As the Pilgrim passes while the Country permanent remains,
So men pass on, but States remain permanent forever. – William Blake
Peregrinantium impetro praecepit duplum – Official slogan of the Little Aleppo tourist board.
The Reverend Arcade Jones discovered that God was a circle, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Nowhere was religion more free than in Little Aleppo, but they still passed around the collection plate. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: all were represented, and so were the backbenchers. There was a Zoroastrian temple, and a Zorroastrian temple where the ambulances lined up each Sunday, as it is a terrible idea to mix communion wine with swords. There were several churches that were clearly making it up as they went, and the Consecrated Church of Making It Up As We Go, which was a favorite among locals. Organized religions, and disorganized religions where the services never start on time because everyone shows up late, and no one remembers where they left the Bibles.
God was Little Aleppo’s rust. The Town Fathers had laws and maps and thick red markers, and they tried to pen God in on Rose Street, but the whores from Eighth Avenue would get specks of Him on the bottom of their high heels, and the sailors from the Salt Wharf brushed against Him when they sought forgiveness for praying to Poseidon during that last storm. Flecks of God, tiny and stuck to the back of sweaty necks, flaking off all over Little Aleppo and with only the smallest bit of oxygen a patch would grow the same brownish-red as a dying man’s last shit. The Town Fathers scraped and scraped until they hit bare and shiny metal, over and over, in the same places. But God was rust. You know what they say about rust.
In the beginning, there were Indians. (That last sentence only applies to America. Also the rest of the Western Hemisphere, but this is an American story.) The tribe that lived in the area were called the Pulaski, which is a word in their language that means “the only humans that matter” and they did not have a religion. They were noble, and they were savage. They worshipped trees and weather and buffalo. They also had regularly-scheduled feasts, and communal prayers, and songs, and rituals for birth and death, and an elaborate afterlife, and a creation story, and an incomprehensible amount of legend, myth, half-fictionalized history. But they hadn’t written it down in a leather-bound book with gilt edges and a ribbon to mark your place, so it wasn’t a religion.
Additionally, Busybody Tyndale scowled, there was no Jesus. That wouldn’t do. He was a preacher of no particular affiliation, and he had been chased out of towns and villages across the country. He was not a drunk, nor a cad, nor did he hold with impertinent doctrine–he preached just about the same Gospel as the next guy–and he bathed often for a man of his era. Busybody Tyndale’s recurring problem was that his love for Christ was not a cistern, but a fountain, and it often overflowed. He would chase people, and he was fast.
The preacher’s stay in Utica ended when he stood over a bank president’s bed in the middle of the night, giggling in anticipation of telling the man about the Lord. There is no sleep deep enough that you will not sense a stranger looming over you, giggling in anticipation, and the instant the bank president snapped his eyes open, Busybody Tyndale shouted “JESUS!” at him; the man screamed “JESUS!” right back, but for entirely different reasons. That was the end of the preacher’s time in Upstate New York. You could get away with doing that to a fishmonger or someone who worked in a yarn shop, but not a bank president. The young man went West.
Busybody Tyndale rode the rails and buttonholed brakemen, and preached at Paiute on the prairie. To all the souls in the Comstock, the miners in the darkness of a rich man’s pocket, where there was no light: he read the Bible from memory but still kept it open, and his finger still moved along left to right and down the page. To the rivers, which did not even stop to listen, and to the mountains, which did not go forth to share His teachings. Busybody Tyndale yelled at America about Jesus.
He bought a horse. In Selacina, by the Low Desert, he traded “going away and bothering someone else” for a horse and learned to ride so he could bring the Good Word to the Comanche, and as Busybody Tyndale was galloping away from the Comanche as fast as he could, he yelled the 23rd Psalm over his shoulder. He figured that was a start.
The Pulaski did not immediately try to kill him, though, so the preacher figured that that was a start, too, and he straightened his shredded tie and brushed the trail from his jacket’s left sleeve. (He had lost the right one somewhere in Nebraska.) He wore out Bibles like tires at the Indy 500, and this latest one was already smoking blue in the corners, and bulging at the middle. When Busybody Tyndale read the Good Book, he would heat up and the sweat would drop to the page, a tiny and transparent circle forming on the page, but he did not worry about where his next Bible would come from, even in the wilderness that was not yet C——a City where the hills met the ocean to form a natural harbor in the place that was not yet called Little Aleppo.
“I BRING THE WORD OF THE LORD!” he thundered.
(Thundered is the wrong word. Busybody Tyndale was 5’2″ and 110 pound soaking wet–108 pounds now that he’d lost one of his jacket sleeves–and was simply lacking the mass to properly thunder. You can’t use pipsqueak as a verb. You can’t, but I can, so why don’t we start the dialogue part again with more linguistic precision?)
“I BRING THE WORD OF THE LORD!” he pipsqueaked.
The Pulaski lived in teepees, but they were made of wood and called kotchas. There were a dozen around a communal building, and there was a large open oven alongside that. They had met white men before, so they sent someone out to talk to the preacher, while several others snuck around behind him with knives.
“Never heard of him. Is he tall?”
“Taller than him?”
The tallest Pulaski man stepped out of his kotcha.
The man went back inside.
“And the Lord has a son!”
“Is he tall, too?”
“You’re obsessed with height.”
“Ask of the Christ! He is Risen! He is Savior! He is Lord! He forgives our sins! Slayer of Legion! Resurrector of Lazarus! Son of the Virgin Mother! Healer! Teacher! Ask me of the Christ!”
“You just mentioned nine different guys.”
“All one guy. Jesus.”
“Jesus? Who’s that? You were talking about a guy named Christ.”
“They are the same. Jesus Christ.”
“Ohhh. So, Christ’s his last name?”
“No. It’s Greek. It’s a title. Not important. Jesus is all; he is everything. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega.”
“Why would you say that to me when we just established I don’t speak Greek?”
“He’s everything from A to Z.”
“It sounds better in Greek. Lemme get this straight: your god manifests infinite variations of himself, connected only by a narrative thread of character essentialism?”
There was a leaf that grew on a tree by the Pulaski village. You walked straight towards the sun in the morning, and turned left at the lake that smelled weird. The women would bring them back in flat-bottomed baskets with sides woven from redwood bark.
“Chew on this.”
On the edge of the clearing where the village was, there was a rock with a broad, flat top. It was under a sequoia, and so it stayed cool even in the hot afternoons of summer.
“Is Jesus in that rock?” the Pulaski man asked.
“Then that will be an excellent place to talk about him.”
They went and sat on the rock, and chewed their leaves for a while.
“My word, I’m the rudest man alive! My love for preaching the Gospel has blotted out the paltry few manners I was taught! I haven’t asked your name.”
“You can’t pronounce it.”
“May I call you Trismegistus?”
“I can’t pronounce that.”
“How about Peter?”
They chewed their leaves some more.
“Peter, my head feels a bit odd.”
“Uh-huh. Go over there when you puke.”
When the preacher was finished puking, he came back; Busybody Tyndale and Peter sat there for the rest of the day, and well into the evening. The fire roared at the moon. They talked about Jesus the Many, and the concept of infinicy. They talked about silly stories, and they talked about myth, and Myth, and though they were speaking it was always clear to both when the word was capitalized. They talked about a trail, an all-compassing track, that did not go from town to town, but between them.
“Out there,” and Peter pointed to the east, “is a road upon which time becomes confused, and everywhere happens at once. It hides itself under rivers and in mountains. It is difficult to find an entrance, but sometimes moreso to find a way out.”
“It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door.”
“I think you’ve had enough leaves.”
They sat on the rock and talked some more, and somewhere near midnight–long after the village had fallen asleep–upon that rock the First Church of the Iterated Christ was born. It was a start.
The universe has several constraints: the speed of light, and absolute zero, and third on the list was Arcade Jones’ dyslexia. He was all the way on the left end of the spectrum; the pages of a book looked like a teevee with the dial caught between stations. There are all kinds of strategies and techniques to deal with disorders of the visual processing systems nowadays, but when Arcade was a child in Loxachachi, Florida, there was only one, and that was Jesus. The first thing he did in the morning was pray the same prayer, and the second thing he did was open his Bible to find his prayer had been ignored again.
But he was charming, which will get you far in America, and he was the size of a linebacker, which will get you far in football, and so Arcade Jones was always well-regarded by everyone save himself, because he had been told that the Word of God was in a book, one that he carried with him all day and slept next to at night, and he couldn’t make heads or tails of the thing.
But he was a good listener, and an even better talker, and when he was thirteen–after years of not saying a word in church–he stood up during the preacher’s sermon, which had not been going well, and began to tell a story he had heard in that very church. The one about a man named Jonah, and a whale named something you couldn’t pronounce. The women fanned themselves and said, “That’s right,” and the men nodded and said, “Go on,” and the gators in the swamp that started right beyond the church parking lot plopped their fat bellies on the beach to listen. Arcade Jones could talk real good.
He went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship, and made the Dean’s List right up until the day his ACL tore, after which his grades plummeted. Arcade had no degree and no prospects, but he loved the Lord with all his heart. His stomach, however, loved food, and the rest of him loved being indoors, so he needed a job.
For a while, he worked security for a pop star–his friend from the football team, Big Ping Pong, had gotten him the gig–and Arcade saw the world: New York, and Paris, and Beijing. He took his Bible with him to all of these places, and it never made any more sense than it did beside the childhood bed in Loxachachi that he had outgrown years before he stopped sleeping in. The food was good, though. Say that about the rest of the world, Arcade thought: they do everything wrong, but they’ve got good food.
When Arcade’s mother died, the pop star flew him home on her private plane. When he was young, he would watch planes skim the sky across the top of the mangroves and think the passengers closer to God, but Arcade just felt alone. He did not understand how God could need his mother more than he did, but he knew the answer to that question was in the book that he carried with him all day and slept next to every night and could not make heads or tails of.
Somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, under the only burning light on an otherwise-dark jet, Arcade Jones began to get the unmistakable feeling that he was being fucked with.
He had no degree, and no prospects, and no longer loved the Lord with any part of himself; now he had no mother, which meant he had no home. Arcade could still talk, though, and so he preached. Church after church. Back on the road, but no private plane this time: the deacons put him up for the week, he praised God through his teeth on Sunday, and Monday was getaway day. Sometimes, he preached at mega-churches for the sizable honorariums; he visited one small ministry in North Carolina every six months because of the barbecue joint next door. Arcade Jones drifted through America, lying about Jesus.
It was the first time Arcade had been to Cascabel, which is in Texas, but the sermon at the Holy Royal Macadamia Church of the Anointed Christ went well. The congregation gave him three standing ovations, and after the third there was the distinct sound of a rooster crowing, and because Arcade Jones was a very good listener, he felt very alone and then he was relieved, as he had come to the end of a journey.
Arcade Jones was sure he was being fucked with.
He walked out of the church and past the house of the deacon where he was staying for the week, and out of town and then there were no more people or buildings, just a highway that leads to America, and it stretches forever into the distance. Perhaps he did not mean to wander into the low desert, or maybe he did. He was there, either way. Walked for a month-and-a-half, and then he looked down and his thumb was out, and then he looked back up and a car had stopped.
It was a cherry red Ford Mustang with white leather seats. There was a briefcase, tweed and battered, on the passenger seat, but the driver tossed it in the back and pushed the door open from the inside.
“Where you headed to?”
“No idea,” Arcade said to the skinny man with the veiny forearms and large hands.
“Me, too. Smoke?”
Arcade said no, thank you, and got in. The tires squealed, just a little bit, as the driver popped the clutch and soon they were blasting through the world at a reasonable and prudent–but still rather quick–speed. Arcade did not know whether the ride was temptation or salvation, and he was too afraid to ask, so the car was silent. After several states, the man spoke up.
“So. Can you…y’know…do anything?”
“I can preach.”
The driver scratched the edges of a freshly-grown mustache, and humped his butt up out of the seat so he could fetch his Zippo from the change pocket of his Levi’s, and lit another cigarette.
“Need a job?”
“I no longer love the Lord.”
“Not the question.”
And then Arcade’s stomach yowled and popped, and he stared straight ahead out the windshield where he did not see the Lord at all, only America.
“I do need a job, yes. Please.”
“I know a guy.”
The First Church of the Iterated Christ of Little Aleppo had trouble keeping pastors. And ministers. Also reverends, priests, and vicars. They hired a rabbi once, but that didn’t work at all. “Too many Christs!” each would shout while leaving for less complicated pastures. Some didn’t even have the courtesy to storm out, just fucked off back to Harvard Divinity in the middle of the night.
The driver had made a phone call on the way, and Arcade was the new preacher, no questions asked, and the cherry red Ford Mustang with white leather seats glided up in front of the church.
“I can’t go in there looking like this,” Arcade said, and he was right. His suit had lost one of its arms, and his tie was shredded. His beard was patchy, and his hair too long.
The driver pulled his briefcase from the back, opened it, and took out a paperback sci-fi novel and a pencil. He tore the last page out and wrote something down, and then turned it over and wrote something on the back.
“Big-Dicked Sheila’s the first one. Hair. Creepy Ernie second. Clothes.”
“Does everyone here have such odd names?”
“My name’s normal,” the man said as he handed Arcade the piece of paper. It had two addresses on it, and on the back was written in deliberately legible block printing: Take care of this man, PL.
Arcade Jones straightened up on the curb, and pretended to read the note, and said “Thank you” many times as the car pulled away onto Rose Street, and turned onto the Main Drag and disappeared. He was a stranger in the strangest land he had ever seen, and he did not love the Lord with any part of himself, and there was nowhere to go but into the church, missing sleeve and patchy beard announcing his pitiable nature.
But Little Aleppians are used to receiving freight that’s been damaged in transit, and the deacons of the First Church of the Iterated Christ took no notice of his raggedness. They ordered him pizza, and then they took him to Creepy Ernie’s, where Arcade discovered why he was named that, and then to Big-Dicked Sheila’s, where he took her word for it. He had a small, but neat, apartment on the second floor of the church, and on Sundays he preached a Gospel he had never read and no longer believed. The congregation always smiled, and nodded their heads, and told him to “Go on,” but that was just because he talked so good that it didn’t matter what he said.
Time went by. It does that.
Arcade Jones spent his free time sitting in a pew on the left side of the church, near the front but not in the first row. He left a Bible open in his lap for appearance’s sake, and locals would stop in. They brought him their problems. Sometimes, they brought him food. Arcade accepted it all.
One day, the man who had picked him up on the highway came in with two cups of coffee, black and scalding hot, and they sat on the pew and drank their coffee in silence, and Arcade stared straight ahead. Christ the Iterated lay before him, and Jesus the Infinite refracted before him, endless, like a shattered mirror and he could not make sense of the pieces that looked to him just like a teevee with its dial caught between stations.
His head felt odd and he looked at his coffee cup the coffee black inside white cupped in his massive black hand and though there was a circle there was no describing the circle–not precisely not with sureness–as Pi was infinite and not knowable but the circle was there in his hand the coffee black in the white in the black of his hand and he grew hot and he knew that within the circle was all every number and every letter he had never known but THEY WERE THERE in the circle of the coffee cup which grew colder he sucked its heat from the liquid and it popped out of the pores on his forehead sweat beadingdrippingfalling fat and PLOP on the Bible open on his lap the page turns transparent and bubbles up in a circle which cannot be described nor named nor numbered but THERE IT IS on the page which he had been told was God’s word and could not read but oh God Oh my Lord sweet you are and sinner I am you are here with me and you are me in Christ’s infinite Iteration and if He is is All then He is me and you and Me and You and either all of it is holy or none of it is and it was so hot in the church where he had sucked the warmth from his coffee cup which was holy and which was Him and Arcade Jones was nude cock bouncing thigh to thigh the aisle the door the sun and then there was the Lord THERE HE WAS everywhere and everyone and everything spreading by the green of the Verdance and the crowd of the Main Drag where there were so many sinners and none at all clouds whirled and wheeled overhead underfoot through his eyes and poets and grocery clerks and pickpockets and lawyers lion tamers long-haul truckers prisoners and preachers all the Lord all the Lord all the Lord.
And all the midnight librarians, and all the recording angels with their Tetragramophones. All of it was holy, or none of it was.
The Reverend Arcade Jones had a little belly, just the beginning of one, that fleshed out above his pubis; the head of his cock slapped against it as he ran down the street telling people what he knew about God. That He was rust, and that He was a circle. God put his Word in a book, but He also put Himself everywhere else. Arcade Jones’ heart was made of God and he used that heart to love Him, which formed a circle, and circles cannot be precisely described but still exist.
The door to the bookstore with no title has a little bell attached to it, and it went TINKadink on a Tuesday afternoon not long after the preacher had had such an exciting day. Mr. Venable was in his customary seat, in his customary suit; there was a large book in front of him open to a page with an illustration.
“Precarious Lee. Back so soon.”
“How are we doing on the naked giants blathering about Jesus front? Main Drag clear or should we shelter in place?”
“Did you enjoy the book? A Guide to North American Arboreuticals. Not your usual fare of sci-fi and Western crap.”
“Change of pace.”
“It’s a myth, Precarious. Trees don’t produce hallucinogenic leaves. Made-up nonsense.”
“You’re probably right.”
Precarious jutted his chin at the book on Mr. Venable’s desk.
“You readin’ picture books now?”
“Does he write detective stories?”
“In a way.”
Precarious nodded, and wandered back into the store, where the bookshelves stretched out and refracted before him, infinite in their iterations. He did not know what he was looking for, but he knew that it would be there if he kept looking, so he walked into the stacks of stories in the bookstore with no title, which is located on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.