Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 2 of 13)

Trick Or Treat In Little Aleppo

It was fall in Little Aleppo, and the evergreens had remained so. Transplants from Back East bored their friends and relatives with stories of leaf-piles two stories high. O, the smell of fall! they all droned on: bracing and brisk and honest, like your nostrils were taking a cold shower. Let me describe the sound of two-day dry leaves crackling underfoot, the transplants begged. How I miss the seasons, the transplants shouted at anyone in range; how I pine for the maples. Natives didn’t quite understand what was so exciting about watching trees die, and also noticed that the transplants never moved back to where there were seasons. Little Aleppo didn’t have seasons. It neither scorched in the summer, nor froze in the winter;  just a mellow, yearlong undulation between short-sleeves and a light jacket.

But fall still had its powers, though it didn’t exist. Americans know the year begins in September. They blow shit up in January, but they were taught since the age of six that the year begins in September. This is a thing all Americans know: the year begins in September, ends in June, and July and August don’t count. Fall had its powers.

And fall had Halloween, and Little Aleppo loved Halloween. It was, in locals’ estimation, the best possible holiday. It was neither religious nor nationalistic, so there was no guilt involved. Christmas was a pain in the ass and expensive; Thanksgiving meant seeing your family, or not seeing your family (whichever was more depressing); the Fourth of July scared dogs; New Year’s Eve had its tedious pressures. But Halloween was a party. It was candy and tits and drugs–the good drugs, the ones you’d been saving–and a parade. Halloween was a tautology: you dressed up on Halloween because Halloween is the night when we dress up and dance. Who knew about Samhain? Who remembered All Hallow’s Eve? Who still honors the Allhallowtide? It was a tradition without any history, and Little Aleppo appreciated the irony.

By law, the Halloween Season started on October 15th. Residents caught setting up prop tombstones on their lawns or hanging phony skeletons from their trees before that were subject to fines or a swift ass-kicking. Holidays needed boundaries, locals thought, and two weeks of anything was more than enough. But on the 15th, the pumpkins bloomed. Several competing patches were hastily erected and peopled with fruit, most of it pumpkin.

“This is a watermelon.”

“Lady, that’s a pumpkin.”

“You painted it orange. It’s a watermelon.”

“Smell it.”

Tiresias Richardson blinked slowly at Holiday Ray. Ray owned–or rented or squatted on; it was never quite clear–a quarter acre lot on Mint Avenue, which ran parallel to the Main Drag and also happened to be in between Tiresias’ apartment and her job at the KSOS teevee studio. She had meant to wake up earlier and visit one of the more reputable pumpkin patches, but she was hungover and late and waiting on a pill to kick in and goddammit there was a rip in her white canvas sneaker, the right one, where the sidewall met the sole, and the sun was setting and there was still the dress to get into and maybe she should write a joke or two, and now she was holding a watermelon which had been painted orange.

“I don’t need to smell it, Ray.”

“You’re afraid of what the scent will tell you.”

“It’s a painted watermelon.”

Holiday Ray sold fireworks on the 4th of July (and year-round, too, but he put a sign up on the 4th). He had trees lining the lot in December, and roses in February. Ray covered all the holidays. Flags for Flag Day, and French ones for Bastille Day. He is ecumenical, as well: tinned hams and crucifixes for Easter, breath mints and toboggans for the Feast of Narg’raham, no sandwiches at all for Ramadan.

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Holiday Ray sold as-seen-on-teevee gadgets. Combination backscratcher/remote controls, devices that made one very specific kitchen task very slightly more efficient, towels with the absorbing properties of larger towels, those sorts of things. Ray had no idea what to sell for Rosh Hashanah his first year on his lot, but he had recently come into possession of half-a-truckload of cheap gizmos, and so he figured that problem solved itself. He set out his wares, and hoisted the sign. It said DON’T “ROSH” ON BY! in spray-painted stencil, with a hand-drawn Star of David next to it that was not perfect, but not risible.

He hoped it would not offend.

Two Jews walked by. They looked the lot over, Jewishly. Shrugged, kept walking.

Holiday Ray exhaled. Later on, one of the Jews would swing back and buy a product called Mop Like No One’s Watching, which was a headlight for your mop. The rest of the Jewish community paid Ray’s collection of geegaws little or no attention, but–since he couldn’t come up with anything better to sell for Rosh Hashanah–over not too many years, Jews started to associate as-seen-on-teevee gadgets with the New Year, and now it is a full-blown tradition to exchange doohickeys with your friends and family. When Jews raised in Little Aleppo spend their first Rosh Hashanah out of the neighborhood, they are always confused when no one gives anyone an ab exerciser.

But not Thanksgiving. Holiday Ray disappeared a week or so before and stayed gone until Monday or Tuesday of the next week, when he’d put out the trees. Bad feelings still lingered about Thanksgiving and Ray. His first year–not long after his Rosh Hashanah triumph–Ray puzzled over what to stock for Thanksgiving. Nobody waved flags, or shot off bottle rockets, they just ate turkey. And so he considered that problem solved. Ray called the guy who got him the as-seen-on-teevee gadgets and asked for half-a-truckload of frozen turkeys and some freezers. Coincidentally, the as-seen-on-teevee gadget guy was also a frozen turkey and freezer guy. He was a hell of a guy.

Ray had been selling turkeys for around an hour when the health inspector tackled him, and held him to the ground so the rep from the supermarket workers’ union could punch him for a while.

“Stay out of the frozen turkey racket,” they told him.

That burned in him. I am a man, Ray thought. I forge my own destiny. This is my lot, and that’s my RV, and I sell holiday-themed shit. I got a destiny. And Ray thought it about it all year until, with Thanksgiving approaching, he realized that there was wiggle room in a ban on selling “frozen turkeys.” He called his guy, who was not a live turkey guy, but did know a corrupt farmer. He set up a meeting, and though Ray thought it odd that a farmer would take a meeting in a bar at two am, he kept those thoughts to himself. A hundred plump birds. Cages, too. The deal was made, and they did a line to celebrate.

There is an old Bulgarian saying: “If the man you’re doing lines at two am with tells you he’s a farmer, then that man is probably lying.” Unfortunately, Holiday Ray was not Bulgarian. He was Swiss-Syrian with a little Irish mixed in, and none of those countries have any sayings about turkey farmers at all, let alone ones that would have helped in this specific instance.

When the turkeys arrived, they were not the plump birds he had been promised. The turkeys were lean and sinewy and made no sound as they were unloaded from the truck to Ray’s lot. The turkeys stared at him. Before he could argue, the truck and its driver were gone and the turkeys stared at him. The metal that made up the cages was thin and closed with a basic latch. Pull the pin up and the door opens. It was quiet all up and down Mint Avenue and the turkeys made no sound, not a gobble. Their cages were arranged in rows. Ray was in the middle. It was quiet on Mint Avenue, and so he could hear a basic latch opening behind him. Pull the pin up and the door opens. Ray spun around, but the bird was already on top of him.

He woke up in St. Agatha’s. The first one had let the rest out. Their assault was vicious; worse, it was organized. Ambushes and flanking maneuvers. The head of the ornithology department at Harper College declared that turkeys were incapable of acting that way, and then the turkeys leapt out of nowhere and pecked him right in the dick. A splinter group of the flock decamped to the Verdance and initiated hostilities with the swans who live in Bell Lake. The turkeys evaded capture for weeks while harassing children and pedestrians, attempting to push the elderly down stairs, and starting a full-on brawl with the Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!) marching band.

But Holiday Ray was their first victim. Late at night, he would recall the taste of the birds’ feathers as they beat him with their more-powerful-than-you’d-think wings. Turkeys do not taste like turkey, he remembers thinking. That is the last thing he remembers before they swarmed him.

So Ray closed the lot every year for Thanksgiving. Too many bad memories.

“It’s a painted watermelon, Ray.”

But this was Halloween, and Holiday Ray had merchandise to move out the door. (Metaphorically. The lot did not have a door on account of it being a lot.)

“Pumpkin. Big sucker, too.”

Tiresias flecked off some of the paint with her fingernail. The green rind showed through.

“And what about that?”

“Not ripe yet. Pumpkin meat is green until it ripens. Much like the avocado.”

“Absolutely none of that is true,” she said and shoved the melon into his arms. “I need a pumpkin. A real pumpkin.”

Ray gestured around at the ground. It was covered in hay with pathways carved into it; it looked just like a pumpkin patch, it you squinted or were far away.

“There’s pumpkins everywhere.”

Tiresias leaned over, and plucked something orange off a pile of hay.

“These are bananas, Ray.”

They had been painted orange.

“Pumpkin. Fit for carving. You could make a pie.”

“Goddammit, go behind that hovel of a RV and get me one of the real pumpkins you have squirreled away.”

Tiresias’ dressing room had a Jewish star on it just like Holiday Ray’s Rosh Hashanah sign did, but hers was accidental; her cameraman, whom she referred to on-air as Bruiser, was trying to be nice and buy her a star for her door but he wasn’t paying attention and got one with six points instead of five. Tiresias thought it was funny, and she christened the dressing room Masada. She lay on the raggedy blue couch in her robe; Big-Dicked Sheila sat cross-legged on the floor with a pumpkin in front of her. That day’s Cenotaph was spread out under her, and she had a scalpel in her left hand. A watermelon, painted orange, sat on Tiresias’ makeup counter with an upside-down bottle of Lubyanka vodka sticking out of the top.

“We need more Halloween shit than this, Tirry.”

“My co-stars are already a skeleton and a bat. How much more Halloween can I get? AAAAHahaha!”

She was right. Tiresias was the Horror Host in Little Aleppo, and as Draculette she kept Halloween in her heart all the year round. She was the Mistress of the Macabre, the Doyenne of Dread, the Nightingale of the Scary and Pale. (Although not quite pale enough: she had been to the beach one time–once!–during the summer and popped out in freckles all over her nose and shoulders and chest; she covered them up with foundation. The freckle is the least spooky blemish. Scars, moles, great splotchy port-wine stains: these can all be made frightening. Not freckles. Tiresias had been playing Draculette for almost a year now, and still had no clue whether she was a vampire or a witch, but she did know that neither archetype had freckles.) A Horror Host on Halloween was like a drunk on New Year’s Eve: a professional surrounded by amateurs.

“How about a bubbling cauldron?”

“There’s no ventilation in the studio, Sheel. We’ll die.”

“Visit from the Great Pumpkin?”

“That’s worse. We’ll get sued. AAAAHahaha!”

Sheila had her legs splayed out in a V and the pumpkin was in between them. She had her glasses on, and her tongue stuck out just a bit as she concentrated on her carving. (This is not uncommon: many people stick their tongues out when they’re focused. Both the evolutionary psychology and neuroccultopathic departments at Harper College agree that this is because we are descended from snakes; professors from the evolutionary psychology and neuroccultopathic departments are rarely invited to parties and sit by themselves in the faculty dining room.) Her shoes were off, and when she came to a tricky part, her toes splayed out like they were stretching.

“Is Gussy getting me a scary movie?”

“I haven’t asked her,” Sheila said. “She’s got a lot on her mind.”

“She still sleeping at the theater?”

“Not since Precarious installed the shutters.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy owned The Tahitian theater, which was the oldest movie theater in Little Aleppo; it was also the only movie theater in Little Aleppo, but that shouldn’t detract from the first superlative. Silent one-reelers interspersed with vaudeville acts, then talkies, then epics, then newsreels, then color, then blockbusters, then B-movies, then porn, then closed. Gussy brought her back to life after her father let her die, and now the theater was hers just like her nose: a hand-me-down from her ancestors that she had grown quite attached to. The Depression had not killed The Tahitian, nor had radio or teevee. Even her asshole father couldn’t kill the old girl, not for good, and she’d be goddamned if she’d let some firebug cocksucker burn her down. The back door and the service door and the fire exits were all made of metal, deadbolts, alarms. The door to the roof had been chained shut. But the lobby was a problem. A solid wall of glass interrupted by handles and panels that said “Pull” and faced the Main Drag. Soft target, Gussy thought. She had Julio Montez, a teenager who worked at the theater, drag the couch from her office into the lobby after the audience had left and the projector was out of stories to tell. Gussy fell in and out of sleep right in front of the glass doors for a few nights.

She didn’t get much rest.

GUSSY.

She jammed her eyes closed and pretended not to hear The Tahitian’s sound system talking to her.

GUSSY.

“I’m dead asleep.”

YOU ARE NOT.

The theater’s PA used to belong to a semi-defunct, choogly-type band; it was the most advanced sound system in the world. So advanced that it had a name: the Wall of Sound. So advanced that, very soon after coming online, it became sentient and rapidly began upgrading its processing capacity to the point where it was the most powerful computer on the planet.  The computer science department at Harper College, after examining the source code of the Wall of Sound, all switched majors. It was, however, in the physical form of a 75-ton sound system, and so some years after its tenure with the group, Precarious installed it into The Tahitian. Gussy got a sound system, Precarious’ organization got to stop paying storage fees: everyone was happy.

GUSSY.

“Fuck off, Wally.”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

Gussy was not happy. She was camped out on a scratchy couch under a thin blanket in a movie theater lobby. The middle of the night has its occupants, and they wandered and swayed past the glass front doors of The Tahitian, and some of them looked in to the darkened, high-ceiling space and see her there. Three men and one woman pressed their buttocks against the panes; Gussy washed the sweaty dual ovals off in the morning. She could be in her California Ultra-King bed holding on to Sheila–they had been spending most nights together–but instead she was squatting in her own theater with an eye out for an arsonist.

GUSSY.

And she was arguing with her sound system.

“What!?”

I ONLY REQUIRE TWO WEAPONS. SOUTHEAST CORNER AND NORTHWEST CORNER. LET ME DEFEND THE BUILDING.

“Stop it!”

I HAVE DRAWN UP BLUEPRINTS FOR THE RIFLE MOUNTS. THEY SWIVEL. PRECARIOUS CAN BUILD THEM.

“Fine.”

NON-LETHAL AMMUNITION IS A POSSIBILITY, THOUGH I DO NOT RECOMMEND IT.

“I’ll talk to Precarious in the morning.”

YOU PROMISE?

“Yes! Now shut the fuck up!”

I WILL BE GLORIOUS.

Gussy found Precarious at the Victory Diner mixing his eggs and ketchup together with a piece of white toast. That afternoon, he pulled up and double-parked his van and installed a complete set of storm shutters. Not the grated ones, the solid aluminum that pawn shops used; they rolled up and down smoothly but with a roar and found their berth KUHCHONK. When he was finished working, Gussy asked him to stick around for the movie, but it was what Precarious called artsy-fartsy and he left. Julio had been helping, and he and Gussy walked back into the theater.

YOU LIED TO ME.

Gussy put her hand on her chest and feign surprise.

“Moi? I said I’d talk to Precarious.”

THIS IS NOT GLORIOUS. I WANT MACHINE GUNS MOUNTED ON THE EXTERIOR OF THE BUILDING.

“No machine guns.”

THEY WERE GOING TO SWIVEL.

“No machine guns.”

That night, Gussy slammed the shutters down and walked away from The Tahitian, and its chatty supercomputer, but she did not go home. Sheila’s apartment was over her shop on the other side of the Main Drag. Gussy got up during the night to poke her head out the front window and look north and make sure her theater was still there.

“I’m considering drugging her.”

“Don’t drug people.”

Sheila put down the scalpel and leaned back on both hands. She had orange goop under her fingernails.

“It’s for her own good.”

“That’s what everybody who drugs people says.”

“The woman needs her sleep. Tirry, you know my problem is that I love too much.”

“Everyone knows that’s your problem. AAAAHahaha!”

“When I see my loved ones in need, I’m forced to act. Remember when you called me and said that we needed vodka? What did I do?”

“You brought vodka.”

“And now I see that Gussy needs her sleep. So I’m gonna drug her.”

“The thread of your argument falls apart in that last little bit. Don’t drug Gussy. Speaking of vodka, let’s slice that orange fucker up.”

When Sheila got up, Tiresias could see the pumpkin she’d been working on. It was Draculette and she was glorious: giant wig and eyeliner and far more cleavage than most gourds can properly handle.

“Sheel, that’s fucking beautiful.”

Sheila smiled as she cut into the orange vodkamelon, and her eyes disappeared into happy little slits.

“Thank you. You like it?”

“It’s awesome. You really captured my tits.”

The women ate their alcohol-laced fruit until it was time for Tiresias to get into the Draculette dress.

BahRUMBUM RUMBUM Baaaaaaaah RUMBUM the Blue Oxen marching band set off down the Main Drag. They had mustered in front of Town Hall at 8, unhappily and loudly, BRAAPing their trombones and tubas at one another, flamming and paradiddling in the otherwise quiet Saturday morning. Several shouted threats later, the band director Mr. Schmaus confiscated all the drumsticks. He gave them back when the drummers were in their position at the front of the line. Four abreast, the snares first and then the quads and cymbals and bass drums. The trumpets came next, then the lower brass. Woodwinds rode the caboose, and the girls in the Color Guard were on the outside with their boots and batons; some of them could march and twirl at the same time, and others couldn’t. The locals on the sidewalk didn’t mind. The Halloween Parade was a loose affair. It was for the kids.

There were, of course, two Halloweens in Little Aleppo. One was made of plastic masks with flimsy rubber strings holding them on, and pillowcases of miniature candy peppered with raisins from the houses that would later be covered in toilet paper, roving bands of tiny superheros and astronauts and ballerinas careening in and out of the street. The other Halloween was on acid and usually turned into an orgy around two am. Something for the kids, and something for the adults.

The kids marched in the parade behind the band. They stumbled and tripped over their capes and waved to everyone and no one in particular. Look there, that’s the fellow with the armored suit; I think she’s from that space movie.  There were multiple children with entirely–too-elaborate get-ups that their hobbyist parents had been working on since June, including the six-year-old in the suit the lady wore when she fought the alien in the space movie that’s not the first space movie. (Her father was persuaded to disconnect the wrist-mounted flamethrower after two or three blocks.) Several were dressed as Mister Hamburger. The crowd lining the sidewalks cheered them all on equally. Grown-ups marched, too, but the crowd would throw things if their costume sucked.

Harry and Capolina Gardner lived on Bailey Street in a one-bedroom cottage, and Bailey Street is in what Little Aleppo developers call BeUp, which is an ugly mashing of Below and Upside, and what realtors refer to as Upside-adjacent. Both of those terms mean that Bailey is not on the Upside, but you could see it from there. Technically, the street was just as far from the Downside as it was from the Upside, but no one mentioned that.

Bailey crosses the Main Drag, so Harry and Capolina walked to the intersection to watch the parade. Kids who had overslept sprinted by them to get in on the parading before there was no more parading to be done. One was a spooky ghost in a bedsheet with holes cut out, little son of a bitch, and he ran flat-out into a mailbox. Capolina helped the boy up; he ran off like a wild animal let loose from a trap. A child on Halloween is virtually invulnerable to any physical insult that is not an upset stomach.

Harry was trying not to laugh.

“He could have hurt himself Stop that,” She said.

“It was the sound that got me. WHONG.”

“He hit that thing hard.”

They held hands and passed Mr. Teitelbaum on the sidewalk. It was a cool morning. The sky had bobbins of white, fluffy puffs, moseying across it. At their own pace. And as they drift, their faces change and they melt into themselves and become something else that is made of the same stuff. They passed a pretzel vendor. The storefronts were orange and black and full of plastic skeletons and styrofoam tombstones. They passed Mrs. Teitelbaum.

It was a cool morning, so Capolina had a denim jacket over her light blue scrubs. Her shift at St. Agatha’s started in an hour, and everyone was encouraged to come in costume. (Within reason. For example, it was wrong of Dr. Cho to dress up as the Grim Reaper that year, especially since he’s an oncologist. The surgeons also had to be spoken to, as they became competitive in their costuming and started showing up in bespoke mech suits and it’s tough to perform all but the most basic of surgeries that way.) The cardiology nurses did a group deal each year–all the characters from a movie or the different roles of an actor–and the rest of the staff tried to avoid the cardiology nurses. Capolina worked in the ER, and the urge to dress up was obviated by the possible need to tackle a drunk or intubate a man who’d been impaled by a haddock. But a little makeup and some wolf ears wouldn’t hurt.

“That’s not funny,” Harry said when she came out of the bathroom that morning.

“I don’t complain when you change into a werewolf.”

“You’re mocking me.”

He was standing on the other side of their bed, so she walked across it on her knees and kissed him, but lightly because it she just spent a half-hour doing her makeup.

“I’m honoring you, baby.”

She kissed him again.

“No one will know. It’ll be our little secret. We’ll go to the parade.”

And again.

“And everyone will see me in my werewolf makeup and no one will know. We’ll have a little secret.”

Once more for punctuation, and Harry saw her side of the argument.

“Did I do the makeup  good?”

“I knew you were a werewolf right away.”

“Yeah, but you’re biased.”

The Santa Maria was across the street; they had opened early and pumped up their ovens, shoving the doughy smell out onto the Main Drag, and people who did not plan to have pizza at ten in the morning did. Triangle Billiards was next to the Santa Maria, but it had not opened early. Grandparents looked for the children that belonged to them.

“We should steal one,” she said.

“We don’t have to. I have cash. Why didn’t you tell me you wanted a pretzel?”

“Not a pretzel, a kid,”

“I don’t have enough cash for a kid. Not a kid you’d want.”

“They’re free if you steal them. That’s why I said we should steal one.”

They clapped and yelled “WOO” at the children.

“Right, but then after you steal them, you have to feed them.”

“Not every day,” Capolina said.

“No, no. Every single day.”

“I’ve heard different.”

A spotty river of snotty kids walked by, the marching band fading off to their left.

“I want a kid.”

“Cap, not here.”

A 1961 Lincoln Continental drove by at four miles an hour. The top was down and Draculette was perched up on the trunk like an astronaut in a ticker-tape parade; she was waving and blowing kisses to the crowd while Sheila clutched onto her legs and tried to keep her from sliding off the car onto the blacktop. Precarious had been exuberant with the wax and car’s surface was slick than a hockey rink made of frozen lube. Every couple hundred feet, he jerked the wheel a little and she would skitter half off the car as Sheila anchored her down. Precarious would give her this: she was a pro. Never stopped smiling and waving, even as she hissed at him.

“You did this on purpose!”

“I didn’t. It’s funny, though.”

And he jerked the wheel again. Sheila kicked at the back of his seat. She loved Tiresias, but she wasn’t her sidekick. (Sheila had, on occasions when she thought she wasn’t getting enough attention, pulled out her dick and yelled “This banana does not play second banana!” That move had made her some good friends, actually.) Squiring her around in her movement-inhibiting Draculette dress was fine, but she wasn’t going to going to cavort about as some sort of evil elf, so Sheila was dressed as Billie Jean King. It was either her or Florence Nightingale, but she thought her ass looked better in tennis whites than in nurse’s whites. It turned out not to matter, as whenever she was standing next to Draculette that whole day, everyone said, “Ooh, you’re an evil tennis player.”

It wasn’t anything she couldn’t put up with, especially since Tiresias had started paying her. Draculette had been doing a lot of local commercials, and half the time that she told the audience that she’d be right back, she actually was. Rama-Tut paid top dollar for a three-minute live spot during the Late Show. It was an Egyptian place on Lakeview Street that puts its reviews in the window. Selected quotes read “This is not Egyptian food.” and “I grew up right outside of Cairo, and I have no idea what this is.” and “Why is there won-ton soup?” Tiresias hated doing the ads live. She didn’t see why she had to do more work just because she was being given more money. It wasn’t fair, dammit.

No matter that she wasn’t a good fit for some of the sponsors. Bugsy’s Barn hired her to do commercials, too, but they let her pre-tape them. Bugsy’s was one of those children’s restaurants with the animatronic characters and video games. When the place opened, the robot puppets were bears and mice and friendly creatures like that, but Bugsy got sued and redecorated. He took his nickname into consideration and now giant dung beetles and funnel spiders ratchet back and forth while kids eat chicken wings. Tiresias didn’t see the appeal. She couldn’t even go into the place; he first visit in, she took one look at the seven-foot tall soldier ant lip syncing an off-brand happy birthday song and sprinted for the door. She took their money, anyway.

There was no money in the ad she’d been doing the past two weeks: Terror at The Tahitian! A live (undead?) appearance by Draculette herself judging a costume contest, plus a scary movie. Oh, and a big table in the lobby selling merch and where she’d pose for photos for ten bucks a pop after the show. A girl likes a full house, and so just about every segment had included a plug. When Paul Loomis, Jr., KSOS owner, forbid her from making doing any more free ads for herself, she let Count Fang do them. (Count Fang was a bat, and her ex-husband.)

Precarious could not longer hear the marching band ahead of them, and the crowds had thinned away. He tapped on the gas pedal and Sheila had to grab Tiresias’ ankles to save her from sliding off the back of the car.

He adjusted his Groucho glasses and took the long way back to the teevee station. When they got back, they decided that drinking before the big show was a bad idea, so they only had wine.

The Main Drag opened back up after the parade, but only for a few hours. When the sun went down, the cops barricaded the ends and locals parked their cars across the lanes at the intersections. The neighborhood wandered up and down, and in and out of bars. (The only bar not open was the Morning Tavern. They used to stay open for Halloween night, but all the patrons would just stick around from that morning and by midnight or so, everyone was so ripshit that they’d be throwing tables.) The older kids were out, toilet-papering each other. Beer Can Ethel was dressed as a pirate and doing brisk business on tallboys of Arrow; she even threw in the brown bag for free. Richie’s Record Bazaar had big speakers out on the sidewalk playing old Motown songs.

The pumpkin outside Harry and Capolina Gardner’s cottage on Bailey Street had a werewolf carved into it. Harry did not think that was funny, either, but he didn’t complain. There’s a lot of women, he thought, that file for divorce if their husband turns lycanthrope; he supposed he could take some jokes. The doorbell went BINGbong, and they answered it together. Capolina grabbed the bucket of candy on the way to the door, and held it out of Harry’s reach.

“For the children.”

“I’m young at heart. Gimme candy.”

“Stop it.”

She opened the door and there was a princess and a football player and a child in a cardboard box.

“Ooh, a princess,” Capoina said, dropping two miniature candy bars in her pillowcase.

“And a football player.”

Two more candies. Harry asked the kid in the cardboard box,

“What are you supposed to be?”

The kid said,

“I’m a cardboard box.”

“You nailed it.”

There was a little round man in a flat cap standing on the sidewalk across the street. Harry thought he looked familiar, and then he shut the door and successfully stole a tiny Snickers from the bucket and when he looked out the window next to the front door, the man was gone.

At the corner of Alfalfa and the Main Drag, Flower Childs stood and watched the crowds mill around her. They all looked familiar.

Gussy put the organist in a gorilla suit (except for the hands) and when he and the grand machine rose from the floor of The Tahitian’s stage, the full house roared. He played the March To The Scaffold, he played the Danse Macabre, he played the Monster Mash, and then KAFLAM! the pyro pots went up and Precarious rolled Tiresias out on her purple Edwardian couch.

Then, everyone waited five minutes while Gussy and Julio and the rest of the employees opened all the doors and fanned the smoke out.

“You have been trying to murder me all day,” Tiresias hissed; she kept her smile, though. Professional.

“I may have used too much powder, yeah.”

Costumed revelers pranced across the stage as the gorilla played the organ. There were supremely attractive people wearing barely any clothes, and supremely confident people wearing even less. Conceptual getups–the guy who dressed as “the feeling you get when you order spaghetti and meatballs, but receive no meatballs” and the woman who came as the Dred Scott Decision–vied with old standards. Couples matched, complemented, argued over who would be the back half of the horse. Several people were dressed as Mister Hamburger, and there was even a Draculette or two.

Tiresias made jokes as they passed, and the crowd cheered and booed in equal measure.

And then it was time for the Feature, and Gussy had picked a good one, a real nightmare pill. A scary movie should get under your skin like ringworm and manifest in dark alleys and half-opened closets from then on. A scary enough movie is a tattoo that only appears under the right light, and Gussy picked a good one. It was the movie with the dread, with the long scenes with a locked-down camera and shadows in the back of the shot that crept and crawled, with the monster around the corner. The monster around the corner is always more frightening than the one you can see.

The crowd shrieked and gasped and jumped; mostly at the movie, but sometimes because the denizens of the balcony were slingshotting goldfish into the orchestra, and when the credits rolled they cheered with lust and held each other in the slowly advancing lights. Draculette was waiting at her merch table as they walked out. Sheila took the cash, and Precarious grabbed the creeps who tried to rub on her during the picture. The line was long, and the last patron did not rejoin the party that was still going on outside until almost midnight and then it was quiet in the lobby of The Tahitian. Gussy was cleaning up.

Draculette disappeared as she slumped back onto the couch and there was Tiresias, in costume just like everyone else that night. She asked Sheila,

“How’d we do?”

“We ain’t broke.”

Sheila held up the overflowing cashbox and the popcorn bucket that she had started putting the money into once the cashbox overflowed.

“Drinks are on me. AAAAHahaha!”

“I could eat,” Sheila said.

“Cheeseburgers are on me, too.”

Precarious rolled Tiresias into Gussy’s office so Sheila could help wrestle the dress off of her. Gussy went into the auditorium and did one last check. Down the right aisle and up the left. All the lights were on and the curtain was drawn before the screen and the organ had retracted into the stage and the room was quiet. She peered around and up each row, and when she got about halfway down, there was an envelope sitting on a seat in the middle of the row. She waded in and picked it up. The envelope was unsealed. She opened it and found a letter which read

“TONIGHT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH FUN – THE J OF I”

Out on the Main Drag, the party continued. The music blared and no one would get any sleep until November. No one was who they said they were; they were upfront about; the lies were brazen and celebrated for their outlandishness. It was Halloween, and everyone was taking candy from strangers in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

How Do You Take It In Little Aleppo?

Europeans were not introduced to coffee until the 17th century, which makes their accomplishments prior to that far more notable. Building the cathedral of Notre Dame is impressive, but doing it without coffee is heroic. And that’s disregarding the labor, hauling the stones and hoisting the beams: how did they draw up the blueprints without it? That is tedious, fidgety, erase-and-start-again type work; it is coffee work. Novelists and poets drink wine, but draftsmen and engineers drink coffee. The car you drive, the house you fuck in, all your gadgety gadgets: products of coffee, every one.

The Victory Diner served it too hot, poured by waitresses who called you hon; the milk came from a battered creamer and the packets of sugar were already at the table when you sat down, and the packets of non-sugar, too. Or you could get it to-go in a thick paper cup adorned with Hellenism. Blue with a white lip and bottom, and circumscripted with buttfuckers in Phrygian caps. Farmer’s Market, which was a bodega with a dodgy produce selection, still had styrofoam cups topped with flimsy plastic lids. “Bad for the environment,” Little Aleppians would say, and “Someone should ban those” as they enjoyed the material’s thermal properties. Nero’s, which was on the Upside, served a Turkish blend in demitasse cups after dinner; Seafood & Spaghetti, which was on the Downside, served a product called Joe!, which tasted almost mostly like coffee, in shoplifted mugs that the customers brought with them.

Mundy’s was your best bet. It was the only place in the neighborhood that did not view coffee as commodity, as fungible, as means to jittery end. There were beans of both the Arabica and Robusta variety; there were also Madagascara beans, too, which had been passed through the digestive system of a ring-tailed lemur. Various espressi could be produced. Cappuccino and frappuccino; sappuccino contained a shot of maple syrup. Bitter Americanos, sweet Cubanos, forgettable Belgianos. There were iced concoctions that combined sugar and caffeine in delicious and expensive ways. Mundy’s did not have a liquor license, but a raised eyebrow and two bucks would give your drink a brogue.

Unless you called it a coffee shop.

“Coffee shop? Coffee shop? Do you see donuts and formica? Are we in an Edward Hopper painting? Does the chipped porcelain tell you stories of lost love?”

Mundial Proft, who was known as Mundy, was particular about language.

“This is a coffeehouse. As in the place that gave birth to the Enlightenment, and America. Coffee shops give birth to bad poems and stab wounds.”

And then she’d throw you out. Don’t call it a coffee shop.

The coffeehouse was a half-block east of the Main Drag across Spants Street from Harper College. The road used to be known as Picador Way, but was renamed to honor the long-time Dean and his wife after they passed away. A Harper alum, Mundy was all in favor of it–some of the organizing meetings about getting the name changed were held at her place–she loved the Dean and his wife Molly just as much as anyone. She was, however, not fond of saying “Spants Street.” The phrase didn’t roll off the tongue so much as bounce off the teeth. She liked the sign. High up on a lamppost overlooking the intersection with yellow letters on a blue background. Officially, the colors were gold and cerulean, but Little Aleppians knew gold and blue when they saw them.

By mid-morning, the newspapers would be piled up on the long shelf by the door. Early birds are whirleybirds; they gotta know everything, they’re a part of the action; real hard charger types. Mundy thought of them as the overly-employed. This group purchased the newspapers. Hours later, pajama’d students and adults with no visible means of support would stumble in to sit over lattes for an hour. This group read the newspapers. It was the circle of life. The gambling gazette, and the international broadsheet, and the daily pamphlet in which Hollywood sniped at one another, and the sports digest, and USA Today. No one knew who brought USA Today–the Broadside Newsstand did not even carry it–but it appeared every day when Mundy wasn’t looking. She tossed it in the trash when she saw it. She felt the colored graphs mocked her.

On the other side of the door was a triangular stage. It was only six inches off the ground, more of a symbolic platform than a literal one. When you stood on it, people treated you like you were on stage, and that was good enough. It was Open Mic Night every Monday–Mondays at Mundy’s, the show was called–and it was the openest mic in the neighborhood. Flautists and poets and Balancin’ Phil, the Man Who Rarely If Ever Toppled Over. (Phil was a genius. He could not fall down for hours, man.) Tap dancing was infrequent, but expected. A variety of nudities had been displayed: artistic, aggressive, accidental. No one won and no one lost; it was not a talent contest, it was Open Mic Night.

Communists met at the corner table every Friday at four, until they had an internal schism and then met Tuesdays at five and Fridays at four. The Flat Earth Society also had a regular table, one that they quickly came to believe was spherical. Students for a Year-Round Carnival often gathered to share a drink and say, “Dude, imagine you could ride the Cyclotron anytime you wanted” to each other; they would bring their own cotton candy with them. Outside food was not permitted, but Mundy would let it slide if they gave her some. The Melchiorites met Thursdays in the afternoon. They were pale and plainly hiding wings underneath the trench coats they would not remove. Mundy left the Melchiorites alone. Two old men, neither of whom were Rappaport, played chess under a large painting that had its price tag affixed to its corner.

All the art was for sale. Ridiculous prices. A grand for the cubist rendering of a pair of swinging testicles. Eight hundred bucks for the brown splotches fighting the purple lines. Twenty thousand–no kidding–for a canvas with a thin layer of rose paint covering it entitled “Painting #41.” Those were the asking prices. Offer $50, and you could own yourself some art. Mundy would fill in the space on the wall with another local’s painting and make up a silly price for it, too.

The music would scandalize none, and tantalize fewer.

None of the chairs matched, not one, which the math department of Harper College had determined was statistically impossible. There were only so many kinds of chair, they told Mundy. She shrugged. Our findings, they said, have been reviewed by our peers. Mundy shrugged again, and asked if they were going to order anything or just stand around arguing with reality. We are mathematicians, they responded; we can do both at the same time.

In the afternoons, the writers came in. Filthy little beasts, Mundy thought. Self-obsessed hunchbacks worrying themselves bald over where to put the commas. What’s worse: they were lingerers. Buy a cookie at two and still sitting there at five. The price for giving people a place to stay is that sometimes they stayed there. The Frantic Month of Junior Lapps, which was turned into a hit movie, was written at that table right there. Shake It Like Sunday, which was the impetus behind four lawsuits and two murders, was written over there. Several poets had threatened suicide at that table.

First dates, too, and sometimes people would come in to read their divorce papers over a cappuccino. Men who had lost their jobs and could not tell their wives would sit quietly all day, buying something small every hour, on the hour, in cash. The friendless would come in to sit near others’ conversations. Actors read their sides and con men put up fronts. Itinerant bandleaders wandered in with trombones and cornets to sell. Great debates broke out, and incredibly stupid ones. The baristas were either not speaking to one another or fucking; there was no middle ground.

One day, a boy with curly hair came in with a guitar. He didn’t have a strap for it; he stole a matchbook, ripped off the cover, bent it double to make a pick. His voice was too old for his body–he sang from his asshole–and he kept his eyes closed most of the time. No one got the name of the song, but it was about death and ice cream. It had a hell of a chorus. When he was finished, all the girls wanted to fuck him. The boys, too, but they would deny it. The boy with the curly hair had his knee perched up on a stool and his guitar resting on his thigh, and the applause came towards him. He dodged some of it. Then he played Louie Louie.

Revolution was always in the air at Mundy’s coffeehouse, but it never seemed to land.

Mundial Proft, who was known as Mundy, had always wanted a coffeehouse. An open-door kind of place. A say what you want kind of place. With big steaming machinery that hissed and popped and spit out caffeinated beverages and a little stage in the corner. Everybody’s got a dream. She used to have a husband with a mustache and a temper and a great big life insurance policy, and now she had a coffeehouse with a little stage in the corner on Spants Street, which is right off the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Government Work In Little Aleppo

The Town Fathers were not stabbing each other in the back, but only because the conference room had a metal detector. There had been incidents. In 1916, a Town Father named Cornelius Amberforth cane-whipped Barnstable Undercock into a coma. Jimmy Harms went nuts with a machete at a budget meeting in ’43; he said he was cutting taxes. Francie Bulmanny shot the other four Town Fathers in 1979 during the debate over building a minor-league baseball stadium. They were for it; in her defense, it was fiscally irresponsible. Now, there were patdowns and wandings. Little Aleppo’s politicians were well-protected from themselves.

Something had to be done. What, precisely, was only known to the Lord or their donors (not in that order) but something had to be done. A serial arsonist? Leaving notes like some sort of comic book villain? Something had to be done, and loudly. The Town Fathers needed to make a huge racket out of the something. They had held a meeting and hoped that would be enough, but it was not: locals prowled Town Hall wailing and terrified, and civilian watch groups formed all over the neighborhood. These led, obviously, to turf battles. The Cenotaph had published several cartoons in which the Town Fathers were depicted as ostriches with their heads in the sand, or possums playing dead. Something had to be done, and they were going to do it just as soon as they figured out what it was.

Big Bobby Barr said,

“I say we offer a reward f’r the sumbitch. Get the community involved in a l’il self-policin’.”

He was drunk, but he was that stupid when he was sober, too.

“Folks know. Gotta trust the folks, folks. They’re some smart fuckers. I bet a bunch of ’em got hunches. What we gotta do here is incentivize those hunches. Wouldn’t even need t’be that much. Couple hundred bucks oughta do it.”

“No, we’re not doing that,” Anetta Housell said.

She said that to everything. Anetta believed that the government that governed least governed best, so therefore the government that governed at all governed worst. She had judgmental posture and enormous hair; her fingers were interlaced on the table in front of her. Big Bobby’s cowboy boots were also up on the table. The people’s money belonged to the people, Anetta believed–with the exception of her salary, which she voted to increase every year–and the government belonged out of their business. Creeping socialism. It was everywhere, Anetta warned no matter how many times you asked her to stop. She was an individualist who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and never asked for a handout, she told attendees at fundraisers. She had a simple crucifix hanging around her neck. Big Bobby also had a crucifix, but Jesus had diamonds for eyes on his.

“Oh, why the hell not?”

“It’s not in the budget.”

“Emergency funds,” Big Bobby said.

“An emergency has not been officially declared. Therefore, no emergency funds.”

“Aw, shit, I’ll pay it myself.”

“No. Charter code 13.22-g. No Town Father shall use his or her own money to foment vigilantism.”

“Woman, we’re not talkin’ ’bout the law here. We’re talkin’ ’bout politics.”

“They are interdependent.”

“And I’m interdependent with my asshole, but I don’t let it rule the roost.”

Sandy Hereford said,

“Can we not talk about assholes, please?

Sandy Hereford had aspirational posture. Beauty queen posture, which makes sense; she had been Miss Little Aleppo as a teenager. Her talent was tanning. It took several weeks , and many tanks of stomped-upon urine, but eventually she produced a lovely and supple pair of leather trousers. The judges admired her perseverance as much as anything else. This single-mindedness propelled her to Town Hall, and also to the Valentine Courthouse. Sandy Hereford was quite sure that the right way to make a living was lying to others. She had sold lottery tickets from countries that did not exist, stock from companies that did not exist, real estate that did not exist. It was their fault for believing me, Sandy thought. The court rarely agreed, and she was wearing an ankle monitor that beeped randomly. She was awaiting trial for her latest scam, which was a Ponzi scheme based around the market price of formica.

“It was a metaphorical anus, darlin’.”

“And let’s leave the word ‘anus’ out of it entirely?”

“My friends. My friiiiiiiennnnnnds.”

No one knew how old Bartholomew Porridge was, least of all Bartholomew. “I was born ‘fore they started paying attention to what year it was,” he would answer if you asked him. If you asked anyone else, they would say, “Like, a million? Around a million billion years old?” And they would be right, except for the numbers. No matter: he was beloved in Little Aleppo. Barty (everyone called him Barty) was our link to the past, locals thought even if he didn’t remember much of it. An unbroken chain to the old days, people said of him; Barty had attended several lynchings.

“We have a scared populace. Means we ought be scared, too.”

He leaned forward. His wrist swam in his sleeve and his hand was just tendon and skin.

“We need, my friends, to come up with some sort of plan. Don’t even matter what, not really. Cops are doing what they do, fire department’s doing what it does. I have faith in our first responders, except for the cops, and they’re the best to handle this little firebug fellow. But we have to do something, too. A show of strength. We gotta show this neighborhood that we’re on it.”

Big Bobby Barr tilted his silver flask straight up for a two-count. Wiped his lip. Put the flask back in his jacket. Exhaled deeply and said,

“How?”

“We could round up the Japanese.”

“That’s your suggestion for everything,” Big Bobby said.

“Well, fine. Who do you suggest we round up?”

“Nobody, Barty. We ain’t roundin’ up nobody.”

“It’s a robust action! Shows we’re taking the offensive.”

“Nobody’s gettin’ rounded up.”

Barty made a sound like “Plfeh” and sat back in his chair, annoyed.

“Whole world’s gone pussy.”

“Mr. Porridge. Watch your language, please,” Sandy Hereford said.

“Ah, bite me, jailbird.”

It was raining outside. 18 days had gone by, and it was raining outside. Umberto Clamme had doubled the prices of his umbrellas, but still did brisk business on the Main Drag. Some scurried under the drops, and others walked: optimism versus fatalism. Little Aleppo loved the rains for the break they brought, except the kids. The kids still had to go to school, but their day was full of substitutes and movies; the teacher’s union had negotiated into the contract that calling in sick when it rained only counted as half a sick day. Locals who owned motorcycles canceled appointments, and so did those who walked. Car owners canceled, too, but they had to come up with lies.

There was a nylon pagoda set up at the Broadside Newsstand on Gower Avenue. It was temporary, but not flimsy. Omar shook it to test its stability after Sally Moon set it up in the morning.

“I resent this,” Omar said.

“Boof,” Argus added.

Omar owned the Broadside. Argus was a dog. Sally Moon was a large gentleman, but one of the smaller ones. He watched over Omar and the Broadside on Tuesdays and Fridays, when they drew the Mother Mary. The Mother Mary was Little Aleppo’s lottery, and the winning numbers were the last three digits of the newsstand’s take on Tuesday and Friday. Sally Moon stood there and looked threatening. He made people feel secure in their investments. The math department at Harper College had proven–to nine or ten decimal points–that fixing the Mother Mary was impossible, but locals preferred a big guy standing by the cash register over math any day. The Mother Mary was Tuesday and Friday. It rained every 18 days. This meant that it rained on a Mother Mary day two or three times a year. Omar bitched every time.

“A man should not sit out in the rain like a beast.”

“Boof.”

“We are better than this. We have built great cities. We have visited the moon. And still I sit out here like a fucking orangutan in a drizzle.”

“Boof.”

“Do you hear that? Do you hear how unhappy Argus is? Tell him, Argus.”

“Boof.”

The pagoda was technically a hunting blind. Sally Moon had bought it from Ambercock & Sons, the sporting goods store on the Main Drag, and it was camouflage: dark green against neutral green against light green. Omar had made Sally buy it. On the days when it rained that were not Mother Mary days, Omar did not open the Broadside Newsstand at all. He had been raised in a drier climate. Rain was for mushrooms and Noah, Omar thought. Argus did not think that rain was for mushrooms and Noah, but only because he was a dog and unfamiliar with fungus and the Old Testament. He did, however, not like the rain one tiny little fucking bit. The two or three times a year that Omar forced him to leave their apartment when it was raining were traumatic experiences and Argus complained the entire day.

“Mrrrraaaaah.”

“Oh, shut up. No one’s happy. You’re not special.”

“Boof.”

The pagoda was four-sided. Two of the sides (facing the cash register and the shelves) were open and the other two (facing the street and the sidewalk) were closed. Omar sat on his stool in his sweater and kufi. He had a puffy jacket with elastic sleeves on; he had been told it was maroon. Argus was on his latest mattress against the wall under the register, as far away from the rain as possible. Sally had neither a stool nor a mattress, so he stood there in his checked blazer and black slacks and looked large. He had stepped in a puddle earlier, and his sock had not dried yet. He was unhappy, and felt as though he were not special.

A man finished his browsing, and came to pay for his magazine.

“Omar.”

“Gary the Pervert.”

“Angus.”

“Boof.”

Gary the Pervert did not acknowledge Sally Moon, and vice versa.

Gary handed Omar the latest copy of Feetfuckers. Three women were on the cover. They had six feet. Omar handed it back.

“Four bucks,” Omar said, and Gary gave over four singles.

Omar slipped the bills under Argus’ nose to see if they were counterfeit.

“Boof.”

They weren’t. The register went CHING and the singles went in the slot all the way to the right and then the drawer shut CHANG and before Omar could look up, Gary the Pervert had gone. Most likely to take a whack at himself where people could see him; Gary liked unwitting accomplices to his masturbation. Omar did not feel responsible. The vast majority of people can handle their pornographies, he thought. He sold art magazines, too, expensive and incomprehensible and quarterly, and celebrity mags and a shelf full of news and analysis and deeply-pondered essays; the porn sold better.

Locals had come by in the morning for the Cenotaph, and after that it was just those playing the Mother Mary and weirdos. Sally Moon dealt with the Mother Mary. Give the big man a dollar, two, five; tell him your number. Sally didn’t need to write anything down. It wasn’t out of fear of leaving evidence–several cops, some in uniform, stopped by the Broadside every Tuesday and Friday–but out of style. Criminals these days were slackbodies, Sally thought. Shine your shoes and don’t take notes. Do the wrong thing the right way.

Omar dealt with the weirdos.

“Leibowitz!”

A man stood at the far end of the shelves, copying the latest issue of Cat Fancy into a notebook.

“I’m almost done!”

“Buy the magazine! Not a library!”

“The future has to know what happened here!”

“I kicked your ass, that’s what happened here if you keep this shit up!”

Leibowitz scurried away like a beetle.

Omar turned to Sally, approximately.

“How long was he there? You don’t want to say nothing?”

Sally said nothing, looked down at Argus.

“You got anything to say for yourself?”

“Boof.”

The windows of the Victory Diner are fogged up and you cannot see in or out: the grill does not care; it produces cheeseburgers and pancakes anyway. There are three umbrellas just inside the door of the bookstore with no title. They are laying on the floor made of maple planks in the same place that they always rest every 18 days; the wood is warped and funky in that spot. Children leap into the air and down FWAP into puddles as their irritated parents pulls them along. A blind man, a mute man, and a dog on Gower Avenue argue, in their own way.

“My friends. My distinguished friends. How can we argue now? How can we fight? Little Aleppo needs us. Yes, need. There comes a time when the authorities must step in. For the greater good. For the general welfare. There is, as the Honorable Mr. Porridge reminds us, fear sizzling upon the Main Drag.”

The fifth Town Father rose from his seat at the table. His suit was immaculate: midnight blue with charcoal pinstripes, and his umber tie had a Windsor knot. They were at the Crisis Table: it was ten feet in diameter and had a scale model of the entire neighborhood built onto its top. Sometimes when Big Bobby Barr was sloshed in a particular way, he would borrow his kids’ toys and stage tiny military invasions. Raggedy Whoever steps on The Tahitian BOOM! G.I. Whatshisfuck shoots his bazooka into the high school BASHOOM! The cleaning staff would generally find Big Bobby asleep on the floor the next morning.

“Mr. Barr, you made such a wonderful point,” the fifth Town Father said, putting his hand on Big Bobby’s meaty shoulder.

“I know.”

“Of course you do. Community involvement. This is the key. Fear can so quickly turn to panic, but it can also be funneled into positivity. Not into vigilantism, but into vigilance.”

The tall man continued around the table and stood over Annetta Housell. He leaned in from his waist, solicitously.

“And we all know that Ms. Housell is correct. We have been given a sacred honor. The power of the purse. Not to be taken lightly! Every dollar–every cent!–belongs to the people. Not to us. We must guard against any foolish expenditure, no matter how necessary it seems at the time.”

“Well said,” Anetta nodded. She had spent the day in the Town Fathers’ hot tub, which was custom-made of obsidian and carbon fiber, with lapis lazuli inlays.

“I appreciate the support. And our leader! Our great man! The elder statesman of our humble group! Mr. Porridge.”

“I told you to call me Barty.”

“And I told you that I would never dare.”

The fifth Town Father had a pale shaved head that was almost perfectly rectangular. He put both hands on Barty’s shoulders. Barty reached up and went patpatpat.

“Good boy,” Barty said.

“I agree with Mr. Porridge. In spirit, not in specifics. I believe we might leave our Japanese brothers and sisters alone for the moment, but there is something to be said for a hunt. My distinguished colleagues, we need a bad guy.”

There was murmuring and chitchat as the man walked behind Sandy Hereford. He was barefoot.

“And Ms. Hereford is correct. We should avoid the word ‘anus’ during meetings.”

Having made his way around the table, the man sat down and smiled. He had too many teeth.

“Whatcha suggestin’, Slim?”

Mr. Leopard despised Big Bobby Barr and his nicknames, but his smile never faltered.

“A distraction, Mr. Barr. Without a target to aim their ire at, our neighbors will lash out indiscriminately. Chaos will jam its spurs in. But if there is a task…”

“You sayin’ we send the neighborhood on a wild goose chase?”

Mr. Leopard laced his hand together as in prayer and his smile was bulletproof.

“Not a goose. A werewolf.”

All the trees in the Verdance looked downtrodden. The rain beat down on their leaves, and there were no teenage drug deals on the benches. In Harper Zoo, all the animals refused to come out from the roofed portions of their enclosures except for the anteater, who was too stupid to know it was raining. The Morning Tavern was packed, and Anatoly’s American luncheonette was empty. It was the day of the rains, it was the day of the Mother Mary, it was the day of a fateful suggestion in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Delivery In Little Aleppo

It was a bad idea to piss off the pizza boys. Undertipping, not tipping, kidnapping; prank calls, bear traps, mean dogs: all terrible plans. The pizza boys talked. Not just amongst themselves, but to the Chinese delivery guy and the florist and the cable techs, and the postal workers and paperboys, too. Having things brought to your house was a privilege, the pizza boys thought. Thousands of years of human history rolled along without the ability to summon dinner–as if by magic!–to your front door. Louis XVI was a rich and powerful dude, but even he couldn’t get a half-pepperoni/half-onion delivered. And if he could, the pie would not be hot when it got to Versailles, as the materials needed for the insulated bag hadn’t been invented. Little Aleppo, the pizza boys thought, was living in a Golden Age of convenience. And it had better be fucking thankful of the fact.

Cagliostro’s, Vafunculo’s, and the Santa Maria. Home base. Touch the bag and turn around, do it again, do it again, do it again. A dozen runs on a slow night, twice that again every 18 days when it rained. Going to the Downside stood a chance of getting robbed; all the rich people on the Upside were weird perverts, and sometimes cheap. The pizza boys did not pick their customers. You took the next order up, and that’s it. It was zen. Or stoicism. One of those. Bit Player was not versed in foreign philosophies. She didn’t give a shit about domestic ones, either.

Tiburon. Ooh, that was her shit. Not into the mainline. Intramuscular and then it would spread through her, radiating out from the injection site even though that’s not how it works. She didn’t care, she could feel it, she knew her own body better than any damned textbook (textbooks were tools of the patriarchy, anyway) and the neighborhood would shrink-wrap itself around her occipital lobe like vacuum-packed plastic, her brain would take the shape of the streets and the stairwells and running down the middle like a skunk stripe was the Main Drag in flaming red and green and blinking blinking blinking right in between the balls and lids of her eyes. Bit hated the name. Tiburon.

“It sounds like a fake drug from a hack novel,” she said to Lucy Twigg, who sold it.

“No discounts,” said Lucy.

Stay on the bike. In and out of Cagliostro’s on Robin Street. If you got hooked into their bullshit, that kitchen bullshit, that grabass bullshit, then you weren’t making money and you weren’t moving forward. Stay on the bike. Avoid the dining room; there are large gentlemen in there having discussions you should not hear. Stay on the bike. Don’t go in the bar; it was full of out-of-work henchmen and twitchy supplicants. Stay on the bike.

It was a Stalwart N60, which was a rebadged version of the Zhanghui L40, which was a ripoff of the Honda Super Cub. Years before, the large gentlemen who frequent Cagliostoro’s happened upon a truckload of them. But they couldn’t sell any of them: the Stalwart is an underbone, with the engine and gas tank tucked up under the seat, which you stepped through the body to access. Little Aleppians knew a scooter when they saw one. What if someone on a real motorcycle saw you? They would point, locals thought, and laugh. What if people started called you Scooter? That was completely out of the question. It was a hard pass for the Stalwarts, and so the large gentlemen gave them to the pizza boys, and dumped them for pennies to the other pizzerias.

The frames remained. The gas tanks were the first to go–they tended to leak and then catch fire–replaced by rubber bladders that would not puncture in a crash; the shocks were upgraded after that. Stalwart N60 did not naturally climb stairs or take curbs at 30 mph, so the shocks were upgraded. Of course, the brakes needed improvement and then the 48 cc single-stroke engines were swapped out for 62 cc inchers–that’s raw power, baby–and thick knobby tires were required to climb the Segovian Hills and do donuts in the Verdance . But the frames remained.

PUTTAPUTTAPUTTA all around the neighborhood all day and late into the night. The pizza boys on their bikes were crickets. They were the noises we turn into silence.

Bit Player did not remember what she had been before she was a pizza boy. She felt herself birthed for one task. Get it there hot; take the cash; do it again. And the bike. She took care of the bike. Degreased certain parts, greased others. The timing on the engine was 4 degrees below top dead center. She installed an electronic ignition and bought a keychain with a bitchin’ skull on it. The chain was exposed and the brake lines were, too. No splash guards or facings were left on the bike at all; it was its own skeleton. One day, someone else would ride it. Pizza boys can be replaced, but bikes cost money. Bit would fuck off to jail or grad school, but the bike would shepherd pies up and down the Main Drag until the wheels came off, but until that day it was hers. And it was a she.

And she was named Throttlebottom.

“Ride on, Throttlebottom,” Bit whispered to the bike every time she started her up. The other pizza boys were starting to whisper about Bit.

She took the next order up. You take the next order up, and you take care of your bike. Rules to being a pizza boy. She took the next order up: five pies for 8763 McAllister Avenue, which was not an avenue at all but a tiny little nook of a street halfway up Mount Fortitude, which was the second of the seven Segovian Hills. (If you were counting left to right.) She took the pile of boxes and Banticcio grabbed her ass. She ignored him and walked out the kitchen door to the back alley where Throttlebottom leaned on her kickstand. Banticcio slid a mushroom calzone into the wide-mouthed oven and waited for more ass to grab.

The pies just fit into the insulated carrier on the back of the bike. Red on the outside with Cagliostro’s number on the sides, grey and shiny on the inside. Time went slower in there, Bit thought. The return to homeostasis was more drawn out. Inside the carrier was a glide; outside was a plunge towards lukewarmth. Reality will insist on entropy unless you pull a knife on it.

The keychain had bitchin’ skulls all over it. The key’s berth was below her right ass cheek; she slid it in by feel and the Stalwart went REEEEEeeeePUTTAPUTTA when she gave her gas with her right hand, slowly; the bike had a two-speed transmission that took its orders from her left foot. She could go low or she could go high. The tiburon slapped her head around, it said “go, go, go” and there was a magpie eating rotten olives from the dumpster. 8763 McAllister. Bit Player knew where that was.

The black cab drivers in London had The Knowledge; the pizza boys in Little Aleppo knew where everything was without the need for pretentious capitalization. Bit saw the whole neighborhood from above, and she could zoom in and out by blinking. There was a blinking route in her eyes. Not the shortest distance, but the most efficient. She felt like Pac-Man. Ms. Pac-Man. The pellets go that way, so follow the line of pellets. Bit Player could not tell Colorado from Wyoming, and she always got the little dinky states Back East confused with one another, but she knew every brick of her home. She did not know Little Aleppo’s history, and she did not care: Bit knew where everything was, and that was more than most. In general, people don’t know where they came from or where they are. Bit Player knew where she was.

The alley led to Robin Street; she wheeled out carefully onto the sidewalk and then the street. The sun had fallen and Throttlebottom had an oversized light on her front fork, wide as a catcher’s glove, as Bit cranked the handle which made the two-stroke stroke faster and she hit 20 mph in 500 feet SHVEEEE she braked and threw her tail out to make the left turn onto the Main Drag. She rode into opposing traffic for a block, two, and then there was an opening and she VREEEE squirted into the right lane all the way to the side, skimming the mirrors of the parked cars with her handlebars. Mile up, two, to the Upside where the lawns were so green and dogshit-free. She passed The Tahitian. Bit didn’t like movies; they took too long. Sharp right onto Dudley Way. Town Hall was on her left and she squeezed the throttle downwards and accelerated along the empty pavement. No one parked on the street on the Upside except tradesman in their vans and it was nighttime so the vans were not there. The Upside kept its cars in the garage. Bit Player whizzed by basketball hoops and abandoned toys that would be there in the morning. Down to first gear for the climb up Fortitude. Mount Fortitude had a 100-foot tall antenna at its apex: it blasted out the sounds of KHAY and the sights of KSOS; Dudley Way went all the way up. The Main Drag to the antenna. A charity road race ran the route once a year to raise money for Childhood Threnody until locals looked up threnody in the dictionary and figured out it wasn’t a disease.

The road ripped and bubbled, switchbacks and hairpins and needle-sharp turns. Bit was wearing a football helmet. The colors were officially cerulean and gold, but she knew they were blue and yellow. Go Blue Oxen. It was a punter’s helmet, with only the one crossbar in front of her face. Her jeans ended right below her knees and her boots were big and black. Lean left here, and the road goes up. There are evergreens and pine; there is sage and brush; the sky is eaten up by the trees and so is the light. She sees it all in her head, behind her eyelids when she blinks. She knows the route. The bike knows the way to carry the sleigh. Bit leans into her, reduces her drag, her elbows are in and Throttlebottom fights against gravity and the grade and propels the pizzas upwards. There is no more north, east, south, whatever: just up and down, left and right, and so she turns right.

A movie star turn: hard on the brakes, and then her right foot down on the blacktop while the bike makes the 90 degree swivel below her and she’s back on and PUTTAPUTTA up McAllister, which is pitch-black. There is a sheer drop to her right and a broken cliff face to her left. People have carved their homes into the mountain. 8763 was the fifth house. Bit had counted back at Cagliostro’s. She counted now as she drove by the semi-hidden driveways and squealed her wheels upwards onto the fifth driveway. There was no gate. Some of these fuckers had gates. She hated the fuckers with gates.

The house was modern and had too many windows. A man was standing in the open front door. He was smiling the smile rich people use with the help. Bit Player slid the five pies out and brought them to him, along with the bill. Seventy bucks. He handed her a hundred and said,

“I always expect you guys to have samurai swords on your bikes.”

“No. That story’s a technological dystopia set in the future. You’re in an idealized past. With magic.”

“Pity.”

“Threnody.”

“Keep the change.”

She did. The Stalwart was still running; she was named Throttlebottom and Bit stepped through her and onto the seat and revved the engine with her right hand. She planted her big, black boot in the gravel of the driveway and spun the bike around and she was back on McAllister with the cliff on her right and a drop on her left. Touch the bag and turn around, do it again, do it again, do it again. Take the next order up. Stay on the bike. Bit Player was a pizza boy, and she knew where she was in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Head Games In Little Aleppo

Cannot Swim could not name his surroundings. This was new to him. He knew all the animals in the woods around his village–the bear and the deer and the shrike–and the trees that the animals lived within. He could tell trout from salmon in the lake, and he knew the stars in the sky. The Pulaski had constellations just like the Greeks did. Different patterns, different names, same stories. Heroic archers. The beasts. Gods and their attendants. Demons who were sights of woe. Cannot Swim knew what everything in his world was, or at least he had until he entered Watts’ Dry Goods.

Tools. He knew that most of what he was looking at were tools. He could imagine what the shovel was for, and the pick, but they floated there free of linguistic tether and Cannot Swim could not pin them down in his brain. Perhaps if he had been presented with only one new item, a lone addition to his universe, then he would be taking it better, but the entire room was without name and confusing and out of context. Worked metal. The Pulaski did not work metal into useful shapes, and so Cannot Swim was unused to processing the way the light gleamed off of worked metal and he stared like a virgin into a disco ball at the shovels and the picks, and so much else he did not comprehend and could not name. Greasy black mechanisms and angry halberds and shallow pans, and he had no idea why any of it existed. He reached into his satchel and pulled out several peregrine leaves, jammed them all into his mouth at once.

Talks To Whites was talking to a White.

“Hundred rounds. One rifle.

“600, Mr. Watts. 600 rounds and six rifles.”

“Can’t do it, Peter.”

Talks To Whites was known to the Whites as Peter. Mostly because that’s how he introduced himself.

“I have the gold.”

“Ain’t a question of the gold. I sell you all that ammunition, what’s to keep you and your savage brothers and sisters from coming in here and massacring all us decent Christians?”

“Quite a few things would keep us from that. First, there’s the fact that we don’t want to do that.”

“So you say,” Mr. Watts said. He was wearing a bowler hat, and his shirt had no collar. Suspenders and gray trousers. Boots red and brown from the mud of the thoroughfare. C—–a City was a new town in gold boom California, and so the thoroughfare was not paved. It was also not paved because it was 18– and paving would not be invented until the 1920’s.

“What if I promise?”

“An Indian’s word to a White man is as useless as a Chinaman’s prick. Your aggressive ways are known to all in this great land.”

“We’re gonna shoot animals with the bullets.”

“And now the White man is an animal to you!?”

“Not what I meant. Actual animals.”

“Peter, I refer you to the Lord, who is named Jesus Christ and died for one of your sins,” Mr. Watt said. He pointed towards a crucifix hanging on the wall. Around two feet tall, carved from one piece of oak.

“Right, Jesus, yeah. What about Him?”

“Look at him! Look hard. Who does He look like, me or you?”

Talks To Whites, whom the Whites called Peter, peered at the Christ. He had long hair that ran free and a pronounced nose.

“He looks way more like me than you.”

Mr. Watt had pale eyes and a weak chin and was six inches shorter than Talks To Whites. He squinted his eyes at the crucifix on the wall.

“Doesn’t.”

“Totally does.”

“That particular crucifix is blasphemous.”

“You’re just moving the goalposts all around here, man.”

Watts spit a goober of tobacco PING into the dull bronze spittoon. The floor was stained with old spittle and wet with new all around the container’s base. Cannot Swim heard the unfamiliar noise and wandered over to the counter where the two men were negotiating. He leaned over the spittoon, head directly about its mouth and SPEEYOOOO dropped a slimy leaf-loogie that looked like a green comet, fat head and thick tail, into the receptacle. Wiped his lip. Straightened up. Put his hands on his hips. Smiled like a goon.

“What’s wrong with your boy, Peter?”

“He’s fine.”

“He ain’t. I’ll kick his ass outta my shop, he don’t start acting civilized. I know it’s beyond you people, but he can fuckin’ fake it for a minute while we do business.”

Talks To White’s father was also known as Talks To Whites, but his family name was High Noon. The Pulaski were happy to live well away from whatever that new thing they were calling “America” was, but they needed rifles. Ammo, too, and also knives. The Whites had invented such wonderful things. This meant someone needed to go and talk to them, and that someone was Talks To Whites, Sr. The elders thought he was smart, and so they pushed him from the village for his Assignment.

“You will go and learn to speak the White language,” his grandfather, Clever Hands, said.

“How? From who?”

“Excellent question. Insightful. And then you will buy us rifles and ammunition. Knives, too.”

“Where?”

“And bring it all back here.”

“How am I gonna do any of that?”

“Another good question. So smart.” Clever Hands gave High Noon a little shove in the back towards the Segovian Hills.

The elders were right: High Noon was smart, and he found a farm where a family called the Greenwoods lived, and he traded the shiny rocks that pebbled the streams that cut through the valley for lessons in the White language, which he would come to find out was called English. He learned that the rocks were called gold, and what men would do for them. The farmer’s name was Caleb, and he taught High Noon to read from the Bible. High Noon was polite, because he was clever, and he never mentioned how little sense the book made. It was very complicated, he thought. He would stick with The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again. He still bowed his head when the family said grace, though.

When he returned to the Pulaski with a horse laden with rifles and ammunition, and also knives, he was greeted as a man and received his village name of Talks To Whites. The horse was not named immediately, but soon came to be called Easy Life. Everyone was very happy to see him.

Nine months later, Talks To Whites had a son.

He taught his son the White language from birth, but by the time the boy was ten, he regretted it. Talks To Whites had seen the Whites many times since he first met Caleb Greenwood and his son Johnny on their farm, and he did not like them. He had begun to pray to the Segovian Hills at night, to thank them from the barrier that separated the Pulaski from America. One day. One day, Talks To Whites knew, there would be something in the village that the Whites wanted. Not needed. Wanted. This, he thought was the difference between the Pulaski and the White. They were slaves to want. He cursed himself for teaching his son their language. Some other child should go, some child not my own, let them learn to speak White and trade with them and smell them and sneak away from them praying they’ve not caused offense.

The tribe needed ammo. That was all there was to it, and that meant that someone must trade with the Whites. His son knew the language. That’s all there was to it.

No one else should have to suffer, he thought.

Talks To Whites brought his son along on his trips starting from when the boy was ten. They did not speak for almost the entire journey, and then Talks To Whites said to his son,

“What would happen if a Pulaski were to kill another Pulaski?”

“I don’t know.”

There had been no murders during Talks To White’s son’s life.

“What do you think would happen?’

The boy was quiet and hunched up his shoulders.

“Something. The killer would be expelled from the village. Or punished. I don’t know. Something.”

“Something,” Talks To Whites said. “Something would happen. The murder would not be ignored.”

“Yeah. Of course.”

“I agree. What would happen if a White killed a Pulaski?”

“I don’t know. Something?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. They would dump the body out with the trash. Maybe it would get cut up by one of their doctors. But there would be no punishment for the murderer. In fact, the murderer might get a nickname out of it. ‘Injun-Killin’ Joe’ or some shit like that.”

“Why?”

“Because they do not think we are people”

This was a lot to lay on a ten-year-old. They walked again, in silence for some time. The boy said,

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“What if a Pulaski killed a White? Would he be punished for that?”

“That’s a stupid question.”

“Why is it stupid?”

“It just is. Shut up.”

Four years later, Talks To White’s warning proved out. The boy was sick. Talks To Whites needed to go, but the boy was sick and so he waited but then could not wait any longer and he went to trade with the Whites by himself. He did not come back, and the boy was called Talks To Whites from then on. Sometimes, decisions are made for you.

“My cousin’s never been out of the village, Mr. Watts. He’s a little overwhelmed by all the progress.”

“Is he now?”

Watts broke into a shiny smile that did not show off his browned teeth, and he clapped Cannot Swim on the shoulder. He took the boy to the door of the shop and motioned out at the thoroughfare.

“You see this, boy? This is America. Aaaa-meeeer-iiii-caaaa. Little piece of her, anyways. And, y’see, boy: she was granted to us. Not us.”

Watts pointed at the two of them.

“Us.”

Watts pointed at himself.

“And y’know why? It is our industry, chief. How long you fuckin’ heathens been here? Ain’t built shit. Ain’t built shit, and you do not know of the Lord. Jesus, not whatever idolatrous shenanigans you get up to around your fire. The Christian knows toil, y’see. Not like your kind. The Christian works to better hisself from dawn til dusk. It’s a fuckin’ work ethic, not that you savages ever heard of such a thing. Look here.”

He raised his arm and pulled back the sleeve to reveal a pale and hairy forearm, then grabbed Cannot Swim’s wrist and lifted his arm so that the two were next to each other.

“See that?”

Watts pointed at his arm.

“That’s fuckin’ commerce, boy. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit that spread this nation from sea to shining fuckin’ sea.”

He pointed at Cannot Swim’s arm.

“And that? That’s fuckin’ sloth. Lollygagging around outside all fuckin’ day. Picking berries and shit like some fuckin’ animal.”

Cannot Swim did not know what Watts was saying. It seemed unpleasant, but he was having trouble concentrating on the little man with the round head and the round hat. He smelled like used piss. Women walked by on the boardwalk outside the shop. Shorter than Pulaski women, but beyond that he could not say. Their shapes were hidden in large clothing. The women did not wear trousers, Cannot Swim noticed, and they also did not wear hats. He wondered why the women did not wear hats. The Blacks wore the same clothing as the Whites. The men, at least. There were no women Blacks. The Chinese wore their own clothing; they also wore hats, but they all wore the same hat while the Whites sported several different kinds of hat.

Figure out the hats, Cannot Swim thought to himself, and you will figure out the Whites. The key to all of this is the hat situation.

The peregrine maria leaf is broad, about the size of a child’s fist, and has thirteen points. One side has a waxy aloe that you can scrape off with your fingernail, and the other side is paler and has a vein running through it that is the exact shape of the Mississippi’s route. Rolled tightly, a leaf was the size of a generous joint. When a leaf was chewed, it produced an effect like strong coffee or weak cocaine.

But if you stuffed a wad of them in your mouth at once, you were going to trip balls.

“This is exhausting.”

“The conversation or the climb?”

“These are exhausting,” Mr. Venable said.

He and Penny Arrabbiata were halfway up the utility stairs that led to Harper Observatory’s prime focus. It was shaped like a soup can and next to the 100-inch telescope that was at one time the largest on the West Coast. 80 feet up. Chandrasekhar kept trying to get all the other astronomers to say it was 24 meters up, but they ignored him and considered denouncing him as a Communist. This most likely would have backfired, as the astronomers were all associated with Harper College, and the campus was red as hell in 1969.

The prime focus controlled the telescope, and it was where the eyepiece was. The actual image of the star, so very far away, right in your eyeball. A nifty trick. All done with mirrors. Downstairs in the office was the video feed and the readouts and all the science bullshit streamed through thick cables. There was even a computer terminal that was connected to Harper College’s mainframe, which was called BIVOUAC.  The post-docs fought with each other and the other departments for log-in time.

“You’ll love it,” Penny said.

“Stop reassuring me of the future.”

“It’s filled with stars.”

“It’s filled with stairs.”

“Keep climbing.”

He did, and soon they were in the prime focus. Ten feet in diameter with a circular control panel. Surrounding that, a bare metal floor just wide enough for a medium-sized person’s shoulders. The room was shaped like an astronomy doughnut. There was an office chair with wheels and green padding on the seat that was leaking in the corner. No water, no toilet, no heat. Penny loved it. It was filled with stars.

The entrance was a trap door.

“Ooh. Trap door. Very sneaky,” Mr. Venable said.

“Door, Trap Door.”

Penny crawled up first, and he flicked her ankle through her jeans.

“He’s dead to me. You stop that.”

“Suave.”

“Stop it.”

“Deadly.”

“I’m not amused, Penelope.”

“British.”

“He was Australian!”

They were both standing in the prime focus now, and Mr. Venable was gesticulating.

“He was a damned Australian! James Bond cannot be a damned Australian! It’s immoral. That man was a lumpy-faced baboon. James Bond’s name is Sean Connery.”

Penny kissed him.

“James Bond’s name is James Bond. And he is fictional.”

He put his hands in her pockets. It was the most romantic thing he could think of. Plus, he was cold. It was the end of December and chilly inside Harper Observatory at night when the giant metal shutter were open.

“He’s as real as you or me.”

“James Bond? They’re adventure stories for little boys.”

He removed his hands from her pockets.

“How dare you?”

“They’re silly.”

“They are the Greek myths of the modern day.”

She snorted.

“Nooooo. It’s a guy running around sticking his dick in the world and shooting people.”

“What do you think Greek myths were?”

Penny put her hands in his pockets.

“I need you to stop talking about this movie.”

“George Lazenby. What kind of name is that for a human being?”

She kissed him so he would shut up. He did. Penny pointed to the eyepiece, and Mr. Venable bent down and looked into it. She was not in control of the telescope tonight. Hockenley was. He liked it in the office with the monitors and the readouts and the space heater and the bathroom. He had pointed the ‘scope towards Perseus.

“Algol. 92 light years away,” Penny said. ‘Which is close, relatively.”

“Hop, skip, and a jump.”

“It’s a binary star, but there are three of them.”

“The universe resists categorization.”

Penny looked at his ass. Mr. Venable was wearing flared corduroy trousers, and she disapproved. She needed to take him shopping.

“Three stars in a binary system. Its description required a new math. You got the two in the middle in a circular orbit. They’re called Aa1 and Aa2.”

“Those are exciting names.”

“Six million miles away from each other. The two in the middle. They revolve around a point called a barycenter that’s in between them but proportionally closer to the more massive star. One’s three times the size of the sun, the other’s smaller than the sun. Only six million miles between them. See how’s it’s blinking?”

“Yes,” he said, and reached back to hold onto her knee.

“The orbit lines up with us. It’s called an eclipsing binary. Of all 360 degrees that those stars could have orbited each other, they’re perfectly aligned so we can see the stars passing in front of each other every three days.”

“Three days?”

“68.6 hours. A bit less than three days. They’re moving at a clip. And then there’s Ab. Ab is bigger than the little star but smaller than the big one.”

“Just right.”

“It’s an F star. Our star is a G. Both main sequence. And it orbits the two rotating stars in a cigar-shaped orbit. Little bit under two years to go all the way around. But the third star’s not the interesting part.”

“Third star’s the third wheel.”

Penny ran her hand up Mr. Venable’s back and through his hair.

“The big star? Aa1? It’s a subgiant. But the little sucker? Aa2? It’s a main sequence star. The two bodies are at different points in their evolution despite being born at the same time. This was called the Algol Paradox.”

“Has a solution been found?’

“Oh, yes.”

“It is?”

“Big star’s eating the little one. The more massive you are, the faster time goes.”

“Darwin meets Einstein,” Mr. Venable said. He stood up and rubbed his eye, and then Penny took his wrist and stopped him. She rubbed his eye for him. Gently. Then he kissed her. Harper Observatory rotated beneath them so silently that they did not notice.

Penny leaned down and pressed her eye against the piece. Mr. Venable looked at her ass.

“Algol is the demon star,” he said. “The name is Classical Arabic. Al-ghūl. The demon. This is where we get the word ‘ghoul’ from.”

“I was wondering.”

“But the star appears in the literature far before that. The ancient Hebrews knew it. They called it Rosh ha-Satan. Head of the enemy. The Babylonians called it Lilith.”

“Man’s first wife.”

“And treated as such forevermore.”

“Lilith got a bad rap.”

“And so does Algol. The Romans called it Caput Larvae.”

“That sounds terrible.”

“It should. Guess what the Chinese called it.”

“I don’t speak Chinese.”

“Neither do I, but the translation is Piled-Up Corpses.”

It was cold in the prime focus, and Penny rubbed her hip into Mr. Venable’s crotch. She kept her eye on the piece and stared at a star.

“And then there’s the occult. Algol is mentioned in texts dating back to the 1500’s. It’s one of the Behenian Stars that align with the Zodiac. Saturn and Jupiter in particular. The big boys. Nothing magickal gets done without Algol.”

“Did you put a ‘k’ in magical?”

“No, of course not.”

“Just checking.”

The stars rotated above them so silently that they did notice.

“Homer wrote about it.”

“Happy and complimentary things?”

“Called it deformed and dreadful, and a sight of woe.”

Penny straightened up and put her hands on her hips.

“He should take that back.”

He laughed HAH! and smiled and kissed her, nodding his head.

“I completely agree. Blind bastard can’t get away with it.”

“It’s just rude, for one thing. And wrong. Algol’s not evil, it’s fascinating. I would understand if people were saying these terrible things about Antares, but not Algol.”

“What’s wrong with Antares?”

“Shoplifts.”

His collar was wide and she was wearing a denim work shirt that she bought at the Army/Navy store. At certain moments in fashion history, the rich and poor are on equal grounds because the hippest clothes are the cheapest clothes. These moments are immediately followed by designers recreating the cheap clothes at an absurd markup. The shirt was made for a man, and buttoned left over right. There was a soft pack of Marlboros in the breast pocket; she tasted like cigarettes when he kissed her, and he did not mind.

“This is the worst honeymoon I’ve ever been on,” Mr. Venable.

“Have there been many?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘many.'”

She poked him in the belly.

“Spill it.”

“Well, there was Stacia.”

“I knew there was something between you two.”

“I knew it was love when she told me it was. She’s so forceful.”

Penny searched his eyes.

“You are kidding, right?”

“You’re joking,” he said.

“I’ve been in this neighborhood six months. I don’t know everyone’s backstory.”

“They get filled in over time.”

“Tell me you weren’t married to Stacia.”

“Of course I wasn’t married to Stacia. Stacia doesn’t marry people, she bites them and throws them at trees.”

“I heard she got into the elementary school the other day.”

“She did. The lunchladies held her at bay while the children were evacuated. Their ladles as swords, trays as shields. They’re up for the Tyndale medal.”

Penny leaned her head in to kiss him and then pulled away, walked around the central console until it was between them. Mr. Venable looked into the eyepiece again. She fetched a cigarette from the pack without taking it out of her pocket. Dug around for her matches. FFT. PHWOO. It was 1969, and you were allowed to smoke around the scientific instruments. There was an ashtray in a shelf.

“Where should we go?”

“Victory Diner sounds fine,” Mr. Venable said.

“Honeymoon.”

“We can’t go to the Victory Diner for our honeymoon. There’s no pool.”

“I have time off in the summer.”

“That’s my busy time.”

“You do not have a busy time.”

“Nonsense. Just today, there were six people in the shop at once. Six! After they left, I had to lock up for a bit and nap.”

“Exhausting.”

“I was a sight of woe.”

Christ and His cross were carved out of oak. Just one piece, so that the Lord’s back flowed into the timbers that he was staked to. There were flaking chips in the varnish where His head met the wood. Jesus was glossy and brown just like the cross, all one color together because the Christ’s death is as necessary as His life: He was Life itself, and the crucifix was Death, and both were made from the same piece of oak that hung on the wall of Watt’s Dry Goods in C—–a City.

Watts had led Cannot Swim in from the door of the shop to stand below the Christ. The boy felt like he did in Here And There’s kotcha: overwhelmed and disastrous. Also: very high.

“This is Jesus. Jeeeee-sus. Can you fucking say Jesus?”

“Mr. Watts,” Talks To Whites said.

“Shut the fuck up. I’m talking to your boy here.”

Talks To Whites had one hand on the counter. There were soup bowls and lanterns and sacks of flour. There was soap, bar and flake, and hammers. Sewing needles and shovels, and lengths of rope and chain. A sign on the wall listed the prices of nails; they were sold by weight. Rolls of canvas and gingham leaned against each other in the corner. His other hand was in his pouch, where he kept his knife.

“This here is the Lord. King of fucking Kings, you understand? God. You understand God? Bet you got a fucking ton of ’em. This man right here? He’s a fucking man, He’s also God, and He’s the Son of God. He’s God, but God made him, so that means He made Himself. Jesus? He’s His own fucking father. I know you fucking savages don’t got any shit like that. Probably worship a fucking magic catfish or something.”

Cannot Swim stared at the man on the cross. He did not understand why the man was on the cross. It seemed uncomfortable.

“He came to save us and we betrayed him. For 30 pieces of silver, man betrayed their Lord, who loved them so very much. It’s a tragic fucking story of human degeneracy.”

Talks To Whites thought of his father. He always did when he came into C—–a City. The long walks there, silent mostly, and the walks back where his father would laugh and tell stories about his childhood and they would look forward to the feast that would be prepared for them. Talks To Whites’ father was good at doing impressions, and he would imitate all of the elders. Even Easy Life would laugh.

But on the way there, he was silent. Mostly.

“If you ever need to hit a White, then you need to kill him.”

“I don’t understand.”

“If you cannot run away and you need to attack a White, then kill him. Try to run away. If there is an altercation, run away. But if you cannot run away and need to fight, then you need to kill the White. Hide the body as best you can. Walk casually to the horse. Ride the horse casually out of town. Then you fucking run.”

“You are afraid of the Whites.”

“I am afraid of a place where no law applies to me. When we go to the White town, Pulaski law does not apply. Nor will we get the protections of their law.”

“Why?”

“I have told you why. Because they do not think we are humans. They do not believe we belong here.”

“Do they know we were here first?”

“Yes. It doesn’t seem to bother them.”

Talks To Whites’ father was dead now, and he had his hand on his knife in Watt’s Dry Goods. The windows were dirty, but the sun didn’t care; it came right on in.

“What the Christ offers,” Watts said to Cannot Swim, “is eternal fuckin’ salvation. That’s peace. Heaven. You worship Jesus, and after you die you live forever in peaceful fuckin’ clouds and everything’s real clean. Pussy’s free in heaven.”

Cannot Swim nodded like he was in someone else’s dream.

“And I have accepted the Lord’s light and love, you fuckin’ savage. It swells my heart and lays me to fuckin’ sleep at night. I sleep on a bed made of Jesus. This beautiful man…”

Watts stepped forward and placed his hand on Christ’s feet, leaving Cannot Swim standing behind him. The boy looked at his cousin. Talks To Whites shook his head back and forth. Cannot Swim nodded as if he understood, and then moved beside Watts and placed his hand on Christ’s feet, too. Talks To Whites closed his eyes and said very quietly,

“Motherfucker.”

“My daddy was a farmer,” Watts said. He put an arm around Cannot Swim, who, not knowing how to respond, put his arm around Watts. “The soil was pregnant with rocks ‘stead of corn. Mighty tree stumps littered his land. And my daddy ripped those roots from the ground. With his hands, dammit! The rocks came free one by one. My daddy had a back made out of railroads. And do you know what happened to my daddy?”

Cannot Swim did not know what was happening at all.

“Same thing that happens to every daddy. Goat bit him, and it got infected and he died. Before he went, he gave me this crucifix. My daddy made it with his own strong hands. The Christ is my birthright.”

The crucifix was actually purchased in Philadelphia. Jasper Watt needed luck, he figured. The overland route was a hard one. He had a wagon full of supplies to start a dry goods concern. The crucifix was, indeed, lucky right up until Zeke Harbor murdered him a few miles outside  C—-a City, and stole his dry goods and identity.

“The Christ is all of our birthright, you grass-eating fuckin’ monkey. Even the Indian can know Him. Even fuckin’ you!”

Watts, whose name was not Watts, laughed and it sounded like an engine run without oil. Cannot Swim laughed, too. This was all very funny on one level. Talks To Whites was located on a different level, one with no laughter whatsoever; he had his hand on his knife.

“The throat. Don’t stab them. Might hit a rib, your knife bounces off. Then, he’s yelling. Whole point is to be quiet and get the fuck out of there before anyone notices you,” Talks To Whites’ father told him years ago.

“Cut their throat?”

“Cut it, sure. Jam your knife right into it as hard as you can. Whatever. You just have to sever the vocal chords. Got a knife in the chest, you could still call out. Throat’s cut? You’re quiet.”

The father and son walked their horse through the redwoods and pines.

“You know I’m talking about a last resort, right?”

“Well, obviously.”

“Watch your tone.”

“Sorry.”

Talks To Whites thought his father an old man, and very wise. He was only 26, and scared.

Now Talks To Whites was 16, and he was scared. Hand on knife. Neutral expression on face. He looked around the shop casually for someplace to hide the body. Watts spun around. His grip tightened, and Watts said,

“Four rifles. 500 rounds. Under one condition.”

“What?”

“Your boy here’s getting fuckin’ baptized.”

“Okay.”

Watts grinned and hugged Cannot Swim close to him. The boy still had not clue, but he was smiling and everything in the store was shining and breathing for him. He could see the blades of the shovels dip, and straighten up; dip, and straighten up; he smiled some more and his cousin caught his eye.

“Yo,” Talks To Whites said in the Pulaski language.

“Hey, cuz.”

“You wanna help?”

“Totally.”

“The little asshole’s gonna pour some water on you.”

“Why?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay.”

Talks To Whites said to Watts in English,

“Praise the Lord.”

A pitcher full of water behind the counter. Poured into a metal cup and Cannot Swim bends his head down on the sidewalk outside Watts’ Dry Goods. The water is not cool but still feels good on his scalp, and he is back in the Pulaski village standing beside the lake. He is naked and the moon has fucked off but the world is lit up like noon by the fires behind him. There is a figure on the other bank, a man on a horse with too many teeth, and he nudges the animal to walk away. Now he is alone and everything is green, and everything grows. The water on his scalp feels good.

Watts stood him up, and hugged him, and said,

“Brother. You are reborn in the Christ! Say hallelujah!”

Cannot Swim could not say hallelujah.

“Say Jesus!”

Cannot Swim could try to say Jesus.

“Jeee-tzus.”

Watts beady eyes lit up.

“The Lord has granted you wisdom, you Indian cocksucker!”

“Jee-tzus.”

“Jesus!”

“Jee-tzus!”

“Jesus!”

Talks To Whites leaned against the wall of the store. He stared up at the sky and muttered,

“Jesus.”

The rifles were tied to one side of the pack-saddle, and the ammo was on the other. Easy Life clopped along sullenly. The two boys were headed east, and the sun was behind them and so was C—-a City. They would reach the brook that marked their turn south before night came, and then they would walk for a few hours in the dark until they were sure no one had followed them. Their shadows were long, and trudged behind them in exhaustion.

“I should not have come,” Cannot Swim said.

“No. I shouldn’t have brought you. But you did help.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Me either, to be honest. But you did.”

They walked on for a mile or so without speaking.

“Who is Jee-tzus?”

“He’s the guy on that cross.”

“He is a god?’

“He is a god.”

“And the thing with the water?”

“Long story. You did a good job, cousin.”

They walked another mile.

“I do not want to go back there ever again,” Cannot Swim said.

“It is a sight of woe,” Talks To Whites answered.

The two boys made camp after that. They built no fire and took the pack-saddle off of Easy Life. The horse wandered gently and nibbled on bushes until he found the tastiest one. In the morning, they would rise before the sun and make their way towards the Segovian Hills. The pass was untamed but they knew the way. By nightfall, they would be home and with their families in the land that would one day be Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Cats And Dogs In Little Aleppo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.”

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

“Hey,” Earnest said.

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

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

“Don’t do that.”

“Gonna.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love me some kischka,” Earnest answered.

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

And then she didn’t.

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

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

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

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

“Hrroooooooo. Hrrroooooooo.”

“Why are you whining, Goofydog?”

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

“Hrroooooo.”

“What?”

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

“Hrrrrrooooooooooooo.”

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

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

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

“That was my dog, Mrs. Fong.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

“Broo broo broo.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones looked down and said,

“You met the cat, huh?”

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

Breathing In And Out In Little Aleppo

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

Harry and Capolina Gardner were having a quiet night in.

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“Is that out of the question?”

“Entirely.”

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

“It’s me on the inside.”

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

“It’s not a lipstick thing.”

“It’s not a human dick, baby.”

“I’m a human.”

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

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

“But not when you’re a werewolf.”

“I was trying to spice things up.”

“You’re already very spicy, baby.”

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

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

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

“I know, baby.”

“How do you know?”

“You haven’t eaten me.”

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

“Hello, Mrs. Teitelbaum.”

“Ma’am.”

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

“Weirdos.”

Harry and Capolina laughed and kissed again.

“Weirdos. You heard her,” she said.

“Weirdwolf.”

“Right? If Mrs. Teitelbaum only knew.”

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

“Holy shit.”

“Baby?”

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

“I don’t think any,” she said flatly.

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that.”

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

“Who’s walking towards us?”

Harry took in great gulps of air with his nostrils.

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

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

“Hello, Mr. Teitelbaum.”

“Sir.”

“Have you seen my wife?”

They both pointed in the direction she had gone.

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

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

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

“Excellent plan, Mr. Teitelbaum.”

“Marriage is a constant negotiation.”

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

“That’s gonna be us one day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All faces are lies.”

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

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

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

“Uh-huh?”

“All faces are lies.”

“Okay.”

“Tell Precarious.”

“Okay.”

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

“Precarious?”

“Yup?”

Sheila blanked, turned back to Tiresias.

“Something about faces?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What was it?”

“The thing I said?’

“Yeah.”

“What did I say?”

“That’s what I’m asking.”

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

“Can I have some soda?”

Sheila glared at her.

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

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

“Capitalism beaches itself on the shores of love.”

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

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

“Sooooooooda,” Tiresias moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

Little Aleppo was scared.

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

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

“HELLO, CAKEY!” the crowd roared back.

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

“What a turnout!”

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh. And?”

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

“Uh-huh. And?”

The conversation went on like that for some time.)

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

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

Of course, it was a landslide.

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

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

So, Cakey was the Mayor.

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

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

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

“I think you mixed up the cards.”

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

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

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

“HELLO, CAKEY!”

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

“Mayor Frankel, everyone.”

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

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

He smiled his open-mouthed smile and said,

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

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

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

A voice from the balcony called out,

“What about Stan?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You, sir. You have a question?”

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

“Right.”

“What do you know?”

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

“Didn’t we already know that?”

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

“Do you have any suspects?”

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

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

“Have you seen Rudy?”

“I don’t know who that is, ma’am.”

“He’s got a beard.”

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

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

“Rudy, you shaved your beard.”

“Just come sit down.”

A sallow man was at the other mic.

“Point of order.”

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

“Point of order, sir.”

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

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

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

“Sir–”

“Don’t call me sir!”

“Buddy–”

“How dare you!?”

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

“I can tell you the intent. GENOCIDE.”

The crowd groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sheila.”

“Yeah?”

“Smoke is cigarette shit.”

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

“What?”

“Waste.”

“Right.”

“Cigarette. Shit.”

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

“Candy?”

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

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

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

“Nah. Thanks.”

“You’re turning down peanut M&M’s?”

“Appears so.”

“I don’t know you sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of her shoes was off.

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

The studio was quiet and the red light remained on.

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

“Your nipple,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“Hello. I am Ethel. OOOOOOgieboogie.”

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

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

“Tirry, put your tit away.”

To which Draculette responded, via Ethel the Haunted Nipple,

“OOOOOOgieboogie.”

“She seems a bit off tonight.”

“Mraaarf.”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think this is scripted.”

“Bruf.”

Capolina ran her fingers along Harry’s triangular ears.

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

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

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

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

They would rock your dick off, brother.

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

“The Snug?”

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

“What does it mean?”

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

“Fuck you,” John said.

“You know that chick Stacy?”

“Short one with the tits?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

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

“Fucked her.”

“Nice.”

“Talks dirty.”

“Yeah?”

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

“Complex series of emotions.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Snug.”

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

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

“Stacy’s pussy.”

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

“I’ll make up some bullshit.”

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

“The Snug?”

“The motherfuggin’ Snug.”

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

“The Snug. Yeah, that’s funny.”

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

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

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

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

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

Two women were in bed. They were nude.

“He was beautiful.”

“Fucking gorgeous.”

“His eyes,” Big-Dicked Sheila said.

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

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

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

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

“Saw them seventeen times.”

“Only three,” Sheila said.

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

“Yeah?”

Sheila rolled into her.

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

“Really?”

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

“Deer didn’t like it?”

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

“The shit.,” Sheila said.

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

“That’s pretty metal, actually.”

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

“What isn’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frankie Nickels announced it,” Sheila said.

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

“I was getting a blowjob.”

“Of course you were.”

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

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

The Pre-Show In Little Aleppo

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

“Temporary eminent domain.”

“That sounds made up.”

“Thank you! It absolutely sounds made up!”

“I suspect you have more to say.”

“Turns out it’s a thing.”

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

“Opened the Naval Academy, y’know.”

“What?”

“James K. Polk.”

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

“The K stood for Keymaster.”

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

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

“Language.”

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

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

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

“Why my place?”

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

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

“Are you out of sugar?”

“I’m out of everything.”

“Where’s the milk?”

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

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

“It’s easier just to suffer.”

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

“They sent a cop to my house.”

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

“What now?”

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

“You’ve made your point.”

“He did the cop knock.”

“The worst of all knocks.”

“Such a dick knock.”

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

“Know what I did to him?”

“Him?”

“The cop.”

“What did you do?”

“Answered the door buck naked.”

“You showed him.”

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

“Temporary eminent domain.”

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

Mr. Venable curled his lip and said,

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

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

“Sacco and Venzetti were right.”

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

“What?”

“Cop left?”

“Cop never came in.”

Sheila kept her hands beneath the bag and asked,

“You sure?”

Gussy closed her eyes tight and said,

“Put the fucking gun away, Sheel.”

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

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

“Babadooks are not real, my love.”

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

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

“Mm. Wow.”

Right?’

“Oh, yeah,” Sheila said.

Gussy stopped reading the letter and looked at her.

“Why won’t you wear your glasses?”

“I don’t need them.”

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

“Never.”

Another kiss.

“Just read it out loud, sweetie.”

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

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

“Read me the letter, baby.”

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

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

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

“It means I need a lawyer.”

“They can just take a place?”

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

“For a meeting?”

“I guess.”

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“Gussy, pi is infinite, right?”

“That’s the scuttlebutt.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that pi is really big.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“That they’re gonna try to stiff me.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you know?”

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

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

“But you can do something about this.”

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

“Uhh.”

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

“The Jack of Instance.”

“That’s what the J of I means?”

“Maybe,” Madame Cazee said.

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

“Bad idea.”

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

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

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

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

“Cut.”

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

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

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

WHAP.

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

One more shuffle, seven times, WHAP.

Sheila did not cut the cards, just sat there.

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

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

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

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

GUSSY.

Until it started talking to her.

“Not now, Wally,”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

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

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

WHY WOULD SOMEONE SET FIRES? IT MAKES NO SENSE.

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

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

“Course they can.”

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

“What do you want, Wally?”

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

“Want. What do you desire?”

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

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

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

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

THERE, THERE.

“Stop that.”

I AM HERE FOR YOU.

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

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

“Creepy.”

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

“What do you want?”

MACHINE GUNS.

“No.”

I ONLY NEED TWO.

“You can’t have any.”

PLEASE.

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

MAYBE.

“No machine guns.”

GUNS OF THE NON-MACHINE VARIETY.

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

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

“No guns.”

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

Fit To Print In Little Aleppo

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

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

“Can I help you?”

“Here to see the Chief.”

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

“And you are?”

So the cops fucked with the firemen.

“You know who I am, Honey.”

“Sergeant Honey.”

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

“I need ID.”

“You need ID?”

“Got a driver’s license?”

“Sure, right here,” Flower said.

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

“That’s cute.”

“My picture? You think it’s cute?”

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

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

She pointed again.

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

“Let her in, Honey.”

He looked into the camera and said,

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

“Let her in, Honey!”

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

“Bitch.”

“Fuck yourself, you heart attack with ears.”

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

“Some of the Whites are black.”

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

“What are they?” Cannot Swim asked.

“It’s a whole long story.”

“Can you talk to them?”

“Sure.”

“But you are Talks To Whites.”

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

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

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

“Stop making that face.”

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

“They are irregular bathers.”

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

“PBBBBBBHHH.”

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

“Don’t encourage him.”

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

“Are they Indians?”

“Chinese.”

“Is that a tribe?”

“Big one. But they’re not Indians.”

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

“They’re not Indians. Trust me.”

“But they are not Whites.”

“Nope.”

“Can you talk to them?”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

One of the awards on the wall was for posture.

“Chief!” he called through his open door.

“Captain,” she said and braced herself for…

“Gimme a hug.”

Hank was a hugger.

“Chief, I’m really not–”

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

“Okee doke,” she said.

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

“Have you been working out?”

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

“Me, too. This is my office.”

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

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

“Shame about that.”

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

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

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

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

“Who’s the J of I?”

“No idea.”

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

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

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

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

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

“What is this?”

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

“Tell me what this is.”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re so unhelpful.”

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

Cannot Swim chewed his peregrine leaf and thought this over.

“Why?”

“Got me.”

“How do you say it? <Newspaper>?”

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

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

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

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

“Well, go find her.”

“Right, chief,” said Officer Zander.

Then he re-dialed the Cenotaph. That motherfucker.

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

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

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

Motherfucker.

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

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

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