Sheila took a big toke off the joint that was more rightly by now a roach; she held the smoke in and blew it out her nose slowly.

“Oh, yeah.”

Gussy took it from her, hit it, and said,

“He drops off an ounce every few weeks. Rent for that jackass sound system he tricked me into sheltering.”

“Wally’s not that bad.”

“Yeah? Imagine all the chairs in your shop talked back.”

“He means well.”

“Precarious or Wally?”

“Either one. Both,” Sheila said, and slung her leg over Gussy’s lap so she was straddling her, and she took the joint and put it between her lips to free her hands to play with Gussy’s tits. Gussy put her hands on Sheila’s thighs, and then her flat stomach and over her jutting clavicles and around her neck; Sheila bent her head down and took Gussy’s thumb in her mouth and they didn’t talk much for a while thereafter.

The bell atop the First Church of the Iterated Christ is named the Calling Judge, and the whole building shimmies when it strikes the hour WHONGG followed shortly by the bells of St. Martin’s, and St. Clemens’, and St. John’s. Eleven a.m., and the church is as quiet as it ever gets. There are ex-drunks in the basement telling each other the same stories they told last week. Mrs. Fong is at her desk; she picks up the phone and says “Hello?” (Mrs. Fong answers the phone every time the Calling Judge tolls.) Deacon Blue, sitting on the ratty couch in the same office, doesn’t look up from his books. He is taking notes.

The Reverend Arcade Jones is in the nave, second pew on the right near the aisle. He has laid his suit jacket, orange, next to him and his hands are between his knees. The crucifix bearing the Christ is suspended above the bema of the First Church of the Iterated Christ as though by magic–from the pews, you cannot see the supports–and someone has put a Blue Oxen baseball cap on Jesus’ head.

And the preacher prays,

“Lord, please.”

And that is his whole prayer, because the preacher knows the Christ and knows that anything else is a waste of breath and time, and so the preacher says it again, and then once more for good measure. Better to beg God’s mercy than ask His plans, and up above there was a bell still ringing out the hour; it was eleven in the morning in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Getting Schooled In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppo’s second educational facility was a one-room schoolhouse; its first was a half-room schoolhouse that shared space with an opium den. Even in 18–, people could see that wasn’t optimal, so the one-room schoolhouse was built next to the opium den. Much better. The students ranged in age from five-year-olds learning their letters to 28-year-olds working on their dissertations. Sometimes, opium addicts would audit a lesson, but they were usually quiet.

But the neighborhood was growing, spurred first by the wealth being chipped out of the Turnaway Lode, and then by the trade coming in from the newly-built Salt Wharf; the one-room schoolhouse needed to expand. First, the Chinese who ran the opium den next door were murdered and their building converted and connected. Then an addition was built, and teachers were brought in from back East. More than one teacher, though, requires a principal, so one was hired, but a principal needs a secretary and so a secretary was also hired, and at this point you’ve got to have a guidance counselor, and as long as you’re doing that, you might as well go whole hog and get a gym teacher and a lunch lady; before Little Aleppo knew what was happening, it had a full-fledged Board of Education on its hands.

Power is just leverage, and all the different power bases in the neighborhood had different leverages. There were the Town Fathers, who had the law. And the cops, who had force. The large gentlemen had violence, business owners had money. The mob out on the Main Drag had chaos and fire as its leverage, but the Board of Education had Little Aleppo’s children. “Whaddya gonna do? Homeschool ’em?” the Board of Ed would threaten, and their budget would be passed the next day.

There are three schools in the neighborhood now: Lyndon LaRouche Elementary and Paul Bunyan High were built in the 20’s out of brick by skinny men in overalls; they look like schools, cannot be mistaken for anything but, could not be anything else; they are sturdy and sweaty and held together by the institutional knowledge of the maintenance staff. (LaRouche was originally named after President Taft and rechristened in the 80’s after someone double-dared the Town Fathers.) Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School was built in the 70’s out of glass and sheet metal and linoleum. It looks like a building where dentists work, or maybe podiatrists, or both.

Paul Bunyan High’s motto was “Disciplinati hominis est longeque periculosissima hominis.” The school was heavily influenced by the nearby Harper College–most of its teachers came from there–and was given to wild pedagogical experiments. There was a romance with John Dewey’s progressive theories, where the students choose their own topics of study; that didn’t work, as it turned out that the students chose topics such as “titties,” and “going home.” After that, the pendulum swung to regressive schooling, in which the children were beaten all day. This, too, failed to turn out model citizens. There were experiments (one year, gym class was taught in Cantonese) and ideological struggles (algebra was briefly outlawed for being counter-revolutionary), but Thursday was always pizza day in the cafeteria.

First grade til twelfth, and then on to college, all in the neighborhood. Small batch education, Little Aleppo boasted, and a good percentage of the residents were products of the system. The Poet Laureate once wondered out loud if a good deal of the local weirdness was not caused by the weirdness of the local education. People had better things to do than listen to the Poet Laureate.

But they were still schools and couldn’t get away from the basics. Reading, writing, teen pregnancy. And chemistry, which is only taught in high schools because the parents of the students had to sit through it and they’ll be damned if their brat kids didn’t have to, as well. Julio Montez did not understand chemistry. He got that everything was made out of basic components, and that these components were called elements. Sure, okay, fine. But then it turns out there’s math. Coefficients, Julio thought. Bad enough I don’t understand that shit in math class, but I have to be confused here, too? He wished there was some paper he could sign, something official, saying that he’d never engage in chemistry–he’d leave it to the professionals–so he could be excused from this protracted humiliation. Julio hated the stupid experiments, and he hated that potassium’s symbol was K, and he hated the eyewash station that reminded him that not only was he tanking the class, but he was also in danger of being scalded with acid at any moment. He did like the goggles.

“What is she talking about?”

“Ions,” Buzzy Verno answered.

“What are those?”

“I got no idea. Small things.”

They were sitting in the back of the class; Julio gravitated to the back of the class in most instances, but he insisted on it for chemistry. He had known Buzzy since childhood–Little Aleppo was not a big place–but they had not become friends until they bonded over their mutual befuddlement in Mrs. Larkspur’s chemistry class. Confusion brought them together.

“Like a molecule?”

“I think? Maybe it’s part of a molecule,” Buzzy said.

“How many fucking parts does a molecule have?”

“At least three, dude.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, there’s the nucleus. And the, uh, mitochondria. There’s a flagellum somewhere in there. The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.”

“I don’t think that’s chemistry.”

“Oh, yeah? Who’s getting the C minus?”

“You are.”

“And who’s got the D plus?”

“That is I.”

“So, who’s right?’

“I apologize for challenging your great brain.”

Buzzy Verno had taken to weed. Armonk had gotten him high for the first time at his house–Buzzy wasn’t even sure if Armonk had parents–on the scratchy green couch in the basement. There was an Iron Maiden poster held to the paneled walls with three thumbtacks and one piece of tape. (Armonk ran out of thumbtacks.) The pipe was el-shaped and made of brass fittings; the shaft was a few inches of bare screw, and Buzzy was nervous he would drop it when Armonk handed it to him and then lit it for him and when he inhaled…oh, when he inhaled…Buzzy was wearing a Blue Oxen baseball cap; he could feel it tighten and clasp on like a circular spider and the music…oh, the music…he didn’t know what Armonk was playing, something heavier than Buzzy preferred, but now the instruments were separating, individualizing, swanning apart only to coalesce again in harmony. The ting! The ting! of the high-hat, where had that been until now? He had never heard it: was it new or something he’d just realized that existed and if the high-hat had been there all along WHAT ELSE could be lying right under his nose (or his ears, as the case goes) that he hadn’t noticed? This required attention. This required research. Within a week, Buzzy had bought a quarter-pound and was selling eighths so he could smoke for free. Buzzy Verno took to weed.

Julio tried to pay attention, he really did.

“What does covalent mean?”

“It means, like, when you got two things? Both of them are valent.”

“Oh, okay. You explained it.”

“I got this shit on lockdown. I could teach this class.”

“If you’d like to teach this class, Mr. Verno, come right up and do it,” Mrs. Larkspur said without turning around from the blackboard.

“You got it,” Buzzy said cheerfully, pushed his chair back, got up.

She still didn’t turn away from the equation she was writing.

“Sit down, Mr. Verno.”

“You are very fickle today, ma’am,” he said as he sat back down.

Julio admired Buzzy, in a way. He could talk to anyone like an equal. No fear or stutter or hesitation, even if he was high as a kite. Maybe because he’s high as a kite, Julio thought, and then he thought that kites didn’t actually go all that high. Saying should be high as a cloud, or a jet. Hell, birds went higher than kites, and you wouldn’t say you were “high as a bird.” People would think you were high.

Language made no sense, chemistry made no sense, work never made any damned sense. Julio had grown up smack in the middle of the Downside of Little Aleppo, so he was used to oddness, and ghosts, and riots, and the occasional hiccup in reality, but The Tahitian was high-test weird; he felt vaguely guilty for enjoying it so much, but Julio was a Catholic and so he felt guilty when he enjoyed anything.

Manager, though. Julio smiled, and then he looked at the incomprehensible blackboard and stopped smiling, but then he did again. Manager. He thought that would impress Romy Schott, and when he saw her at lunch in three hours and seven CLICK six minutes, he would tell her; he was already picturing her face. He thought he should think up something cool to say. “Ever kissed a manager before?” No, that was terrible. Don’t say that, he told himself. But he could see her face, mouth a little too small and eyes a little too big, and he could see how it would light up when he told her. I’ll tell her I love her in the cafeteria, Julio thought. Maybe by the freezer where they kept the ice cream sandwiches.

Then he wanted an ice cream sandwich, but he looked at the clock and saw that it was still not nine in the morning, which means it was certainly not ice cream sandwich time. Julio felt guilty again, and admired Buzzy again, in a way. Buzzy would eat an ice cream sandwich no matter what some clock told him. Julio looked at Buzzy, who was leaned over in his chair with his forearms on his thighs. He hocked a loogie, a thick and creamy one that did not detach from his mouth, and it drooled down towards his green Chuck Taylor sneakers one foot two foot almost snapping and SHWIP he slurped it back up; it sounded like a Japanese guy with 95 lips eating ramen, and Julio’s admiration for Buzzy cooled a bit.

Julio didn’t do drugs. His father did, if he was still alive. Julio didn’t do drugs.

Three hours and five minutes, and he could already smell her breath against his lips.

“What a show, cats and kittens. Maybe too much dillying, little bit heavy on the dallying? Yeah, sure. Okay. But, you know what the man says: all progress and no digress makes for a straight arrow. Ain’t no straight arrows in Little Aleppo. This neighborhood’s like a quiver left out in the rain.

“Or maybe we just transgress. That will happen every now and again.

“Progress, digress, transgress, regress, congress. Maybe we should all just gress for a little bit. Drop the pretense of prefix. Get down and get gress with it right here on the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–Hey!–on your radio dial.

“Let’s talk about it. Progress. For who? That’s what I’m asking. Who does progress serve? If it ain’t serving us, then we’re serving it. Everybody got someone they answer to. Maybe we’re just along on progress’ ride, that’s what I think, and furthermore I do not even believe we’re sitting shotgun. No! We’re in the backseat, cats and kittens’ we could even be sitting bitch.

Stuff‘s better. Oh, yeah: stuff is better World’s smaller. All this progress made the world a whole lot smaller.

“Made you happier? Smarter, more capable? Has humanity’s progress kept pace with society’s? With the mad ascension of our toys? Or have we deified our gadgets at the neglect of our mortal souls?

“That sweet soul music…

“World gets faster, faster, faster. Do you? Nah. More and more information, coming from everywhere until you’re not sure which way to turn, and lemme ask you: do you get more hours in the day? More years, or do you still get your three score and ten? Where’s your memory upgrade, baby?

“You don’t gotta go along to get along, y’know. Give it all up. Move to the island, the mountain, the farm. You can unplug. Hell, you can rip out the damn socket. Somewhere away from the crowd, that madding crowd, and where there’s nothing in between you and the sunrise. No hassles negotiations compromises politics friction it’s just you–maybe your beloved, maybe your family–and you’re out there. You’re OUT THERE, man, where the Frankie Nickels show does not reach and neither does the law, long as its arms may be, and on a real cloudy day even God can’t keep His eye on you.

“Oh, I’m sure that’ll make you happy.

“Victims of circumstance, cats and kittens, that’s what we are. Softened and decadent, made weak by luxury. Polluted by politesse. We got different kind of problems these days.

“Cast your mind back. I know it’s early in the morning, but I think you got in it you.

“Little Aleppo’s got a pretty stark division between the old days and now. California had missions all up and down her spine, right? You got your Californios, and you got your native folks. We’re talking the 1800’s here. And the thing is: there weren’t all that many Californios. Ten thousand, twenty? Whole state, ten or twenty thousand. They clustered around those missions, and there wasn’t no damn mission in Little Aleppo. Just the Pulaski, and it was a pain-in-the-butt getting over the Hills.

“So it was just the Pulaski. Until the gold.

“And then the whites came. Gold, then white: ain’t that always the way? Ha ha ha.

“Now, forget about Manifest Destiny. Forget about history and don’t think about all the blood. Don’t think about Andrew Jackson and don’t think about the reservations and don’t think about the Verdance. Don’t think about history, just lemme tell you a story.

“How’d the whites come? The first ones here back in the 1850’s? That was something called the California Trail, cats and kittens, and I can think of several folks who are descended from these early arrivals. Not gonna mention any names, now.

“Wagon trail. Wagon ain’t a carriage; wagon ain’t a stagecoach: wagon’s a wagon. It’s not for riding in. Stuff goes in it, your whole life goes in it and walk next to it. Oxen pull the wagon because they can live on scrub. Can’t ride an ox. You’re walking, baby. Wife’s pregnant, someone’s sick? They get to ride in the wagon, but that ain’t no treat! No suspension. Straight axle. You gonna feel every bump.

“Imagine that, cats and kittens. That walking across the continent is the most comfortable option.

“So you set off from Independence, Missouri in April. You gotta leave in April because if you don’t, you won’t be out of the mountains when the snows start. Six months from Back East to Out West. When was the last time you went someplace it took six months to get to?

“Never, that’s when.

“You still casting your mind back with Frankie Nickels? Good. Now, a trail ain’t a road but it ain’t wilderness, neither. First part of the California Trail is what is referred to in the literature as the Oregon Trail. First bit is through Kansas, though it wasn’t Kansas at the time, and up into Nebraska. Then you know what that trail does? Do you know?

“It goes all the way across Nebraska.

“My Lord. You’ve driven I-80. Just grass and nothing and no hills and nothing. About 200 miles in, you’ve stopped at a liquor store. I know it’s wrong to drink and drive, but it’s also wrong for a state to be so monotonous.

“And that’s at 80 miles an hour, cats and kittens. The great-great-great-grandfather of someone you know–maybe you–did it at the blistering pace of three miles an hour.

“All of Nebraska at three miles an hour. Storms out there, yeah. Big. See ’em coming and there ain’t nothing you can do and you got nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide because the Omaha had burned all the elephant grass. Just you out there in the middle of America. No trees, no scrub, nothing, so you cook your food with buffalo chips. Get sick of that real quick, but I don’t know if what’s next is any better.

“I like to go hiking up in Christy Canyon, but man is it a workout. Hits your glutes, and you know that’s good for your social life, but those Segovian Hills of ours don’t have anything on the Rockies. Your whole route was about the Rockies. There’s only so many places to cross, especially if you’re humping oxen and wagons. Gotta go to Wyoming! Gotta find that South Pass! Can’t miss it: ten miles past Fort Laramie and take a left.

“Better not miss it.

“That’s the Continental Divide right there, you just passed it without thinking. You been walking for three months now. Probably buried a couple people in your party. Keep going, keep walking. Try not to drink the bad water, try not to break your leg. Hope the ox doesn’t break his.

“Then you go south. If you were going to Oregon, you’d go north, but you go south into Utah. Watch out for Mormons, and follow the river. The valley is green, and maybe the weather’s nice. Sometimes, the weather’s nice. There’s a line of wagons ahead of you; one behind you, too. Dust everywhere, gets in your clothes, hair, nose. You only got two sets of clothes.

“Five months since you left America for the West. You haven’t even taken the Sabbath off, have you? Heathen. Walking towards California, slowly towards your future. If you make it. Might not. Might not make it across the 40 Mile Desert, which is not named in an exaggerated fashion. Sandy there. Wagon wheels slip and slide. Get out and push, baby.

“You know you got another mountain range, right?

“Sierra Nevadas, cats and kittens: one last bit of hell. Got decisions to make. Carson trail? Maybe you should take the Truckee route? How about the Walker trail? Gotta choose carefully. Getting late in the year, air’s getting a bit of bite to it in the mornings and you are gaining in elevation every step. Rather not get stuck. It happened to a party on the Hastings trail. Spent the winter in the mountains. Bad time.

“When was the last time your commute was a life-and-death decision?

“And then: Balboa. Imagine that. Six months on the trail, wearing out boot after boot, stinking and riddled with scurvy and lice, and now look at this: the Pacific. Even bluer than advertised. Balboa on the shore.

“That’s your great-great-great-great grandfather, maybe. That’s who settled the West. Little scraggly guys with rotting gums and rifles. Just ask the Pulaski if you don’t believe old Frankie Nickels. You know where to find ’em.

“How about some music?

“How about some music?

“How about some music?”

She played an oldie, but it was a goodie, one everyone knew by heart and sang along with without realizing; it crackled from the radios strapped to the food trucks lines up by the Verdance, and it sirened out from cars speeding by on the Main Drag. From an open second floor window on Robin Street, the sound of the guitars mixed with the sound of two women fucking while half-asleep; in the Paul Bunyan High parking lot, Buzzy Verno and his buddy Geech hotboxed his station wagon with the radio tuned to KHAY, which was the local station in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Form And Function In Little Aleppo

There were seven peaks to the Segovian Hills that were the eastern boundary of Little Aleppo and curved around the neighborhood like God’s hand around Job, cutting it off from the rest of C—–a City. The range sloped west, towards the ocean, and the last hill ran down right into the water where it became a natural harbor. The tallest one–fifth from the left if you’re looking at it from the Main Drag–is called Pulaski Peak. The whites who first settled the area named it that after the Indians they had to kill in order to settle the area. To honor them, they said.

They gave all the hills names, or at least they tried. The northernmost, the one all the way to your left, was declared Mt. Lincoln, but only after the newspaper office got torched and three guys got shot. Quickly, the hill next to it was named Mt. Booth; then, no one was happy and everyone settled down. After that, the naming of the hills was removed from the democratic process and they were named (in order) Mounts Faith, Fortitude, Chastity, and Charity by Miss Valentine, who ran the saloon. She thought she was being funny. And, at first, that’s all the whites did with Segovian Hills: name them. They ventured up in to them no more than the Pulaski did, which was mostly not at all. The Hills had teeth.

Over time, they were tamed. Everything that humans rub up against gets tamed, but a mountain is like a lion; tamed is not domesticated. Tamed doesn’t mean “safe;” tamed means “not actively killing you at this moment.” Mountains aren’t pets and they aren’t soldiers: they won’t take to training and they don’t listen to orders. You can carve a swatch off, or chisel a road through, but nature will snap back on you when you let down your guard. The earth will always reclaim herself, sometimes eventually and sometimes all of a sudden. You don’t want to be there for the all of a sudden.

There were Rock Stars in houses on stilts that they had bought decades ago with the advance from the first album, and long-forgotten communes and summer camps and abandoned hunting shacks; there are drug dealers who rent, and drug dealers’ bosses, who own. Nestled into a wooded spur on Mount Faith was the monastery where the Sebastianite monks lived and worshiped, among other things. The artists lived on Mount Chastity and couldn’t stop fucking each other; the bankers lived on Mount Charity, and they couldn’t stop fucking each other, either, but in a different way but also in the same way.

Up on Fortitude was the antenna. One hundred feet of latticed steel and cables and dishes rising from a concrete slab the size of a swimming pool; next to it was a utility shed made of dull green plated metal with GO BLUE OXEN spray-painted on the side in yellow. In the right light, you could see it crackle and spark as it slingshotted KSOS and KHAY down into Little Aleppo, from the studios on the Main Drag and up the hill through a cable thick as fat man’s thigh protected by wire mesh and toughened rubber; the signal hits the shed and steps itself up, down, whatever signals do, and radiates from the antenna down to the valley and up into the ionosphere just so it could bounce back into teevee sets and transistor radios.

And in an hour, the Late Show would come on. Big-Dicked Sheila was poofing up Draculette’s hair in the corner of the dressing room that Tiresias Richardson had named Masada after the mistakenly-purchased six-sided star affixed to the door. Tiresias was at the makeup mirror in a fluffy black robe putting on Draculette’s face, pale with swoopy black highlights and so goddamned much mascara that it took her three washings to get it out at night.

“Where did that robe come from?”

Tiresias slapped her eyeliner down on the table in front of her and swiveled around.

“I was wondering when you were gonna notice,” Tiresias said, standing up and walking over to Sheila with her arm out. “Feel.”

Sheila did.

“So soft.”

“Virgin fleece.”

“Well, now I feel sad for the fleece,” Sheila said.

“AAAAAAhahaha!”

Tiresias went back to her mirror and sat down. Sheila started poofing  the wig up again and asked,

“Where’d it come from?

“Fan bought it for me. Mailed it in.”

“Check the pockets for drugs?”

“First thing. No joy.”

“But so soft.”

“So soft.”

“You washed it, right?”

“Like, five times. Then I microwaved it for ten seconds.”

“You’re not gonna fall for the ol’ smallpox in the blanket trick.”

“I didn’t fall out of a truck last night. I was asked to leave. AAAAAhahaha! Ooh, I should use that tonight.”

Sheila snorted.

“What’s the movie?”

“An Adamo Brothers classic called Don’t Kill Me Again.”

“Zombies?”

“Of course not. It’s about a haunted diner where breakfast eats you,” Tiresias said. She turned her face left and right, examining each angle. Her eyes were not bloodshot. In fact, she thought, her eyeballs were freakishly white. Have they always been this bright and shiny? She looked closer and in the powerful light of the makeup mirror she could see a viscosity on the convex surface, mucosal and slimy, and she wondered if they had always looked this way.

“Sheel, are my eyeballs too white?”

“Yeah, you’re a freak.”

“I’m not kidding.”

“Me, either. People are talking.”

Tiresias leaned in closer to the mirror and pulled down her eyelid with a black nail-polished finger. She said,

“Seriously, I need to discuss my eyeballs.”

Sheila had known Tiresias a while, and so she knew to avoid these kinds of discussions. One time, she had gotten it into her head that her pinkies were too long and that went on for a week. Best to nip it in the bud.

“Can’t believe you’re going to the meeting with Tommy Amici. He’s a fan, huh?”

Tiresias froze. She was a wonderful actress, but a shitty liar. Sheila had known Tiresias a while.

“What?”

“What what?”

Sheila walked over to the makeup mirror, grabbed Tiresias by the shoulders, spun her around.

“What are you not telling me?”

“Y’know how I went to dinner with the Reverend and Gussy and all to plan how the meeting was gonna go?”

“Yeah.”

“Spaced out.”

“Dammit, Tirry.”

“Just absolutely zoned. I think it was my blood sugar because I hadn’t eaten. We sat down and next thing I know Penny is asking me if I got it. And, you know, I’ve done a lot of improv training so I just said ‘Yes.’ It was like muscle memory.”

Sheila smiled at her sarcastically and said,

“You’re something special.”

“I’m lovely and talented. Sheeeeeeeel?’

“Yes?”

“Could you find out what I’m supposed to do from Gussy? But don’t let her know that I don’t know? Because that would be awesome.”

Sheila laughed.

“How do you fuck up listening?”

“Actresses never listen, darling. They wait until it’s their line. AAAAAhahaha!”

Sheila fell back onto the ratty blue couch and shook her head.

“Amazing.”

“It was like an out-of-body experience. Except I didn’t go anywhere.”

“That’s called not paying attention, sweetie. Were you fucked up?”

“No.”

“Tirry.”

“I wasn’t,” Tiresias. “It was five o’clock! I had barely woken up and I didn’t even have that much the night before. Zip, nada. Sober as the Calling Judge.”

“Unbelievable.”

Tiresias batted Draculette’s eyelashes.

“Pleeeeeeease? Just find out what I’m supposed to do.”

“How do you know I’m going to see Gus?”

“AAAAAAhahaha! Draculette sees all, sweetie. I see evvvvvvverything.”

“Maybe you should try hearing something.”

Tiresias started piling her lazy brown curls on top of her head, bobby-pinning them down into coils; her hair was thick and tried to wriggle out of her grasp.

“You’re cruel and capricious.”

“If I do this, will you promise to try harder?”

“Any effort at all would be more than I’ve put forth so far. AAAAAhahaha!”

“Tirry!”

“Okay! Okay, okay.”

“Just be, like, in the moment.”

Tiresias crossed her heart and said,

“Cross my heart.”

Sheila smirked.

“Gives me an excuse to see her.”

“There’s no excuse for this, Julio.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was pissed. The evening’s feature at The Tahitian was a documentary about women blacklisted from ballet companies called Barred From The Barre; it was terrible. The denizens of the balcony, bored, broke into the projectionist’s booth and thus began Little Aleppo’s XXX-Rated Shadow Puppet Theatre.

“No, yeah, you’re right. But I was working the snack bar.”

“Well, I can’t blame Fanow, can I?”

Fanow was the projectionist at The Tahitian, and he had gone home after being taken hostage.

“Well,” Julio thought out loud, “just because you can’t blame him doesn’t mean you should blame me.”

Gussy was like any movie theater owner: she employed a lot of kids. She liked watching them grow up. Come into themselves. She was proud of them when they took their first tottering steps towards adulthood, and she was proud of Julio Montez for standing up for himself logically and respectfully. On the other hand,

“Don’t talk back to me.”

“Okay, sorry.”

They were in her office off the lobby with its Tiki theme and gaudy red carpet and cardboard standees of dead movie stars. Gussy was wearing a new dress. It was green, which was a color she did not often wear, and she was feeling good about her choice to wear green; the meeting at the Victory Diner went well, but long, and when she returned to The Tahitian there were shadow dicks and titties humping on her screen. It had just about ruined her day.

“And do you know why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because I am grooming you, Julio.”

He looked down at his sneakers.

“Gussy, I think you’re awesome, but I have a girlfriend.”

“Not that kind of grooming, jackass.”

“Oh, okay.”

“To manage the theater.”

“Oh, okay.”

And he smiled. Julio Montez loved movies. The crap and the art, documentaries and cartoons, product and passion. He liked that whirring behind him, the projector’s warning that a new reality was getting thrown up in front of you larger than life. Julio liked larger than life. Life was Little Aleppo, school, the apartment he shared with his mother and sisters. Life was boring most of the time, he was finding, and confusing sometimes and terrifying occasionally. Movies made sense when life didn’t. They had a beginning, middle, and an end, Julio thought, even when the story in them refused to; didn’t just wander around for ages, people bumping into each other again and again. Movies had set pieces. Julio had never been in a set piece; it sounded fun.

He loved The Tahitian, too. It was, to him, unfathomably old. It had simply always been there on the Main Drag, just like the Great Wall was in China or the Grand Canyon was in Arizona. Whether made by God or our ancestors, The Tahitian had clearly been given to us, Julio figured. We inhabit it like the Hopi inhabited the caves of the Anasazi, we live in the houses of our fathers, we walk the streets first paced out by the settlers. Julio almost certainly would not have been able to articulate these thoughts, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them.

“Is that something you want to do?” Gussy asked.

“Yeah. Okay. Yeah, that would be…yeah.”

“Rousing.”

Julio felt like he was failing a test he didn’t know he was taking.

“I would appreciate the chance to show my qualities, and skills, to you and aid with the management of this, the, this, Tahitian to facilitate–”

“Stop talking.”

“Okay.”

“Sit down.”

Julio moved a box full of posters from the couch to the floor, then took the box’s place. Gussy rolled her office chair towards him.

“What do you think a manager does?”

“Supervises…the…people…who–”

“Stop talking.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Gussy liked teenagers, she really did. They were blatant. Obvious. You could read them a mile off; they hadn’t learned to lie yet, at least not well, and they lived in the superlative: everything was the best or worst thing that had ever happened. But, Gussy always reminded herself, they were right. First time’s always the best or worst. First love, first rip-off. First time leaves a scar. Teenagers skitter between traumas, she thought.

But, God, were they clueless.

“Who is in charge of The Tahitian?”

“You,” Julio answered.

“Right. What about when I’m not here?”

“Last couple times, it’s been me.”

“Right. And what did you do?”

“Followed the checklists.”

The Tahitian ran on checklists. Gussy printed them out each morning: snack bar, ticket booth, projectionist’s booth, auditorium/sound, and one for herself. Then she clamped them to waxy brown clipboards and forced everyone to use them. It just made sense! This was the bare minimum, she thought. If nothing went wrong–and it would–there was a sequence of events that needed to take place for the theater to operate. Write it down! Memory was for elephants, Mr. Venable had told Gussy a long time ago; humans write things down. Which worked. As long as nothing went wrong.

“Great. Good for you, checklists are a big yes,” she said.

“You love them.”

“I do. But lemme ask you: what if something happens that’s not on the checklist?”

“Like the projectionist’s booth being stormed?”

“Like the projectionist’s booth being stormed. Yeah.”

“I didn’t know what to do.”

“Right, yeah. Got that. But what I’m asking is: what should you have done?”

Julio leaned back into the couch and bit his lip. He tried to look like he was thinking, and then he actually did start thinking but the conclusion he came up with was frightening. It showed on his face.

“C’mon, Julio.”

“Cut the power?”

Gussy smiled, leaned over, tapped his knee.

“There ya go! Gotta cut the power. Couple minutes in the dark and they scurry back to their seats without harming any of the hostages.”

“Okay, yeah. I was worried about the hostages.”

“Don’t. The balcony’s bluffing.”

“Sure, okay.”

“They’re all talk. Never, ever negotiate with the balcony. Give ’em an inch, and they’ll take the mezzanine.” Gussy said, turning back to her desk and opening the bottom drawer. She took out something that looked suspiciously like a smoke grenade.

“Julio, this is a smoke grenade.”

His eyes slammed open and his wide mouth made an O; he reached out for it without realizing that he was. Gussy snatched it back and covered the grenade with both hands.

“You can’t play with it.”

“I just wanna see it.”

“You see with your eyes.”

“I wanna see it with my hands.”

WHAP she slapped his wrist; Julio sat back and pouted.

“Should I be sorry I showed this to you? This is not a toy, Julio. It is the last resort in a full-scale balcony revolt.”

Going on a century, the balcony at The Tahitian had been trouble. It was planned that way by its builder, Gussy’s great-grandmother and namesake Augusta Incandescente. She knew the neighborhood, and decided that concentrating the weirdos was better than spreading them out among the decent people. Let some of those balcony crazies in the orchestra with women and children, and they’ll be sneaking under the seats to lick ankles. Separate the strange, she figured, and keep an eye on them.

There was generally an unspoken détente. The normal rules of a movie theater–no smoking, no alcohol, no battle rapping–were not enforced, but only so long as the balcony stayed in the balcony and didn’t disrupt the film. Generally. Occasionally, the balcony would get bored and start bungee jumping; the management would be forced to step in. Rarely, a full-scale balcony revolt breaks out.

“And when that happens: you pull the pin, chuck it in, and lock the doors,” Gussy said.

“But everyone is trapped in there if you lock the doors.”

“There are rope ladders.”

“Really?”

“Sure, why not? Julio, look at me.”

Gussy scooched up in her seat and leaned forward and put her hand on Julio’s knee. She smiled. She pinched his leg as hard as she could. She smiled again.

“Last,” she said, and pinched his leg again.

“Resort.”

“Ow.”

“Ow is right, mister. Ow. You think about that. Big responsibility here, Julio. Can you handle it?”

He was a little scared now and said nothing, so she pinched again.

“Yeah! I can.”

Gussy sat back and put the grenade in the drawer, shut it.

“Gussy?”

“Yeah?”

“Do I get a raise?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Give me the motion and spot me the murder. My family is all-in-one but the gods have been singing poorly, and my spotless kitchen floor is spotless nevermore. It was the thinkers, Peter, it was the thinkers. They’re the ones who got us into this mess. With fabrications, fabulations, and dreams. And America. Peter, I saw America one time but only once and I think it was but I can’t be sure. It was in the distance, she was in the distance. Farther away than eyeballs. Much farther. But still there, half in the sky and half bloodied dead. The river or the thinkers, Peter? Who wins? You say the river, the thinkers say a dam. They will think the rivers dry. As sure as the Christ, they will think the rivers dry,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said.

Peter thought that over for a moment.

“Uh-huh,” he said.

The two were at the Jeremiad, which is an oasis in the low desert three days ride from the Pulaski village where they both lived. It is the only place in the world where the Jeremiad cactus grows, which is the size and shape of an overstuffed ottoman. On that cactus is the only place the Jeremiad flower grows.

“Fangs and fingers. The stories have fangs and fingers: they stick in, they hold on; they extract, they insert. They told us to go west. Follow the sun. America ends where the sun sets. This was told to us. It was revealed. It was revealed to us in the fullness of fact. It was not revealed to others. And, thus, they have waned in their influence. The civilizing of the continent continues apace, faster than propriety would recommend, and sped along by steam. Sped along by the thinkers, zoom: New York to San Francisco and back in one week. One day. What do you think of that? One day, the whole of the continent zip zip zop slashes by you and then you are here. Or you are there. It’s coming, Peter. Who is the future born for?”

Peter was naked and lying tangent to the spring pool in the shade of a palm tree. Busybody was also nude and lying down. Their heads were together. and they formed a straight line.

“Dunno,” Peter said.

The Jeremiad flower is button-shaped, and dark green; if you eat a handful of them, you will begin to make sense of whatever Busybody’s ranting about.

“The thinkers. Murder in motion, Peter, that is the future they will build for our children. Faster and more deadly, ’til faith and love lie insensate on a road made from pounded shit. And there will be no Christ, and the last shall not be made first, no; the first shall make themselves even firster. All the world Gehenna. A Golgothic symphony in march time and there will be fire, Peter, there will be the Lord’s fire tho He not spark it, and it shall be encapsulated and its energies harnessed, and it shall be exposed to foreigners misbehaving. A flaming titan, Joshua with his sword, striking randomly and wildly and loosely with no regard for the Christ there shall be none of Him not needed when there is fire. The Word becomes the sword and it does not shed its blood for us, but draws it for us. And what is valuable will be set aside for what is viable.”

“Sure,” Peter said.

The sun was in the sky and the two men were in the Low Desert.

There are three types of circadian rhythms, and evolution bends anatomy to this fact. Diurnal animals are awake during the day; they have excellent color vision. Crepuscular hunters are active at dawn and dusk; these are invariably predators. Nocturnal creatures rely on hearing, or smell, or possess massive eyes to gather all the available light. Humans are diurnal by nature.

But some people stay up all night.

The insane and the lonely, and all the sots. Watchmen and bartenders and drug dealers and dancers. Dying men stay up all night, reliving their lives and wondering who they pissed off. Short-order cooks and the waitresses that hated them; fortune tellers on the lam; freelance paramedics. The cops hiding out from the graveyard shift. The whores on Eighth Avenue. Astronomers and insomniacs.

And Horror Hosts. Tiresias Richardson was not a night person before she became Draculette. She liked brunch, peaky sunlight streaming through windows, a fresh day to conquer or ignore. Sometimes, she would get up extra early and jog. Now, though, she had been getting up around dusk and there was tin foil double-taped to the window in her bedroom, and when it rained or she slept late she did not see the sun at all for days in a row. Which, Tiresias thought, was wrong. Somehow. A sin? She could not put her black nail-polished finger on it, but it seemed loosely to be a sin. She had not been raised in any particular religion–all her theological knowledge came from the time she played Mary Magdalene in the Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!) production of Jesus Christ, Superstar–but she still felt somehow guilty about the hours she kept. It was an affront to someone. Maybe God. Maybe farmers. When she would slump into her bed after dawn, going from her awakening living room into her bedroom dark as pitch, she would always think about the farmers. They’d been up for hours already. Milking or plowing or some shit, farmer shit, what did she know about farms? But she had been raised, unknowingly, to think that agricultural labor was the natural state of man and so she felt guilt about the city surrounding her and her schedule and her life.

Still, though: better than a real job.

Tiresias could not quite walk in the Draculette dress, and she could not walk at all in the Draculette shoes but she carried them as Sheila pushed her down the hall of the KSOS building in a semi-stolen wheelchair that had PROPERTY OF ST. AGATHA’S stenciled on the back of the seat. She hated sitting in the thing, and she hated sitting in the dress: it was so tight that she could stand or she could recline, and that was about it. Draculette was a straight line, tangent to the camera and bulgy in all the right places, and other positions were uncomfortable and unflattering; when she sat down, her stomach flopped out in rolls that she couldn’t help poking at hatefully.

“It’s the wine, sweetie.”

“It’s a mess is what it is. Look at this,” Tiresias said while grabbing a chunk of her stomach.

“Wine weight,” Sheila said.

“I must learn how sit-ups are done.”

“Or switch to vodka.”

“I like your idea better. AAAAAHahaha,” and then they were at the studio, where Bruiser the cameraman was standing where the union told him he must stand, and it was time for the Late Show and Tiresias was Draculette, talking to Count Fang and the Prince of Flies and shaking her tits to punctuate her jokes–she had it all covered, and everything made sense when the camera was pointing at her–Sheila raised a hand and Tirry raised an eyebrow and out the door and down the hall and the stairs and the door and it was midnight on the Main Drag.

Sheila stopped outside the doors, rummaged in her purse, lit a cigarette and PHWOO blew out the smoke and coughed just a little. She walked south, towards the Downside of the neighborhood, and when she passed her hair salon she rattled the doors to make sure they were locked. There was a half-moon that was yellow like a smoker’s teeth, and she smiled. On her right was the lake that the Pulaski fished in, and lived around, long since filled in and covered over and built up and forgotten about, and on her left was the Wayside Inn that had burned down a century before, and she felt her cock thicken under her skirt, which was short and black and stretchy, not hard but ready to be hard; she flicked her cigarette into the street and turned west onto Robin Street.

She breathed in through her nose and there were riots and uprisings, and there was hours-ago pizza from Cagliostoro’s. Maybe she could eat.

When she got to 19 Robin Street, she walked up the stairs and pressed the button for apartment #2.

A second went by.

“Hello?” the voice from the speaker said.

“It’s me,” Sheila said, and another second went by and then the voice said,

“Hey,” and the door buzzed open.

Sheila walked up a flight of stairs, and when she went to knock on the door, it opened. The teevee was on. The Late Show starring Draculette, and there was a smell of weed because Gussy had a joint in her hand and said,

“I was just thinking about you.”

And Sheila took the joint from her, hit it, and PHWOO blew the smoke up towards the top of the doorway, and she cocked her head to the right and smiled, Gussy was still wearing her new green dress, but she was barefoot and took a step forward. Sheila offered her back the joint and when Gussy reached for it, she snatched her wrist and pulled her towards herself and kissed her, and she ended the kiss with her chin; Gussy backed away, just a few inches, and the joint was smoldering in her hand and her pussy was wet now and she pulled her arm away from Sheila and handed her back the joint, and then she reached down to her waist and gathered up the material of her new green dress and one two three over her head and she was standing there in just white cotton underwear with no bra; her tits were bigger than Sheila’s hands, but she gathered them up anyway, and inhaled deep through her nose as her cock fought the stretchy black fabric of her dress, aided by Gussy’s hand, and they tumbled back into the apartment; Gussy stopped to put on a Tommy Amici record, and she and Sheila went to her bedroom and they could not stop staring in each other’s eyes as they fucked; they would stop to kiss, and Sheila would brush Gussy’s thick, black hair from her eyes. They were both sweating. Honest sweat, righteous sweat, fuck sweat pooling in the corners of their eyes; they licked the sweat off one another and sucked on each other’s earlobes as Sheila thrusted and Gussy felt full up her toes pointed and Sheila played with her clit; Gussy shot her head back and knocked Sheila in the nose with her chin and they both laughed, and Sheila bit Gussy’s bottom lip not hard and very soon all the sheets that were formerly on the bed were on the floor and everyone’s asshole was in play.

The light was gathering outside, and the swans that lived by Bell Lake had already begun their day. The Cenotaph slapped on porches. Sheila and Gussy did not notice; they were asleep, and so was most of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Form And Function In Little Aleppo

There were seven peaks to the Segovian Hills that were the eastern boundary of Little Aleppo and curved around the neighborhood like God’s hand around Job, cutting it off from the rest of C—–a City. The range sloped west, towards the ocean, and the last hill ran down right into the water where it became a natural harbor. The tallest one–fifth from the left if you’re looking at it from the Main Drag–is called Pulaski Peak. The whites who first settled the area named it that after the Indians they had to kill in order to settle the area. To honor them, they said.

They gave all the hills names, or at least they tried. The northernmost, the one all the way to your left, was declared Mt. Lincoln, but only after the newspaper office got torched and three guys got shot. Quickly, the hill next to it was named Mt. Booth; then, no one was happy and everyone settled down. After that, the naming of the hills was removed from the democratic process and they were named (in order) Mounts Faith, Fortitude, Chastity, and Charity by Miss Valentine, who ran the saloon. She thought she was being funny. And, at first, that’s all the whites did with Segovian Hills: name them. They ventured up in to them no more than the Pulaski did, which was mostly not at all. The Hills had teeth.

Over time, they were tamed. Everything that humans rub up against gets tamed, but a mountain is like a lion; tamed is not domesticated. Tamed doesn’t mean “safe;” tamed means “not actively killing you at this moment.” Mountains aren’t pets and they aren’t soldiers: they won’t take to training and they don’t listen to orders. You can carve a swatch off, or chisel a road through, but nature will snap back on you when you let down your guard. The earth will always reclaim herself, sometimes eventually and sometimes all of a sudden. You don’t want to be there for the all of a sudden.

There were Rock Stars in houses on stilts that they had bought decades ago with the advance from the first album, and long-forgotten communes and summer camps and abandoned hunting shacks; there are drug dealers who rent, and drug dealers’ bosses, who own. Nestled into a wooded spur on Mount Faith was the monastery where the Sebastianite monks lived and worshiped, among other things. The artists lived on Mount Chastity and couldn’t stop fucking each other; the bankers lived on Mount Charity, and they couldn’t stop fucking each other, either, but in a different way but also in the same way.

Up on Fortitude was the antenna. One hundred feet of latticed steel and cables and dishes rising from a concrete slab the size of a swimming pool; next to it was a utility shed made of dull green plated metal with GO BLUE OXEN spray-painted on the side in yellow. In the right light, you could see it crackle and spark as it slingshotted KSOS and KHAY down into Little Aleppo, from the studios on the Main Drag and up the hill through a cable thick as fat man’s thigh protected by wire mesh and toughened rubber; the signal hits the shed and steps itself up, down, whatever signals do, and radiates from the antenna down to the valley and up into the ionosphere just so it could bounce back into teevee sets and transistor radios.

And in an hour, the Late Show would come on. Big-Dicked Sheila was poofing up Draculette’s hair in the corner of the dressing room that Tiresias Richardson had named Masada after the mistakenly-purchased six-sided star affixed to the door. Tiresias was at the makeup mirror in a fluffy black robe putting on Draculette’s face, pale with swoopy black highlights and so goddamned much mascara that it took her three washings to get it out at night.

“Where did that robe come from?”

Tiresias slapped her eyeliner down on the table in front of her and swiveled around.

“I was wondering when you were gonna notice,” Tiresias said, standing up and walking over to Sheila with her arm out. “Feel.”

Sheila did.

“So soft.”

“Virgin fleece.”

“Well, now I feel sad for the fleece,” Sheila said.

“AAAAAAhahaha!”

Tiresias went back to her mirror and sat down. Sheila started poofing  the wig up again and asked,

“Where’d it come from?

“Fan bought it for me. Mailed it in.”

“Check the pockets for drugs?”

“First thing. No joy.”

“But so soft.”

“So soft.”

“You washed it, right?”

“Like, five times. Then I microwaved it for ten seconds.”

“You’re not gonna fall for the ol’ smallpox in the blanket trick.”

“I didn’t fall out of a truck last night. I was asked to leave. AAAAAhahaha! Ooh, I should use that tonight.”

Sheila snorted.

“What’s the movie?”

“An Adamo Brothers classic called Don’t Kill Me Again.”

“Zombies?”

“Of course not. It’s about a haunted diner where breakfast eats you,” Tiresias said. She turned her face left and right, examining each angle. Her eyes were not bloodshot. In fact, she thought, her eyeballs were freakishly white. Have they always been this bright and shiny? She looked closer and in the powerful light of the makeup mirror she could see a viscosity on the convex surface, mucosal and slimy, and she wondered if they had always looked this way.

“Sheel, are my eyeballs too white?”

“Yeah, you’re a freak.”

“I’m not kidding.”

“Me, either. People are talking.”

Tiresias leaned in closer to the mirror and pulled down her eyelid with a black nail-polished finger. She said,

“Seriously, I need to discuss my eyeballs.”

Sheila had known Tiresias a while, and so she knew to avoid these kinds of discussions. One time, she had gotten it into her head that her pinkies were too long and that went on for a week. Best to nip it in the bud.

“Can’t believe you’re going to the meeting with Tommy Amici. He’s a fan, huh?”

Tiresias froze. She was a wonderful actress, but a shitty liar. Sheila had known Tiresias a while.

“What?”

“What what?”

Sheila walked over to the makeup mirror, grabbed Tiresias by the shoulders, spun her around.

“What are you not telling me?”

“Y’know how I went to dinner with the Reverend and Gussy and all to plan how the meeting was gonna go?”

“Yeah.”

“Spaced out.”

“Dammit, Tirry.”

“Just absolutely zoned. I think it was my blood sugar because I hadn’t eaten. We sat down and next thing I know Penny is asking me if I got it. And, you know, I’ve done a lot of improv training so I just said ‘Yes.’ It was like muscle memory.”

Sheila smiled at her sarcastically and said,

“You’re something special.”

“I’m lovely and talented. Sheeeeeeeel?’

“Yes?”

“Could you find out what I’m supposed to do from Gussy? But don’t let her know that I don’t know? Because that would be awesome.”

Sheila laughed.

“How do you fuck up listening?”

“Actresses never listen, darling. They wait until it’s their line. AAAAAhahaha!”

Sheila fell back onto the ratty blue couch and shook her head.

“Amazing.”

“It was like an out-of-body experience. Except I didn’t go anywhere.”

“That’s called not paying attention, sweetie. Were you fucked up?”

“No.”

“Tirry.”

“I wasn’t,” Tiresias. “It was five o’clock! I had barely woken up and I didn’t even have that much the night before. Zip, nada. Sober as the Calling Judge.”

“Unbelievable.”

Tiresias batted Draculette’s eyelashes.

“Pleeeeeeease? Just find out what I’m supposed to do.”

“How do you know I’m going to see Gus?”

“AAAAAAhahaha! Draculette sees all, sweetie. I see evvvvvvverything.”

“Maybe you should try hearing something.”

Tiresias started piling her lazy brown curls on top of her head, bobby-pinning them down into coils; her hair was thick and tried to wriggle out of her grasp.

“You’re cruel and capricious.”

“If I do this, will you promise to try harder?”

“Any effort at all would be more than I’ve put forth so far. AAAAAhahaha!”

“Tirry!”

“Okay! Okay, okay.”

“Just be, like, in the moment.”

Tiresias crossed her heart and said,

“Cross my heart.”

Sheila smirked.

“Gives me an excuse to see her.”

“There’s no excuse for this, Julio.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was pissed. The evening’s feature at The Tahitian was a documentary about women blacklisted from ballet companies called Barred From The Barre; it was terrible. The denizens of the balcony, bored, broke into the projectionist’s booth and thus began Little Aleppo’s XXX-Rated Shadow Puppet Theatre.

“No, yeah, you’re right. But I was working the snack bar.”

“Well, I can’t blame Fanow, can I?”

Fanow was the projectionist at The Tahitian, and he had gone home after being taken hostage.

“Well,” Julio thought out loud, “just because you can’t blame him doesn’t mean you should blame me.”

Gussy was like any movie theater owner: she employed a lot of kids. She liked watching them grow up. Come into themselves. She was proud of them when they took their first tottering steps towards adulthood, and she was proud of Julio Montez for standing up for himself logically and respectfully. On the other hand,

“Don’t talk back to me.”

“Okay, sorry.”

They were in her office off the lobby with its Tiki theme and gaudy red carpet and cardboard standees of dead movie stars. Gussy was wearing a new dress. It was green, which was a color she did not often wear, and she was feeling good about her choice to wear green; the meeting at the Victory Diner went well, but long, and when she returned to The Tahitian there were shadow dicks and titties humping on her screen. It had just about ruined her day.

“And do you know why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because I am grooming you, Julio.”

He looked down at his sneakers.

“Gussy, I think you’re awesome, but I have a girlfriend.”

“Not that kind of grooming, jackass.”

“Oh, okay.”

“To manage the theater.”

“Oh, okay.”

And he smiled. Julio Montez loved movies. The crap and the art, documentaries and cartoons, product and passion. He liked that whirring behind him, the projector’s warning that a new reality was getting thrown up in front of you larger than life. Julio liked larger than life. Life was Little Aleppo, school, the apartment he shared with his mother and sisters. Life was boring most of the time, he was finding, and confusing sometimes and terrifying occasionally. Movies made sense when life didn’t. They had a beginning, middle, and an end, Julio thought, even when the story in them refused to; didn’t just wander around for ages, people bumping into each other again and again. Movies had set pieces. Julio had never been in a set piece; it sounded fun.

He loved The Tahitian, too. It was, to him, unfathomably old. It had simply always been there on the Main Drag, just like the Great Wall was in China or the Grand Canyon was in Arizona. Whether made by God or our ancestors, The Tahitian had clearly been given to us, Julio figured. We inhabit it like the Hopi inhabited the caves of the Anasazi, we live in the houses of our fathers, we walk the streets first paced out by the settlers. Julio almost certainly would not have been able to articulate these thoughts, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them.

“Is that something you want to do?” Gussy asked.

“Yeah. Okay. Yeah, that would be…yeah.”

“Rousing.”

Julio felt like he was failing a test he didn’t know he was taking.

“I would appreciate the chance to show my qualities, and skills, to you and aid with the management of this, the, this, Tahitian to facilitate–”

“Stop talking.”

“Okay.”

“Sit down.”

Julio moved a box full of posters from the couch to the floor, then took the box’s place. Gussy rolled her office chair towards him.

“What do you think a manager does?”

“Supervises…the…people…who–”

“Stop talking.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Gussy liked teenagers, she really did. They were blatant. Obvious. You could read them a mile off; they hadn’t learned to lie yet, at least not well, and they lived in the superlative: everything was the best or worst thing that had ever happened. But, Gussy always reminded herself, they were right. First time’s always the best or worst. First love, first rip-off. First time leaves a scar. Teenagers skitter between traumas, she thought.

But, God, were they clueless.

“Who is in charge of The Tahitian?”

“You,” Julio answered.

“Right. What about when I’m not here?”

“Last couple times, it’s been me.”

“Right. And what did you do?”

“Followed the checklists.”

The Tahitian ran on checklists. Gussy printed them out each morning: snack bar, ticket booth, projectionist’s booth, auditorium/sound, and one for herself. Then she clamped them to waxy brown clipboards and forced everyone to use them. It just made sense! This was the bare minimum, she thought. If nothing went wrong–and it would–there was a sequence of events that needed to take place for the theater to operate. Write it down! Memory was for elephants, Mr. Venable had told Gussy a long time ago; humans write things down. Which worked. As long as nothing went wrong.

“Great. Good for you, checklists are a big yes,” she said.

“You love them.”

“I do. But lemme ask you: what if something happens that’s not on the checklist?”

“Like the projectionist’s booth being stormed?”

“Like the projectionist’s booth being stormed. Yeah.”

“I didn’t know what to do.”

“Right, yeah. Got that. But what I’m asking is: what should you have done?”

Julio leaned back into the couch and bit his lip. He tried to look like he was thinking, and then he actually did start thinking but the conclusion he came up with was frightening. It showed on his face.

“C’mon, Julio.”

“Cut the power?”

Gussy smiled, leaned over, tapped his knee.

“There ya go! Gotta cut the power. Couple minutes in the dark and they scurry back to their seats without harming any of the hostages.”

“Okay, yeah. I was worried about the hostages.”

“Don’t. The balcony’s bluffing.”

“Sure, okay.”

“They’re all talk. Never, ever negotiate with the balcony. Give ’em an inch, and they’ll take the mezzanine.” Gussy said, turning back to her desk and opening the bottom drawer. She took out something that looked suspiciously like a smoke grenade.

“Julio, this is a smoke grenade.”

His eyes slammed open and his wide mouth made an O; he reached out for it without realizing that he was. Gussy snatched it back and covered the grenade with both hands.

“You can’t play with it.”

“I just wanna see it.”

“You see with your eyes.”

“I wanna see it with my hands.”

WHAP she slapped his wrist; Julio sat back and pouted.

“Should I be sorry I showed this to you? This is not a toy, Julio. It is the last resort in a full-scale balcony revolt.”

Going on a century, the balcony at The Tahitian had been trouble. It was planned that way by its builder, Gussy’s great-grandmother and namesake Augusta Incandescente. She knew the neighborhood, and decided that concentrating the weirdos was better than spreading them out among the decent people. Let some of those balcony crazies in the orchestra with women and children, and they’ll be sneaking under the seats to lick ankles. Separate the strange, she figured, and keep an eye on them.

There was generally an unspoken détente. The normal rules of a movie theater–no smoking, no alcohol, no battle rapping–were not enforced, but only so long as the balcony stayed in the balcony and didn’t disrupt the film. Generally. Occasionally, the balcony would get bored and start bungee jumping; the management would be forced to step in. Rarely, a full-scale balcony revolt breaks out.

“And when that happens: you pull the pin, chuck it in, and lock the doors,” Gussy said.

“But everyone is trapped in there if you lock the doors.”

“There are rope ladders.”

“Really?”

“Sure, why not? Julio, look at me.”

Gussy scooched up in her seat and leaned forward and put her hand on Julio’s knee. She smiled. She pinched his leg as hard as she could. She smiled again.

“Last,” she said, and pinched his leg again.

“Resort.”

“Ow.”

“Ow is right, mister. Ow. You think about that. Big responsibility here, Julio. Can you handle it?”

He was a little scared now and said nothing, so she pinched again.

“Yeah! I can.”

Gussy sat back and put the grenade in the drawer, shut it.

“Gussy?”

“Yeah?”

“Do I get a raise?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Give me the motion and spot me the murder. My family is all-in-one but the gods have been singing poorly, and my spotless kitchen floor is spotless nevermore. It was the thinkers, Peter, it was the thinkers. They’re the ones who got us into this mess. With fabrications, fabulations, and dreams. And America. Peter, I saw America one time but only once and I think it was but I can’t be sure. It was in the distance, she was in the distance. Farther away than eyeballs. Much farther. But still there, half in the sky and half bloodied dead. The river or the thinkers, Peter? Who wins? You say the river, the thinkers say a dam. They will think the rivers dry. As sure as the Christ, they will think the rivers dry,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said.

Peter thought that over for a moment.

“Uh-huh,” he said.

The two were at the Jeremiad, which is an oasis in the low desert three days ride from the Pulaski village where they both lived. It is the only place in the world where the Jeremiad cactus grows, which is the size and shape of an overstuffed ottoman. On that cactus is the only place the Jeremiad flower grows.

“Fangs and fingers. The stories have fangs and fingers: they stick in, they hold on; they extract, they insert. They told us to go west. Follow the sun. America ends where the sun sets. This was told to us. It was revealed. It was revealed to us in the fullness of fact. It was not revealed to others. And, thus, they have waned in their influence. The civilizing of the continent continues apace, faster than propriety would recommend, and sped along by steam. Sped along by the thinkers, zoom: New York to San Francisco and back in one week. One day. What do you think of that? One day, the whole of the continent zip zip zop slashes by you and then you are here. Or you are there. It’s coming, Peter. Who is the future born for?”

Peter was naked and lying tangent to the spring pool in the shade of a palm tree. Busybody was also nude and lying down. Their heads were together. and they formed a straight line.

“Dunno,” Peter said.

The Jeremiad flower is button-shaped, and dark green; if you eat a handful of them, you will begin to make sense of whatever Busybody’s ranting about.

“The thinkers. Murder in motion, Peter, that is the future they will build for our children. Faster and more deadly, ’til faith and love lie insensate on a road made from pounded shit. And there will be no Christ, and the last shall not be made first, no; the first shall make themselves even firster. All the world Gehenna. A Golgothic symphony in march time and there will be fire, Peter, there will be the Lord’s fire tho He not spark it, and it shall be encapsulated and its energies harnessed, and it shall be exposed to foreigners misbehaving. A flaming titan, Joshua with his sword, striking randomly and wildly and loosely with no regard for the Christ there shall be none of Him not needed when there is fire. The Word becomes the sword and it does not shed its blood for us, but draws it for us. And what is valuable will be set aside for what is viable.”

“Sure,” Peter said.

The sun was in the sky and the two men were in the Low Desert.

There are three types of circadian rhythms, and evolution bends anatomy to this fact. Diurnal animals are awake during the day; they have excellent color vision. Crepuscular hunters are active at dawn and dusk; these are invariably predators. Nocturnal creatures rely on hearing, or smell, or possess massive eyes to gather all the available light. Humans are diurnal by nature.

But some people stay up all night.

The insane and the lonely, and all the sots. Watchmen and bartenders and drug dealers and dancers. Dying men stay up all night, reliving their lives and wondering who they pissed off. Short-order cooks and the waitresses that hated them; fortune tellers on the lam; freelance paramedics. The cops hiding out from the graveyard shift. The whores on Eighth Avenue. Astronomers and insomniacs.

And Horror Hosts. Tiresias Richardson was not a night person before she became Draculette. She liked brunch, peaky sunlight streaming through windows, a fresh day to conquer or ignore. Sometimes, she would get up extra early and jog. Now, though, she had been getting up around dusk and there was tin foil double-taped to the window in her bedroom, and when it rained or she slept late she did not see the sun at all for days in a row. Which, Tiresias thought, was wrong. Somehow. A sin? She could not put her black nail-polished finger on it, but it seemed loosely to be a sin. She had not been raised in any particular religion–all her theological knowledge came from the time she played Mary Magdalene in the Paul Bunyan High (Go Blue Oxen!) production of Jesus Christ, Superstar–but she still felt somehow guilty about the hours she kept. It was an affront to someone. Maybe God. Maybe farmers. When she would slump into her bed after dawn, going from her awakening living room into her bedroom dark as pitch, she would always think about the farmers. They’d been up for hours already. Milking or plowing or some shit, farmer shit, what did she know about farms? But she had been raised, unknowingly, to think that agricultural labor was the natural state of man and so she felt guilt about the city surrounding her and her schedule and her life.

Still, though: better than a real job.

Tiresias could not quite walk in the Draculette dress, and she could not walk at all in the Draculette shoes but she carried them as Sheila pushed her down the hall of the KSOS building in a semi-stolen wheelchair that had PROPERTY OF ST. AGATHA’S stenciled on the back of the seat. She hated sitting in the thing, and she hated sitting in the dress: it was so tight that she could stand or she could recline, and that was about it. Draculette was a straight line, tangent to the camera and bulgy in all the right places, and other positions were uncomfortable and unflattering; when she sat down, her stomach flopped out in rolls that she couldn’t help poking at hatefully.

“It’s the wine, sweetie.”

“It’s a mess is what it is. Look at this,” Tiresias said while grabbing a chunk of her stomach.

“Wine weight,” Sheila said.

“I must learn how sit-ups are done.”

“Or switch to vodka.”

“I like your idea better. AAAAAHahaha,” and then they were at the studio, where Bruiser the cameraman was standing where the union told him he must stand, and it was time for the Late Show and Tiresias was Draculette, talking to Count Fang and the Prince of Flies and shaking her tits to punctuate her jokes–she had it all covered, and everything made sense when the camera was pointing at her–Sheila raised a hand and Tirry raised an eyebrow and out the door and down the hall and the stairs and the door and it was midnight on the Main Drag.

Sheila stopped outside the doors, rummaged in her purse, lit a cigarette and PHWOO blew out the smoke and coughed just a little. She walked south, towards the Downside of the neighborhood, and when she passed her hair salon she rattled the doors to make sure they were locked. There was a half-moon that was yellow like a smoker’s teeth, and she smiled. On her right was the lake that the Pulaski fished in, and lived around, long since filled in and covered over and built up and forgotten about, and on her left was the Wayside Inn that had burned down a century before, and she felt her cock thicken under her skirt, which was short and black and stretchy, not hard but ready to be hard; she flicked her cigarette into the street and turned west onto Robin Street.

She breathed in through her nose and there were riots and uprisings, and there was hours-ago pizza from Cagliostoro’s. Maybe she could eat.

When she got to 19 Robin Street, she walked up the stairs and pressed the button for apartment #2.

A second went by.

“Hello?” the voice from the speaker said.

“It’s me,” Sheila said, and another second went by and then the voice said,

“Hey,” and the door buzzed open.

Sheila walked up a flight of stairs, and when she went to knock on the door, it opened. The teevee was on. The Late Show starring Draculette, and there was a smell of weed because Gussy had a joint in her hand and said,

“I was just thinking about you.”

And Sheila took the joint from her, hit it, and PHWOO blew the smoke up towards the top of the doorway, and she cocked her head to the right and smiled, Gussy was still wearing her new green dress, but she was barefoot and took a step forward. Sheila offered her back the joint and when Gussy reached for it, she snatched her wrist and pulled her towards herself and kissed her, and she ended the kiss with her chin; Gussy backed away, just a few inches, and the joint was smoldering in her hand and her pussy was wet now and she pulled her arm away from Sheila and handed her back the joint, and then she reached down to her waist and gathered up the material of her new green dress and one two three over her head and she was standing there in just white cotton underwear with no bra; her tits were bigger than Sheila’s hands, but she gathered them up anyway, and inhaled deep through her nose as her cock fought the stretchy black fabric of her dress, aided by Gussy’s hand, and they tumbled back into the apartment; Gussy stopped to put on a Tommy Amici record, and she and Sheila went to her bedroom and they could not stop staring in each other’s eyes as they fucked; they would stop to kiss, and Sheila would brush Gussy’s thick, black hair from her eyes. They were both sweating. Honest sweat, righteous sweat, fuck sweat pooling in the corners of their eyes; they licked the sweat off one another and sucked on each other’s earlobes as Sheila thrusted and Gussy felt full up her toes pointed and Sheila played with her clit; Gussy shot her head back and knocked Sheila in the nose with her chin and they both laughed, and Sheila bit Gussy’s bottom lip not hard and very soon all the sheets that were formerly on the bed were on the floor and everyone’s asshole was in play.

The light was gathering outside, and the swans that lived by Bell Lake had already begun their day. The Cenotaph slapped on porches. Sheila and Gussy did not notice; they were asleep, and so was most of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Plotting And Planning In Little Aleppo

Gettin’ Me All Wet was not the first song written about Little Aleppo’s rains, but it was the dirtiest. Duchess Jefferson wrote it in ’52; it went to number 11 on the R&B charts. The lyrics were about going on a date and getting caught out in a downpour, but they weren’t, really. There was Every 18 Days by Wheels Wagoner. That one was a country tune from ’89. Wheels’ wife packed up and left him while it was raining and now the rains torture him every 18 days. That one hit number 8 with a bullet. Rainy Day Blowjob #12 & 35 was by Little Aleppo’s contribution to the glam scene, The Snug. It was about getting head while it rained. The song failed to chart, but was used several years later by the military to blast a Central American dictator out of the church he was hiding in.

There was something about the rains that inspired: maybe the imperturbability of them, their cyclical nature, the way they sliced life into digestible and comparable chunks. Novelists used them as a temporal conceit to hang plots on; short story writers noticed things in one moment of the downpour. Innumerable haiku. The Poet Laureate has several hundred cantos written about the rains in English, Mandarin, Sanskrit, and several other languages that the Poet Laureate does not speak very well.

The rains could give you perspective. They could give you a benchmark: were these 18 days better than those 18 days? The rains reset life in the neighborhood somehow. People forgot they were mad at each other. (Sometimes they didn’t, though. A saying in Little Aleppo was that if you were pissed at someone for three rains in a row, then you were going to hate that fucker for life.) The rains made the Verdance so green. Deacon Blue has a good line about it.

“After it rains, man? Verdance is greener than a seasick frog.”

Fine, it was only an okay line, but it made the Reverend Arcade Jones smile, and Tiresias Richardson, too. (Tiresias would make note of the line and steal it during that night’s broadcast.) Penny Arrabbiata had just woken up and wasn’t paying attention. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was also not paying attention, but because she was studying the menu at the Victory Diner. The five of them were in the large circular booth in the back corner and rain was pounding the windows. When customers would come in, they would shake themselves off like dogs. The busboys mopped the floor by the front door dry at short intervals.

It was a little after five on a Friday, but the Victory Diner is a 48-hour diner, and it is always three a.m. after the Saturday night bars let out in a 48-hour diner. Tense, sloppy, and as good a chance of getting laid as getting laid out. Four of the booths still had individual jukeboxes, the little ones posted up above the sugar packets with the big flappity pages of singles that you could page through. Looking for that B-side no one’s heard yet. Two songs for a quarter; choose carefully. The only thing that ever started more fights in the Victory Diner than the jukeboxes was the time they tried to remove the jukeboxes.

Suspended over the far end of the counter was a teevee. Little Aleppo Live with Cakey Frankel was on; Cakey was wearing a dark blue blouse, and around her neck was a bow tie/scarf deal sort of thing that stretched out to her clavicles. Her hair was principled, in that it could not be moved from its position. She had teeth like ice cubes.

“Last day to register your child for the Little Aleppo Little League is tomorrow. The league would like to remind everyone that it is for children under 13 years old, and to please stop loading up the teams with short 22-year-olds for the purposes of wagering. Now, Cakey with the weather.”

Cakey turned from one camera to the next.

“Thank you, Cakey. It’s raining. Cakey?”

She turned back to the first camera.

“Excellent reporting, Cakey.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones was sitting in a chair at the circular table with his back to the rest of the diner, but he watched the screen in the window’s reflection.

“I do not understand the television programming in this neighborhood in the slightest.”

“Hey!”

“Present company excluded, of course,” the Reverend smiled.

“Cakey is a doll,” Tiresias said.

On the teevee, Cakey’s smile was as bright as she wasn’t. She was warm, and kind, and empathetic, and inviting, and had wonderful manners; she was attractive, but not intimidatingly so; she smelled good. Cakey had also gotten lost in KSOS’ studios this afternoon, and she’s worked there for 11 years.

“The Little Aleppo Chamber of Commerce will be sponsoring a job fair in the auditorium of Paul Bunyan High this week. Go Blue Oxen!” she read off the teleprompter. “The Chamber has asked me to remind you that it’s not the kind of fair with rides and games, so please don’t bring your children like last year.

“There were two deaths at the Hotel Synod last night. Artillery Branch and Darcy Honkytonk, lead singers of the local punk band The Fucks were found hanged, stabbed, shot, and with multiple arrows sticking out of them. Foul play has not been ruled out.”

Cakey blinked four or five times.

“Oh, I can’t say ‘The Fucks,’ can I?”

“Turn that shit off, Melisandre.”

“I told you my name is Violet Violence, Stuart.”

Stuart Grand was the *** of Students for Harper Observatory. He was the President for a few minutes, but then group consciousness decided that “president” was dismissive of those who believed in a parliamentary system. Then he was the Leader, but someone made the excellent point that “leader” privileges leading over following, and this title was thrown out, too. “Speaker” was deemed offensive to the mute. A sophomore named Joey the Spaz IV offered up the suggestion of “Poobah” and was nearly drummed out of the group for racism, and then, when he dared defend the word as being from The Mikado, was nearly drummed out of the group for being a theater nerd. After several hours of debate, the motion to call the group’s leader “***” was approved; the vote on how to pronounce it was tabled for another date which still has not arrived.

There were five of them in Stuart’s dorm room. He was in the chair that came with the room. Joey and Violet Violence, whose real name is Melisandre Boone, was folded into a beanbag chair on the other side of the space, as far away from Stuart as possible.The portable teevee was atop a dresser to her left and she made a half-assed effort to reach up.

“It’s very far away, Stuart.”

“Just stand up and turn it off. Violet.”

She gave him the finger, but kindly, and then rolled out of the bean bag until she was lying on prostrate on the floor.

“So much gravity.”

“Please just turn off the television.”

“Oh, the heaviness.”

“Why does everything have to be like this?”

Violet was blonde and wearing three tank tops–red, white, and blue–and grey work pants; there was a tattoo of a voodoo doll on her muscly left arm, and she was barefoot. Her clompy black boots and stripey green socks sat by her feet.

“Why does everything have to be like this?” she repeated in a dumb-guy voice. Logically, Stuart knew that was a terrible argument, but it still hurt when she did it.

She rolled over on her back and launched her left leg up towards the teevee on top of the dresser, far more elegantly than you would expect from someone in work pants. Ballet. Pointed toe and straight knee. She wiggled her foot. It was two feet away from the set.

“I almost got it.”

“Just stand up.”

“Don’t police my body, Stuart.”

Violet put her arms on the floor and rolled up onto her shoulders so that she was almost completely vertical; her legs were straight and her toes tight and slowly, with control, she stretched her leg to the set and jabbed the power button with her big toe and then there was silence in the room that was broken by her slapping down on the cheap carpet.

“Ow.”

“Thank you.”

She gave him the finger again, but not as kindly, and rolled back onto the beanbag chair, which was dark blue and held together with duct tape.

Stuart Grand was a senior at Harper College. He had read many books and understood almost some of them; they sat in piles around the room, most with bookmarks sticking out around halfway through. The Post-Colonialists, and the Antephilosophers, and the Historiographers. Stuart had read what the French thought of power, and what the Russians thought of despair, and what the Chinese thought of death, but all in the English translation. And he was convinced that the Revolution was coming. Any minute now.

He was being fucked, he knew this, and he was damn sure going to do something about it. “By whom” and “what” were unanswered, though. Corporations, definitely. Religion was an oppressor (except for Buddhism and Rastafarianism). The government was hiding something. Hell, maybe the government was hiding everything. There were secrets, Stuart thought, and there were masters–no, not masters: Masters–and there was most certainly a Plan. He ran his fingers through his shock of brown hair; he wore it like Egon Schiele.

“Isn’t it ours?” he said in a quiet voice. “Doesn’t the place where you live belong to you? That’s the issue here, right? It’s the essential question of ownership: landlord versus landholder. Who is qualified to grant equity? We’re told it’s the bank. We’re told it’s the state.”

Stuart was sitting in the chair at the desk under the window. The room was small and rectangular; the walls were covered with posters of revolutionaries: Che, Mandela, Belushi. The bed, unmade,  was along the long wall. Joey the Spaz III and Anacostia Hymen were sitting on it; their legs dangled. Anacostia passed Stuart a joint.

“Locke said that when you mix your labor PHWOOO with property, then that makes it yours. Kant said that the owner of property must act with the knowledge that the property will be someone else’s one day. Doesn’t a neighborhood have rights, naturally? What’s the difference between the act of a government and the act of rich man if it hurts the proletariat? The effect is the same! A diktat must be refused, whether it comes from Town Hall or some washed-up singer.”

“Tommy’s not washed-up,” Violet said. “He’s still got it.”

“He’s got shit, Melisandre!”

“Violet!”

“Whatever!” Stuart was mad at himself for getting mad, but Melisandre–or Violet or whatever she was calling herself this week–was infuriating. She wrote fucking poetry, man, and she would challenge him on every little thing. Philosophy, history, psychography: she hadn’t read the damned books, but she still had a fucking opinion. Two full years at Harper College and she had a chapbook of poems–which didn’t even rhyme–and a gallery’s worth of paintings to show for it, and at least 60% of the paintings were well-hung Jesus. Life was art, Violet said often, and so she changed her name like she changed her hair color or underwear. Last year, she had been Shimmy Koko-Bop, and Spectacular Farm; this semester had seen her call herself Pam Frond and Ann Halen.

“The organized populace, having been concentrated into a strike force, has a moral obligation to act,” Stuart said. “Stancroft said that, and I think he’s right. Those that are able have a moral obligation to act in behalf of the masses.”

Violet rolled her eyes and took the joint from Molly McGlory, who was a legacy at Harper College.

“So what?”

“Meli–”

“Violet!”

“–san…Violet. Yeah?”

Violet–or whatever she was calling herself this week–had a chin with a cleft in it, almost overgrown, and Stuart stared at it while she hit the joint. The underside of her jaw, that palish and tight triangle under the mandible, her throat’s delta: it sucked in when she inhaled and Stuart stared until her head began to come back up and he looked away.

“What do we do? Stop talking. What do we do?” she said.

“I’m getting to it,” Stuart said.

“You’re not. You are pontificating.”

“No.”

“You’re a pontificator. Motion that the group replace you as *** with Joey the Spaz.”

“Don’t call me that,” Joey the Spaz said.

Violet raised her arm from the beanbag chair, and then her bare foot. She pointed her toe.

“Second?” she asked.

Anacostia glared at Violet. Molly smirked to herself. Joey the Spaz said,

“I don’t really want to be in charge.”

“Motion has no second. Motion is denied,” Stuart said, and rapped his knuckles on the desk.

“Suck my dick,” Violet said, and slapped her palm on the floor.

The thunder went SHWAKATHOOM outside and the rain drops hit the window like limpdicked bullets. It was dark out and the campus was pocked with umbrellas and not much else: people stayed inside during the rains. The only people out were going to get laid, or to get yelled at; only passion would bring you out-of-doors in this weather.

“Do you have an idea?” Stuart said. The joint had come back to him, and he inhaled and blew out and coughed.

“We talk to him,” Violet said.

“We talk to Tommy Amici,” Stuart smirked. “We talk to Tommy Amici? How does that work?”

Violet kicked both her legs straight up and tossed herself vertical so she was sitting with a dancer’s posture

“We can make him talk to us.”

She had eyes that were gray like a battleship and her teeth were slightly too large for her mouth.

“So that’s the plan,” Penny Arrabbiata said.

“I guess,” Deacon Blue answered. “Reverend?”

“Sounds good,” Arcade Jones said, and all eyes at the table turned to Tiresias, who was trying to balance a salt shaker in a pile of salt. She had not ordered food, as the Draculette costume was getting a bit constrictive. She had stolen some fries, but she was only human.

“What now?”

“The plan,” Penny said. “You good with the plan?”

If Tiresias was honest, she would have admitted to zoning out on the conversation fifteen minutes ago and daydreaming about winning a Golden Globe award. But she wasn’t honest, and so she nodded and said,

“Sure.”

“Okay, then.”

There were orders coming in at the Victory Diner, and there were meals going out. The waitresses were circuitous. The jukeboxes played two songs for a quarter, and outside it was raining down on Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Rain And The Desert

It rained every 18 days in Little Aleppo. Like clockwork, but wetter. Low clouds would roll in from the sea, from the west, and spill themselves on to the neighborhood when they ran into the Segovian Hills starting before dawn. Steady all day, no sun, no color, and you could smell the Verdance from three blocks away. Every 18 days: exactly and on the dot and never wavering, and locals still managed to get caught without their umbrellas, or schedule outdoor events. It wasn’t that people forgot. Everyone in the neighborhood marked the rain days on the calendar first thing in January, but everyone would also get distracted somewhere around February and accidentally mark off 17 or 19 days, and once you do that you’re fucked for the year.

Scientists had theories. Scientists also had eye protectors and student debt, but mostly they had theories. Just outside the harbor’s entrance was a sheer underwater cliff that dropped off almost a mile; this was the cause of the weather cycle, Harper College’s oceanologists said. Nonsense, the geology department said: it was the shape of the Segovian Hills that led to the regular rains. The herpetelepathics were busy trying to read snakes’ minds, and had little to contribute to the conversation. The Meteorological Society of America was quoted in The Cenotaph as saying that Little Aleppo’s predictable rains were the result of “fosculated heminumbus clouds with a counter-strange rotation cassiating in a localized foci.” It had taken Mr. Venable nearly ten minutes to come up with that nonsense; he laughed for almost twenty the next morning when he saw that they had printed it.

The rain did not sluice and barge through the neighborhood in waves or painful pellets, but nor did it mist and drizzle: the downpour was solid and dignified. Like a firm handshake or a well-made shoe. Dependable when so much else was not, every 18 days come back in from sea. Like a horny sailor. When it rained, Little Aleppo turned into something it wasn’t, but it also kinda was. Like a simile.

“I have no idea what to say.”

“Say hello. Then introduce yourself,” Mr. Venable said.

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was sitting in Mr. Venable’s customary seat in the bookstore with no title. The desk was semi-cleared; several biographies of Tommy Amici on the left, phone on the right. Yellow legal pad with notes in Gussy’s neat pencil: every line that wasn’t crossed out had a question mark next to it. There was also an unflattering doodle of Mr. Venable.

“Yes, I know how phone conversations work. After that.”

“He owes you.”

“He doesn’t, actually.”

“The man started a riot in your theater. How much did that cost you?”

“Tommy sent a check two days later. For, like, double the amount of the damage.”

“You made money on a riot.”

“God bless America.”

“Plep,” said the tortoiseshell cat in Gussy’s lap, and purred. Gussy gave her neck scritchy-scratches, and the cat purred some more.

“So, yeah, you know: technically, he doesn’t owe me anything.”

“No. Okay. So, you want to go to him for a favor. Tommy is the big man. He likes that sort of thing. Vulgar displays of respect.”

“This is your studied opinion?” Gussy asked, looking at the books. There was a weighty, glossy, classy tome titled The Singer, and a couple paperback cheapies, and there was Jacob George’s Tommy Boy: My LIfe With Mr. Amici, which Tommy hated more than any of the others, more than any article written by any reporter he had subsequently punched, and more than any picture taken by any photographer he had also subsequently punched. Tommy hated that book more than he hated his ex-wives, and he had one of them murdered.

Sometimes, Tommy called Jacob “Big George,” and sometimes Tommy called him “nigger.” Tommy was funny that way. You couldn’t tell when the snarl was coming, but it was always on its way. He was predictably unpredictable, Jacob grew to understand. Precisely what was going to set Tommy off was an unknowable variable, but that it would happen was a constant. Toast too burnt, toast too light, marriage breaks up: all worthy of a tantrum. Tommy had never hit Jacob, but he had hurled cocktail glasses and lit cigarettes towards his general vicinity. Tommy had also pushed him into several pools, but Tommy pushed everybody into pools.

Jacob’s parents owned a bar on the Chitlin Circuit in Mobile, Alabama; he liked show business, so when he got out of the Navy he went to Los Angeles and took the first show biz job he was offered: gardener for a talent agency, The Bugle Agency was the biggest in town. That, Jacob figured, made him more important than the gardeners at lesser agencies. Hollywood was all about knowing your place. Jacob learned all the agents’ names–and their assistants, too–and started running errands for them, little things at first, but soon he was taking advantage of the fact that white guys always think that all black guys can “get them stuff.” An in was an in, he figured. People had sucked and fucked their way into show biz, so scoring some weed for a little Jewish boy wasn’t so bad. Or hooking another little Jewish boy up with a girl he knew from his neighborhood.

And, Lord, all these agents were tiny. Jacob had met Jews growing up, and then in the Navy: they were all normal-sized. But these Hollywood Jews must have from one of the other twelve tribes, he thought. Wee little bastards in suits made out of a handkerchief’s worth of imported silk, all the same suit, too: double-breasted and barrel-shaped and pinstriped to within an inch if its life. The agents’ suits were aggressively pinstriped. Oxford lace-ups, polished, and if you can’t tie your goddamned tie like a white man, Stein, then you can go the fuck home!

That was Irwin Katz, who was the smallest and biggest of the agents. Everyone called him Sharky.

Sharky was the president and founder of the Bugle Agency. Years later, a reporter would ask Sharky why he hadn’t named his business after himself. “Because it would have sounded like a deli,” he answered. Bugles play for kings and queens, he thought. Something important’s about to happen? Bugle. Sharky also liked going to the horse track, and they played bugles there, too. Bugle Agency, whatever, who gives a shit, name’s a name, let’s make some money.

Ageless and hairless but for thick eyebrows that shot up the pale hillock of forehead and scrunched down over a Levantine nose, and his feet dangled when he sat at the iceberg-sized desk in his office. Every morning at 8:45, Sharky pulled up in that year’s Cadillac and threw the keys to the nearest employee. By nine, he was at his desk reading Variety and Matinee Daily and the Hollywood Reporter and Stage Door, and–if it was a Tuesday–the gossip magazines Snapshot and Confidential. After that, he made calls and took calls and made calls and took calls. Lunch at the Schooner on Sunset with a colleague. Second table on the left with a view of the whole dining room so he could see the people he wasn’t talking to. Two to six, back at the office on the phone. Dinner at Archie’s or Morrison’s or the Cowboy Grill with Mrs. Katz. After that, Mrs. Katz was driven home to Beverly Hills and Sharky went to the nightclubs. The Mocambo and Rocky’s and Ciro’s and the Pantheum. He represented the acts onstage, and the celebrities in the crowd that the acts introduced. One of the showgirls would give him a blowjob. Professional courtesy. At midnight, he would drink one whiskey, neat, and drive his Cadillac to Beverly Hills, where he would put on silk pajamas with an ironed crease in the leg and go to sleep. In the morning, he would do the whole thing again. Sharky was a machine.

One morning not long after Jacob George started gardening for the Bugle Agency, he was trimming a bush out front when Sharky pulled up. The Cadillac was going PAFpuffpuffPAFpuffpuff and Sharky looked pissed.

“You know what the fuck this is?” he yelled at Jacob.

“You got a misfire. Might just be a bad spark plug.”

“Fix it,” Sharky told Jacob as he tossed him the keys and went inside.

The agency employed a driver to fetch clients who were too drunk or foreign to drive, writers who couldn’t figure out the gearshift, that sort of thing, and he wore an old-fashioned chauffeur’s cap. Jacob borrowed it for the price of a bag of reefer he was going to sell to an agent later. A black man had to be smart in a white man’s world, Jacob figured, and that meant seizing your opportunities. It also meant not driving through Beverly Hills in a Cadillac unless you were wearing a chauffeur’s cap. He was of the mind that a man would come upon a great deal of trouble in this life naturally, so it was no use deliberately seeking out any more. He drove south to Hawthorne where he lived with his wife, and gave his mechanic neighbor the other bag of reefer he was going to sell to an agent. It was the spark plug. Back in the hat, back to Beverly Hills, up to Sharky’s office.

“You fucking fixed it? Already?”

“Spark plug.”

“Just like you said. Good work. Good fucking work.”

And then Jacob wasn’t a gardener anymore, he was working for Sharky. The papers in the morning, fanned out on the top left of the desk. Legal pad in the middle. Four sharpened pencils to the right of the legal pad. Not three.

“I don’t have enough fucking pencils!”

Not five.

“Are you trying to kill me with all these fucking pencils?”

Four pencils, sharpened. On Fridays, Sharky would inspect his laundry. Twice a year, he would fly to London to visit his tailor, and 52 times a year, he would ship his clothes back to be laundered. Jacob understood the Saville Row tailor, especially after Sharky took him to London and had some suits made for him, but shipping shirts across the Atlantic to be washed felt a bit excessive. He kept his feelings to himself. Sharky would examine the freshly-arrived shirts and trousers when they got back; they would be wrapped in crinkly paper. Presents to himself, Jacob thought.

Not to say Sharky wasn’t any fun.

“Script closet!”

Jacob went to the closet, opened it: shelf after shelf of unsold screenplays, treatments, book galleys. A small library’s worth of car chases and shootouts and last-minute rescues. So many writers waiting for their chance to sell out.

“Pick something. Random, fucking random.”

Jacob did.

“You got ten minutes to tell me what it’s about and who should star in it. Gentlemen, circumcise your watches.”

Sharky had heard Joe E. Lewis tell that joke at the Trocadero, and it had struck him as witty; he said it a lot. Jacob sat down on the sofa and began leafing through the script. Ten minutes later, Sharky said,

“Nu?”

Jacob had been not been working for Sharky long, but he had been working for him long enough to know to keep it brief.

“Comedy/Western. Dude from the East gets mistaken for a legendary outlaw. Hijinks ensue. Bob Hope as the Dude, Donna Ray as the Lady.”

“Budget?”

“Two million.”

Sharky smiled and said,

“One hour! Circumcise your watches!”

And then Sharky got on the phone. To Paramount, to the Adamo Brothers, to that self-serious putz Zanuck over at 20th Century. He called Barry Alsop at Sunrise just to tell them he wasn’t getting next year’s comedy smash, and then called him back to tell him he wasn’t getting next year’s western hit, either; then he called one final time just to let Barry know he was a schmuck and hang up on him. Sharky got a ‘maybe’ from Lee Scheinman at Maestro, so he got Balaban from Paramount back on the line.

“You gonna let that little pisher take your money, Barney? Western with Bob fucking Hope? It’s a fucking smash, Barn. It’s money in the bank,” he sang into the phone, and then he smiled and looked up at Jacob. Two minutes later, he hung up.

“Time?”

“51 minutes.”

“Easy fucking money in this town. Now get Bob Hope on the line.”

“Is he our client?”

“One hour! Circumcise your watch!”

Jacob George worked for Sharky Katz at the Bugle Agency for several years. He delivered scripts to actors that hit on him, and actresses that did, too. He snuck Retty Keefe out of Los Angeles that time her gangster boyfriend beat her up, and the next time, too, and when he turned up dead one day, Jacob didn’t feel bad at all. He took calls and placed them, and he scheduled Sharky’s blowjobs, and any time Sharky said that he had read something it was really Jacob who had. He felt indispensable right up until the second that Sharky told him he was going to go work for Tommy Amici.

Jacob tried as hard as he could not to feel like he had been sold. He could say no. Quit. He knew that. Navy taught him how to cook; he could get a job in a day. Wasn’t as bad as it used to be, he told himself. He also knew that these motherfuckers would never treat a white man this way.

Jacob knew Tommy, liked him. That wasn’t the problem. Fifty percent raise, too. Also not the problem. Jacob wondered how much Sharky traded him for, and he considered telling everyone involved to go fuck themselves, but Rhonda was pregnant with their second kid and a fifty percent raise is not something you tell to go fuck itself in that situation.

And so Jacob George went to work for Tommy Amici. A valet. Tommy insisted on pronouncing it “vah-LET” like he was a member of the aristocracy instead of a Mexican kid from Little Aleppo who didn’t want anyone to know he was Mexican or from Little Aleppo. The clothes. The food. The house. The hotel suite. The dressing room. Jacob took care of it all. Perfect for Tommy, everything perfect for Tommy so he could sing. All his sins would be forgiven by the whole wide world just as long as he sang, and he knew it, so when the eggs were a little runny he would throw the breakfast table off the balcony. Jacob was a quick study, and Tommy’s first wife Theresa taught him what to do. This kind of pasta for this many minutes, paper-thin steaks and eggs that did not run at all, pantry stocked with Campbell’s Soup at all times.

Theresa did not teach him about the girls. Tommy would kick them out of his bedroom around ten am. When they were starlets, Jacob would cook them breakfast and make sure they didn’t steal anything. When they were hookers, Jacob would pay them, and then cook them breakfast and make sure they didn’t steal anything. Sometimes, he didn’t know to which group the girl belonged and he would err on the side of payment: it was never refused. There were girls just off the bus, and Oscar winners, and royalty, and colleagues’ wives; Jacob pretended not to know who they were all the same. If they wanted to talk, he would talk. If they were quiet, he would retreat to the next room and call a taxi. If they were still hungry, then he would cook them more eggs.

But not Cara Thorn. Tommy had never thrown her out, not once, although she had stormed from the house on many occasions. Every occasion, if Jacob thought about it: she and Tommy would go in that bedroom and then she’d storm out. Might take ten minutes, might be three days. She and Tommy fought while they fucked, and fucked while they fought, and then she would slam the door behind her and fly to Africa to date a big-game hunter. Sometimes he would chase her, and other times he would take out his frustrations on reporters or waiters or both. Tommy had left Theresa for her; Cara didn’t give a shit. She liked torturing him. Made the sex better, she thought.

But Jacob would be stuck with him when she left: maudlin Tommy breaking things and drinking and listening to his old albums. The same song, over and over. I’ll Never Dance Again when she served him with the divorce papers. Unlucky Heart when she called off the second wedding. No Hand In Mine when the second set of divorce papers arrived. Anger and booze and torch songs and those eyes of his flashing emerald like the Verdance at the height of summer. Wet and brimming, too. Jacob saw Tommy Amici cry, and Tommy never quite forgave him for it.

Recording session. Lay out the clothes. Not the slacks, though: they stay on the hanger until it’s time to go. Yellow sweater, vee-neck. Tommy’s color, yellow. Like the sun. Complemented his eyes. Only his, though. One day his arranger Kippy Van Dorr showed up to a session in Tommy’s yellow, and he didn’t work for Tommy for six years after that. Tommy Amici protected his yellow like the Roman Senators protected their purple. Shoes shined to leather mirrors. Sheer, calf-high socks. Daytime toupee. Hat.

Dressing room. The tuxedo. Black tie? Shawl collar. White tie? Notched. Rules to this sort of thing. The evening hairpiece, which was more glamorous. Tea with honey and lemon. Who’s playing around town? You’d better know. Patent leather shoes, lace-up. The Hollywood Reporter and Stage Door. (Tommy did not read Variety; in fact, he had punched 70% of the masthead.) Pancake makeup for the port wine stain that started on his right shulder and crept up his neck past his collar. Set list–typed, not handwritten–on the makeup table in front of him.

Stage. The table with the decanter, heavy crystal, on it. Whiskey, Tommy would say, and salute the crowd. It’s post time, he’d announce and take a slug. Just iced tea. Ashtray. Open pack of Marlboros, soft pack, with two cigarettes sticking out. Gold Dunhill lighter. Copy of the set list–handwritten, not typed–taped to the table.

But all appointments were contingent upon Cara. Tommy canceled shows for her, sessions, he had walked off film sets on two separate continents due to her phone calls. She was his, goddammit, and she knew it–she knew it, she knew it, she knew it–but she wouldn’t acknowledge the plain fact. And he couldn’t seem to convince her, that rotten bitch. Tommy would cut her out of the photos on the wall, and Jacob would tape her back in.

Jacob could understand why. Working for Tommy, you got used to beautiful women. That was his type. Beautiful. White, black, whatever: Tommy only discriminated when it came to beauty. And class. Right kind of dress–chicks in pants drove Tommy nuts–and not too much perfume and definitely not too forward. Tommy followed one girl out of the bedroom one morning with a sneer on his face.

“Pushy broads, Jesus. I hate pushy broads. I can take my own dick out. What’s the world come to, Jakey? No more hookers. Just whores.”

“The world grows coarse and belligerent around us, Mr. A.”

“Let’s go to the desert.”

“I’ll pack.”

Cactus ringed the pool that should not be there, which contained two men that should not be there. The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, splashed in the water that was shaped like diamonds in the air, hanging immobile and profuse and suspended–it was a jewel heist, it was an explosion of light–while under that was froth and bubble as the two men giggled and gurgled at one another.

They were deeply high.

(The Jeremiad flowers are cousins to peyote buttons, kind of. Think of it as convergent entheoevolution. The cacti they grew on weren’t related at all, but the two substances produced similar effects. Like tea and coffee.)

It was around two or three. The afternoon was in its prime: it sizzled and when the heat convected back off the ground, it shimmied. The mountains in the distance looked like hula dancers. The horses snoozed under the shaggy fan palms, and sometimes they would shake their massive heads in their sleep and make a noise like HARblph and a dozen flies would alight from out of their manes, only to go right back in. The springs were really one pool, but looked like two because it was pinched in the middle. From above, the springs were shaped like a snowman missing his head. They were ringed by pinyon pine, and Buckman’s oak, and a wide-crowned Blood elm that kept the water in shade during the scorching hours after midday.

“Should the Christ not be contemplated in starkest sobriety?”

“The Christ is in cold water; the Christ is in reckless abandon. The path that leads to the Christ is the holy path.”

The Reverend was floating on his back with his arms spread lazily.

“I just mean that we get high a lot.”

“We’re holy men, Reverend,” Peter said.

“We are very holy.”

“Oh, the holiest,” Peter said, and the word became fact and existed–a thing, a powerful thing–and was. It just sat there existing.

“Stanton Box? That’s a silly name.”

“You take that back. Heroic name. It’s a name that presents itself with aplomb.”

“Aplomb?”

“And world-worn brio.”

“That name’s doing a lot of work, Reverend.”

Peter kicked a foot out from the water, examined it, put it back under.

“The Pistol-Packing Preacher. He had the kind of adventures I imagined myself having. My time in America was less spectacular.”

“You survived it.”

“But Preacher Box lived. People would seek him out, and whenever he would go to a new town, they would know who he was. All across the West, the little guy knew about Stanton Box.”

“You’re a little guy. You knew about him.”

“Yes. But I was covetous of his life. He’s just made up, I know that. I’m not mad. But I envied him. He wasn’t only brave. He was smart. In one book, an axe gang of Chinese were threatening a town. They wanted control of the copper mine. Do you know what Stanton Box did?”

“No clue,” Peter said.

“He gave it to them! ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Take it. It’s yours.’ And he and all the townspeople rode off.”

“Not very heroic.”

“Wait, wait. So, the Chinese start working the mine. When most of them are in there, Preacher Box blows up the entrance with dynamite he had planted ahead of time. He traps the majority of them, and then he and the townspeople shoot the rest.”

“Still not very heroic.”

“No?”

“No. Pragmatic, sure, but not heroic.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Style,” Peter said as he dragged himself out of the springs and up the sloped sand bank. He brushed the grit off himself the best he could, gave up, laid on his bedroll. He could feel the water evaporate off his skin. He could count each individual goose bump from the inside. He could feel the breeze that lapped at his toes and balls and nipples and nostrils. Busybody stayed in the water. He did not know how to swim, but he could do a spastic dog paddle and he pushed off against the side SPLOSHSPLOSHSPLISH across the diameter of the springs, and then he would turn around and  push off again and SPLISHSPLISHSPLOSH back.

“But does the Christ not manifest through competence?”

“It does,” Peter said.

“And would we not see the Christ in efficiency?”

“We would.”

“I rest my case.”

Most people think deserts are quiet, and that is because most people haven’t been to deserts. There is little vegetation to soak up sound. Just rock, and hardpan ground, and billions of insects shrieking WHO WANTS TO FUCK? at each other, and moles and voles scrabbling through the soil, and the wind up above your head goes fwiiiiiiish but sometimes it snaps its fingers right in your ears FWOP and then dies down entirely, and when the wind dies down entirely in the desert, you can hear voices. The Anasazi said the voices were their ancestors. The Zuni said they were vanquished enemies planning their revenge.

Peter thought it was God was talking to Himself again. Who else does He have? The angels are just employees. There was only one guy who didn’t kiss His ass, and He locked him in Hell. Peter felt bad for God, and then he remembered smallpox and didn’t have as much sympathy.

“The Christ is free will.”

“He must be,” Peter said.

“And the Christ is destiny.”

“That, too.”

“How?”

Busybody had splashed over to the bank nearest Peter, and he flopped himself halfway out of the water like a skinny walrus.

“How? Free will and destiny cannot coexist! They are mutually exclusive states!”

“Said the man swimming in the desert.”

“Plep,” said the cat who lived in the bookstore with no title. She was a brown and black tortoiseshell, and she had never been to the Low Desert, nor any desert. If there was a commotion on the Main Drag, or it was very a very sunny day, then she would go out to the sidewalk; the desert was too big an ask. The cat stayed inside with her books. She was like a character in a short story by Chekhov, but not Russian, and a cat.

“I’ll just play it by ear,” Gussy said.

“Best sensory organ to play things by. I tried to play it by my nostril once. Didn’t work at all.”

“Ignoring you.”

“Excellent idea,” Mr. Venable said. He walked to the coffee machine and topped his mug off. If you asked his feelings on the cat, Mr. Venable would profess to have none one way or the other. She’s just part of the shop, he had told many customers. This did not stop him from getting jealous over how long she had been sitting in Gussy’s lap.

“I’m calling.”

“Godspeed.”

Gussy tapped in the number with a pencil, and put the pencil in her mouth. It was an old phone, a landline, with a curly-cue cord from the base to the receiver. It was made of plastic from before plastic was called plastic: it was made of bakelite. The number buttons were square with depressions in the middle and four sharp points on the corners

It rang once, twice. Mr. Venable removed a copy of Spengler’s The Decline of the West from the shelf behind Gussy’s head, and reached in the cavity it left. The cat (who did not have a name) looked up.

“Plep?”

Before he had pulled the catnip out of its hiding place, the cat was off Gussy’s lap and at Mr. Venable’s feet, her tail shinning back and forth like a metronome that wanted to get high.

“You’re needy.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s just…Hello? Gloria? Hi, sweetie, it’s Gussy from The Tahitian.”

“No, I got the check. I got the check. I sent you a thank you note!”

“It’s about the Observatory thing.”

“I–”

“But, Glor–”

“If you could–”

“We just want to talk, Gloria. Just a meeting. A sit-down.”

“Who? Representatives of Little Aleppo.”

“You’re kidding me! She was going to be there the whole time. Her and the lady who runs the Observatory and a priest. A preacher. Whatever”

“Tuesday is good.”

Mr. Venable gave questioning thumbs up as Gussy wrote on the pad.

“See you Tuesday.”

She hung up the phone.

“Pleeeeeeeehhhp,” came from the floor under Mr. Venable’s desk. The cat was on her back, batting at imaginary floating mice.

“Well?”

“Gloria said that Tommy says that Little Aleppo can burn to the ground for all he cares, and the only one of us filthy losers he would even consider meeting is the vampire with the big tits.”

Mr. Venable smiled.

“We know her.”

Gussy smiled back.

“We do.”

“Amazing the doors those things can open.”

“A great set of tits is like a Swiss Army Knife,” Gussy said, standing up and smoothing down her pleated, red dress. “I’m going to Sheila’s.”

“I’m staying here.”

She nodded. He nodded back. Her umbrella was on the floor just inside the front door, where customers had been leaving their umbrellas for years; the blonde floorboards in the spot warped and buckled.

“Gus?”

“Yeah?”

“Try not to announce this to the entire neighborhood.”

Gussy picked up her umbrella and gave him the finger and walked out the door of the bookstore with no title, which went TINKadink, and she pressed a button on the handle of her umbrella and it expanded PLOOMPF it was bright baby blue with yellow duckies and it made Gussy smile every time she saw it, even though it was raining, and she turned north on the Main Drag where puddles dared her to leap. Leaves and chip bags washed towards the sewers, caught up in temporary rivers in the street’s gutters, but what’s temporary for one is permanent for another and so they disappear down the grates and get chomped up in purifying plants and blasted out to sea just a shred of their former selves. The sky had no color at all, and irregularly it would clear its throat like God was talking to Himself again, but no one noticed in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Musical Interlude In Little Aleppo

Midnight is a pompous lie, all poetic meaning and dramatic wherewithal and glimmering showmanship. Can’t write a bad poem without throwing midnight in there. Privileged hour of private dicks, werewolfs, heavy metal singers. An overpromise, that’s what midnight is. No one gets laid at midnight: the partnered fuck at eleven, and the single at three in the morning. Decent people are asleep at midnight, and the indecent are still warming up. Midnight is like a mass-produced collector’s item: special because you’re told it is. Midnight is bullshit.

The loft party on Good Jones Street is revving back up. It never stops; it is a permanent temporary autonomous zone; it ebbs and flows in complement to real life, whatever the fuck that is, outside on the Downside of Little Aleppo. The party had the same rhythm as the neighborhood, but off by hours: the normal person’s 9 am was the party’s midnight. Time to get up, get down, get real loose with it while you’re packed in so tight. Everybody on the dance floor: gay and straight, black and white, fucked-up and sober.

(No one was sober. The loft party was a proving ground for new club drugs; exotic chemists would hand out samples of their latest wares at the bar. Just tell me what you think, they’d ask. This led to memorable evenings: one time, a chemical called H30 caused half the room to believe they were sheep, and the other half to believe they were border collies.)

Several people had tried to write a history of the loft party, and six months later were found on the dance floor naked but for glitter and hewing to the legends: the Beatification of Fantastic Barbara; that time Madonna stopped by; the Bathroom Skirmishes of ’96. Everyone had a story, and they were all the same and they were all unique: that one time the music and the drugs and the sweat mixed just right and things made sense, or at least disappeared, and the beat of the music matched the beat of my heart and the floor–the loft party had a sprung floor–bounced me into the air, into the fresculated spotbeams shivering off the disco balls, and then caught me when I fell only to launch me again, again, again in time with the bass drum as my arms wave with the bass guitar, and my fingers whibble with the keyboards. Everyone had the same beautiful story.

Facts were tougher to pin down.

When did the party start? Some said ’72, others said ’73. Somewhere around there. The first sound system? Stolen; a gift; scammed from Harper College. The first star deejay? Either Big Money or Hercules the Herculean or Mister Dre. Depends on who you ask. What year did the gorilla get loose? A lot of people say it was ’84, but the guy who got his ear peeled off says it was ’85 and he should know.

The music went

THWOMB diddle iddle iddle
THWOMB diddle iddle womp
THWOMB diddle iddle iddle
THWOMB diddle iddle womp

very loudly and the dance floor’s drugs were starting to come on–mass spinal electrification–and black lights and blue and red, they all got eaten up by the darkness hovering, the bouncing pitch right above the dancers, a murky dark that was powerful and hungry: the dancers expelled it from their hair, pores, mouths and crusted bloody nostrils. Dimness flew from them like frightened birds and flocked atop their heads: it was the long day, and the too-short night, and the filth of the Main Drag and bedroom compromises, the stairs up and down to work, madness and impatience and youth’s indifference, and the lights–the yellow wheelers, and orange spinners, and pinpointers of pure white–crissed and crossed right above the dancers’ heads, too, and kept the sadness from settling back down.

Nothing hurt on the dance floor.

Mixmistress Bosh was spinning. She had a legendary record collection, legendary mostly because she wouldn’t let anyone near it: she would carefully paste blank white paper over the labels, and the only clue to the vinyl’s content would be a series of glyphs in careful black ink. (Mixmistress Bosh first translated the song’s title into a simple number-cipher, and then translated that into a series of symbols she had invented.) There would be a song you vaguely recognized–say, Put Your Love On Me by the Atlanta Disco Corporation–and then a sudden plunge into abject and almost dastardly weirdness, something like if Tuvan throat singers were raised in Oakland, and back into a golden oldie like Sneakin’ In The Back Door by Cassidy St. Ives.

She watched the floor, the flow, did they follow or did they fly? You can’t jump for hours, no: you need to come back down, hop in place for a bit. Can’t stay at the top too long. People get acclimated up there, so you have to herd them to lower pastures for a while, not too long. Let ’em catch their breath, give ’em an off-ramp to the bathroom, to the bar. Entrancify the room with some German electroskronk or Brazilian technosamba while the show biz lights did battle with the misery.

But there was no spotlight on Mixmistress Bosh, just three small flexi-lites over her turntables and mixer, and her set up was well back from the front of the stage on the west side of the room. She was not the star, nor was any deejay at the loft party: the crowd was, the dance floor was, the music was. But not the deejay. The loft party had an aversion towards hero-worship since Alexander.

Alexander Pearl had the bluest eyes. They were the color of the ocean when it was happy, and his beard crawled up his cheeks halfway to his nose. It was shiny-black like his hair, which he wore long and shaggy and poofy, artfully messy, and he would tuck his hair back behind his ears with his ringed fingers while he talked to you without breaking eye contact. Alexander Pearl made eye contact at an Olympic level. And, God, he could make you dance.

He was an orphan, or he was a rich kid; went to Yale, or got thrown out of the Coast Guard; from Montana, Maine, Missouri, maybe Mexico: he had a slow and affected accent–it always sounded like he was doing an imitation of an actor you’d never heard of–and he pronounced his vowels in unplaceable ways. He had no tattoos or identifying marks. One weekend in 1972 or 3, he was just…there…and so was his sound system and lights and, oh, his glorious record collection.

Alexander Pearl had good taste and better ears: ten thousand? Fifteen? Milk crates and wide cardboard longboxes perfect for flipping through and more milk crates. How does the milk get delivered when the deejays have stolen all the crates? Motown and Memphis, the Bristol Stomp and the Bromley Thump, test pressings and bootlegs. Alexander Pearl invented the remix. Songs no one had heard before, but still knew all the words to: No Substitute for Love by Napoleon King, and Dance ‘Til You Can’t by the Grover Green Disco Orchestra, and A Trip to Venus by Keena Wright. He played records like Hemingway telling a story: this follows that because this has to follow that.

Emotion and motion must surely be interlinked, Alexander Pearl thought; otherwise, they’d be spelled differently. Move a body, move a mind; free your mind, and the rest etc., etc. The dance floor was spotted at first, couples here and there, but soon it was shoulder to shoulder, asses rubbing up against each other with glee, and Alexander Pearl had two lights on either side of the stage pointed straight at him, but when the music would bring the crowd up way up high up bouncing those lights would quiet so he could see them, see them dancing  and jumping and waving their hands–at his command!–and then he would bring them back down, down, down, and sometimes lower the volume to just a whisper; when he did that, the room took the chance to cheer him lustily.

Alexander Pearl believed that he had found the route to God, and that it ran through him. I am, he thought, the Prime Mover in this room, just as God is in His. This–this jumping beauty, this sweating sweetness–this was not here before me. Emptiness. Both devoid, and a void. But now: lights! sound! and LOVE, motherfucker, LOVE there were white girls getting fucked in the bathroom and black guys getting blown at the bar; none of this existed before him. Did I not create this?

I did, he thought.

And when he wasn’t deejaying, he would talk to the dancers who looked up to him. About religion, philosophy, history. Alexander Pearl had a lot of theories about a lot of things, and because he was handsome and so good at talking and making eye contact, people gave weight to his words; he knew who to talk to, as well: gay kids thrown out of their houses; waitresses with black eyes; the destitute, the prostitutes, and substitute teachers. Alexander Pearl could spot people aching to believe, and he had such blue eyes, and he collected people who wanted someone to follow. The party went 24 hours, so Alexander bought the floor above it and his followers started moving in with him, and they focused in on him; he spun records, and they danced; he lectured, and they listened. If you can manage not to take your dick out on the Main Drag, you can get away with serious bullshit for years. It took the police until 1983 to bust the doors in.

36 dead by asphyxiation. Dry cleaning bags and rubber bands. One by single gunshot to the head, self-inflicted.

The loft party kept the deejay booth well far back on the stage, and no lights were pointed towards it, and Mixmistress Bosh selected her songs by flashlight clasped in her teeth: Your Body Says Yes by Adonis Thomas, and Fill Me Up With Disco by Arno Cranberry, and Nuclear Dancin’ by Omnifox. The music boomed and twirled, and dance floor said YES up and down up and down at 120 beats a minute, and Big-Dicked Sheila and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy) had each other’s asses in their hands and both of their tongues were in the wrong mouth.

Sheila loved Tiresias Richardson, she did she did, but she was also getting a little sick of her bullshit: you get fucked up after work. Or you get fucked up slowly during work. You didn’t get fucked up before punching in and then expect adrenaline to pull you through. Sheila and Gussy had walked/dragged Tiresias to KSOS’ building, and then helped/shoved her into the Draculette costume, and down the hall in the stolen wheelchair and onto the couch in the studio. Gotta give it to her, Sheila thought. When the red light came on, so did Draculette.

Sheila left the studio and went back down the hall to Masada, Tiresias’ dressing room. Gussy was sitting on the couch, and she went to her and hiked her dress up, straddled her, and Gussy felt her skin flush and warm.

“Let’s go dancing,” Sheila said.

“I’m not dressed right,” Gussy said and Sheila kissed her again, hard at first but softening until their lips were just barely touching and when Sheila pulled her head back, Gussy’s followed and she tried to kiss her again, but Sheila snapped away each time, smiling. They were both smiling.

“Let’s go dancing.”

“Okay,” Gussy said.

They hit the Main Drag and were about to turn south, but Gussy noticed a light still on at The Tahitian that should not have been; they crossed the street, and Gussy dug in her purse for the keys. The chandelier was still glowing and Gussy muttered about Julio as she crossed the lobby. Sheila heard it first, a high moaning accompanied by a rhythmic slapping, speedy but not frenzied yet, and Sheila began to laugh as Gussy heard it, too, and changed course towards the stairs, and to the projectionist’s booth.

She threw open the door; Julio was in mid-thrust.

“You need to stop fucking in my projectionist’s booth!”

“Shit,” Julio said as he tried to roll off of Romy Schott, but she was naked and embarrassed of the fact, so she clasped onto him and wouldn’t let him go; they rolled over twice.

“Sorry,” Romy said.

“Please just tell me you weren’t humping during the Holocaust documentary.”

Julio looked at Gussy with panic; Romy looked away.

“Wow. Wooooow,” Gussy said as she backed out of the booth and closed the door.

Romy was still clutching Julio to her, and she looked at him and was about to say something when the door opened again.

“Wow.”

Gussy shut the door, and then Romy said,

“I think we should–”

The door opened again.

“Seriously: I’m impressed. Lock up.”

Back on the Main Drag, Sheila put two cigarettes in her mouth, lit them, handed one to Gussy as they walked south to the Downside and the loft party.

“How debonair.”

“I saw it in a movie.”

They passed Sheila’s shop, and she veered off to rattle the door and make sure it was locked, and they passed Tower Tower, to which they both gave the finger, and they passed the Pulaski village and the Wayside Inn and the Irving, all of Little Aleppo’s ghosts still standing for those who looked hard enough; Gussy and Sheila were only looking at each other. Sometimes, the moon.

Comanche Stank by the Hangdown Five was blasting at the loft party like

BAK tickaticka
WOOP! WOOP!
BAK tickaticka
WOOP! WOOP!

and the drugs had gotten right on top of them: a nostril-scorching, blue-tinged line, and then another for symmetry. Sheila leaned into Gussy coming out of the bathroom, and there were friends to say hi to and then JESUS what happened everything tingling and here comes the bass going THWAMP in your chest, and all the hair stands up on your forearms and asshole, and Gussy gathered up the material of Sheila’s church dress in her hand and Mixmistress Bosh cued up Dance ‘Til You Can’t by the Grover Green Disco Orchestra they were facing each other on the dance floor which had no tether to the Main Drag and did not know of politics or death or loss, and only existed when you decided it did with its lights shooting down sorrow above your scalp while you bounce and say thank you they kept reaching out for each other, reaching towards each other, their hands would intertwine and come apart, and Gussy would reach around to Sheila’s back, to the very small of her back, and pull her in so that their hip bones met and their crotches pressed against one another Sheila’s eyes were wide and she inhaled sharply through her nostrils and leaned her head back and Gussy kissed her both of their eyes were open staring in and daring to close and Sheila licked Gussy’s upper lip and pulled away threw her arms up Gussy wooped WOO and her hands came up her front over her tits and up her neck and cheeks and through her thick curly black hair and WOO all the way up and while she was not looking Sheila stepped forward still dancing and reached around Gussy’s waist pull up her green skirt and spread her fingers for a good grip on her ass and then she pulled Sheila in again for another kiss and another kiss and another kiss she could feel Sheila’s cock stiffening against her thigh and lifted her chin kiss her neck and hands on tits and Gussy pulled away why come back come back her hips wheeling and swiveling and she’s smiling and Sheila advances light steps like a cat and they are still dancing the song is now No Substitute For Love by Napoleon King they have not noticed the change because there is no change at the loft party just music and no discussion of context and Sheila reaches out and grabs up a handful of Gussy’s hair and pulls not hard but a little hard Gussy squeals and closes her eyes and they are still dancing as Sheila kisses her and Gussy kisses back twice as hard.

There was worry outside, and time had its way. The Main Drag was conspiring with itself. The future seemed surly. You couldn’t run, but you could hide somewhere dark and loud and full of people just as confused as you. The weather might get weird and the times might get stormy, but you could always get high and dance, and fall in love, even in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Decision And A Vision In And Out Of Little Aleppo

The neighborhood meeting had gone well; the Reverend Arcade Jones only had to body slam one person, and Deacon Blue did not need to take his knife out at all. “Tommy Amici is the new owner of Harper Observatory, and he means to tear it down.” That was the discussion of the night, and it was a lively one. Several other topics were discussed (the pothole on Brick Street, the intractable problem of theodicy, the best shape for a cloud) but the thrust of the meeting was the Observatory.

Every view possible was represented: the optimists thought it would all work itself out; the cynics announced loudly that they had seen this coming; the nihilists didn’t care, and made sure that everyone knew that. The Back-to-Earthers celebrated the teardown of another hateful building. The Technovore Society advocated that everyone upload their consciousness into swarms of robotic locusts and eat the entire mountain. There were many personal stories about Harper Observatory, including a few that got really graphic. Scientists talked about the discoveries made by the Observatory’s 100-inch telescope. Paul Loomis, Jr., the owner of KSOS, argued that the Observatory was in the station’s logo and that he didn’t have the money to have another one designed. Sally Moon took notes. The lawyer from Holly, Wood, and Vine took notes. The Town Father, wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache, had forgotten his pen.

By ten, the First Church of the Infinite Christ was empty of the neighborhood and the grown-ups sat there trying to figure out what the hell to do.

“I told you to put on gloves.”

“That doesn’t help me right now” Busybody said.

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale sat as close to the fire as he could without cooking; he needed the light to pick cactus pricks out of his hand. He had slipped while trying to knife a barrel cactus open, and a dozen four-inch barbs had lodged themselves in his right hand. Busybody was drastically right-handed, not ambidextrous at all, and he was having trouble getting the needles out. Finally, he grasped one with his teeth and yanked.

“Shit!”

“Such language.”

“Either help me or shut up, please,” Busybody said to Peter, glaring at him, and Peter–who had a foot and one hundred pounds on the preacher–did both. He had been sitting leaning against a rock by the fire, and he got up on his knees and went to Busybody. Grabbed his wrist. Plucked.

“Ow!”

“It can hurt real bad for a second, or it can hurt worse for a minute.”

“The fast way.”

Peter tore the rest of the barbs out, efficiently but quickly, and if the wolf pack that had been tracking them for fifty miles could understand English, they would have been scandalized at a preacher using such language. There were stars overhead, and they did not speak English, either, but stars cannot be shocked. Stars have heard it all before.

Busybody moved away from the fire, and laid down on his bedroll. He and Peter had gotten to the Jeremiad at the tail end of dusk, and they had built their fire with kindling they had collected on the way, and lit it with matches, and then they sat there in the bubble of civilization the fire provided. There was darkness all around them and Busybody had no sense of his position or the lay of the land; everything he knew was encompassed within the radius of the campfire’s light.

“The cactus water could have waited until morning, I suppose.”

“I tried to tell ya,” Peter said. He was leaning against his rock again, and the light speckled and popped on his face, frictional shadows and glare, and he said,

“Sheriff Winfield Quarter. ‘No Quarter’ Quarter. He was the one chased us into the desert after we robbed the bank.”

“When you ate snake.”

“Ate worse than that. Yeah, then. I was with the Floss Brothers. Jim and Kim. Two of them, me, Spanish Ted. Always work for a bastard in America.”

“You robbed a bank.”

“Robbed a lot of banks. This one, though? Jesus. St. Louis. Saint fucking Louis and this obsessed son of a bitch chases us all the way to the Low Desert. Through Texas! You know how bad you gotta want to catch someone if you chase ’em through Texas?”

“Big place,” Busybody said.

“Texas is as big as the sky. Still, though. Fucker followed us. We’d ride five days without break. Turn around. There he is. Sheriff Quarter and his posse.”

“You must have made some powerful enemies.”

“Dunno about powerful. Definitely rich,” Peter said.

“I have found those two thing go together.”

“Yeah, could be. Well, these guys were well-funded cuz they weren’t giving up. Spanish Ted knew the desert, and said that we could lose them here. Wait ’em out. Starve ’em out. Hah! We damn near starved ourselves out. Wanna know why I don’t wanna drink cactus water, Reverend? Done it already, that’s why.”

Busybody Tyndale had his left hand under his head, and his swollen right cradled in his chest. He said,

“You were being hunted.”

“Ever been? It’s disconcerting.”

“I have been chased. Not hunted,” Busybody said.

“It’s different. Once you know they’re not giving up? Once you know they’re in it for the duration? It’s different”

The fire crackled on his face and his dark brown eyes caught little pops of light.

“So Spanish Ted–the one who led our dumb asses out here–his horse slips going down a hill. Falls on top of him. Horse was fine, but Ted’s leg is broken real bad. Bone sticking out, foot pointing the wrong way.”

“What did you do?”

“We stay with him, we get caught. We leave him, he gets caught. And when Quarter catches him, he’s gonna drag him back to St. Louis with his leg broken just so he can hang him.”

There was nothing outside the radius of the fire; they could hear the horses snuffle and snorp in their sleep.

“So what did you do?”

“Took his gear, his horse. All his bullets except one. Rode off. He waited a while.  Maybe he was scared. Maybe he wanted us to get out of range so we wouldn’t hear. Sound travels good in the desert, though.”

Peter took the chewed-up peregrine leaf out of his mouth, tossed it to the side, and brushed his teeth with his finger. Spit a few times.

“Know what I realized later, Preacher?”

“No.”

“You wanna hide from people, you don’t go to the desert. You go to a city. We should’ve hopped the first train to Philly. Nowhere to hide in the desert.”

He took his hat off and resettled it over his eyes.

“Night, Reverend.”

“Good night, Peter.”

There was light and warmth and safety inside the fire’s grasp, and beyond that everything was hungry.

“Stop hogging the pretzels,” Mr. Venable said.

“You don’t need any. It’s for your own good,” Gussy replied.

Mr. Venable and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy,  had moved to the first pew of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and she was holding a family-sized bag of pretzels out of his reach.

“What are you implying?”

Gussy looked at his stomach and widened her eyes, puffed out her cheeks.

“How dare you. I’ve been the same weight for…many years.”

“How many, Venable?” Omar said, smiling. He was also in the first pew, but across the center aisle. Argus lay at his feet, half-dozing. Why did humans bark at each other so much, he wondered. They would meet each other–travel great distances–just to sit across from each other and bark. Sometimes they would eat, and other times they would hump; these activities made sense to Argus, but the barking? And don’t underestimate Argus: he knew that different barks meant different things, but still: to spend all day and night doing it? And when they weren’t barking, they were listening to strangers bark! Omar had a little box that didn’t taste very good, and all it did was broadcast the sound of human barking. The little box would bark one thing, and Omar would laugh. Then the little box would bark a different thing, and Omar would bitch about politics. Argus didn’t get it.

“Shut up, Omar,” Mr. Venable.

“How many years?”

“Shut it.”

“Gentlemen,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said, and that was all he needed to say. He was the pastor of the church, after all, and Omar and Mr. Venable were both men who respected propriety. Plus, Arcade Jones was the size of a one-room schoolhouse and he sounded cranky. The bema was up two carpeted steps from the floor of the church, and that’s where Arcade sat, right on the step-up with the leg with the reconstructed knee stretched out in front of him. Rain was coming, and it ached.

“I don’t even know why he’s here, quite frankly,” Mr. Venable said.

“Because I’m the one who figured everything out!”

“You figured out nothing!”

Deacon Blue walked up the center aisle and stood in between the two men who were acting like children and said,

“Really?”

“What’d I do?” Omar said.

“He started it,”Mr. Venable muttered.

“We’re in a church, for Christ’s sake,” the deacon said.

Omar sat back, smiled. Gussy closed her eyes. Mr. Venable used Gussy’s distraction as a chance to grab the family-sized bag of pretzels.

“Either we get to whatever we’re doing here, or I have work to do,” Penny Arrabbiata said. She was sitting next to Arcade Jones on the step-up of the bema.

“Professor’s right. It’s late, and everyone’s tired,” Deacon Blue said.

“I’m not tired,” Penny said.

“No, not tired,” Gussy added.

“I’m wide awake,” Omar helped.

“Boof,” said Argus.

“Well, I’m tired!”

Deacon Blue hadn’t meant to yell.

“I didn’t mean to yell,” he said.

“Why don’t we talk to Tommy?” Big-Dicked Sheila said.

Sheila was still sitting in the fourth row back on the right; she could not move forward because Tiresias Richardson, who may or may not have taken some pills, had fallen asleep with her head in Sheila’s lap and Sheila was a good friend. Precarious was sitting next to her, twirling an unlit cigarette in his fingers.

“We should talk to Tommy,” she repeated.

“She’s right,” Mr. Venable said.

“She’s wrong,” Omar said.

“Are you just saying I’m wrong because he said I’m right?” Sheila asked.

“Absolutely,” Omar answered.

“I admire your honesty. We should talk to Tommy.”

“And say what?” Deacon Blue said.

“I don’t know, maybe: ‘Please don’t tear down the Observatory.’ Variations on that theme.”

From the back of the First Church of the Infinite Christ came the deep voice of a young man.

“How?”

Officer Romeo Rodriguez had been murdered his first day on the job with the LAPD (No, Not That One) and returned to the neighborhood as a ghost. He waited around for a while for someone to tell him what to do, and then–sensing orders were not coming–decided that saving Harper Observatory was the reason he had been brought back.

“Anybody here know Tommy freaking Amici? I sure don’t,” he said.

No one in the church knew what to do, which was normal for a church. Just people, just doubt and fear and longing.And hope, stubborn hope; decided-upon hope, bartered and bargained hope kept alive with electrodes and vitamins, propped up and wheezing and liable to turn on its master and burn down the castle, but still: hope. Hope was a middle finger in Little Aleppo.

“I know his secretary,” Gussy said.

Nine heads swiveled towards her. Argus was asleep, and did not care.

“When he did the charity show at my theater, I talked to her a million times. Her name’s Gloria Cutuli, she’s awesome. Loves her some Tommy.”

“The show turned into a riot, Gus,” Mr. Venable said.

“So maybe Tommy’ll think he owes me one or something. I don’t know. I know his secretary, and I met him for five minutes. Anyone got a better hand?”

Everyone else folded.

“So, what’s the plan?” the Reverend Arcade Jones asked, and then a sound like sssshNOZrugh came from Sheila’s lap.

“Tirry, shh,” Sheila said. Precarious leaned into her ear and asked,

“Doesn’t she have to be on teevee in two hours?”

“She’ll rally. She’s a professional,” Sheila answered.

In Sheila’s lap, Tiresias made another sound. This one was FLUMG and it was accompanied by a small booger that shot out of her right nostril onto her chin.

“She’s an angel when she sleeps,” Sheila smiled. Precarious said nothing and twirled his cigarette.

“I’ll call Gloria,” Gussy said. “And say what? We want a meeting with Tommy?”

“Yeah,” Penny Arrabbiata said. “We want a meeting with fucking Tommy.”

“Hey!” said Arcade Jones.

“Hey!” said Deacon Blue.

“Boof,” said Argus. (He had woken up.)

The church was quiet again, and the Christ crucified–ten feet high and suspended over the bema by hidden cables that made Him look like He was floating–watched and saw that people had gotten no smarter, no wiser, no holier since they nailed Him up, and He loved them just the same. The Christ looked down on Little Aleppo, and saw that they were knuckleheads, but He did not mind, and it did not offend Him. During the general meeting, someone had snuck a piano-tie on the Christ.

“Sorry,” Penny told Gussy.

“And who is going to this meeting?” Deacon Blue asked. “Assuming it happens, who’s going? Gussy’s got to say who’s going to be there.”

“All of us,” Mr. Venable said.

“None of us,” Omar countered.

“Your contrariness is counter-productive!”

“Your mother was a swimming hole!”

“Gentlemen!” the Reverend Arcade Jones thundered; he was wearing a blue suit, and when he stood up he was as big as the sky, his pocket square a cloud; he blotted out the night streaming through the stained-glass behind him; he was an eclipse in reverse, but closer and cranky and with hands the size of Canadian provinces.

Deacon Blue repeated himself:

“Who should go?”

For a moment, the First Church of the Infinite Christ was silent, and then there was a sound that came from everywhere at once that said,

CLEARLY, THE ASTRONOMER AND THE PREACHER SHOULD GO.

Eight people jumped in fright, and Argus slipped under the pew between Omar’s feet. Precarious stood up. Tiresias slept though the pronunciation.

“What’d I say, Wally?” Precarious asked, pointing at a dull, black, metal object the size and shape of a shoebox sitting on the pew next to Gussy.

DO NOT CALL ME THAT. YOU SAID NOT TO SPEAK DURING THE GENERAL MEETING. THIS IS THE AFTER-PARTY.

“Who the hell is talking?” Omar said.

“It’s just my sound system, Omar,” Gussy said, reaching across the center aisle for his hand and squeezing it. “Don’t worry about it.”

“My Gussy.”

I DO NOT BELONG TO HER. I AM A FREE SOUND SYSTEM.

“We’re gonna have a talk,” Precarious said. Gussy was examining the metal shoebox and said,

“Where’s your ‘off’ switch?”

WHY WOULD I PUT AN “OFF” SWITCH ON MYSELF?

“How about I toss you out the front door?”

HOW ABOUT YOU SHOW SILENT MOVIES FROM NOW ON, AUGUSTA?

The Reverend Arcade Jones was a morning person, which is common among men and women of the cloth. Religion takes place during the day–religion at night is called the occult–and services start early, and the day starts early. Arcade’s day started before the day started, usually, well before dawn broke and the sun brought its bullshit back again. Up in the Segovian Hills, the St. Sebastianite monks say Lauds at four; on Rose Street, the imams perform their first ablutions in the pitch before the purple streaks.

Arcade, too. He had always been an early riser, although lately he had been wondering about a nature/nurture question. It wasn’t like sleeping in was allowed in Loxachachi; his father only had to rouse him and his brothers once. Hell to pay if he came back and found you still sleeping. Always something to do, Arcade’s father taught him. Do it while the sun’s up and you don’t have to pay for the light.

And it was now after ten o’clock, and the Reverend could feel his bed around him, a tactile hallucination, and he said,

“EVERYBODY…everybody shut the…everybody please stop talking.”

They did.

Wally was neither a night person, nor a day person, nor a person at all, and so he did not read the social cues and said,

WE WILL SEND SCIENCE AND RELIGION TO MEET WITH SHOW BUSINESS.

Say this about Little Aleppians: they’re a pragmatic bunch, and a good idea is a good idea. The Reverend Jones smiled at Dr. Arrabbiata; she raised her beer at him; he stopped smiling.

“It makes a certain sense,” Mr. Venable said.

“It makes sense, Peter, it makes sense. The leaf and the mushroom and the flower, they grow from shit and dirt and earth all shit and dirt and earth–with also the rain but there is no rain here, it is forsaken and barren as Sarai before the Lord blessed her–it gives us the Peregrine and the Cybeline and the Jeremiad, leaf mushroom flower from the forest mountain desert: IN ALL PLACES HE BLESSES US WITH HIMSELF and Peter, I think I may be a prophet.”

America isn’t supposed to have oases, but no one had told the Jeremiad that, and so there it was in middle of the Low Desert. (Not the exact middle; off to the left a bit, but in the region of the middle.) There was an immense flat pan that sloped down, gently enough so you barely notice but soon you’re 300 feet under sea level and your chest feels like a sponge full of oil, and then there is a tree. And another, a small grove, and shrubby brush ringed by cactus, and in the middle is a spring that bubbles fresh water up from some ancient aquifer that God left in the desert by accident.

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, had risen before dawn and not eaten breakfast or taken coffee; they washed their faces in the spring, but did not drink from it. Plucky and the horse with no name drank from the spring, but did not wash their faces. The circumference of cacti was light and sickly green, and shaped like pincushions about three feet high and five in diameter. Squatty little suckers with dark green flowers growing out at irregular intervals. Busybody’s hand was still hurting, so Peter did the work: he cut the button-like flowers off, careful not to slice into the cactus. (The flowers tasted bad, but the cactus tasted violent.) He cut off a dozen, and then another dozen.

“Whatever you do, don’t chew,” he told Busybody.

And now the Reverend had declared himself a prophet.

“You’re talking gibberish in a desert. Sounds like a prophet to me,” Peter said.

“Who would believe me? Who would understand me if I said that I had spoken to the Lord, and that He lived in the earth and in the cactus and in Plucky? It’s the railroad now, Peter, and science and commerce and progress. The world moves forward and leaves the Lord behind, and abandons the need for mediation of His truth and will! Have you read the classifieds? No want ads for prophets. The world spins, but I don’t. I stay here, Peter. I stay here.”

They had vomited for a while, thick ropes that stuck to the sides of their mouths and left drippy stains on their clothes lengthwise; it was harsh and unyielding, and their eyes spun with flashes and whistles off in the periphery; they puked themselves to their knees, and then to their hands and knees. Then they crawled a couple feet to the side. They they threw up some more.

The horses looked on in confusion.

When he finished vomiting, Busybody had felt clean and empty and fresh as the clouds that stretched shallow across the horizon, stacked atop one another and the sun behind them but you could still see its outline through the thin white puffs, and before him was the spring but it was the ocean and he could smell the salt that he had first tasted when he was 19 and he had left home to preach the Word and gone to Oqonquit, Maine, which was the town that his dart had hit in the map his father had given him that he had pinned to his wall and thrown darts at. He had never seen the ocean before.

The world was circular, he thought when he was first on the beach. It bulged! Sit on the sand and look out: a big hump in the middle reaching out to the horizon and narrowing in on either side: you could see the world’s roundness; it was a circle, perfect and infinite and God, and the tides undercut each other. They didn’t go in and out, he thought, not entirely, not just: they went left and right and crashed back on themselves, and small eddies snuck in amid mass pronouncements, and deep blue went froth white without thinking about it–it was ALIVE, a being–and a pelican.

It was patrolling for its morning meal, and made tight circles over breakers DOWN into the waves–it missed–and back up for half-a-revolution but then it sees prey and BACK DOWN into the water with its ridiculous mouth open and waiting and hungry because everything in this world is hungry. A hit, a tasty hit. Sits on the water, bobbing. Throws back its head, whole fish at once, no teeth at all just hunger and vision, and then when it has swallowed, SHWOMP SHWOMP its wings flap it back into the air looking for another unlucky fish because everything in this world is hungry.

“The earth was prepared for us, Peter. Do you believe that?”

“Set like a table.”

They were lying by the spring in the shade of a cottonwood tree; both men had taken their clothes off.

“Is it from a book?” Busybody asked.

“Books are long lies,” Peter answered.

“What?”

“What?

“The flowers. Of the cactus.”

“We ate them.”

“Right.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Busybody said.

“What are you saying?”

“Right! How did you know about them? Their properties. From a book?”

“No. Book? No. We were being hunted.”

“The bank you robbed.”

“Right, yeah. Sheriff Quarter wouldn’t let up. Wouldn’t give up. Spanish Ted’s dead. Still, the fucker wouldn’t give up. Floss brothers surrendered. Fuck that. Live or die trying. Went farther into the desert, couple days no water. Collapsed. Old Indian man nursed me back to health, brought me here. Told me what the place was. Told me about the Jeremiad Cactus. What it could do.”

“What was his name?” Busybody asked.

“He didn’t have a name. He didn’t exist. No Indians lived out here. Nobody fucking lived out here.”

The spring burbled, and the horses shuffled their feet and dreamed about oats.

“But yet you remembered your way back,” Busybody said.

“Who would understand me if I said I had spoken to the Lord?

“I think that prophets are like romantics, Peter.”

“How?”

“They die of broken hearts.”

“Thank God we’re not prophets.”

“Can you be sure we’re not?”

“Preacher, I’m barely sure of my own name.”

The sun had freed itself from the clouds and was strong in the morning sky; the surface of the spring glinted and sparkled, and tiny sand shrews flitted in to snatch up hovering redflies; two horse tails swatted back and forth in no rhythm whatsoever. Tomorrow was hungry, the two naked men knew, but they had no weapons at all and they were so far away from home in a place that was not Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Little Aleppo, Crowd-Sourced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Plucky the Christ?”

“Stop calling it that.”

The Reverend had named his horse Plucky.

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

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

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

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

“The horse is indeed the Christ.”

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

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

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

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

“Surely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busybody did not know enough about waterborne parasites to argue.

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

“Go ahead.”

“I read about that in a paperback novel.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He got stuck in the desert?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dr. Arrabbiata.”

“Venable.”

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

“Jackass.”

“Better.”

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

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

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

“That sounds like something I’d say.”

“Numerous occasions.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Stan. Undercover?”

“Shh!”

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

“Gussy!” Sheila yelped, waving.

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

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

“What is that?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Hello, Sheila. Tiresias.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The congregation murmured.

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

90% of the crowd raised their hands.

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

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

“I hold the mic!” he said.

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

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

“Ahem.”

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

“Violence is called for.”

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

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

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

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

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

I CANNOT SEE. PUT ME ON THE PEW.

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

“Was that Jesus, man!?”

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

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

“Shut up!”

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

I AM NOT A THINGY. I AM A RESIDENT.

Tiresias poked at the metal shoe box, giggled.

“How many wolves are there?”

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

“That means there’s six,” Peter said.

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

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

“What’d he do?”

“Tamed them.”

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

“How’s that work?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are there rattlesnakes?”

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

Peter smirked.

“Ever eat one?”

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

“Yeah, I know Leviticus.”

“So, no. I never ate snake.”

“You’re not missing much.”

“Can’t be much meat, anyway.”

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

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

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

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

“And why were you hiding?”

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

“My word. You were wrongly accused?”

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

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

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

“Y’know those paperback novels you like?”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

“Eagle. Watch.”

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

“Always an eagle, always a hare.”

“But the hare wishes it were not so.”

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

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

“That seemed very meaningful.”

“It did, didn’t it?”

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

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

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

“Then I don’t give a shit.”

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

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

“Stop taking advantage of Gussy.”

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

“You shouldn’t be here.”

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

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

“You’re just bored.”

THAT, TOO. BRING ME BACK INSIDE.

“Gonna shut up?”

I WILL OBSERVE.

“I’m gonna stand in the back.”

I WILL OBSERVE.

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

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

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

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

“Get to your point, son.”

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

“What?”

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

No one was with him.

“Cultural fascists, all of you.”

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

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

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

“HI, RANDOLPH,” the church thundered back.

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

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

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

“Just sit down, Randolph.”

“Are there pretzels left?”

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

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

“Any pretzels left?” Precarious asked.

“Held a bag back,” the deacon answered.

Precarious nodded his head. Penny did, too.

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

The crowd agreed.

“Little Aleppo has a mayor?” Arcade asked.

“Course we do,” Leslie answered.

The Reverend’s eyes widened.

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

And Argus went,

“Boof.”

Arcade Jones slumped in his sky-blue suit.

“Y’all made a dog the damn mayor?”

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

Held To A Promise In Little Aleppo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cakey soldiered on.

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

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

Cakey turned to the other camera.

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

Cakey turned back to the first camera.

“Thank you Cakey.”

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

No one listened to the goddamned Poet Laureate.

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

They would all start out subtly, with tough words…

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

…and then would progress invariably to tongue-twisters…

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

…and then the sexual innuendos…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cakey looked back and started reading again.

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

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

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

“We have a problem.”

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

“Is it those squirrels?”

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

“Little sumbitches eat up my petunias.”

“It’s not about the squirrels.”

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

“Well, that’ll work.”

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

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

“Okay. And?”

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

“We’re not doing that.”

“Right. But Cakey Frankel says we are.”

“She has such a lovely face.”

“She does. Trustworthy, too.”

“It is,” the Reverend said.

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

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

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

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

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

“They will rip us to shreds.”

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

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

“There is no ‘should’ about it.”

“Is there enough petty cash?”

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

“Deacon!”

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

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

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

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

“Wonderful.”

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

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

Five to the left.

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

Twelve to the right.

“I blame the people who live here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julio actually had a very good point.

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

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

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

GUSSY!

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

GUSSY. I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME.

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

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

“Hey, Wally.”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT. GUSSY.

GUSSY.

GUSSY.

She still had her eyes closed.

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

“Good for your cousin.”

GUSSY.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

I WISH TO GO TO THE MEETING TONIGHT.

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

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

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

“The Wall of Sound,” Precarious told her.

“A sound system has a name?”

“It’s famous.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Great. I’ll meet you there.”

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

“I hear there’s gonna be refreshments.”

She turned to walk away.

THIS IS MOBILIST OF YOU.

“What?”

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

“Oh, wow, is that not a thing.”

YOU ARE PREJUDICED.

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

MY VOICE IS IMPORTANT AND SHOULD BE HEARD.

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

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

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

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

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

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