Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 2 of 15)

Animals And Their Uses In Little Aleppo

Full moon out tonight. Bound to cost a life. The brain, you see, is mostly water–the human body is mostly water, but the brain even moreso–and the full moon pulls upon those cerebral juices just as it does the tides in the harbor. Induces criminality in several ethnicities, the full moon does. The emergency room at St. Agatha’s fills, and the Main Drag wobbles, and the drunk tank bogs down in the mud. The sun was still out, but there she was. Low in the sky, skulking and pock-marked. Anaxagoras and Aryabhata figured out that the moon was just a big rock that reflected the sun’s light, and everyone said “Thank you for figuring that out; we’re going to continue to believe in magick.”

Capolina Gardner believed in the power of the full moon long before her husband became a werewolf. She was a nurse at St. Agatha’s, an emergency room nurse, and she knew what went on every 28 days behind the modern glass doors wedged into an art deco brick entranceway with Quid hoc fecisti, ut modo tute? chiseled into the arch. Men came in encased in skin that had armadillofied. Women had emergent scurvy, or imminent dropsy. These patients did not present without a full moon, Capolina thought. The statistics department from Harper College disagreed. They had run a study. The metastatistics department agreed with the disagreement. They had run a metastudy. It was determined–to several p-values–that there was no correlation between the full moon and the intake of the emergency room at St. Agatha’s.

Whatever, Capolina thought. So it wasn’t more crowded. But it was fucking weirder.

Like that boy from the garage explosion. He and his father were rebuilding a 1972 Datsun 240z. Father was teaching the son to weld. Open can of paint thinner, kid stumbled and fell, and when they brought him to St. Agatha’s, he had blackened and molting skin and his eyes had melted closed. Pork. It smelled like burnt pork, and Capolina prayed as she tried to find a vein in his scorched arm to start the line, and then the boy stopped writhing and sat up. Casually. Cocked his head. Nodded once, twice.

“You’re all doing wonderful work here,” the burned boy said.

There were two nurses and a doctor tending to the boy. They stopped what they were doing and listened to him. He was so calm, and he said,

“There are worlds beyond pain.”

He smiled, and his teeth were stained with fire, and he took the needle from Capolina and found the vein in the inside of his elbow on the first try. She connected the line to the IV bag, opened the flow, squeezed, and he smiled wider.

“There are worlds far beyond pain.”

And that was it for the boy. Died in the burn ward eleven hours later. You could hear him screaming from down in the ER. She couldn’t eat bacon for months afterwards. Full moon.

They walked by Bixby’s, where the nurses all ate, and McNeal’s, where they all drank, and turned north on the Main Drag and they held hands and Capolina squeezed Harry’s tight because he was afraid and she knew it, and she had a canvas shoulder bag wedged under her elbow, not allowed to dangle on the strap. There were pins on the flap: a cartoon blue ox on a yellow background, and Madonna, and The Snug. She still had her hair in her work ponytail, and his was cut short; he was seven  inches taller than her, and had to shorten his step to make them even in their stride. They both pretended not to stare at the moon, early as it was in the daytime sky. Almost all of those fucking flyers blaming the fires of werewolfs were gone, but there was one left high up on a telephone pole at Swann’s Way and they pretended not to see that, too.

Cannot Swim saw everything, and then the stupid horse clonked him on the head with his jaw and he wobbled a bit; he turned around and said,



Easy Life had gotten used to his easy life and was proactively self-sufficient to the point of ornery-ness. He was born in a livery on Tanner Street in C—-a City, and his name was Snowy. His head and shoulder and flank were all solid brown, but his ass was white and so the Whites that owned him called him Snowy. Men paid other men for his services. He was ridden. He was whipped. Prodded, and yoked to the bit. Afterwards, he would be groomed. Shod. Poked at a bit. People, Easy Life thought. What pains in the balls they are. Not that he had balls. Easy Life was forever a little disappointed with himself that he did not kick to death every motherfucker he saw for that indignity. But he was a horse, and so had a much less causal and chronological system of memories than humans, and so was just generally annoyed every time he saw a person. Or maybe he was just broken.

The man who looked after him put the packsaddle on his back, tightened it. Easy Life did not blow up his belly with air to make it difficult for the man. Accepted the saddle. There were those things loaded onto the frame. The things that make that terrible and sudden noise, the long things. And satchels full of assorted whatever. Not too heavy. Not too bad. About the same weight as a man, and well-laid. The man put a leather halter around his muzzle and skull and led him from the livery, and then Easy Life, who was still at the time called Snowy, was in the hands of Talks To Whites, who had absolutely no idea what to do with a fucking horse.

The Pulaski were not a horse tribe. They had encountered them, knew they existed, but they had no need for them. The occasional herd had ambled through the pass in what would come to be called the Segovian Hills, and the Pulaski had eaten one or two of them, but that was as far as the contact went between species. The valley in between the hills and the ocean had everything the tribe needed: game and fowl from the woods, and fish from the lake, and the ground was supple and giving so that anything would grow with little effort. For hundreds of years, there was nothing the Pulaski needed.

And then Wanders Away wandered back into the village with a Springfield 1842. The barrel had been rifled, and so the shot flew true. It was a percussion cap weapon. Bullet shoved down the breach, hammer cocked back, cap placed on the nipple, bang. Shorter reload time than the old powder and flint method. Shot in all sorts of weather, too.

They discounted it at first, the rifle. The elders said it was bad magick and the hunters agreed. The old ways are the good ways, the hunters said; the elders agreed.

“I understand that,” Wanders Away said. “But watch this.”

He pegged a deer in the skull at 150 yards, and the elders withdrew their objections.

“Sometimes, good magick looks bad at first glance.”

And the warriors said,

“Are there more of these things or is this the only one? Also: can I hold it?”

The rifles, Wanders Away explained, were neither bad nor good magick, but White magick. Which could be purchased with the gold-colored rocks from the streams that fed the lake. The elders took little time in making a plan: Wanders Away would return to the White village and buy as many rifles as he could, plus ammunition.

“Did I show you the White knife?”

“You didn’t,” the elders said.

“Slipped my mind. Sorry. You’re gonna love this,” Wanders Away said.

Comparing cultures is fool’s folly. The Whites demanded their crops march in straight lines, and the Pulaski grew everything all on top of each other in the Verdance; neither way was objectively correct. The Whites had the Christ, and the Pulaski had The Turtle Who Was And Would Be Again; the deities responded to prayers in equal measure. But the Bowie knife? The Bowie knife beat the living shit out of the flint knife, and that’s just a fact.

Wanders Away had returned to the village wearing the clothes of the Whites, mostly. Black trousers and a black vest with no shirt; he wore the hard shoes of the Whites, too, but had kicked them off the instant he was back on the soft grass of the valley. He dug in his satchel and pulled out the knife. The handle was bone, and smooth, and there was a vertical guard that separated the handle–and the hand–from the blade. 19 inches long, and tapering to what was called a clip point. It was in a tan leather scabbard, and when he unsheathed it, the edge of the blade caught the light and the elders became wary of bad magick once more. Wanders Away drew a whetstone the size and shape of a child’s eraser from a pocket in the front of the scabbard and FSSHT FSSHT FSSHT ran the blade in an angle across the whetstone’s face, and then he walked up to a kotcha. The Pulaski’s kotchas had rough bearskins for doors, but the knife slid right through from head down to the ground, and Wanders Away pulled the two fresh sides apart.

The elders decided that the knife, like the rifle, was good magick. The hunters all wanted one. One Eyebrow said, “Dude, that was my fucking door,” but no one paid him any attention.

Wanders Away spent a week or two with his family and friends, and then the tribe threw a great feast. There was dancing and stories and Stormy Eye sang a song she had written. Many speeches were made, and Wanders Away was given a leather pouch full of the gold-colored rocks he had said were so important, and in the morning he walked east from the village to buy more rifles and ammunition, and also knives.

A year later, Wanders Away had not returned He had made it to Boston, and then Nantucket, where he struck out on a whaling ship. He gave his Pulaski name to his shipmates, which they pronounced Kwee-kweg; he didn’t correct them. The elders, after much chewing of the peregrine leaf, decided that they were at least partially to blame for the outcome. We should have foreseen that Wanders Away would wander away, the elders agreed. They chewed the leaf well into the night, and the next morning, High Noon was pushed towards the pass in the hills that was the only path to America with a sizable Assignment: learn the White language and bring back some rifles and ammo, and also knives.

“That’s, like, so much stuff,” High Noon argued, but they wouldn’t stop pushing him, and so he went over the hills and out into America where he found a farmstead run by a man named Caleb Greenwood and his son Johnny; he traded a few of those magickal gold-colored rocks (and labor) for room, board, and English lessons. Learning a language is like learning to swim: the fastest way is the most traumatic. Complete immersion. Sink or speak, man. After three days, High Noon could pick out one word from another during Caleb’s monologues about “the bankers Back East, fancy fucks that they are” and around a week in, he started putting together simple sentences. Idiot’s conversation before a month, and before half-a-year had gone by, High Noon was fluent as fuck, and with a decent accent except for the “ch” sound, which the Pulaski language did not have and he found impossible to conjure, so he said “tursh” instead of “church” and “matsh” instead of “match.”

English was a simpler language than Pulaski, he thought. Imprecise. Run. The boy runs. Does he run towards something or away? Is he running alone or with others? If he is running with others, are they his relatives? Run doesn’t tell you. And the nouns were static, whether they were the subject or the object of the sentence, and the adjectives were not gendered.

He also learned the word “fuck,” which confused him greatly.

“So who can I say ‘fuck’ around?”

“Men. Just men. And only some men. Y’don’t wanna go cursing ’round a preacher or nothing. And you can only say it in certain ways.”

“This is a complicated word,” High Noon said. The Pulaski did not have dirty words. There were thoughts you didn’t express in public, and names you didn’t call your friends, but no word had the inherent taboo that “fuck” did.

“Y’can’t tell people to fuck theyselves, or to fuck off or whatever. But y’can say ‘What the fuck’ or whatever the fuck.”

“I guess.”

“And never around women.”

“Can’t fuck women.”

“No,” Caleb Greenwood said. “Y’can fuck ’em, but you can’t say ‘fuck’ around ’em.”

“I’m lost.”

“Oh, unless they’re whores. Y’can say ‘fuck’ around whores. And y’can fuck ’em.”

“Aren’t there some chores to do?”

“Fuck, yeah.”

It was a farm, and this was the past, so there were always chores to do. The horse was a nag named Chester who plowed the fields and slept in a rickety one-stall barn next to the house; she trudged along in the heavy harness with Caleb behind, whipping and saying “fuck” in the presence of a lady. Chester was the first horse that High Noon had gotten to know. He did not learn to ride because Chester refused to take a rider.

At the end of six months, High Noon packed his things–Caleb had given him a knife; Johnny, a Bible–and put on pants and a shirt and a jacket. Caleb said that he would be better received in the White village, which was called C—–a City even though it was still barely a town, if he were wearing their clothes. He tried a pair of boots with hard soles and heels, and fell over several times before deciding that he would stick with his moccasins.

Caleb had taught him how much the rocks, which were not rocks but nuggets, were worth to the Whites. He used pebbles. This size, you trade for ten bullets. This size, rifle. And if you got one this size–Caleb held up a rock the circumference of a golf ball–then you can get yourself a horse and a packsaddle.

“Actually, make it a li’l bigger. They’re gonna cheat ya.”

He was right: the Whites in C—–a City double-charged High Noon, but his pouch of nuggets was up to the tariffs, and he walked east out of town leading a horse named Snowy who was bearing rifles and ammo, and also knives. They walked until High Noon was sure they were not followed, and then hooked southwards in a great loop that was well out of sight of the Whites. They sneaked through the foothills going north until they came to the pass, where they turned west and soon enough they were back in the Pulaski village, where a celebration began and High Noon received his village name: Talks To Whites.

He unloaded the horse and the warriors made off with the rifles and the ammo, and also knives, and some of the children helped him take the packsaddle off of the horse’s back, and then the lead harness, and then the two of them stood there looking at each other.

“Welcome home, I guess.”


He could not be called Snowy anymore, because the Pulaski had never seen snow and so did not have the word in their language. The tribe had little use for him, and they paid him little mind. Sometimes, he would watch the women fish in the lake. He napped with the dogs. There was more than enough to eat, and he nibbled all day. The men chased him from the oval plot where they grew vegetables and gourds daily; he would sneak around the side where no one was and start munching on bean stalks and corn. They would yell, and he would leave without a fight. Bird’s nests on lower branches were a particular treat, especially if there were eggs in there and even moreso if the mother bird was sitting on them: he’d take the whole meal in his mouth in one chomp, his head tilted sideways, it was almost delicate, and then he’d RONCH RONCH the noisy mess with his flat teeth. The Pulaski were more attuned to nature than modern man is, but even they thought that was disgusting.

Two or three times a year, Talks To Whites would get out the packsaddle and the lead harness, and the two of them would make a round trip to America.

It did not take too long before the tribe had named the horse Easy Life.

Some of the animals in Harper Zoo were having easy lives, and others were trying to.

Yusef, who was a panther, was going through some shit. He had escaped a few days before and found the outside world less pleasant than the zoo, which he had not thought possible. He had been born out back of a double-wide in Ohio and sold to a drug dealer in Miami where, after a few years, he became a piece of evidence in the government’s case against the drug dealer, and eventually moved on out to Little Aleppo like some sort of feline witness protection program. Technically, he was a jaguar, but he was all black and so was called a panther. He could have killed caiman with one bite, leaping into the river from an overhanging branch and swimming the meal back to the shore, wrestling it up the muddy banks, and into the underbrush, and then up another tree. He might have snapped tapirs necks with one bound. He may have fucked some lady panthers. But he was born in Ohio and lived in a cage in Miami, and now a slightly larger cage in Little Aleppo.

There was a world that fit him. There was a world that fit him outside these doors.

But there wasn’t, just more of those upright fuckers that fed him and locked his cage, and there was strange ground that was smooth and terrible to walk on, and monsters speeding by so fast he could barely register them. And nothing smelled right. Nothing smelled right at all, and Yusef with no way to redress his grievances. He was almost happy when he woke, groggy from being shot with tranquilizer, back in his enclosure.

“You gonna eat that?”


“All of it?”

“Every last bit,” Dwayne McGlory said, and gnawed a big hunk off of a chicken sandwich; he had advised Pep Oneida to make one before they walked over to Harper Zoo for their overnight shift, but probies never listen–this is true in professions other than firefighting, too–and so he could suffer. “Then I’m gonna lick all sauce off my fingers. You want that?”


“You can lick my fingers when I’m done.”

“Kiss my ass,” Pep said.

“I’ll get ’em extra goopy for you. Practically a whole meal.”

Pep got up off the bench they were sharing in the entrance plaza of Harper Zoo. The turnstiles and ticket booths faced onto Loring Street, and beneath them the ground was made up of thick timbers cut and laid 60 years before, placed perfectly and right and with care and so there were no gaps in between them; to the west was the shuttered souvenir shop, to the east was the darkened snack shop called Congo’s Cafeteria. In the middle of the plaza was a popcorn cart with a full hopper; Pep stood before it.

“I wouldn’t,” Dwayne said.

“Just a little.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“Couple handfuls.”

“Your decision.”

“It smells so fucking good,” Pep said.

“That it does, probie. Good nose on you.”

TAP TAP TAP on Pep’s shoulder. He turned around. An elephant was giving him the stink-eye, and that is a large stink. On top of the elephant’s head was a dog, who seemed similarly peeved.

“Better nose on her, though,” Dwayne said.

Pep Oneida had grown up in Little Aleppo; his mother had read him the series of children’s books starring Congo and her dog. First the Congo & Shep books, and then Congo & Bailey, and right at that moment parents were reading Congo & Pax‘s adventures to their kids. He had rolled around Harper Zoo in his stroller, and then toddled around, and then he had gone on school trips. Even a couple dates. Girl named Lydia had dumped him by the capybaras. That morning, Pep drank his coffee from a mug with a cartoon of an elephant with a dog on her head, and the inscription HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE.

The elephant swung her head and glared at him with her other eye.

It was like having Santa call you an asshole, Pep thought. Congo can’t be pissed at me. I love Congo, he thought, and so he hugged her trunk.

Congo and Dwayne McGlory made eye contact, shrugged.

She lifted up her trunk with the probie still holding onto it and deposited him out of the way of the popcorn stand, towards Dwayne, and shook him loose. Pep went to pet her, but she had turned her head back to the popcorn. The tip of her trunk slipped into the plastic-encased hopper without any bumps; it was like a ballet dancer made of lips, and so very gentle. Congo scooped up the popcorn and brought it to her mouth, and then back in the hopper for more, and then back to her mouth, and then she lifted a trunkful up to Pax–she dropped it lightly on her flat top of her skull–and then back  and into her mouth, and then back.

Pep was still standing there gooning at her. Elephants are physiologically incapable of rolling their eyes, so Congo rolled her mind’s eye and dipped back into the hopper and swiveled her trunk over to Pep. His face lit up and he cupped his hands in front of him; she released the popcorn, and he looked from it to her to it to her and back. Pep about-faced and rushed over to the bench where Dwayne was still sitting. Brandished the popcorn.

“We bonded.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“I’m friends with Congo,” Pep said. “We’re best friends now.”

Dwayne flipped his head forward and tried to snap away some of the popcorn, but Pep was quick. He drew his hands to his mouth and ate the kernels as though they were Communion wafers.

“This is the best popcorn I’ve ever had.”

“Seriously: shut the fuck up.”

His walkie-talkie went FEEK. It was the size of a brick and attached to his belt like a cop would wear his gun. There was a thick, curly cord from it to the mouthpiece hanging from his shirt pocket, which was black with a silver button that you pressed to talk and did not press to listen. He unfastened it and pressed the button with his thumb and said,

“McGlory here. Over.”

“Hey. How’s it going over there?”

The sun had just about set, and the probie was leaning against the elephant with his arms spread wide.

“I love you, Congo.”

The elephant, who had a dog on her head, was eating popcorn.

“Everything’s fine. Over” Dwayne said.

“All right,” Flower Childs said over the walkie. “I’ll send someone over with coffee later. Over and out.”


“I said ‘Over and out,’ McGlory.”

“Noted. Why are we here again?”

“Credible threat against the zoo. I told you this already.”

“You did. But you didn’t say where the threat came from.”

Flower Childs did not say where the threat came from because the threat was not so much a threat as it was a fortune that came from a psychic on Sylvester Street named Madame Cazee. There was no rule book to being the Chief of the Fire Department, but if there were, Flower figured “Don’t tell your men their assignments are based on the babblings of fortune tellers” was surely one of the chapters.

“Credible threat. Keep the line clear. Over and out.”

The firehouse was quiet. The ladder truck and the pumper sat in their berths, and her Mustang was out front. One of the doors was down, but the other was up and let the sounds of the early evening in. People got ready. Flower Childs got up from the desk in the office on the first floor–it was open to the garage–and the dalmatian called Ash-Nine saw her from the couch, and stretched, and joined her at her left heel. The two stepped out onto Alfalfa Street, and when Flower looked east towards the Segovian Hills, she saw a flame atop the highest one, which was called Pulaski Peak, and then it died. Rose up again. Died. She could see the diamond-shaped summit of the hill, and the lawn with the stand of trees in a crescent on one side and the Harper Observatory on the other. She could read license plates in the parking lot, and serial numbers of dollar bills in the gift shop. And there he was, aflame and whole, on top of his rotten horse; he had his lance, pike, spear, whatever. The horse snuffled and pawed the ground by the visitor’s center, and the man rolled his shoulders.

And the man cocked his fiery head.

Flower Childs strode back into the station, and Ash-Nine followed. The garage door closed, and then the two walked back out the door; Flower locked the door behind her. She was not wearing her walkie-talkie. She had an axe. The passenger door opened, and the dog hopped up, and then the passenger door closed. Red-and-white Mustang SSP goes THRUGGADUM when it starts. Flower Childs flicked the switch that rotated the red lights, and pulled away from the curb and then she and Ash-Nine were driving east with a purpose through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Retreat From Little Aleppo

Brother Yup had tried gardening. He was a Sebastianite monk, and they needed metaphors. The path to the Christ is surely paved with stories, the brothers believed, and so it was necessary to have an analogy at hand. The Christ is like the storehouse, the brother who ran the storehouse taught: there is everything that you need and nothing that you do not. Brother Gwee disagreed: the Christ more closely resembles the library that she was in charge of, full of knowledge and resistant of order. Brother Stiv took care of the chicken coop and preached a Christ gallinaceous and preening, a Christ feathered and warlike and plump, and the other monks usually tried to steer new arrivals away from Brother Stiv. Gardening is rife with symbolism and meaning and all variety of whatnot; squeeze some serious bullshit out of a garden. That was where the bullshit started, at least according to the Bible, so Brother Yup tried gardening.

It hurt his knees.

The workshop was a possibility. Trees turn into beds. That which was broken is repaired; that which could not be repaired was recycled. Can’t make a religious parable out of that, you should get out of the business. Brother Yup sustained multiple splinters his first day, one of them rather nasty, and he decided that he could not hear God in a workshop. The kitchen was never on the table.

The wooden church faced east to west and sat diagonally within the four stone walls of the monastery. The penitents, the supplicants, the applicants: they hiked up Mt. Faith along the barely-beaten goat path that jigged and jagged around rocks and looped under fissures in the rock face where the grass would not take. Some crawled, others were carried, none came with pride (they thought) and all were bloodied and burred along the way. Which was the point, or at least part of it: can’t put a monastery on the Main Drag. Come one, come all, come on come on, come on up; we’re taking all comers. We will accept your wounds, the Sebastianites said to Little Aleppo.

They banged on the door. Southeast wall. Arched and wooden and massive with a human-sized cutout in it. Little window at eye-level that popped open and shut. You know what the door looks like.

The brothers made their own clothes, but Brother Yup couldn’t figure out the sewing machine, and they made their own sandals, but Brother Yup wanted nothing to do with feet. He forgot to carry the one too many times for bookkeeping. After he had failed, quit, or refused every job available, the abbot of the order came to Brother Yup and said,

“Brother Yup.”

“Abbot Costello?”

“Work the door.”

So he did. He liked the work, mostly that there wasn’t any of it, but yet it could still be turned into an elaborate religious metaphor. It was like having his Christ and eating Him, too, Brother Yup thought.

There was a ritual to the door. The penitent, the supplicant, the applicant: they WHAMP WHAMP WHAMP with their palms, and then the peep-window opens up to release insults and refuse entrance, and then the peep-window shuts. Further knocking leads to continued abuse, generally of an over-the-top and comic nature. Waste water or food remnants may or may not be tossed at the pilgrim, but nothing to drink or eat; no shelter is provided at night. If they’re still there after three days, then they can come in.

WHAMP WHAMP WHAMP his first penitent, supplicant, applicant, and he swung the peep-window open. A small man with brown skin and long black hair was standing there; he had only one shoe. Brother Yup said,


The man said,


And then he didn’t say anything.

“You, uh, wanna come in?”

The man looked around, confused.

“Just like that?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

“Aren’t you supposed to call me names? And, you know, insult me? Make me sleep on the steps for a while to prove I’m sincere?”

“I guess I could if that’s what you want.”

“It’s just traditional.”

“Sure,” Brother Yup said. “Call you names. Okay. Hey, what a jerk you are, jerk.”


“What was wrong with that?”


“Maybe I just don’t want to insult you. What’s your name?”

“Prakash Farr.”

“Hello, I’m Brother Yup,” he said, and thrust his whole arm out the peep-window with his hand extended. Prakash just looked at it.

“You’re not supposed to shake my hand, I don’t think.”

“Why? Do you have a cold?”

“Y’know what? Just lemme in. Just open the door.”

Brother Yup smiled.


He slapped the peep-window shut and opened up the human-sized cutout of the massive wooden door. Prakash Farr walked in, and Brother Yup hugged him.


“I was expecting an entirely different experience.”

“Who wasn’t? I think the kitchen’s still open. Go get some grub, slugger.”

And then Brother Yup whapped Prakash Farr on the ass like it had been a good game.

“Is there someone I can complain to?”

“Try by the chicken coops. You’re looking for a guy named Brother Stiv.”

The abbot came by the door not too long after that. Brother Yup was on a bench nearby reading a book. He held the slim volume up carefully in between his eyes and the sun, and his sandals were off and his legs were crossed. The abbot was a large man; you could tell he was the boss monk because his robes were the humblest. The abbot was proud of how humble his robes were.

“Brother Yup.”

“Abbot Costello.”

“You opened the door wrong.”

“How can you open a door wrong?”

“By opening it at all.”

“So, the right way to open the door is to leave it closed?”


“We should brick it up, and never be wrong again.”

The abbot was the only monk with a tonsure, and his pate turned red in the sun. It turned red when he talked to Brother Yup.

“Three days. They stay outside for three days.”

“Very symbolic number of days.”

“Are you even listening to me?”


“Three days outside.”

“In a row?”

“Well, obviously.”

“What if it’s raining? Does that count as two days? I think that should count for two.”

“No. Rainy day is one day.”

“What if it’s real hot?”

“A day is a day.”



“There are pumas out there. Listen.”

They did.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Of course not. The puma hunts by stealth. That’s how you know they’re there, when you can’t hear them.”

“The aspirants wait outside for three days. That’s how it’s done.”

The abbot strode off, and Brother Yup returned to his book. It had just over a hundred pages, and there was not much text on each of those pages. A line, a stanza, an epigram here and there. These were the Teachings of Brother Fin, who had founded the Order of St. Sebastian and established the monastery and built the walls, the church, the kitchen.

The important thing to remember is that
You’re going to die.

Equally important is to forget this fact.

The warrior monks were at it again. Everyone sort of hated the warrior monks, but even the blind one could kick your head off its perch–the blind one was actually the best fighter, somehow–so everyone just put up with their antics. Scuttlebutt around the refectory said that they had acquired some sort of magickal amulet this time. The warrior monks were always being entrusted with cursed swords or crowns that bestowed immense, but vague, powers upon the wearer. This would, of course, draw ninjas trying to steal the mystical doohickeys; Brother Yup idly watched a mess of them punch each other in the face from across the cloisters.

It was late in the afternoon, and bugs were screaming.

When you have no regrets,
When you have no fears,
When you are without guile,
When your mind is clear,
Then you are dead.
Until then, do the best you can.

The courtyard was empty, except in the places where it was full. Brother Mab walked with Brother Tiant; they were fucking. Brothers Howard and Dunn were in the garden; they were fucking, too. The same amount of fucking goes on in monasteries as goes on anywhere else, even though it is forbidden. Possibly, more fucking goes on because it is forbidden, and therefore so much hotter. There was coitus in the chapels, and uncountable furtive handjobs in the bathrooms. Group stuff in the storehouse.

“Brother Yup.”

“Brother Lopsang.”

She was Karen Blitzstein when she lived on Crater Road with her husband and daughter, but her daughter was in Foole’s Yard and she did not know where her husband was, and she had taken the name Lopsang even though she shouldn’t have. She wore the robes. A white cord belted it together. The sandals that were made in the workhouse. Same as everyone else.

Except the warrior monks. Most were shirtless with loose pants and insubstantial shoes made out of canvas, and several were on the roof of the library whacking at assorted ninjas with various weaponry of an improvisatory nature. One was taking on three opponents at once with a ladder employed in imaginative ways.

“Amulet this time, right?”

“Not an amulet. A broach,” Brother Lopsang said.

“What’s the difference?”

“Amulet is a necklace, broach is a pin.”

“What’s the substantive difference?”


The robes have pockets big enough to fit two oranges. Brother Lopsang handed one to Brother Yup, and he sat up on the bench and shimmied over to make room for her. She sat down, and they peeled their oranges and watched the quick-moving brawl, which was now moving in and out of the kitchen. A ninja WHONGED a monk on the head with a frying pan; carving knives squared off with cleavers; boiling water was weaponized.

“The Broach of Balthus.”

“There’s your problem,” Brother Yup said.


“Never name jewelry.”


“What does it do?”

“It’s very powerful.”

“I assumed.”

The fight had progressed to swords.

“But what does it do?”

“Glows,” Brother Lopsang said.


“When it’s being used, it glows.”

“But what does it do?”

“It’s very powerful.”

They had finished peeling their oranges and bit into them. The flesh of the fruit gave way; this is the way of all flesh, but tasty and full of vitamins. Lopsang remembered her mother at the funeral. It wasn’t fair, she said over and over. It wasn’t fair. Her father was dead, and her mother had a granddaughter, but now she was dead and it wasn’t fair. She repeated it during the service, the eulogy, the burial, they had to sedate her. Lopsang did not know that was really a thing, sedating someone, she thought it was something that only happened in movies about rich people, but her mother had to be sedated, and she was, because she was right that it wasn’t fair. Brother Yup thought about his orange.

Christ is surely the river, 
The dull man says.
Christ is certainly the riverbed,
The learned man says.
Is there anything to eat?
The wise man asks.

“They’re headed for the brewery.”

“Mm-hmm,” Brother Yup said.

“Drunken boxing?”

“Drunken boxing.”

Brother Lopsang finished her orange. When she was Karen, her daughter was named Perdita, but those names were gone and so was her orange. The sun was still blasting onto the bench by the door, and she squinted her eyes against it.

The warrior monks threw shadows like titans, and the ninjas kicked them.

In the old days,
People worked, got sick, married, wandered, wrote poetry, feared.
They do that now, too,
But think they deserve an explanation.

It was getting too dark in the library to read, so Brother Gwee closed up and walked into the chapel with a book under her arm. She paid no mind to the shuriken swishing by her head, and disappeared into the fire-lit church. The Sebastianites did not eschew electricity–they were neither anchorite not ascetic–but they were the only people who lived on Mt. Faith, and the power company refused to string up a line for only one customer.

“Have I ever told you that the Christ is like a doorway?”

“Many, many times.”

The sun was scampering west the same it did the day before, and the bell atop the church that sat diagonally inside the square of walls that protected the monastery bangled to life and BONG just once, the brothers only needed it to ring the once, and the men in their robes and the women in their sandals walked to the chapel to pray the same prayers they had prayed the day before, and back to their cells surrounding the courtyard with its cloisters that were the same as the day before around halfway up a mountain named Mt. Faith, the third of the Segovian Hills surrounding Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

The Beginning Of The End In Little Aleppo

Cannot Swim awoke before sunrise. He knew it was not raining because the horse was dry. He didn’t know why the horse was there, but it was dry and so he knew it wasn’t raining any more. That was good, at least. He had slept tucked into a shallow depression in the rock that would, in a million years, be a cave; just a bare dimple into the muddy cliff, but it sheltered him from the drops that had let up in the middle of the night. It was not morning now, not yet, not for an hour: just a rumor of light behind the hills in the east and the world was grainy and faded and everything was misty. Was the horse a dream?

It turned headlong towards him and shook its mane and said,


The horse was not a dream.

“Hey, buddy.”


Easy Life wandered off into the morning fog; there was, he remembered, a particularly tasty bush that grew in the foothills. Little purple berries that grew in clusters, just rip the whole thing off in your teeth, so yummy. He had also noticed a lot of chipmunks, and he was absolutely gagging for one. Salty and good, he liked to stomp on ’em real quick and sneaky-like, then he’d slurp the gooey mess up. And grass. Easy Life loved him some grass: it was a classic for a reason, he thought. Couldn’t improve on it.

Cannot Swim decided to wonder about the horse after he had taken a piss. He slipped his feet into his moccasins and walked south from the cave about ten feet and pulled aside his breachcloth. Steam issued from the junction of the stream and the tree. He was bare-chested, and the chill had miniaturized his nipples. His hair was loose, and touched his collarbone. There was a leather bracelet on each of his wrists, green-and-yellow beading. He shook his dick, pulled the breachcloth back, stretched. Mouth tasted like a dead fish’s asshole, so he kept going south to the small stream a few hundred yards off.

There were finches and sparrows and rails and coots. There were aspen and pine and nutmeg and oak, and above them the redwood asserting its prerogative. Jackrabbit 50 feet off, twitching and staring, and Cannot Swim picked up a rock and swiveled to throw it but remembered that he had not built a fire and chucked the rock high. The rabbit skittered off into the fog.

He would have nailed it, too. The Pulaski had only recently been introduced to rifles and metal knives, and the tribe’s hunters still practiced the old ways. Just in case. Bullets were finite, but there’s always the old ways. Up to around 10 pounds? Rock would do it. Trick is not missing. The Pulaski threw sidearm, because that is the natural way of throwing, and thus no Pulaski at all ever required Tommy John surgery. They had the sling. Not a slingshot with a boingy rubber carriage–the Pulaski did not have rubber–but a sling made from one long string of braided dogsbane. In the middle was a rectangle of deerhide, slightly depressed to cradle a stone, and the thrower would gather both ends in his hand and whirl once, twice, and then release one end of the cord. It was easier to take a deer with a bow than with a sling, but only because you had more target: an arrow could hit the brain or the lungs or the heart for a kill shot, but the rock had to hit skull. And it usually wouldn’t kill the deer outright, just massively concuss it, so sometimes you’d have to follow the staggering animal for a few miles until it dropped. The Pulaski had several ways to fish; the women did the fishing. Hooks made from bone, and spears topped with flint. They only took from the lake, not from the harbor with its steep dropoffs into the water and deep draw.

And the bear.

The last California grizzly died in 1922. Bird-watcher said he spotted one in 1924, but there was no scat or hair or other evidence. The Whites shot them indiscriminately. Set traps for them and bashed their heads in with the butts of their rifles. Poisoned the bears, regardless of whether they were boar or sow or baby, and sold the pelts without eating the meat, or carving the bones into jewelry and fishhooks, or cooking with the fat. The Pulaski were exterminated long before the grizzly was extirpated; the bears still walked the hills around the village and the rolling fields and forests to the south. Cannot Swim had been on several bear hunts.

The dogs did the work. Black Eyes was the lead. Gray and over a hundred pounds with a patch of dark fur across her eyes like a burglar’s mask. Three others, just as big but not as smart. Nine Pulaski men and women and children following the dogs. Long wooden spears with sharpened points. The whole party wandered around the woods until Black Eyes got the scent, and then her shoulders edged downwards and her ass stuck up with her tail straight towards the sky, and the other dogs would mimic her, and the humans crouched, and then there was a trail that the humans could not see but it was there that led to the grizzly. The dogs would harry it but the grizzly would not climb a tree like the black bear. The grizzly would fight, and that is what the dogs were for. They would work as a team, circling the bear, snapping at it and dodging and biting and exhausting it. Then came the spears.

Cannot Swim had no spear, and he had no knife, and he had no rock in hand. Just a taste of shit in his mouth and a bare chest and loose hair. He knelt at the stream and put his head down to drink. The water was frigid and fast, and he swirled it around in his mouth, spat, swirled, spat, scooped it up and splashed it on his face. When he opened his eyes, there was a man on the other side of the stream, he was on a horse that was bones with the skin draped over and the man was similarly emaciated, but with a wild beard and eyes the color of cannibalism, and both the man and the horse were on fire.

He blinked and then they weren’t there at all.


“I was so ready.”

“I was psyched,” Harry Gardner said.

“You look psyched, baby,” Capolina Gardner told him. He didn’t; Harry was pale and sweat had stained the armpits and neck of his burgundy tee-shirt. He was not good with confrontation, and Harry and Capolina had come to Harcourt Place to do some confronting, but there was a CLOSED sign hanging in the window of the Kinderfleisch butcher shop, even though it was getting on to noon and all around them was commerce. The two of them deflated in the doorway, peered into the darkened shop with its long, glass case and heavy, metal scales and hanging, tubular meats. They had come to speak to Sidney Shines. Harry and Capolina had seen Sidney, spherical with a flat cap and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, out of the corners of their eyes: he was across the street, but then gone; in the booth across the dining room at the Victory Diner, facing the opposite direction but sneaking peaks via the mirrors. He owned the shop, and had been stalking Harry for a few weeks and also had plastered the neighborhood with scary flyers about werewolfs.

Harry was a werewolf.

So they had come down to Harcourt Place to engage in direct action, which is the best kind of action and the most efficacious kind of action and also occasionally leads to everyone in the country starving to death. Petitions, protests, pamphleteering: all worthwhile and something to do on long afternoons, but for best results? Direct action is your choice. When the people practice direct action, it’s called a movement; when just a few people do, it’s called terrorism or a surgical strike, depending on who’s telling the story. All the editorials and sermons in Boston didn’t affect the British as much as a dozen drunk assholes in Indian costumes hucking beverages into the harbor.

But Harry and Capolina weren’t particularly skilled in, or suited for, direct action. She was a nurse, which meant she was a reactor by nature, and he enjoyed staying inside and drawing happy goats. They were neither Machiavellians, nor Leninists. They had not read the Melian Dialogues. They were not schooled in power, and so had not come up with much of a plan for confronting Sidney Shines besides walking into his shop and saying “What the fuck, man?”

They had argued about whether or not to bring a gun.

“What if we need it?”

“We’re not gonna need a gun,” Capolina said.

“But what if we do?”

“We don’t have a gun.”

“We’ll get one,”

“We won’t, baby.”

“He’ll have a knife. It’s a butcher shop.”

“No gun. Drop it.”

He was sprawled on the couch in the living room of their cottage on Bailey Street staring at the ceiling; he was barefoot and shirtless, and his left arm draped over the back of the sofa, and Harry said very softly,

“Maybe we just get out of town for the full moon.”

Capolina was getting ready for work, and everything she needed was everywhere. She was going to be an organized person, she really was, and it was going to happen any minute. Until then, her wallet was in the kitchen for some reason, and her shoes were in the bedroom, and her backpack was in the living room, so she was wandering around the house picking up after herself when Harry said that. She said,


And she walked to the living room where the couch was, where Harry was, and laid on top of him in her scrubs. The belly of her top rode up and the skin of her stomach was pressed against his, and she stuck her face right in his, kissed him, pulled back, said,

“We run this month, we run next month.”

Kissed him again, and he didn’t mind.

“And forever. Fuck that.”


“Fuck him. We live here. We’re not running.”


Harry kissed her back, a greedy kiss, and she said,

“And we don’t have the money to go way every month.”

He sat up, throwing his arms around her, and then they were both upright on the couch and he said,

“We could go camping. That’s cheap.”

Capolina pushed herself away from him and snorted and said,

“First of all, you don’t even like going outside. Second of all, I do not camp. When have you ever heard me talk about camping in any sort of positive manner? I don’t wanna sleep in the woods, baby. Third, camping stuff is expensive. For the money it would cost to buy camping stuff, we could stay in a hotel.”


“Yeah, probably. Still better than sleeping in the woods.”

“I’ve actually never been camping.”

“Me either. But I know it sucks,” Capolina said. “So we’re too poor for hotels, and too civilized for the forest. I guess–”

She kissed him.

“–we gotta stay here.”

And they stayed there for a little while, loitering in the doorway of the shop, knocking on the glass and rattling the door handle, until they began to feel self-conscious of the pedestrians’ assay and walked north on Harcourt Place until they hit Ataturk Street, where they began holding hands, and headed west for two blocks until they hit the Main Drag.

“Should we go back later?”

“I gotta work, baby,” Capolina said.

“I don’t wanna go alone.”


She was sure that the butcher would walk Harry into the freezer and chain him up if he went alone. Harry had been talked into time-shares and multi-level marketing schemes and couldn’t resist a good three-card monty game, which is why Capolina did not tell him where the checkbook was. She loved him, but he was suggestible.

“I think he’s coming for me tomorrow,” Harry said.


“Tomorrow night.”


They walked around an impromptu wrestling match between two women, both named Angela. Greco-Roman rules were in effect, and there was wagering; no one on the Downside had enough room in their apartments to get up to serious bullshit, and so they took it to the street.

“How do you think werewolf tastes?”

“Like werechicken,” Capolina answered, and he kissed her because he loved her, and then Harry said,

“I want ice cream,” because he wanted ice cream, and she thought that was a terrific idea and said,

“That’s a terrific idea,” and kissed him back.

Little Earl Callaway opened up the Grande Marquis in 1962 on the junction of the Upside and the Downside: the place was real clean, but also took food stamps. The Grande Marquis–no one had the balls to tell Little Earl that “Grande Marquis” did not mean “Supermarket” in French–was Jet Set-era convenience: all your food at once. In the old days, you went to the butcher’s, and the baker’s, and the dry goods place, and then got kicked in the head by a horse or scalped by a Comanche. Leave the old days in the old days, Little Earl used to bellow. An American should be able to get all the components of a sandwich in one trip, he would further bellow. Fresh meat, and seafood. The produce was misted with water once an hour to make it look delicious and new, and there were signs next to the produce explaining where it was from and the voyage it had taken to get to the neighborhood. There was a pharmacy that no one ever thought to rob. Occasionally, old folks would entomb themselves in the freezers in hope of achieving some sort of cut–rate cryogenesis, but only occasionally.

Little Earl employed a small but fiercesome army of bounty hunters to retrieve purloined shopping carts.

Harry Gardner opened the freezer door and reached in: there was tutti-frutti, and cookies-and-cream, and rocky road, but beyond that was peach, which is what he wanted, and the pint slid past the others and on the label was a man and his horse, drawn and deathly the both of them, and flames all around them which would not consume them no matter how long they burned, and the man held a pike and the horse held the man, and the fire did no damage but belonged to them entirely, and he said,


But she was in the cereal aisle, and did not hear him.

“Assure me that I have your complete attention.”

“You want me to jerk off while I stare in your eyes?”

“I’ve never told you how much I appreciate your sense of humor,” Mr. Leopard said.

“You haven’t.”

He looked at The Purveyor, said nothing, scratched at an imperceptible imperfection on the blotter of his empty desk. Mr. Leopard’s office in the restaurant with no name was just as barren and impersonal as his office at Town Hall, but there wasn’t even a window. Desk with a chair behind it. Chair in front of the desk. Pad, empty. Phone. Calendar on the wall. File cabinet.

“So. You will deliver tomorrow night.”


Under the desk, Mr. Leopard’s feet were bare, and his toes flexed.


“The deal is fucked,” The Purveyor said.

“The deal is the deal.”

“That’s reductionist.”

Above the desk, Mr. Leopard engaged in no motion. He was still in his black suit, and his back did not touch the chair; he had proper posture.

“I don’t know anything about philosophy,” Mr. Leopard said. “I’m just a simple restaurateur.”

“I want more money,” The Purveyor said.

“Don’t we all?”

“I followed them to my shop this morning. They’re on to me. They’re gonna be fucking careful and it’s gonna be more difficult.

The full moon was the following evening and The Purveyor was not letting his quary out of his site until then, so he had closed up his shop.

“This is not my problem.”

“Fuck whose problem it is. It’s your responsibility.”

Outside, the kitchen was spotless and quiet, the most junior cook doing the prep: carrots and potatoes and radishes, all chopped in very particular ways. The dining room was waiting and still.

Mr. Leopard tented his fingers in front of him. Each one had an extra knuckle.

“I’m getting the message that you are incapable of the task.”

“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

“How did you know about my horse?”

“I want more fucking money.”


“The Purveyor!”

“–you’ll just waste it.”

The Purveyor unscrewed the cigarette from the corner of his mouth and ashed–tap tap tap–on the carpet and said,

“I know you’ve already sold the meat. You got a big party coming in expecting werewolf. Your reputation’s on the line.

He screwed the cigarette back in.

“I want more fucking money.”

Cannot Swim was on his ass. The stream was in front of him and his hands were behind him, holding him up; he searched around for the starved man and horse, and the fire that belonged to them, but there were just squirrels and maples and jackdaws and jays and thrashers fighting for space in the branches of the wood; the fog was burning off and he could see for miles through the brown trunks of the trees and the green afros of the shrubs, and there was no one there at all.


There was a horse.

“You see that?”


Cannot Swim stood up and brushed himself off, and then he walked over to Easy Life and scratched his neck. In the small depression where he had slept were his satchel and his tunic, and Cannot Swim fetched them and dressed himself while praying to the Turtle That Was And Will Be Once More, and then he began walking up what would be called Mt. Chastity. Easy Life followed him.

“You’re coming?”



The boy and the horse went up the mountain, one of seven that would one day be called the Segovian Hills, and form a natural barrier against the rest of the world for a place called Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

All Around The World In Little Aleppo

“They say it’s a small world, but you can’t trust ’em. Never listen to what they say! They tell you that you only use ten percent of your brain, and they tell you not to talk to strangers, and they tell you that you can’t be a man cuz’ you doesn’t smoke the came cigarettes they do. They? Nothin’ but trouble, cats and kittens.

“Listen to your pal Frankie Nickels on KHAY–Hey!–cuz you know she ain’t gonna steer you towards the rocks. And if I do, well: you know where I am. When they tell you lies and falsehoods, you got no recourse. I sell you a bill of goods, you can come find me in the Victory Diner after the show.

“So. They say it’s a small world, but that’s a lie. World’s the size of a damn planet. Here’s how big the world is: you can fit Texas inside it.

“25,000 miles. Which, for all you metric system folks out there, is a certain number of kilometers. I don’t know, and I ain’t looking it up, and I resent you even asking ha ha ha. Look down, look at your feet. See where you’re standing? Start walking. Doesn’t matter which direction. Keep walking, and when you are finally back in that same place you started: 25,000 miles.

“This is assuming you are the Lord Christ, of course, since there’s a bit of water in your way.

“So you can’t hoof it. That means for the first 99% of human history and pre-history–all that time we was a-percolating in Africa and a-propagating ourselves outward–nobody did it. Gotta invent boats first, and I mean good ones. We figured out canoes and kayaks and all sorts of little skiffs to go fishing off the coast with, travel up and down the river, but this is open ocean traveling that Frankie Nickels is talking about! There’s krakens and whatnot out there!

“Whole lotta other stuff gotta happen before you cross the ocean. Gotta invent the compass. Chart the stars. Figure out latitude. Longitude ain’t as important. You can get along without longitude, but you’re stuck in the harbor without latitude. Gotta invent sails. Can’t row across the Atlantic.

“A boat’s just a floating pile of other people’s discoveries, ha ha ha.

“So now you got a boat. Now you can cross an ocean.

“But why would anyone want to?

“The spice, cats and kittens. Ginger and cinnamon and tumeric and pepper. Nothing had any damn flavor back then, cats and kittens, least not in Europe! Rabbit, goat, couple different kinds of birds. I suppose you got beets. Celery. Not much to arouse the palate, you get me? But there were spices, wild and exotic flavors, and they was growing like weeds in Asia. He who controls the spice, controls the universe. And he who controlled the spice was the Arabs.

“It mostly came overland, but there were some sea routes. From Java and Maluku and India. The spice came in via the Byzantine Empire, which was really just the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire, and it landed in Venice, which was really just the remnants of the Western Roman Empire.


“Until 1452, when the Ottomans took Constantinople. Suddenly, life got a lot more complicated for all the good Christian merchants and businessmen in Europe. What we gotta do, they thought, is find a way around the Middle East. Go directly to the source. Hit up those heathens on the Spice Islands our ownselves, ‘stead of being end users.

“Portuguese were leading the pack. They always were a seafaring people. First Europeans to sail to India. Take a left at the Cape of Good Hope, can’t miss it, ha ha ha. Then they sailed around India, too. Made it to China and the Philippines. Got all the way to Japan. Africa financed all their adventures. Portuguese found gold. Sugarcane. Portuguese found Africans. Healthy market for all three commodities, and the caravels spread all across the globe.

“In 1511, they took a port city on the Malay peninsula called Malacca. It’s all strategic and whatnot. That’s not important. I’m just setting up the context of what I’m talking about here. Can’t play the game ’til someone paints a field, right?

“Malacca was controlled by a Sultan, but 1200 men and 8 ships firing their cannons at you’ll put an end to that Sultan nonsense toot sweet. Now Malacca belongs to the Portuguese, one of whom was a fellow you learned about in grade school named Ferdinand Magellan, ‘cept he wasn’t named that cuz he was Portuguese so his name was Fernão de Magalhães, but I can’t pronounce that right so we’ll just call him Magellan.

“Anyway, the winners plundered the city. As winners often do, ha ha ha. Magellan got himself some titles and a whole hunk of gold and jewels and finery, but the important bit is this: Magellan got himself a slave.

“Who is the hero of our story.

“This fellow’s actual name is lost to history. Dunno what his mother called him, but Magellan called him Enrique. He might have been from Sumatra, which is the next island over from Malacca. No one’s ever gonna know. Magellan baptized him, but the record does not show whether it took.

“Either way, Enrique follows Magellan back to Europe and here’s where you gotta start thinking about what kind of man this Enrique fellow is. Couple years they’re together, in a whole lotta locations. Morroco being one of them. Now: Enrique was working in Malacca, which was controlled by the Arabs. We’re assuming he wasn’t just some dude Magellan picked up off the street. Meaning Enrique probably spoke a little Arabic, but he didn’t ditch out on Magellan while they were in Casablanca.

“Maybe it was a beautiful friendship, ha ha ha.

“Long story short, Magellan’s working for the Spanish. Wore out his welcome back home. You know how that goes, cats and kittens. Happens to the best of us.

“Portuguese went east? The Spanish are gonna go west. They know the Americas are there, and they knew the Pacific was there, but they didn’t know how much Pacific there was.

“Five ships set out from Seville in August of 1519. The Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepcion, Santiago, and VictoriaTrinidad was the flagship, and that’s the one Magellan and Enrique were on. You know those boats they got nowadays with the ice skating rinks and comedy clubs in ’em? Yeah, well, these weren’t those. Three masts and hardtack and buggery.

“Took ’em until December to reach Brazil, and once they got there half the damn crew started mutinizing. Magellan had the captains who led it crucified.

“Remember, we’re talking about the old days here.

Santiago gets wrecked. Through Tierra del Fuego to the this giant blue forevermore before them, and Magellan calls it Mar Pacifico. We been calling it that ever since. The San Antonio sees this immense bit of nothing in front of it and decides to desert.

“Three ships set out for Asia. How far could it be?

“They left South America in November and landed in the Philippines in March. There ain’t nothing in between those two addresses, cats and kittens, at least nothing that Magellan and his crew came upon. Just that ocean paying you no mind day after day. Gives me the shivers.

“Anyway, they get to the Philippines and Enrique can kinda speak the language. He’s translating the best he can when Magellan gets himself into some dopey intertribal warfare, and wouldn’t you know: that man got himself killed. This is a place called Cebu. Now, Magellan had left a will and in that will, he had freed Enrique, but the next in command didn’t quite see it that way. Guy named John Serrano. Said Enrique was too valuable to the mission, and that Enrique belonged to him now.

“And Enrique said, ‘Yes, boss. Sure, boss. What’s the plan, boss?’

“So this John Serrano fellow sends Enrique to go make peace with the natives who killed Magellan.

“Enrique says, ‘Sure, boss. Whatever you say, boss.’ Goes ashore, talks to the natives for a bit, comes back to the boat with great news. ‘They want to apologize. They want to throw you a banquet, boss.’

“This fellow John Serrano takes a whole bunch of the crew and goes ashore.

“Bad idea, boss.

“The ships hoist sail and skeedaddle, but there’s so many dead that they don’t have enough crew for all three ships. The Concepcion gets burned and left behind. Trinidad gets wrecked off Africa. Only the Victoria makes it home, three years after it left. But who cares about them? We’re talking about Enrique.

“Cebu, you see, is only about 1,500 miles from Malacca. Enrique started in Malacca. Went west to Portugal. West to South America. West to the Philippines. He went west for 23,500 miles and talked some strangers into shooting the bastards who caught him up in the first place.

“You think he couldn’t find his way another 1,500 miles?

“I think he did. I bet Enrique had a bit of gold secreted away. He spoke a whole bunch of languages. There was trading going on all over the area. Quick hop from Cebu to Brunei to Singapore to Malacca. And then maybe even back to Sumatra. I bet Enrique got to hear his momma call him by his real name at the end of his adventure.

“And that’s all the way around, cats and kittens. Circumnavigation, your grade school teacher called it. Can’t be proven, but it’s as good a story as any you’re gonna hear for free, ha ha ha .

“You wanna hear some music?


“Me, too. Let’s get some rock and roll music going on the Frankie Nickels Show on KHAY–Hey!–where it don’t matter where you came from, but where you end up.”

Got My Teevee Eye On Little Aleppo

In the desert, an old man sat in the dark. There was nothing between your eyes and the universe, not in the desert, nothing blocking the sun or blotting the stars, and the horizon was without towns and highways, so nighttime was still a motherfucker, out here in the desert, out here in the Low Desert in a modernist house slung low around a pool and cut off from a street called Pinyon Way by a ten-foot wall made of expensive cinderblock and topped with fan-tail palms that spread their fronds like photosynthetic jazz hands. Nothing to see here.

Two washingtonia robusta trees shared a root system, all twined into one another. Each was a hundred feet tall with seams every eight feet and a great green crown atop, and each leant away from the other in the acute angle of a set-top teevee antenna.

And the cameras were there, he was in the studio, he was in Studio City, the guard on the gate was named Terry, he was sure of that, Terry. He drove himself in those days. The microphones weighed hundreds of pounds. Dressing room over here–the walls were temporary, but the couch was swanky–and the band was over there. Control room was beyond the lights which got so hot. The air conditioner rumbled between takes. Had to cake on the makeup in those days, this grey-bluish chalk that took three washings to get off.

The Tommy Amici Show was a half-hour, or sometimes the full hour; once it was 45 minutes long. Television hadn’t gotten its shit together in ’52; the world was much less professional. 8 o’clock on Tuesday nights, live and in two colors, to almost a million sets across America. Tommy had been a bust in movies, and so they gave him a television show.

Jews ran the movie industry, but television was still based out of New York, and so Wasps were in charge. Colonel Lumley ran the Network. It was 1952 and the bastard hadn’t taken his uniform off yet. Closest he got to the fighting was negotiating with the Musicans’ Union over the late show at the Stage Door Canteen on 44th Street. The colonel didn’t care for Tommy, but he had a slot to fill and Tommy had a sponsor, Arrow beer, and so Tommy had a show.

It was what they called a variety show–they don’t truly exist any longer–and they were vehicles for celebrated personalities, usually singers. As many songs as they could get away with, plus a skit or two and some light banter; Tommy was supremely capable of the first, but the second and third requirements were well beyond his grasp. He could sing, and women wanted to fuck him; neither skill lent itself to sketch comedy, especially because Tommy was not funny. Which is not to say people did not laugh at his jokes: they did, and loudly. But Tommy was not funny, and so the audience would not laugh. This would confuse him. At rehearsal, all the guys had laughed their asses off at that line! It was funny! Ah, what do these hayseeds know? And then Tommy would try giving the crowd the shpritz, but all of his jokes were stolen from his buddy, the insult comic Herbie Slott (formerly Herschel Slotnick), but ethnic insults are different coming from a tiny, bald, spherical man than they are from a clearly enraged nightclub singer who arrived to the taping surrounded by goons.

The audience had cooled on Tommy Amici. America had cooled. The last string of movies were all flops. The Modern Man’s Guide To Dames was supposed to be a Cary Grant-style comedy, but Tommy fought with the director and fucked his costar (and also fought with her) and couldn’t do comedy no matter whose style it was. Southwinds! was a musical, which should have worked, but the music was treacle and, instead of letting him sing, the director had Tommy dance, which Tommy could not do. He played a doctor who falls in love with his nurse in Heart Surgery; this is often regarded as one of the worst casting mistakes of all time because Tommy: A, did not know how to pronounce any of the medical words, and B, refused to read his script, rehearse, or do more than one take.

And there were character issues. This was 1952: there were different rules for celebrities. Certain things they could get away with as long as they maintained a proper sense of decorum. Drunkenness, fucking around on your wife, that sort of thing. Don’t bring your hooker to Chasen’s, basically. Other hobbies, such as homosexuality and hopheadedness, were completely inexcusable. Ixnay on the Communism, obviously.

But Tommy didn’t give a fuck about the rules, except for the ones about Commies, homos, and drugs. Tommy hated Commies, homos, and drugs. (“Drugs,” of course, meaning marijuana and dope, and not the pills his doctors prescribed.) And he also followed the rule about not getting too drunk in public, but that was due to his constitution.

It was the fucking around that got him.

He’d met Cara Thorn at the Borderline Casino & Lodge in Lake Tahoe; she was waiting out a Nevada divorce, and he was singing and checking out an investment opportunity. Headliners make a lot of money, but not as much as the guy who pays them, and Tommy wanted to be the boss, but he didn’t have the cash to be the boss, so he called a friend, who was called The Friend.

“It’s the perfect business.”

“A casino? Yeah, I know,” The Friend said. “I own several.”

“So let’s buy this one. It’s for sale.”

“Is it?”

“Everything’s for sale.”


The pants of Tommy’s tuxedo had creases that would slice a hummingbird in half, and they were on a cedar hanger across the dressing room. Sheer black socks reached just below his knees and stuck out from under his thick yellow robe. He sipped from a itty-bitty cup of espresso. The Friend did, too, but he was in a suit.

“Tommy, you don’t have any fucking money.”

“I’m doing okay,” he huffed.

The Friend set his itty-bitty cup on the makeup mirror in its saucer, next to his borsalino hat, which was dark-blue on dark-blue.

“Oh. Because I own ten percent of you, Tommy. And lately, that ain’t shit. So…are you telling me that you’re ripping me off?”

You could hear the orchestra warming up through the closed door.

“That’s not what I’m saying. No. That’s not–”

“Tommy, I’m fucking with you!”

“–what I’m saying…you’re funny.”

“Maybe I should write you some jokes.”

“I got Jews for that,” Tommy said, dreaming of the moment when he would be the most important person in the room again. Tommy Amici used to be Tomas Valenzuela from Little Aleppo, and then he met The Friend, and now he lived in New York and Los Angeles and wherever else he fucking wanted, and all it cost him was ten percent off the top. Amazing what a good friend could do, and The Friend had ’em all over the place. Teamster’s locals that used to throw Tommy’s rivals’ records out the back of the truck when do one was looking. Men who owned nightclubs and radio stations, and the men who hauled away their garbage; the latter could be deployed against the former in case of recalcitrance. Cops and reporters, too. It was always good to be friends with cops and reporters.

Tommy continued,

“You see that crowd out there?”

“You can surely pack ’em in, kid.”

“And it’s a class crowd. Money crowd. I hang around, do some shows every month or so, bring in some pals. We’ll make a fortune.”

The Friend picked up his itty-bitty cup, threw back the dregs of the coffee.

“Tommy, this is a legitimate place. You need a license here. All kinds of paperwork to get through, and you know how I hate that.”

“License’ll be in my name. That’s the whole selling point. It’s gonna be my place.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Places, Mr. Amici.”

Tommy stood up and slipped off his robe. The shirt had just buttons, no studs poking through the buttonholes like a groom at a middle-class wedding, and he fixed his bow-tie in the mirror. Pants on, and then The Friend helped him into the jacket with its high arm-holes and creamy silk lapels. One last look in the mirror, and The Friend had the door open for Tommy.

The hallway was full of his goons. Everyone waited in the hallways when Tommy talked to The Friend.

“Fuck ’em up, kid.”

“Always. You’ll think about it?”

“I’m thinking about it as we speak,” The Friend said, which was not true: he had already decided to buy the casino. As it related to Tommy Amici’s career, this would prove the second most disastrous decision made in the Borderline Casino & Lodge that night. The first was when the maitre d’ of the showroom sat Cara Thorn all the way up front. Especially in that yellow dress.

What’s wrong with falling in love besides everything?

If they had snuck around, maybe. Neither knew how. They stole a police car that night. Fights in nightclubs, and screaming matches on jets to Spain, and more screaming on jets out of Spain after being thrown out of the country for calling Franco a queer, and heated reconciliations in crowded restaurants. They fucked on the buffet at Archie’s one night, which the gossip pages translated into “canoodling.” Tommy still had the balls to act incredulous when Theresa slapped him with the divorce papers. It was one thing for two Hollywood nutjobs to split up after 8 months of marriage–that was precisely what Cara was doing–but to leave your family for some sexpot movie star?

Records stopped selling, and without hits you don’t get first choice of material, which led to weaker singles, and this in turn brought sales down even further. The movie studios were delighted to stop calling. No more drunken, surly Tommy wandering around the lot fucking his way through the steno pool and having his boys throw writers through windows? No more directors in tears because Tommy called his costar a whore and won’t learn his lines? No more crackly, expensive international calls with panicky details about Tommy’s latest disappearance from the set? Good riddance to Little Aleppo trash, the movie studios thought.

Tommy didn’t care. Followed her to Paris. She was shooting Begin The Baguette. She was miscast, he told her. She threw a lamp at him. The next morning, Cara told the director she had been miscast and demanded to switch roles with the blonde, Lila McTear. He refused; Tommy threw a lamp at him. She flirted with the lead, a big chesty fellow named Roy Strompers that usually played cowboys, and Tommy fucked her makeup girl and they chased each other through the 8th Arrondissement in stolen Citroens. The Friend had no friends at all in the 8th Arrondissement, and so there were pictures in the papers.

No movies, and not even a radio show. The clubs–he’d always have the clubs–but his price had dropped for the first time.

And now the cameras–two of them!–with their rude lights all pressed up into your face, and all these wandering nobodies, technicians, whoevers filling every nook of the stage under the crude, harsh lights with B-list guests. June Mayfield, the Irvine Boys, Topper Most: no one was buying a set for those names. Tommy wouldn’t piss on ’em if they were drowning, but now he was sharing a spotlight with ’em. Doing sketches. Jesus, sketches. Not like goofing around onstage with Herbie and Geno, no: there were setups and punchlines and timing involved, the kind of shit that required rehearsal, but if Tommy wasn’t going to rehearse for a movie then he certainly wasn’t showing up for rehearsal for telefuckingvision.

It was ten o’clock Back East, and the announcer cried in the profoundest bass,

“IT’S…the Tommy Amici Show! With Tommy’s special guests: the Hayworth Triplets! Ansour Fine! Gerry MacGillicuddy! Music by Van Cantwell and the Radford Orchestra! And now…here’s Tommy!”

And there he was. Still godawful skinny and wearing a downright teenaged toupee. His jaw jittered back and forth, and he had no idea what to do with his big hands: into the pockets, clasped in front, down at sides, random gestures; his skull bandied about. There was no color teevee in 1952, but the audience in the soundstage didn’t know that, just stared at Tommy’s eyes, which were green as the Verdance in the summer, and they forgave him for everything and anything just as long as he’d sing.

Tommy wouldn’t forgive them. He didn’t forgive people he liked, so why should he grant absolution to strangers? He smiled and sang and suffered sketches, all the while seething for two seasons. Teevee. How fucking dare you make me do teevee? Because I left my wife? Fuck you; you never did for a woman what I did for Theresa and the kids. They got the house, they’re taken care of. None of them are ever gonna want for anything. Fuck your moral bullshit. Jealous. You wanna fuck her, he thought. Or be her.

But you can’t. She’s mine.

She’s mine, an old man mumbled in the dark. The Low Desert gets dark at night; there is not much civilization and there is so much desert, so it gets very dark at night. The nurse was in the next room. She had the pills, and she flipped the records. His records. The turntable was in the next room, with the nurse, and she would come in if he called out, but he did not, just smiled for the cameras that pressed themselves into his face even now in the Jeremiad Springs, which is three days by horse from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Raining And Reigning In Little Aleppo

The man in black moseyed across the Main Drag, and the pickpocket followed. Not too close, and not quite precise–the pickpocket wandered and weaved and pretended to read his folded-up Cenotaph on the move–but the man in black never left his sights. He had chosen a tough mark for his Mark, or at least a tough day: the rain made everything except gardening more difficult, but this would only improve the pickpocket’s status if he could succeed.

Picking a man’s pockets caused cognitive dissonance in Little Aleppians. The act was, according to any honest onlooker, technically impressive, not even mentioning the balls it took. While clipping wallets didn’t have the panache of cat burglary or confidence artistry, it was at least a semi-stylish crime; even if it produced the same effect as a mugging, it wasn’t as rude. Hell, everyone in the neighborhood had read the Fingers Foy books. (Fingers was both the best and worst pickpocket in the world: best in that no one ever caught him; worst in that he always managed to steal some sort of valuable macguffin–secret plans, maybe, or an evil microchip–in the first chapter that thrust him into another dangerous adventure.)

On the other hand, one’s pockets were sacrosanct.

So the rules came to be: locals were to be left alone (commuters and regular guests counted as locals) and only the correct visitors could be relieved of their possessions. Teens from neighboring locales who came in to see a show at the Absalom could not be robbed, but the band definitely could. A potential homebuyer along with the real estate agent were off-limits, but the asshole from the chain coffee place looking for a site from which to overcharge people was fair game. Any and all journalists that didn’t work for the Cenotaph or KSOS were stripped of their wallets and watches with haste and glee.

The pickpockets drank at the Seven Bells on the Downside, which was Little Aleppo’s home for semi-organized crime. Organized crime was the purview of the large gentlemen at Cagliostro’s, and unorganized crime didn’t have a set meeting place, but semi-organized crime was run out of the Seven Bells. Gloria Daio tended bar; she could nod at the right scumbag for you if you had a twenty and weren’t a cop, fifty if you were. The kid had impressed the older criminals: he looked like a pickpocket, which is to say completely unnoticeable even if you were looking right at him, and that is the toughest hurdle of the racket. Techniques can be learned, but if you were weird-looking or too big or too small, then you couldn’t be a pickpocket. And he was not a quick-hitter, which is to say a sneak-thief who used a razor blade to slice pockets and watchbands, no: he fanned and feathered and dipped and snagged. This was preferable: a cut-open back pocket left no doubt as to the whereabouts of the victim’s wallet, but an intact one provided only mystery. (“Perhaps it fell out,” some marks would say, and not file a police report. Others would go to the LAPD (No, Not That One) and the officer taking the report would say, “Perhaps it fell out.” Because they were good citizens, and community-minded, the pickpockets from the Seven Bells gave a healthy contribution to the Policeman’s Benevolent Fund each year.

They took pride in their work, the pickpockets did, or at least they took pride in their skills. Better to be the best at doing wrong than merely adequate at doing right, they thought. The killers made their bones, and the Pulaski served their Assignment, but the pickpockets chose their Mark.

“We play the real art shit when it rains.”


“Figured it out,” Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, said. “The truly punishing movies? The nine-hour Polish meditations on death and berry allergies? The stuff with, like, necropsies edited in because symbolism or whatnot? Everything Andy Warhol ever made?”

She took a hit off the joint and PHWOO blew it out and handed it to Big-Dicked Sheila, who was in the next barber’s chair.

“That shit has an unshakable audience. The people that wanna see that shit would walk through Hell to be there when the curtains open. Little rain won’t stop ’em. Unlike the rest of these pussies.”

“I disagree,” Sheila said. “Not pussy at all to not want to go out in the rain. That’s the sophisticated stand.”


“Yeah.” PHWOO. “Ever watch one of those nature documentaries where the wildebeest or whatever is just standing there while it rained? And you just think, ‘What a putz.’ Humans know enough to get in out of the rain. It’s one of our redeeming features, Gus.”

Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk had six chairs, three on each side, and two shampooing stations behind them. Up front was the register, and four chairs to wait in. Magazines were on the table, and polemics, too. Several manifestos had entered the public realm through Sheila’s waiting room. The floor was shiny black, and the walls were stark white; occasional and dramatic neon highlights: Sheila was the very first person in America to do a retro-80’s thing. She redecorated every 18 months, but always kept the pictures on the wall: there was the cranky bass player, and the actor who keeps gaining and losing weight, and that tennis player that went nuts.

“As is our invention of the umbrella, Sheel.”

“Do you know that the umbrella was originally used as a weapon by Filipinos?”

“You’re thinking of yo-yos.”

Sheila stared at a point in between her nose and God and said,

“Yeah, maybe.”

The women’s chairs were swiveled towards each other, and Gussy reached her foot out to Sheila’s shin, ran it up and down. Smooth as newly-poured highway. Sheila was not naturally hairy, but what follicles did thrive had been electrocuted long ago. Arms, legs, face, balls: zap that shit. Why fight a rearguard action when you could bomb the headquarters? she would have thought were she given to military-themed analogies. Sheila had a vision of herself in her mind, and if her did not agree, then her flesh could be made to agree.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care how much it hurts.

“No one?”



“Pretty much,” Sheila said. “Might get a walk-in, but all the appointments cancelled.”

“All of them?”


“And this happens every time it rains?”

“Every 18 days.”

“Why do you even take appointments, then?”

“Baby, I’m a slut for hope.”

The shop opened up onto the Main Drag, sodden and murky, where the man in black was bumped–Excuse me! My fault!–by a passerby on the sidewalk. Man smelled drunk, no wonder he’s sloshing around the way. What kind of neighborhood is this, anyway? And all around him were the most unnoticeable of sorts.

That was the wallet. The pickpocket had made its location immediately: it was a manly wallet, thick and packed with photos and receipts and lists and credit cards that no longer worked, must have weighed a pound and weighing down the right ass-pocket of the man in black’s trousers. That was the wallet. That was one, three to go.

Neither woman in the hair salon noticed, and, soon enough, Gussy had to leave for The Tahitian. She did not want to, wanted to go back upstairs to Sheila’s apartment and be naked, be naked and fuck until the sun went out, and she almost did not because when she kissed her goodbye, Sheila rushed her hand under her dress and started rubbing her pussy, and she grabbed Gussy’s hand by the wrist and shoved it under her dress so it was clutching her cock–Sheila was not playing fair in the slightest–and Gussy backed off but didn’t want to, and kissed her again and again, but then she put on her shoes and kissed her one more time, and out the door and left onto the Main Drag. Grabbed an umbrella on the way out.

Sheila’s salon was on the west side of the street, and The Tahitian was on the east. Three blocks between them. Gussy was annoyed with the umbrella. Black. Gussy hated black umbrellas. It was already raining, she thought. Why not be cheerful? Her dress was blue, and tight in the hip and low on her chest; the skirt was just above knee-length. Galoshes, childish-yellow, that she loved and made her almost–almost–look forward to the rains. (The pair of pumps in her backpack were the same shade.)

There was Arbogast and Nethers, the bespoke millinery; theories abounded as to how a store that only sold hats to rich ladies survived in Little Aleppo, but it had been there forever. Sheila thought they were aliens; Mr. Venable agreed. Precarious Lee was flat-out scared of the place.

Randy’s Record Barn did not have its crates of records out on the sidewalk for obsessives to flip through. You could not wash your chile rellenos down with a plastic pitcher of Arrow at the four little tables that usually sat outside of Mendoza’s.

The (fifth) First Bank of Little Aleppo, and the corner where Spotty Anthony was crushed by the piano in what local historians refer to as “the most needlessly over-complicated mob hit ever.” Vague and semi-evocative graffiti starring Gallic pituitary cases. The vacuum cleaner place, We Suck, and the hair dryer place, You Blow.

A lot can happen in three blocks.

It was neither Tuesday nor Friday, and so there was no Mother Mary drawing, and so the Broadside Newstand–which ran along the south wall of The Tahitian on Gower Avenue–was closed. Omar would not stand out in the rain all day like a dog. Argus (even though he was a dog) wouldn’t, either. When customers complained the day after the rains–and they always did–Omar would say,

“Yes, yes, You have a point, but I don’t give a shit.”

And Argus would back him up.


Occasionally, the customer would launch into a harangue about the pioneer spirit, and the hardships faced by our common ancestors, but Omar stuck to his guns.

“Tough life back then. But I don’t give a shit now.”


The shutters were down on the Broadside, and the shutters were down on The Tahitian; Gussy unlocked them and SHAKSHAKSHAK slid them up, one on each side of the box office, which had a thick wooden door latched shut behind the window with the circular cutout. The light switches were on the other side of the lobby, so she walked through darkness. No footsteps on the red carpeting with yellow shooting streaks, and no sun coming off the Main Drag; the high ceiling ate up all the light, and you could not see the chandelier. It was still.


And then it wasn’t.

“Whaaaaaat? I just walked in the door, Wally.”


Gussy flicked the row of switches: there was the lobby, same as it was in 1906 when her great-grandmother Augusta Incandescente-Ponui, who was also called Gussy, opened the theater. The carpet was different, and the paint, too, plus the snack bar was on the other side originally and the video games weren’t from 1906, obviously, but other than that everything was exactly the same.

“Of course you have. It’s artificial intelligence, not artificial stupidity.”


She ignored him and walked into her office. Switched her galoshes for her pumps.


“I would like you to do that, too.”


Wally used to be the Wall Of Sound, which was a sound system so famously silly that it got its own name; somewhere along the way–experts think Atlanta, or maybe that fronton in Miami–sentience was achieved and, it turns out, self-aware mondo-computers are much like ducks in that they imprint on the first creatures they see. Wally saw a gaggle of bush league hippies, and he’s been off-kilter ever since.

“Your previous attempts at assistance all included machine guns.”

There was a stack of photocopied paper on Gussy’s neat desk, in a wire basket top left, and she peeled off the top sheet and stuck it in the clipboard that was in the center of the desk. A pen was attached to the clipboard with red yarn and scotch tape. Checklists. Can’t go wrong with a checklist. Are there this many soda cups? If yes, check; if not, get more cups. Are there that many popcorn buckets? Has the balcony been booby-trapped?




“What does that mean?”


Gussy thought about having a cigarette, but Wally’s voice came through the walls and it wasn’t like she could hide from him anywhere in the building, so she walked out to the lobby.

“Explain yourself.”


“Go to it.”


“Absolutely not.”


“Good for you. Not interested.”

Gussy scooped coffee grounds into the percolator. Art film fans loved coffee.


“I can’t build you a robot. Have you tried calling Precarious?”


“The man ain’t dumb.”

The man in black exited Gildersleeve Spire, which everyone called Tower Tower and was the tallest, ugliest, and most hated building in the neighborhood. Concrete and steel on the outside; real estate developers and ad agencies inside: something for everyone to despise. It cast–for 17 days out of every 18–an immense shadow over the Main Drag, sweeping parabolically and according to the season.

He popped his black umbrella. It immediately became tangled with another, one held by a woman, a dainty orange number. He said, Pardon me, and she smiled and laughed–a very friendly laugh–and while they were entangled, the pickpocket lifted his watch. Two down, two to go.

“Circulonuminous inversion of the limbostratus.”


“It’s a real thing,” Rabbi Levy said. “Or, at least, people believe it’s a real thing. It’s real thing-adjacent.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones cocked an eyebrow and said,

“I took a meteorology class at college.”

“Me, too! Fascinating stuff.”

“And I’m almost positive that what you just said is made up.”

“It might be. There’s a whole bunch of explanations as to why it rains every 18 days.”

The rabbi and the reverend were in the First Church of the Iterated Christ, which was west of the Main Drag on Rose Street. The gloom sulked through the stained glass in the sanctuary. The pews were in shadows, and the crucifix above the bema, too. There was a necktie on Jesus; it was pink, with a brunette Vargas girl painted on.

That day, Lenny Levy, who was a rabbi, had counseled a young couple who were going to be married the following week; Arcade Jones, who was a reverend, had broken up two knife fights at the Knifefighters Anonymous meeting, and prayed deeply about whether or not he could continue hosting that particular group. Earnest Hubbs, who was a handyman who had arrived at the First Church with the Jews, unclogged the downstairs toilet–this was also the fault of Knifefighters Anonymous–and laid on his neatly-made bed reading a cheap science-fiction novel, one of those space operas where inertia doesn’t matter. Kischka, who was a cat, took three big naps and six small naps. Emergency, who was a dog, took two naps but mostly stuck close to the reverend. Mrs. Fong, who was Mrs. Fong, answered the phone, but not well, and also took two naps.

“The Communists say that the People are responsible. The Capitalists say it’s the Market. Geologists say the mountains are the key, but the oceanologists think the harbor is the important factor. Philosophers swear that the rains mean something, but gardeners just depend on them. Hell on small business-owners, but great for novelists: hang a story on ’em, set the mood, whatever.”


“Whole lotta whatever to Little Aleppo, Reverend.”

There were two couches in the office, and they were sad items. Springs cock-eyed and cushions turned over again and again. One was brown-and-orange, and the other was orange-and-brown; they did not match at all; both had served previous, more dignified, careers in private homes before being donated to the First Church years ago. Rabbi Levy sat on one, and the Reverend Arcade Jones took up all of the other except for a little corner that Emergency had wedged himself into. He was the color of rusty gold with a wet black nose, and he was dog-sized. Some dogs are the size of horses, and they only live for a few years; other dogs are the size of rats, and they are little shits, but the best dogs are the size that dogs should be. The proper size for a dog is like pornography: you know it when you see it.

Emergency had his head laying on Arcade’s thigh.

“I didn’t grow up here.”

“You’re fitting in quite nicely,” the rabbi said, and the reverend threw back his head and laughed so loudly and suddenly that he startled Mrs. Fong, who was beginning her third nap. She snatched up the receiver of the telephone.

“First Church of the Iterated Christ?”

“That wasn’t the phone, Mrs. Fong,” Arcade said.

“First Church of the Iterated Christ? Hello?”

“That wasn’t…um, wrong number. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, okay. Bless you!”

Mrs. Fong hung up the phone and reintegrated back into the nap she had begun.

“You hungry?”

“I could eat,” the reverend said.

“My treat,” the rabbi said

“I could definitely eat.”

The day had been dark, and now the evening was darker; still pissing down all regular and constant and rhythmic, and the sky blackened like a checked-off box. They were both in suits: the rabbi’s was dark and modest; the reverend’s was lilypad-green and less so. Two black umbrellas held at staggered heights. The only pedestrians on Rose Street and WHONG WHONG the ten-foot bell in the belfry of the First Church of the Iterated Christ named the Calling Judge rang out eight times.

They turned south at the Valentine Courthouse, onto the Main Drag, without noticing the man in black descending the stairs with a stricken look on his face, nor the man ascending the same steps who bumped the man in black rudely; nor did they notice the unnoticeable pickpocket liberate the man in black’s bankroll from his right trouser pocket. Three down, one to go.

“The movie’s shit, Paul.”

“They’re all shit.”

“But this one is especially shit,” Tiresias Richardson said, and she was correct: Instability Manor was a dreadful film even by the standards of the KSOS Late Movie. It was about a haunted house, which was an okay premise, but all the spirits captured in the decaying manse did was make people slightly dizzy. In the first act, a young blond child toppled over, unconvincingly, and the second act was some sort of extended commercial for Chesterfield cigarettes, and then–this was the big climax–Lon Chaney III wandered around the house while blowing his nose.

“It’s fine.”

“We owe our viewers better than this,” she said.

“We don’t. Fuck ’em.”

Paul Loomis, Jr., didn’t want anything out of life anymore besides a cabin. It could be in the desert, or the mountains, or maybe an island; he didn’t care, just as long as his nearest neighbor didn’t exist. Maybe some animals to befriend, or eat, or hump, or whatever. He could leave the map behind and name his own surroundings. Downed Tree to the north, and Triangle Lake off to the west. The Tall Mountains off in the distance. (Paul didn’t have much of an imagination.)

But he did not have a cabin, and he bore the brunt of other people’s names.

“It’s raining, Paul,” Tiresias said.

“I know. I love the smell.”

“We have more viewers when it rains.”

“Fuck all of ’em.”

He did not know why she wouldn’t leave his office. There was mace in his desk drawer, and he had used it on talent before. His father would yell; he wished he could yell. Paul Loomis, Jr., did not yell. He knew he’d be laughed at if he did.

Behind him was a Daytime Emmy his ex-wife had bought as a gift to humiliate him; the ceiling was made of perforated tiles.

Tiresias stormed out while throwing him the finger over her left shoulder, and Paul smiled and thought about macing himself.

It was — hundred miles to Los Angeles, she thought on the way down the hall to her dressing room, which had a six-pointed star on the door and was called Masada. Her little Honda could make it in an afternoon. She had that agent’s number, and he had a sharp suit and a spiffy business card, and Tiresias knew that she was just as talented as any other girl in town. She could stay at the Beverly Hills Hilton, and take her phone calls by the pool. International phone calls. Heated pool. She was just as pretty as any other girl in town. She could be a blind item. Bemoan the paparazzi. Canoodle. All those other girls were just as talented as pretty as she was, though, she thought. Maybe it’s better to be a big-titted fish in a small pond.

It was a predicament.

Required a drink.

White wine. More specifically than that is irrelevant, Tiresias believed. There were three kinds of wine: red, white, and champagne; the first two cost five bucks or less a bottle, the third should be splurged upon. Simple corkscrew. The metal twistajigger attached to a black plastic handle that read HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE in white. Bottle against the hip of her faded jeans, and the elbow of the opposing arm out and THWOP she chucked the ‘screw with the cork attached onto her the makeup table in front of the vanity mirror with all its lightbulbs. BLUGBLUGBLUG into the stemless glass, and then warmth in her belly and out to her shoulders and hips, and arms and legs, and Tiresias unbuttoned the top button of her jeans as she flopped onto the ratty blue couch.

One side of the table held a piece of fish, broiled, with a side of rice pilaf. Water and coffee to drink. The other had a chicken marsala, and a turkey sandwich with far too much Russian dressing on it, and a bowl of onion soup. There was also a cheeseburger, but it was not a bacon cheeseburger because the Reverend Arcade Jones was sensitive about the kosher situation.

“Get the bacon,” Rabbi Levy said.

“I don’t want to make you pay for bacon.”

“I can pay for it. I just can’t eat it.”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? Zay gezunt.

“I’m sure.”

The reverend took a swig from his Coke and asked,



“Never broke your kosher?”

“‘Broke my kosher?’ You’re asking if I’ve eaten trayf.”

“Can Jews not eat trayfs, too? I thought it was pork and seafood. What’s a trayf?”

The rabbi laughed and said,

Trayf. It means the non-kosher food. It’s not lunch, it’s a category.”

Trayf,” the reverend rolled the word around in his mouth.

“I had a shrimp cocktail once.”


“Didn’t see the big deal.”

“It’s all about the sauce with a shrimp cocktail.”

“I’ve been told this.”

Rabbi Levy had curly hair that met itself  in the middle of his forehead at a widow’s peak. He was slim: when he was a child, his mother reminded him to eat; and when he was in rabbinical school, his roommates did; now, his wife forced him. During any given meal, he would use his fork for gesturing more than consuming.

“18 days.”

“We were discussing this, yes.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones had no hair on his skull except for his brows and lashes, and was not slim.

“You told me–”

He stabbed some chicken into his mouth, covered up with a napkin, chewed, chewed, chewed, removed the napkin.

“–what the philosophers and the weathermen and all the crazies think about why it rains every 18 days. You told me what everyone thinks.”

Another swig of his Coke.

“But you didn’t tell me what you think.”

The rabbi set his fork on his plate and took a sip of black coffee. Reset the cup on its saucer.

Alef, bet, vet, gimel, dalet, hay.


“First six letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Also the first six numbers in the Hebrew numerary. This was way before the Arabs came up with one, two, three, and so on. Each culture had their own number system.”

“Okay,” the reverend said.

“And the 18th letter is chai.”


“Don’t worry about it.”

“I felt like I was gonna spit on you when I was trying to say it.”

“That means you were doing it right.”

It was an in-between time for the Victory Diner: there were several a day. Packed for breakfast, and then a lull at around eleven until the lunch slam; three o’clock in the afternoon was quiet but would ramp up steadily until there were no tables available at 6:30, and then back down to stillness until the drunks and weirdos started pouring in when the sun went down.

“So, these ancient Hebrews? Well, they knew that language was magic. That writing something down changed it, made it real, birthed it. Man changes the page, and then the page changes men. So they worshiped God, but they also worshiped their letters. And these letters, which were also numbers, must mean something. Man would never worship anything without meaning, would he?”

The rabbi smiled, and continued,

“So each number got a secret history. Can’t be important without a secret history. The number 18, according to men who lived a long time ago, is inexplicably bound up with the concept of life.”


“The universe, everything. All that is, all that was, and the gnarly bits.”

“Respectfully, a question.”

“Hopefully, an answer.”

“Why not 17?”

“17 isn’t a very optimistic number, is it?”

They sat there in silence while the diner made noise around them.

“So, you think that’s why it rains every 18 days?”

“No,” the rabbi said. He sipped his black coffee. “It’s a bit on-the-nose for God.”

The door to the Victory Diner opens outward onto the Main Drag, and inwards came the man in black. He nodded at the host without seeing her and walked stiff-legged to the counter. Took a stool. Stared ahead.


The man in black did not respond.

“Hey. Pal,” the average-looking man on the stool to his left said. “You okay?”

The man in black turned to the stranger, shook his head.

“I’ve had the worst day. I’ve lost my wallet, or had it stolen, and my watch is gone. I’ve just had the worst day.”

The waitress behind the counter. The man in black instinctually felt for his cash, which was not there.


“Hey, buddy, what’s happening?”

“My money’s gone! Oh, God my money’s gone,” the man in black said.

The waitress departed.

“What the…what the fuck? My…Jesus, what the fuck?”

The man next to the man in black swiveled towards him and said,

“That is fucked up. I am sorry that happened. I tell ya what: lemme buy you dinner.”

The man in black was still patting his pockets.


“Please,” the forgettable stranger said. “I feel terrible about what’s happened to you. I live here, a couple blocks away, and I’m embarrassed this happened here. Please let me buy you dinner.”

“Okay. Uh, sure, I guess. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Four down, none to go. In a booth by the counter, several older criminals smirked and toasted one another and the kid at the counter, but not too conspicuously. It took skill to steal a wallet, and dipping a bankroll took balls; technique was required to cop someone’s watch.

But getting them to thank you afterwards? That took talent.

The man in black ordered a BLT, and the pickpocket paid for it with money he had stolen from the man in black. The rain pounded the Main Drag outside, but it would soon stop and life would be back to normal in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Iterating And Its Processes In Little Aleppo

The three women were running late for their meeting, but the oldest one made the tallest one stop the car on Sylvester Street. The shortest, youngest one sat in the back with her seatbelt on. The Wash-N-Slosh was next to great, green eyeball painted on Madame Cazee’s storefront window; they were across a lane and a sidewalk on the driver’s side, and hard off the passenger’s side were the remains of the Wayside Inn. Remains aren’t ruins: ruins give some clue as to their former identity, but remains are just a pile of shit. The Colosseum? Even with half the floor missing and stripped for parts, you could tell something happened there. But the Wayside was just jagged pieces of charred timber lumped on top of one another; the fire and its fighting had destabilized the building, the engineers said once everything cooled off enough to check, and so the insurance company sent a wrecker to knock down the teetering frame and the bricks that still clung to it.

Lower Montana took one of the bricks and tossed it into Manfred Pierce’s grave when it was her turn to do the bit with the shovel. She tried to loft it in gently, but bricks are terrible at “gently,” and so it banged onto the casket and CHANK shattered into crumbly red pieces; Lower buried her face in Flower Child’s dress-blue armpit. Little Aleppo’s entire Fire Department was there. Nothing looks sharper than uniforms at a funeral. Manfred would have worn his, but there wasn’t enough of him left to dress. The undertaker laid out the shoes, polished to a shine like a showroom Porsche, and the bellbottom pants with the buttons up the sides of the waist, the blouse with its sweeping, three-striped cowl, and the neckerchief. The hat, too, even though he despised the hat.

He was not buried with his medals. They were burned with him. Manfred kept them in a silhouette box behind the bar at the Wayside, behind the top shelf booze, next to a picture of a tall, skinny woman who was happy and with her friends. Good conduct, two for marksmanship. Combat ribbon, too. When the cops used to bust the place, before the riots and protests and lawsuits, back in the bad old days, he would brandish the medals at the officers.

“Just so you know who you’re arresting,” he’d say, and sometimes the cops would hit him with their sticks, gentle as a brick hitting a casket.

The raids stopped, but the assholes didn’t. Uptight marms and martinets would barge in to interrupt everyone’s fun. (Ironically, they would instantly become the new source of everyone’s fun.) They’d yell about this and that. Deviance! (The crowd would nod and agree; the Wayside was chock-a-block full of deviance.) Sodomy! (That, too.) There was, the scolds would assert, errant faggotry afoot! (This always got a healthy cheer.) Pestilents! Child-tempters! Villains, the lot of you, they’d cry, and the crowd at the Wayside would raise their drinks and egg the assholes on.

Until the magic word.

“I’ll tell you what all of this…this…this heathenry is! I’ll tell you! It’s downright un-American, that’s what!”

And then there would be silence. Behind the bar, Manfred Pierce would retrieve the silhouette box of medals from behind the expensive booze.


The deejay would generally have slipped on John Phillips Sousa by this point.


The scold would have generally realized he was surrounded by this point. Manfred had a whole speech, and it was a good one. It was tough to argue with Communist shelling. What could possibly be more American than being shot at by Commies?

And then the scold would leave, unharmed, to go and bother sinners no more.

They stopped popping in after a while, but Manfred left the medals up and now they were gone just like he was.

“You remember the Human Fountain?”

“That man was a performer,” Lower said.

Steppy Alouette rolled down the passenger’s side window of the red-and-white Mustang SSP with the cherry bar on top and the Fire Department’s badge on the doors. The glass was thick with rain, and Steppy didn’t see too well anymore, anyway, so she rolled down the window to squeegee the drops off and cranked it back up.

“The guy that pissed?” Flower asked, checking the time on her watch and the car’s digital clock.

“‘The guy that pissed.’ Heh. Like calling Tommy Amici ‘the guy that sang,'” Steppy said.

“He pissed on things! It was disgusting.”

“He was incredible, Flowy,” Lower said. (She called Flower “Flowy.” It rhymes with “Maui,” not “Joey.”)

“The pissing? The public pissing? That was incredible?”

“You remember the bowling pins, Lower.”

“He would–”

Lower Montana released her seatbelt and scooched up on the backseat so her head was parallel with the other two women’s.

“–he would pass around the bowling pins so everybody knew they were real. And he would be 25 feet away from them. I’m not exaggerating.”

“She’s not,” Steppy added.

“He’d knock ’em all down.”

“Not every time. I saw him make the 7-10 split one time. It was poetry.”

“Yeah, no. Disgusting,” Flower said.


“He would throw playing cards and then shoot them out of the air,” Lower said. “You have to at least admire his aim.”

“I don’t at all.”

Steppy patted at Lower Montana’s forearm.

“Do you remember dick-tack-toe?”

“No,” Lower answered.

“I think he did this routine before you started coming around. He had a tic-tac-toe board made of paper and he would hang it over by the pool table. He’d stand by the bathroom door. What was that, 30 feet?”

“Maybe more.”

“And he would pick someone to play against, whoever he thought was cute. They would be X’s. So, his cute date would walk over to the board and write a big X with a marker. Then, the Human Fountain would THWAP take out a square with a piss-bullet. Always played to a draw.”

“Living theater,” Lower said.

“He was a real estate agent during the day.”


“Commercial stuff, yeah.”

Flower laid her hand against the horn NYAAAAAAAAH. Lower and Steppy turned back towards her.

“We’re gonna be late.”

They were late. Cohen & Pine was on the Upside, way on the Upside. The poor rented, and the rich bought, but the wealthy? The wealthy built, and Cohen & Pine designed for them. There was the art house called Slapping Tushees on Mt. Chastity that was made of glass and uncomfortable couches. The boutique motel in Jeremiad Springs, The Boogaloo, whose rooms were modular and shifted about from night to night depending on the whims of the innkeeper. They had spearheaded and birthed the Hoppington-Grace Housing Projects on the Downside in the 70’s, which was a bold experiment in city planning and urban policy that was made entirely out of concrete and right angles, and everyone hated so much that it was torn down halfway through construction.

Hawkins Cohen was identifiable as a marathon runner from two blocks away. The bones in his face jockeyed for prominence and cords ran up and down his stork neck. You could just tell he got up at four in the morning and had a favorite oatmeal. Hawkins’ watch was the opposite of a Rolex: sleek, and hugging low on his wrist, almost unnoticeable. He wearing a black suit that was slim-cut and single-breasted. Open collar on a white shirt. Rectangular eyeglasses. Balding hair cropped very close as if to say it did not matter: lesser men think about their hair; architects think about the future.

They had said hello, Steppy and Hawkins had, and introduced themselves, Flower and Lower and Hawkins had, and coffee was offered by Hawkins’ assistant, who looked like a baby version of Hawkins, which was politely refused by all. Steppy and Hawkins discussed common acquaintances on the way into his office.

“The Comtesse died.”

“Which one?”

“Du Brionne,” Hawkins said.

“I thought she was in Paris,” Steppy said.

“She’s in Paris and dead.”

“Better than being alive in Philadelphia.”

The corner office looked out onto the Verdance and the Segovian Hills simultaneously: both the east and south walls were entirely glass, and when it was not raining they were full of green. The hills and the park, they erupted with life and depended on photosynthesis: green, man.

Except for every 18 days, when it rained and the view was mushy and gray.

“Ladies, what we’ve done–and I’m being candid–is, I believe, to translate intention into situation. We at Cohen & Pine don’t see ourselves as architects so much as artists, or maybe benevolent gods. We have heard you. We have listened. And from your prayers, we have delivered.”

Hawkins was in an award-winning chair; the women were on a paradigm-shifting couch. There was a table in between them, and it was the best fucking table you’ve ever seen. Real humdinger of a table.

“Are any of you familiar with the work of Chico Delacruz? He’s doing incredible things with biomimicry. His last piece was a gas station that looks like a bush. Incredible.”

“It’s a bar, Hawkins,” Steppy said.

Flower Childs did not like clever people, and she was getting the feeling that Hawkins Cohen was a clever little bastard. She tried to surround herself with smart people, or at least competent ones, but clever fuckers were a pain in the ass. Every conversation with them felt like a competition; it was why she avoided Lower’s faculty bullshit with all her asshole professor buddies over at Harper College. Funny people were fine, but the witty were not to be trusted, she thought.

“I’d like to see what you’ve come up with,” Lower said.

Lower Montana was a clever person. She was excellent at going to school, so much so that now she got paid for it. Lower was an Assistant Professor of History at Harper. Local history. She called it “herestory,” but not out loud. The 101 class, the review class that all Freshman were required to take, was based on her textbook A People’s History of Little Aleppo, and she led the advanced sessions on the economics of the Main Drag and graduate seminars on the Menefreghista’s role in race relations.

Hawkins smiled, but just with his lips, and slid a drawing towards the women.

“We call this Bundled Fruition.”

It looked like a wadded-up piece of paper fetched from a wastepaper basket. Or a crumpled handkerchief.

“The asymmetry of the walls represents the struggle for gay rights,” he said.

“It’s bold,” Lower said.

“What’s it made of?” Steppy asked.


“Phosphorous ignites in contact with oxygen,” Flower stated.

“I know,” Hawkins said, excited. “The opening shall be a delight!”



“I thought it was a fascinating experiment in materials, Hawkins,” Lower said.

“Thank you. We have more, we have more ideas, so many ideas. What do you think–”

He slid another drawing across the table.

“–of this?”

Someone with no knowledge of architectural theory would mistake the drawing for a bunker.

“We call this ‘Bunker.'”

It was a bunker: concrete walls and a slit to look out of.

“The martial aspect of the design pay tribute to Manfred Pierce’s military service, and also Corbusier.”

“One question,” Steppy said.


“Where’s the door?”

There was no door.

“There’s no door,” Hawkins said.

“You don’t think that’ll be bad for business?”

“But the symbolism is so piquant.”

“Need a door, Hawkins,” Steppy said.

“Mm. I agree, yeah,” Lower added, looking around for approval. She did not find it in Flower Childs’ grinding jaw.

Architecture would be so much easier were in not for people, Hawkins Cohen thought, with their fire codes and their need for bathrooms. He kept his smile on and slid another drawing over. Color this time.

“That’s a McDonald’s,” Flower muttered.

It was a McDonald’s.

“It’s not a McDonald’s. It’s a ‘McDonald’s.’ It’s a statement on hyper-consumerism and the gay obsession with body image.”

Lower looked to her left and right: Flower had her eyes closed in irritation; Steppy, in amusement. She said,

“It does look like a McDonald’s.”

“That’s the point,” Hawkins said.

“Uh. Yeah. Um, won’t we get sued? I’m not a lawyer, but won’t we get sued?”

Hawkins leaned forward on his award-winning chair.

“Yes! The lawsuit will be part of the building’s story.”

It was raining hard now–it came in bands–and the sound was PATAPATAPAT against the windows which made up the south and east walls of the office. The floor was made of the hardest wood available, Ultraspruce, and some areas had rugs. Hawkins did not have a desk, but a table that rose to bellybutton height. It was covered with sketchpads, pencils, pictures of the General Slocum Disaster. Behind the table, bookshelves had been staged.

Flower Childs leaned forward on the paradigm-shifting couch. (It was a couch beyond description, an original Ooso Pruus, and it had shocked the design world when it had been introduced; it was a scandalous sofa. Imagine a couch you could never dream of: that was the Pruus.) She was not wearing her uniform, which was boots, navy khakis, and a blue short-sleeve button down with badges and ranks and bullshit all over it, instead wearing her civilian outfit of boots, dark-blue jeans, and a blue short-sleeve button-down without any badges or ranks or bullshit. There were pens in the breast pocket: a clicky blue ballpoint, and a black Sharpie.

Heaven help the probie who didn’t have a pen and a Sharpie at all times in Flower Childs’ firehouse.

She withdrew the marker, uncapped it, flipped over the drawing with the fast food manque on it.

“It’s a tavern, Mr. Cohen.”

She drew a rectangle.

“It’s pretty much just a big room.”

She drew a skinny rectangle on the left side of the larger rectangle.

“There’s the bar.”

Several circles.

“Some tables.”

A triangle up in the corner.

“Deejay booth.”

Largish square.

“Dance floor.”

Squat little rectangle.

“Pool table.”

Chicken-scratched around the edges.

“And, you know the bathrooms and the storage and all that shit.”

Steppy Alouette smirked. Architects needed to be kept to heel. They were tradesmen, no more and no less, but they thought themselves better than plumbers, and that made them dangerous. She had listened to an architect once, on a house out in the Jeremiad Springs: the magazines wanted to take pictures of it, but the roof leaked and there was no kitchen. The architect was Hawkins, as a matter of fact. It wasn’t his fault, she thought. If you let architects do whatever they wanted, then you ended up with buildings not fit for humans. It was in their nature, so a firm hand was necessary.

“It’s a bar,” Flower Childs said.

Steppy made them stop on Sylvester Street on the way back, too, even though it was entirely out of the way. The rain had washed the parked cars, and the road was glistening with puddles and temporary rivulets that came together on the unnatural ground, coalesced, shattered. On the sidewalk, pedestrians whisked themselves away. The joists and beams that used to be of a body were no longer, and the three women in the red-and-white Mustang SSP looked out the passenger’s windows and saw the place where they had been young, destroyed.

“This will be the third Wayside,” Lower Montana said from the backseat. Flower Childs turned to look at her, but it would have hurt too much for Steppy to do so, so she put two fingers on her left shoulder to show she was listening.

“March of 1856. First one opened in March of ’56. It was just about the first anything in Little Aleppo. They built the Main Drag around it. There aren’t any photographs, but there are several drawings of the interior. Bar on the right, piano and faro on the left. And the girls were upstairs. Burned down in ’71, along with half the neighborhood.”

Flower Childs ground her jaw.

“Manfred told me he took the Wayside over from a guy named Herbert Hantz, but I haven’t been able to find that name anywhere in the records. This was 1961 or maybe early ’62. Obviously, not the original location.”

“Obviously,” Steppy said.

The three of them looked at the rubble.

“And this will be the third,” Lower said.

The rain pounded down onto Sylvester Street, onto all the cars and manholes and sidewalk saints, and down the painted window of Madame Cazee’s and also the frontage of the Wash-N-Slosh, and onto the muted cherry-top of the Mustang and along the sidewalls of the tires and into the slutty sewers. The world went clean with the rain’s help, and the past rose from itself in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Appointments Made And Avoided In Little Aleppo

Cannot Swim was soaking wet. His tunic and cloak were made of deerskin, which is naturally waterproof, but it didn’t matter: the rain had gotten down his wide collar and coated his torso and legs. He had removed his moccasins and placed them in his satchel. The mud squelched up in between his toes, and his shins were covered in stalks of grass. He could not see the sun for the trees and thick clouds, and the ground had become uneven so he had lost count of his steps. It was mid-morning, he figured, but could be no more specific than that.

There was no time constraint to the Assignment, but it was bad form to take too long.

Teenagers are like dogs: unnatural and recent. No such thing as teenager, not in nature. Either you can’t procreate, which makes you a child, or you can, which makes you an adult. You can’t argue with biology, but you could ignore biology and make up some bullshit. You could delineate a category of not-quiteness: not quite kid, not quite adult. Hence: teenager. Hell, it wasn’t even a word until the 40’s. Teenagers were invented in America; in California, in fact, not too far from where the Pulaski lived and were massacred and buried. The Pulaski didn’t have teenagers. They had children, who then underwent their Assignments, and came back as adults.

In large cultures, societies bound by books and separated by distance, the coming-of-age rituals are flattened and homogenized. A Bar Mitzvah is a Bar Mitzvah, with minor geographical or theological variations, as is a Quinceañera or a Baptism. No matter who the kid is, he’s getting dunked in the tank. But the Pulaski were not many in number and all knew each other–and everyone knew the children better than the children knew themselves–so each Pulaski was given an individualized Assignment.

In the old days, everyone was sent into the Low Desert with no water to have visionquests, but a lot of kids died and so the elders started sending everyone up the Segovian Hills, and fewer kids died but still far too many, and then everyone had to swim the lake back and forth, but that wasn’t much of a coming-of-age ceremony and a few kids died anyhow, so now the elders personalized the ritual. Some children were spiritual and had a connection to The Turtle Who Was And Who Will Be Again; they went into the Low Desert. The hunters and the warriors went up into the Segovian Hills. And the other kids, well, they did what they could. Cloudy Eye was completely blind in her left eye, and mostly in her right. She couldn’t go to the desert or the hills, but she could sing for the whole village at the next communal meal. and everybody was okay with that being her Assignment. Loud Fingers was the tribe’s best embroiderer, and had been since he was about seven. He scoured the lakebed for shells, and the woods for pebbles, drilled through them with his hand tools and laced them together with dogsbane and leather cording to form bear, elk, eagle, wolf, and then these were attached to tunics and cloaks and satchels. Most of the Pulaski were wearing a Loud Fingers design, and so he obviously could not be sent into the desert or the hills, and his Assignment was to produce a very large work for the door of the storehouse, and he did: a massive turtle, which was the finest and most intricate he had ever done. Had the Pulaski been aware of the guild system, it would have been called his masterpiece. Means Well was a giant lunkhead that wouldn’t hurt a fly, but had often gotten lost within the village; the elders told him, “Just go pull some weeds for a while,” and he did, and that was good enough.

But Cannot Swim was a hunter, and so he was sent up into the Segovian Hills, which the Pulaski called Jesus fucking Christ, don’t ever go up there; there’s squatch up there. (It sounded a lot better in Pulaski, plus it was only one word.)

“The bear is as afraid of us as we are of him.”

“Bears are not afraid of anything,” Cannot Swim said.

“Everything that lives is afraid,” Shoots With Wrong Hand told him. Cannot Swim was 12, and they were standing on a small plateau about a quarter of the way up what would later be called Mt. Chastity. His father had unslung his rifle from his back, and cradled it in his left arm. Cannot Swim had grown four inches that year, but he was not yet as tall as Shoots With Wrong Hand.

“We are smaller than the bear.”

“This does not matter. There are two kinds of bears in our woods. Ones that have not encountered us, and therefore fear us because we are alien to them, and ones that have. The bears that have seen us know our rifles and our arrows and our knives. They know our dogs. If they are still alive, then it is because they escaped us. They will always fear us, and for good reason. The bear is not stupid.”


“The puma is also more afraid of us than we are of him.”

“C’mon, Dad.”

“I’m serious.”

“Pumas are scary.”

“They’re cowards. Ever hear of a man being attacked by one?”


They were on the western face of the hill, and it was mid-morning and their shadows were the same height as they were. Shoots With Wrong Hand turned in a circle, scanning the sky and sniffing. Pulaski did not come up into the hills unless they had to.

“No. They stalk us, but do not have the courage to attack. The puma knows that, even though it is bigger than us, we can put up a fight. The puma is scared of a fight. It prefers to snap necks by surprise.”


“The squatch is not more afraid of you than you are of him. The squatch is not afraid of you at all.”

“We could just hire a hitman.”

“We don’t know any hitmen, baby. We don’t know any criminals at all, really.”

“Your cousin Cliff was in jail,”

“For Medicare fraud.”

“Maybe his roommate was an assassin.”


“So you’ll call him?”

“No,” Capolina Gardner said.

Harry Gardner had barely touched his cheeseburger, even though Louie Bucca had charred it to hell just like he liked. Ever since becoming a werewolf, Harry preferred his meat with as little blood as possible. Capolina had told him approximately a billion times that the red squeezings from a rare piece of beef wasn’t actually arterial fluid, but it didn’t matter to him: Harry knew blood when he saw it, and he saw it everywhere.

The rain was constant on the windows of the Victory Diner, so steady that your brain tuned out the sound until you looked at the drops hitting the glass. To the right of the door off the Main Drag were tables, and to the left were booths and the counter. Harry and Capolina were in a booth. There was a jukebox, a mini-version with a black plastic wheel that spun the shutters that the songs lived on, and Capolina had fed it a quarter. D8. The Fontanelles singing What Happened To Our Happy Home? in three-part harmony tighter than a snowman’s asshole.

You said “I do”
But now it’s two;
My momma said I should’ve known.

The table’s still laid
The bed is still made
What happened to our happy home?

O, those girl groups: no one ever suffered so pretty.

Harry knew it was 11 am because he was wearing a watch, but otherwise it could be any time of day: the sun was hiding like it owed Little Aleppo money, and the Main Drag was gray and gloomy. Umberto Clamme was selling his umbrellas for three times their normal price; Beer Cooler Ethel was nowhere to be found. The pizza boys had started their early lunch runs: the neighborhood ordered a shit-ton of pizza every 18 days. Capolina’s eyes were the same color gray as the entire world, and when Harry stared into them they were the entire world, and he didn’t know how to protect her. There were neon flyers on telephone poles, shining through the rain and the Victory Diner’s greasy windows, accusing him of setting the neighborhood’s fires and he wasn’t just a him, he was a them. That’s what “I do” meant, he figured. He was all tied up in her.

“What if we go talk to him?”


“The butcher,” Harry said.

“So, we’re not gonna take out a hit on him?”

“You sounded like you were down on that idea. Are we considering that again?”

“We’re not.”


Capolina was a nurse who worked in the Emergency Room at St. Agatha’s, and Harry was an unpublished children’s book author, and you should read quite a bit into that.

“We could talk to him,” she said. “Do you think that would be safe?”

“I don’t know.”

“We should take the offensive. Do something.”


Capolina put the triangle of club sandwich down on the oval-shaped plate, reached across the table, took Harry’s hands in hers.

“Baby, if you don’t stop talking about hitmen, I’m gonna stab you a little in your sleep.”

“All right.”

She brought his knuckles to her lips.

“Love you.”

“Love you, too,” he said.

“Okay, we can’t go to the cops or, well, anyone.”

“Oh, no.”

“Best case scenario is you get thrown in a mental hospital.”

Harry was pushing fries around on his plate and looked up confused.

“What’s the worst case?”

“The worst case is that the authorities believe you’re a werewolf.”

He saw lab coats and stainless-steel tables and men in uniforms. Or a quick silver bullet to the back of the head. He was right, too. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who has become a werewolf must not inform the government of the fact.

“So what do we do? Just walk into his shop and start asking questions?”


“What if there are other customers?”

“We wait for them to leave,” Capolina said.

“What if they have really big orders and take a long time?”

Capolina was the oldest of five, and when her mother died, she helped raise her younger siblings. A psychiatrist would point out that she had engineered the same dynamic in her marriage, but Capolina did not believe in psychiatry. Her yoga teacher had told her exactly that once, but she didn’t put much stock in yogis’ opinions on her mental health: wasn’t like they had any psychiatric training.

She took Harry’s hand again.

“We’ll worry about that if it happens.”


Harry was an only child.

“Eat your burger.”


“I envy your taste, Mr. Scotland,”

“It’s refined as shit, Mr. Leopard. People been tellin’ me that since I’m a kid.”

Since they were on the phone, Mr. Leopard felt free to roll his eyes, but made sure his lips did not curl into a smirk that would be heard over the line. There were accolades on the wall of his Town Hall office, but if you looked closer, none of them had his name engraved; all of the photos were of him with impressive-looking people whom, upon scrutiny, you’d never seen before. Nothing at all was on his desk except an old-fashioned green blotter and a telephone. He did not take notes or doodle. Rain against the window and a bare coat rack in the corner. The trash can was made of close-woven wire, and so you could see that it was empty.

“Of course. We shall have your usual available when you join us next, if you’ll only let us know when that shall be.”

“Yuh-huh. Well, here’s the thing. Thinkin’ about having a little party at your place. You do a caterin’ thing?”

“Mr. Scotland, you do understand that we are a private eating club.”

“Course I do. Some of ’em already members, but there’s three that ain’t. I’ll vouch for ’em and pay their way. Eight of us put together.”

The light from the overhead fixtures could not find a single fleck of stubble on Mr. Leopard’s head. It was pale and shaped like a pencil eraser.

“I see no reason why your guests could not become my guests, Mr. Scotland.”

Membership at the restaurant with no name was 25 grand, cash just like everything else at the restaurant with no name, and there was also vetting. Mr. Leopard had found vetting possible members far easier since he became a Town Father.

“Peachy. Now, here’s the other thing.”

There was always another thing.

“I wasn’t lookin’ f’r my usual this time. I got myself a real curiosity about somethin’ unusual as hell.”


“Kinda meal only comes ’round once inna blue moon.”

“Only in a blue moon, you say?”

“Well, shit, hunter’s moon, too. Harvest moon. Any ol’ moon’ll do, I suppose.”


“The moon is th’ part we’re payin’ attention to in my query.”

“I understand you perfectly.”

Mr. Leopard flicked an imaginary piece of dust off of his blotter, then smoothed the thick paper’s fuzz towards him with three passes of his hand. His fingers each had an extra knuckle.

“Now: how soon could we be doin’ all this?”


Personal schedule from the inside pocket of the black suit coat. As he flipped through the pages, a circle at each’s top waxed and waned. Fingertip stroked a fully-filled-in sphere.

“22nd, right? Night o’ the 21st is the first full moon, and you ain’t got shit yet. Cupboard’s bare an’ all that. Right? Cuz otherwise, you woulda told me a date ‘steada waitin’ on me.”

“I was taught it was bad luck for a restaurateur to discuss the contents of his larder with his guests.”

“Bad luck, huh?”

“The worst.”

“Well, tell ya what. You can accommodate my guests an’ me on th’ 22nd, I make it worth your while.”


“How’s a million sound?”

The Verdance was outside the rain-slicked window; no one was in the park but the swans, and they were rather cross about the situation even though they had been built a short wooden lean-to specifically for them to stand under all day every 18 days. A volunteer from Friends of the Swans named Jarva Cantley would muck it out the next day, and the birds would thank Jarva by attempting to murder her. The Verdance was shaped like a dumpy oval and had three paths cutting through it that, when viewed from above, formed this shape: ≠. Beyond that were the foothills and then Mt. Fortitude and then America, where a million dollars was still a great deal of money.

“It sounds round, Mr. Scotland. Round and robust.”

“It’ll puff up yer pecker.”


“I got a reservation?”

“No, sir. You have eight.”

“Leopard, it’s a disappearing fuckin’ art.”

“What is, Mr. Scotland?”

“Customer service.”

The line went dead, and Mr. Leopard replaced the handset briefly, then replaced it at his ear. Punched in seven numbers. A phone rang in a butcher shop on Harcourt Street.

THRUMBLE said the sky, and Cannot Swim shrugged his shoulders because he had no idea how to answer. There were no individual clouds, just splotches that were darker than the rest of the gray, and he poked his head out from under the outcropping of rock he had sheltered under. He knew he had not been followed, but he was a 16-year-old breaking rules, so he was paranoid. Between the rain and the heavy brush, he couldn’t see more than 20 yards in any direction, but he still scanned around. Sniffed, too.

The seven peaks of what would later be called the Segovian Hills are orogenic in nature: collision-birthed. The Pacific tectonic plate slides under the North American plate where the two tectons meet; this causes the tippity-top layer of the NA plate to buckle up. The process is violent, and ongoing, but it is a far slower violence than humans can register and so we go hiking and build our homes on what–from a geologic point of view–is a bar fight. Scars and pocks and ridges and crevasses and bruises and plateaus: the septet was unplanned, a mess, a craggy crumble of land.

Sometimes, the water cut through the limestone. Pooled. Rubbed away at what was so solid. The first White to attempt to map the Hills was named Hannah Speke; he had completed Mounts Lincoln and Faith when he discovered the cave system underneath Mt, Fortitude by falling 80 feet into it. The second White to attempt to map the Hills, Aubrey Norge, was much more careful about where he stepped.

Cannot Swim did not know anything about tectonic drift, and he would not be able to understand the compulsion to chart out the hills. The Pulaski lived in the valley, and the mountains lived in the mountains. It was a working strategy, he figured. The rocks above his head sheared the water away from him, and the ground was mostly dryish. Mushrooms would still be there tomorrow, when it would no longer be raining. Hell, probably be more of them, he thought. Cannot Swim knew this was not the most honorable was to complete the Assignment, but on the other hand, it was raining, just like it did every 18 days in what would later be called Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.


A Wonderful Night In Little Aleppo

It was Christmas Eve in Little Aleppo, and the Poet Laureate was running naked down the Main Drag blessing all he saw. He had not taken a haircut in months, nor shaved his black beard, and the neighborhood was glad for this. No functioning society could countenance the clean-cut running naked down the Main Drag: that’s an omen. But a scrawny, shaggy, wild-eyed nude man sprinting through town and calling upon the Lord’s favor? Well, that sounded about right. Bad luck for a neighborhood to go too long without a prophet. Can’t let the Old Testament get too old; need to let some pressure out from the ancient madness underneath the sidewalks where everyone’s so fucking civilized lately; no Christmas without John the Baptist.

Watch him fly. You can hear him coming. Dopplerized beatification.

“Merry Christmas, Town Fathers! We’ll drag you down those stairs and beat you to death if you fuck up too bad! Merry Christmas!”

And there they were, all five of them, three men and two women waving to their constituents and smiling and surrounded by security. The Town Fathers smiled the widest when they were surrounded by security.

“Merry Christmas to the judges and to the bailiffs and to stenographers and to the juries and Happy Hanukkah to the lawyers!”

The steps of the Valentine Courthouse were packed from Doric column to Doric column by people wearing uncomfortable clothes and comfortable shoes. Judge Rollo held his seasonal gavel high.

By the Verdance, where everything grows, even now in winter because Little Aleppo has a temperate pico-climate that never freezes and only scorches for three days in the summer, and the rains come regular every 18 days. The Segovian Hills form a barrier against the continent that curls into the sea and protects the harbor from the ocean. There are no tornadoes or hurricanes or blizzards or droughts; it is a wonderful place to settle. The Pulaski thought so, and they are still here, in the Verdance helping everything grow.

The bartenders at the Morning Tavern had thrown all the drunks out onto Widow Way, and they walked east to the Main Drag smoking and shouting and singing and swaying and holding onto each other, mostly consensually. Visions of empty apartments danced in their heads to Stones tunes, and they sloshed their harmonies together as old ladies leaned out their windows and scowled.

The Poet Laureate’s balls bounced as he ran, occasionally settling into a thigh-to-thigh rhythm for four or five beats and then reverting to random, hairy positionality. His nipples were symbolic as hell.

Two women with Santa hats on had smuggled their last-call bottles of Arrow beer out of the bar.

“Better than last year.”

“Anything would be better than last year. She stole a car.”

“The crash did detract a bit from the magic. AAAAAHahaha!”

His chest was flushed and pouncing outwards–you could see the Poet Laureate’s heart from the sidewalk, its presence at least–and his feet were already bloody and his wet footprints limped behind him on the blacktop of the Main Drag.

“Merry Christmas, Harper Zoo! Merry Christmas, Harper College! All the animals and their keepers! All the students and their professors! And the bookstore and the souvenir shop! May your merchandising rights be respected!”

Off in the distance, off to the west, an elephant trumpeted and a dog barked and a campus cried GO, PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS! (No one had liked being a Professional Mourner at first, especially when they saw the mascot costume, but opinion changed once everyone saw how freaked out the opposing teams got when they were ululated at.)

Car traffic had stopped out of respect, but the pizza boys on their scooters buzzed the Poet Laureate like King Kong and counted coup by slapping his bare ass.

“Merry Christmas, Tahitian! God bless your sticky floors and happy endings, and God forgive the balcony!”

A women in a red dress with white trim stood outside the theater with teenagers in identical tunics. The shutters were locked down in front of the glass doors.

“I think we’re okay.”

“Shutters stay down until he’s done, Julio.”

PAP PAP PAP the feet on the concrete and BOBBLE BOBBLE BOBBLE the dick.

The streetlights had come on so they could lie to moths, and store frontage all lit up with reds, greens, silvers, that frosty bullshit you sprayed onto glass. Snowmen where it had never snowed, and reindeer wandering about at far too low a latitude, and a saint from Asia Minor who had certainly taken the most circuitous route to the neighborhood. Randy’s Record Barn had speakers outside playing every Little Aleppian’s favorite holiday record.

Sleigh bells will jingle,
They’ll ringle-dee-dingle,
But snow’s not as cold as my heart;
When there’s only
One stocking
To haaaaaaaang. 

A Jolly Christmas with Tommy Amici. Everyone grew up listening to it as they opened their presents. The Mistletoe Missed Me kicked off the first side. You Left Me A Letter (Under the Tree) and Nightcap In My Nightcap and Tinsel Turns To Rust.

The tree is out back;
The garbageman’s coming.
The kids will grow tired of their toys.
It’s a must.

When you said you loved me
That cold Christmas Eve,
I forgot
That tinsel tuuuuuuuurns into rust.

He did Little Drummer Boy, too, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“Merry Christmas, Rose Street! Merry Christmas to your monsters, and Merry Christmas to your choirs, and Merry Christmas to your holy books without authors! Merry Christmas to your sermons and tax-free status!”

An enormous man in sky-blue suit and a man-sized man in a suit-colored suit watched the Poet Laureate go by.

“Every year?’

“That’s why we have a Poet Laureate.”

“I don’t understand why this is a tradition.”

“Me, either. Usually when people run naked down the Main Drag shouting about God, it’s more spontaneous.”

The enormous man smiled and did not make eye contact with the man-sized man, who smiled wider. They turned and walked into the First Church of the Iterated Christ. Midnight Mass was in a few hours. The First Church of the Iterated Christ was not a Catholic church, but it was a catholic church, and so held Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. So did the Hindu temple and the mosque; the synagogue used to, until it burnt down. Christmas was an American holiday in Little Aleppo, and everyone was invited in.

“Merry Christmas, all you failures! Merry Christmas, all you cowards! Merry Christmas, all you liars!”

A man with uncombed hair in a faded suit stood next to a tortoiseshell cat.

“I think he’s talking about you.”


“Fine, us.”


“At least this one didn’t crash into the theater.”


There was spittle and spray spewing from the Poet Laureate’s mouth and his whole body was covered with visible sweat that foamed like on the haunches of a racehorse; he took no exercise during the year and his muscles were slack and his skin was loose; it shifted and bubbled like a pie baking during an earthquake. He had stumbled, fallen–his pinky on his left hand broke–and when he got up, there were cuts on his knees and hands, which he wiped them on his chest. The blood mixed with the sweat and ran in Brownian rivulets down his torso.

“And the teevee shows and the radio programs! God bless you for whatever the fuck it is you do! Merry Christmas to the lake that none of you knew about it! It’s still there if you pay less attention to time! It’s all still here if you don’t pay attention to time! Bless the Cenotaph! Bless the newspaper! You turned a tree into the sports section, and bless you for that!”

The entrance to the Emergency Room at St Agatha’s has an inscription over the doors–Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi?–and all the doctors and nurses and most of the patients stood outside. Far more nurses were smoking than you would assume. A woman in scrubs and a man who was not currently a werewolf held hands and stood tight against each other.

“Merry Christmas, St. Agatha’s! You can’t cure any of us! You’ll never win, and God bless you!”

And the doctors and nurses and most of the patients gave the Poet Laureate the finger. Tradition was tradition.

Besides, he’d be back.

“Merry Christmas to the cops! Merry Christmas to the firemen!”

They were on opposite sides of the Main Drag.

“Merry Christmas to the whores and the junkies! Merry Christmas to the bass players! Merry Christmas to the crazy fucks with suspicious coughs! Merry Christmas to the streetsweepers and Merry Christmas to the streetsleepers and Merry Christmas to the veterans who can’t do paperwork! God bless you, God bless you, God help you, God bless you!”

High atop Pulaski Peak, the tallest of the seven Segovian Hills, was Harper Observatory; and in between the observatory on the diamond-shaped summit of the mountain and the rocky precipice that led to it was a bench, and on that bench were an old man, who was not a ghost, and a young man and an old woman, who were.


“Christmas ain’t an American holiday, no matter what anyone thinks. Religious. Old-time religion.”

“So some asshole’s gotta run down the street naked?”

“Yeah. Like I said: old-time religion.”

“Every year?”

“Wouldn’t be a tradition otherwise.”

Car horns and big-band music drifted up. In the parking lots, teens fucked.

“Cops just tackled him.”

“You can’t see that.”

“Ghost vision.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

The cops strapped the Poet Laureate to a body-board as gently as one can be strapped to a body-board, and then they walked him back to St. Agatha’s, where he would be stitched up and bathed and told what a good job he had done. He would not be charged for his stay and many unnecessary prescriptions would be written for him. When the sun came up on Christmas morning, the Poet Laureate would emerge from the hospital wearing scrubs and a pair of someone else’s tennis sneakers and walk back to his apartment along the Main Drag, which cuts through the heart of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Lost In The Flood In Little Aleppo

Meet me out at the Rumble Strip. Everybody’s gonna be there Saturday night. Junky Steve and Funky Eve and Last Chance Angel, they’re all gonna be there in their uniforms. White tee-shirts and blue, blue jeans and canvas Converse sneakers; everyone’s off work and that 3:00 bell rung down at the high school and the Mother Mary paying little to no attention. The kids made their own luck down on the Rumble Strip.

There was lightning down there, always, from the sky or from muscle. Black Cat Katie dropped a red bandana she bought at a gas station. She stood on those double lines. Parallel and yellow and shooting off into heaven or Philadelphia or at least somewhere the cops didn’t know about. Or maybe somewhere the cops were all waiting. Never could tell with a road. Could go either way.

Your cousin was there, and that guy from work–Wayne, could be–and those old men whose names everyone knew but didn’t say out loud. Grease monkey trios and boys in pairs and kids in crazy hats. Flashbulb fantasies and magazine promises all up the sidewalk that had chunks missing from it. It wasn’t the part of town that got its sidewalks fixed.

Angelina had a thing for promises, and Carlos looked over his shoulder.

Those kids from the next town over. The town with the houses all got two-car garages. Up a bit, not at sea-level like the Rumble Strip. They knew who they were, and they knew you knew it, too. They’d ride down and park hard, they’d park aggressive, come and get us.

And Last Chance Angel said to Junky Steve,

“They got engines made of money. They got time by the throat.”

And Junky Steve said,

“Fuck ’em.”

Which is the only proper response when the kids from the next town over ride down and park aggressive.

“Why am I being poked!?”

“Why are you asleep?”

“The tyranny of flesh,” Mr. Venable said. “Whereas you are poking me by choice!”

When she was sure he was awake, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy) straightened up and straightened the skirt of her dull red dress with her hands and said,

“Listening to Springsteen again?”

“Was I talking in my sleep?”

“You were,” Gussy said.

Mr. Venable yawned and stretched and looked around for the cat.

“The man is the Joyce of New Jersey, Gussy.”

“You’ve mentioned.”

Gussy fell in love a lot. Men, women. She had noticed, however, that relationships with women rarely if ever contained the Springsteen Conversation. Every boyfriend Gussy had ever had felt the need to explain Bruce Springsteen to her, ofttimes with extensive sourcing from the albums, and sometimes with pictorial evidence. And she just didn’t get it. She just didn’t get him. Maybe it was because she was a West Coast girl. Maybe she had the wrong blood type. She had tried! She had gone to see him, twice, and all she could hear was denim-coated grunting. Ah, fuck: is that asshole gonna play that fucking saxophone? Ah, shit: that asshole’s playing that fucking saxophone. And is this the beat? Up down up down? You couldn’t dance to it. Shit, you definitely couldn’t fuck to it. Well, Gussy thought, you could fuck to it, but you couldn’t cum to it. At least she couldn’t.

“How did you get back here?”

“Same way you did.”

Gussy had, five minutes previous, entered the bookstore with no title using the key she had never given back after she stopped working there–the bell on the door went TINKadink–and not found Mr. Venable in his customary spot. She walked behind the clutter he called, alternately, “my desk” and “my prison” and reached up to the shelf just slightly above her eye level and pulled on The Revelation of the Intrinsic by Mahdi Zaman until there was a KUH-CLIK and the entire panel swung out to reveal an office with a raggedy green couch, a white portable teevee set, and a Mr. Venable in his customary suit, which was faded but used to be black with thin gray pinstripes.

KSOS was playing a rerun of that show where the white people went to an island and had their wishes granted by foreigners of varying sizes.

“I will never understand what you see in that soap opera.”

Yesterday’s Tomorrows is not a soap opera. It’s art. Valley Heights is as well imagined as Joyce’s Dublin.”

“Why do you keep talking about Joyce?”

“I just woke up. Only the most obvious references are available to me.”

Mr. Venable swung his legs off the couch and put his feet back in his unshined loafers; turned the set off TOCK and combed his hair with his hands. Behind the teevee was his office, which was not infinite but might be mistaken for infinite in poor lighting. It was the only room Gussy had ever been in with interior flying buttresses. Place gave her the creeps, honestly. Years ago, she had asked Mr. Venable if he had built the office.

He said,

“Build an office? I can’t even type.”

It was hours before she realized he had not answered the question.

Mr. Venable held the secret door open for her and waved outwardly.

“Get. Out. Go.”

She did, and he followed, spinning on his worn heel to KUH-CLIK the panel back into its spot where it fit so seamlessly that no one would know it was a door, and then he wandered to the sticky table by the bay window in the front of the shop with the coffee fixings.


“Yes, please,” Gussy said.

Mr. Venable filled a mug that read HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE and then walked back to his desk and took his customary seat. Gussy pursed her lips and made herself a cup.

“Why are you here?”

Gussy leaned against the desk and took a sip of terrible coffee.

“What do you know about the Jack of Instance?”

“She’ll beat you if she’s able.”

“That’s the Queen of Diamonds.”

“Ah. Oh! He’s born to lose, and gambling’s for fools.”

“Ace of Spades.”

“Yes. Yes, you’re right. Hold on a second.”

He rummaged inside of his jacket and pulled out a Six of Clubs.

“Is this your card?”

Gussy had a fantastic sense of humor, and an all-encompassing one: she liked dirty jokes and corny ones and clever ones and dumb ones. She once peed herself–just a bit–at a friend of her doing a particularly silly voice. She had slept with some of the worst human beings because they made her laugh; it was her weakness. Gussy was easy and generous with her laughs in almost every situation.

She didn’t even smile.

“Why did you have that in your pocket?”

“I put it there after the fourth person came in asking about the Jack of Instance. Been doing that bit all day.”

“Has anyone enjoyed it?”

“I have.”

Gussy walked into the middle of the room so she wouldn’t be close enough to punch him.

“Who’s come in?”

“Who hasn’t? Our large fire chief, our handsome police chief, two of the Town Fathers, that hideous reporter from the Cenotaph who smells like a million ashtrays, several helpful citizens, and a gaggle of youths wearing the most outlandish trousers.”

She sipped her coffee and said,

“Well, at least everyone’s on the case.”

He sipped his and said,

“Mm. Or wanted to be seen walking down the Main Drag with the right book under their arm.”

“Didn’t ask for bags, huh?”

“The youths did. But the adults whose salaries you and I pay did not.”

“This fucking neighborhood.”

“Don’t blame the neighborhood. Blame your neighbors.”

Gussy laughed–just a bit–and set her mug down on the nearer of the two book-laded tables in the middle of the room.

“What’d they buy?”

“What I told them to. An Introduction to Cartomancy by Gilles Vernon. It’s like one of those Complete Idiot’s Guides to the tarot. Pictures and everything.”

She crossed her arms and said,


Mr. Venable knew that tone of voice: a woman was angry with him. Or impatient. Perhaps disgusted; it was negativity aimed his way, he knew that.

“Okay what?”

“Where are the books you didn’t tell them to buy?”

Ah, impatience. Best one could hope for, really. He waved his arm towards the general vicinity of the back of the shop.

“In there somewhere.”

And now there was different tone of voice.

“I have helped you rob Town Hall on four separate occasions. Get off your ass and show me where the books on the Jack of Instance are.”

Mr Venable had been steadily liberating Little Aleppo’s archives from Town Hall into the bookstore with no title. You couldn’t leave the past in care of politicians; they did a bad enough job with the present. The original charter and all 23 volumes of the legal code and the very first surveying done by White men. Land titles going back to the day the concept of land ownership was introduced to the valley between the Segovian Hills and the harbor. Minutes from a century’s worth of Town Fathers’ meetings (the unredacted versions) and a folder full of grainy photos of dead squatch on the Main Drag. Safer here than there, he thought. What if there were a coup? Governments had coups, it was known to happen, although not often to semi-incorporated neighborhoods in America, but it was known to happen. What would happen if the Bolsheviks took Town Hall? Surely, they’d shred all of history and declare it Year One: that was just what Bolsheviks did. However, Mr. Venable reasoned, there had never been a coup at a bookstore. Therefore, the neighborhood’s archives were safer here. Quod erat demonstrandum.

But she was right. And wrong.

“You helped me rob Town Hall five times,” he said, standing up and resettling his suit coat on his shoulders.

The ceiling is high and the walls have books packed along them and there are two free-standing shelves that run perpendicular to the front door and back into a misty far-off; these created three rows and Mr, Venable and Gussy took the one on the left until the hit the dogleg into the annex, which was both vast and cluttered simultaneously–the psychology department at Harper College had determined it was the only room in the neighborhood capable of engendering both agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time–past the Romance section and the Crime section; where they met, the Sex Detectives series spanned two shelves with their bright-red covers. Gussy had read a few, and wondered if the Sex Detectives had hunted down the G-Spot yet.

The elevator was broken, and also a trap, and also a metaphor. Always take the stairs at the bookstore with no title.

The deeper they went, the cooler it became. Gussy’s dark blue dress had no sleeves; Mr. Venable saw her shiver out of the corner of his eye and handed her his suit coat. Gussy put it on and tried to put her hands in the outer pockets, but they were still sewn closed.

“You never cut these pockets open?”

“Ruins the line.”

“You have to comb your hair before you can worry about your silhouette.”

He snorted and they descended another flight.

“How far down does the shop go?”

“As far as it needs to, and not a sub-basement further.”


“No, further. Most of the sub-basements are conceptual.”

They came to a large wooden door with no markings on it, and Mr. Venable rapped a Bo Diddley beat onto it with the palm of his hand. Then WHAP WHAP WHAP. Paused. WHAPWHAP. Paused for two beats. WHAPWHAP WHAP. Paused again. WHAP. Paused once more and looked back at Gussy with a shitty smile.

“Did you think there was a magick knock for the door?”

“You’re such a dick.”

“Maybe an immortal knight tasked to guard the contents of the room would open it and challenge me to a duel?”


The handle was a brass pull-bar, and so he pulled the bar and a rush of stale air that smelled like peppermints hit them.

“What is that smell?”

“Massed punctuation,” he answered. “That’s the aroma of too many commas in the same location. We must be vigilant.”

Gussy rubbed the bridge of her nose as Mr. Venable entered the sub-basement. She considered habeas corpus: no one would ever find his body down here. She could bludgeon him with a dictionary. Stab him in the eyeball with a pair of reading glasses. Surely, there was a suitably ironic death she could arrange. Or just set the whole shop on fire. She had a lighter. It was a building made of wood and filled with paper; after the gas station and the dirigible-rental place, the bookstore must be the most flammable establishment in the neighborhood. Set a fire. So easy and so simple and so final. Wait, she thought. Am I the Jack of Instance?

No. That would be a terrible twist.

The door was slowly closing and Mr. Venable called through it,

“Please stay with me if you don’t wish to be verbed!”

She blinked herself back into the present and went through the doorway and said,


“Eaten, disintegrated, chronally displaced, selected against your will for the Farnian Trials, spaghettified, so on. Something active. A verb shall happen to you. You’d be verbed.”

“You can’t do that to the English language.”

“I can do whatever I want,” he called back as he disappeared into the shelves. “I own the place.”

There should not have been so much light in the sub-basement, and there really shouldn’t have been so much sunlight. Gussy could feel the Vitamin D being produced; it was like being at the beach, and she took off Mr. Venable’s suit coat and draped it over her bare arm which was now toasty-hot from the bright and cheerful illumination. A row of tables transected the room. Open books and scattered papers on their tops. Mismatched wooden chairs. Shelves to the left and right of the tables. She could not see the ceiling.


She looked around. That was not Mr. Venable’s voice, nor would he ever make that sound.


“Who is speaking?”

“I wasn’t speaking. I went ‘psst.’ It’s a vocalization, if anything.”

The voice was coming from a book sitting on the table by the door. It was the size of a spare tire, but more rectangular. It was trembling.

“I’m not talking to a book.”

“Cool. Totally cool. I get where you’re coming from. This is not a normal situation for you. I get it. I just need you to do one thing.”

The massive cover THWOMPED open onto the table, revealing pages that were not made of paper.

“Read me out loud.”


“Just a couple lines.”

“It’s never just a couple lines,” Gussy said.

“That was a cocaine joke.”

“It was.”

“Very funny. Very funny. Man, you’re smart.”

“I know what you’re doing.”

The book began hopping up and down on the table.



She advanced towards the rude volume, which was now getting serious air in its leaps, until Mr. Venable stepped out of the stacks and SLAMMED a chair down on it upside down. He turned towards Gussy and cocked an eyebrow. Mr. Venable could cock his eyebrow at a graduate level.

“Were you going to fight a book, Gussy?”

“He started it.”


He motioned back towards where he had emerged, and Gussy led the way.

“What was that thing, anyway?”

“You’ve heard of the Necronomicon?”


“Imagine it had a cousin from Florida.”

Straight, he said, and then he told her to take a left and then a right. Another right. Four more rights, and then straight for a bit more, and then right twice more and just one more right.

“We’re just wandering around,” Gussy said.

“No. We’re divining a path.”

“How is that different from being lost?”

“It’s far more portentous.”

She stopped, and after a few paces he did, too, and turned to face her. Books towered on either side of them, every color in the rainbow and several that were only available to premium subscribers.

“Why are you so cavalier about this?”

“About what?”

“The fires!”

“I am not cavalier in the slightest about the fires. I wish them to cease and for the culprit to be snatched up by the authorities. But I am quite certain that the answer to said fires is not one of a mystical nature. None of this spooky nonsense has any bearing at all anything. I think some sad and broken loser heard a cool name and it stuck in his sad, broken, loser brain.”

He stuck his hands in his pockets.

“And so do you. You never believed in any of this.”

Gussy put a hand on the shelf next to her and leaned, and then a book said, “Excuse me,” and she took her hand off the shelf and looked at Mr. Venable and said,

“I’ll believe in anything I need to if it’ll keep The Tahitian from burning down.”

There was quiet for a moment, and then Mr. Venable walked towards Gussy and she said,

“You’re not.”

And he said,

“I am.”


“It’s happening.”

And he hugged her, which he had never done before. She hugged him back, which was also a first.

“It’s just some loser, Gussy.”

“I know. I know. But it might not be.”

Mr. Venable rolled his eyes, and turned around and started walking down the aisle. She followed.

“I have a question.”

“Just one?”

“Are you not worried about the shop? The guy trying to burn it down? This place is flammable as fuck.”

He stopped and faced her. Recocked his eyebrow.

“Pity the man who tries to set a magickal bookstore on fire.”

And now it was Gussy’s turn to roll her eyes. They walked for a bit and she said,

“We’re lost.”

“We’re not.”

“We’re walking in circles.”

“What’s your point?”


On the bottom shelf to Gussy’s left was a tortoiseshell cat, black and gray with no white at all, and her tail flicked back and forth in a tight pattern across the spine of a book. Mr. Venable bent down, administered scritchy-scratches to the cat, who had no name, and withdrew the leather-backed volume. The Jack of Instance: A Hermetic Psychography by Antonin Gebellin.

“Found it,” he said.

“What do I owe you?”

“With the ex-employee discount?”

“Of course.”

“Lunch. I’m famished.”

Mr. Venable handed her the book, and retrieved his suit coat from where it was still draped over her arm. Put it on, combed his hair with his hands, and set off back the way they’d come. Gussy followed, skimming through the pages as she went, and the cat was close behind watching for mice and rats and anything else that might be alive in one of the sub-basements, of which there were more than several, in the bookstore with no title in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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