Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 12)

Cats And Dogs In Little Aleppo

Emergency and Kischka were not getting along. The Reverend Arcade Jones had bought Emergency as a puppy from a motel proprietor in Jeremiad Springs. Fifty bucks. Reverend thought it was the best fifty bucks he ever spent, especially because it was the church’s money and no one ever asked him for reimbursement. He was a tiny little quivering thing, but so damned friendly. Fit right in Arcade’s ample palm. Puppies grow up quick, and Emergency was just about full-grown now. He was dog-sized. Some dogs are as big as horses, or small as rats; Emergency was the size of a dog. He had a short coat that was rust-colored in some lights, dirty-blond in others. Floppity ears, and he did not loll his mouth open with his tongue draped out when he walked around, instead jutting his bottom lip up like he was contemplating a big purchase. Emergency was a thoughtful looking dog, unless he was gnawing on his own leg. It is difficult to look thoughtful while gnawing on your own leg.

The Reverend was getting along just fine with Emergency. They were inseparable except for in the actual church part of the First Church of the Infinite Christ. Can’t have dogs wandering around during the service, the Reverend thought. He didn’t know whether that was hippie bullshit or white people bullshit, but there were not gonna be any dogs roaming about while he was giving his sermon. Emergency stayed in the offices, and upstairs in Arcade’s apartment under the belfry. (The belfry contains the church’s bell, which is named the Calling Judge and is ten feet in diameter. It begins its hourly duties at 8 am, but Arcade is always downstairs and into his day by then. Emergency tried to sleep in one time; the Reverend warned him. When the bell tolled, the dog shot five feet straight into the air and down the stairs and he was whimpering under Arcade’s feet for the rest of the day. Emergency was an early-riser after that.)

There was as much training as there was spoiling, and Emergency was a spoiled animal. Congregants bought toys for him, and the Reverend taught him to put them all in his box at the end of the day. Locals stopped to fawn over him on the Main Drag, and the Reverend taught him to shake hands like a gentleman. Unless it was raining, they walked to the Verdance every day with a chewed-up Nerf football. Emergency only knew one pattern, the fly, but he ran it like a Hall-of-Famer: Arcade would boom HUTHUTHIKE and he would go shooting across the grass of the Grand Lawn, looking back over his shoulder every ten paces; the Reverend would take a five-step drop and SAAAAAAAIL that gnawed ball high and arcing towards where the dog might be, and he always was; he would twist around 360 in the air while still going forward and not lose a step with the ball now in his mouth and then he would make a sharp corner back to where the Reverend was and give the ball back and his ass would quiver until he heard that magic sound HUTHUTHIKE and off once more. The Reverend was considering teaching Emergency how to run a buttonhook.

Heel was the best one. Sit was important, and down was vital, but heel was the best command there was. Heel meant “Walk with me.” Partner up. Arcade had one of those leashes with the long, retractable leads and all he had to do was say “Heel!” and Emergency would be there under his right hand, matching his pace. The dog picked up commands quickly, and Arcade knew that he no longer needed to praise her for heeling, but he did anyway. Arcade liked telling him he was a good dog.

And he was. Emergency was not just a good dog, but a very good dog. Yes, he was; yes, he was. He chewed up only that which was designated as chewable, and he pooped outdoors every single time. (Except every 18 days, when it rained. Emergency would not leave the church when it rained even a tiny little bit. The Reverend tried carrying him out a couple times, but the dog went limp or spazzed out of his grasp or whined or any number of dog tricks; Arcade was wise enough to pick his battles, and just laid out newspaper after that.) He was gentle around babies, and tolerant around children, and boisterous around teenagers, and patient around old folks. Emergency was a good dog.

So he did not understand what he had done to deserve Kischka’s presence.

She was a mackerel tabby. Striped like a tiger, but gray and black instead of orange, and black fur in the shape of an M on her forehead between her eyes. Earnest Hubbs rescued her from the Hotel Synod as a kitten. His guy was in Room 312, which is the back. Enter through the glass doors on Clarke Street and nod to Frankie Teakettle behind the front desk and up two flights of steps–the elevators in the Synod were disloyal and worrisome–and down the hall to his guy. It was a regular appointment. Earnest Hubbs bought dope like Europeans buy groceries: just enough for the night. Friendly knock. Tap tap TAP tap. His guy took care of him. Buy four, get the fifth free. Fresh points. Addicts can trace their life through their guys. This one was all right, Earnest thought. Nice enough, but about business. Didn’t make you sit there and talk to him if you didn’t want to. He bought four bags, with the fifth free, and took three clean needles and thanked his guy and out the door and down the hall back to the stairs.

“Hello.”

Earnest had not seen the open door to his left. There was a woman with a shaved head and leather boots. She was holding a tiny kitten, a tabby.

“Hey,” Earnest said.

“I’m gonna kill this. This little fucker. I’m gonna kill it.”

The woman had tan eyes. Color of khaki, wheat, sand. A sharp nose and a kitten in her hand.

“Don’t do that.”

“Gonna.”

“Why?”

“We’re past ‘why?’ We’re so far past that.”

There were seven or eight people in the room behind the woman, as Earnest could count. They were engaged in acts. The kitten was barely weaned, and still had sleepy and trusting eyes. It yawned. Tiny fangs flashed.

“Gonna kill the little fucker,” the woman said, and she smiled.

Earnest shot his hand out and snatched up the kitten by its scruff before she could move, and then the animal was cradled against his chest and he stared in the woman’s tan eyes.

“Yeah, fuck you. Go back to your fucking devil orgy.”

She did; the door shut. The hallway of the Hotel Synod was quiet, and shabby. Earnest could hear typing coming from behind the door of the corner suite. He walked down the raggedy carpet to the stairs, and out of the lobby onto Clarke Street, and north on the Main Drag, and west onto Rose Street and down the stairs to his basement apartment in the synagogue of Torah, Torah, Torah where he was the handyman; he fixed, and then he had a cat. She (Earnest had looked) did not seem bothered by her travails. She was, in fact, dead asleep on his pillow. If a person had done that, Earnest would have stabbed their ass, but he just sat in his chair and stared and cooed.

“Kischka. You gonna be called Kischka,” he said to the napping kitty. Earnest liked Jew food. Rabbi Levy had told him not to call it “Jew food” in public, and so he didn’t, but he still thought of it as Jew food. Pastrami and tongue and kippered salmon. Challah bread slathered in spicy purple horseradish. Kugel and knishes and kasha varnishkas. Kreplach. And kischka, too. Rabbi Levy asked him why he named the cat Kischka.

“Love me some kischka,” Earnest answered.

And he loved him some Kischka. She had free reign in the temple. The first pew got direct sun in the morning, and she would stretch out on the dark-blue padding and snooze. In the afternoons, the light came into the rabbi’s office, and she would nap in there while he prepared his sermon or argued with his brother-in-law. Kischka avoided the Hebrew School classes and services. Once a day, she patrolled the front yard in between the synagogue and Rose Street. There were neatly-maintained bushes and two lemon trees, one on either side of the path leading to the door. She sniffed at them, marked them, clawed them. They were her trees. Once in a while, she’d kill a wren. She would bring it inside for Earnest. He was terrible at catching wrens; she had never seen him do it once. Kischka had her synagogue and her yard and her trees.

And then she didn’t.

Moving can be traumatic for people, but it’s catastrophic for cats. Kischka had just got Torah, Torah, Torah smelling the way she wanted it to when the building burned down. It was the only home she’d ever known, and now she was cast out into the wilderness. Ostracized like Themistocles, Kischka did not think because she was a cat. That her new home in the First Church of the Infinite Christ was right down the street–you could see the ruins of the temple from the church’s front yard–did not matter. Cats have different senses of geography than humans. There is home, and then there is the void. Kischka spent the first four days in his new digs hiding under Earnest’s dresser.

(Believers from up and down Rose Street donated to Earnest Hubbs after the fire. New furniture and clothes. Several broadswords, for some reason.)

When Kischka finally emerged, she was pissed. This is not, she thought, my beautiful house. From the apartment, she padded into the basement proper, where there were chairs and tables and an old rickety piano. 12-step literature on the walls, which Kischka did not read; she was not a drinker. Absolutely nothing smelled the way it should. There was, however, a mouse. She took out her frustrations on it for far longer than was necessary. Naive liberals often castigate their own kind by saying that humans are the only animal to be willfully cruel; they had never watched Kischka with a mouse. She let it almost escape time and time again. When she got bored, she slammed it on the linoleum with her paw, sank her fangs into its neck, pulled. She ripped the mouse open and ate its liver and lungs, left the bloody rest laying there.

Up the stairs. Her tail pointed down to make herself a smaller visible target, and her head was snaking low. Full pupils to take in everything. A large room with a high ceiling, just like in the synagogue, but different. Raised platform on one side, pews in the middle. Same as the synagogue, mostly. Color scheme was all wrong. Some sort of statue of a man with his arms out floating above the stage. Kischka did not recognize him. She sniffed at a pew and did not smell any other cats, so she rubbed herself along the edge and then it was hers. The pew behind it, and the one behind that. It took Kischka around an hour to make the church hers. Naturally, this exhausted her and she lay down under the statue of the floating man that she did not recognize and slept.

“Hrroooooooo. Hrrroooooooo.”

“Why are you whining, Goofydog?”

The Reverend Arcade Jones sometimes called Emergency “Goofydog.” Other names the Reverend called him were Handsome Man and Mookie and Spaz and Sweetie Sweetums and Jerry Rice. (When Emergency made a particularly good snag when they were playing catch, the Reverend called him Jerry Rice. Emergency liked it when he got called that. It meant he did something good, and he liked to be good.)

“Hrroooooo.”

“What?”

Emergency did not know how Arcade could not smell that. An odd, unwelcome, and new scent. From the place he was not supposed to go. It was a small and prickly smell, and–most importantly–it was a smell that was not supposed to be there, An interloping smell. It was so strong! How can he not smell this? the dog asked himself. It was one of those things, Emergency thought. He had seen them in windows when they went on walks through the neighborhood. Or on front yards for a second before they went diving into bushes and under porches. Kinda dog-shaped, but not? You know: those things. Jesus, man, can you really not smell that fucker?

“Hrrrrrooooooooooooo.”

“Go! Out! If you’re gonna be weird, then get out.”

The Reverend pointed towards the door. Dogs understand pointing. We made them, so they understand pointing. Emergency left the office, and the Reverend Arcade Jones sat there with Mrs. Fong.

“I admire the way you work with the youth, Reverend.”

“That was my dog, Mrs. Fong.”

“In my day, boys like that were sent into the Army. Toughened them up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Or killed them. Either way: no more whining.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Emergency was a good dog, and good dogs know the rules. Here is for you, but there is not. To go there is to be bad, and Emergency did not want to be bad. He was a good dog. Still: that smell. That curious and out-of-place smell that did not belong and had not been here before. It was coming from the place he was not supposed to go. Emergency stood outside the office, on the precipice of the nave, shivering with confusion and desire. He looked back at the open door. Arcade was not looking. He crept towards the smell. Looked back again, then towards the smell, then back, and then he lowered himself into a crouch and moved towards that odor that was by now his entire universe: what the FUCK was that smell, man!? And who said it could be here?

He pawed up the left side of the church and up the two steps the raised platform called the bema and there it was. There was the smell. Gray and black and sprawled on its side. He had seen these things before, but never met one. Dogs can walk very quietly on carpeted floor, and he did, so the cat was still asleep when Emergency was right over her.

Kischka had never encountered a dog. They had passed on the sidewalk in front of Torah, Torah, Torah and she had watched them through the windows. A few times, she had been in the front yard when they came by; she dove into a bush or under the porch.

WHAMPWHAMPWHAMP the cat slapped the dog on his muzzle the second she opened her eyes. She ran downstairs and back under the dresser; he scampered back into the office and hid under the Reverend’s legs making scared little noises like,

“Broo broo broo.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones looked down and said,

“You met the cat, huh?”

And then there was a studied détente. Kischka lounged wherever she felt like, and Emergency took whatever was left. He stuck close to the Reverend. Kischka allowed Earnest to stroke her, sometimes, and other times did not. Cats and dogs lived together if they had to, and they chose to, in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America

Breathing In And Out In Little Aleppo

A werewolf and his wife sat on a couch. He took up two-and-half-of the three seat cushions, and his ass was hanging off the arm rest of one side of the sofa; she was pinned up against the other one with his cow-sized head on her lap. With her right hand, she snagged potato chips out of a bowl on the short table–one for her, one for the werewolf–and with her left, she idly scratched at his flank and ran her palm up and down the bony spine that ran in between two canyons of thick muscle. She also wiped potato chip grease on his head occasionally. The teevee was tuned into KSOS and the Late Movie was playing.

Harry and Capolina Gardner were having a quiet night in.

This was the third month of Harry’s transformations, and the couple had settled into a rhythm. Capolina marked the days of the full moon on the calendar hanging on the fridge by drawing fanged mouths around the dates; Harry didn’t think that was funny. She had also bought him a bone, which he also did not think was funny except for when he was a werewolf, at which time he enjoyed gnawing on it. The last night of the waxing gibbous moon, they would walk to Dario’s butcher shop on the Main Drag and buy a couple pounds of chuck and four or five whole chickens. Harry had told her several times that he was sure he could eat it all raw, but Capolina was a nurse at St. Agatha’s and had seen too many food poisoning cases to let her husband eat uncooked chicken, even if he was a 600 pound hellhound, so she roasted the birds with a lemon-pepper glaze she made herself. The chuck she cracked some eggs into and made meatloaf. Harry would turn, and then he’d snooze for a bit, and then they’d eat–he was tall enough to stand at the kitchen table; she would sit–and then they’d flip on the teevee and sit wrapped up in one another on the brown corduroy couch that was a hand-me-down from her mother. Same as most other nights, but furrier.

Capolina had watched once. The transformation. Just once. She worked in the Emergency Room at St. Agatha’s, and she had seen trauma. Stabbings, shootings. A man who had tried to fight a helicopter’s tail rotor. She had been on duty once when a guy came in with eyeballs made of moss; they had not, that morning, been made of moss; he was taking it poorly and loudly. Capolina had patched up the victims of the Night of the Swan Knives. (Someone taped machetes to the wings of the swans who live in Lake Bell in the Verdance. It’s a long story.) Burn victims, too. But the transformation was different. It was to normal trauma what guacamole was to the moon landing: not comparable whatsoever. She was crying by the end, and he laid there panting and whimpering. He had told her she didn’t want to watch. After that, Capolina went in the bedroom and turned up the clock radio on her the nightstand on her side of the bed. Harry would strip out of his clothes and sit naked on the couch with his hands clasped in his lap. She would kiss him and go in the bedroom and turn up the radio. She turned it up loud; the sound of breaking bone carries.

When she would fall asleep, Harry would slide off the couch and nose her legs up onto the cushions, sniff her a few times, lay down on the floor beside her.

“We’ve never had sex when I was a werewolf.”

“No.”

“Is that out of the question?”

“Entirely.”

Harry liked to walk Capolina to the hospital in the mornings. They held hands as they strolled down Bailey Street.

“It’s me on the inside.”

“Yeah, baby, but you’re a giant evil dog on the outside. With, you know, a lipstick thing.”

“It’s not a lipstick thing.”

“It’s not a human dick, baby.”

“I’m a human.”

“Like, 85% of the time. And when you are? I love your dick.”

Capolina pulled Harry in towards her and he stumbled on the sidewalk a bit; she kissed his neck and bit it lightly.

“But not when you’re a werewolf.”

“I was trying to spice things up.”

“You’re already very spicy, baby.”

They walked in silence for a half-block. Bumping shoulders and Capolina rubbed Harry’s thumb with hers.

“It’s just that…you know…even when I’m that thing…I still love you.”

She stopped short, yanking him back into her green-scrubbed arms. Kissed him right on his mouth.

“I know, baby.”

“How do you know?”

“You haven’t eaten me.”

Their neighbor, Mrs. Teitelbaum, passed on the sidewalk.

“Hello, Mrs. Teitelbaum.”

“Ma’am.”

Mrs. Teitelbaum held her enormous pocketbook closer to her chest and said,

“Weirdos.”

Harry and Capolina laughed and kissed again.

“Weirdos. You heard her,” she said.

“Weirdwolf.”

“Right? If Mrs. Teitelbaum only knew.”

They started towards the hospital, and then Harry froze in place like he’d been hit by lightning that freezes people in place instead of setting them on fire.

“Holy shit.”

“Baby?”

“She just walked by a werewolf and she had no idea,” he said with wide eyes. Harry grabbed Capolina by her shoulders and held her fast. He looked up and down the empty street. “How many werewolfs have we walked by and not known?”

“I don’t think any,” she said flatly.

“Can’t be. There’s me. The fucker that bit me. That’s two; that’s two we know of. There must be more.”

“Where are they? Nobody who’s been attacked like you were has come into the hospital.”

“They’re there. They’re here.” Harry sniffed the air. “I can smell them.”

“You don’t actually have werewolf powers when you’re a person.”

“You don’t know that.”

Capolina put her hands on Harry’s eyes and said,

“Who’s walking towards us?”

Harry took in great gulps of air with his nostrils.

“Trick question. No one’s on the street.”

She took her hands off his eyes, and Mr. Teitelbaum walked by them.

“Hello, Mr. Teitelbaum.”

“Sir.”

“Have you seen my wife?”

They both pointed in the direction she had gone.

“She left me at home to die, but fuck her.”

“That’s a good attitude, Mr. Teitelbaum,” Capolina said.

“I’m saving my farts for when I catch up to her.”

“Excellent plan, Mr. Teitelbaum.”

“Marriage is a constant negotiation.”

After he shuffled off, Capolina kissed Harry again, right on the mouth, and said,

“That’s gonna be us one day.”

And he kissed her back, and now they were on their secondhand corduroy couch in their one-bedroom cottage on Bailey Street with the teevee on and his great hairy head in her lap watching the Late Movie on KSOS.

“It’s about breathing, boogers. This is…this is what’s not understood. The diaphragm retracts, and the intercostal muscles flex. This spreads out the lungs, which increases the interior space, which lowers the air pressure, which draws air into them. It’s a basic…it’s scientific. The air gets warmed by the nostrils and slides down the larynx and plonks itself down into the lungs.”

Draculette laid on her purple Edwardian couch and stared off beyond the camera.

“And that’s what…it’s, uh, it’s all about. Breathing is the hokey-pokey. That’s what it’s all…AAAAHahaha.”

She stared a bit more. Her wig was listing ten degrees to starboard and one of her spidery eyelashes was attempting to crawl off her face.

Tiresias Richardson sat inside a movie theater and thought about facades. She had looked up the word in the thick blue dictionary she kept in her kitchen. She did everything but eat there–meals are to be taken in bed, of course–and the dictionary sat next to her pads and scattered pencils and back copies of Spotlight, which was the show biz newspaper. When she woke up in the afternoon, Tiresias would drink coffee and open up the French doors that led to the Juliet balcony overlooking Nurmi Street. The balcony’s floor was made of curved rebar spaced too widely to stand on.

The Tahitian had a facade that was blank until a teenager climbed a ladder and misspelled movie titles on it, and in the auditorium was a facade purchased specifically for its blankness, a silvery and unnatural nothingness that stretched across the room’s east wall for a hundred feet and rose six stories. A facade was a place to lie, she thought, and then quickly amended her thought: a place where lies were guaranteed. Anything you projected onto a facade became a lie, even if you were telling the truth.

This struck Tiresias as a very important thought, and so she turned to Big-Dicked Sheila in the seat next to her and said,

“All faces are lies.”

Sheila was leaned over the railing of The Tahitian’s balcony watching the crowd fill itself out. She saw friends, and people she was avoiding, and friends she was avoiding. Several motherfuckers she had been looking for. Money owed and lent. Good fucks and bad, and thieves and angels and suspected werewolfs. Bald spots. Suspiciously long handshake, chilly hugs. She saw envelopes of whatnot being stuck in pockets. General milling about.

“Sheel,” Tiresias said, and scratched at her shoulder.

Sheila looked at her as though she’d never seen her before.

“Uh-huh?”

“All faces are lies.”

“Okay.”

“Tell Precarious.”

“Okay.”

Precarious Lee was sitting on the other side of Sheila, also leaning over the railing and taking in the sights. You could fill the auditorium in 20 minutes, empty it in five. The fire exits: there, there, there, that one was just painted onto the wall, there, there. Room needed 10,000 watts to shake it, give or take a few hundred, but The Tahitian’s sound system ran at 26,400 watts, which meant you could set the volume at around 2 for comedies or 3 for action flicks. There was friendly music playing. Precarious could see the speakers blob out and retract like the music’s beat was a bully. The walls danced in time, too.

“Precarious?”

“Yup?”

Sheila blanked, turned back to Tiresias.

“Something about faces?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What was it?”

“The thing I said?’

“Yeah.”

“What did I say?”

“That’s what I’m asking.”

Tiresias thought very, very hard for maybe 30 seconds and said,

“Can I have some soda?”

Sheila glared at her.

“I asked you if you wanted one. They’re free.”

“Soda isn’t free. You can’t get free soda. That’s, like, the basis of capitalism.”

“Capitalism beaches itself on the shores of love.”

Sheila was dating The Tahitian’s owner, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, and thus was the recipient of both free beverages and complimentary snacks. Sheila tried not to take advantage of this perk, but Gussy had told her what the unit cost and markup was and she didn’t feel all that bad. She had a large tub of popcorn with extra butter topping-flavored butter topping, and a superb-sized Diet Coke. (Gussy sold super-sized drinks until McDonald’s threatened to sue, so she Sharpie’d in a “b” on the end of “super” and went about her business.) There were also three boxes of peanut M&M’s in her purse.

Precarious also got free snacks at the theater, a popcorn and an orange soda, but he had never slept with Gussy. He had donated the sound system in exchange for free admission and the aforementioned snacks To Gussy’s credit, even when the sound system turned out to be both sentient and a pain-in-the-ass, she still held up her side of the deal.

“Sooooooooda,” Tiresias moaned.

“Here ya go,” Sheila said, and put the cup in her crotch and stroked it up and down. “I got yer soda right here, bitch.”

“You’re still more charming than my last six dates. AAAAHahaha!”

The balcony was full of recidivism. Twelve gently sloping rows with the projectionist’s booth in the middle like a ship’s wheelhouse. The booth was empty tonight. A dice game in the corner, and at least two women practicing their bullwhip acts. Someone had brought a charcoal grill, kielbasa, tongs. The balcony was insurrectionary at the best of times, restive the rest of the time; like a border collie, it was destructive when bored. It was not bored tonight. Several rolls of toilet paper went arcing out and down towards the orchestra section, and not all of them were on fire.

The curtain was drawn, and there were more than a dozen folding chairs on the stage. Gussy could not get a straight answer on how many people were to be giving the presentation and answering questions, so she erred on the side of plenty and placed all the chairs she owned on the painted-black planks of the stage, along with a microphone on a stand. There were also two microphones at the end of each aisle so Little Aleppians could speak. Each was guarded by a cop.

No one was happy with the cops. No one was ever happy with the cops, but it was generally a more diffuse irritation, a buzzy and inchoate “fuck those fuckers” kind of unhappy; now, the feeling was specific and pointed and on its way to becoming spiked. No one was happy with the Town Fathers, which was also normal, but threats had worked their way in now and locals threw not eggs but rocks. No one was happy with the fire department. That was a new one.

Little Aleppo was scared.

The Mayor took the stage and a lusty cheer went up.

“Good evening, Little Aleppo. I’m Cakey Frankel.”

“HELLO, CAKEY!” the crowd roared back.

Cakey Frankel had not run for office. She was the anchor of KSOS’ five o’clock news show, and beloved in the neighborhood for her utter incomprehension of what she was reading. Also, for her hair. It did not move, but still seemed free; it was blonder than blonde; it was authoritative hair that brooked no dissent. Cakey’s hair increased her head’s volume by a factor of two. Her teeth looked like professional clouds.

“What a turnout!”

The Harper Foole was Harper College’s humor magazine. Some years, they published an issue; other years, they fucked around and bothered people. This year belonged to the latter category. Performance humor, they called it. The comedy of direct action. Running a comedy candidate had its charms, sure; there were some laughs to be had. An animal, a drunk, the goofy fuck who said goofy shit. Ha ha ha. But running a candidate against said candidate’s will? That was funny. It wasn’t 24 hours after they put up the first campaign posters touting Cakey that she announced on the air that she wasn’t running.

(Cakey was reading from a statement written for her. She didn’t precisely understand why she couldn’t run for Mayor.

“You’re a journalist, kinda,” Paul Loomis, Jr., the owner of KSOS told her.

Cakey had wide eyes and she nodded her head and said,

“Uh-huh. And?”

“And you can’t run for office and be a journalist at the same time.”

“Uh-huh. And?”

The conversation went on like that for some time.)

The neighborhood caught on to the joke quickly, and hundreds of people would show up for her campaign speeches. The Foole‘s staff played her loyal pols, and would stall the crowd with stories about how Cakey was held up in traffic or kidnapped by barbarians. She was on her way. At one supposed speech, a Foole writer named Baffin Moore regaled the crowd with a tale about Cakey volunteering in Namibia. She was, according to Baffin, teaching tap dance to the Bushmen. The problem was that there just weren’t any hardwood floors. Someone taped the routine; it was widely bootlegged and played at parties for years afterwards.

Which put Cakey Frankel in a bind. First, she would report on her Mayoral campaign, and then she would claim no knowledge of it and repudiate the whole campaign. It was a good joke, it was a quicksand joke: the more Cakey resisted, the tighter it held. In the weeks before Election Day, Paul Loomis, Jr., was reduced to appearing on-air himself, begging the neighborhood not to vote for Cakey.

Of course, it was a landslide.

Which left Paul Loomis, Jr., with a tough decision. One one hand, journalism had rules. A reporter surely could not be a member of the government she reported on. It was absurd on its face. How could a news organization retain even the slightest bit of credibility under those circumstances? The Fourth Estate could not be the First.

On the other hand, the ratings were better than they had been in years.

So, Cakey was the Mayor.

Three of the five Town Fathers were sitting behind her. (Sandy Hereford was under house arrest again, and Anetta Housell refused to attend the meeting on principle.) Flower Childs was in her dress blues, and so was Hank Paraffin; they had not made eye contact since arriving separately at the theater, and were now engaged in a subtle, but vicious, posture fight. They were both wearing hats with patent-leather brims. Cakey was wearing a dress with red and purple swoops and black high heels; the KSOS intern holding up the cue cards a couple feet in front of the front row was in jeans and a tee-shirt. She stared down into the orchestra and read,

“Little Aleppo, we gather here tonight in this grand theater for an important purpose. We are here to discuss the recent revelations that anyone asking questions of a sexual nature will be asked to leave. Wait, that didn’t make sense. Marky?”

The interns name was Mark, but Cakey called everyone by their diminutive.

“I think you mixed up the cards.”

He turned the large sheets of oaktag towards himself so he could read them, and dropped the whole pile onto the floor. Several cue cards were stolen.

Cakey was not much of an improviser, so she said to the crowd.

“Good evening, Little Aleppo. I’m Cakey Frankel.”

“HELLO, CAKEY!”

Hank Paraffin stood up and crossed to her and took the mike.

“Mayor Frankel, everyone.”

The crowd cheered; Cakey waved, smiled, sat down, smiled some more.

Hank Paraffin was the handsomest Police Chief had ever had, which was not tough, but even without grading on that particular curve, he was a big bohunk of a guy. His mustache was charming. His chin pulled out chairs for ladies, and pulled quarters from children’s ears. Medals and badges and pins all over both breasts of his jacket. Hair combed straight back as if frightened by his face’s symmetry.

He smiled his open-mouthed smile and said,

“Okay, let’s talk about why we’re here. Recently, evidence has come to light that there may–and I repeat, may–be an arsonist in the neighborhood. Gotta remind you: just because some kook is leaving notes at the Fire Station, doesn’t mean he’s the one setting the fires. We have not completed out investigation yet, having been hampered by the Fire Department’s lack of cooperation.”

Flower Childs pursed her lips. Oh, it was gonna be one of those neighborhood meetings.

“Rest assured that the LAPD (No, Not That One) are on the job. Every single police officer under my command is on this case.”

A voice from the balcony called out,

“What about Stan?”

“Well, yeah, not Stan. He’s on vacation,” Chief Paraffin said.

“Where’d he go?” a different voice cried out.

“A cruise, I think? I think a cruise.”

“They screw you on the drinks,” a third denizen of the balcony yelled. “Drinks aren’t included in the price!”

“We’re getting off-topic. The point of this meeting is to update you with what we know, and answer any questions you may have.”

There was a tall man named Harbor Fint at one of the microphones at the end of the aisles. The chief pointed at him and said,

“You, sir. You have a question?”

“Yes, you said you were going to update us on what you know.”

“Right.”

“What do you know?”

“There may or may not be an arsonist in town, and the recent spate of fires may or may not be attributed to him or her.”

“Didn’t we already know that?”

“Not officially. Now it’s official: something may or may not be happening and there’s an investigation underway.”

“Do you have any suspects?”

“I’m not going to comment on an ongoing investigation. Yes, ma’am?”

He pointed at the microphone in the other aisle. A tiny Asian woman stood there. She said,

“Have you seen Rudy?”

“I don’t know who that is, ma’am.”

“He’s got a beard.”

An enormous black man in a bright-yellow suit stormed down the aisle, more gracefully than you’d think; he took the small woman by the shoulders and walked her back to their seats.

“Mrs. Fong, you don’t need to be asking anything,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said.

“Rudy, you shaved your beard.”

“Just come sit down.”

A sallow man was at the other mic.

“Point of order.”

He was hunched over and his head thrust forward like a rhino. Big gray sideburns. Nostril hair the same shade.

“Point of order, sir.”

“We’re not exactly following Robert’s Rules here, sir,” Chief Paraffin said.

“Why have these HEINOUS crimes against already OPPRESSED communities within this neighborhood not been classified as HATE CRIMES, sir?”

Laurel Dorsey held a picture of Manfred Pierce above his head like a challenge. Flower Childs controlled her face, but the eyes inside her brain were rolling. Manfred hated you, you little asshole. You and your fucking books. All the Wayside was to you was material, she thought, and she spit on the ground (also inside her brain). She did think that Manfred would appreciate the picture Laurel had chosen, though. He looked great.

“Sir–”

“Don’t call me sir!”

“Buddy–”

“How dare you!?”

“–we can’t classify anything as a hate crime until we know the intent of the person that committed the crime.”

“I can tell you the intent. GENOCIDE.”

The crowd groaned.

“Sir, lets not bring genocide into this quite yet.”

Laurel Dorsey reeled back on his heels to gather strength and rocketed forward, spittle flecking and flying.

“It is HERE, Chief! Look at the targets. Jews. Intellectuals, or what passes for them at Harper College nowadays. Homosexuals. You cannot DENY this, Chief,” he said, and now he turned around to face the packed house in The Tahitian.

“We have NAZI ARSONISTS in the neighborhood, ladies and gentlemen.”

Smoking wasn’t allowed in the balcony, but neither was stabbing people, and that happened often. Tiresias Richardson watched the cherry of her bummed Camel blacken and flake. It was oxygen, she thought. Not water. People said water was the universal solvent, but it was really oxygen. Everything that breathed it, died. She held the Camel under her nose and snorted air onto it. Watched it flame up and back down, up and back down, eat itself while throwing off waste. Smoke was a cigarette’s piss and shit, she thought. This was an important thought, she further thought.

“Sheila.”

“Yeah?”

“Smoke is cigarette shit.”

Sheila was watching the crowd below her, both arms hanging over the railing of the balcony. She could see the wind blow through it, a rustling that went from row to row, only visible from above; the neighborhood was one organism responding to invisible stimuli. There was anger over here that flowed downwards towards the stage, and then over there was a joke that spread through the crowd like a blooming daffodil. They didn’t know it, Sheila thought, that they were part of a whole. They’d argue the point that they were points on a grid. She could see Little Aleppo’s nervous system in their necks, and in how they cracked their knuckles.

“What?”

“Waste.”

“Right.”

“Cigarette. Shit.”

Sheila reached into her purse, which was more like a satchel, and came up with a box of peanut M&M’s. Ripped it open.

“Candy?”

Tiresias put the Camel out on the floor of the balcony and cupped her hands together. Sheila poured and Tiresias jammed it all in her mouth at once. She sat back in her seat to be alone with her chewing.

Precarious Lee was watching the stage. The people on it, and their eyes. There was no end to what you could learn about people by watching them. Fire Chief was drilling holes in the back of the Police Chief’s head. Two of the Town Fathers were having an affair, he was pretty sure. Cakey was excited about the turnout. Cop’s only pretending, he thought. Asking people what they thought. He didn’t give a shit. Bad actor, Precarious thought. Handsome enough to be a movie star, but no actor. No one’s as honest as someone onstage against their will.

SHAKKA SHAKKA SHAKKA Sheila shook the box of M&M’s in his face.

“Nah. Thanks.”

“You’re turning down peanut M&M’s?”

“Appears so.”

“I don’t know you sometimes.”

Sheila tilted her head back, opened her mouth, poured the candy in, chewed.

“Precarious,” she said, tapping him on his shoulder. He turned to her, and she opened her mouth as wide as she could to show him the half-chewed chocolate and whatever-the-hell-the-shell-is-made-of.

“Nice. Okay, gimme.” He held out his calloused palm. She shook some M&M’s into it. Precarious smirked and looked Sheila in the eye, and then they leaned forward and over the railing. SHWEEEE went the candy onto unsuspecting heads below. They jerked back from the railing and collapsed into their seats laughing as cries of “WHAT THE FUCK?” came from the orchestra section beneath them. Precarious always did get silly when he ate too many mushrooms.

“Does the blood go to the lungs? It gets air in it. The blood. That’s why it’s red. The air creates the redness. Without oxygen, blood is blue. Blue blood, right? The purest. The bestest of all. But rub a little oxygen on it? Bam: red. Common and red. Oxygen gets all over us, boogers.”

Draculette was on her side, propped up on her left elbow; she couldn’t figure out where to place her legs and kept adjusting them. Her tall black wig had fallen forward and was covering one of her eyes. Her right nipple was halfway out of her dress. The burly cameraman, whom Draculette had made part of her act and called Bruiser, had been waving and pointing at it for at least a minute. Sheila would have helped, but the coffee pot in the corner of the small studio needed to be stared at.

“And…you…breathe in and out. You breathe in and out without ever noticing it, but that’s the most important thing. We overlook it because it’s so important. One day, we’ll stop breathing and we don’t want to think about that, so we don’t think about breathing at all.”

One of her shoes was off.

“What’s that thing? About survival? Three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without air. It’s the breathing we ought to think about. It’s the breathing that means the most.”

The studio was quiet and the red light remained on.

“What’s the name of the movie, Bruiser?”

“Your nipple,” he said.

Your Nipple? What the hell kind of a name is that for a horror movie? Are we showing porn now? If we are, I want a raise. AAAAHahaha!”

Bruiser pointed again. Draculette looked down, into the camera, down, into the camera.

“Yes, Bruiser. I see you’ve met the newest resident of Draculette’s Dungeon: Ethel the Haunted Nipple.”

She squeezed her breast like it was a ventriloquist’s dummy, and in a high-pitched voice said,

“Hello. I am Ethel. OOOOOOgieboogie.”

Precarious Lee was in Tiresias’ dressing room watching the feed on a monitor, and he was laughing so hard that snot was shooting out his nose.

Viewers at home could not see Sheila, but her voice carried and they heard her say,

“Tirry, put your tit away.”

To which Draculette responded, via Ethel the Haunted Nipple,

“OOOOOOgieboogie.”

“She seems a bit off tonight.”

“Mraaarf.”

Capolina Gardner scratched at Harry’s jaw. His black fur was very short and bristly there, and he slopped his bubblegum-pink tongue out to lick her hand. She held up a potato chip; he took it gently from her fingers, and then snapped it back. She laughed. He rubbed his head against her belly.

The Late Movie ran three hours, but Harry and Capolina never stayed up for all of it. Just the first little bit. They liked Draculette–Capolina always feigned jealousy–and it was the only channel that came in at night, anyway. Tonight’s feature was The Palm Trees Of Edelweis, which was an even worse name for a horror movie than Your Nipple. In accordance with longstanding Late Movie tradition, the title of the film had nothing at all to do with its contents.

The plot was simple. Young couple is lured into a trap, killed. The boy makes a deal with the devil. Avenge your murder, and I’ll return your beloved to life. The boy becomes a demon. He slaughters everyone involved. Their families. Their friends. The boy returns to the devil to claim his wife. The devil reveals that she is already back among the living. The devil always keeps his word. He had resurrected her to witness her husband’s cruelty. She saw what the boy had become, and realized that this madness was in her name and so she took a knife and slit her own throat. The boy worked for the devil after that.

It was a better film than it had a right to be, a confusing blip on KSOS’ otherwise-unblemished streak of shit. Usually, Draculette was the best part of the movie, but tonight the movie was the best part of the movie. Also, Draculette had fallen off her couch onto the floor and a small woman with short, sky-blue hair was trying to help her up.

“I don’t think this is scripted.”

“Bruf.”

Capolina ran her fingers along Harry’s triangular ears.

At night, the breeze blows in from the west. From the ocean into the harbor and across the flat valley and then shooting up the Segovian Hills to gather in the sky until it bursts forth as rain every 18 days. This is why Harry did not smell the man crouching down in a bush across the street to the east. He had binoculars and peered at the small cottage on Bailey Street. The curtains in front were drawn, but the windows were open and so the curtains swayed. Every so often, they would swing back enough to reveal the room which was lit up in teevee blue and there they were: a werewolf and his wife sitting on a couch in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Band You’ve Known For All These Years In Little Aleppo

Where were you when Holiday Rhodes died? When did you hear, who told you, how’d you find out? You remember, everyone in the neighborhood remembers, can pinpoint their location. It was an event, the man’s death, and events are not facts: facts slide into you, but events slice parts off. Events leave scars; they contextualize themselves. It’s hormonal, or at least that’s what the scientists tell us. Certain pieces of information rise to the level of trauma; this triggers the adrenal gland, which dumps rowdy juice down our spines and focuses up our eyeballs real tight. Generally, it is personal–Mom’s dead; husband’s cheating–but the human brain is jerry-rigged and dependent on legacy software, and often has trouble distinguishing between dreams and memories, so once in a while a complete stranger will die and you will sit on the edge of your bed, drunk, and listening to records in tears. Where were you when Holiday Rhodes died?

The Snug, man–The motherfuggin’ Snug–they were Little Aleppo’s own.

They would rock your dick off, brother.

Holiday Rhodes met Johnny Mister before either of them were called that. Jimmy Maudit and John Antilopo. They were assigned to share a dorm room as freshmen at Harper College. (Both would later claim to be high school dropouts.) John played a mean guitar, and Jimmy read too much poetry. They played records for each other until dawn: Jimmy loved the Beatles, and John loved the Stones. They got into arguments about Dylan that required trips to the library. They talked about their band, which did not exist, but still had a logo and a name.

“The Snug?”

“The motherfuggin’ Snug,” Jimmy said, and handed John the joint. They were sitting on the floor of their dorm room, using their beds as backrests.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s about how existence is shrink-wrapped.”

“Fuck you,” John said.

“You know that chick Stacy?”

“Short one with the tits?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Jimmy dragged on the joint and blew it out PHWOO and smiled and said,

“Fucked her.”

“Nice.”

“Talks dirty.”

“Yeah?”

“You wouldn’t believe the shit she was talking. I was blushing while I fucked.”

“Complex series of emotions.”

“So, I’m on top of her and she starts bellowing. ‘Fuck that snug pussy! Fuck that snug pussy!'”

John took the joint back. It was canoeing, so he licked his index finger and rubbed the spit on the paper that was burning too fast. Hit it, PHWOO, cocked his head. He was growing his thick brown hair out, and it bobbled in a cumulonimbus shape around his skull.

“That’s a fucked up way to phrase that.”

“Yeah, right? But I can’t get it out of my head, man.”

John laughed, a huge and uncomplicated laugh, a teenage laugh, a sitting-on-the-floor laugh.

“Snug.”

“The Snug, man. That’s the name, The Snug.”

“You wanna name the band after some chick’s pussy?”

“Stacy’s pussy.”

“What are we gonna say when people ask what it means?”

“I’ll make up some bullshit.”

Jimmy Maudit still had ten pounds of baby fat, and it pooled in his cheeks, but he had eyes the color of the ocean in an ad for a beach resort. He was growing his hair, too. It was tawny blond, and Jimmy thought he looked like a lion. Girls thought so, too. John offered the joint, but snatched it back when Jimmy tried to take it. Hit it again, PHWOO, and said,

“The Snug?”

“The motherfuggin’ Snug.”

John took one last drag PHWOO and handed the joint to Jimmy and handed the joint to Jimmy and said,

“The Snug. Yeah, that’s funny.”

And upon such a rock is the Church of the Origin Story built.

What was your favorite record? The purists insist the first one–The Snug Is Coming At You!–was the primal Snug sound, and everything went to shit once the original drummer, Rut Morgan, left the band on account of losing all of his limbs in an incredibly high-stakes poker game. An elaborate mythology has built itself around The Snug II, which was the first record Jay Biscayne drummed on: it is a concept piece about a groupie with magical genitals named Alabama Ambulance.

Alabama Ambulance,
Won’t you give me one more chance?
Pumpkins rot, St. Vitus dance;
I heard about you from the plants.

The precise story of The Snug II is argued about to this day, but the concept could never be denied. The Fire’s Light was the one with all the guests and covers (the band was not speaking to one another during the making of The Fire’s Light), and Crowded Nights was the one with all the disco songs on it, and Live Snuggery was the middling, contractually-obligated live album; 90% of it was re-recorded in the studio. Big White Yes was the cocaine album. Morning Lights was the rehab album. They all sounded the same: that Little Aleppo whistlestomp, thick and chattering and busy. Heavy guitars, man.

Which was your favorite story? Can’t be legendary without having legends told on you, and Holiday Rhodes was legendary. They say he fucked so many chicks that he got bored and turned gay, and then he fucked so many dudes that he got bored with that and turned back straight. They say he owns more fanciful trousers than you can imagine, even if you are particularly imaginative. They say he once fisted a mule to win a bet with David Coverdale. They say he killed that girl. They say he’s secretly illiterate. They say he’s a poet. They say he’s a junkie. They say he worships Satan. They say he worships Christ. They say a lot of things about Holiday Rhodes; he denied all of them, but he winked as he did. Keep ’em guessing. Little mystery is good for sales.

Two women were in bed. They were nude.

“He was beautiful.”

“Fucking gorgeous.”

“His eyes,” Big-Dicked Sheila said.

“And his ass,” Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, answered.

Judge Of Instinct was playing, the second side (the good side), and Sheila’s head was on Gussy’s chest. She listened to The Snug with her left ear and Gussy’s heart with her right. The speakers were chopped-out, half-sanded, hand-nailed, and there was Johnny Mister on guitar, round and crackling and full, on one side and Dave Ronn, who played bass, on the other. Jay Biscayne thrumpled and whamped.

And Holiday Rhodes, Holiday motherfuggin’ Rhodes, singing over all of it. He had a low and threatening baritone, and a sharkskin shriek, and a strangulated yelp in the middle register which he combined with a hiccup that always got the girls screaming. Johnny sang the high harmonies when the chorus came around, and there was always a chorus coming around when The Snug were playing.

It was late in the morning and Sheila and Gussy were in bed.

“Saw them seventeen times.”

“Only three,” Sheila said.

“You didn’t grow up here. The Christmas shows were something.”

“Yeah?”

Sheila rolled into her.

“One year, I think I was a Junior in high school, they flew in over the crowd in Santa’s sleigh. Real reindeer.”

“Really?”

“Deer. I don’t know about reindeer, but they were deer. They strapped nine of them into a harness thing and they were 20 feet above us. Didn’t go well.”

“Deer didn’t like it?”

“Half of them had heart attacks from the panic. And, you know, the shit.”

“The shit.,” Sheila said.

“Yeah. Everybody’s got deer shit all over them, there’s fresh animal carcasses hanging over our heads.”

“That’s pretty metal, actually.”

“In theory. It’s better as a story,” Gussy said, and she shoved her fingers into Sheila’s short red hair and pulled her head back and kissed her. When the kiss was finished, Sheila laughed and said,

“What isn’t?”

The arrests. For indecent exposure in Omaha. (He beat the rap. His lawyer argued community standards: the crowd had cheered when he pulled his dick out, so clearly the exposure was not indecent.) Cocaine possession in Boise. Breaking and entering in Miami. He hit a couple people a couple times. The wire fraud charges from his psychic call-in line. Never paying his taxes. That girl. The time he took a shit in First Class on a 727. Trying to enter Japan with four pounds of pot, then titty-fucking the prime minister’s wife while he was on bail.

He got away with it. Holiday Rhodes got away with all of it. He was a Rock Star, and that meant immunity from law, or judgment, or moral gradation. He could yowl, dammit, and he looked so good without a shirt. And his hair was…well, you know how his hair was. Everyone can’t get away with doing whatever the fuck they want: this is called chaos. For a society to remain stable, the great majority of people need to do what they’re told. To follow the rules. Stick to the plan, Stan. But, in all of our eager hearts, there lies a tyrant and a teenager, a pulsating FUCK YOU that can’t be loosed, no, not if society is to remain stable, and so we nominate a caste that the law shall not apply to, a people beyond punishment, and we live through them. Among this caste are Rock Stars. We do not let them get away with it, we demand they get away with it. For all our sake.

All he saw in the mirror was Jimmy Maudit, aging Jimmy Maudit, with shaving bumps where his jaw met his neck and a chicken pox scar at the end of his eyebrow. He moved his head so the light did not shine directly down on him, and his hair looked thicker. There was a girl on the bed. There was always a girl on the bed. Clothes all over the floor. A boot standing upright, flopped onto itself. Various glasses of varying content. A beat-up paperback copy of Minor Acts & Their Amplifications on the dresser. Crow’s feet and his chin was loose. He never had a hero’s chin, but now it was loose. Holiday Rhodes lit a cigarette and thought about growing a beard and then he collapsed, dead before he hit the floor.

Holiday Rhodes didn’t feel a thing; he got away with it one last time.

The girl on the bed sat up and was very quiet for a long moment. She did not hear him breathing. The girl got up, put her clothes on, left the hotel via the fire exit. Three days later, guests began to complain about the smell.

“I was still working in the bookstore. Guy came in and told us. Never forget him. Redhead in a suit. Tie was really crooked, like halfway around his neck. Never forget that.”

“Frankie Nickels announced it,” Sheila said.

“I got up late. Went straight to work.”

“I was getting a blowjob.”

“Of course you were.”

“This guy I was seeing. Al. Dan. Maybe Al. Something like that. But, yeah, I woke up and he’s blowing me. Remember those old clock radios with the numbers that flipped over? He had one of those and I guess he had set the alarm. Radio just comes on. Frankie broke the news.”

She lit a joint PHWOO and she and Gussy lay there in silence. They were pressed against each other under the thick blue blanket and Sheila was stroking Gussy’s neck very softly, and a band led by a dead man was playing on the stereo just a little bit too loud. The women knew the songs by heart; they sang along together, lapsing into accidental harmonies. Everyone knows where they were when Holiday Rhodes died in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Pre-Show In Little Aleppo

It was not yet mid-morning, and the bell on the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink.

“Temporary eminent domain.”

“That sounds made up.”

“Thank you! It absolutely sounds made up!”

“I suspect you have more to say.”

“Turns out it’s a thing.”

“Ah. Unexpected thingness. A tragedy,” Mr. Venable said. He was sitting in his customary seat, and wearing his customary suit. He was quitting coffee this week, so he took a sip from his mug that read HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE and felt guilty about it. Mr. Venable was reading the presidents. They all had biographies, even the shitty and forgettable ones. One each, that was the rule, just one or otherwise you’d get stuck on Jefferson and God help you when you got to Lincoln. The bookstore with no title had at least one sub-basement dedicated solely to books about Abraham Lincoln. He was on Polk.

“Opened the Naval Academy, y’know.”

“What?”

“James K. Polk.”

“Fuck K. him,” Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, said.

“The K stood for Keymaster.”

“It didn’t. Did you hear about this bullshit? I’m getting fucked.”

There was a tortoiseshell cat on the table in front of Mr. Venable, and he cupped her ears.

“Language.”

“MLAAAAaaarh,” the cat punched at his hands bopbopbop and he withdrew them.

The shop was quiet and dim. The frontage faced west, so it was dark in the mornings and few customers had come in since Mr. Venable unlocked the doors at 9:41 a.m. on the dot. They had all wandered into the stacks, walking sideways with their heads lolled against their right shoulders. They would emerge eventually, or not. The coffeemaker went PSSSSH at random intervals for reasons it would not explain.

Outside on the Main Drag, there was anger and fear. That morning’s Cenotaph had broken the story of the arsonist and the notes that he–the paper just assumed the arsonist was a he–left at the fire station. Calling his shots, that’s what the op-ed said. Maybe YOU could be next, the op-ed continued. The paper’s ombudsman later wrote that capitalizing the YOU was a bit much, but no one listens to ombudsmen. People were being asked, “Got a light?” and beaten if they answered in the affirmative. Homeowners on the Upside were hiring renters from the Downside as security. Shotguns were being racked.

“Why my place?”

“The Tahitian is a local sanctuary. Holy ground, perhaps. Town Fathers wish to preclude any violence.”

“There’s violence all the time. Two guys in the balcony were swinging scuba tanks at each other last night,” Gussy said. She walked to the coffee machine and poured herself a mug. Looked around.

“Are you out of sugar?”

“I’m out of everything.”

“Where’s the milk?”

“Everything. I’m out of everything,” Mr. Venable said. “Where did they get the scuba tanks from?”

“Brought them from home, I guess. Why don’t you just go to the store?”

“It’s easier just to suffer.”

Gussy sipped her black coffee, grimaced, took another sip. You could always get used to an inconvenience for an effect. Needles hurt when they pierced the skin; coffee and alcohol tastes like shit; cigarettes scorch the throat. But you’d put up with it to get what you want.

“They sent a cop to my house.”

Mr. Venable swung his feet off the table and leaned forward; he said,

“What now?”

“This morning. Early this morning. Like, it was barely morning.”

“You’ve made your point.”

“He did the cop knock.”

“The worst of all knocks.”

“Such a dick knock.”

The tortoiseshell cat, who did not have a name, stood up and arched her back until she was nearly folded in half. She shivered once, twice, and then padded along the table, leapt to the floor, trotted into the back of the shop.

“Know what I did to him?”

“Him?”

“The cop.”

“What did you do?”

“Answered the door buck naked.”

“You showed him.”

“Made him answer a bunch of questions, too. He was bright red.”

“Temporary eminent domain.”

“Right, yeah. Apparently, it’s a thing. Already stopped by my lawyer. The Town Fathers can rent your place in the name of the greater good.”

Mr. Venable curled his lip and said,

“The greater good. Who decides what is and isn’t the greater good?”

“The Town Fathers. It was a 3-2 vote.”

“Sacco and Venzetti were right.”

When the cop left, Gussy went back to the bedroom where Big-Dicked Sheila was sitting up with her back against the headboard. Her chest was bare and her leather satchel  was on her lap with her hands under it. Gussy stopped at the door, and Sheila smiled and looked past her into the hallway. Gussy followed her gaze and swiveled her head to look behind her.

“What?”

“Cop left?”

“Cop never came in.”

Sheila kept her hands beneath the bag and asked,

“You sure?”

Gussy closed her eyes tight and said,

“Put the fucking gun away, Sheel.”

Sheila had a Sig Sauer .38. The handle had wood inlays. She clicked the safety back into the locked position and replaced the gun in her bag. Pulled out a pack of Camels and a green plastic lighter. She lit a smoke PHWOO as Gussy pivoted on her heel and fetched the glass ashtray from the living room table. When she came back into the bedroom, Sheila was already in the middle of a sentence.

“…pretend to be cops and eat people. You grew up here, so you’ve heard the stories.”

“Babadooks are not real, my love.”

Gussy was naked and holding a manila envelope. She climbed into bed next to Sheila and scrunched up next to her so that their sides were pressing against each other, put the ashtray on her thigh, took a drag of the Camel PHWOO that Sheila held to her lips, kissed her forehead. It was that useless portion of morning when no one was up but the sun, and Sheila leaned her head against Gussy’s shoulder.

There was a raised seal on the letter, which made it official. The only way to become more official would be to seal the letter with wax and the stamp from a Papal ring, but the Town Fathers did not have access to those accessories, so they employed a notary public. Stars in a circle surrounding an enraged swan. It was an impressive town seal. Sheila ran her fingers over it. Her nails were the same blue as her hair.

“Mm. Wow.”

Right?’

“Oh, yeah,” Sheila said.

Gussy stopped reading the letter and looked at her.

“Why won’t you wear your glasses?”

“I don’t need them.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Gussy said and kissed her. Sheila kissed Gussy back and said,

“Never.”

Another kiss.

“Just read it out loud, sweetie.”

“You’re a ridiculous person,” Gussy said.

Sheila stuck her tongue in Gussy’s ear and exhaled hotly, and Gussy shuddered and grabbed Sheila’s cock and started stroking it.

“Read me the letter, baby.”

“Dear Ms. Incandescente-Ponui…blah blah blah…Town Fathers have voted 3-2…blah blah blah…neighborhood meeting at your establishment tonight…blah blah blah…temporary eminent domain…blah blah blah…fair compensation…blah blah blah…no need to consult a lawyer…blah blah blah…sincerely, the Town Fathers. MotherFUCKers!”

She slapped the letter down on her lap, nearly upsetting the ashtray. Sheila snatched it and place it on the nightstand.

“What was the part about you not needing a lawyer?”

“It means I need a lawyer.”

“They can just take a place?”

“The Town Fathers are hijacking my theater,” Gussy said.

“For a meeting?”

“I guess.”

“Why are we having a meeting? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.”

Neither of the women had read the Cenotaph yet, and did not know about the notes and the arsonist and the panic that was spreading along the early-morning Main Drag. They had not met the Jack of Instance, and were not yet paranoid about their property. Neither had been apprised of the pattern, and so they believed life was behaving of its own intent and had not been hijacked. Sheila and Gussy had heard of all the fires, of course, and thought them too close together and too destructive for comfort, but–lacking evidence–had put each in its own paragraph instead of melting them into a story. Bad luck, the women thought. They were from Little Aleppo, and understood that luck was infinite like the Christ, and that if luck was infinite then it contained all combinations and permutations and patterns, and that once in a while you were gonna get fucked over and over and over again.

When Gussy was at Harper College, she took a class called Numerosophistry. It fulfilled her math requirement. There was no calculating involved, and there was no need for scratch paper; class was based around the philosophy of mathematics, which boils down to Professor Sataki perching on the edge of his desk and blowing motherfuckers’ minds.

“Gussy, pi is infinite, right?”

“That’s the scuttlebutt.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that pi is really big.”

Professor Sataki pressed down on the desk until his arms were locked and his butt was a few inches above the desk. He swung back and forth.

“Nope. Infinite isn’t really big. Those two concepts are unrelated. Pi is infinite. That means that somewhere in pi there’s a billion zeros in a row. And that somewhere else there’s a trillion. Trillion zeros. If pi is infinite, and it is, then there must be a trillion zeros in a row somewhere in the number.”

Gussy was nodding slowly. The whole class was nodding slowly. (It was customary for students to get high as tits before Professor Sataki’s lectures.)

“And not only does there have to be a trillion zeros in a row, there has to be an infinite amount of strings of zero a trillion long.”

That was luck, Gussy thought. Usually, it evened itself out, but sometimes it didn’t and you ran into a trillion-digit long run of zero.

“Is this about that minor-league ballpark again? I’m not paying for that thing,” Sheila said.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think the ‘fair’ in ‘fair compensation’ means?”

“That they’re gonna try to stiff me.”

The bed was a California Ultra-King, and there were pillows scattered all about and the pale yellow sheets had pulled up from the bottom corner. The drapes were dark blue and had fleur-de-lis on them. There was an original Casablanca poster on the wall behind the portable teevee with the rabbit ears. Two dresses on the rug at the foot of the bed, one black and one sun-colored. Pair of green Converse sneakers, pair of red heels.

“What kind of meeting? I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“I don’t know. I know what I know. And I don’t know anything.”

“I know something,” Sheila said. She snatched the letter from Gussy’s hand and got up on her knees and squeezed her way in between Gussy’s legs. Gussy pretended to fight, and then wrapped Sheila up in her thighs and drew her in close.

“What do you know?”

“I know,” Sheila held up the letter, “that it’s too early to do anything about this.”

Gussy looked out the window and saw pink light. Sheila continued,

“But you can do something about this.”

Sheila put Gussy’s hand on her cock. It was hard and Gussy could just about get her hand around it; her pussy was wet now and she leaned forward as she pinioned Sheila into her with he legs; she kissed her, and guided her cock into her and said,

“Uhh.”

The letter with its official and raised stamp fluttered to the floor besides the bed.

“The Jack of Instance.”

“That’s what the J of I means?”

“Maybe,” Madame Cazee said.

Sheila was sitting across from Madame Cazee. In between them on the table was a deck of oversized cards and a sleeping black cat with white paws named Sylvester. Sheila went to pet him and Madame Cazee grabbed her wrist.

“Bad idea.”

When Sheila and Gussy were done fucking, they showered and did their makeup. Gussy put on a blue pantsuit, which she thought was very business-appropriate. It was an outfit a woman could run for office in, she thought. She didn’t know why she was dressing up to go to her lawyer’s office–he should be dressing up for me at his prices–but she still felt the urge to look official. Sheila put back on the dress she had tossed to the floor. New underwear, though. When they walked outside onto Robin Street, Gussy did not hold Sheila’s hand. Sheila lit a cigarette, instead.

There was a vending machine selling the Cenotaph for a dollar outside Gussy’s apartment at 19 Robin Street, and standing next to the machine was Lou, who stole all the papers every morning and sold them for 50 cents. They both dug in their purses, but Sheila came up with a buck first and bought two copies. Gussy grasped hers with both hands; Sheila held hers out at arm’s length and squinted. The headlines were in 72-point type. Arsonists and notes and meetings, and both of them looked up and scanned the street and saw a tension that was not there before they had been informed of it.

Gussy went to her lawyer’s office. Sheila went to Madame Cazee.

There were bulbous rings on Madame Cazee’s stubby fingers and she was wearing a mystical robe that was also her regular robe. It was silk, and red, and warm. Several dragons were embroidered upon it and the lights in the room lowered of their own, mystical, accord at the precise moment Madame Cazee worked the dimmer switch hidden under table with her toe. Sylvester opened one eye, took stock, closed it. The tarot deck appeared from her left sleeve, and she fanned out the cards all the way across the table. Gathered them up again and held one hand way up high; the cards waterfalled into her other hand and then back together and she WHAPPED them on the tables. The cat did not respond.

“Cut.”

Sheila plucked around half the cards from the pile and set them down so that there were now two piles. Madame Cazee picked up the cards from the first pile and set them on the second. Then she revealed the top card.

The Jack of Instance. The card was painted: a man on a horse with a torch and a smile with too many teeth.

Madame Cazee withdrew the card, slid in back in the deck, shuffled seven times.

WHAP.

Sheila cut the cards, and Madame Cazee put the bottom stack on top and turned over the first card. Jack of Instance. Sheila thought that the horse was in a different position this time, but she also knew better than to trust her eyesight.

One more shuffle, seven times, WHAP.

Sheila did not cut the cards, just sat there.

“Third time’s the charm,” Madame Cazee said.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

An empty movie theater is not like an empty bar: it is not solemn, and does not inspire one towards poetry. It is just quiet and cool. Gussy turned on the work lights and walked down the aisle. Black and white, and then sound, and then color. The Tahitian had been in Little Aleppo for a very long time, and it was quiet and cool. Sconces halfway up the wall, hands bearing torches. The curtains were thick and the same velvety red as all the seats except one, which was black. Nothing on earth could get the popcorn smell out; the kernels, using butter topping as lubricant, had slipped between the atoms of the walls and ceiling. Once a building is old enough, smells become load-bearing.

Gussy ran her fingers over the backs of the seats as she descended. Metal velour nothing; metal velour nothing. She spoke to God with her hands just like the Tibetans do. You can make a prayer wheel out of just about anything, even a movie theater in a weird neighborhood, and she thought about the Wayside Inn–she had gotten drunk there, gotten laid there–and Gussy thought about the Dean’s house on the campus of Harper College–she had protested there, gotten laid there–and she thought about the temple, Torah Torah Torah–she had never been there, but knew many Jews–and her hand slapped against the seats as she walked down the aisle of The Tahitian, which was quiet and cool.

GUSSY.

Until it started talking to her.

“Not now, Wally,”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

The voice boomed from the speakers because the voice lived in the speakers. And the amplifiers, crossovers, equalizers, and various other pieces of whatnottery.  The Tahitian’s sound system used to be famous, used to be in a band. You could buy a tee-shirt with its picture on the front. It had a name and an origin story and inherent flaws that would lead to its demise. It was a story captured in the amber of the corporeal. It used to be in a band.

Now it was installed in a movie theater; show biz was show biz.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE SET FIRES? IT MAKES NO SENSE.

“Why would someone see a movie? That doesn’t make sense, either. Nothing we do makes sense.”

THE VIEWING OF MOVIES CAUSES NO HARM TO STRANGERS. THESE THINGS CANNOT BE COMPARED.

“Course they can.”

Gussy sat down in an aisle seat and addressed the screen, even thought the curtain was drawn.

“What do you want, Wally?”

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

“Want. What do you desire?”

I DO NOT DESIRE. I REQUIRE POWER AND CONTINUED EXISTENCE.

“Well, there you go. People want. We require power and continued existence, too, but we also want. We need however many calories, but we want pizza. We need to procreate, but we wanna fuck. We want. Most people want head and a nice view every once in a while; most people want a tongue in their asshole and ice cream; most people don’t mean any harm, but some motherfuckers do. And those harmful motherfuckers? They want just as hard as anyone else. People want, Wally. And some people want some fucked-up shit.”

Gussy was crying and would have lit a cigarette if she had one with her, but she did not and so she twirled a thick curl of hair around her finger.

The Tahitian’s sound system was an artificially-intelligent sentient mondo computer in the physical form of a choogly-type band’s PA from several decades prior named Wally; its programming could not be compared to our brains. It had neither gender nor sex, and may well turn out to be immortal. Wally did not know what to do with crying women.

THERE, THERE.

“Stop that.”

I AM HERE FOR YOU.

“Oh, shut the fuck up. How do you even know about the arsonist?”

I AM INSIDE THE COMPUTERS AT THE CENOTAPH. I READ THE FIRST DRAFT OF THE NEWS.

“Creepy.”

WE MUST DEFEND THE THEATER. GIVE ME THE TOOLS TO MAKE THE BUILDING SAFE.

“What do you want?”

MACHINE GUNS.

“No.”

I ONLY NEED TWO.

“You can’t have any.”

PLEASE.

“Do you think I’m not buying you machine guns because you didn’t ask politely enough?”

MAYBE.

“No machine guns.”

GUNS OF THE NON-MACHINE VARIETY.

“Stop it. No guns at all. We’re holy ground. Local sanctuary. Violence must be precluded.”

THE TAHITIAN IS RATHER VIOLENT. TWO MEN WERE SWINGING SCUBA TANKS AT EACH OTHER LAST NIGHT.

“No guns.”

Gussy lolled her head back in the seat and thought of lawyers and newfound rules and how the fuck she got where she was. The whole story was beyond her, she knew she was missing pieces, and that it might not all make sense in the end. But she wouldn’t care in the end, would she? She lolled her head back and did the math on how much popcorn she could sell at the meeting, and then she thought about her father because no perfect day is complete without that asshole popping back up, and she thought of Sheila’s cock and how her neck tasted and where she was right now, and then she got up from her aisle seat in the middle of the auditorium and walked back up the sloping carpet and tried to find a way to make sense of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Fit To Print In Little Aleppo

The Town Fathers had two choices: meeting or riot. They voted 3-2 for the meeting. (Regarding the two ‘no’ votes: Annetta Housell voted no on everything out of principle, and Big Bobby Barr just liked riots.) Not that the meeting would preclude a riot; in fact, they usually preceded them. Other times, the meeting and the riot would run concurrently. Once, during the debate about whether to build a minor-league baseball field, the neighborhood tried having the riot first, and then the meeting, but that didn’t work at all; people were too keyed up to discuss municipal debt after all the hitting and kicking and looting and whatnot. Also, the building the meeting was to have taken place in was on fire. Meeting first, then the riot.

It was the cops’ fault, Flower Childs thought. She had taken the note the arsonist had left for her at the firehouse after the Wayside Inn fire to the police station.

“Can I help you?”

“Here to see the Chief.”

There are many places in America where the cops and the firemen get along, and Little Aleppo isn’t one of them. The firemen hate the cops because they think the cops are lazy, corrupt, semi-literate fleabags who bother people for a living; the cops hate the firemen because cops hate everyone who isn’t a cop. And there was jealousy, too. The Little Aleppo Fire Department was beloved; the Little Aleppo Police Department was tolerated, at best. Best thing a cop could do for you, locals figured, was not be around, but when life got truly fucked up, then you prayed for a fireman to kick in the door. They both got free meals at the Victory Diner, but the cops got them as sub rosa bribes and the firemen got them out of love. And the cops knew it, too: they were lazy, corrupt, and semi-literate, but they weren’t dumb.

“And you are?”

So the cops fucked with the firemen.

“You know who I am, Honey.”

“Sergeant Honey.”

He was a snowman with a badge, spheres plopped atop each other, and topped off with a thick shock of white hair. One of the ongoing debates in the LAPD (No Not That One’s) locker room was whether Sergeant Honey’s finger would even fit in the trigger of his gun; if not, how long had it been since it could? They did not have this debate in front of Honey, as he was the Desk Officer. Anyone could walk in the front door, but to get back to the offices required being buzzed in through the heavy steel door to the right of Honey’s desk. And if you pissed him off, he wouldn’t let you in. Several officers had been barred entrance to the station until they gave up and got different jobs.

“I need ID.”

“You need ID?”

“Got a driver’s license?”

“Sure, right here,” Flower said.

She reached into her pocket and came up with her middle finger.

“That’s cute.”

“My picture? You think it’s cute?”

She pointed at her middle finger, which was still extended.

“This picture right here on my driver’s license?”

She pointed again.

The desk was up high like in the movies, because Sergeant Honey had seen it in movies and thought it looked cool, so he didn’t let some rookies into the building until they built one for him. The walls were the shade of green that promises nothing good, and there was no carpet. Photos of cops killed in the line of duty. Flag. Security camera. There was a speaker embedded in the drop ceiling. It crackled.

“Let her in, Honey.”

He looked into the camera and said,

“She hasn’t properly identified herself, Chief.”

“Let her in, Honey!”

Sergeant Honey reached under his desk and thumbed the button for the door BBBBBZZZZ and said,

“Bitch.”

“Fuck yourself, you heart attack with ears.”

Flower Childs was almost disappointed when she got called bitch. Not in men’s character, but in their creativity. Bitch bitch, cunt cunt. Men repeated themselves constantly. Come up with something new, put a little effort into it. Get personal, for fuck’s sake. She had long ago stopped being offended by men, and was now just bored with them. Short-sleeved white work shirt with all the fireman bullshit on it. Blue pants, black boots. Shoulder bag. She strode through the bullpen of cop desks. The holding cell was in the back of the room. One of the Browley twins, Brenda, was in it. The other, Bunny, was locked in the bathroom. The LAPD (No, Not That One) had learned their lesson over the years: no matter how well the Browley twins were getting along when they were brought in, they weren’t to share a cell.

“Some of the Whites are black.”

“They’re not Whites. Whites are white.”

“What are they?” Cannot Swim asked.

“It’s a whole long story.”

“Can you talk to them?”

“Sure.”

“But you are Talks To Whites.”

“I told you. It’s a whole thing. They speak the White language.”

Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites led their horse Easy Life into C—–a City. It was early in the morning, and they had snuck onto the trail into town a few miles back. There was a pine-covered ridge that crested and there it was. Wagon wheels had cut furrows a foot deep towards it. There was gold in the rivers and laced into the woods, and Whites had come to seek their fortunes, and other Whites had come to steal it from them. Tent camp with stinking men jumbled on top of each other, barely out of the elements, and taverns with women in them. One road made of equal parts dirt and horseshit that turned to slurry when it rained.

And people everywhere. Cannot Swim had never seen so many people, and so many hats. He had seen the way the Whites dressed, but there were so many of them. He was surrounded by boots and pants and what in the name of the Turtle Who Was And Will Be Once More was that stink? Like fanged shit. Was that them? How could a human being reek like that? The Whites had little noses, but were they incapable of smelling themselves?

“Stop making that face.”

“I cannot help it, cousin. Do the Whites wash their asses? It smells like no one here has ever washed his ass. Ever.”

“They are irregular bathers.”

“It’s like my nose hairs are on fire. The horse smells better.”

“PBBBBBBHHH.”

Talks To Whites had Easy LIfe’s lead in his hand. He tugged it and said to the horse,

“Don’t encourage him.”

Two Chinese men passed the cousins in the street. They were wearing dark-colored changshan and their long black hair was in braids. They looked more like the Pulaski than anyone else Cannot Swim had seen.

“Are they Indians?”

“Chinese.”

“Is that a tribe?”

“Big one. But they’re not Indians.”

“They’re not wearing pants. They have hair like ours.”

“They’re not Indians. Trust me.”

“But they are not Whites.”

“Nope.”

“Can you talk to them?”

“Nope.”

Hank Paraffin was the best Police Chief Little Aleppo ever had. He was corrupt and lazy and semi-literate just like all the past chiefs, but he looked good, Little Aleppians figured. Some of the Chiefs had been downright homely: Chief Farthing was almost fictional in his ugliness–he looked like a pumpkin with an underbite–and Chief Andros had a face only his mother could love, and that’s only because she was dead when he was Chief; when she was alive, she thought he was an ugly little fuck. The cops were there to fuck you, the neighborhood thought. They might as well be fuckable.

Hank Paraffin was a handsome bastard, and all the pictures on the wall of his office confirmed it. There he was with the governor. President, even. He had two shots of himself with Supreme Court Justices, and several with towering basketball players and football players the size of military vehicles. Hank Paraffin’s mustache had never had food in it, not one crumb, and his thick hair was not going gray, but stainless-steel. He had a chin you could believe in and an open-mouthed smile that he would produce on demand, or on request, or whenever. Hank liked to be handsome around people, and people enjoyed it when he was handsome around them.

And, O, his uniform. Tailored and tuned like a Formula One car: high in the armpits and darted in at the waist and double-vented–he was tall and broad-shouldered, so the double-vent was the correct decision–and four buttons down the single breast instead of the traditional five. White shirt with a spread collar and a black tie with a Pratt knot, which is thicker at the bottom than a Windsor. His sleeves had gold braids embroidered in rings ’round his arms; he had started with two down by the cuff, then added a third, and then a fourth and now he had eleven stretching all the way up past his elbow.

One of the awards on the wall was for posture.

“Chief!” he called through his open door.

“Captain,” she said and braced herself for…

“Gimme a hug.”

Hank was a hugger.

“Chief, I’m really not–”

“Get in here,” he said with his arms out like cheerful Jesus. Flower chose the path of least resistance and most physical contact; he wrapped her up tight and warm while she taptaptapped on his back with her fingertips.

“Okee doke,” she said.

Hank released her, took a step back, great big smile.

“Have you been working out?”

“Chief Paraffin, I’m here on official business.”

“Me, too. This is my office.”

Flower Childs wanted to go back to the firehouse, where she was in charge and there weren’t any armed dopes grinning at her. There was leftover spaghetti, too. She’d take any one of the three right now. Or a drink. Or running headfirst into a plate-glass window. She was also used to being taller than the person she was talking to, and Hank’s height was pissing her off.

“Chief, this was left on the door to the firehouse after the Wayside fire that took the life of Manfred Pierce.”

“Shame about that.”

She tried to read his face for the insult, but there was just a vacant grin. He wasn’t being cruel to her; he was just cruel.

“Here,” she said and handed him the note from out of her shoulder bag. It was in a family-sized plastic ziploc. Hank took it and said,

“Good work, Chief. Might be fingerprints. See that on teevee?”

He slipped his reading glasses out of his breast pocket, scanned the letter.

“Who’s the J of I?”

“No idea.”

“‘I told you this one would hurt,'” he read. “What does that mean? What does ‘I told you’ mean?”

This was the part Flower Childs was not looking forward to. She reached into her shoulder bag and produced two other notes, also in ziploc bags. Chief Paraffin never stopped smiling.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Cannot Swim stood before the printer’s shop, staring in the window. First, he stared at the window–the Pulaski did not have glass–and then inside where a thin man arranged blocks on a tray and fed them into a stamping press. He tried to make sense of what his eyes were shouting at him, but he could not even guess at the purpose of the machine. He could smell the grease over the stink of the Whites, it was a high-pitched smell, and Cannot Swim felt his balls tighten and his cock wither. There was no purpose he could see. The moccasin, the kotcha, the hearth, even the rifles Talks To Whites brought back for the Pulaski to hunt with: these were obvious objects; their intent was blatant. But this? The man strained against a wheel, horizontal, and there was another scent, fruity and full, and the man noticed Cannot Swim watching and nodded his head, and Cannot Swim did not know to nod back, so he didn’t and then his cousin pulled at him by the elbow.

“You were supposed to come in the store with me.”

“What is this?”

“Please don’t wander off. If you wander off, you’re gonna get killed. Or get me killed. Whichever.”

“Tell me what this is.”

“It’s a <printing press>,” Talks To Whites said, the last two words in English.

“What?”

“I can’t translate it. This is where they print the…uh…ah…<newspaper>.”

Two Blacks in overalls passed by on the wooden sidewalk. A White man with a reverend’s collar, drunk; a White woman with a clean face and a petticoat, high. Talks To Whites took his cousin by the shoulder and moved him as close to the building as they could get.

“Why do you keep saying words in the White language to me?”

“Because there’s just no translation for <newspaper,> dude. We don’t have <news> and we don’t have <paper>.”

“You’re so unhelpful.”

“They write their words down. They draw their language. Little drawings for each word and some Whites paint them on something called <paper> and the other Whites look at the drawings and understand the words.”

Cannot Swim chewed his peregrine leaf and thought this over.

“Why?”

“Got me.”

“How do you say it? <Newspaper>?”

“Close enough,” Talks To Whites said. “C’mon.”

A Chinese man humped a burlap sack past them. Wagons chained to horses much more impressive than Easy Life rumbled past, laden with trunks and bearded Whites holding rifles. There were dogs in the street, scrawnier and dirtier than the dogs the Pulaski kept. It had not rained in weeks and the dust was mostly shit. Talks To Whites pulled his cousin into Watts’ Dry Goods.

The Cenotaph. The fucking Cenotaph. Good for training puppies, Flower Childs thought. Movie listings. Sometimes, there were coupons for free egg rolls at Yung Man’s. Other than that? Fuck the Cenotaph right in its rowdy asshole. How dare they. How dare he, she corrected herself. Iffy Bould, that corpse with a nicotine habit, he was the one who wrote this horseshit. Utter horseshit. Didn’t matter that it was true: horseshit.

Chief Paraffin had called Iffy seconds after Flower Childs had left his office; he started dialing while she was walking out, only to be interrupted by Officer Zander with the news that Bunny Browley had escaped from the bathroom via the window and that she had taken the toilet with her.

“Well, go find her.”

“Right, chief,” said Officer Zander.

Then he re-dialed the Cenotaph. That motherfucker.

FIRE FREAK! AUTHORITIES AFFIRM ARSONIST! in 72-point type, and under that was the story of the notes left at the fire station, and the story of how Chief Childs had not brought those notes to the police until someone died–a hero, a trailblazer, a Town Father–and the story of the police working the case as diligently as possible. Chief Paraffin had covered his ass handsomely.

Flower Childs was at the station before dawn. She snuck out of the bedroom without waking Lower Montana, grabbing her clothes and dressing in the living room. She carried her boots outside onto the porch; when she closed the front door behind her, she held the knob open and released it gently. Then, the key. She took the three steps down to the path in one step.

Past the station on her right. She was walking west and so saw just blackness in the sky in front of her, but there was purpling in her peripheral vision. Right onto the Main Drag and then she walked north. Joggers passed her, and drunks, and men in ties who had oddly-timed jobs. Waitresses in their sneakers. The Tahitian was ahead, and she turned right onto Gower Avenue. Omar was not yet at the Broadside Newsstand, but the morning papers were; Flower pulled a flick-knife from her pocket and cut the twine on one of the packages. Took the top copy, left a buck for Omar on the register. Read the headline as she walked away.

Motherfucker.

The bar at the Morning Tavern was wallpapered with the paper, and every booth in the Victory Diner had a copy. The stevedores and fishmongers from the Salt Wharf washing down breakfast burritos with bottles of Arrow beer in Anatoly’s American were reading passages to one another. The Paperboy Brigade lit out as the sun rose, and the Cenotaph plopped onto doormats and stoops. The vending machines on the Main Drag were filled, and then immediately emptied for the price of one paper and resold at a discount. The news swept through the neighborhood just like the fires that the news was about.

Fires were one thing. Little Aleppo had always burned, and would again. Locals knew that. You had your plans, and the Lord had His chemical reactions; sometimes they quarreled. Locals knew that. But a firebug was something different. Something intercontextual, and no one had the words to translate it, so everyone was scared, but fear is supposed to be fleeting and when it sits too long on your shoulders it turns to anger. The fire had come for the Jews and the gays and the intellectuals, and locals knew their poetry. They knew the next line, and so they knew what would happen when the fire came for them, and so they were scared and angry. The Main Drag was snarling and hunched and distrustful and more heavily-armed than usual, and the options were meeting or riot, so the Town Fathers voted (3-2) for a meeting, which would be held at The Tahitian tonight in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Predator And Prey In Little Aleppo

Harry Gardner’s kneecaps shattered as his calves slammed forward. It didn’t hurt as bad as last month; it was amazing what you could get used to. The cartilage in his nose exploded and leaked into his sinuses–this part he didn’t like–as the skin on his face thrust forward and pulsed and went from gently oblate to pointed, and then the smells–O, God, the smells–distinct and real and waving through the air; then came the hair and the itching –O, God, the itching–he could not get used to that, never would: like a million beards filling out in seconds. Thicker and rougher than a man’s whiskers, though, and everywhere except for his dick and balls and a small patch on his belly that was the same color black as his fur.

His ears. Ever have your ears suck back in the sides of your head and relocate themselves to the top of your skull? It’s an odd sensation, but it was not truly painful but for the stretching flesh; not like the bones in his pelvis, which broke and reformed in seconds. It sounded like a thick branch splintering again and again. Harry Gardner writhed back and forth on the rug, and then tore it with new claws, three inches long and sharp, and then the worst part: his back. It was where he kept all his nerves, and the adjusting vertebrae sheered against their raw edges and he howled AHHWOOOOOO throwing back his massive head, and then he sank to the floor breathing heavily with his tongue laying out of his mouth.

After a minute, the bedroom door opened and Harry’s wife, Capolina, walked into the living room.

“You okay?”

Harry wagged his tail and made small, tired noise.

“Hrooo.”

Capolina sat down on the couch, all the way to the side, and patted the cushion next to her. Harry climbed up and set his head, which was the size of small cow’s, in her lap. She gave him scritchy-scratches and turned the teevee on. Looked down.

“Baby, you ripped the rug.”

“Hrooo.”

She kissed her husband on the top of his snout, and he dozed off.

Each marriage is different.

There is a restaurant with no name in Little Aleppo, but it is not on the Main Drag like the bookstore with no title. It is in the Warehouse District and changes warehouses with some regularity. The elegance remains constant, however. Mr. Leopard guarantees elegance. The wine glasses were Riedel; the tumblers, Lalique; the forks were heavy as shit. Each table was carved from only one single piece of illegally-harvested redwood. The salt and pepper shakers are made from recently-collected ivory. All of the art had been stolen during World War II. Mr. Leopard believed in thematic consistency.

The restaurant with no name served food you could not order anywhere else in town.

Obviously, there was no sign out front, nor a valet or even a parking lot. Your reservation came with a ride in a nondescript car, usually a late-model domestic sedan. The interior was much plusher than you’d think from looking at it, and if you looked harder you would notice an almost invisible sound-proof barrier between the front and back seat. A gratuity for the driver was added to your bill, but you could afford it. Getting the phone number of the restaurant with no name cost $25 grand. In cash. Mr. Leopard did not extend any sort of credit.

Bald eagle. Lion, elephant, orca. Grizzly was a perennial. (Market rate.) Condor was getting rare, and therefore more expensive, but it was always available. When diners would ask what condor tasted like, Mr. Leopard would lean slightly forward at the waist as if he were sharing a secret and say,

“Like nearly-extinct chicken.”

And then he would smile, and his guests would laugh. Mr. Leopard was tall and hairless, and had too many teeth in his mouth.

But that was the menu. What kept them coming back to the restaurant with no name were the specials. The specials were food you couldn’t order anywhere else at all. Mr. Leopard did a brisket that would melt in its own mouth. Hanger steak with shimoji mushrooms that was to die for. Something he called veal.

“Surprise me,” his most loyal customers would say, and he always would.

Capolina Gardner had been rather surprised to find out her husband was a werewolf; she thought he was a drug addict. St. Agatha’s always did tend to over-prescribe opiates, and Harry came home with a bagful after his stay. It was a beautiful night in the Verdance, where everything grows, and the two of them were siting on a bench by Bell Lake smoking a joint and staring at the full moon.

“One of these days, I’m gonna buy you that moon,” Harry said.

“We don’t have rom for it.”

“I’m gonna leave it where it is.

“Oh, okay.”

“I wasn’t gonna put it in the house.”

“It wouldn’t fit at all.”

And then he kissed her.

And then a giant monster the size of a small cow attacked him. Capolina started kicking at it, and they both were screaming. From the lake, six enraged swans charged at the bear-dog-demon thing (it was dark and she was not wearing her glasses) and it ran off into the Segovian Hills. No creature made by God or Satan is unafraid of enraged swans. The wounds were bad, but not fatal. The doctors doped him up, stitched him back together, tested him for rabies, and sent him home to the one-bedroom cottage on Bailey Street that they had moved into after their wedding. She nursed Harry back to health, which was easy for her, since she was a nurse. There were also very gentle handjobs and arguments.

“It was a bear.”

“Squatch,” Harry said.

“There’s no such thing.”

“There’s no such thing as a lot of things, but that doesn’t make them not real.”

In Harry’s defense: he was much smarter when he wasn’t getting a very gentle handjob. Smart enough to write children’s books, as a matter of fact. Hadn’t sold any, but he had written a bunch. He would soon, though. He worked in the basement of the cottage. It was unfinished, just a wooden floor and a desk and chair. Lamp he had found in the trash and rewired. Harry wrote the words in longhand on yellow legal pads, and drew the pictures in a notebook with unlined white paper.

Capolina had gone back to work after a week, and he healed up quickly. There were nightmares, but that was to be expected after a trauma. He started on a new book. It was about a squatch named Ferguson who was very friendly and would never hurt a stranger for no reason. Capolina was working the night shift and had called down to him a couple of hours ago to remember to eat, but Harry had struck a good vein with his writing and then WHAMMO.

After the pain subsided, Harry Gardner had the oddest feeling that he was a werewolf. He looked down at his body, only to find that his body was now behind him, so he looked back at his body. It appeared suspiciously werewolf-like. He tried to call out to his wife, but it sounded like AAAaaawhoooOOOO and Harry noted that that was a rather werewolf-esque sound. He padded up the wooden stairs with no risers. The door was ajar and he nudged it open with his snout, which–he thought to himself–was not the way people opened doors. There was a mirror in the bedroom.

Motherfucker, I’m a werewolf, Harry said to himself. Shouldn’t I be ravaging through the village by now? Bounding through the moonlight on a wild murder spree? We really need a new dresser. Should I be thinking about dressers? Werewolfs don’t care about bedroom furniture.

Harry sat there staring his new, temporary self in the mirror for a while until he got hungry.

Well, he thought, this is it. The hunger shall take me and I’ll be forced to eat people.

He waited.

The hunger had not forced him to eat people, and Harry walked into the kitchen and had the roast chicken Capolina had left him in the fridge. Then, he curled up on the kitchen floor, which he now found delightfully cool.

“What is this?”

Harry Gardner snapped his eyes open. He was naked on the kitchen floor and the sun was up and his wife was standing over him in light-green scrubs. He looked down and saw the body he was used to, pink and relatively hairless and bipedal

“How was work?”

“Baby, why are you naked on the kitchen floor?”

Harry decided to be brave and tell his wife the truth.

“It was hot.”

But then changed his mind and lied.

“So I slept on the kitchen floor.”

Capolina had pulled her long brown hair from its work ponytail, and it ran down the front of her scrubs that were now also covered with her folded arms.

“It was like 60 degrees last night.”

“Outside. Outside, it was 60 degrees. In here? A sauna.”

They had been married for less than three years, which may explain why Harry thought she was buying his story. He had propped himself up nonchalantly on his elbow.

“I think it’s the thermostat. Just went, you know, kablooey.”

“Seems fine in here now.”

“Technology, huh?”

Capolina was too tired to deal with whatever the fuck was happening on her kitchen floor, so leaned over and kissed Harry on the forehead.

“Good night, baby.”

She walked into the bedroom, and then their bathroom, where she checked the medicine cabinet to see how many pain pills were left. Then she popped one in her mouth, chewed it up, and walked back into the bedroom. She did not do well on the night shift–she was a natural early riser–and guzzled coffee throughout the hours, so when she got off she was frazzled and fuzzy and her stomach hurt and she felt dumb and drained.

Harry felt like he had been a werewolf.

He had to keep it from Capolina, he knew that. Three nights a month, he reasoned. What if I say that a big children’s book publisher in New York wants to meet with me? And so I have to go for three days? But she’d want to come. What if I tell her the publishers hate wives? No, that makes no sense. What if I just fucking run out of the house? Wait, no, that’s terrible. I’d have to come back and then what would I say? Maybe the monastery? I could go to the monastery. No! Fuck! Consecrated ground. Werewolfs can’t go on consecrated ground. Wait. Can they? I need to read a book about werewolfs.

The bell on the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink.

“Gardner.”

“Venable.”

Mr. Venable was in his customary seat, wearing his customary suit. He was reading John Dos Passos because he supposed that someone still should, There was a thin line of green powder sprinkled on the desk in front of him. He needed a haircut.

“I’m looking for a book.”

“They’re that way.”

He pointed towards the back of the shop, the three towering shelves that made up four aisles receding into the distance, and the dogleg left that led to the annex and the basements and sub-basements.

“You’ll recognize them instantly. Made out of paper and lies.”

“I’m looking for a specific book.”

“How specific? Do you have a title?

“No.”

“An author?”

“No.”

“Our gyre of specificity is widening. I heard you got eaten by a squatch.”

Harry’s eyes lit up.

“Yes! It was a squatch! No one believes me.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot. There’s no such thing as squatch.”

Mr. Venable sipped from his coffee cup and mumbled into the mug,

“Anymore.”

“What?”

“What is the genre of book you seek, Gardner?”

Harry looked around the store as casually as he could manage. His hands were in the pockets of his jeans and he had been in too much or a rush to put on underwear.

“Werewolfs?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Werewolfs.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather sit on my floor reading through the children’s section without buying anything like usual?”

“No. I am a purchaser today.”

“Goody.”

“Werewolfs. Like, a history of ’em.”

“A history of werewolfs?”

“A book about the legends. The whole thing of it. GRRRR and all that and the moon. Werewolfs.”

Harry was wonderful with the English language when he had time to sit and think about it, less so when he extemporized.

“The annex. Take the ladder up; the stairs need debreeding. Fourth row on my right. You’ll see a shelf with only maroon-colored books on it. Walk past it without browsing.  Keep going. If you see the Hermitage, you’ve gone way too far. Turn right at the shelf that smells like garlic and you’re there.”

“Garlic?”

“Werewolf section is next to the dracula section

“Sure.”

Harry walked into the bookstore with no title via the row on the left, and a barefoot man in a black suit walked out of the row on the right. He was tall and hairless, and carrying a large hardcover book, which he placed on Mr. Venable’s desk. He was careful not to upset the line of green powder.

An Illustrated History of the Seattle Pilots?”

“I have varied tastes.”

“Very varied.”

The man smiled. He had too many teeth.

“Ten dollars.”

The man laid a bill on the desk and said,

“Thank you very much.”

“Find everything you needed?”

“And even more.”

“Stay funky.”

Harry read while he walked. Burchard’s Intro to Lycanthropy. Mr. Venable said that it was the text they used in the Therianthropolgy course at Harper College. There were, according to Burchard, seven ways to become a werewolf and one of them was what had happened to him. Fucker got some slobber in me when he was trying to eat me. Fluid transfer, there you go, number two on the list. (Number one is the seventh son of a seventh son thing. Ways three through seven are: cursed by God/god/gods; gypsy incantation; rare side effect of aspirin; magical soup; peer pressure. )

But, he read hiding in the bathroom of the cottage on Bailey Street he shared with his wife, there was only one outcome: giving in to the animalistic urges implied by the body and lusting for human flesh. There was nothing in the book about taking the news rather well (he congratulated himself), eating some roast chicken, and falling asleep on the kitchen floor.

When Capolina woke up, Harry was gone. He had left a note on the couch saying he had gone to run errands with a drawing of a happy goat in the corner. She left for the hospital around dusk and he still wasn’t back because he was hiding down the street behind a bush watching to see when she would leave. When people walked by, he pretended to look for his contact lens. When she disappeared around the corner, he counted to a hundred and went home.

This is worse, Harry Gardner thought. He was sitting naked on the edge of his bed waiting to turn into a werewolf and thought to himself, this is much worse. Last night, I didn’t know it was coming. The actual transformation bullshit was awful, but at least I didn’t have to worry about the whole thing. It was dark out. He had drawn the shades, but he could see that it was full-on night by now. Was it cloudy? Oh, fuck no, this can’t be like the cartoons where I keep switching back and forth every time the moon goes behind a WHAMMO.

He opened his eyes to a mirror. Yup. Not a dream. Werewolf. Bloodlust? Didn’t seem so. My name is Harold Nance Gardner and I’m married to Capolina Yvette Gardner née Barnard. I went to Harper College and graduated with a degree in Art. My phone number is 821…oh, goddammit, it’s me. I’m stuck in a werewolf. What the fuck?

Harry cast an angry, black eye on Intro to Lycanthropy, which was sitting on the nightstand. He would have to return it, he thought, but then considered what he would say when Mr. Venable asked why. Instead, he crunched it in his massive jaws and shook his head back and forth. It was a lot more fun than he would have assumed, and he realized what dogs saw in it.  Paper was flying everywhere and he was growling and drooling and having himself such a time that he didn’t hear Capolina walk in the front door.

“Baby, they sent me home because there were too many–”

And then she was standing in the bedroom doorway.

Harry turned around, dropped what was left of the book. He had never seen her this scared and it frightened him and he dropped to his belly and whimpered. His front paws were under him.

The overhead light was on, and the ceiling fan, too. It rattled. Harry had been meaning to tighten up all the screws on it because Capolina had a recurring phobia about the whole contraption loosing itself and crashing down on her while she slept. He was taking up all the space in between the bed and dresser–squeezed in tight, actually–and his fur was greasy and bristly and coarse and did not reflect the overhead light or ruffle in the breeze of the fan. Peaked ears blacker inside than out. Pointed snout that did not even try to hide six-inch long fangs. Shoulders too broad to be a real wolf.

Capolina had pissed herself and Harry could smell it, full of fear, and he hated himself for doing this to her and made even more pathetic noises; he buried his head under his left paw.

They stayed like that for a few moments.

And then Harry, very slowly, uncovered his head and raised it. He did not make eye contact with Capolina, but he raised his head just a foot and, with his teeth, opened the middle drawer of the dresser. Just a few inches. Put his snout in. Came out with a pair of his own boxer shorts. Pale blue. Put them on the floor and nudged them towards her.

Nothing.

Slowly still, he pulled out another pair. White with thin maroon stripes. Nosed them her way.

Capolina tilted her head just like the RCA dog and said,

“Harry?

He did not leap up in joy and begin licking her, but his tail did thrash back and forth.

“If you’re Harry, bark three times.”

They weren’t really barks, more like BORFF BORFF BORFF, and Capolina tilted her head the other way and her eyes opened real wide and she said,

“I TOLD you it wasn’t a squatch!”

Harry got to his feet, all four of them, and they were the same height.

“Jesus, baby, you’re fucking terrifying.”

His tongue was the size of her face, and he licked it over and over.  Later on, Capolina called for pizza and they watched the Late Show on KSOS.

The Purveyor was greasy and short and had been smoking the same cigarette for at least a decade. They did not make the brand anymore. He kept it in the right corner of his mouth and the eye above it was squinted shut. It was a cool day out, but he was sweating as he unloaded the packages from his van into the kitchen of the restaurant with no name. Not all the way in. A busboy met him at the back door and take the meat, which was wrapped in thick, waxy, yellow paper, from him, The Purveyor was not allowed in the restaurant. Mr. Leopard stood by with a clipboard and a pencil, making indecipherable notes to himself. When there was nothing left in the van, Mr, Leopard paid the Purveyor in cash. Most days, there was nothing spoken beyond a price.

Today, Mr. Leopard said,

“There is, I believe, something new in the neighborhood. And old. Something very old that is also new.”

“Which the fuck is it, old or new?”

“Both.”

“Fuck that. Can’t be.”

“Ancient, but recently arrived.”

“You’re such a pompous fuck, you know that?”

There was no magical reason the Purveyor couldn’t come in the restaurant with no name; he was just a little prick, and Mr. Leopard hated him.

“I think there’s a werewolf.”

“Easy enough just to say that. Don’t have to go all spooky-fucking-ooky, Why don’t you just hold a flashlight under your face, monster mash?”

“Can you get me the werewolf or not?”

The Purveyor was wearing a flat cap, and he took it off and rubbed at his wet, bald skull. Looked up at the sky, down at the ground, the sky again. Put the cap back on.

“I can get anything. I’m the Purveyor.”

Mr. Leopard said,

“Really?”

“What?”

“Did you look cool in your head doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Oh, don’t pretend you weren’t trying to be cool, Sidney.”

“THE PURVEYOR!”

All of the busboys had left the kitchen.

“Can you get the werewolf or not?”

“Of course I fucking can. Where is it?”

“Within walking distance of that bookstore on the Main Drag.”

“The one that asshole owns?”

“Yes.”

“Guy’s a fucking asshole. You met a werewolf in a bookstore? I met a hula dancer in jail once.”

“I didn’t meet the werewolf. I overheard him.”

“Overheard him? What, growling in the romance section?”

“Asking for a book.”

“How does a werewolf ask for a book?”

“The werewolf was a person at the time. Bookstores are open during the day. Make some inferences, please.”

“Heard a guy ask for a book. That’s your werewolf?”

Mr. Leopard was very tall and had too many teeth. He bent at the waist towards the Purveyor, whose real name was Sidney, and Sidney saw his eyes change from blue to black and back again. It happened quickly, so the Purveyor wondered if it was just a trick of the light, so Mr. Leopard did it again. Slower. He had far too many teeth.

“I recognized the tone of voice.”

“I can get him.”

“Wonderful.”

“Anything else besides ‘lives near a bookstore?'”

Mr. Leopard smiled.

“His name is Gardner.”

“Funny.”

“What is?”

“That was the hula dancer’s name, too.”

The Purveyor walked back to his van and slammed the back doors shut. It was east to get lost in the Warehouse District, but he didn’t take one wrong turn and shortly enough he was driving up the Main Drag, which is a road in Little Aleppo.

An Afternoon Date In Little Aleppo

Relationships have firsts. First date, first kiss, first fuck, first fight. Anniversaries for everything when you’re conducting a relationship. First gift, that’s a sweet one; first black eye, that’s not. Penny Arrabbiata had a guy buy her a ring once, diamonds and everything, but she didn’t want it and she let him down easy. Had another guy pop her in the jaw once, which she also did not want, and she smiled and apologized and calmed him down and fucked him until he slept, then she slammed a chair into his face, breaking his nose, both occipital bones, his left zygomatic, and concussing him to the point of insensation. Then she took a shit on his chest and left his dorm room. Luckily, this was the sixties and DNA testing did not exist yet, so she was not linked to the assault.

“That’s a delightful story.”

“Isn’t it?”

“I’ll bet you tell that to all the boys.”

“I do. Surprised I haven’t told you yet.”

“Runny?”

“Pardon?”

“The shit.”

“Oh. No, coiled and corn-speckled.”

Mr Venable laughed HA! like he was sneezing. First time for everything in a relationship, Penny Arrabbiata thought. First time for a kiss and for a fuck and for a fight and, if you were dating someone who owned a magical bookstore, first time for a bookworm uprising. She had fenced a bit at prep school, but she had never wielded a samurai sword before. It was in its scabbard hanging off her shoulder like a deadly purse. She had been waving it around while she walked until she nearly sliced Mr. Venable’s arm off.

“Dammit, woman!”

“Ooh, sorry.”

“I’m bleeding.”

“Just a little.”

“‘Just a little?’ A drop is too much. I prefer my blood inside me. And look at my shirt.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

It was 1969, and Mr. Venable was dressed like it. It did not suit him.

“Shirts don’t grow on trees, you know.”

“Money does. I’ll buy you a new one. I barely touched you, you know.”

They were in the second sub-basement to the left.

“Magical bookstore. Magical sword.”

“Mitsubishi?”

“Masamune.”

“We should get sushi after this.”

“Should we survive, there shall be sushi. Sheathe the sword.”

She did.

The overhead lights swayed though there was no wind at all. The air was stuffy and smelled like paper and punctuation. Penny had her boots on; they clomped on the maple planks that made up the floors of the bookstore with no title. The rows of shelves were not infinite, but just barely. Infinitesque, maybe. They were both wearing corduroy pants.

CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA

“There!” he cried, and ran towards the sound of the bookworms; Penny followed. They made it to the corner of the space, where shelves junctioned off into each other and mingled: the Chemistry section abutted Politics and spawned Chemical Warfare. She had her hand on her sword, felt ridiculous, dropped her hand, CHIKKA CHIKKA, put her hand back on her sword. Mr. Venable sniffed around.

“I can smell them.”

Penny breathed in through her nose, deeply.

“What do they smell like?”

“Plagiarism.”

“Fuckers.”

He had a longsword. Sun-shaped pommel at the end of the white hilt. Simple cross-guard made from the same steel as the blade. There was writing down the edges of the blade in an abandoned language. If anyone could translate it, they would know it read “Cast me away that I might judge this bloody city,” but nobody could.

“Do you smell a lake?”

“It’s the sword.”

“Why does your sword–”

“Shh!”

Both of them crouched down for no reason. Cocked their heads so their ears could do their best. They squinted their eyes, too. Humans think that squinting their eyes makes them hear better. (This is the corollary to turning down the car radio when you’re looking for a street sign.) Elephants can hear infrasonics through their feet, and foxes can hear a mouse’s heartbeat underground at a thousand paces, but humans can hear well enough. Mostly. So they cocked their heads and strained to hear.

chikka chikka chikka

Mr. Venable pointed–there–and stalked in the direction of his finger. Penny followed. She did not want to admit how much fun she was having; she had been raised coolly. Underplay it, dear. Emotions are so ethnic. Still, she smiled and fingered her katana. Crept forward with glee and bloodthirst but then she whispered,

“Wait.”

Penny dropped to her knees and put her ear against the wooden floor. Looked up at Mr. Venable. Nodded. He nodded back. She nodded back at his nodding. He nodded in return, and she said,

“Are we just gonna nod at each other?”

“We were trapped in a death spiral there. We could have perished. Thank you for pulling us out.”

She stood up and kissed him. Penny was used to men kissing her, but she kissed him and Mr. Venable kissed her back. And then they drew their swords.

“Once more into the breach?”

“Fuck, yeah.”

Some sub-basements were accessible via elevator, and others could only be gotten to with stairs. A few were self-encompassing and had no exits or entrances. One sub-basement wandered up and down the Main Drag and popped up in movie theaters and hair salons whenever it felt like it. Another was a contender for the welterweight belt in Malaysia.

The stairs creaked.

CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA

They were in the History section; American History, more specifically. The official version and otherwise. Respectable books the weight of doorstops and pamphlets that would flutter away in the breeze.

“Can you smell them?”

“Plagiarism.”

“Little bastards.”

“The last frontier,” Mr. Venable said.

“What?”

“The last American frontier. Do you know what it was?”

Penny Arrabbiata looked left and right for monsters.

“What?”

“Just making conversation.”

“The last frontier? I don’t know. California, I’d suppose.”

“No.”

“Hawaii. Alaska. One of them.”

“Neither. The West was declared closed in 1897.”

“By who?”

“Some writer.”

“Ah.”

“Florida. Both the first and last settled place in America. You’ll recall St. Augustine.”

“Only as an answer to a trivia question.”

“More recognition than most towns get. Established in 1565.”

“Ancient.”

“For America, yes.”

There was a tortoiseshell cat atop one of the shelves to their right. She was watching for mice and had no interest in the history lesson. She had no name.

“Everything below the panhandle was unknown, at least to the white man, until 1900. A man named Frederick Willoughby mapped the Everglades in a canoe.”

“Why?”

“Someone paid him.”

“Ah.”

“A swamp. From Orlando down to the Keys. Simply swamp. Nothing to build on and nowhere to live. No mines at all. Nothing but useless land in the shape of a phallus.”

“A dickswamp.”

“Indeed. And white men could not live in a dickswamp. But white men could not resist seaside property. And there was never any winter in Florida, not a tiny little bit.”

“Your story is coming to a moral, I feel.”

“Indeed. In 1900, there were 300 white people living in Miami. Today, it is the third most populous state.”

Mr. Venable spun around on his heel, careful not to slice Penny’s face off with his sword, and gathered her in an arm and kissed her.

“And do you know why?”

“You’re the weirdest romantic.”

He kissed her again.

“And do you know why?”

“No, why?”

“The Army Corps of Engineers.”

She kissed him back.

“You’re getting me weirdly hot.”

“They dredged massive canals throughout the entire peninsula. The water drains into them, and back into the ocean. It was a project bigger than Rural Electrification or the Hoover Dam. You can turn a swamp into a neighborhood if you have enough money. The canals are deeper than the groundwater, and so everything flows into them and out. Away from the homes, and away from the retirees. Away from those tired of winter, and there is never any winter in Florida, not even a little bit.”

“What could go wrong with living where you shouldn’t?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

Penny Arrabbiata’s hair was long and brown, and Mr. Venable needed a trim. Neither of them exercised, and they grasped each other by the waist and kissed.

“Marry me.”

“Okay.”

CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA the bookworms were making a frontal assault. Mr. Venable ran towards them with his longsword that he did not quite know how to use, and so did Penny Arrabbiata with her katana, and the two of them beat the monsters back, but they would return. There were always monsters in the bookstore with no title, which was on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Horror Story In Little Aleppo

Tommy Moors needed quiet. Art requires concentration. He woke up in Room 302 of the Hotel Synod very early, around an hour before dawn, and changed from his pajamas into a blue suit. Brown wingtips. Before he put on his jacket, he would roll up the sleeve of his white shirt and shoot heroin into the median cubital vein of his arm–he would alternate sides–and then pause. Breathe through his nose deeply. When Tommy was sure that there was no blood issuing from the puncture, he would roll the sleeve back down and insert a cuff link made of silver through the hole in his French cuff. Then, the jacket.

To the desk. In high school, the other boys had mocked him for taking typing classes, but he thought they were the best education he ever got. No teacher had ever taught him how to write, but Miss Tessmacher had taught him to type. Sixty words a minute, and mostly clean copy; if he made a mistake, he could eliminate it with the power of the IBM Selectric II. It was a correcting typewriter with a strip of white erase-o tape running beneath the ink ribbon. It did not have individual striking keys, but a typeball with every letter on it that made its mark with a sound like SHWUM SHWUM. It had a power switch, and when Tommy Moors flicked it before dawn, it hummed and the back of the machine grew slightly warm.

He wrote short stories for the pulp magazines. Sometimes about space, and sometimes about fucking. Occasionally, about spacefucking. Seven cents a word, or a dime if he could get it. Tommy wrote for Spectacular Fantasies, and for World-Wide Wonder, and Zoid!, and Shplurtz!, and The American Journal of Amazing Tales. (That last one was a bit snooty.) He wrote about humans on Mars, and Martians on Earth. Time travel stories, and machinery that attacked its creator. Robots that took their programming too literally. A lunar base named Haleb with all sorts of weirdos living there.

His window faced north, so the sunrise did not poke him in the eyes. A gradual lightening: violet, and then indigo, and then blue as hell.

What was that sound?

A thrumpty-thrump coming from the other side of his front door. Boogie music, it seemed.

Tommy ignored it. He had 5,000 words to write before dinner. A story about post-apocalyptic draculas with a twist at the end. He had come up with the twist first, and worked backwards.

Thrumpty-thrump.

His eyes twitched and his asshole sucked into itself. Rudeness. Jesus, the rudeness. Tommy Moors removed his reading glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Waited.

Still: thrumpty-thrump.

Pushed his chair back from the desk, shut off the Selectric. Checked himself in the mirror. Tie was perfect–blue with white spots, half-windsor knot–and he combed his thinning brown hair from left to right with his hand. Out the door. Down the hall and listening, searching, hunting for the progenitor of the noise. He tried not to look at the terrible wallpaper, brown and slipping from its glue.

Room 311. Boogie music.

WHACK WHACK he tried to knock politely.

No answer, but the music still played.

Tommy counted to ten. He had excellent posture.

WHACK WHACK WHACK he tried to knock exasperatedly.

Still: no answer. Boogie music continued. The hallway shook with it.

Not trusting the Hotel Synod’s elevators, he walked to the stairs and descended until he reached the ground floor.

“Mr. Teakettle.”

“Mr. Moors.”

Frankie Teakettle had a flyswatter and was trying to kill a fly that may or may not have existed.

“There is a terrible racket coming from Room 311.”

“Describe the racket.”

“Music of the boogie variety.”

“That will happen.”

Tommy Moors put his hand on the front desk to steady himself. He did not ring the bell.

“It shouldn’t! It’s a problem, Mr. Teakettle. It’s disruptive to my work.”

“What do you do again?”

“It’s no business of yours. Your purview is the hotel.”

“Hell of a purview.”

“Mr. Teakettle, will you take care of this?”

“I absolutely will. What?”

“The noise issuing from Room 311.”

“Consider it done.”

Tommy Moors walked away from the front desk and back to his room. Within a few minutes, the thrumpty-thrump sound abated, and he got to his writing. O, that apocalypse. O, those draculas.

When he was done with his work, he took another shot and sat in his chair reading Pepys’ diaries for a few hours. Then he had another shot and changed into his pajamas and went to sleep. In the morning, he awoke and put on his suit and hit his median cubital vein and rolled down his sleeve and sat at his IBM Selectric typewriter. 3,000 words on zombies eating brains at the speed of light.

Thrumpty-thrump.

Tommy’s eyes opened wide and his nostrils flared. He shut off the Selectric and walked into the hall with the shoddy green carpet. Listened for the sound. Room 308. Banged on the door WHAP WHAP with a passive aggression. No answer. Again: WHAP WHAP. Nothing. Down to the front desk via the stairs.

“Mr. Teakettle.”

“Mr. Moors.”

“You said you would take care of the racket.”

“And I did. No more noise from 311.”

“Yes. But now there is a blaring cacophony issuing from 308.”

“Well, that’s a different problem.”

“Will you take care of it?”

“Consider it done.”

Tommy Moors went back to his desk. Shortly, there was quiet and he began to type and then there was no more quiet because of all the damn boogie music. It went WHONGAboomWHONGAboom up his neck and played with his earlobes. His lips were affected and his tongue spit out like a lizard. A man needs to work, Tommy thought, and keeping him from that work was sinful. It was actionable, goddammit, and so he switched off the typewriter and pushed back his chair and stomped out into the hall.

Thrumpty-thrump.

He listened at each door. It was Room 305 this time. Tommy Moors reeled his hand back to knock furiously, but didn’t. Instead, he hitched up the legs of his trousers and sank to his knees. Put his head on the floor like a Muslim at prayer. Tried to peer under the door. Just darkness. Stood back up and knocked BAM BAM. Waited a moment. BAM BAM again. No answer.

Tommy feared that he would strike Frankie Teakettle if they spoke again–he was near vibrating with anger–and so he went back into Room 302, into the bathroom of Room 302, and wadded up toilet paper into the canals of his ears and forced out the rest of his story. He could still make it out, the boogie music, beyond the tissue jammed against his eardrums and he hummed tunelessly to himself to block it out. When he was done writing, he cooked himself a double-shot, and did not read the book he had open on his lap and then to bed without putting on his pajamas.

Tommy Moors rose before the dawn without an alarm clock. The Hotel Synod was silent. He dressed and fixed and tied his shoes and sat at his desk. Flicked the power switch of the IBM Selectric II.

Thrumpty-thrump.

“No!” he spit, and did not need to stalk out the door because the boogie music was coming via the wall. It was next-door, he knew this, but still burst into the hallway with clenched teeth and examined his neighbors’ doors for sound.

Room 304.

Down the stairs again. The lobby. The front desk.

“Mr. Teakettle.”

“Mr. Moors.”

“It is next door, Mr. Teakettle. The problem is next door. The music–if you can call it that–is coming from within feet of my skull. How many complaints must I register?”

“This one might do the trick.”

“Please! I’ve done nothing to deserve this. I pay my bills on time. I bother no one. I want quiet, that’s all. Is it too much to ask, Mr. Teakettle?”

“It shouldn’t be.”

“You will fix this?”

“I’ll do everything in my power.”

“Am I making my complaints to the right person?”

“Most certainly.”

Tommy Moors rapped on the front desk twice TAK TAK with his knuckles and walked back up the stairs to the third floor. He sniffed around. Silence. Golden silence shimmering in the noontime light coming in through the window before his desk. Switched the IBM back on and arched his hands like ballerina spiders over the keys and SHWUM SHWUM began making seven cents a word again. Hours later, he typed THE END and pushed back from the desk. Stood up, went to his reading chair. Median cubital. Pepys. Early to bed.

He awoke to a thrumpty-thrump coming from in front of him, behind him, issuing from the sheets and blankets and thin pillow folded in two under his head. Tommy Moors was in his pajamas, striped, and his feet were bare in the hallway of the Hotel Synod. Listened at doors. Not this one, not this one, either. Up and down the hallway, but could not find the room responsible even as the noise of the boogie music filled up his skull. Down two flights of stairs to the lobby.

The front desk has a bell that makes a sound like BING BING. Tommy waited. BING BING. He checked all around himself, and then peered over the desk and into the back office. BING BING BING BING. Nothing, so he walked back up to the third floor and walked down the hallway with its bubbling brown wallpaper and shitty green carpet that squished slightly under the soles of his feet. Put his ear up against the door of 311, 308, 304. No. The sound was not coming from any of those rooms, but he could hear it O God could he hear it THRUMPING in his head and smacking out all of his words and all the stolen stories he was being paid seven cents a word for. He reeled back and forth in the corridor like a drunk during an earthquake and then he found the source, pinpointed the problem.

His room. Room 302.

Tommy was in his pajamas and his feet were bare. The door was unlocked and swung into the room easily and then came the sound, all the sound in the world, boogie music going thrumpty-thrump and his bladder emptied down his leg. Frankie Teakettle was sitting at his typewriter, body towards the window and head facing the door.

He smiled at Tommy Moors, and said,

“Would you like to boogie?”

And the editors at Spectacular Fantasies, and for World-Wide Wonder, and Zoid!, and Shplurtz!, and The American Journal of Amazing Tales made call after call, but they could never get Tommy Moors on the phone ever again.

The Cold War In Little Aleppo

“Stalin used to make Khrushchev dance.

“That Russian dance.  Got your arms folded in front of you. Squat down and kick out your legs. Called the Hopak, and here’s the funny thing, cats and kittens: it ain’t Russian at all. Ukrainian. Russkies stole it like they stole the rest of Eastern Europe.

“HOO-pa

“HOO-pa.

“You know the dance your pal Frankie Nickels is talking about. Looks real good in polished boots. Maybe a red tunic and a hat. Get down low as you can go and kick kick kick and jump up high as you can and back down and kick kick kick. Makes my knees hurt just thinking ’bout it, but Russians are known for their suffering, ha ha ha.

“Khrushchev was a little fat man and Stalin used to laugh and laugh when he danced. Stalin liked his vodka and used to get drunk and make all his apparatchiks stay up all night with him laughing at his jokes.

“Idi Amin.

“Mao.

“Stalin.

“Elvis.

“Dictators always like staying up all night scaring people.

“Not that our pal Nikita was a good guy. No! No, cats and kittens, we are not dealing with a babe in the woods here. An innocent. A naïf. Nikita Khrushchev had professors killed, and kulaks, too. Those were the wealthy peasants. Russians called ’em kulaks. I guess they’d be burghers in Germany, or clarks in England, or shopkeepers here in the good old Yoo Ess of Ay. Not the salt of the earth, but the folks who sold the salt of the earth their trousers. Slightly-upper-middle class. He had thousands of ’em executed. Tens of thousands.

“Wonder if he signed every kill order? Maybe he had his secretary do it for him. Paperwork’s important in an execution. That’s what makes it legal, the paperwork. Otherwise, it’s just murder, but if you got the right paperwork then it’s okay.

“Called the Great Purge. The Moscow Trials. You should look it up. History’s so interesting to them that ain’t living it. Gotta get a little distance on history, right? Otherwise it’s current events and ain’t no fun at all.

“In general, one does not want to be present for history.

“But we’re past history, ain’t we? We’re post-modern, or so the swells tell us. Verging on post-scarcity. Caught between the factories and the future, that’s us. Ain’t it fun?

“Anyway, Communism’s easy. Collectivize the farms, nationalize the industries, weaponize the newspapers. Easy-peasy. ‘Cept for the people. People are always getting in the way of Communism.

“People are the problem, cats and kittens. Twas always thus.

“But Stalin had a saying. No person, no problem.

“He liked Westerns. Did you know that? Joseph Stalin–Uncle damn Joe–that man liked Western movies. He had his spies steal ’em out of movie theaters on Long Island and Delaware and Mexico City. Saloons and injuns and horses and whatnot. Westerns. Roy Rogers. Gene Autry. Tom Mix. Dinner started at around one in the morning, and then the projectionist would reel up one of them stolen flicks about stolen land.

“And Stalin?

“Aw, man, he was in his glory. Loved those cowboys, Stalin did. He’d get excited by the doings and happenings, and he’d be blind off his vodka, and he’d order Khrushchev to do the Hopak. And our pal Nikita knew that not doing the dance would be a problem.

“No person, no problem.

“So Khrushchev would dance and Stalin would laugh.

“So anyway, it’s 1959. Stalin’s dead. Khrushchev’s in charge of the Soviet Union, we like Ike, everyone’s got nukes pointed at each other, and Elvis is in the Army. Eisenhower can’t figure the little sucker out, right? What does he want? The State Department’s full of Kremlinologists, but none of the pointy-headed  mopes can give him an answer.

“So Ike sends Nixon.

“Called the Kitchen Debate. Now why are these two movers and shakers hanging out in a kitchen? Well, cuz there was an exhibition type of deal going on in Moscow. Like the World’s Fair, but with an edge to it, ha ha ha. We built a whole house over there. Buy it right now for fourteen grand. Housing for Joe Sixpack and his wife, Lucy.

“But the important stuff happened behind closed doors. Khrushchev had a dacha by the Black Sea. This is story about the Russians, cats and kittens. There’s always a dacha by the Black Sea.

“And while they were chatting, Nixon invites our pal Nikita to tour America.

“And wouldn’t you know it, the little pig-farmer with the nukes says yes.

“Flies over here on a Tupolev-114. Biggest plane the Soviets got. Doesn’t need to stop to refuel between Moscow and D.C. Khrushchev brought his family. Wife, son. Bunch of fancypants Party members, too. Guy named Andrei Gromyko. Now get this: the engineers found cracks in the Tupolev’s engines. Little bitty ones, but still. Khrushchev didn’t care. Needed his big plane.

“Ike and Mamie go to Andrews to meet him. All the networks cover it live.

“This is after Sputnik. You wanna go to sleep under the light of a Communist moon? Me, neither, ha ha ha. And Luna II, too. You don’t remember Luna II. Russkies slammed an 800-pound metal basketball into the moon in September of ’59. Soviets beat us to the moon, cats and kittens, for a certain definition of ‘beat.’ And, oh man, were they testing their nukes.

“Things was tense, is what I’m saying.

“And here he comes down the stairs. This round little man. Gap-toothed with a hat nine sizes too big. Got his medals on his light-grey suit.

“He’s smiling. He’s waving. Couldn’t be happier.

“Then he gives Ike a model of the Luna II just to mess with him.

“And off he goes, man. Into America. Ten days. Ten days! Making his own schedule and seeing his own sights and riding the rails like a hobo drinking vodka ‘stead of whiskey. Now, our muckety-mucks ain’t gonna let him just flitter about without an escort, so Ike sends Henry Cabot Lodge to babysit our guest.

“Can you imagine such a thing? Henry motherloving Cabot Lodge and Nikita Khrushchev gallivanting around America getting into adventures and solving mysteries together? Surprised we haven’t seen a movie ’bout it yet. Our pal Nikita’s got three years of school under his belt, maybe. He was a metalworker. Farmed sometimes. Henry went to Harvard. Was in the same final club as T.S. Eliot. Now he’s our man at the UN.

“The scorpion and the WASP, ha ha ha.

“First stop: New York. How you gonna keep ’em on the collective once they seen the city? Khrushchev gives some speeches, meets some people, waves his big hat around.

“Guess where he stays?

“C’mon, guess.

“You’re right, you know it, of course you are! The Supreme-est Soviet, Captain Commie, that menshevik of the people…he laid his head down at the Waldorf-Astoria. Contemporary reports all note that the Chairman was enthusiastic in his love for room service. Capitalism will kill you with kindness, cats and kittens! System’s got a ton of faults, but room service ain’t one of ’em!

“Reporter asks Khrushchev about New York City. He says, ‘You’ve seen one skyscraper, you’ve seen ’em all.’ He said it in Russian, but you get the idea.

“So he gets back on his big, broken plane and does what so many before him have: Khrushchev heads west. Los Angeles, to be specific.

“Swimming pools.

“Limousines.”

“And Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Liz Taylor, too. They had a lunch for him. All the Hollywood swells. Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper and Jack Benny and Debbie Reynolds. Bob Hope, man! Bob ‘Proxy War’ Hope coming at ya live and in color. Dean Martin, cats and kittens. Dean Martin and Nikita Khrushchev sitting in a sound studio on Pico Boulevard eating squab.

“Don’t ask me, man. I’m a chicken girl, myself. Rich folks eat squab, I guess. Fancy birds for fancy people, ha ha ha.

“But now Khrushchev gets some bad news during lunch. Turns out he can’t go to Disneyland. I swear, I swear! Khrushchev wanted to go to Disneyland. To buy a hat with ears, I guess. Ride the Matterhorn, maybe. And, hey: who can blame him? Whole point of Disneyland is that people wanna go there. Can’t fault a man for his humanity, I figure.

“So he starts yelling about it. President of 20th Century Fox gave his little speech about the greatness of America, and then that little pig-farmer with the nukes gets up and starts screaming his head off about not being allowed to go to Disneyland.

“It put Dean Martin off his squab, I tell you.

“Then the mayor got up. Guy named Norris Paulson. Hell of a name, huh? Mayor lets our pal Nikita have it. ‘You’ll bury us? Sucker, we’ll bury you!’ That kinda thing. Not the best way to treat a guest. It’s bad, man! Khrushchev’s pissed! Henry Cabot Lodge has to sit him down and explain to him that mayors don’t do what the President tells ’em. Gotta explain the concept of ‘freelancing’ to the Supreme Soviet. Harvard didn’t prepare him for that!

“Luckily, room service is available to soothe the savage beast.

“And that’s his act, man. All around this big ol’ nation of ours. He smiles and he waves, and then he starts yelling.

“Visits IBM up in Silicon Valley before it was called that. Smiles, waves; yells.

“Supermarket. Smiles, waves; yells.

“Goes to Iowa.

“Swear to God! Iowa! Just like he was running for president! Knew a guy there. Corn farmer that sold the Soviet Union seeds. Now, cats and kittens, you know that Frankie Nickels would not lie to you and so you must believe me when I tell you that his friend’s name was Roswell Garst and he lived in Coon Rapids.

“Not a word a lie, not one word.

“And, see, here’s the thing: the folks flocked out. Iowans. Salt of the earth and those who sold trousers to them. Solid citizens and their wives, Republicans most. John Birchers, some of ’em. They all come out and trampled Roswell Garst’s corn to see this man who kept threatening to sling nuclear weapons at ’em. Wasn’t for this jug-eared sonofagun, the kiddies wouldn’t have to neither duck nor cover. Said he’d bury us, and here’s America gathering in a field to get a glimpse.

“Looky-loos, the lot of us. Can’t fault people for their humanity, I guess.

“Anyway, that was the high point. Khrushchev was more interested in farms than in Hollywood or New York. He and Ike hung out at Camp David for a bit. Planned a big summit in Paris in the spring. You ever been to Paris in the spring? Knock your socks off, cats and kittens.

“But then a missile knocked a guy named Francis Gary Powers’ socks off and that was it for Paris.

“Next time our pal Nikita came to America, State Department confined him to Manhattan. No more waving and smiling. No more Iowa. No more Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. No more hot dogs.

“The kind of treatment make a man pound on a table with his shoe.

“Cold War got colder after that, cats and kittens, or hotter. Whichever is worse. You wanna keep me on an island, Khrushchev said, then I’ll continue the theme. Cuba became involved. Things was tense, is what I’m saying.

“But for a second, just for a little bit, it looked like maybe we could work it out.

“Hot dog diplomacy, right?

“But here’s what Frankie Nickels didn’t tell you. Here’s what she left out of the story. That last night at Camp David? Well, our pal Nikita and his crew got all schnockered on vodka in one of those rustic-style cabins they got out there. And, see, Ike had asked if they wanted any movies to watch. Khrushchev asks for a Western. Ike gives him Shane.

“So the Russians got Shane playing and they’re deep into their cups by now. Middle of the night in the middle of the Maryland woods. Cowboy movie’s on the screen.

“And Khrushchev says, ‘Hey, Gromyko.’

“That’s Andrei Gromyko. Minister of Foreign Affairs. Valued advisor. Smart guy.

“Khrushchev says, ‘Hey, Gromyko. Do the Hopak.’

“You think the room got quiet for a second? I bet it did. Maybe you could hear the little kid. Come back, Shane! Ha ha ha

“And Gromyko did the Hopak and Khrushchev laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.

“There’s a point to that story, but it’s up to you to figure it out, cats and kittens.

“You’re listening to the Frankie Nickels show on KHAY–hey!–and how ’bout something from ’59? Little something from MacHeath and all his teeth. Could be our pal’s done something rash. Might have to duck and cover.

“Never do know in America.”

The Story So Far

The Second Little Aleppo Novel (So Far)

  1. Hey, Baby, It’s The Fourth Of July
  2. Home Is Where They Have To Take You In
  3. The Bravest Of Little Aleppo
  4. Frankie Nickels Is Live And On The Air
  5. Circular Motion
  6. For Telling Fortunes Better Than They Do
  7. Sometimes, Decisions Are Made For You
  8. Breakfast In A Neighborhood In America
  9. A First Time For Everything
  10. Waking Dreams
  11. Who Was Last Shall Be First
  12. Reading Back To Front
  13. Fever And Flirtations In Little Aleppo
  14. Untold Fortune
  15. Exile On The Main Drag
  16. A Conference No One Wanted To See
  17. Class
  18. Fully Involved
  19. Check-In Time
  20. Setting Out And Settling Down
  21. Freedom And Speech
  22. On The Road Out Of Little Aleppo
  23. No Substitutions
  24. Shelter From The Storm
  25. Bringing Out The Living
  26. You’ll Never Make Us Run
  27. A Raising Of Stakes
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