Thoughts On The Dead

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

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 3 of 13)

An Afternoon Date In Little Aleppo

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

“That’s a delightful story.”

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

“Runny?”

“Pardon?”

“The shit.”

“Oh. No, coiled and corn-speckled.”

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

“Dammit, woman!”

“Ooh, sorry.”

“I’m bleeding.”

“Just a little.”

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

“I’d prefer not to.”

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

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

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

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

“Magical bookstore. Magical sword.”

“Mitsubishi?”

“Masamune.”

“We should get sushi after this.”

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

She did.

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

CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA

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

“I can smell them.”

Penny breathed in through her nose, deeply.

“What do they smell like?”

“Plagiarism.”

“Fuckers.”

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

“Do you smell a lake?”

“It’s the sword.”

“Why does your sword–”

“Shh!”

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

chikka chikka chikka

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

“Wait.”

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

“Are we just gonna nod at each other?”

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

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

“Once more into the breach?”

“Fuck, yeah.”

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

The stairs creaked.

CHIKKA CHIKKA CHIKKA

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

“Can you smell them?”

“Plagiarism.”

“Little bastards.”

“The last frontier,” Mr. Venable said.

“What?”

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

Penny Arrabbiata looked left and right for monsters.

“What?”

“Just making conversation.”

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

“No.”

“Hawaii. Alaska. One of them.”

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

“By who?”

“Some writer.”

“Ah.”

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

“Only as an answer to a trivia question.”

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

“Ancient.”

“For America, yes.”

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

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

“Why?”

“Someone paid him.”

“Ah.”

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

“A dickswamp.”

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

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

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

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

“And do you know why?”

“You’re the weirdest romantic.”

He kissed her again.

“And do you know why?”

“No, why?”

“The Army Corps of Engineers.”

She kissed him back.

“You’re getting me weirdly hot.”

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

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

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

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

“Marry me.”

“Okay.”

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

A Horror Story In Little Aleppo

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

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

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

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

What was that sound?

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

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

Thrumpty-thrump.

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

Still: thrumpty-thrump.

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

Room 311. Boogie music.

WHACK WHACK he tried to knock politely.

No answer, but the music still played.

Tommy counted to ten. He had excellent posture.

WHACK WHACK WHACK he tried to knock exasperatedly.

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

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

“Mr. Teakettle.”

“Mr. Moors.”

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

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

“Describe the racket.”

“Music of the boogie variety.”

“That will happen.”

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

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

“What do you do again?”

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

“Hell of a purview.”

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

“I absolutely will. What?”

“The noise issuing from Room 311.”

“Consider it done.”

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

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

Thrumpty-thrump.

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

“Mr. Teakettle.”

“Mr. Moors.”

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

“And I did. No more noise from 311.”

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

“Well, that’s a different problem.”

“Will you take care of it?”

“Consider it done.”

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

Thrumpty-thrump.

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

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

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

Thrumpty-thrump.

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

Room 304.

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

“Mr. Teakettle.”

“Mr. Moors.”

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

“This one might do the trick.”

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

“It shouldn’t be.”

“You will fix this?”

“I’ll do everything in my power.”

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

“Most certainly.”

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

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

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

His room. Room 302.

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

He smiled at Tommy Moors, and said,

“Would you like to boogie?”

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

The Cold War In Little Aleppo

“Stalin used to make Khrushchev dance.

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

“HOO-pa

“HOO-pa.

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

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

“Idi Amin.

“Mao.

“Stalin.

“Elvis.

“Dictators always like staying up all night scaring people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Stalin?

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

“No person, no problem.

“So Khrushchev would dance and Stalin would laugh.

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

“So Ike sends Nixon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The scorpion and the WASP, ha ha ha.

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

“Guess where he stays?

“C’mon, guess.

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

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

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

“Swimming pools.

“Limousines.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Supermarket. Smiles, waves; yells.

“Goes to Iowa.

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

“Not a word a lie, not one word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hot dog diplomacy, right?

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

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

“And Khrushchev says, ‘Hey, Gromyko.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never do know in America.”

The Story So Far

The Second Little Aleppo Novel (So Far)

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

A Raising Of Stakes In Little Aleppo

Cannot Swim saw the flood raging. Swallowed up the earth, spat it out, gulped again, and the innocent drowned next to the wicked. Bodies bobbing in between brick buildings, water sloshing through second-floor windows. It was the tonnage; it was the motion; it was the pressure: that was the water’s weapon. Individual drops corralled together, lashed as one and brigading all the decent folks’ investments and photo albums and flinging babies into jagged rocks; he saw it all with eyes that would not close and then Cannot Swim walked into a tree.

“Son of a BITCH!”

“Heh heh heh,” Talks To Whites laughed.

“It’s not funny!”

The horse named Easy Life made a noise like PLUFFplffplff.

“It is. Even the horse is laughing, dude.”

Cannot Swim had clonked his forehead on the redwood’s bark, and he rubbed at it. Needles and dirt had fallen on him when he and the tree collided, so he brushed himself clean. Checked his nose.

“Am I bleeding?”

“I dunno. Pull up your tunic and lemme see.”

“Your mouth is going to get you in trouble one of these days.”

“That’s what I got you for, Cuz.”

“With me. Your mouth is going to get you in trouble with me.”

“Well, then I’m fucked.”

The three had topped the pass through the Segovian Hills a ways back and could see the nascent White town of C—–a City below them through the pines and crests, but just flashes; Talks To Whites had steered them off the trail–what there was of it–once they started descending. To the south, hidden by the brambles and sage and willowberry and brush. This was the way that Talks To White’s father had taught him to take, a long and looping tack all the way around the town. Leave a few miles in between you and the Whites so they could not see you, his father told him. Enter their village from the east. Leave the same way. Watch to make sure you’re not followed. Most of the Whites did not know that the Pulaski lived on the other side of the hills. All of the Pulaski thought that was a fine idea.

Easy Life led the way. He ambled carefully and placed his feet, big as dinner plates, where he intended. He could not be hurried, and if would bite you if you tried. Not hard, at least not the first time. The horse had been treated like a member of the tribe for so long that he thought himself equal to the Pulaski and expected the same respect from them as he showed. Easy Life never whipped any of the humans in the ass with a switch to get them to move faster, so he didn’t see why he should have to tolerate it.

Of the three of them, the horse knew the way the best, so the humans followed him.

“You were out there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your eyes glazed over,” Talks To White said. “And you were moaning again like the night you talked to Here And There.”

The sun was on their right, and their shadows were long and broken by trees.

“More visions?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been having a lot of those.”

“Yes.”

“Here And There tell you what they mean?”

“Cousin, I left her kotcha understanding less than when I entered.”

“Her way of knowing is not like ours. She speaks to the Great Bear Who Is Pregnant With The Universe. She is friends with the Fox With Teeth For Eyes. She can see what we cannot.”

“What can we not see?”

“Underlying themes.”

“You make as little sense as her,” Cannot Swim said, and spat out his leaf.

Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites were, according to the Pulaski, still children and therefore not allowed to chew the leaf of the Peregrine maria tree. But they were both sixteen and therefore believed the rules applied to everyone but them. Talks To Whites got the leaf from Stranger Who Hunts Well, who had wandered into the village a while ago and stayed. Stranger Who Hunts Well spoke the White language, so he and Talks To Whites got along, and he gave Talks To Whites as many leaves as he wanted.

The leaf was life. A speedy morning and an easy afternoon. You shit better when you chewed the leaf, and thought grander, too. Work was easier and so was fucking. The size of a child’s hand and waxy green, the leaf had thirteen points with a waxy green overcoat and a spidery white vein underneath the exact shape of the Mississippi’s route. The peregrine maria trees grew in only one place, the Pulaski thought: a crescent-shaped stand of trees about an hour to the west of the village. The women would walk out once a month to collect the leaves in flat-bottomed baskets made of redwood bark. It was not like coca, which needed to be processed, or tobacco that needed drying: pluck a leaf from the tree, pop it in your mouth, and chew. All there was to it.

“You’re still here?”

“And here is where we will stay, sinner,” Brannie Dade said.

“Then here is where we shall sin,” Manfred Pierce replied, and walked past her into the Wayside Inn.

Bad for business, he thought, and then admonished himself. It’s not all about business. These idiots were riling people up, first of all, and they were scaring away first-timers. The ones walking around the block five times catching a glimpse of the bar’s entrance in their peripheral vision. Never looking at it straight. What might strangers think? The kids who had no place to go and no one to understand them. Adults, too. The Wayside was for them, and these fuckers–these FUCKERS–were standing in the way with their stupid fucking signs and their stupid fucking faces. Manfred was not accepting arguments in the “both sides have a point” vein at the moment.

Lower Montana was by his side, her shoulders straight and ready to fight. She was sixteen and always ready to fight. Or run away at top speed. Sixteen-year-olds have two settings: FUCK YOOOOOOOU and fuuuuuuuck me; they are compromise-less animals, creatures of fight or flight, pure and beautiful and dumb as shit and generally right.

“What about violence?”

“What about it?”

“We should consider it,” Lower Montana said.

“Go downstairs and bring me up some bottles of vodka,” Manfred Pierce said.

Take was off, go figure. Turns out a picket line of churchy fiends calling you sinners in black magic marker scared away customers. Regulars called up, apologized for not coming in, asked if that cute one with the blond curls was there. Thank God they didn’t stay too late. The kind of person who would protest homosexuality also tended to be the early-to-bed type, Manfred noted. They did not like the nightlife; they did not like to boogie.

Manfred had a sheet of paper in his hand as he walked to the deejay booth. Flipped through the records, found what he was looking for. At The End Of The Bar. Tommy Amici’s masterwork. Lyrics by Sniffy Brice and Music by Carlos Charles. Tommy sang songs, but this was an album: it worked as a whole, an epic tone poem. A beginning and an end that echoed each other, and a middle part where everything was up for grabs.

The crackle of the needle.

And then the strings:

BWAAAAAAAHdeee-duh-dee-duh-dee.

And the horns’ counter-melody:

Bah-bah-buh-BAAAAAH-wah-ah.

And then Tommy:

It’s three in the morn
And I’m newly BOOOOOOORN
Into tears
Into being aloooooooone.

They say I’m a star
But I’ll weep in the CAAAAAA-aaar
Just to keep
Me from going back HOOOOO-ooome.

Manfred descended from the booth in his usual pre-open trance. It was choreographed. Life needed a choreographer, he thought. You, take two steps that way; you, leap over there; jazz hands for everyone. The paper in his hand had a diagram on it. The Wayside Inn in simplified black lines on a mimeographed sheet. Instead of states or towns, his map had supplies: so many bottles of this here, and so much of that there. Some people liked checklists, but Manfred Pierce was cartophiliac and needed his space in front of him, represented to scale and perfect. Match reality to the description, he thought. Easy peasy. He danced around his bar. The map said there were ashtrays on every table, so he made sure there were ashtrays on every table. The map said that the floor of the backroom was spotless, so he mopped up the slimy streaks and swept up the empty popper bottles and cigarette packs and teeny baggies. (There were no condoms, as it was 1975.) Sometimes, there was cash or not-so-empty baggies; Manfred put them in the lost-and-found, which was located in his pocket and nose.

A place for everything, and everyone in his place.

Lower Montana was back from the basement. Four bottles of Lubyanka vodka in frosted bottles with thin necks, two cradled in each arm like puppies and two in the capacious inside pockets of her army jacket that had all the rock and roll pins on it. The Snug–they were from Little Aleppo just like her–and a pair of dick-sucking lips, and a skull with an oversized cranium. Upside-down cross with the arms broken off. Her bruised eye had faded to pale yellow like pissed-on snow, barely noticeable in the barroom light, and she was singing along with Tommy Amici without knowing it. Her father had played her this record when she was a child. When she was older, he blacked her eye and disowned her.

O, the gifts our parents give us.

Manfred felt her eyes on him and said,

“What should we do?”

“You’re asking me?”

“I am.”

Lower Montana was a smart kid, but a smart kid is still a kid and so she answered,

“Kill them.”

Manfred took the vodka from her and put the bottles where the map said they went. Then he said,

“Besides that.”

“Cripple them.”

“Physically?”

“Yeah. Slice their spinal cords.”

“Slice their spinal cords?”

“Or something.”

Manfred leaned on the bar and motioned for Lower to do the same. He was wearing a fanciful shirt–ultra-Hawaiian, maybe–and he pulled a stout joint from his pocket. Lit a match from a pack with a plain white cover FffftPOP and then he sucked up PWOFFPWOFF and inhaled and blew out PHWOO and then he handed the doobie to the teenager.

“We’re right, right?”

“Yeah,” Lower Montana said.

“We’re on the side of compassion and love and a little bit of sweaty humping?”

“Right,” she said, and sucked deep on the joint and PHWOO handed it back to him.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“Okay.”

“It doesn’t matter. Being right doesn’t matter. Not to grown-ups.”

“What does matter?”

“Winning.”

The smoke from the joint curled and flittered in the shadowy light. Tommy Amici sang about heartache and heartbreak, for love’s sake, and for the sorrow that anything but perfectly-requited love brings. Weird thing about love. Gotta calibrate your requiting. Over-requited, under-requited: no good. Love is equal or love ain’t, Tommy sang. Otherwise, someone ends up hurt.

The way you’d receive me
You’d never deceive me
That’s the lie that I told
.

The smell of your perfume
Still hunts our dark bedroom
Since your heart has grown COOOOO-ooold.

And tonight I will sleep
With only the pillow to hold.

The strings swelled against the constraints of the vinyl’s groove, and then the brass and woodwinds, too. Air came through the Wayside’s giant speakers, air that had been in a recording studio in Los Angeles in 1956 and picked up by microphones and etched into acetate; it was whooshy and thick and not silence. There was no sound, but it was not silence.

“Go flip the record, sweetie.”

Lower Montana handed the joint to Manfred Pierce and said,

“Can we listen to Roxy Music? I just bought their new album.”

Manfred held the joint away from her.

“Flip the record or you’re not getting the joint back.”

“You suck.”

“And well, I’ve been told.”

Lower stuck her tongue out at Manfred. He smiled. She clomped off to the deejay booth; the needle was clicking clicking clicking against the end of the record. Same thing after same thing, infraction upon infraction, sharpness coming up against the same damn wall time and time again. Beaten back over and over, but carving marks and chops into the vinyl. SHHHHT-pop, SHHHHHT-pop

And nothing now. Lower Montana has lifted the stylus, set it in its cradle, the record orbits between her fingertips. Down. Side Two. This is the part where the album gains steam and momentum; this is where the promises are kept or not: art can make so many promises, but it’s a bitch keeping them. At The End Of The Bar kept up its end of the deal; Tommy Amici was a straight-shooter when he sang, if never else.

Side Two starts with a BRAMP! BRAMP BRAMP WHAAAAAaaaaaOHHH! from the horns Then the drums TAT-A-BLAM! and the strings padded along behind like a safety net.

You think you got me
Iiiiinnnnnn your pocket
You never understood me
Girl, I’m a rocket of LOOOOOOOOOOooooove.

“My dad used to play this for me,” Lower said quietly.

Manfred thought about telling her about his childhood. Daddy screaming drunk and waving his pistol around. The ladies from church bringing by food so they could feel better about their own families. Least they weren’t the Pierces.

But he didn’t. Just took her hand and said,

“We also need some rum from downstairs, sweetie.”

“Do I technically work here?”

“You’re technically not even supposed to be in here.”

Lower climbed down from her stool–her feet did not reach the ground–and moseyed towards the stairs to the basement muttering under her breath about slave labor.

“What?” Manfred called out behind her.

“Nothing!”

“Thought so.”

Manfred was alone with Tommy Amici, in a bar that Tommy Amici would never have set custom-shod foot in, and he spritzed down the bar and wiped it with a clean towel. He would have preferred Lower stay at his house and study for the English test she had tomorrow. But she had met someone. College girl, an older woman. They were goopy and sweet around each other. Lower had spent the night with her a few times, and she had snuck through the window back into the house on Fantic Street in the morning until Manfred told her to just use the front door. Good for her to have someone, and he liked the girl, too. Thought she was too tall for Lower, but he supposed lesbians went for tall girls just like he went for tall guys.

The front door of the Wayside Inn opened at the same time Lower Montana emerged from the basement with four bottles of Sangre Nelson Rum. Tall woman walked in and saw Lower first.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

The tall woman turned to Manfred Pierce behind the bar and said,

“These cocksuckers are starting to piss me the fuck off, Manny.”

“Join the club, Flower.”

Lower delivered the bottles to Manfred; he turned around conspicuously so they could kiss. They did: Flower Childs brushed the long hair away from Lower Montana’s face, and Lower stretched up on the tippity-top of her toes. First, they leaned their heads to the left, and then the right, and then they laughed and Flower Childs took Lower Montana’s whole head in her hands and planted one on her. They were both wearing tee-shirts and jeans and boots and Flower stuck her tongue deep in Lower Montana’s mouth; Lower’s hand reached for Flower’s tit and grabbed it, squeezed it, felt its warmth, and squeezed again, and Manfred went,

“Harrumph.”

Flower Childs put her arm around Lower’s back and pulled her close to her; Lower offered no resistance.

“Offending your delicate sensibilities?”

“Girls are icky,” Manfred said.

“Well, good thing there’s no girls here. Just women,” Flower said.

“Yeah! Women!” Lower Montana added. She pumped her fist in the air.

Manfred rolled his eyes and made a mental note: one day, understand lesbians.

“Y’can’t fight back. If they fuck with us. We just gotta walk away.”

“I won’t be fucked with.”

“You will,” Talks To Whites said. “And you’ll walk away with me. Cuz otherwise they’ll kill both of us.”

“I will not take shit from them,” Cannot Swim said.

The two Pulaski boys and the horse had emerged from the hills into America. They had made camp for the night in the vanishing daylight. It was warm, so they did not need a fire. Fire produces smoke, anyway, and they were trying to lay low on the way into town. Easy Life wandered off, ate grass, nibbled shrubs, tasted leaves, pooped. The cousins ate smoked trout with their hands. Talks To Whites had wrapped two large-ish fish in the leaves of an umbrella plant and put them in his satchel before they left. He had not told Cannot Swim about the fish, knowing how much his cousin loved trout. When he pulled them out, Cannot Swim clapped in happiness. The route that Talks To White’s father had taught him followed a stream, so there was water to drink. It was warmer in America than in the valley the Pulaski called home, so the boys had removed their tunics and sat in their breechcloths on the ground.

“You gonna eat your eyeballs?”

“You’re so fucking gross, dude,” Talks To White said.

“Gimme gimme.”

Talks To Whites handed his cousin his half-eaten fish. Cannot Swim sllllllUUUURPPPPPed the eyeballs out of the trout’s head. Chewed loudly, and with his mouth open. Handed the fish back.

“I’m just flabbergasted.”

“Best part, dude,” Cannot Swim said.

“Really? Not the meat? Cuz I think the meat is the best part.”

“That’s because you don’t have my refined palate.”

“Why don’t you just suck the horse’s dick?”

“If it tasted like trout eyeballs? I’d consider it.”

The sun was no longer in the sky, but its light lingered. And there was the moon, early as always like a rude guest: first to arrive and last to leave. The boys had removed Easy Life’s pack-saddle, and they sat on the canvas blanket that went in between the horse’s back and the wooden frame. Magpies were in the trees. Their song sounded digital and glitched, and in between phrases they made a sound like a rattlesnake CHIH CHIH CHIH. Both boys had a rifle close to hand.

“Cousin, you must not fight the Whites if they start shit.”

“You keep saying this. Why?’

“Because they’re gonna start shit. They’re a shit-starting pack of motherfuckers. They drink poison all day and start shit.”

“Posion?”

“They call it whiskey. It makes them loud and stupid and mean. Louder and stupider and meaner, I guess.”

“What is whiskey?” Cannot Swim said.

“I’ll show you. You’ll hate it. Tastes like shit and makes you puke,” Talks To Whites answered.

“Like the mushroom tea we drink at Midsummer’s?”

“Kinda, but not really.”

“How bad could it taste?”

“Like someone punched you in the tongue.”

“And this whiskey, it makes the Whites start shit?”

“Not makes them. Allows them to without conscience.”

Cannot Swim thought about this for a moment while chewing on his peregrine leaf. He had never met a White before, except for Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend, and that little idiot was nothing to worry about. Were they all tiny and jittery? Did they all wear hats? Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend always wore a hat, which none of the Pulaski did. Stranger Who Hunts Well wore a hat, as well. He was not a Native–not a Pulaski, but not a White–and he wore the Whites’ clothes: hat and trousers and hard shoes.

“Do they all wear hats?”

“Cousin, you’ve never seen so many fucking hats.”

“All of them?”

“Yes.”

“All the time?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do the Whites have different skulls than we do? Maybe they cannot take the sun on their heads,” Cannot Swim said.

“That’s a theory. Honestly, though? I’ve never asked.”

“Does their god require headwear?”

“Maybe. Could be.”

“We should ask.”

“We shouldn’t. Dude, we’re gonna buy two rifles and as much ammo as Easy Life can carry and get the fuck out of Dodge. Maybe we’ll let their whores bathe us, but other than that? In and out.”

And then the cousins were quiet. The horse had returned from his wandering, and stood sleeping above the two. Both boys rolled up their tunics and placed them beneath their heads. The stars were close enough to fuck.

“Have I told you how much I hate sleeping outside?”

“Eleven times. You have told me that fact eleven times since we left the village this morning.”

“Make it twelve.”

“I will.”

They were quiet again.

“You’d look good in a hat,” Talks To Whites said.

“I will not wear the White man’s clothes.”

“Maybe a Stetson. Actually, for your head shape I would go with a bowler.”

“I do not understand these words you’re saying. Shut up and go to sleep,” Cannot Swim said.

“Hate sleeping outside.”

“Thirteen.”

Manfred Pierce’s hair was gray now. His teeth were still neat and white, but his hair was gray and so was his mustache and no one had marched on the sidewalk in front of the Wayside Inn for many years. Funny story about how he got rid of her and her band of assholes…

How did I get rid of them? he wondered as the room got hotter. He threw his shoulder against the backroom door. Men used to fuck in the dark in here, back in the Seventies, but now it was storage and he could not remember getting how his own story ended. All the whiskey was back there, and the vodka and rum, too, and the fat shiny pony kegs of Arrow beer stacked three high in the corner where they belonged but he did not belong in here, not now, not with this kind of heat, and he felt his humerus wrench from the socket but did not feel pain as he hurled himself against the door and cried out for someone anyone everyone anyone to please help; Manfred did not know the knobs had been chained shut from the outside and coins wedged in the jamb to seal it tight the man who had walked in right before closing asked for a martini and when he turned around to grab the gin was the last thing he remembered before coming to in the backroom which was now locked and getting hotter and he could not remember how he got rid of Brannie Dade and her protestors but he could see his mother’s tears and smell his father’s cigarette breath and he could feel the USS Dextrous shudder and snap around him as the Communists launched bombs at it as his hair which was now gray singed and sizzled and then flamed he dropped to his knees and beat at his head but did not feel the pain a fire doubles in size every sixty seconds fire is logarithmic and he thought of Orphic Mystery and the picture of her that hung above his bar that was the only picture of her as she’d want to be remembered there was one other that was printed in the paper of her with her brains splattered on the sidewalk of the Main Drag but in the one hanging above the bar she was beautiful and she was smiling and she was with people who loved her and that was the only picture there was and Manfred Pierce was digging at the concrete floor of the backroom his fingernails ripped off and his knuckles sheered and splintered and he could not feel the pain wasn’t fair wasn’t fair wasn’t fair to erase a person like that she was a kid and now there would be nothing left but a photo that was used as evidence in a trial that never happened and not one that her friends placed their fingertips to gently and then to their lips and then back and when the temperature hits 1,800 degrees everything catches fire even flesh and Manfred Pierce kissed his ruined fingertips and placed them to a photo that was not there and then the back room flashed over and there was no pain at all just a roar just a roar.

Just a roar.

The firetrucks didn’t pull back into the station until well after noon. When a cleanup becomes a crime scene, things become complicated and take longer. Dwayne McGlory had torn the metal door to the backroom off with his Halligan tool as easy as a popping open a beer bottle. Protocol dictated that you checked the vital signs, so he did even though he knew what he would learn. The sun was streaming in through the vents cut in the roof and Dwayne called out,

“Chief. Come here.”

The firetrucks didn’t pull back into the station until well after noon. Flower Childs did not shower or pack up her gear, just walked outside onto the sidewalk of Alfalfa Street and turned left away from the Main Drag and walked down two blocks to a rowhouse numbered 138. There was an envelope on the Welcome mat. White, plain. She opened it.

“I TOLD YOU THIS ONE WOULD HURT.”

Flower Childs stopped herself from tearing up the note and did not cry. She popped the envelope back open, folded the typing paper back up, slid it in and took two deep breaths and opened the front door that was not locked.

On the piano was a picture taken at the Wayside many years ago. Two girls, one tall and one short, and a man whose smile showed off a row of neat, white teeth. The short girl from the picture was a short woman now, and she was standing in the living room with a cup of coffee that she set down on the messy table when she saw the look on the Flower Childs’ face and went to her and wrapped her up as much as her arms would allow and the tall girl from the picture, who was a tall woman now, set her head on Lower Montana’s and shook with tears and began to scream and because she had not closed the door, everyone could hear her all the way to the fire station and to the Main Drag and to the harbor and all the way up the Segovian Hills that were supposed to form a natural barrier between the world and Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

You’ll Never Make Us Run In Little Aleppo

The rain continued.

Miss Rosa’s had shutters, great wooden ones on swinging hinges, and they’d been locked in place hours ago. No one had come in for a while. The power had given, too, but there was a generator in a brick shed added on to the back of the bar. The beer would not skunk on Miss Rosa’s watch, and the lights would stay on if she had to hook them to treadmills and set the orphans to running. Wasn’t like anyone could leave, she figured. Might as well take all their money.

Joint was hopping. Judge Backfat had one of Miss Rosa’s girls on his lap; he was telling her a funny story about how he had sentenced her daddy to the chair. The police chief, Bachelor Smolls, he was at a table with some of his men and just as many girls. (Some of the girls were older than the men, but there’s only one woman at Miss Rosa’s, and that’s Miss Rosa; all the other female staff were girls.) They were celebrating a big bust. Chief had put most of the drugs and some of the cash in the evidence locker, and now it was time for a good time. The Chamber of Commerce had a reserved table in the back; it was full and there was a cash pot in the middle. The dealer had hair dyed a painful black. She was topless, and smiled at the men’s jokes. They had an infinite supply of jokes. An astronaut was at the bar–swear to Deke Slayton, an honest-to-God astronaut–with a girl who liked to be called Bailiwick. A few years after the storm, the astronaut would shoot his wife to be with Bailiwick; his plan did not prove out.

Sometimes the lights would flicker like something dramatic was about to happen, but nothing did.

“How’d you get into it?”

“What?”

“Roadie-ing. Being a roadie. However the fuck you’d say that,” Romeo Rodriguez asked.

“Fell in with a bad crowd,” Precarious Lee answered.

The bar ran all the way along the east side of the room, opposite from the swanky curtains that separated the main bar from the lobby and door. There was a service station in the middle with rails and a tacky placemat to set trays on. Precarious and Romeo were in the far corner, at the end of the bar where they could see the room. Neither was drunk, but neither was sober: they were in that in-between spot, right in the pipe, where thoughts and speech came easily and wit was a companion and everyone was 15% more attractive. Romeo was in his uniform, as he had been since being shot in the face; Precarious was wearing the pair of jeans he owned and a tee-shirt he had been given two decades prior.

“Precarious.”

“Miss Rosa.”

She was short and wide and solid, all of a singular mass, and a blonde wig that might have been too ostentatious for Graceland or the Opry. There was a little curl pasted to her forehead. Red-and-blue western shirt with spangles and buttons and boots made from ostrich and alligator with “ROSA” written in script across each toe. Miss Rosa did not have a pistol; she kept her gun in the hand of the orphan that was leaning over the second-floor railing and watching her every move. His name was Snuffy.

Anything you wanted. All it took was cash. Anything. Girls? Of course, it’s a cathouse, course we got girls. Boys? Well, we all got our weakness, don’t we, Preacher? We can fix you up. Need a little something make the evening go quicker? Maybe you’d like to meet someone in a different line of work from you. Or sell an item you weren’t supposed to have. Could be you got an envelope full of money and an indicted brother. Or you wanted your cock sucked. Miss Rosa’s was your place.

“Why you always bringing ghosts into my place?”

“Fell in with a bad crowd.”

She snorted, nodded at the bartender. Two more shots of Braddock’s whiskey and pints of Arrow beer appeared in front of Precarious and Romeo, and when they turned back to thank her, she was gone and there was no one staring at them from the catwalk. The two men tipped the shots, exhaled forcefully, slapped the glasses back on the bar. Precarious lit another smoke with his silver Zippo. Romeo asked for one.

Outside, the wind screamed like a new widow.

Bum-THAK bum-THAK. The band was back, and the girls were leading the men onto the dance floor. Lester Force and his Texas Millionaires played Western Swing, and they played it well. They said they played it the best, but so did other acts. Show biz isn’t big on empirical proof. The lap steel player barked his slide against the strings, and the drummer smiled like he’d been instructed. The bass payer was named Carolina Cotton, and she also yodeled.

“This is America?”

“Part of it,” Precarious said.

The orphan bartender took their shot glasses. He had on a white tee-shirt like all the other orphans. He said,

“One dead, one alive. Schrodinger’s bar tab.”

And walked back to the astronaut and Bailiwick. Romeo said,

“You sure we’re welcome here?”

“Sure. This is America.”

Incandescent neon flickered and shpritzed above the expensive liquor bottles; the genny hummed in its brick shed and shoved power into the lights, the freezers, the amplifiers. People had come out for a good time and they would get it. People had come out with cash and they could spend it.

A girl who called herself Nursey put a hand on each man’s shoulder.

“You boys like to buy a girl a drink?”

And they did, they did like to buy a girl a drink, especially if the girl was Nursey because Nursey was a good-time girl–you could just tell–and her brown curly hair rested on the spaghetti straps of her lingerie. She had pale eyes like a freshly-calved iceberg and lipstick so red it was a parody of itself, a quotation of itself; it was self-aware lipstick: you know why we’re here, and I know why we’re here, and no harm letting makeup reflect the situation. Shoes that were both slippers and high heels at once. Free-floating sleeves with a tight fishnet weave.

“You a ghost?”

“Me?”

“No, the guy who’s not a ghost,” Nursey said.

“I’m a ghost cop.”

“How’s that going for you?”

“Got its ups and downs.”

“Sounds like my job.”

Precarious laughed.

“Never fucked a ghost before.”

“Me, neither,” Romeo said, and immediately regretted it. Precarious turned back to his beer, shook his head, thought about ordering nachos.

The wind buffeted against the outer walls, but the roof held, and the room roared back against nature with shouts, whoops, insults, lap steel solos. Miss Rosa’s was set apart. Special. That safe place your mother did not tell you about on the outskirts of town open to all who had the cash. Water rose where it shouldn’t. Water flowed where it couldn’t. Electrical fires sparked and sprayed in defiance of the rain and there were live wires like spastic anacondas in the road. The soil saturated and vomited out long-buried caskets that floated down the boulevard in procession. The sky chucked down shit and death and laughed at samaritans.

Nursey laughed and took the drink the orphan bartender had brought her in manicured hand, drank, laughed some more. It was a professional laugh, a practiced one, a perfected laugh, and she said,

“I’m just like you.”

The drinks hit Romeo Rodriguez all at once like a wall and the room was swimming and drowning, and laughing the whole time. The topless dealer had knives hidden in her nipples and sliced the Chamber of Commerce to shred, chopped ears off as souvenirs and trophies, maybe she’d masturbate with ’em later. Snuffy up on the catwalk got to shooting and wouldn’t stop–could be a brain tumor, could be he had enough–and Miss Rosa took the first shots, and the second and third, too. The orphans went feral and grew teeth; the girls all had knives; Carolina Cotton’s yodeling shattered skulls and pelvises. Sand-spiders pattered inside and leapt on Judge Fatback, ate him raw while he screamed for Jesus and his mother.

None of that happened.

Romeo sat at the bar, blinked his eyes, wondered where he was and saw it all again for the first time: the bags under the piano player’s eyes; the barbacks carrying kegs larger than themselves; the scars under the fishnet covering Nursey’s arms.

“You used to be a real nurse,” he said.

“Yeah,” she answered, and curled her hand around his neck, softly, like she had a secret to tell, and she leaned in real close, so close that the words were just breaths with intent. “I told you. I’m just like you.”

A banging at the door. And louder. And louder. A solid WHANP WHANP that shouted out the band and the bar and the genny; no one turned, no one cared. The Chamber of Commerce’s poker game went on. The cops were getting blowjobs, and the judge was, too. Miss Rosa was in her office upstairs with the door closed and locked and Snuffy standing outside.

“You wanna go upstairs?” Nursey whispered to Romeo.

And the door WHANPED some more, and Nursey’s warm hand was in his crotch. Precarious had put a hundred on the bar and slid it towards him; she eyed it, and he eyed it, and then he was immaterial and passing through her and the tables and the dance floor and the orphans and the thick curtains that separated the main room from the lobby. Door was locked, which means dick to a ghost.

They were short and poor. Wet. Baby crying and mother trying not to. Old man. All useless, all broken, and not a dime between them.

“There’s a cover charge,” Miss Rosa said from the catwalk. Snuffy was beside her with his pistol.

“I got it,” Romeo said.

“No. Everyone pays their own way in my place.”

Romeo nodded his head, and said,

“Fuck you. Feed them.”

Miss Rosa smiled and Snuffy pointed his gun, but Romeo Rodriguez was faster. Not an orphan alive that can outdraw a ghost cop. BLAM the revolver flew out of Snuffy’s hand just like in the movies. Precarious picked it up and backed Romeo’s play. You dance with who brought you. Miss Rosa nodded at Romeo and backed into her office. Door shut.

“Cheeseburgers,” Romeo said to the orphan bartender. “And a beer for the old man.”

The old man nodded at Romeo.

The storm passed and the sun came back. It does that. The sky was steel, but lightening and hopeful and huge as the state it lay above. No more fuckery for the time being. Go about your lives, the sky said. I’ve said what I came to say. The crowd thinned.

“About that time?”

“Seems like it,” Romeo said.

Most of the parking lot was a lake. Pickup trucks foundered; motorcycles floated. Off towards the far end was a 1974 Dodge Monaco, black, that had not been affected by the storm. In fact, it was cleaner.

Precarious revved the engine and reached into the glove. Metal box with Tom Mix stamped onto the front. Took out a doobie and arched his back off the driver’s seat to slide the Zippo out of the change pocket of his Levi’s. Lit it PHWOO and held the joint in front of him to see if it was burning properly. It was. Took another drag PHWOO and offered it to Romeo, who looked at it, looked out the windshield, the joint, the windshield, reached for it and hit it PHWOO and sat there with the doobie burning in his hand.

“I think I’ve seen enough,” he said.

“America?”

“Yeah.”

“She can be a bit much,” Precarious said.

And they were on Route 77 with the sun in their eyes, blue skies and puffy clouds that looked like bunnies and puppies and kitties and friendships; the billboards all had compliments on them.

“I think it’s time to go home,” Romeo said.

“Okay.”

“I…I have this weird feeling…like I’m a secondary character in someone else’s story.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Precarious Lee extracted the soft pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes from the breast pocket of his tee-shirt. He hiked a single smoke out of the pack with a flick of his wrist, and lipped it out. Zippo. PHWOO.

“Everybody gets that feeling.”

“Why?”

“We’re all right occasionally.”

The billboards were warring and humping, and the double-yellow line was arguing with itself. Route 77 led to just about every place, but it stopped off in Texas, and also Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Bringing Out The Living In Little Aleppo

“Will you, son of man, judge this bloody city?”

“Shit, I’d judge this place like motherfucking Judge Dredd. They better not give me a gavel. I believe–and I am not kidding, I believe this–that I might injure myself, I’d judge this fucking place so hard. I’d have to stretch first! And even then, even then, I might really tear myself up. I’d get into it. I might blow out my asshole.”

“Not your knees?”

“Fuck my knees. I’m worried about rectal integrity at this point. I get the power to judge some of these slack-nutted fuckwits? I’m laying down sentences like Shakespeare, and I’m putting my back into it. Puts a lotta stress on the body, and you know my theories about the asshole.”

Aiesha Mundi, whom everyone called Aye-Aye, knew his theories on the asshole, and there were many: the proper care thereof, appropriate cleaning techniques, appropriate cleansing techniques–Cordoba Martin differentiated between cleaning one’s asshole and cleansing one’s asshole–and, of course, the secret history of the asshole. The stuff they don’t teach in paramedic class. She also knew Cordoba’s theories on his balls, and his cock, and the Israeli/Palestinian problem, and agronomy, and interstellar telepathy, and the mysterious origins of backgammon, and what was going on with his sister and her jackass husband. He had spent a week last year developing an intricate idea about the future of nipples. If he weren’t funny, Aye-Aye would have stabbed him years ago.

She wasn’t sure what a knife would do to him, though. Possibly nothing, based on observation. Cordoba had been stuck with needles infected with everything from AIDS to zygomycosis; negative tests always. They would bring junkies back to life at the Hotel Synod with Naloxone and get a swinging, flailing, sweaty thank you made of fists and kicks; Aye-Aye saw him take numerous blows to the nose–hard and connecting whacks–and not even sneeze. He’d punch through windows and not get a scratch. Cordoba said there was a trick to it, and Aye-Aye thought that maybe he was telling the truth.

He drove the ambulance, which was a type 2, which means it was built on a van’s chassis instead of a pickup truck’s, so it was not a jutting hood and cab in front of a boxy back section, but a single carton of a vehicle with a sloped front that bore a scarred metal grill. Cordoba had theories about getting out of the way of ambulances, and all of them centered around his belief that you fucking well should. He had bumped Buicks, shoved Chevies, fucked up Fords; he smiled every time. One time, they returned to the garage at St. Agatha’s with the entire rear bumper of a Datsun 280z caught up in the cowcatcher. Cordoba had wanted to leave it there as a warning, but Aye-Aye turned him down on the grounds that it was unprofessional. The grill was black, and the ambulance was white with a two-tone horizontal stripe down either side, emerald and gold.

She did the paperwork. This was the trade-off of first response, of cops and firemen and paramedics: privilege for paperwork. Shatter windows, kick in doors, punch ne’er-do-wells, jam syringes of potent chemicals in strangers’ buttocks; this is all allowed as long as the proper forms are completed properly. In triplicate. In ink. Press hard. At first, they traded off the driving and paperwork, but Cordoba wouldn’t stop talking while he wrote and always ending up writing down the bullshit he was saying.

The cops got called on you. The fire departments was called for you. But Little Aleppo called the paramedics themselves. Heartburn and loneliness and self-amputated toes. Children who recognized the signs of a stroke in their parents. Adult children helping their mothers out of the showers they’d fallen in, trying to look away from their nude flesh. Anonymous renters in the Hotel Synod, and anonymous homeowners all the way on the Upside. Folks who just didn’t feel right. Others who had been physically wronged by their appliances. Sometimes real, real late, the phone would ring and the voice on the line would ask,

“Can you hold onto my gun for me? Just for tonight? It won’t shut up.”

And though the regulations said that they couldn’t, Aye-Aye and Cordoba did. She marked it down as “Shortness of Breath” and left business cards and phone numbers, put the weapon in a quart-sized plastic bag, wrote the owner’s name down with black marker. She put them in an unused locker in the garage. The guns would be claimed, or not.

St. Agatha’s was on the Downside. It was a trauma hospital, a gunshot hospital; it was a hospital you suddenly needed, not one you elected to go to. The dispatcher decides where the 911 call goes to. Crime to the cops, and fire to the firemen, and injury to the ambulance.

“They’ll automate this fucker.”

“The whole thing?”

“Sure. Inevitable,” Cordoba Martin said. “You know those claw machines in the arcade? You got a joystick and you try to pick up fucking teddy bears and whatever?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“That’s the first wave. Those machines? They learn. They’re using our hand-eye coordination against us, and that’s gonna be the end of human labor.”

“You’re an idiot. Those claw machines are fixed.”

“Fixed for death.”

It was noon and the Main Drag was snappish and short-tempered; lunch was necessary. The morning’s coffees had curdled in the neighborhood’s stomachs and pedestrians were peevish, and no one would yield to oncoming traffic even if it was an ambulance with its red-and-blue lights circling and wailing. Drunks were waking up sober and junkies were coming off their wake-up shot. The Poet Laureate was dead asleep in a messy apartment, dreaming of critical success.

And the Morning Tavern. Day for night in the Morning Tavern: some people liked to rock and roll all day and save their partying for the nighttime, and that was alright in the Morning Tavern. First beer served right before dawn, and Last Call rung out in the late afternoon. No credit, ever, and the walls fluttered with the Rejection: dishonorable discharges, and no-thank-you’s from publishing houses, and divorce papers. If you needed to start drinking early, then the Morning Tavern was for you.

There was a fat man on the bar’s floor. He had fallen from his stool. He was clutching his chest with one hand and holding the hand of a short woman in a tight black dress with the other. She had hair the color of Superman’s tights and was telling the man that everything would be okay when Aye-Aye ad Cordoba burst in with the stretcher. There was an oxygen tank laying on the white sheets of the mattress.

Aiesha Mundi, whom everyone called Aye-Aye, knelt next to the man and stuck two latex-covered fingers into the nape of his neck to hear his pulse, and she said,

“Can you hear me, sir? What’s your name?”

And the man wheezed,

“Seamus.”

“Okay, Seamus. Try to breathe. You’re not going to die today.”

Cordoba Martin jammed the oxygen mask on Seamus’ mouth and nose, and wrapped the springy cord attached to it around his skull.

Aye-Aye asked him,

“Your chest hurt?

Seamus nodded, and he looked around desperately for his mother or Jesus, but they were not there; just a short black woman and a tall white man, both in short-sleeves and blue latex gloves. Then he was on the stretcher and then he was in the ambulance with the Morning Tavern a forgotten landmark of the past behind him. Sudden illness concentrates the mind on the present; pain brings the moment into focus. You have ancestors and you have plans, but let your right ventricle skip a few beats in a row and you have nothing but right now.

Human beings live in their heads until their bodies don’t let them.

Cordoba put Seamus on the thin mattress and the gurney extended upwards with wheels under it; they took him outside from the darkness of the bar into the sun of the sidewalk and then into the ambulance head-first. Aye-Aye climbed in with him, and Cordoba closed the back doors and climbed behind the wheel. Flicked the lights and sirens back on and did a u-turn on Widow’s Way so he was driving east, and then he turned south on the Main Drag and nudged a Volvo out of his way at a red light. There was no separation between the front seats and the patient-space in the back and he could see what was happening in the rearview mirror.

“Shabbos–”

“Seamus,” Aye-Aye corrected.

“–you’re in good hands. This woman has never lost a patient. A bunch have died, but she always knew where they were. Hasn’t lost one.”

Seamus flopped his arm up to the oxygen mask and shifted it off his mouth. He asked,

“Does he think he’s helping?”

“He does,” Aye-Aye said, and put the mask back on him.

St. Agatha’s was three minutes away–four if Cordoba Martin had to shove a Chrysler onto the sidewalk–and Aiesha Mundi, whom everyone called Aye-Aye, started a line on the fat man lying on the stretcher. Someone needed help, so they went. Some people need more help than others, and paramedics are all socialists at heart: to each according to their need. You go when you’re called, and do the paperwork on the way, because that’s the job in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Shelter From The Storm

America was hiding in plain sight on Route 77. The promises whizzed by, got chased by cops, jumped broken bridges, sped off as their theme music played and dust kicked up glorious and fine. Dreams came during sleep, but America did not sleep–could not, must not–not on Route 77, where armed tollbooths stood their ground and snarled traffic with warning shots of freedom. No stories, grand or otherwise. Look out the window: do you see Manifest Destiny anywhere? Maybe it’s to the left of the mountain. Keep looking and you’ll find it. There were no promises and no dreams and no stories on Route 77, and what was left was America.

Burger stands and graveyards. Cornfields and rivers and parades on summer mornings and massacres on summer nights. Monuments to dead teenagers paid for by wicked grown-ups. One-reelers and no-hitters. Strange trees bearing fruit. Basketball hoops made out of bottomless peach baskets, or with nets made from chain link. Blood and soil. Chinese restaurants. Right turns on red. Unmarked graves and theater balconies and plazas and island jails. Porches and torches and telegraph poles and back alleys and coffee shops and dairy farms and workhouses and tenements and pig shit and sock hops and potter’s fields and cannonballs and luncheonettes and winter and the desert and the plains and the prairie and the swamps and the forests and the hills and the mountains.

And Texas.

The Interstitial Highway System had an open relationship with Time: they were together, mostly, but also free to see other fundamental forces. It was love, but a gnarly kind that wound up doing damage to everyone involved and leaving fist-sized holes in the drywall of reality. Their friends were worried that, one day, Time would throw acid in the Interstitial’s face. It was a matter of lanes. Choose the right one: New York to Chicago in an hour, St. Louis to Miami in two. Precarious Lee had once made it from Boise to Philadelphia in four hours and ten minutes in a 1970 Plymouth Fury.

But it still took forever to get through Texas.

“Are we fucking still in Texas?”

“Yup.”

“How the fuck big is this state?”

“Texas is the size of fucking Texas.”

Precarious Lee and Romeo Rodriguez had caught each other up in a feedback loop of profanity. Precarious used to be a Soldier, and then he was a roadie; Romeo was a Marine and briefly a cop. These are four of the foulest-mouthed professions, and with no one in the car to temper their speech for, the men luxuriated in their cursing and jammed “fuck” into places it neither belonged nor desired to be.

O, fuck. O, fuck, you verb noun adjective adverb gerund and place-holder, FUCK! The most American of curse words, forbidden and adaptable; not allowed anywhere, but fitting in everywhere. O, fuck, you common currency of the common man, you working-class shibboleth, you bugaboo, you beeeeeep.

“Big fucking state.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

Texas wheeled by at 80 miles an hour out the windows of a 1974 Dodge Monaco. Hundred-gallon hats and rattlesnakes the size of creeks. An avalanche of cattle in the Christmas Mountains. Monuments chased down drugged-out rock stars to piss on them. Ranches the size of lesser (Eastern) states declared independence and immediately applied for foreign aid. City-states surrounded by light-years full of nothing but road and roadrunners and scrub. The desert slept, and the sky paid no mind at all to the road.

There had been a time when Romeo Rodriguez did not know that ghosts couldn’t kill themselves. It’s not a piece of information one needs for day-to-day living, really. One could quite easily make it throughout an entire lifetime without having need of that fact. It becomes important after death, though. On a long enough timeline, all ghosts will attempt suicide. Understandable. It breaks your heart to learn that life has no point, but finding out that the afterlife is also meaningless tends to shatter spirits. Romeo was a ghost cop, but ghost cops should have exciting destinies, and he had been a secondary character in a story with an ambiguous ending. Ghost guns don’t kill ghost cops, and neither do regular ones.

Stuck. The Salt Wharf and Boone’s Docks to the west, the Segovian Hills to the east. Walk north to the Upside and have your lunch in the Verdance, where everything grows, or wander south to the Downside and have a drink at the Wayside Inn, where anything goes. And that’s it. If you didn’t have to leave, you’d never want to; if you couldn’t, you’d never stop trying. Officer Romeo Rodriguez tried and tried. He tried the harbor and the pass, and cars and boats and once a helicopter. Stuck.

Ghosts are like cats; they belong to places.

But Route 77 went in between places and was therefore full of ghosts. Taking a break from the city, reviewing the hinterland, speeding along and speeding along. You could always tell a ghost driver on the Interstitial; they were the only ones doing the speed limit.

Romeo was not allowed to drive, and so the Dodge Monaco was doing 80 in the right lane. Overtaking hearses and mysterious vans. Other things.

“Was that a fucking stagecoach?”

“Yup.”

And then the weather came in. They could see it in the windshield, off a hundred miles, and right behind them in the rearview. Hail the size of insincere apologies PONKED on the roof of the Dodge, and there was so much rain that Noah would have stayed inside. Flash floods, and flasher floods that showed you their dicks, and it was black as filth outside and cool as terror; Romeo felt his window buckle out and a raindrop as big as a cheeseburger extinguished Precarious’ cigarette. The thunder was louder than any rock and roll band could dream of, or any army could manage: it was everywhere and everything and you heard the KRUH-DACK with your skin and lungs and the sound slapped the thoughts from your brain, all of them, the basic ones, the thunder was so loud that you forgot your name and shuddered like a bloody newborn.

The sign on the way into town said:

CASCABEL, TEXAS
POPULATION: NEGOTIABLE

They walked into the bar. Romeo did not need to, but it was reflex. Light above the door read MISS ROSA’S in shades of neon; it cost a ten to get in. Wooden floors and a long bar, and an inward-facing balcony upstairs. They had a lot of nice girls.

“What kind of place is this?”

“It’s indoors,” Precarious Lee said, and ordered two Arrow beers and two shots of Braddock’s whiskey from the ten-year-old boy behind the bar.

Romeo was self-conscious about being dead, and this did not seem the type of bar in which wearing his uniform and gunbelt was smart, but no one paid him much mind. Miss Rosa’s has all kind of customers. It was a “you don’t notice my drug deal, I won’t notice your non-corporeality” kind of place. He put his foot up on the brass rail, and Precarious lit a cigarette with his silver Zippo and set the pack and the lighter on the bar in front of him. An ashtray was already there; a black plastic cheapie, circular, and with divots carved from its lip.

Drinks came.

“To fucking America,” Romeo held up his shot glass.

“And Texas, too.”

CLINK, downed, backed with beer.

Outside, the storm banged and blew–gas stations were being thrown down streets like skipping stones–and the neutral drowned in their basements waiting out the weather. Death by hunkering. Not Miss Rosa’s.

Miss Rosa’s was built solid.

Card tables were in the back, big round ones that never emptied, and there was a stage in front of the dance floor. Lester Force and his Texas Millionaires were playing Western Swing music that went boom-CHAK boom-CHAK; Lester played a fiddle that he cradled in his elbow like a firstborn child, and he had a walnut pipe clenched in his teeth. Reeds and horns, and a lap steel guitarist that sang the high harmonies. Ten cents to dance with a nice girl. Quarter for a freaky one.

Outside was chaos and rain and death, and a seafood restaurant windmilled through the parking lot. Uprooted trees slung miles only to come to rest piercing elementary schools.

Precarious Lee nodded his head at the orphan bartender for two more shots, and there they were.

“Not much of a drinker,” Romeo said.

“Don’t be a pussy.”

They drank, and Precarious lit another cigarette.

“They say 8,000 died,” the bartender said.

“Yeah?” Precarious asked.

“The whole city gone. Ripped from the ground like a weed. Just debris and corpses left afterwards.”

Romeo Rodriguez was not lying: he did not drink much, and was light-headed and big-headed and warm-headed; his head was feeling strange. He watched the conversation and thought about asking Precarious for a cigarette.

“1900. Galveston and Houston are competing, right? Could’ve gone either way, but the weather was bad one day. One day! Change the course of everything and whatnot, one day. Weather’s a motherfucker. Almost like the sky pays us no mind.”

The orphan bartender was blond and slim and not yet five feet tall. He polished a pint glass with a rag because he saw it in a movie.

“Could be 12,000. No one will know, ever; they didn’t write it down. They took the bodies to the beach and burned them. A Viking funeral for a whole city, a city called Galveston in the year of the Lord 1900, and it will happen again. Anything that can happen, will. What’s that town where those fancy fuckers live?”

“Los Angeles,” Precarious said.

“It will disappear, too. Back into the sea; they’ll burn the bodies just like the old days.”

Miss Rosa’s shivered in the howling wind and went rickety in its foundations; but it held. The pavement ripped off the ground like string cheese, and car dealerships were sent flying, and the steadiest thing in the bar was your next drink. WHOMBLE WHOMBLE the whole building rattled and the lights stuttered, but the band played on.

“All of it,” the orphan bartender said. “Any of it. Taken away in one day. Not even a day: a morning. Nothing that man’s built can’t be flattened by the weather. One day. One instant and it’s all gone.”

He walked off a few paces, and turned back and said,

“We tremble before instance.”

Precarious raised his glass, and drank, and took a drag from his unfiltered Camel PHWOO and said to Romeo Rodriguez,

“You said you wanted to see America.”

“I wasn’t expecting this.”

“No one does.”

The fiddles led the band into Green Valley. The trumpet player sang; it was about a town where heartbreak could not find purchase. A place with a constant bearing towards happiness, a place where instance did not venture and plans could be seen through. Green Valley was full of intent and low on luck, which made it quite unlike Route 77, which is the road out of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

No Substitutions In Little Aleppo

Even in 1975, Yung Man’s was the oldest restaurant in Little Aleppo. A mile into the Downside on the Main Drag, it had been open for over a hundred years and the goldfish in the tank along the back wall were rumored to have been there the entire time. There was a desk up front with a woman who would mispronounce your name loudly when your table was ready; she was also rumored to have been there the whole time. The Xi family owned the place now; they were anywhere from the 12th to 17th family to run the restaurant, depending on whose story you believed. (Early records are not available because nothing was recorded in the first place. Also, the joint burned down twice.)

Yung Man arrived in Little Aleppo from Guangdong province in March of 1854 to work in the mines peeling the gold out of the Turnaway Lode, and by very slightly later in March of 1854, he realized he did not want to work in the mines. It was pretty much the first day, actually. Before lunch, even. Mining sucked, he thought. Owning a mine seemed wonderful, but working in someone else’s was no way to get ahead. He thought about moving on and staking his own claim somewhere, but the other Chinese told him that the gold was drying up.

His roof leaked every 18 days. Chinatown was a fetid grouping of lean-tos and dirt-floor shacks off to the East of the Main Drag. Pig sties and pimps and Whites strolling through confident of their place in the world. Some of the Chinese hated the Whites. How dare they treat us as inferiors, that they’re better than us? They’re our inferiors! We’re better than them! Yung Man did not think as poorly of the Whites as some did, but nor did he think too highly of them. Especially their food. They just threw slabs of meat on a fire and ate it. With their knives, no less! Or–heaven help him–their hands. Fucking savages.

Still, they had money, and Yung Man wanted some of it. Money seemed very important in America. Money meant quite a bit back in Guangdong, but there simply wasn’t any of it. Plus, there a civil war going on that had already killed a couple million people. Yung Man was happy to be in America and away from civil wars, but he wasn’t happy to be living under a roof that leaked every 18 days and was downright miserable at the prospect of ever crouching into that damn mine again.

After his shift one day, he walked through the neighborhood. The Wayside Inn loomed over the Main Drag. He bought an apple from a vendor named Stumpy and polished it on the front of his long-sleeved shirt that went to his knees. Samperand’s Hardware was on the corner; they sold everything a young man about to make his fortune would need–picks and shovels and pans–at a healthy profit. The Norwegian Hotel had twelve rooms, two with their own bathrooms, and a dining hall on the ground floor that sat 20. The Chinese were not permitted to eat there, but Yung Man had seen the food through the windows and was astonished at how colorless it was. Brown and gray, with the occasional flash of beige. Next door was a brand-new venture: a newspaper. A daily newspaper, at that. (Mostly.) Little Aleppo was coming up in the world; there was a reporter to lie to now. The First Bank of Little Aleppo, which was built from stone and brick, and the First Church of the Infinite Christ, which was made of wood. He had a long black braid called a queue that swayed like an attentive cat between his shoulder blades as he walked, and a deep blue round hat called a jin.

The Whites had the money.

And they had terrible food.

Yung Man smiled as he bit into his apple.

All immigrants have stories. Some they tell, and others they don’t. Yung Man told the same story as the rest of the Chinese in Little Aleppo–no jobs, civil war, whatnot–but his story was a lie. Yung Man did not immigrate to America so much as he fled Guangdong. Even the best Mah Jongg cheats get caught eventually.

On the boat ride over, he had given himself many stern talkings-to. He asked himself, Is this how your father raised you, Yung Man? (Overlooking the fact that it was his father who taught him the graft in the first place.) Do you want to spend your life gambling and drinking? (That actually sounded fine to Yung Man, but he pretended that it didn’t.) No more cheating. In fact, no more Mah Jongg at all. He swore to his ancestors that he would change his ways once he got to America.

But necessity is the mother of recidivism, and so Yung Man joined the Mah Jongg game in Chinatown, which had been running continuously since enough Chinese were in the neighborhood to get a game going. He was careful not to bleed his countrymen too quickly, but soon he had enough cash to buy a small plot of land on the Downside. Stove. Plates and bowls. Tables and chairs.

Yung Man roamed the valley that still had wilderness within it; he found wild scallions and onion and he trapped ducks and caught fish from the harbor. He bought a whole pig, and a cleaver. A trip to C—–a City for rice. Pigeon and stoat, too, and he prepared the dishes he knew from home, which he was sure the Whites would love as much as he did.

They did not.

Yung Man leaned against the door of his restaurant and willed the customers in. He zapped passersby with his mind: YOU! YOU’RE HUNGRY! he thought at them, but it never worked. A week went by without one meal paid for.

Finally, on the eighth day, a drunken White walked in. Yung Man brought him tea and the menu that had been printed in the newspaper office. Yung Man’s English was getting better, but slowly, and so the menu was a mess. You could order Oink Back or Bird With Sauce or Feet From Several Animals. The White, who could not read anyway, pushed the menu away and told Yung Man about a dish he’d had in a Chinese Restaurant in San Francisco.

The best Yung Man could make out was that the White wanted a bunch of bullshit with noodles. He kept saying “chop suey” very loudly and slowly; Yung Man did not know why the White was asking for leftovers, but the customer was always right so Yung Man went in the kitchen and threw some chicken and pork in a wokful of noodles, dashed it with salt and sesame oil, brought it out.

“Chop suey,” he said with a smile.

The White stabbed his fork–Yung Man could not find anywhere to buy chopsticks yet–into the meal, jammed it in his mouth, wiped his lips with his sleeve. Nodded. Took another bite and said with his mouth full,

“That’s fucking delicious.”

Yung Man smiled and bowed, and by the end of the night there was a sign outside the restaurant that read NOW SERVING CHOP SUEY. Yung Man was not an artist: he was a Mah Jongg cheat, and so he could read the room and pay the angles. They want a bunch of bullshit with noodles? Done. Give the people what they want, he figured.

And the people wanted chop suey. The Whites beat a path to his door, even though his fellow Chinese couldn’t understand what the hell he was serving. Some of them accused him of “betraying Chinese cuisine,” and he tried to figure out what that meant as he counted the till in his head. He expanded the restaurant and built himself a small, tidy apartment upstairs that quickly became untidy as his relatives came over to work for him, so he expanded the apartment. Yung Man was sleeping there with his brother and two cousins the night Chinatown was razed and raped and burned. He opened the restaurant the next day expecting to be killed as well, but was not. Usual crowd came in. None of the Whites mentioned what had happened the previous night. Yung Man did not, either.

120 years later, the center table at Yung Man’s was occupied by homosexuals.

“To Yung Man’s,” Manfred Pierce said, holding up his drink.

“Everyone’s favorite taste,” the table responded as one, except for Lower Montana, who made a face like “eww” that Manfred caught and smiled. Everyone had Coca Cola in a frosted Tom Collin glass with too much ice; the sweating cans sat beside their plates. Lower was the only one with only Coke in her Coke, though. Yung Man’s does not have a liquor license, but if you could refrain from setting the bottle on the table, then you could pour whatever you’ve brought with you into your glass. The waiter would add five bucks to your bill. It was the Downside’s version of corkage fees. (Unless, that is, you tried to be clever and hide the bottle from the waiter. Then you’d be thrown out.)

Manfred had brought Kentucky bourbon–Lower smuggled it in in her canvas shoulder-bag with all the rock and roll pins on it–and the round table in the middle of the dining room passed the bottle around from lap to lap.

In order to break the law in Little Aleppo, you had to follow the rules.

“I call this meeting of the Sylvester Street Irregulars to order,” Finster Tabb said, rapping his knuckles on the table. He was still wearing a beret–dark red–no matter how much everyone made fun of him for it. His friends loved him, and knew that the next step after a beret was an ascot, so they hoped to avert that crisis before it occurred. Finster just screwed the floppy French wool tighter on his bald head.

“Is that really our name?” said Steppy Alouette.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t appreciate being referred to as irregular.”

“It’s from Sherlock Holmes.”

“I wasn’t consulted.”

“Is the name even important?”

“Ask Gertrude Stein.”

“She would say no.”

“Fuck her, then.”

The problem with being a minority, Steppy thought, was the “minority” part. There just weren’t that many gay people in Little Aleppo, so you kept seeing the same faces over and over. You were stuck with each other. Heterosexual didn’t like someone at the bar? Heterosexual could just mosey on down to the next bar. Only one gay bar in the neighborhood, though, and so you had to see fuckers you couldn’t stand constantly. Steppy took a big slug of her whiskey and coke and loosened her tie.

“Can we discuss the matter at hand?” Manfred said, remembering his Navy days. Orders. He wished he could give orders.

“The matter at hand is survival,” Laurel Dorsey said. He stabbed his finger into the white tablecloth in emphasis. “Survival. They want us dead. Dead. We are engaged in a battle to save our own lives and nothing–nothing–is out of bounds. They started this, but we need to end it. Or it will end us.”

Laurel Dorsey was short and skinny and hunched and political. He needed a haircut; his Levi’s were bell-bottomed; his heels were Cuban. Laurel was convinced the world was out to get him–in his defense, it was–and wouldn’t shut up about it. If he grew up Catholic in Belfast, he would have planted bombs for the IRA, but he grew up gay in Little Aleppo and so he wrote novels. His first was called Cocksucker; straight people hated it because of how graphic it was, and gay people–at least the ones in the Wayside Inn–hated it because they were all in it, barely-fictionalized and rather unflattering. Laurel didn’t give a shit: he was incapable of feeling shame when he thought he was right, and he was always right. Just ask him.

“They will put us in camps!”

“Laurel,” Manfred said.

“CAMPS!”

Lower Montana’s eyes widened. She did not want to be put in a camp. She had, in fact, not even considered it as a possibility before then. A week ago, she slept in a bed in her parents’ house with a teddy bear named Lucy. And now there were camps? Like, sleepaway camps? Lower was sixteen and had not been eased into adulthood like most, and Manfred saw her face and took her hand and squeezed; he whispered,

“He’s a crazy person.”

She felt better hearing that, and squeezed his hand back. She sipped her Coke through the straw.

“Don’t call me a crazy person, Manfred,” Laurel Dorsey pointed his finger.

“Oh, you heard that?”

“My voice is an important one.”

“Your voice is a vocal one,” Finster Tabb said.

“I’d agree with that,” Steppy said.

Lower Montana nodded sagely.

And then a great tray full of food. The waiter had a stand that went from flat to x-shaped, and he kicked it into position and laid the tray upon it. Sweet and Sour something, and an alternative protein in snotty lobster sauce. That miracle of capitalism, the boneless sparerib. Pan-fried pork dumplings with pinched-off ends. Wonton soup–two wontons per cup–with greens floating in the yellowy broth. White rice in hand-sized bowls; fried rice on a platter with flecks of onion and scallion and shrimp mixed in. Crunchy noodles in a thin wooden bowl. And egg rolls.

“What the fuck is this?”

“An egg roll,” Yung Gai said.

Yung Gai was Yung Man’s cousin, and he had been sent to San Francisco to see what the Chinese restaurants there were cooking. He had come back with food wrapped in handkerchiefs that Yung Man had never seen before. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Chinese food. The egg roll had gone hard, but Yung Man still held it up to his nose and tried to smell it.

“What’s in it?” he said.

“Two cents worth of food that sells for a dime.”

And so Yung Man put up a new sign in his window in 1856: NOW SERVING CHOP SUEY AND EGG ROLLS. They had sold well ever since.

The walls were red with raised gold scenes all over: lions and dragons and boats that would never return to their home ports. Lined up on the front desk were brown paper grocery sacks with one neat fold held together by a single staple, soldiers marching out to slaughter hunger. The cooks were short and sweaty and drank water from the quart-sized plastic soup containers that sat on the shelves above their steaming woks. At a table in the back corner, an old women shelled peapods while a young boy did his homework.

There was a mid-level drug deal being set up in a booth over Peking Duck. (They had called ahead.) Teenagers out on a grownup date–she had her shoeless foot in his crotch under the Moo Shoo–and unhappy families arguing over the last dumpling. The Libertarian Party of Little Aleppo was having their monthly meeting at a circular table in near the front window, and they had requested separate checks.

“I don’t know how any of you can eat at a time like this,” Laurel Dorsey said with his mouth full of chicken and stringbeans. “This is the first step. This Brannie Dade woman and her Nazi goons. They’re first, and it all goes downhill from there.”

“She is within her rights as an American, Laurel. First Amendment and all that. It’s a public sidewalk,” Finster Tabb said.

Laurel spooned fried rice into his mouth and narrowed his eyes at the older man in the elaborately-shawled sweater.

“Do you know what a kapo was?”

“Please don’t accuse me of collaborating with Nazis, Laurel.”

“I call them as I see them, Finster.”

Steppy Alouette was a vegetarian and had been eating around the meat in everything; she said,

“He was literally quoting the Constitution, Laurel. Don’t call him a Nazi.”

“Pass the dumplings,” Laurel said.

“Retract your statement,” Steppy said back.

“Dumplings first.”

“Nope.”

“Pass the fucking dumplings.”

Lower Montana reached over to the off-white oval plate that had two slighty-congealing dumplings left on it, grabbed both with her fingers, shoved them in her mouth. Smiled while she was chewing. Manfred squeezed her knee under the table. She made three lifelong friends and one sworn enemy with one move.

Laurel Dorsey rocketed from his seat, knocking the chair back. His napkin dropped from his lap and he raised his finger at the table like a prophet from the Old Testament. Everyone in Yung Man’s turned around. (Except for the Libertarians, who were minding their own business.)

“They are COMING FOR US. You think this is FUNNY, and I PITY YOU for it. You’re gonna LAUGH and fucking LAUGH until they COME FOR YOU with the NOOSES and the fucking KNIVES. You think this is about some ACTRESS with a SIGN? They want our BLOOD and you won’t take it seriously until you’re DEAD IN THE GUTTER.”

And then Laurel Dorsey stormed out of the restaurant. Had he not cruised the delivery boy on the way out, it would have been very dramatic.

There was quiet in the dining room. Manfred Pierce held up his glass and said,

“God bless America.”

And the rest of the patrons held up their glasses and agreed. Seemed rude not to.

Manfred turned back to the table.

“So. What the fuck do we do? And should we get more dumplings?”

The first question required discussion, but the second did not. Hatred might persist, tho it be forever tamped down, but more dumplings were surely a balm. You spooned brown sauce that had shallots floating in it over them, and then swirled the whole deal around in your white rice and stuffed the gooey mess  in your mouth; it tasted just like it did the last time, and the time before that, and the first time you ever ate at Yung Man’s, which is the oldest restaurant in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

On The Road Out Of Little Aleppo

It was the Running of the Poodles and there had been several deaths. Mean curs with sharpish snouts, humiliated by their haircuts, snapping and sprinting along the frontage road while drunken tourists in silly outfits leaned in to slap their doggy asses; it would bring you luck in the new year, the story went, and men and women alike weaved and swerved to avoid the angry hounds. Some didn’t, and even their families did not mourn. You know what you were getting into when you ran with the poodles, everyone understood.

Off to the south was a farm where they harvested wind. Great turbines sticking themselves into the sky–just the tip, they swear–with giant blades swip-swopping so fast that they could not be seen, and workmen atop them in hard hats and neon-orange jackets. The men would take out their dicks and piss into the fans, and the urine would spray for miles and miles. They did not know why they did that, but were compelled. To the north was Mt. Tushmore, which had the faces of ZZ Top carved into it. To the east was morning, and to the west was night.

And everything was America.

O, there were horses. They carried orphans who clutched mailbags, and the ideology of colonels, and the wagons of pilgrims. The horses carried disease and war, and also actors. Famous pintos and stuffed palominos. Some of the horses argued for buffalo rights, and others were just broken. They claimed alliances with the livery owners and the saddlemakers, but did not realize the transactional nature of existence because they were horses.

Trucks, too. Strapped with cargo and with the hammer down, heading towards Pensacola and Cahokia and Schenectady, being chased by weigh stations down the highway. Bandits got splattered by trucks–Robin Hood would not have done well on Route 77–and the drivers would not wash the guts from their grills. Intestines were badges of honors; medals for Macks. The boys were thirsty in Atlanta and speed limits were sarcastic if you interpreted them to be so. Everyone was an Interpretationalist on the Interstitial Highway System.

The Highway existed before the highways. The Native shamans rode it coast to coast in a sleepless and frenzied night; they would tell their tribes what they had seen, but no one listened. This was to be a constant. A man named Bill galloped along the trail as he dreamt up ways to sell the West to the East and beyond. Lawman brothers and gambling dentists knew where to catch the road, and so did the Hoodoo ladies from New Orleans. Dragons shitting out luck behind them. Fighting cocks and jazzbos and so many goddamned buses full of runaways.

And now a ghost cop and an ex-roadie in a 1974 Dodge Monaco.

The car had four doors, two on each side. There were no curves at all: the 1974 Dodge Monaco was made of angles and sheet metal and a 400 cubic inch engine with eight cylinders aligned in a V. The steering wheel was shaped like the diagram of a woman’s interior on a handout your health teacher gave you: two fallopian tubes shooting out horizontally and a cervix descending. There was no air bag. The radio had push-buttons that depressed with a tactile kah-CHUNK to choose a preset, and a volume knob and a tuning knob. The windows rolled down, and they were.

Precarious Lee had his elbow leaning out of the Dodge and a Camel cigarette in his left hand. He took a drag and exhaled PHWOO and leaned his head towards the air blowing in so that he could feel the wind through his gray hair. He was thinking about touring and never getting any sleep, he was thinking about the fights and miles, he was thinking about his kid, he was thinking about nothing at fucking all with just the index and middle fingers of his right hand curled around the bottom of the wheel. He had driven up to Harper Observatory and picked the kid up. Penny refused to talk to him. She was not taking being a ghost well. Precarious figured she’d come around and turned the sedan around in the parking lot gracefully and headed back down Skyway Drive and right on Buchwald and then out to Main Drag that cut through Little Aleppo.

“You gotta piss?”

“Not since I got murdered.”

“That’s a plus.”

“Honestly? I kinda miss it.”

They passed Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon For Rock Stars And Their Ilk. Precarious waved.

“What about shitting?”

“Nope. No more.”

“Can’t complain about that.”

“Nah. Not shitting is awesome.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“I thought we were going to Route 77.”

“We are.”

“Is there, like, an on-ramp or something?”

“Yeah.”

“Where is it?”

“Look within your heart.”

So Officer Romeo Rodriguez, who was a ghost, looked within his heart for the on-ramp to Route 77, and there it was; the Dodge Monaco was doing 80 on ice-smooth blacktop with all sorts of lines–yellow, double-yellow, solid white, dashed white–painted on it, and there was a victorious roar and the sky was full of what looked like huge bald eagles, all saluting and preaching and bribing around the car. The sun went on and on. Toads blanched and sizzled. Cactus parched. Rivers swole. Cattle staged mutinies, slaughtered leathery men and their energetic daughters, took the wheel and lit out for the territories. Discotheques opened, struggled, bloomed, blossomed, thrived, got raided by the cops, burned down suspiciously, turned into banks. In the Low Desert, there were camels that no one remembered, and there were hippos in the Neverglades that none of the history books mentioned.

The radio was playing rock and roll music. American music. The Viennese thought they could write a tune; the Chinese had a melody or two: fuck y’all, did you invent the motherfucking Stratocaster? Nah. Back up while I step through here, the rock and roll music said to the world. I’m gonna get a little loud. Stupid, too, but that’ll be forgiven in the fullness of time. I’ll have apologists, you see, and explicators and pundits. Important people to translate me to the dopes. I got three chords, and you can play ’em all with just your middle finger. Can you say “rock and roll?” Can you say “amen?” If you can say one, you can say the other.

“Glove.”

“What?”

“Glove.”

The ghost cop opened the glove compartment of the Dodge. There were maps and the owner’s manual. A yo-yo.

“This?”

“Not the yo-yo.”

It was a translucent-red Duncan that glittered in the light.

“Pretty.”

“Not the yo-yo.”

Three pencils, two sharpened. Pad. Two decades worth of registration papers. A metal pencil-case with a picture of Tom Mix stamped onto the cover. The colors were fading and vague, but there were no dents and not one speck of rust.

“That.”

Romeo Rodriguez handed the metal box with Tom Mix stamped on the cover to Precarious Lee, who took up the steering wheel with his knees and undid the small latch. Took out a joint. Relatched the box. Handed it back to the ghost cop.

“You’re kidding.”

“What?”

“You’re driving.”

The 1974 Dodge Monaco has brakes the size of picnic basket, and when they’re slammed against the car’s wheels they make a sound like EEEEEE and then the sedan was sitting idle on the shoulder. Precarious Lee stared at the young man in the passenger seat.

“Yeah. I’m fucking driving.”

And after several seconds, Romeo Rodriguez looked away and out the windshield.

Precarious let off the brake and back on the gas and then there they were again doing 80 miles per hour through America. Through burned-out towns and villages that used to be, through battlefields littered with the ghosts of teenagers, through the rhythmic factories and cyclical farms. Through the perfectly-tied nooses. Through the battered cities and crumpled countryside, and all the barns were red and shingled. Through deadman’s curves and depressive spirals and second acts. Through the whiskey and the laudanum and the acid and the jails and hospitals and institutions. Through the workhouses and Wall Street and the whorehouses and Fifth Avenue. Through the telegraph and the telephone and the teevee and the rockets that would rather explode than beat the Soviets. Through the rock and roll bands and the chain gangs. Through the tenements and the prairie and the plains and the cul-de-sacs and the lake with the kotchas beside it.

O, America, you motherfucker. Show yourself, you secretive whore. I can smell you; come out where I can see you.

“Never seen it before.”

“Hm?”

“The States. The whole thing. All of it.”

There was quiet in the car but for the radio, which did not know when to shut up.

“There’s so much of it.”

“Yeah.”

“Enough to go around.”

“That’s what I always figured.”

The morning was to the east and the evening was in the west. The billboards knew what you wanted and were excited to tell you about it. It was a hundred miles to somewhere and five hundred to somewhere farther away; these facts were printed in white on a green background, and they sparkled when you shown headlights against them because nothing mattered more on Route 77 than where you were going, and today an ex-roadie and a ghost cop were going nowhere in particular except the opposite direction from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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