Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 10)

Freedom And Speech In Little Aleppo

You could always get laid at the Wayside Inn, at least you could in 1975. Something casual, or romantic, or sleazy and quick in the darkened backroom. Everyone was going to the gym that year, and tiny spoons bounced against bulging pecs; the lesbians rolled their eyes at the boys, and rolled up dollar bills right at the bar. The dance floor throbbed and sulked in equal order, and polyester competed with silk, and nothing could not be cured with penicillin. A trim man with a row of neat, white teeth was behind the bar; years later, he would be asked what he recalled of 1975.

“Titties and dicks, honey. Cocaine, and titties and dicks,” Manfred Pierce answered.

He was 40. Manfred remembered that as an impossibility, as ancient, as clueless and past-prime, but he knew in his heart he was still in his 20’s and no calendar would convince him otherwise. His driver’s license could say whatever it wanted–I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it–but Manfred was still 29 if you asked. Not that anyone did.

Christ, 40. The big fuck-off. No longer needed, no longer valid. Sagging balls and a new face in the mirror, which was sadder and full of nevermind. He did not recall needing to trim his eyebrows quite as frequently as he now did. Manfred shaved every day, sometimes twice, and got his hair cut once a week: it was longer than the Navy used to regulate, but not by much. He flossed regularly and with vigor. A man ought look his best, Manfred thought. Sloppiness was disrespectful and unproductive. Occasionally, he wondered if he were just vain, but always decided: no, I have made a studied moral decision.

He kept his small house on Fantic Street–more properly called a bungalow–in a similar fashion; he had lived there fifteen years and did not believe there had ever been a mess. The unpaid runaway labor helped. Manfred took in strays: the boys thrown out of their houses, and the girls who ran away from home. Locals and soon-to-be locals. Animals, too: one-eyed dachshunds, cats mussing tails, a turtle he named Myrtle. Manfred charged no rent. He’d feed the kids, buy them clothes. He’d bring them down to the Wayside and introduce them around. (To the right people. Some of the patrons should not have been introduced to teenagers.) The Wayside’s regulars looked out for each other, except the ones that were scheming against one another, and the cast-out children would find a home, a job, someone to love or at least fuck. A few went home, moved on. A lot stayed. When Manfred looked around the bar on some nights, he realized half the room had crashed on his couch after getting off a bus from Milwaukee with six bucks in their pockets. This made him very happy, and he would give out free drinks. (Manfred Pierce gave out too many free drinks, but the ones you paid for were overpriced, so it all evened out.)

Manfred took them in, all of them, all the sissy boys and butch girls that got chased off the family farm by various iterations of an angry God.

But you had to do your chores. Patch of lawn out back needed mowing, and the front bedroom with two twin beds and two dressers and two desks had to pass inspection. Living room was to be policed on every walkthrough.

“Kitchen requires constant vigilance, and there’s a system to the refrigerator.”

“Is the system democracy?”

“The opposite,” Manfred said.

Lower Montana put her hands in the pockets of her army jacket.

“Communism?”

“Communism is an economic philosophy; democracy is political. Can’t be opposites.”

“A monarchy?’

“Good enough. This house is a monarchy. And who’s the king? Don’t say Elvis.”

“You are.”

“You’re my new favorite person,” Manfred said, and he meant it. Then he showed Lower how the crisper was organized.

Lower Montana was from the neighborhood. She grew up on Themistocles Street, and she thought her parents were gone for the evening so she invited her friend Grace over to get high and listen to records. They both liked the Beatles, and both had their shirts off when Lower’s mom and dad walked in. Grace ran off, down the stairs, out the house clutching her top and forgetting her bra. Lower’s dad punched her in the eye, and her mom did not stop him, and so she ran out, too. When she returned a few hours later, there was a suitcase packed for her on the porch and the door was locked. Too scared to go to Grace’s, and not particularly good in emergencies, Lower sat in a Victory Diner booth all night. She dozed off with her head in her hand while eggs poached and the teevee played on mute. The sun woke Lower up, and the waitress did the kindest thing she could, which was ignore her. She washed her face and changed in the diner’s bathroom. Then she went to high school and took a quiz on the Hundred Years War.

She thought she’d be asked questions if she went back to the Victory Diner two nights in a row, so when the library closed and they threw her out, she walked north along the Main Drag up to Sylvester Street. Lower Montana knew what the Wayside was; her parents had always made sure to point it out when they passed. Lower ignored the bar, didn’t even look at, believed her mother and father could hear her heart pounding, changed the subject. She was only in eleventh grade, but could change the subject at a post-graduate level.

The sun had just set; it was that first little bit of night that belongs to the fireflies. Madame Cazee’s and the Wash n’ Slosh were on the south side of the street, and so was she. She circled the block once, twice, and then felt paranoid that people would think she was a narc or a spy. Teenagers always think the world’s looking at them. Lower jaywalked across Sylvester and strode up the to outer door–the Wayside had an outer and inner door separated by a curtain of thick black rubber–and flung it open and walked right in. Lower Montana had decided to pretend to be brave, and it worked, right up until she set foot in the bar.

The light was dim and flattering; several disco balls on the ceiling fought for dominance. The deejay was tall and black and shirtless–Lower would later learn he was also pantsless–on an elevated platform in one of the back corners of the room. Pool table opposite: a lithe man in a tank top was stripes, a burly woman in a flannel was solids. Door to the backroom in between made out of the same thick black rubber as the entrance curtain. It was early, so everyone was still dressed (except the deejay) and the dance floor was not full. Lower Montana could not move. She felt like it was the first day of school squared. Everyone seemed to know each other: they were kissing hello and hugging and teasing and dramatically ignoring one another.

Manfred could tell from the shoulders. A barman–a competent one, at least–keeps an eye on the door, and he had seen Lower Montana walk in like a lesbian lion only to immediately turn into a lesbian lamb. He had a liquor license now, he was legitimate now, he could get in trouble for having teenagers in the bar. But there was a black-and-white photo of a tall woman, smiling and with her friends, hanging above the top-shelf liquor behind him, and so when the girl looked at him he waved her over with the friendliest smile in his arsenal.

And then he said the thing he always said.

“Hello, beautiful.”

Lower Montana went home with him that night. He introduced her to Singal Maran, who was from Flagstaff, and also staying in the front bedroom. Manfred always preferred to have a boy and a girl in there; it cut down on the fucking.

She slept in her clothes, for fourteen hours straight.

Singal was gone when she woke, his bed made, and she was scared for a second but then remembered the kind bartender with his row of neat, white teeth and obviously-dyed mustache. There was a one-eyed dachshund curled up in the heat of her armpit. His name was Winky, and Lower Montana had been introduced to him the previous night.

“Hello,” she said.

Winky licked her nose and lips; she pulled her head back and scratched his belly. The dog started wiggling in furious glee.

And then Manfred explained the refrigerator to her.

At six, they walked down Fantic to the Main Drag and turned south towards the Downside, towards Yung Man’s. They were both wearing jeans; Manfred’s were tailored and tight, and Lower’s cuffs bagged up on the top of her Earth Shoes. Over wonton soup and pork fried rice, they told each other their stories of their lives. Their versions, at least. Manfred paid–Lower offered, but he pursed his lips and looked at her under lowered eyelids–and then they walked back up the Main Drag to Sylvester Street, where they turned east and walked towards the gaggle men in suits and women in dresses holding signs. One of them had a bullhorn. Her name was Brannie Dade. It was the first little bit of night, and the fireflies had were out.

Lower would have stopped walking–she did not like confrontation and still had a black eye–but Manfred grasped her upper arm and said,

“Stay with me,” and his chin and chest were jutting out, his blue eyes like a storm. She ducked her head down, tucked her long black hair behind her ear with the arm Manfred did not have hold of. Lower Montana was not five feet tall; she never would be. She was wearing too many rings and no longer had a home, but the man who had taken her in told her not to be afraid and so she decided not to be.

She said to Manfred out of the side of mouth,

“I have a knife.”

“Ooh, really?”

“Yeah.”

“Let me see.”

Lower Montana took her flick-knife out of the pocket of her army jacket. Manfred Pierce plucked it out of her hand, put it in the back pocket of his jeans, gave her the keys to the bar, said,

“You can have this back later. Go inside.”

“But, I–”

“Go. Inside. Now.”

She put her head down and walked through the protestors, ignoring their greetings. Flung open the door and disappeared into the dance floor.

Manfred Pierce was 5’9″ and weighed 144 pounds. This made him a welterweight; he knew this because that was the class he boxed at in the Navy and he was the exact same weight at 40 as he was at 20. He forced his hands out of fists and walked up to the protestor with the bullhorn. Her hair was brown, high, and swept-back; she was wearing a white sleeveless dress with a hem right below her knees and a high spread collar.  He asked her,

“Who are you?”

She answered,

“Brannie Dade.”

“From the teevee show?”

“Oh, you recognize me?”

“I do. You’ve aged horribly.”

Brannie Dade had giant teeth the color of a summer cloud; she was generically attractive and had once almost been nominated for an Emmy for her work as Glassy on Dracula Daddy, which was a sitcom about a dracula and his family that ran from 1970 to almost 1973. Nick Osferatu (a dracula) gets transferred from Transylvania to Cleveland; wackiness ensued for 41 episodes. Now she was standing outside the Wayside Inn with a bullhorn and a placard reading “HOMOSEXUALS RECRUIT CHILDREN.”

Manfred wanted to knock her out, choke her, shove her to the pavement and leap atop her skull nine or ten times. Recruit? Recruit, you bitch? You throw them out. You black their eyes and lock your doors on them, and I feed and shelter them. He didn’t, though. He kept his hands from becoming fists and said,

“I own this place. My name’s Manfred Pierce. What the fuck are you doing?”

“We don’t need that kind of language.”

“Fuck you. What are you doing?”

There were eight of them, including Brannie, and now they formed around her in a semi-circle and waved their signs at him. Manfred finally got a good look at all of them: several had the word SODOMITE written on them in very aggressive magic marker. One said HOMOS = COMMUNISTS, which just confused Manfred, as he was a small-business owner, and another said THE LORD IS WATCHING, which Manfred hoped was true.

It was 1975, so the men’s ties were as wide as the women’s hair was high. Pinch-faced and squinty-eyed, the lot of ’em, and with veins cording out of their forearms like road maps of anger. Manfred Pierce wondered why it was that the people so outraged by assfucking were always the people who would be most helped by being solidly fucked in the ass. It would relax them, he figured.

“We are letting the neighborhood know what kind of establishment you’re running, Mister Pierce.”

Brannie put a little English on that “mister.” She thought she was being clever.

“Well, Mizzzzzzzz Dade,” Manfred said, sinking to her level. “The neighborhood is well aware of what kind of establishment this is. The riot and the court cases kind of gave us away. And the flag.”

There were two flags hanging above the entrance to the Wayside Inn. One was red, white, and blue, and the other had more colors than that. The corners of Frannie Dade’s mouth twisted down, and her upper lip recoiled–it was halfway between a sneer and a snarl–and she said,

“The American flag shouldn’t be next to that filth. It shouldn’t be hanging above this place at all.”

And Manfred got up on his toes, just a little bit, and forced his hands out of fists and said,

“I will have you know, madam, that that flag is the one that was flying above the USS Dextrous in January 1953 when we took Communist shelling.”

(It wasn’t. He had bought it at the store.)

“You just joined the Navy for the perversion.”

“And the travel.”

“You are destroying America with your sin!”

Now Manfred became sarcastic, which is not the best way to deal with people to stupid to understand sarcasm, as they think they’re being mocked.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said and snapped off a perfect salute. “One cock at a time.”

This sort of language in front of a lady–one who had been on a sitcom, no less–upset the protestors and they became agitated; one dropped his placard and put up his dukes. Manfred went up unto the balls of his feet and then he was grabbed from behind by a group of Wayside regulars who had just walked up. They dragged him in the bar and when their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw Lower Montana behind the bar, kind of: her shoulders and head just barely peeked above the walnut surface. She was polishing pint glasses with a rag.

Manfred said,

“Why are you doing that, sweetie?”

“I saw it in a movie,” she answered.

“I appreciate the initiative, but stop it.”

She put the glass and rag on the bar and stood there not doing anything.

“Could you go check that the bathrooms are still there?”

“Is that a serious thing, or are you trying to get rid of me?”

“They’ve disappeared before.”

The teenager crossed the room to find out if the toilets still existed, and the 40-year-old went behind the bar. There was a system. Limes here, and glasses there, and the metal scoop hung from the icemaker by a thread of yellow yarn. The Wayside had only one beer on tap, and the handle was in the shape of an arrow whose tip was shaped like an “A.” The cash register was behind him, and above that was the bronze bell Manfred would ring to signal Last Call. There was tequila behind him, too, and he poured some and drank it, then took out glasses and poured shots for everyone.

Then he called the police.

“Is this the Wayside Inn?”

“Yes.”

And the police hung up on him. The courts had recently forced them to begin treating homosexuals like human beings, and they were still pissed about it.

Manfred sent out Zippy the bouncer to make sure no one hit any of the protestors, and had another drink because he realized he was paying someone to protect people calling for his death. Steppy Alouette suggested legal maneuvers when she came in. Finster Tabb, who wore a beret all through the seventies no matter how many jokes were made, quoted Shakespeare at him.

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”

“Act IV, scene V.”

“A scholar and  gentleman,” Finster smiled. Manfred poured him a shot of tequila, and himself one, and they raised their glasses and drained their glasses, and then Finster wandered across the dance floor to chat up a young man in a tight polyester shirt named Earl.

Brannie Dade and the protestors had left around ten. Zippy came back inside and tended bar while Manfred hit the bathroom for a line and then hit the backroom for a blowjob. The bar had filled up. Bars do that. The deejay was paying Never Too Late For Love by the Gordon Green Orchestra, and the dance floor was sweating and free. A drag queen broke kuh-SHPAK on the pool table; she had taken her heels off for stability and so stood barefoot on the slightly-sticky floor.

Lower Montana was sitting at the end of the bar by herself. Her straight brown hair was covering her face, and she shrunk inside her olive-green jacket that had so many pockets. She had a Coke.

Manfred placed her flick-knife and the keys to his house on the bar in front of her.

“Do you want a drink, sweetie?”

“I don’t like the taste of alcohol,” she said.

“No one does. You just get used to it.”

He pushed the hair from her face and looped in behind her ears and said,

“You’re among friends, y’know. Okay to show yourself here.”

Lower smiled and then she didn’t and brushed the hair back over the left side of her face where her eye was blacked. A small part of her still believed that Manfred’s kindness was a trick, and she would not meet his gaze.

“Sweetie?”

She glanced up for just a second. He said,

“Do you want a joint?”

Lower Montana looked to the left, right, back to the left.

“That would be cool, I guess.”

Manfred turned his head to the man sitting next to her and said,

“Tom?”

And the man who was sitting next to Lower, who was named Tom, pulled a cigarette case from his breast pocket and handed her a fat joint. Manfred forgave his tab, and asked him for a minute. Tom wandered into the backroom.

He reached under the bar, came up with an all-white pack of matches with. No logo, just a scratchy brown strip running horizontal across the bottom, and Manfred ran the gray paper match with the red tip across the strip; it made a sound like fftPOP, and Manfred cupped his hand around the flame as Lower lit the joint off it PWOF PWOF and then she inhaled deeply, held the smoke down like her cousin had taught her, blew out PHWOO, and then she handed the joint to him across the bar.

There were both pros and cons to owning a bar the cops refused to enter, Manfred thought. PHWOO. Gave it back.

It was better pot than Lower was used to, and she became very high very quickly. The deejay was playing Amethyst Evenings by Autumn Brice. The music seemed to de-coalesce, split into its constituencies. She could separate the horns from the drums, and then the drums from themselves: there was the hi-hat, there was the snare, and the bass guitar was dancing around in between them and also in her chest and hair and throbbing in her blacked eye. She sipped her Coke out of the can.

Manfred Pierce walked a few feet away. Fetched a glass, filled it with ice. Straw. Poured the soda in the glass, threw the can in the trash, set it back in front of her.

“Thank you,” she said.

And he smiled. Handed her back the joint, which she hit PHWOO and then she met his glance just for a second, but Manfred had known many teenagers and could see what she wanted.

“Ask me, sweetie.”

When she looked up, there were tears in her brown eyes.

“Why do they hate us?”

Manfred held out his hand and she gave him the joint.

“For the exact same reason as I took you in, sweetie. Because they choose to.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yeah. Join the club.”

Manfred smiled and stood up straight with flashing eyes and gestured grandly around his bar. He said,

“Oh, wait. You have joined the club.”

Which got a smile out of her even through the tears which ran over her blacked eye and down her face that wore no makeup. He took her hand across the walnut bar and squeezed once, twice, and then he cried with her. Manfred Pierce would cry with you at the Wayside Inn, or dance with you. Fuck you if you were his type. Serve you a drink and a smile made of neat, white teeth under a dyed mustache no matter who you were. He’d buy you your first, in fact–second if you were cute–and welcome you in no matter who you were or what you had done in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Setting Out And Settling Down In Little Aleppo

It was Saturday morning, and the Jews were walking to church. Since Torah, Torah, Torah burned down, the congregation had shuttled between sanctuaries, davening up and down Rose Street. The churches and temples and mosques still standing passed them around. One week here, the next there. The Jews wandered, as is their tendency. This week they were in the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and Jesus peered over the rabbi’s shoulder as he read from the Torah.

Behind and above the pulpit was stained glass, but between the stained glass and the pulpit was a giant crucifix with a larger-than-life (and rather detailed) Christ nailed to it. The Spectacular Harold had been paid to consult, and the magician earned his money: from any vantage but directly under the crucifix, it floated in air with no support at all. Rabbi Levy would not think of asking anyone at the First Church to cover up their Christ–they were guests, after all–but he was grateful for the yarmulke and tallis placed on the figure by the Reverend Arcade Jones.

Technically, Earnest Hubbs had dressed the Christ. Arcade was 6’5″ and 300 pounds–before lunch–and therefore not particularly suited to scampering up and down ladders, but Earnest was a foot and 150 pounds smaller. Earnest had been the synagogue’s handyman, and he had lived in a basement apartment along with the synagogue’s cat, Kischka; he saved the cat from the fire, and he saved one of the two Torahs. Sy Feldstein wanted to know why Earnest hadn’t saved both Torahs, but the rest of the congregation told him to shut the fuck up. Then Sy started yelling about free speech, and everyone dismissed him using exaggerated hand gestures. Rabbi Levy had paid for a room at the Hotel Synod for Earnest; the rabbi thought he was doing a mitzvah, but Earnest came to him with tears in his eyes and asked if there was anywhere else he could stay. Earnest Hubbs had not graduated from high school, but he knew himself. He knew he should not surround himself with bad influences. He knew he was a sinner, and so it was better to stay in the House of the Lord. A bad man who lived with the Gospel could walk right again, one of these days; a bad man who lived with other bad men would sink and drown and die. Lord, protect me from my plans, Earnest Hubbs prayed every night.

So Rabbi Levy sat and thought. Earnest could come home with him. Can’t be a more godly environment than a rabbi’s house, he figured, but then remembered he had five children under the age of ten. He and his wife Rivka had made the children, so they had to live with them, but no one else should have to. The Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches were out, as the rabbi could not recall which one was which. The mosque might work, the rabbi thought: Muslims like cats.

But he had a feeling about the First Church of the Infinite Christ.

“The man’s a wizard.”

“An actual wizard?”

“What, like Merlin?”

“Yeah,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said.

“No,” Rabbi Levy answered.

“Don’t act like there’s not wizards in this neighborhood.”

“Earnest has no magical abilities.”

“So why’d you call him a wizard?”

“It was a metaphor.”

“Metaphors are warnings around here,” Arcade said.

“He’s an excellent handyman, is what I’m saying. All I’m saying.”

“Okay. Where’s he gonna stay?”

In the apartment he built himself in the First Church’s basement, the Reverend learned. Earnest was not a carpenter, but he could carpent, and he was not a plumber, but he could plumb, and so with only his tools and a few hundred bucks from the congregation of Torah, Torah, Torah, Earnest Hubbs built himself and Kischka a place to live; before anyone could complain, he had fixed the wobbly pew in the sixth row and she had solved the mouse problem.

The First Church of the Infinite Christ always did have trouble turning away refugees.

“Give me another leaf. This one’s cashed.”

“You’re not supposed to chomp on them.”

“I’m a fast chewer,” Talks To Whites Said.

“That’s not a thing,” Cannot Swim answered. “Besides, you have the leaves.”

Talks To Whites checked the pouch slung over his shoulder.

“I could’ve swore you had ’em.”

“Maybe you should pace yourself.”

“Maybe you should suck my balls.”

“Pnerfpbpbpbpb.”

There were three of them walking through the pass: Cannot Swim, Talks To Whites, and Easy Life. The first two were sixteen-year-old boys, cousins, from the Pulaski tribe; the third was a horse.

The Pulaski had little need for horses. They were not nomads following their food like some tribes: their valley was bountiful and never froze. Fish swam in the lake, and their farming techniques did not require plowing. They did not seek out fights with faraway Natives, nor had they been harassed by Whites. Some Pulaski knew how to ride, but there was no day-to-day requirement for the animals. But once every two months or so? Then the horse came in handy.

The Pulaski were gun nuts.

Wanders Away had brought the first rifle into the village. When he was a child, he would walk out of his kotcha in the middle of the night; when he was a boy, he would stroll into the woods for days. Back then, all the Pulaski children were given the same Assignment: a trip to the Low Desert. Wanders Away left the village for the desert the morning after the rain that came every 18 days. He came back into the valley two years later wearing clothes no Pulaski had ever seen before. And he had a Springfield Model 1842.

The 1842 was a leap. Previous guns were smooth-bore. That means the inside of the barrel is flat and the projectile comes out with no spin. The Springfield was rifled, though, which means there helical grooves cut into the interior surface of the barrel. Difference between a knuckleball and a tight spiral. The Pulaski were still using bows and arrows when Wanders Away brought the rifle into the village. One hunting trip later, the tribe decided to scrap the bows in favor of guns. Wanders Away said that the shiny nuggets in the streams that fed the lake were valuable to the Whites, and that they would trade rifles for them, so the Pulaski gave him some of the rocks and sent him back over the hills to find more guns. When Wanders Away hadn’t returned for a year, the tribe decided to find someone more reliable. The elders woke Talks To Whites’ father at dawn, roughly.

“What? What’s happening Is the Turtle back?”

“It is time for your Assignment, High Noon.”

Talks To Whites’ father would soon share his son’s village name, but his family name was High Noon. The sun was barely shining through the clouds and the village was quiet. Talks To Whites, Sr., rubbed his eyes and said,

“The desert?”

“No,” the elders said.

“The hills?”

“No,” the elders said.

“I thought those were the only two options.”

“High Noon, you are clever. And you never shut up. So, you will go to the Whites. You will learn their language. And you will bring us back rifles.”

He stared at his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, assorted kibbitzers. Then he said,

“I’d really prefer the squatch.”

The people who loved him the most grabbed him, naked, and threw him out of the kotcha. His breechcloth and tunic followed. High Noon thought to himself that this was no way to begin manhood. But he was, as his elders thought, smart and resourceful. High Noon walked through the pass just as his son would out of the Pulaski’s valley and into America.

After a day’s walking, he came to a small farm. He paused at the treeline and dug the sack with the nuggets out of his deerhide pouch. Wanders Away had told the elders about the magic of the nuggets. There was a curse on them, he said, but a curse that depended on size. Men with a small amount of the pebbles would be treated as guests, and with kindness; men believed to have a large reserve of them would be robbed, or killed. High Noon found a distinctive rock on the west side of a spruce and buried most of his stash. Then he walked down to the farm.

The farmer and his son stopped their work and watched the tall boy approach. High noon’s tunic had a sun embroidered on it, and so did the pouch slung over his shoulder. He was short for a Pulaski, but taller than the Whites.

The farmer leaned against his shovel and spat in the ground. His son mimicked him. They were wearing hard shoes and overalls, and both had beards–a full one on the father and a scraggly blondish one on the son–which High Noon had not seen before. Pulaski men did not grow facial hair.

“Hi. My name’s High Noon. I mean you no harm,” High Noon said, but obviously he said it in Pulaski.

“Howdy,” the farmer answered in English.

High Noon thought it was going well so far.

“I need to learn how to speak the White language,” High Noon said. He pointed to his mouth, and then at the farmer’s, and then back while making a gesture with his fingers like air was coming out.

“Should I kill him, Pa?”

“Shut the fuck up, Johnny,” the farmer said. He was a simple man, which is a euphemism for poor, but he was not stupid.

High Noon repeated the gesture again. Then he pointed at his own chest.

“My name’s High Noon,” he said, and then repeated it slowly and loudly as people have been doing to foreigners since time immemorial. “Hiiiiiigh Noooooon.”

Mouth gesture once more. Then he pulled a gold nugget the size of a ball bearing out of his pouch that had the sun embroidered on it. Extended it to the farmer. Mouth gesture.

The farmer pointed to his overall’d chest and said,

“Caleb Greenwood.”

And then he took the nugget from High Noon’s hand, held it up to the light, bit it, unbuttoned his breast pocket, dropped it in, buttoned his breast pocket, pat pat pat, and then he smiled and held out his hand.

High Noon had never shaken hands before–the Pulaski grasped each others’ shoulders with both hands–but he reached out and took Caleb Greenwood’s hand and shook it once twice three times and when Caleb smiled at him, he smiled back.

The farmer pointed to his newly-richer chest and said again,

“Caleb.”

High Noon pointed at him and repeated back as best he could,

“Caleb.”

“Close enough,” he said and then pointed at his son. “Johnny.”

“Johnny.”

High Noon pointed at himself and said,

“High Noon,” but the Pulaski language was difficult even compared to other Native languages, so all Caleb heard was random fricatives and vowels where they didn’t belong.

“Yeah, I can’t pronounce that. I’m gonna call you Peter.”

Caleb Greenwood pointed at High Noon and said,

“Peeeeeeeterrrrr.”

High Noon took a second, and then he pointed at himself and said,

“Peter?”

“Peter.”

High Noon was completely unfamiliar with Whites, so he just figured all guests got new names. He shrugged and nodded his head and said,

“Peter.”

Caleb held up his shovel and shook it, then pointed over towards the barn where another shovel was leaning. High Noon, who was now called Peter, went and got the shovel. Caleb turned to his son.

“He’s already smarter than you.”

“What’s going on here Pa?”

“Seriously, Johnny, just shut the fuck up.”

Peter stayed with the Greenwoods for six months. By the time he left he was fluent in the White language, which he came to learn was called English, and he set off for C—–a City to trade for rifles and ammo. It wasn’t much of a city–three blocks containing 13 bars, a bank, and a hardware store–but there were rifles for sale and so it was all that Peter needed. Caleb had taught him the worth of gold during his stay. Peter did not believe that men could be so obsessed with rocks, but Caleb insisted that they were and Caleb had not lied or mistreated him, so Peter trusted his opinion and negotiated for the rifles well.

He did not anticipate the weight of weapons and ammunition.

There was a livery on the far south side of the city, and Peter bought the cheapest horse and strapped the guns and bullets to the animal’s back. He led it east out of the city and then doubled back after dark in case anyone had followed him to learn where the gold had come from. When he returned to the Pulaski village after six months away, bearing precious rifles and ammo, the tribe let out a great holler and there was a feast that night in his honor where he received yet another name: his village name, Talks To Whites. He also got a handjob, which he thought was awesome.

The horse was allowed to wander around the valley; his only responsibility was the regular trip to C—–a City with Talks To Whites for ammo and rifles and parts, and so the Pulaski named him Easy Life.

Now he walked the pass through the hills with Talks To Whites’ son.

“It’s not fair,” Cannot Swim said.

“No.”

“You don’t know what I’m talking about yet.”

“Whatever it is,” Talks To Whites said, “it’s not fair.”

“You have an easy Assignment.”

“It’s not easy. You couldn’t do it.”

“Of course not. I cannot speak the White language.”

“And I can’t go up into the hills. You know how much I hate sleeping outside.”

“It brings you closer to nature.”

“You wake up covered in dew. It sucks.”

The Segovian Hils had one pass, a saddle-shaped depression to the north of the highest peak, and the two cousins walked in light that writers are forced by law to call dappled: little needle-shivers speckling on the ground like reflections off a lake. The woods were moving and alive and awake and breathing, and there was no trail cut at all because that’s how the Pulaski liked it. A man named Furlong Christy would bushwhack a swerving and slippery route along the pass a few years later, and when a road for cars was built, it followed his path and so the road and pass were named Christy Canyon.

But now the pass had no name and there was no trail, just pine trees and grass and two cousins and a horse.

“Seriously, I can’t believe this is your Assignment.”

“Today, I am a man,” Talks To Whites said.

“You do this all the time!”

A flock of startled starlings flapped away from the boys.

“Pnerfpbpbpbpb,” Easy Wind said as shit slopped out of him.

“What he said. You’re not seeing the big picture.”

“I’m not.”

“You live by yourself?”

“You know where I live.”

“Answer the question. I’m making a point.”

“I live with my father and sister,” Cannot Swim said.

Talks To Whites spat loudly and wetly.

“You three all by yourself?”

“I thought you said you had a point.”

“I’d get to it if you’d answer the questions the right way.”

Cannot Swim spat, too.

“I like in the village with the rest of the tribe.”

“Right. And everyone in the village is good at something. We all contribute what we’re able. All connected. It’s like this pass. The pass is a village just like ours. Owl’s good at being an owl; squirrels good at squirreling. Ask the squirrel to catch a mouse at night. Ask the owl to find a nut. You’re good at hunting. Me? I’m good at buying bullets.”

Talks To Whites kicked an oval rock ahead of him as he walked, and the cousins could see a circling eagle through the canopy of needles.

“You’re not very good at spotting pumas.”

“I might be. Haven’t ever tried.”

“You should try right now,” Cannot Swim said, and pointed towards a rill 200 yards to the south.

“Oh, shit.”

Talks To Whites scurried around Easy Life, putting the horse in between himself and the big cat.

“You cannot hide from the world!

“No, not for long. World finds you, world creeps in, world seeps through. You are part of the world, and what is part of is. Rabbi Levy, he’s been teaching me a lot about the Jews. About Judaism. Keeps on coming back to the tree of life, and I keep saying to him, ‘Rabbi, I’m from Loxachachi, Florida! Life ain’t a tree, no! It’s a swamp.’ It’s overgrown and everything yearns for the sun.

“But when there’s so much life, then the world is full of shade. Overgrown, like I said.

“Trees don’t grow by their lonesome! Got brothers and sisters and cousins surrounding ’em, we call that a forest. Maybe they call it a village. We call it the woods, but maybe the trees see a neighborhood.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones was behind the pulpit; Rabbi Levy and Cantor Manevich sat behind him in chairs with absurdly tall backs. Earnest Hubbs had rigged up a temporary ark at the back of the bema, and the Torah he had saved was within. Christ hovered above; he was wearing a breechcloth and a yarmulke. The pews were filled with Jews: coughing, hocking, eating hard candies, holding grudges.

The Jews had been shuttled from place to place–people kept getting tired of them–but now they were here in the First Church of the Infinite Christ and they had stood and sat and stood and sat, and they had declared the Shema as one and sang Havenu Shalom Aleichem led on by the Cantor. It was not the High Holy Days, but the rabbi blew the shofar anyway, just as he had done every Shabbat since the synagogue burned, and the horn made a sound like baaaahROPABOBbahROPABOB that echoed up and down Rose Street. Rabbi Levy blew as hard as he could. He wanted the Main Drag to hear.

It takes a year to read through the Torah, and then you start again. It’s not a sprint or a marathon; it’s not a race at all. A passage each week and then it’s Simcha Torah and you begin again. This week was called Kedoshim. The rabbi said the prayers over the scroll and removed the velvet cover and rolled it out so he could read the words he knew by heart. It went like this:

And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “And you, son of man, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city?”

And it continued on:

Behold, I strike my hand at the dishonest gain that you have made, and at the blood that has been in your midst. Can your courage endure? I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it. I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you through the countries, and I will consume your uncleanness out of you. And you shall be profaned by your own doing in the sight of the nations, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

There was a Bar Mitzvah that week. His name was Josh because all Bar Mitzvah boys are named Josh, and he chanted words he did not understand in a bored monotone. Later, he would be rewarded with savings bonds.

The rabbi asked the Reverend Jones to speak before the congregation, just as he had all the other pastors and priests with whom the Jews had sought refuge. Arcade Jones was wearing a suit the color of a melting creamsicle.

“Ever been to a swamp? Spend time in one? Ooh, Lord, it is hot. First thing you notice. Second thing, too, probably.

“All that life lying on top of one another raises the temperature. Friction and proximity. Leaves get on top of branches get on top of lizards get on top of gators. Nothing gets on top of gators, but they get old just like we do, just like the trees do.

“And time gets thick just like the swamp.”

The Reverend had a glass of water at the pulpit, and he took a drink from it. There were Jews in front of him, behind him, and there was one suspended above him in a purposely uncomfortable pose. Several drunk Christians who had gotten their weekend days mixed up and thought it was Sunday; they were rather confused. Earnest Hubbs had one good shirt, and he was wearing it on the last pew on the left.

Above the bema, the top half of the east wall was stained glass; the artist’s name was Guadalupe Forsythe and she was very famous, but not for her art: she tried to stab the governor of South Dakota at a chili cook-off. Transparent pebbling and shards of blue and green. Fractalized iconography with the sun for a projector: the glass was moving and alive and awake and breathing, and it told the story of Jesus Christ of Little Aleppo. The Stations of the Cross, localized. Christ in a tunic and moccasins as the Pulaski are betrayed; Christ trapped and burning behind painted-shut windows in St. Florian’s orphanage; Christ with her head staved in on the Main Drag; Christ hiding under a bed in Chinatown; Christ a failure on Alfalfa Street; Christ wasting away in a bar on Sylvester Street.

“Rabbi Levy taught me something else. Dayenu. I see you nodding your heads. I see you smiling. When the rabbi taught me about dayenu, I imagined that I had finally met in person someone I’d only known through letters or on the phone. It crystallized something I’ve been thinking about almost all my life. But you know that thoughts ain’t words. Thoughts float around, but words pin ideas down.

Dayenu. ‘You’ve done enough.’ That’s what it means, and it’s a prayer.

“Anything’s a prayer if you say it to the Lord.

“We woke up this morning with health: dayenu. We woke up this morning with a chance at redemption: dayenu. The synagogue burned, but the congregation remains: dayenu. Fire consumes a building, but not the man living within: dayenu!

The Jews did not know what to do: they had heard many sermons, but never been preached at; there was some renegade applause, and a muffled “Woo” from the right side of the nave, and a muttered “That’s right” from the left.

“Wood turns to ash, but the Torah remains: dayenu. In times of strife, the greatest kindnesses emerge: DAYENU! In the DESERT of CRUELTY, water is PASSED ABOUT: DAYENU!”

Arcade Jones ran a handkerchief over his great bald head; a voice cried out,

“Take your time, Reverend.”

And he did. He preached about the Lord and His infinicy, and how an Infinite Christ must surely be Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and either Presbyterian or Episcopalian, whichever was which, and an Animist and an Atheist and an Agnostic and a Gnostic, however you pronounced that, and so too must the Christ await the return of the Turtle Who Once Was And Will Be Again. The Jews shouted AH-MANE and leapt to their feet and whistled, and Arcade Jones declared that they would no longer wander, that the congregation would stay in the First Church until it had a new home, which surprised Deacon Blue but thrilled the Jews, who clapped and cheered so loudly that–since the doors of the First Church of the Infinite Christ were open–the noise ricocheted off the sanctified buildings of Rose Street and into the bars and courthouses and hair salons of the Main Drag through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Check-In Time In Little Aleppo

The smoke alarms were sacred, untouchable, and entirely off-fucking-limits at the Hotel Synod. Everything else was negotiable. A man named Mellow West who liked room 323 once paid four months of back rent with a stolen piano. Francie Brush stabbed her boyfriend to death in 106, but the jury found her not guilty and she moved right back in. The other residents threw her a party with a cake. They used to listen to him beat her through the plaster walls. No one did anything at the time, but now they bought her a cake. Sex in the elevator would get you yelled at, and repelling from the roof to avoid paying rent would warrant more yelling, but if you touched the smoke alarms, then you were gone, because Frankie Teakettle would know if you’d touched them, because he personally inspected each one weekly.

A complete, but temporary, détente occurred during the detector check. Frankie Teakettle would not berate you for the rent, nor would he notice any obvious crimes. Perversions would be ignored, and so would messiness and stink. He would announce himself, unlock the door with his master-key, check the device that went BEEEEEEP to show its batteries were still good, exit without comment or eye contact, relock the door behind him. All of man’s happiness begins with his house not burning down, Frankie believed. And the Hotel Synod was the type of place prone to that sort of thing.

It was a candle-lighting clientele; it was a candle-forgetting clientele. Folks who stayed at the Synod smoked in bed, or they crawled under beds holding lit Zippos. Freebasing was popular.

Frankie Teakettle may or may not have owned the place. The lobby had glass doors that opened onto Clarke Street, and a threadbare green carpet. Art was crowded onto the walls, all from the hotel’s residents in lieu of rent. Some of the paintings were worth much more now than the rent had been, and some were worth nothing. Ratty yellow couch with plump buttons in the upholstery. The Christmas tree was fake, and left up all year but only turned on in December. The desk was made of oak, wide, and to the right of the doors. Frankie sat behind it, and behind him was a wall made up of cubbyholes that were full of letters and small packages and messages. Two elevators, the old kind where you pull the scissored door open and closed.

There was a dentist in 401, Doctor Horse, who engaged in an elaborate web of barter with the rest of the hotel. 401 was a large corner suite, and he had not left the hotel or used cash in twelve years. His office was in the living room: he had a chair and drill and lights and all that bullshit, and a junkie hygienist named Shirley Early who made extra money at night dominating men in the chair. Doctor Horse traded prescriptions for groceries and laundry, and cleanings for the rent. One time, he exchanged a root canal for a Rothko.

Rates were variable at the Hotel Synod. Painters with potential and drinking problems paid a little, slumming rich kids paid more. Movie stars would come up from Hollywood (a certain kind of movie star at least: the kind that mumbled and did not bathe) and they were charged double the rich kids’ price. Some of the rooms were a bed, a chair, a toilet without a shower; others wrapped around the corner of the building and had bathtubs. Long-timers and overnighters.

Johnny Mister liked Room 212. He was a Guitar Hero. He played for Little Aleppo’s own The Snug, and  he stayed at the Synod in Room 212 when he was not on the road; everyone hated him. The residents at the Synod did not instinctively loathe the rich. Some people just had the bad luck to be born into money, they figured. And they did not despise the poor or the broke, because most living at the hotel were poor or broke. But everyone hated the cheap, and Johnny Mister was cheap and so everyone hated him. He was a junkie who fainted around needles; he was always ripping off his neighbors. Smoking everyone’s cigarettes, and drinking their wine, and suddenly appearing when you’d ordered a pizza. Then he’d start trying to fuck your girlfriend (if you were a man) or you (if you were a woman or teenaged girl). Frankie Teakettle loved Johnny, though. His management paid his inflated rent six months in advance.

Room 109 no longer existed.

Boylan Burcke (pronounced burk-ee) had occupied 203 for years. The Beats all thanked him in their books, or fictionalized him, and the Hippie writers, too. Academics wrote theses on his poems, and the occasional article would call him a genius. When these articles came out, Boylan would take them to his dealers. Surely this kind of coverage, he would bullshit them, means a payday is around the corner. He had one slim collection to his name, The Hospitallers of the Downside.

Manky and overdrawn, these wobbling saviors!
These scarecrows on the sidewalk in afternoon’s lie!
Fortunata
–You bitch–
I fucked you in a diner bathroom
It was in Omaha
Your creamy asshole winked at me

It was about 120 pages of that sort of thing.

Boylan Burcke had a necktie he claimed belonged to Gerald Ford. It was burgundy with thin yellow stripes running diagonally across its face, and he said that President Ford’s son Jack had given it to him. If Boylan liked you, he would tie you off with it. If he didn’t like you, he would tie you off with it and swipe your dope.

There was always dope at the Hotel Synod. Waves of it. White that you mixed with water, and brown that you mixed with lemon juice. Lucy Twigg had the dope. She lived in 104, which was in the back and had a door that led out to the alley, and sat at a massive desk in her room with an apothecary’s cabinet behind her filled with pills and powders and liquids and occasionally suppositories. Lucy sat at her desk all day with huge rock and roll speakers pointed at her playing her latest obsession. She was small enough so that her feet did not hit the floor when she sat in her chair, but the shotgun under her desk was quite large, and so was the guy who stood behind her named Klaxon.

The door to Room 201 was always open, and lentils cooked all day and night. There was bread, too, and everyone was welcome except for Frankie Teakettle, who was not permitted in the room by court order. The rotating cast of robed residents called themselves the Holy Light Family and called Room 201 their ashram; they had never paid a dime in rent. Immediately after moving in, they sued the Synod claiming that charging them rent would be akin to taxation. Most will realize this argument as “not even terrible,” but the judge was drunk and found for the plaintiffs because she thought it was funny. The case was appealed, obviously, but Frankie quickly realized he was paying more to his lawyers than the room was worth, and so he dropped the case. He did get fucked up a couple times and go up there looking to beat some ass, though, and hence the restraining order.

In the morning, the pipes and the drunks would shake in just the same way. The sign by the elevator said No Overnight Guests.

Credit cards cutting lines on mirrors sound like CHAK CHAK CHAK shlip shlip CHAK CHAK CHAK and then shhhNORF and another sound, a human sound from a coated throat sticky with speed and mucus. Longtime residents could recognize each other by that sound, the little exhalation after a rail, sometimes it was ka-HAA and others went BROKH-bukh. Johnny Mister said “Rock and Roll” every time. You could tell the rich kids from the poets by what they snorted their coke with. The rich kids used hundreds. If the poets had a hundred, then they would have spent it on coke, so they use cut-up straws from the taco joint.

Slowest way to get high is via your stomach. Lot of absorption to do, gotta get through the liver’s five-hole. Your asshole is quicker: no matter what you shove up your ass, you’re going to feel it toot sweet. Faster than that is inhalation or insufflation, which the common folks call smoking or sniffing.

But nothing beats the needle.

Teachers and preachers don’t know this, but nurses and junkies do: there is more to the needle than the movies show. It is versatile, and it is a triune god like the Christ. Subcutaneous injections are used by diabetics to administer their insulin into the fat directly under the skin; intramuscular injections are for flu shots and antibiotics; intravenous injections are a sharp lever that opens the inside of your body up to the outside world just like your mother explicitly told you not to do. If you were going to use needles outside a hospital, then you needed to know this. Cocaine could be skin popped but not shot into the muscle. Some opiates could be delivered by all three methods, but some could not, and people had lost arms over the difference. Amphetamine should not be injected into either fat or muscle; it will abscess in both.

Speed is for the mainline, and Frankie Teakettle had no problem with that. It was his blood-brain barrier, and he’d cross it if he wanted to. His body was a free country, he thought, and so be it if its sovereignty be invaded. The problem some run into when injecting speed is the ratio. Thicker your paste in the cylinder, the harder the rush is going to hit and you’ll have a high like a black-body curve. This leads to the chasing of dragons. (People misunderstand that phrase, Frankie thought. Wasn’t that the dragon was fast and could fly away; it was that it would kill you if you caught it.) Three points in one milliliter. Nice and smooth. Keeps a man going on the long day’s journey into the next day. It was sustainable if you weren’t a pig. New point every time. Saline solution, not tap water. Swab the skin with disinfectant every time. Rotate sites. Don’t tell anyone where you keep your stash.

Time would win the war, but the battle could be yours. It would always be a Pyrrhic victory, but you could take the day if you were prepared to pay the price. Or if you did not know there was a price to be paid. Fatalism and stupidity are kissing cousins.

Frankie Teakettle sat behind the desk and vibrated like he had for years.

The Porters could handle it. The hotel’s porters had unionized long ago, and one of their demands was the capitalization of their title, so now they were Porters; they could handle it. The Porters picked up laundry and made introductions, and they chased off the Taft impersonators before they could hurl themselves into the bathtubs. They delivered drugs, for a price; pizza, for a slice. They were Montagnards and all of them answered to the name McGeorge. They had black uniforms with gold piping. Some of the guests fucked the Porters, and some got fucked by them, and others just tipped. No one knew exactly how many there were.

The doors opened outward onto Clarke Street, and the Porters would take your luggage if you had any. Many didn’t. There was a bed for you, though the room surrounding that bed could not be vouched for. The thin runners on the hallways floor were fraying and torn, and so was Frankie Teakettle at the front desk, but they would hold up. You could put off tomorrow, at least for today at the Hotel Synod, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Fully Involved In Little Aleppo

Cannot Swim stared out at the lake and wondered how he got there. It was still and there was a moon in it, and there were fish below the surface. Crickets were somewhere; their song was everywhere. Behind him were the kotchas that the Pulaski lived in, and before him was the lake and then the harbor and then the sea. He was tall, and his posture made him seem taller. His black hair was not tied back, but falling loose around his shoulders, and his feet were bare. He was sixteen.

America invented the teenager, but Cannot Swim was not an American and so was not a teenager. This mythical creature with no body fat and spending money–the teenager–was created on Madison Avenue to sell records and skirts. The teenager is the ultimate manifestation of capitalistic surplus: a demographic whose only purpose was to consume, and hang around outside convenience stores. The Pulaski had no convenience stores, and therefore they had no teenagers. Cannot Swim was still a boy until he completed the Assignment.

He did not feel like a boy at the moment. He did not feel like a man, either. Cannot Swim felt too big for categories, and too small to need defining.

“Why are you naked?”

Cannot Swim was also naked.

“What?”

“You’re naked, cuz,” Talks To Whites Said.

“Where did you come from?”

“Same place as you.”

“Then you are my landsman.”

“Wow. What did the witch give you?’

“Tea.”

“And?”

“Yes,” Cannot Swim said, and waded into the lake with his arms stretched towards the floating moon.

The Pulaski had three names in their lives. The first was their family name, and that was generally indicative of when they were born or the weather at the time or the length of the labor. The last was their secret name, and this was given by the gods and would sometimes never be learned. The second name was their village name, and that was the name most went by throughout their lives. Your peers gave you your village name, and the Pulaski did not name people ironically. Cannot Swim couldn’t, and so his cousin followed him into the water and dragged him back out.

A hundred-pound hunting dog called Black Eyes watched the boys from the shore, thought about helping, didn’t.

The cousins laid on the wet, silty shore of the lake. Cannot Swim had been sure that the lake held meaning within it, and had struggled when Talks To Whites pulled him back. Dirt clung to their naked shoulders and legs.

“There was a hill,” Cannot Swim said.

“There are seven hills.”

“Not like our hills. Four flattened sides that came to a sharp peak. In a desert. It was the brightest white I’d ever seen, and there were kings inside. Do you know what they did to their kings?”

“No,” Talks To Whites said.

“Scraped their brains out through their nostrils. There was a long, skinny tool made from bone with a hook at the end.”

“They must have hated their kings.”

“It was the highest honor. There were streets made of even black rock. Thick and unbroken and uncracked with gargantuan buildings on either side. Up into the sky. And carriages that did not need horses.”

“What happened to the horses?”

“I do not know.”

“Did someone scrape their brains out through their nostrils?”

Cannot Swim was too high to understand sarcasm, so he said,

“I don’t think so.”

“Just checking.”

“And a field made of dead men. Smoke in the air and blood. Rifles that were a thousand rifles in one, spitting out bullets so fast you could not hear them individually. I saw the grand death, cousin. I saw that day is the dream of night, cousin.”

They were on their backs; Talks To Whites reached across his chest to pat Cannot Swim on the arm and said,

“Okay. Sun’s gonna come up soon.”

“Don’t threaten me.”

There were students along the firetruck’s route; they pointed and waved them towards the small Victorian house with two gables tucked away in the northeast corner of Harper College’s campus.

“Thanks, assholes. Thanks for pointing out the fucking house fire in the fucking dark. Didn’t see it ’til you pointed,” Flower Childs said from the passenger seat of the pumper truck.

“They’re trying to help,” Dwayne McGlory said as he rode over the curb and across the manicured lawn.

“I was talking to the dog.”

Ash-Nine was a dalmatian, and sat in the middle of the front bench. Her tongue was out, panting, and she was not paying attention to her humans. She was going to the Thing. Ash-Nine did not understand what fire was, or what a fire department did; she just knew that at random intervals, the people started running around and she got to ride in the truck, and then when she got off the truck: the Thing. It was always in a different place, and there were odors and so many people, some that were sad and some that were angry. Sad people smell different from angry people.

“Dog’s deaf.”

“Smart dog,” Flower Childs said. “Holy fucking shit.”

The glow of the fire had been in the front windshield, but as the truck crested a small hill they could see that the house was engulfed.

“What did–”

Pep Oneida was on the desk when the call came in, and he had the clipboard with the 302 on it. He thrust it over Flower’s shoulder, and she grabbed it.

“What the fuck is this, probie?”

“I wrote down what I was told,” he said.

She swiveled around in her seat to face him.

“You wrote down ‘Small fire.’ Four minutes ago.”

She checked her watch.

“No. Three minutes and 45 seconds ago. Does that look like a small fucking fire to you?”

Cespedes Bobble was the Dean of Harper College, and so he lived in the small Victorian occupied for so many years by Carter Spants and Molly McGlory-Spants. They were not using the house any more, as they were dead and buried out back. Cespedes stood watching  the fire with his boyfriend Alphonse, a disgraced mailman who now made handcrafted espadrilles. They were both naked.

Dwayne shoved the truck into Park and the everyone clambered out in their gear, except for Ash-Nine, who was not wearing any gear besides her collar.

Flower towered over the two men; she was already sweating. She asked,

“Is anyone in there?”

The two men shook their heads. No.

Fire Chief Childs made the call. Fully involved. Defensive approach only. The windows had already blown, and a roar was coming out of the Victorian. Fire was already too big to enter, and the structure was lost. Her man would stay outside. Surround and drown: put as much water on the house in as little time as possible, and from as many angles as you had hoses. Nearest building was Harper Hall, only 200 yards away, and if the Victorian was allowed to burn then the roof might send out flaming shards.

She did not need to yell orders. That was the point of training, so you didn’t have to tell people what to do when you got to the job. She figured that if you’re yelling, you’re fucked. Connect the hydrants to the truck. Hook the truck to the hoses. When the lines charge with water, they will try to fling you into the air. Tuck them under your arm and lean forward. Lean into the fire.

“It happened so fast,” Dean Bobble said.

“Whaddya mean?”

“We were in the kitchen having tabbouleh when we smelled smoke. So we checked all the burners to see if one was still on, and by the time we were done looking, the whole ground floor was on fire.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. It was terrible.”

“Everything we own is in there,” Alphonse said.

“Yeah,” Flower Childs said. She was not very good at comforting people, but she figured: putting out the fires is my job; taking care of fire’s victims is someone else’s. “You were in the kitchen?”

“Yes,” Dean Bobble said.

She checked her watch. 9:07 pm.

“Dinner?”

“Yes.”

The Chief looked the men up and down.

“You’re naked.”

“We have a naked home. No clothes inside.”

“At all?”

“No. None at all. It’s a cleanliness thing.”

Flower Childs scrunched up her face in confusion.

“Naked isn’t clean. You’re putting your assholes on stuff.”

“Clean assholes,” he said.

“No such fucking thing.”

Pep Oneida was on the south corner of the house, Dwayne McGlory on the north, and Pedro Sanpedro was to the east. Each of them wrangled their hoses: Pep was shaking and shivering under the slippery power; Dwayne held the hose in one hand and directed the probie with the other. Ash-Nine protected the truck.

Cespedes and Alphonse were still naked.

Chief Childs said,

“You guys want some blankets or something?’

“We’re fine,” Dean Bobble answered.

“The human body is beautiful,” Alphonse added.

Cespedes Bobble had the body of a 51-year-old academic. Alphonse had the body of a disgraced mailman.

“Some. Some bodies. Not every fucking body.”

Dean Bobble tried to look outraged. He flared out his nostrils and puffed out his chest, but this had the effect of making his dick wiggle like a fisherman’s bait and undercut the seriousness of the posture.

“Chief Childs, our house is burning down.”

“Yeah, and all your students are standing right the fuck over there and you two got your cocks out.”

Human beings have invented 3D movies, and musicals by Stephen Sondheim. There are roller coasters that grant weightlessness, and men who have tamed lions. Most likely, a minor league baseball game is taking place somewhere near you. People come up with all sorts of bullshit to fend off boredom.

But nothing draws a crowd like a fire.

The whole campus was out and assembled in a broad semi-circle behind the truck. Dean Bobble turned around and shouted to them,

“The administration has nothing to hide from the students!”

They cheered.

“Who’s with me?”

They disrobed.

“Fucking perfect,” Flower Childs said, throwing up her hands and walking back to the truck. The gabled roof collapsed inwards. The fire swelled and burst into the air; all the naked people went WOOOO.

“Woo!”

“Stop it.”

“Woo!”

“Dude, you’re gonna wake everyone up,” Talks To Whites said.

“My voice slaps against the lake,” Cannot Swim said. “It bounces on the water.”

“Awesome. Let’s try that out in the afternoon when the whole village isn’t sleeping.”

The two were still boys, but they were the size of men–Cannot Swim was the size of a larger man than Talks To Whites–and the sky had begun to turn indigo. The stars were fainting and the full moon was low in the west. Behind them was the village and the Segovian Hills, and beyond the hills was America.

Talks To Whites wore a tunic made of light, thin deerskin. His moccasins were also made of deer leather, but thicker than his clothing. There were bracelets on both his wrists, and his chin was cleft. Teeth a tiny bit too big for his mouth. Cannot Swim was naked and his feet were covered in mud and grass. Neither had a single hair on his face.

“They were visions, cousin. Not dreams.”

“What did Here And There say?”

“Nothing. She listened.”

“Really? She never shuts up,” Talks To Whites said.

“She listened in between speaking.”

“You’re talking about a conversation.”

“You do not know what happened. You were not there.”

“Dude, you don’t know what happened and you were there.”

Cannot Swim threw his head back. The Milky Way was a diffuse blurry wound across the night, and the Morning Star was in the east playing herald for the sun. His eyes watered, and tears ran back and hit his ears.

“Something happened. Something that was really something.”

“Okay, cuz,” Talks To Whites said.

He put his hand on Cannot Swim’s shoulder. There was a large hunting dog at their feet, snoring.

“You wanna put some clothes on?”

“No.”

“Everybody’s gonna start waking up any second.”

“I have nothing to hide from my people,” Cannot Swim said, and then he spread his arms like the Christ and walked into the lake again. Talks To Whites blew a breath out, put his hands on his hips, considered letting his cousin drown. Then he took off his tunic and breechcloth, kicked off his moccasins, and waded in after him.

Part of the gear was a camera; it was stored under the back bench in the cab of the pumper truck. Flower Childs checked in with her men, and eyed up the fire–it was dying–and she took out the camera and began taking shots of the crowd. She was methodical and used the whole roll to snap everyone present. There were the students, naked, and the Dean and his boyfriend, also naked, and lookyloos from town, some naked and some not, and a group of preachers and priests from Rose Street, none naked. Chief Childs photographed them all while her men beat down the blaze.

It was midnight before they got back to the station. The trip was not four minutes long, but Ash-Nine still fell asleep on the naugahyde bench seat of the truck.

Dwayne McGlory hit the garage door opener, and the massive rolling door started upwards. There was a white envelope taped to the metal, and the Chief poked hard at the opener to stop the door. Once again to bring it down. The truck idled outside the house as Flower Childs climbed down from the cab and ripped the envelope loose. Held it in front of the pumper’s headlights to make sure it was not a letter bomb. Opened it.

The paper read : THE NEXT ONE’S GOING TO HURT – THE J OF I.

Flower Childs looked up and down Alfalfa Street, and then up at the video camera she had installed after the last note like this.

Pedro Sanpedro leaned out of the window of the truck and asked,

“Him?”

“Or her,” the Chief answered. She stepped out of the way, and Dwayne hit the opener again. The slatted door rolled up and then 90 degrees back against the ceiling, and the pumper truck fit in just perfectly next to the ladder truck. The Chief’s car was in around back in the parking lot, and the men and Flower Childs peeled off their stinking gear and dripping tee-shirts as if they had nothing to hide from each other. There was a 302 to fill out, and equipment to replace, and filth to wash off, and then there would be time to deal with the something that was happening in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Class In Little Aleppo

Harper College was quieter in August of 1969 than it had been the previous year. In 1968, the students had remained on campus to fight one another in the name of international brotherhood. There were riots and protests and barricades were erected. No one tried to get over the barricades, mostly because the LAPD (No, Not That One) hadn’t taken the bait and were ignoring the school entirely. The leaders of the students’ organization, needing an enemy to rally the troops against, tried setting the Tyndale Pagoda on fire and picking a fight with the firemen and holy shit did that not go well.

Failing to secure an outside force, the leaders shored up their base. Stacey Siegel was stocky and had an afro like a great chocolate lollipop; he bullshitted well and had the best pot connection on campus, so he was a natural leader. He’d give you whatever rap he sized you up as receptive to: Communism, Buddhism, Rothschilds, whatever. The other guys did the intellectual heavy lifting; Stacey did a great Nixon impression and got laid a lot. Natural leader.

The students had radicalized just like at the other schools that tempestuous year, shattering into sects and schisming further every week or so. Harper Students Against The War broke down into Harper Students Against This Particular War and Harper Students Against Any War Whatsoever. The Militant Feminists were fighting with the Slightly Less Militant Feminists. There was a small but vocal group called Fuck Water Fountains, and no one liked them because they weren’t taking 1968 seriously.

Stacey Siegel led them all to the small, neat Victorian house tucked up in the northwest corner of the campus. Three steps up to the porch which had two mismatched cloth-upholstered chairs on either side of the door. The siding was dark green, and the shingles and shutters were darker green. The roof had two gabled windows on the second floor that led to Carter Spants and Molly McGlory-Spants’ bedroom, and a room that was supposed to be a child’s bedroom four times; it was now an office.

All of the student leaders had been pumping up their constituents all day, and a local band played in between speeches on the Quad, and the kids were drunk and high and had been promised a revolution. Several books, many albums, and Rolling Stone magazine had promised them a revolution, but they were stuck in a weird, semi-accredited college in the part of town people actively avoided. The kids were antsy, and so Stacey Siegel led them to the Victorian house where Dean Spants had lived since Harper College was founded, and Dr. McGlory-Spants had lived since three weeks after that.

(Carter was in his 30’s and Molly was his assistant and an undergraduate student at the time, but it was 1934 and that sort of nonsense was appropriate. Also, Molly had twelve brothers who were vicious criminals and they didn’t have any problem with it.)

The sun was setting and the mob was at their door. Carter had been trying to teach himself hieroglyphics for months, and Molly was reading an article trying and failing to make the case that Ezra Pound was secretly an Indonesian woman named Gladys.

“Mob’s here, Dr. McGlory-Spants.”

“Were we expecting them, Dean Spants?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“We don’t have enough wine. The mob will think us the rudest hosts.”

Carter Spants laid his book aside and rose. As he had been relaxing after a long day of scholarship and administration, he had unbuttoned his vest and loosened his tie. He fixed this oversight, and drew himself up to his full 6’3″ and opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed it and removed his reading glasses and slid them in the breast pocket of his tweed coat. Then he looked over the mob and said,

“Hello, mob.”

And the mob said,

“HELLO, DEAN SPANTS!”

“Have you brought your pitchforks and torches?”

The mob had neither. There were no farms around, so pitchforks were scarce; a sophomore had tried to make a torch, but he just pulled the leg off a chair and wrapped the end in a towel and a couple people got hurt when the flaming towel unraveled.

“Who is in charge, then?”

“I am,” Stacey Siegel answered, stepping forward.

“Mr. Siegel?” Dean Spants looked out at the rest of the students. “Him? Really?”

The mob laughed, and Stacey could feel his hold on them wavering so he yelled,

“We’re occupying the campus!”

“You’ve been occupying the campus. You live here.”

“Not like that!”

“How, then?”

“We’re declaring the campus a free state.”

“Ah. Yes. Have you read the school charter, Mr. Siegel?’

“The what?”

The mob answered,

“THE SCHOOL CHARTER!”

Dean Spants smiled at his kids. He thought about pulling out his pipe, but decided it was a bit much. Always underplay to a mob.

Stacey Siegel was slouching. He said,

“No.”

Dean Spants lifted his great patrician skull and looked over his nose at the mob like they were third graders.

“Who can help Mr. Siegel? Anyone? Put your hand down, Miss Packwith; let someone else have a turn.”

The mob tittered, and there may have been note-passing. Many hands were raised. Several students made sounds like “ooh, ooh” quietly.

“Mr. Singh?”

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

“Why didn’t you go before you joined the mob?”

“I didn’t have to go then,” he said.

“Quickly, quickly.”

Angel Singh ran off towards the Quad.

“No running!” the dean called after him.

Angel Singh downshifted to a fast trot.

“Mr. Spazinsky?”

“The Harper College charter gives the school massive exemptions from federal, state, local, and physical laws. That’s why none of the buildings have fire escapes and gravity doesn’t work right in the gym. The campus is to Little Aleppo like what Vatican City is to Rome, kinda. And it’s held up in court a million times. You can’t turn Harper College into a free zone because it already is a free zone,” Joey the Spaz said, and fell into a bush.

“Excellent work, Joseph. Help Joseph out of the bush, please.”

“I’m okay!”

“Capital. So, Mr. Siegel. What is it that you’re doing?”

Stacey Siegel punted.

“We’re staying here all summer and protesting Nixon’s war?”

“That sounds fine. In your dorm rooms?”

“What?”

“You’re staying in your rooms? All of you?”

The mob had not thought this through.

“I suppose,” Stacey Siegel answered.

“Hardly the Communards’ last stand, is it?”

The mob was expecting a swift rebuke, but had run into patient sarcasm and their collective energy was dissipating.

“Oh, wait. No. No, the occcupation won’t do at all,” Dean Spants puffed. “Won’t be any food in the summer. Cafeteria staff is laid off.”

Stacey saw his moment. A tiny pushback he could magnify into a war for the righteousness of humanity.

“Then we will open a food co-op right on the quad, and everyone will work and all food will be free!”

The mob cheered him on, and Molly McGlory-Spants came to the railing of the porch. She asked,

“Mr. Siegel, will there be a farmer’s market?”

“What?”

“Farmer’s market.”

A voice from within the mob cried out,

“There’s nothing like a good farmer’s market!”

And the mob cheered, because that was true.

“There could probably be a farmer’s market,” Stacey said.

“Then I’m in,” she said, turning to Carter. “I vote for the occupation.”

“That settles it,” he announced. “Occupation approved. You shall strike a powerful blow against the man by remaining where you live and setting up a farmer’s market.”

“FUCK WATER FOUNTAINS!” a dozen students yelled in unison.

“I agree,” the dean lifted his voice and said. “Unhygienic and awkward. All that bending over. So! That ought about cover it. All right, then. Good night, mob!”

And the mob said,

“Good night, Dean Spants.”

But the summer of 1969 was quieter than the previous year, especially August. Most of the students had gone east for a concert, hitchhiking or pooling funds for an ancient bus quickly painted in the fashion of the day. Several of the more accomplished students in the Chemistry department had bought new cars to drive to the concert, and Dean Spants made a mental note to inspect the labs; it could wait until tomorrow when it wasn’t raining.

It rained every 18 days in Little Aleppo: you could set your calendar by it. Nowadays, there are all sorts of scientific notions about the downpours’ regularity, but in 1969 the leading belief was that it was the Communists’ fault. 1917 was the Russian Revolution, a popular theory that originated in the Morning Tavern went, and therefore 1918 was the first full year of the Soviet Union. 1918, 18 days? It’s obvious, man. Bastards are fucking with us. We need to worry about the Symbolism Gap.

Regardless of cause, it had been 18 days since the last rain and it was pissing down. It was August and so the sun set very late, but the Main Drag had been dark for hours except for the bright white seconds of lightning that shot from the low clouds. Mr. Venable was standing inside the door of the bookstore with no title with his hand on the knob and fear in his heart. He had a date. The shop had many basements and annexes, he thought: he could hide in one. Possibly forever.

He looked back at his desk. A tortoiseshell cat was sitting on it. The cat had no name, and said,

“Mlaaarh.”

“Well said. I shall return. Or maybe not: this woman might murder me.”

“Plep.”

“True, true. I might murder her. Future’s yet to be written.”

Mr. Venable twisted the knob and the bell attached to the door went TINKadink, and once he was on the other side he opened his black umbrella and locked the door. The tortoiseshell leapt to the chair to the floor and then batted off into the dark coolness of the bookstore with no title to commit murder, no “might” about it.

Nero’s was the only classy establishment in town. There were two dining rooms and a bar and a tank with lobsters in it. The staff wore bright white button-down shirts, and carried thick leather flip-pads, and would not sell you drugs at the table. It was the only restaurant in the neighborhood that trusted their customers with steak knives. There were fees for sharing, and for corkage. It was a classy establishment. It was not, though, fancy. Little Aleppians appreciated fancy as it puttered by as a float in a parade, or installed in an art museum. Fancy parties were a hoot, but parties only last one night. Fancy doesn’t have staying power; it is by its nature novel. Deconstruction? Tasting menus? Fancy. But a well-cooked piece of fish with some art on the wall and a white tablecloth? That’s classy, and it’s eternal.

Penny Arrabbiata woke up at four in the afternoon, and then she sat on her couch for a while deciding between a shower and suicide. There was also coffee involved. She had taken a first-floor apartment on Bransauer Avenue. It was unfinished, so Penny drove her baby-blue ’69 VW Beetle through Christy Canyon and into C—-a City to the Furniture Metropolis. She had heard their ads on the radio, and she walked through the warehouse pointing at things; she sent the bill to her father.

A date. With whoever the hell this man was. Who he was–she reminded herself–was the only person in the neighborhood she’d talked to since she’d been here that didn’t work at Harper Observatory. The only man, certainly. Penny’s mother fully expected her to be married by the end of her first year at college, and then she hoped so her second year, and by the third was openly questioning Penny’s sexuality at family functions. Penny’s mom called her a lesbian so many times that she talked her into it. Maybe she’s right, Penny thought, and so she got drunk on gin and fucked her friend Brenda. It went poorly. Penny was straight.

She just had work to do. The stars came out at night, and so she worked at night. All the men she’d met were awake during the day, which she couldn’t fault them for, but they all seemed personally aggrieved that she was not. Every relationship the same: dinner dinner dinner, hump hump hump, and then the talk.

“You stay up all night every night? This isn’t just a…temporary…thing with you?”

And Penny would know it was over. She liked the humping, though. And the dinner.

There would be no suicide. She would shower.

Nero’s was on the Upside, and the lunch crowd was from the Valentine Courthouse and Town Hall. Lawyers and politicians and bagmen ate a club sandwich on deep-fried rye bread called a Fiddler and bribed one another. Occasionally, the corruption would achieve critical mass and a feeding frenzy would begin and everyone would start bribing everyone. It was blind and random and bloody and it was democracy in action.

Dinner at Nero’s was for celebrations. Birthdays and anniversaries and the funerals of rich, but hated, relatives. Promotion at work, or successful art heist. It was a special occasion kind of place. First date kind of place.

“I hate this place,” Penny said.

“It’s every sort of dreadful, isn’t it?”

“Every sort? Every?”

“Every,” Mr. Venable said.

A two waiters steered a cart topped with a huge metal press to a table in the middle of the dining room where an older man sat with a younger woman. Two waitresses joined the waiters, and the four sang the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. Then, they stuffed a dead duck into the press. Still had its beak. Crushed into a smooth poultry-gravy. The pulp was plated and served, with toast points and a fruity Pinot Noir.

“Okay, every,” Penny said.

“It’s like a dominance ritual over the animal kingdom.”

“I like eating duck and that’s fucked up.”

“If you pay them enough, they’ll chuck a chicken in a food processor for you.”

Penny laughed, and drained her second gin and tonic. The drinks had had no noticeable effect on her. Mr. Venable was having red wine, as he thought gin and tonic tasted like greasy sunshine. He did not drink often and his face had become noticeably full of blood.

The rain pounded on the windows like a spurned lover.

“Do you know who your wondrous Observatory is named after?”

“A guy named Harper,” Penny said.

“Mm. Full name Harper T. Harper. Late in his life, he became a philanthropist.”

“What was he early in his life?”

“A capitalist,” Mr Venable said.

“Funny how those professions always seem to be in that order.”

“Funny. Mr. Harper was a good capitalist, too.”

“And where did he practice his economic beliefs?”

“The Congo Free State.”

Penny had hair down past her shoulders, brown going on black, and she brushed it from her eyes. She sipped her drink and said,

“I think I read a book about that place.”

“Mr. Harper dealt in rubber, and Mr. Harper dealt in hands.”

“Is there a market for hands?”

The waiter set Penny’s third gin and tonic in front of her.

“That’s the thing about capitalists: if there isn’t a market, then they’ll create one.”

“Native hands, one would assume,” Penny said.

“The very nativest.”

“The business of America is business, Mr. Venable.”

“And still the sun comes up in the morning,” he said while raising his half-filled glass.

A Town Father was in the corner eating veal with his niece; his underage mistress, a friend of his niece’s, was also there. The sommelier and the guy with the pepper shaker were eyefucking each other across the dining room. There were no incursions into the lobster tank, and the air conditioners rattled mighty and strong.

“Yeah, speaking of which. Why is it so hot?”

“The Bake.”

“People keep saying this to me like it means something,” Penny said.

“Three days a summer. Hotter than the sun with a fever.”

“Which three days?”

“It is a stochastic process.”

“That’s just a fancy word for random.”

“There you go. The Bake occurs sometime between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Beyond that, no one can say for sure until it happens.”

Penny Arrabbiata was wearing a red and orange dress–the colors alternated in stripes–and her white clutch was set on the table next to her unused plate. She opened it and took out a Lucky Strike, which was unfiltered. Set it between her lips, lipstick staining the thin paper, and raised her eyes to Mr. Venable.

He looked back.

“Are you waiting for a light? I don’t have a light. You’re the one who smokes.”

She rolled her eyes and dug in her purse for her matches.

“Can I get one?”

Penny gave him a smoke, and lit a match. It sounded like FfffPOP and she lit her Lucky Strike PHWOO and then his PHWOO and shook out the match and placed it in the glass ashtray with the logo of a Roman man in a toga playing the violin, and they stared each other down until Mr. Venable started coughing just a little bit.

“Smooth,” he said.

“It’s the soothing tobacco for today’s frenzied world.”

“Filthy habit.”

“Absolutely.”

“They go well with drinks, though.”

“Right again.”

The waiter brought Mr. Venable another glass of wine even though he had not asked for one, which is the definition of service.

“Very rare, you know.”

“What?”

“The Bake lining up with the rains. Very rare.”

“It rains every 18 days here.”

“Like a clock’s work.”

“And the Bake is a random three-day period during the summer?”

“Mm-hm. Very rare.”

Penny took a drag off her Lucky Strike PHWOO and said,

“No. Around one out of six.”

“I’m sure not.”

“I’m literally a scientist.”

“There’s 91 days in the summer, correct?”

“91.25, but okay. And the number of days doesn’t matter.”

“And three days in the Bake.”

“Okay,” Penny said.

“So on every day there is a 3/91 chance of the Bake occurring.”

“Who taught you math?”

“We then divide this by the number of rains during the summer.”

“We shouldn’t.”

“This gives us an almost infinitesimal probability of the Bake and the rains happening simultaneously. On paper.”

“On paper?”

“On paper.”

“In reality, how often does it happen?”

“Every six years or so.”

“Huh.”

“Which the math says is completely impossible.”

“So, when the math and reality countermand each other, you go with the math?”

“One needs an anchor in a fluid world,” Mr. Venable said, and gulped down half of his wine, and that was the moment Penny Arrabbiata decided to fuck him. She didn’t know why. Something about his chin, maybe. Penny had a semi-detached relationship with her sex drive: it told her what to do and she didn’t ask questions. The lighting was generous, and he needed a haircut. The waiters brought more drinks, and eventually food, and then more drinks; the two stumbled into each other on purpose and by accident on the way to her first floor apartment on Bransauer Avenue. She kissed him before they went in–none of that “come in for coffee” bullshit for Penny Arrabbiata–and her shoes were by the door, and her dress was in the living room, and her underwear was at the foot of the bed.

When the sun came up, the Bake was done with and so was the rain: another temperate and sunny day. Back East, there was a concert in a field and a man came out at dawn to play guitar and wear headbands, but on Bransauer Avenue there was a man kept awake all night by a women used to staying up all night, and though he complained he did not mind losing the sleep in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Conference No One Wanted To See In Little Aleppo

The fire cast the Jews out,  A miracle had saved the Torah, but the Jews had no longer a home and had no longer any sanctuary but that which others granted temporarily. They asked only for space and peace. One day, it was written, the Jews would have again a home, but for now they would wander through the diaspora.

All the churches and temples and mosques on Rose Street had immediately offered the congregation of Torah, Torah Torah a place to worship, and Rose Street is only about a quarter-mile long, so it wasn’t the farthest the Jews ever had to wander, but still: a diaspora’s a diaspora.

A neighborhood’s got to have its churches and whatnot, Little Aleppians figured, but they ought be avoidable. No worse feeling than getting up a decent head of steam on a night of shoplifting and sex magix and WHAMMO there’s an Episcopalian joint in your face. Put God in one place, tell everyone where that place was, and let adults make their own choices about participating. It was like the zoo or the college: animals and education are great, but no one needs tapirs and chemistry professors on every corner. If people wanted the Lord, or to look at an elephant, or learn about an elephant, then they knew where to go.

The First Church of the Infinite Christ was the oldest on the block, predating the neighborhood itself. The first First Church was a cool, flat rock under the shade of a sequoia a mile to the north of the Pulaski village. Two men who were not Pulaski that the tribe called Stranger Who Hunts and Stranger Who Hunts’ Useless Friend had consecrated the rock over many hours of lying on it getting high and arguing about Jesus.

After the Pulaski were dead, Stranger Who Hunt’s Useless Friend was never called that again, and after a certain amount of years could not even remember his village name to say it. The Whites called him by his family name of Busybody Tyndale, and he used the money he got getting screwed out of his gold claim to buy some land and build a church. First one in Little Aleppo: an eight-bencher (four on each side) with a step-up stage that had a wooden pulpit on it. Tiny apartment in back, private privy out back.

The Reverend Tyndale would preach on Sunday mornings, and Wednesday nights, and any other time more than three people were in the church at the same time. He had built a house for the Lord to dwelleth in, and he was proud of this, but pride was a sin. And he missed his kotcha, and he missed his friend whom the Pulaski called Stranger Who Hunts, and whom he knew as Peter.

Every week or so, Busybody would walk west out of Little Aleppo–which was barely a few streets and a couple dozen buildings–until he hit the lake that smelled funny, and then he would make a left. The Peregrine Maria trees had knobby, ugly bark and stumpy branches that spiraled up the bulgy trunk. The leaves were the size of a child’s hand with thirteen points and the Pulaski would roll them up and chew them. This produced an effect. Mostly in your brain, but your legs felt kinda funny, too. Busybody would pluck the branches.

Sometimes at night, the Reverend would climb out onto the roof. He would chew the leaf, and name the stars, and miss his friend.

During the day, he preached the Infinite Christ. That the Lord was in the killing darkness at the bottom of the mines of the Turnaway Lode, and with the whores upstairs at the Wayside Inn, and in the shitty filth of the Main Drag. He preached the Christ of bedrolls and spoiled meat, and of softness amongst knives. The shooter was the Christ, and so was the poor fuck on the ground. Sheriff would be the Christ, too, if anyone ever got around to hiring one. The gold that brought America to the valley was the Christ, and the calm harbor that began to bustle with trade was the Christ. The plagues that would burn through the neighborhood every few years: the Christ. And the Wayside Fire must surely be the Christ, too, though Busybody Tyndale never could quite understand how. His friend Peter would have known, but he had been gone for such a very long time.

They buried him out back, but his tombstone was stolen and now no one is quite sure of the exact location of his grave. “Out back” is as specific as anyone will get.

The Reverend hadn’t just bought the land under his church: he’d bought the whole damn street, so when the Town Fathers decided to redline all the houses of worship onto Rose Street, it set the First Church of the Infinite Christ up in perpetuity. First to move in were the Catholics, St. Mary’s, and then St. Martin’s and St. Clement’s. One of them was Episcopalian and the other was Presbyterian, but no one could remember which was which. The synagogue, and then the mosque. All of them paid rent to the First Church of the Infinite Christ, which kept the lights on and paid for a preacher.

His name was the Reverend Arcade Jones and he took up a great deal of space in the First Church of the Infinite Christ’s all-purpose room. He was at the head of the rectangular table in an outfield-green suit. The Reverend’s shaved head was the color of overturned soil, and his hands were the size of counties.

“We need to do something about the Jews.”

“Not the best way to say that,” Deacon Blue murmured.

The First Church had a deacon, and his name was Louis Blue. He sat to the right of the Reverend Arcade Jones. His suit was suit-colored; his hair was thick but receding at the temples, and he wore it back in a ponytail. Several silver rings.

“Everyone knows what I mean.”

“Still.”

Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of Little Aleppo was the Hindu temple, and the head priest was named Pramahamsa Nithyananda. He was spiritually evolved to the point where it did not bother him when people mispronounced his name, and he had great white whiskers covering the southern portion of his face. He said,

“My temple has enjoyed hosting the Jewish worshipers this past week. Rabbi Levy and I have led many wonderful discussions introducing our faiths to each others’ congregations. No one could be better guests than our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Pramahamsa Nithyananda stroked his wild beard.

“But a week is about enough.”

“That’s all I’m saying,” Arcade Jones said to the deacon.

“There’s just not room for two religions in one temple,” Pramahamsa continued. “Plus, you know: they don’t eat pork and we don’t eat beef. It’s chicken every freaking night.”

Muhammad Battuta was the imam of the Al-Alamut mosque, and the youngest man in the room. He was also the only one born in Little Aleppo, which had never stopped anyone from telling him to go back where he came from. He asked,

“What about a vegetarian option?”

“Are you really asking an Indian if there’s a vegetarian option? My people invented the vegetarian option.”

“There’s no need for the attitude.”

“Give back Kashmir and I’ll be nice.”

Imam Battuta was compact and balding with a close-cropped beard and dimples way up high near his eyes that pierced into his face when he smiled. You could not now see his dimples.

“I have absolutely no authority over Kashmir.”

“Your people do.”

“My people own a motorcycle repair shop on Garrick Street.”

“A likely story,” Pramahamsa said, and began muttering darkly in Hindi.

“I can do that, too,” Muhammad said, and began muttering darkly in Arabic.

“Everyone stop muttering darkly at each other!” Reverend Jones announced, and then the two men muttered darkly at him, but only very briefly.

Deacon Blue cleared his throat. He was the president of the Rose Street Interfaith Council and an active promoter of cross-congregational activities. Helped, he thought. Builds dialogue, community, that sort of thing. He’d been to 74 different countries in his former life, and he’d never lost a drummer. Shepherded bands into South American football stadiums and driven the equipment van between Leeds and Chichester at three am in February. Been stuck on the side of the road with a dope-sick guitarist and 200 miles to go. Deacon Blue was the rarest of men: he had seen the world, and still loved it.

Which is not to say it was not deeply annoying.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Obviously, we can’t keep passing the congregation from Torah, Torah, Torah around. Everybody hosting for a week was a good idea at first, but it’s not really working.”

Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.

“So. What we need to do here is not bicker with one another, but come up with some sort of…um,”

Deacon Blue tried to think of a word that was not…

“Solution?” Pramahamsa said.

“No! No, no. Not a solution.” Deacon Blue shook his head and regretted learning to speak as a child.

The Reverends Green and Brown were white, and from the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches, respectively. Or maybe the other way around; nobody was quite sure.

“We do need a solution, Deacon,” one of them said.

“To the Jewish problem,” the other one added.

The deacon loosened his tie and popped open the top button on his collar and said,

“It’s like no one’s listening to themselves.”

“You know,” Imam Battuta said, “there’s an empty building on Madagascar Avenue that might be perfect.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones liked that; he pointed at the imam in agreement and said,

“We should explore the Madagascar option.”

“Wow. Really? Has no one taken a history class?”

Deacon Blue called out to Mrs. Fong. She was still at her desk in the church’s main office because she had forgotten to go home; Mrs. Fong would reply with any number of ages if you asked her how old she was, but none of them were under 80.

“Mrs. Fong?”

“Yes, Deacon?”

“Are there any donuts left?”

“The Jews ate them!”

And Deacon Blue just sat there quietly for a second. He thought about faith, and he thought about the Lord, and about all the left-hand turns that could have been rights. Accidents of genealogy battered by history’s waves, and all those possible realities drowned in the surf until there was just one life struggling for breath on the shore, and staring at the sun on the horizon wondering whether it was coming up or going down. Happenstance monkeys, that’s all we were.

“I have an idea.”

Gladys Alsop was the only woman at the table, and so the men wanted to be respectful, but she was also the Unitarian minister; if there’s one thing that brings religions together, it’s the belief that Unitarians were pussies. At a certain point, inclusion becomes condescending: the Mormons and the Muslims might both be wrong, but they couldn’t both be right.

The Reverend Arcade Jones was still polite, and he said,

“And what is that, Gladys?”

“High school gym.”

Pramahamsa threw his hands up in the air and half-yelled,

“Woman, it’s basketball season!”

Father Declan Ember had been at St. Mary’s for as long as most in the neighborhood could remember, and he had a giant head full of gin with hair as white as his collar. His hands were soft and his fingernails were buffed. Father Ember gave the old Mass, the scary Mass, the Latin Mass that John XXIII and Vatican II had abolished. He faced away from the worshipers, and there was a settled order to the proceedings that had been decided on a thousand years prior. The Lord shouldn’t be addressed in the vernacular. “Hey, how ya doing?” Is that how you’d speak to God? Of course not. God speaks Latin.

“My heathen friend is correct,” Father Ember said.

“Kiss my ass, Papist,” Pramahamsa replied.

“The Jews, having wandered for millennia, now find themselves again bereft. Homeless and needing shelter from the buffeting winds. I am reminded, my friends of the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

The priest’s words surrounded the men and women at the table like warm water, and stupefied them; they lolled and jerked their heads until the sirens. They all heard the sirens closing in. Deacon Blue looked around, and then got up and walked out of the conference room in the First Church of the Infinite Christ; he was followed by the Reverend Arcade Jones and the rest of the holy men, and also the Unitarian.

Rose Street abutted Harper College–the campus was behind the First Church to the south–and all that had been in the meeting now stood on the grass to the side of the building watching a small Victorian house burn. Flames were already bursting from the gabled roof. The pumper and ladder trucks were not yet pulled up to the blaze, and students were gathered: some of them crying and others high. All the holy men and the Unitarian could do was pray; they did not know each others’ prayers, but their shoulders rubbed and they swayed in time and closed their eyes together all at once, and that was the best they could do. We are all capable of the best we can do, and sometimes not even that in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Exiles On The Main Drag

“How’d you get here? Little Aleppo, I’m talking about, not some general ‘here.’ The neighborhood. You and I both know that KHAY–Hey!–don’t reach no place else, so if you’re tuning in, then I’m talking to a Little Aleppian. Maybe temporary, but temporary has a way of hanging around on the Main Drag.

“How’d you get here?

“Harper College got an archeology department, cats and kittens. You know Doctor Campe. He lets me call him Ezekiel cuz we’re friends. He comes on the Frankie Nickels Show now and then, and he tells us all about what he’s dug up. For a long time, we didn’t know exactly where the Pulaski live, but Ezekiel found it. I’m sure you’ve seen the memorial. It’s nice-looking. Very tasteful.

“Well, now, Ezekiel says that there were folks here before the Pulaski. Remember when the comic book store exploded? Left a crater, and turns out it was full of pottery and bones. Ezekiel Campe and his team, they took that pottery and they took those bones back to their labs, and they ran all sorts of tests on ’em.

“Zapped with all sorts of rays. Carbon dated and whatnot.  Couple hundred years before the Pulaski moved in, he figures. People been living in this valley a long damn time.

“And why not? Weather’s nice, ‘cept when it isn’t.

“But they weren’t from here. No one’s from anywhere ‘cept those that live in the damn Olduvai Gorge. Everyone who ain’t a Kenyan is a damnable interloper, ha ha ha.

“So where’d those first suckers come from? Maybe they came from the north, tired of the rain. Maybe they used to live in the Low Desert and got thirsty. Maybe they came from someplace where there’s winter.

“And where’d they go?

“Doc Ezekial got a theory. He says the Chinese made it here roundabouts the 15th century. He found a silver coin matches what they were making in China at the time. Foreigners bring disease, I’ve been told.

“But that’s just a theory. No evidence but one silver coin. 29 more and you can buy yourself something special, but there ain’t too many hats you can hang on one coin.

“Then came the Pulaski and we know what happened to them. Even though we don’t like to talk about it.

“Spaniards never made it here. No mission to burn down in Little Aleppo, cats and kittens. They named the hills, but didn’t much like crossing them. used to be some real scary things up in the Segovian Hills. Spaniards became the Californios, and they didn’t bother with the valley, either. First White in the area that we know of is a little fellow named Busybody Tyndale. He was a preacher, and a bit crazy. This set a precedent, ha ha ha.

“Used to be a lake where the zoo is now, and it was fed by three streams that ran down from the hills. There were gold nuggets in the stream, and the Pulaski used to trade ’em for rifles and ammo and saddles. Just dinky little nuggets, but that preacher found himself a seam. Pulled a fist-sized chunk of gold off it.

“You ever read Busybody Tyndale’s journals, cats and kittens? They printed ’em up nice and fancy a few years back. Reverend Tyndale? He’d been all over America, north south east and west, and he still believed in that man was good.

“What a maroon.

“He was gonna help the Pulaski. They’d taken him in, right? And now he was gonna help ’em. Reverend took that gold into C—–a City. Gonna buy the Pulaski medicine, pants, Bibles. Bring to them all the benefits of civilized society.

“He sure did! You’ve seen the memorial! Tasteful as hell.

“So: from the east you got Whites walking and riding the overland route. Wagon trains and oxen. But you got folks coming in from the west, too.

“Via the harbor.

“Chinese first. No theory this time, we got proof. 1851. That’s when the Chinese started coming on over. 1840’s were rough for China. Opium wars and drought and famine. Emperor was corrupt, and rebellions were started. By rebels, mostly, I guess. You might say China was being tossed by tempest, if you was some kind of poetical sort.

“1851. First Chinese in Little Aleppo was a fellow you heard of. Probably eaten his egg rolls. Yung Man.

“Yung Man come to work the mines. Gold in these here hills. The Turnaway Lode needed bodies. All the easy gold been dug out of the streams and plucked from the estuary in the lake. Now there was digging to be done. Hard work. Dangerous work. Cave-ins, gas pockets, all sorts of killer nonsense. A White wouldn’t do the job for the wages the mine’s owners wanted to pay. Chinese would.

“Month on the boat. Steerage. Share a room with ten other men, down in the bowels of the ship. You already walked from your hometown to Hong Kong, and now you’re on a boat for a month. There’s rats and vomit and the stink of strangers. Thieves, too. Sharpies waiting to take you for your bankroll in Mah Jongg.

“Yung Man was the first, but not the last. Course, the Chinese weren’t allowed to live with the Whites and that’s why we got Chinatown.

“Gold ran out soon enough, and there weren’t no more miners. Yung Man opened a restaurant on the Downside. Still open. I ate there last week. He brought in his brothers and cousins from back home, at least he did ’til 1882. Ever hear of the Chinese Exclusion Act? It was an act, you see, that excluded the Chinese. Truth in advertising. Does what it says on the label, ha ha ha.

“Periodically, the Whites would get twitchy and go rampaging through Chinatown with knives and erections. Other times, they would pass laws. They would always go back to Yung Man’s place, though. Neighborhood always did love its Chinese food. Used to be a joke: ‘What’s the only problem with Chinese food? The Chinaman it takes to make it.’ Funny stuff, cats and kittens.

“1882. No more Chinese. Japanese were on their way. In the 1840’s, life was chaotic in China, but in the 1860’s and 70’s, Japan was a mess. Little something called the Meiji Restoration. It’s a long story. The Whites needed cheap labor, and the Japanese needed work. The first generation was called the Issei, and they flowed in through the harbor.

“First steps they took on American soil were in Little Aleppo, how about that?

“A few stayed in the neighborhood. They weren’t allowed to buy land, but they could lease it and farm. Their children, the ones born here, they were called the Nisei and they went to their own schools alongside the Chinese children.

“You remember that Chinese Exclusion Act I told you about? Well, in 1924 there was one for the Japanese. Plugged up the spigot. Japanese in the neighborhood lived peaceably. Didn’t bother no one until December of 1941, when everybody got all bothered and by March of ’42 there weren’t no more Japanese in Little Aleppo.

“People do funny things in a war, ha ha ha.

“After we dropped the bomb, we let the Japanese out of their cages. Couldn’t go back to their homes cuz they’d been sold, but freedom was freedom. Laws started changing, too. No more excluding anyone. Chinese could come back and so could the Japanese.

“After the next war, a wave of Koreans hit.

“Vietnamese, the war after that.

“Escaping wherever they was, cats and kittens. Too many bombs and not enough food. They’d been told about somewhere sea-washed. Heard a story about a golden gate. They’d been made a promise, you see. There was a place that was calm and fair. Well-lit and lawful. There was a land, they’d been assured, where work had a direct relationship to wealth. Get up early, work all day, and don’t spend your money at night; maybe you’ll make something of yourself.

“Only thing in your way was an ocean.

“How’d you get here? You ain’t from here cuz no one’s from here, so you got here somehow. You walk 2,000 miles in clunky shoes? Watch your homeland disappear off the stern of a sailing ship? Ride the rails on the Santa Fe or the Chief out from Chicago? Hell, could be you drove your dumb ass here in a Volkswagen Beetle. Maybe you were even warned ahead of time.

“Here now. Maybe you got options or maybe you’re stuck, but you’re here now. Pleased to meet you, one of us.

“Question that remains is this: you came through a door, so whatcha gonna do with it? Leave it open or slam it shut? Hire a surly bouncer and give him a list?

“Who invited you, anyway?

“You up for some rock and roll music? You know Frankie Nickels is always up for some rock and roll music. I’m gonna play you a song about America.

“I bet you know it by heart.”

Untold Fortune In Little Aleppo

Big-Dicked Sheila’s hair was the same color as Superman’s thighs and biceps, stupidly blue, and short; messy like she had just finished fucking. She sat with a leg folded under her and one dangling over her chair in the back room of Madame Cazee’s on Sylvester Street. Sheila did not go in for any padding or bras, so her tight black dress clung to her skinny chest. Her arms were bare and hairless and defined. Her eye makeup was a bit much. There were three silver hoops in her left ear, and two gold hoops in her right.

Madame Cazee didn’t tell you your fortune. She told you someone else’s fortune. She had the Gift, the Sight, the Vision, whatever new-agey word you’d like to capitalize: she lived both here and there, but the wires had gotten jumbled somewhere within the pychosophic interrealm and so she was always right, but to the wrong person. Little Aleppians didn’t mind, in fact they preferred it this way. Someone knowing their future was an intolerable invasion of privacy, but someone knowing somebody else’s future was fine. And there were also the Interpretationalists

Madame Cazee had a connection, an inkling of a link–this was known and documented: the things she said came true–and thus her prognostications were coming from Somewhere. She was not guessing. She had the truth. It was seemingly irrelevant, but it was the Truth, and so perhaps it was relevant. Yes, Madame Cazee was telling you someone else’s fortune, but maybe she was telling you someone else’s fortune for a reason. What if it was a metaphor? It could be explained as an allusion. Anything can be explained as an allusion if you’re good enough at bullshitting. Interpretationalists took analogy seriously; reality, less so. Sheila was an Interpretationalist.

“Why would they send you out into such danger?”

“They’re bastards, that’s why,” Sheila answered.

Both of their eyes were closed, but the cat was watching the encounter from a high shelf.

PHWOO.

Sheila held her arm across the table which–Sheila tried not to use words that upset people, and she knew the word “gypsy” upset people, but she couldn’t think of a better descriptor–had a gypsy tablecloth on it underneath a crystal ball. Madame Cazee squinted open her left eye. Took the joint.

PHWOO.

“Christ, Sheel.”

“What?”

“Why do you come in here with death weed?”

“It’s normal pot,” Sheila said.

“I’m lightheaded.”

“You’re supposed to be.”

“No, I feel like my head is made of pure light.”

“I’m not seeing the problem.”

“There’s weather up in the Hills. And blind turns, and 200-pound cats made of muscle and claws and teeth.”

“Okay.”

“Double-check the rifle,” Madame Cazee said. The crystal ball clouded over, cleared, clouded back; she had bought it at a yard sale for two dollars. They wanted five, but she paid two. On a shelf over her left shoulder were four human teeth which had been knocked out by an axe; they were in a glass case that she bought at the same yard sale where she got the crystal ball.

“You need to believe what you’ve been told sometimes. Everyone’s not out to fuck you. Warnings are often sincere.”

“Okay,” Sheila said in a small voice.

“Listen to your elders and trust your gut and double-check your rifle.”

PHWOO.

“Absolutely.”

Sheila did not have a rifle, but she did have several handguns, one of which was in her purse. The fortune was for someone else, but she had received it for a reason. It might have been about expanding her shop–Sheila was thinking about expanding her shop–or it might have been about Gussy, and when Sheila thought about Gussy her cock shifted in her dress and she could feel her armpits get warmer. The only thing Madame Cazee’s fortunes weren’t were random: they might be tangential, digressional, obliquely related, or connected via drug/dream logic, but somedamnhow they were meaningful.

“My head feels strange.”

“How so?”

“Like it’s made of pure light,” Cannot Swim said.

“Keep breathing,” Here And There said.

“I can breathe.”

“What if you couldn’t?”

The fire died and it was dark in Here And There’s kotcha; there was no sound at all, and everything was thick smoke. Cannot Swim’s throat swelled and thickened and bulged, and he clawed at the air and fell over to his left. When his shoulder hit the packed earth, he was sitting up again and the fire was burning and a dog was snoring outside.

“What just happened?”

“Something,” Here And There said. “Definitely something. What do you think just happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me, either. Isn’t it nice to be honest? Look the moment in the eye and say you got no clue what’s going on?”

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Cannot Swim said and the fire was everywhere and all around him; brightness and heat that he could not escape, and he felt his eyeballs blanch, and then bleach, and then pop and melt. He covered his face with his hands and fell to the right, and when his shoulder hit the packed earth he was sitting up again and whole.

“Is that gonna keep happening?”

“You’re asking me like I’m in charge.”

“You’re not?”

“Not as far as I know,” Here And There said. “Maybe I am, but I haven’t been informed.”

“Is anyone in charge?”

“Maybe you.”

“You think?”

“As little as possible.”

“Is there water?”

“Of course.”

The kotcha brightened, and Cannot Swim could see the flood pour in from the small opening up top where the strips of redwood bark formed the vertex of the cone; it was freezing and rising faster than the space was being filled and above his head with force enough to slap open his mouth and water rushed down his esophagus and trachea into his stomach and lungs; his whole torso wracked in convulsions and thrashed back and forth violently enough to snap his spine against the packed earth floor that he was sitting cross-legged on, dry.

Here And There grinned.

“What was in that tea?”

“What you’d assume,” she answered. “Before the Pulaski were the Mi-oh. They lived where we live now. Many generations ago. One day, boats came into the harbor from over the horizon. These were large boats with sails. The sailors had hair like ours. The Mi-oh knew other tribes that traveled by sea, but these men did not smell like men should smell.

“The Mi-oh fed them. Allowed them to bathe and sleep safely. In the morning, the villagers woke to see the strangers standing in one of the streams that feeds the lake. They were picking out the shiny pebbles. The Mi-oh saw that they had turned into demons. Taller than the trees and made of fire and sickness. The heads of rats, slobbering with hunger.

“Just like you’re slobbering.”

Cannot Swim was slumped into his own lap, and drool formed a bridge between his mouth and crotch. He pawed at it.

“Other side.”

“Sorry.”

“Sit up straight,” Here And There said.

“Sorry.”

“The Mi-oh did not understand what was happening, but they knew what needed to happen.”

“They killed the strangers?”

“And ate them.”

“And ate them?”

“This was before the Whites brought rifles. Hunting was tougher. Meat is meat. There were also spiritual aspects.”

“How were they not cursed?”

“Oh, they were. Two weeks go by, and then their skin bubbles and bursts; their flesh heats and cooks; their guts bleed and fail. For every five that live through it, one dies. Survivors are scarred. Some are blind.”

“This is as it should be! Eating people is an abomination. The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again made it clear.”

“Yes. After the sickness had passed, a Mi-oh made the journey through the hills to ask the neighboring tribe for help, or food, or magic, or medicine. And to tell the story of the demons that had visited. That neighboring tribe was called the Lay. They sent back help, and food, and magic, and medicine. Do you know what happened two weeks later?”

Cannot Swim was not a teenager, but only because the Pulaski did not have that concept. He was over six feet, but he had only been that size for a very short time, and so he was fidgety and did not quite have control of his limbs. He could not stop eating, and his father Shoots With Wrong Hand marveled and raged at how long he could sleep. His dick got hard for no reason, constantly, and he wanted nothing more from his days than to hang out with his cousin Talks To Whites and their friends. Cannot Swim was a teenager, but he was not because the Pulaski do not have that concept, and so he was still a boy until he completed his Assignment.

He would be sent into the hills. This was a common Assignment. All of the boys and girls used to be sent into the hills, but only 70% of them came back. Now only the boys and girls who will survive are sent. The Pulaski name for the Segovian Hills was There are squatch up there; Jesus fucking Christ never, ever go up there. It sounded a lot prettier in Pulaski. Just as the psilocybe cubensis grew on cow shit, the psilocybe cybelinus grew on squatch shit. The villagers brewed it into tea for their Midsummer’s festival.

His father and uncles and aunt and grandparents and assorted other elders who felt like having a say gathered at the Learning Fire after dark, where they chewed the Peregrine leaf. His father brought a basket of huckleberries to pass around, as was the custom. All of the adults around the fire had crept up to eavesdrop when their parents were discussing their Assignments, and they assumed Cannot Swim was on his belly in the darkness outside the light’s radius.

Cannot Swim was sure they had no idea he was there.

He was strong, the adults agreed. He could survive outside on only what the land provided him. He was an excellent shot, and a patient hunter. And he was brave, but not so much that it made him stupid. Cannot Swim felt pride in knowing that the adults believed these qualities present in him, and then he remembered the Pulaski name for the hills and stopped feeling in any way positive towards the adults.

He would be a man soon, if he weren’t eaten or stomped to death, and he was technically a boy, but he was a teenager and so when a grown-up asked him a question, he wanted to get the right answer. Even if the adult was terrifying and had drugged him.

“Did they get sick?’

“Yes. The Lay got sick. Same thing the Mi-oh got. Skin, flesh, guts. Bodies bodies bodies. Now, Cannot Swim, you tell me: should the Lay have been cursed in the same way the Mi-oh were? They did not eat their fellow man. Do you not recognize the sickness I speak of, cousin?”

The Pulaski did not speak of the dead. Prayers were said, songs were sung, and the body was pulled halfway up the slope of the tallest of the hills. Left there. If it was a beloved elder who died, then the communal hearth would be extinguished for one day. But their names were never spoken again.

“My mother’s name was Laughs Too Much. Her family name was Born At First Light. If she learned her secret name, then she did not share it.”

“She died in the last wave of the sickness. Generations separate her from those Mi-oh who ate their fellow man. The Mi-oh left the valley; we are not their ancestors. Nothing binds your mother to them. And yet she was cursed just like they were. Why is this, Cannot Swim? Why did she get someone else’s fortune?”

He was sitting up straight, crying: big hucking sobs that he did not even bother to try to hide.

“Now, cousin,” Here And There said as darkness fogged out from behind her and took everything in the kotcha to black but her eyes and teeth. “Tell me about the Jack of Instance.”

Flower Childs was a motherfucker for maintenance.

“I’m a motherfucker for maintenance,” she’d open up her customary speech to probies with. A person couldn’t fight a fire. You could slap out an itty-bitty one, but the fire department didn’t get called to itty-bitty fires. Fireman wasn’t anything without the truck, the hose, the ladder, the axe, the coat, the air tank. Wasn’t that you were reliant on your tools, it was that you were nothing without them. Job doesn’t exist without the accessories. Fire was primal, but fighting it was technological. Man didn’t stand a chance against nature, Flower thought, but man and machine combined did.

And so the tools had to be maintained. Water is the universal solvent, and it frays a hose from the inside, which means that you check it foot-by-foot every single time you re-roll it. Dirt and grit foul up connections and quicken decay, so the trucks were washed constantly. The oversized wrenches, and the long-handled prybars, and anything else made of exposed metal were rubbed down with a light-grit sandpaper so that they were perfectly dry and would not rust. Flower Child would check through lockers in the middle of the night, and heaven help whoever had a pull or tear in their boots or gloves or mask. Entropy required apathy, she thought.

The LAFD were back in their house in Alfalfa Street. They were filthy and stinking and tired and hungry, and they had lost the building. It was a synagogue called Torah, Torah, Torah. The roof had collapsed. No one had died, and no one had been hurt. By the time the fire was out, the sun was well established in the sky.

She and her men stripped out of their gear, and checked the equipment in their underwear. There were only two showers in the small bathroom upstairs, and so it took a while to get everyone clean. Dwayne McGlory had carried a man and a holy book out of the fire , so he got to bathe first. Flower Childs always showered last. She was a taskmaster, but she was not cruel and so she did not make the probies fully wash the trucks, but they did have to wipe the mud and soot before it had a chance to cake on. She grabbed a rag, too. Ash-Nine, the station’s dalmatian, was already asleep on the couch in the front office.

A flash of white by the garage doors. Flower Childs walked over and saw it was an envelope on the floor, so she picked it up and opened it. A page of typing paper folded in three. Opened that. HOW’S THAT FOR AN OPENER? – J OF I in childish block letters. To the right of the massive garage doors is a human-sized one, and she slammed it open and ran out to the sidewalk in just her underwear and covered in grime and sweat. There was no one on the street at all, but Flower Childs stood there for a while almost naked and wondering how to interpret a fortune in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Fever And Flirtations In Little Aleppo

There was a concert going on Back East and the Bake had settled over Little Aleppo, and it felt like the Main Drag was on fire. All the brightly-colored teenagers and blue-jeaned drug dealers and halter-topped socialites had left for the New York State mud–the teens had hitchhiked, and the dealers had driven, and the socialites had flown–and the neighborhood was half-empty like a whisper. KSOS and KHAY ran public service announcements reminding everyone that alcohol didn’t actually make you cooler; Little Aleppians countered by saying that they knew that, but alcohol did make the heat bearable. Even the ghosts were sweating, and the giant bronze hand in the Verdance was sizzling and dared anyone to touch it. Americans had walked on the moon, and were losing the war in Vietnam. It was 1969.

Tomorrow was the rain, though. It rained every 18 days in Little Aleppo, and it was Day 17 in the cycle; tomorrow would bring coolness and relief. Dogs could smell the coming weather, and so could humans with bad knees.

But that was tomorrow: now it was four o’clock and as hot as it would get. Local wags were cooking eggs on the sidewalk, and local hungry people were knocking over wags to steal their eggs. As Seen On Teevee Takata was hawking his latest gadget, Chilly Pants, which were unisex underwear with a pouch for an ice pack in the crotch. He did brisk business. (The ice would melt rapidly, leaving you just as hot as before but now you had wet genitals.) Beer Cooler Ethel had to restock a dozen times, and the cops had very little to do because everyone was too hot to commit crime. The LAFD played whack-a-mole with fire hydrants: folks would open them up, and they’d close them down, and then one would start spraying two blocks over, and on and on. The firemen started openly decking grown-ups and slapping children after a while, but locals deemed their actions understandable.

The bell to the bookstore with no title goes TINKadink when it opens, but Mr. Venable was not in his customary spot and he was not wearing his customary suit. He had dragged his desk by the bay window and directly under the creaky window-unit air conditioner.

He had a book open in his lap.

To Kill A Mockingbird.

“Truman Capote’s finest work.”

“Didn’t you read that in high school?”

Mr. Venable slid his glasses down the length of his twice-broken nose and looked up.

“Penny. Penny Something-Or-Other. Stacia tackled you, and I saved you. Have you come to thank me? I should be your hero.”

“I was going to thank you, but now I don’t want to. Arrabbiata.”

“It’s too hot for Italian food.”

“My name.”

“Ah.”

“Are you always like this?”

“Like what?”

“Argumentative for no reason.”

“No, not always. Just when I speak. Good God, are you barefoot, woman?”

She was. Penny Arrabbiata’s jeans were rolled up to just below her knee and her still-being-broken-in combat boots were in the red backpack slung over her shoulder. On her first night at work at Harper Observatory high atop Pulaski Peak, she had worn a pair of respectable pumps, only to be informed about the metric shit-ton of rattlesnakes and sidewinders on the mountain. She woke up early the next day–two in the afternoon is early for an astronomer–and drove her Beetle into C—–a City to the Army/Navy store for a pair of boots.

But it was too hot for boots and the thick socks she had to wear because the boots were not-quite-broken-in, so she put them in her backpack, rolled up her jeans, and walked around like the kids on campus. No one looked twice, which was something Penny was noticing about Little Aleppo. What she’d really like is a skirt–get a nice little breeze going on her asshole–but scientists wore pants and she had to be at the Observatory soon.

“It’s too hot for shoes.”

“By that thinking, it should be too hot for trousers. Take them off! Let’s all run about with our bits a-dangling because of a little spike in the temperature. What are you doing?”

Penny was intercepting the chill. She had walked over to where Mr. Venable had moved his desk, and was standing in between him and the air conditioner. Her blue checked shirt was unbuttoned, and she did not have a bra under her white ribbed tank top. She leaned over and peeled the tank away from her sticky chest and let the icy air slide down over her tits and stomach.

“Stealing your air conditioning.”

“I give you no permission to do such.”

“Duh. That’s why I said ‘stealing.’ If you were okay with it, I’d say ‘taking.’ Keep up.”

“Is this your way of thanking me for my heroics? Barefootery and theft?”

“I would not classify your actions as heroic.”

Mr. Venable was outraged by this statement.

“I’m outraged by that statement.”

“You seem outraged by almost every statement.”

“I pulled Stacia off of you. Stacia. Stacia.”

“This is a wonderful argument you’ve developed. Were you on the debate team?”

The air conditioner hummed.

“Stacia!”

“You’ve mentioned.”

“That women has fought taverns before. She broke into the zoo to wrestle Edgar.”

“Who’s Edgar?”

“A bear.”

“A big bear?”

“A bear-sized bear. Edgar is perfectly bear-sized.”

“Who won?”

“It was a draw.”

“Good showing for Stacia.”

“Right?”

“Bit embarrassing for Edgar.”

“He sulked for a month.”

“How can you tell when a bear is sulking?”

“Bears sulk the same as people: get drunk, take their high school yearbooks down, that sort of thing.”

Penny Arrabbiata rolled her eyes and walked over to the Non-Non-Fiction table in the middle of room. She began holding up books.

The Godfather.

“Italian Crap,” Mr. Venable said.

Portnoy’s Complaint.

“Jewish crap.”

Naked Came The Stranger.

“Smut.”

There was a stack of Don Quixote, and she picked up a thick copy.

“That one’s not bad. Ever read it?”

“Yes,” Penny said. “Crazy man and his pet peasant wander around Andalusia causing trouble.”

“Reductive. Reductive and dubious.”

“Did you ever tell me your first name?”

Quixote is the perfect book. Nothing in this entire shop sums up life like Quixote.”

“It’s about a lunatic and there’s no story!”

“I rest my case.”

Penny took a good look at Mr. Venable: he was not in his customary spot, but he was in his customary seat–a faded green leather chair–and she could not tell if he was tall or short, but his brown hair was messy and uncombed. Fingers like a pianist; ink stain (blue) on the knife-edge of his left palm. He was not wearing one of his customary suits because she had not bought them for him yet. Feet up on the desk, crossed.

She had seen worse.

“I actually did come in to thank you,” Penny said.

“Hah!”

“Really?

“I’m right so occasionally; I celebrate when it happens.”

“And I’m going to buy you dinner.”

And Mr. Venable wanted her to leave. Or to disappear. Either one would be fine, anything to stop the heart in his chest that just started hammering like an idiot, that was charging up hills with a lance, that was facing the invasion all by itself–WHAMPOM WHAMPOM–he could taste it, taste his heart right in his throat, and he swallowed it back down–twice for good measure–and checked in with his face: had he given himself away? Impassivity was the key when it came to the face, Mr. Venable figured. Anything else was just a shitty way to play poker.

So he hoped his face was still in the hand and said,

“What now?”

“Dinner. Least I could do.”

“No. The least you could do would be nothing.”

“Just to get it straight: you’re always like this?”

“Be forewarned.”

“Gotcha. Still: dinner. Are there any good restaurants in the neighborhood?”

“There’s the sushi place.”

“What’s it called?”

“O’Malley’s.”

“Pass.”

“The fondue place burned down.”

“Sounds right.”

“I suppose there’s always Nero’s.”

“What kind of place is that?”

“Steaks. Seafood. Weighty cutlery. The tablecloths are made of actual cloth. Several Town Fathers have had heart attacks there while dining with their mistresses.”

“Sounds swanky.”

“They wrap your leftovers up in tin foil made to look like a swan.”

“Wow.”

“The rawest of elegance.”

Penny Arrabbiata held up the copy of Don Quixote she’d been riffling the pages of and said,

“Done. And I’m buying this.”

“I thought you were buying dinner.”

“I am.”

“Book’s free.”

Penny smiled–she had a toothy smile–and put the crazy man and his pet peasant in her red backpack next to her not-yet-broken-in combat boots.

“Tomorrow night. Seven o’clock.”

“It’s going to be raining.”

“Maybe.”

“No. Definitely. It’s going to be raining.”

“And I’m going to be at Nero’s at seven. It’s my only night off for a week, so that’s all there is to it.”

“All right, then.”

And Penny Arrabbiata, who was barefoot, walked out of the bookstore with no title onto the Main Drag. The bell on the door went TINKadink, and before it had stopped dinking, a tortoiseshell cat leapt silently onto Mr. Venable’s desk. She settled in front of Mr. Venable and demanded scritchy-scratches.

He did so.

“Plep.”

“I have a date.”

“Mlaaaargh.”

“You’re right. We should flee the country.”

“Plep.”

“Or commit suicide. Either seems appropriate.”

The rickety air conditioner shot an unnatural breeze at the two of them. Outside, there was swelter and sweat. Men removed their shirts and women went commando under flowing skirts and dresses, and everyone was drunk from the heat and also the beer. Twelve hours from now, there would be rain; now there was just the Bake in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Reading Back To Front In Little Aleppo

Churches are just buildings, and temples, too. Synagogues are structures just like the sock rental place on the Main Drag, but people have more invested in them. Like sweat equity, but for faith. You took your children there when they were born, and you brought your parents there when they died. You were bored there as a teenager and swore you’d never come back, and then you found yourself there one afternoon with a pint of banana schnapps and a gun and a half-written note. Could be there was a meeting in the basement you liked to attend. Consecration means “to imbue with holiness;” there are special prayers and a ceremony to be said before the church opens, but that is not the end of the dedication: the building is re-consecrated with every prayer, and every tear, and every marriage, and every youth group mixer.

But they’re just buildings, and they’ll burn like any other.

Earnest Hubbs and Kischka lived in Torah, Torah, Torah, the synagogue on Rose Street. He was the handyman, and she was the cat. Earnest had a small bedroom with a smaller bathroom attached in the basement. He was paid in cash at the end of every day, and he would walk down to the Hotel Synod and then walk back to his small bedroom in the basement. Earnest’s hands were rough, but his face was unlined and you could not tell how old he was.

It was 3:58 a.m. when Kischka started screaming, and then clawed Earnest on his bare, snoring chest. The smoke burned his throat and he leapt out of bed and ran out of his small bedroom in only his light-blue boxer shorts with Kischka under his arm. Then he ran back into the small bedroom and grabbed the shaving kit he kept his money, stash, and works in. It was hot in the stairwell, and Earnest Hubbs believed that he was going to die. He remembered the lessons taught to him in childhood about fire, and when he got to the door that led to the shul, he placed his palm on the wood: it was warm, but not hot, and so he barely poked the doorknob with one finger, and then quickly pressed two fingers, and then he grabbed and turned the sucker which was not hot and opened the door.

The walls had caught. Pews, too, but not evenly. There were patches unburnt, but the maroon carpet was smoldering and throwing off tendrils that were not steam but looked like it. Earnest Hubbs was not a Jew, but he had worked for the synagogue for a decade and he was a reader without much money for books, so he had been through all of Rabbi Levy’s library and half-taught himself Hebrew, and he had sat in for services most every week, mostly to hear Cantor Manevich sing. Funny thing about music, Earnest Hubbs thought: it translates itself sometimes. The cantor had no microphone and the room was large with a high ceiling, but she filled it with her joyous alto and Earnest would close his eyes and smell the desert and the diaspora.

And he liked Jewish food. Whatever the opposite of an antisemite was, Earnest was that. He gave some thought to converting–he was a Baptist–but the Rabbi told him that circumcision was a non-negotiable requirement, and that was the end of the thought. He would remain a fan rather than join the team.

“This is the gartel,” Rabbi Levy said as he untied the simple bow knot in the velvet sash.

Gartel. That’s Hebrew?”

“Yiddish.”

“You told me Yiddish was a modern language.”

“It is. I mean, it’s an almost-dead modern language, but modern enough. Way younger than Hebrew, put it that way. But all this stuff?”

The rabbi had put on his jacket and tie, and Earnest was wearing a tie, as well. The rabbi was a casual man, but he believed the Torah had a dress code and so when he took it out of the covered space behind the bema called the ark, he put on his tie and jacket.

“The mishegos on the Torah? That’s modern, too. Well, you know: past thousand years. Modern for the Jews.”

“Y’all operate on, like, geologic timescales.”

“Heh. Yeah. Lot of history. Luckily, most of it wasn’t written down.”

There was a purple cover folded over the scroll. It was velvet like the sash, and embroidered with gold and solver thread. Two vertical columns of five Hebrew letters; this represented the Commandments. Two lions sat facing each other atop the columns; they represented the cherubim who defended the Ark of the Covenant.

“Cherubim were the warrior angels, right?”

“The cherubim fought for God so the seraphim could worship God. Don’t get me started on powers and principalities; we’ll be here all afternoon. This is the yad.”

There was length of sterling silver hanging on a chain from the scroll’s left handle. It was as long as a pencil, but twice as thick and there were Hebrew letters engraved in the handle and at the other end was a tiny carving of a human hand with its index finger extended. Rabbi Levy handed it to Earnest.

Yad means pointer.”

“I can dig it.”

“The Torah’s not for skimming. There are 79,847 words. 304,805 letters. Each one is the most important. Torah is not a sprint. It’s not a marathon, either. It’s not a race at all. You read letter by letter, word by word. Best way to do that is to read with your finger as well as your eyes. But you can’t put your hands on the Torah.”

“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”

“And spitting into the wind is advised against. This is the hoshen,” the rabbi said as he removed a breastplate that hung on a chain just like the yad, but from both handles. Ornate, with more Hebrew letters.

“Same letters from the cover,” Earnest said.

“Excellent. Ten Commandments again. Moses coming down the mountain. Like, the Jews’ primal scene. We can’t get over it. And now the crown.”

There was a bulging silver topping covering both of the upper scroll handles, curlicues and filigree and with a high shine. The rabbi took it off with both hands and exposed the dark walnut grips to the rollers.

“The Torah is written on parchment called gevil. The gevil is attached to the rollers, which are called atzei.”

Rabbi Levy flipped the purple velvet cover back, and then he took off his yarmulke, kissed it, pressed it to the parchment, replaced it on his salt-and-pepper head, and called out to the empty shul,

“Bar’chu et Adonai ham’vo-rach!”

And no one was there, so they could not respond,

“Baruch Adonai ham’vo-rach l’o-lam va-ed
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech
ha-o-lam, a-sher ba-char banu mi-kol
ha’a-mim, v’na-tan lanu et Torah-to.
Baruch Atah Adonai, no-tein ha-Torah.”

So the rabbi said their lines for them, and Earnest Hubbs prayed along with him, though he did not know what for.

Rabbi Levy unrolled the Torah, and there it was: off-white the color of an old egg with stark black lettering in an alien alphabet that flowed backwards.

“A Torah is written by one man. Called a sofer. He uses a quill that he sharpens with a knife, and the ink is kosher. There are 79,847 words. 304,805 letters. If he makes a mistake on a word that is not the name of God, then he may scrape the ink off the gevil and go about his business. If he makes a mistake while writing the name of God, then the whole megillah is no good. You have to bury it like you would a person. Say the Kaddish, the whole thing.”

“Stressful job.”

“High suicide rate. Takes a year-and-a-half.”

The rabbi was not looking at the Torah, or at Earnest Hubbs, just staring into the empty pews.

“How long can your eyes hold up? Hands, too. 30 years? Say you got 30 years to be a sofer. That’s 20 Torahs. A man’s entire life’s work summed up in 20 things. Things get lost, broken, stolen. Things are flammable. The Torah is the Word of God, but this Torah? This Torah was the work of a man.”

“Is this the official view of the Jews?”

“The Jews don’t have an official view on anything. No one’s in charge. Popes are for papists.”

“I believe that’s what’s called a tautology, Rabbi Levy.”

“Mm. Tautology. Greek word. They slaughtered us. And the Romans and everyone else. While they did, men spent their lives in rooms with not enough light copying Torah over and over. No more Ancient Greeks. No more Romans. Torah remains because it is perfect. The Word of God and the work of man. You need both to do anything worthwhile.”

Earnest Hubbs was closing in on the door to the synagogue when he remembered the Rabbi’s sermon about the Torahs. He had not realized it was a sermon at the time, but now with the building on fire he did, and he ran to the double doors, unlocked them, threw Kischka the cat into a bush by the steps–she shrieked like a demon at this treatment–and Earnest ran back into the shul and up the center aisle in between the pews that were ablaze to the bema and the ark which contained the congregation’s Torah.

The smoke was very thick.

“Can’t we do this outside?”

“No.”

“It’s just that my eyes are burning and it’s tough to breathe,” Cannot Swim said.

“Yes,” Here And There said

She threw green powder onto the small fire burning in the center of her kotcha and it glowed yellow the same color as the nuggets in the stream that fed the lake. She and Cannot Swim were seated cross-legged on the ground on either side. Black Eyes, who was a dog, had refused to come in and was sleeping outside the leather flap that was the door.

Here And There was lit up, face crackling and wavering with flames that produced a strobe and Cannot Swim saw many faces in hers; he recognized some, and feared others. Her corneas and pupils were the same shade of dead black that most of her hair was; it was run through with seven white streaks of varying length. Here And There had a story for each stripe that she would sing to the village on Midsummer’s.

Both of their feet were bare.

“Drink your tea,” she said.

“What tea?’

She pointed to the cup besides him that he noticed for the first time. It was made from a dried coyote gourd, and the size of a shot glass. Cannot Swim picked it up and brought it halfway to his nose.

“Don’t smell it. Drink it.”

And then he altered the cup’s trajectory to his mouth, slammed it back, did not grimace even though the tea tasted a corpse made out of vomit.

Here And There lived two miles to the south of the Pulaski village, on the edge of the wood where the clearing gave way to the wilderness. She kept her own fire. Fish and vegetables were brought to her, and a choice piece of whatever game the hunters brought back. The Pulaski would set her food outside her kotcha and try not to run away. Some did. Here And There was a powerful shaman, and the Pulaski understood the true nature of power: you never wanted to be anywhere near it.

The most powerful thing in the solar system is the sun. In fact, the sun is so powerful that the whole solar system is named for it; it’s like how Elvis lived on Elvis Presley Boulevard. 93 million miles in between us and it, which means it’s eight minutes away if you’re traveling at the speed of light. The trip would take 120 years in a Cadillac. 93 million miles away. Try looking at it. Power that’s not dangerous to bystanders isn’t real power.

So Here And There lived two miles to the south of the village. She smiled to herself and cried out,

“Black Eyes!”

From outside the kotcha, Cannot Swim heard the hundred-pound dog growl low, and then a familiar voice.

“It’s me, jackass.”

“GRRRRR.”

“You want belly rubs?”

“GRRRRR.”

“I should leave?”

And then the sound of a sixteen-year-old jogging away.

“Your cousin is loyal to you,” Here And There said.

“Yes,” Cannot Swim answered.

“And very foolish.”

“Yes.”

“I am your cousin, too. Are you loyal to me? All of the sleeping Pulaski are your cousins. Are you loyal to them?”

There was no air left in the kotcha at all, and Cannot Swim’s head was full of shooting stars. He had the distinct impression that his eyeballs were in his nostrils.

“Yes?”

“You are a child, still. You are as tall as a man, but you are not a man. You have not been given the Assignment.”

“No.”

“You will be sent into the hills.”

“I know, yeah.”

“I know this fact because the Tree Who Will Always Grow told me. How do you know it?”

“Me and Talks To Whites eavesdropped on my dad talking to the elders when they decided.”

“That’s a good way to find stuff out, too.”

Cannot Swim swayed ten degrees to the left, righted himself. He could hear the frogs by the lake, and their heartbeats and the tendons in their froggy little legs tensing, and he could hear his own throat dry up and then there was no kotcha and no village and he and Here And There were sitting in a room made of concrete and machine-cut wood with such noise–such unholy and unfamiliar noise–loud and stabbing his ears that were just filled with frogs and their processes. They were at a bar, and surrounded by Whites wearing pants and hard shoes, and a man with a mustache and neat, white teeth was on the other side.

And now there was nothing but flowers.

And now great and strange beasts that may or may not have been feathered.

And now a room made of rough-hewn wood with a balcony that immodest women hung over. Cannot Swim tried not to look at them. They were White women, and they were soft and fleshy and sad, and he could not understand their eyes so he looked away. He had a cup in front of him that was not made from a dried coyote gourd but glass–the Pulaski did not have glass–and Cannot Swim held it up in the light streaming through the smeared windows and watched the echos of photons that came from 93 million miles away as he twisted the mug this way and that.

And now the kotcha again. Nothing in his hands. Here And There across the fire from him with seven white stripes in her otherwise-black hair.

“Do you know how the dreaming life is different from the waking life?”

“No, how?” Cannot Swim said.

“It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I was really asking.”

The first call came into 911 at four a.m. on the dot, and then there were more, but it was the first one that got the dispatcher to signal the LAFD at their firehouse on Alfalfa Street. Dwayne McGlory was the Captain, and asleep, and Pep Oneida was a probie, and also asleep. Probies watched the desk overnight, but Pedro Sanpedro spelled Pep and let him rack out. Pedro never slept, anyway.

There is a red phone on the desk that is actually off-white, and it rings at 100 decibels. Pedro Sanpedro picked up the receiver while ripping a fresh 302 off of the pad and placing it in a clipboard.

“Company One,” he answered, and wrote FIRE – 18 ROSE STREET down on the first line in careful block lettering, and then he said, “Responding.”

There is a red button on the desk that is actually red, and it is connected to a large metal bell that would startle the ear-less. Dwayne and Pep were down the pole and putting on their turndown gear by 4:01. Ash-Nine was barking and running back-and-forth between the pumper and the ladder trucks.

As the three men were hitching up their suspenders, Dwayne asked Pedro,

“How bad?’

“On fire.”

“The whole thing?”

“Dispatcher said the whole building.”

Dwayne McGlory gave the probie an order just by looking at him, and Pep Oneida ran back into the office to hit the other red button, the one that summoned all the off-duty firemen. Dwayne was driving the pumper truck out of the garage before Pep had finished, and he leapt up onto the running board and held on. The lights were going, but not the sirens. Shouldn’t be anyone out there at this hour.

East on Alfalfa and north up the Main Drag, and then west onto Rose. It was still pitch-black out and the glare from the fire washed out the stars so that there was nothing at all but the blaze. It was going. Oh, it was going like a riot. Torah, Torah, Torah had a roof like an upside-down boat, sloping inwards, and it concentrated the flames that leapt and flew onto the blacktop of the road, the paving stones of the sidewalk. the forced greenery of the lawn. The synagogue had a rose garden out front; there was an angry cat in it.

Attach the truck to the hydrant. Attach the hose to the truck. Repeat as needed.

The imam from the Al-Alamut mosque was waiting in the street. There’s a man who lives in there, he said.

He hasn’t come out, he said.

Please, he said.

A window blew out PRSHT from the synagogue, and there were sirens in the distance converging on the position. Dwayne McGlory pulled an air tank off the truck and hooked it to his mask. The halligan bar is three feet long and metal and has a shim on one end and an axe on the other, and he took that, too. Pedro knew what to do.

Dwayne McGlory threw open the front doors to the synagogue and disappeared inside. Pedro and Pep had the hose trained on the building already, and the billowing steam and smoke were killingly gray. The dalmatian named Ash-Nine was on the other side of the truck, in the street, defending his mobile territory.

Lookyloos and neighbors were on the sidewalk in their nightclothes–some were naked–and the flames rose in the the night that was technically the early morning.

Pedro Sanpedro and Pep Oneida poured as much water as the sewers would allow on the fire. Not enough. The synagogue was done for. At a certain point, you need to think about the surrounding structures.

The ladder truck pulled up. Flower Childs was driving.

The doors to the synagogue slapped open and Dwayne McGlory stormed out with Earnest Hubbs over one shoulder and a Torah over the other. He dumped them both on the grass, and leaned over to put his hands on his knees and breathe deeply once twice three times and then he straightened back up and looked around to see if he was still in charge. Chief Childs was on the scene and shouting orders, so he wasn’t, and he ran up to her to find out his assignment.

Earnest Hubbs was breathing again, and no one was paying attention to him so he picked up the Torah and he picked up his shaving kit that contained his cash, stash, and works. Kischka, who was a cat, was leaning against his left ankle. The building was eating itself as government employees fretted at it, and there was nothing he could do but protect someone else’s life’s work and wait for the rabbi in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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