There was a single bead of sweat on Big-Dicked Sheila’s lip right in the middle rivulet under her nose like molten amber, and it wiggled as she inhaled from a Camel cigarette clenched in her front teeth and PHWOO exhaled. Her hands were behind her head. The sun was in front of her head. The pool was over there somewhere. Thattaway, towards her bare feet and baby blue toes which matched the water, chlorinated to within an inch of its life. A heavy hand is needed to keep a motel pool clean.
The Heliotropicana had 40 rooms on two floors, and the room doors opened onto a catwalk with a white guardrail that overlooked the pool; the stucco that made up the building was pink, and so were the lounge chairs on the concrete deck, which were the cheap kind with strappy belts of vinyl that left sucking highways on the back of your thighs when you got up. Tiresias Richardson needed to change–and primp, honestly–and Penny Arrabbiata could use a shower, too, and as long as there was a shower available, then the Reverend Arcade Jones was going to hop in, and so Precarious Lee downshifted his Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham off of Route 77 and onto the boring old Interstate, and then off the Interstate to the surface streets of Jeremiad Springs, and then into the parking lot of the Heliotropicana.
Jemima Gloaming had owned the motel for ten years, and her shoulders and chest were deeply wrinkled and brown like a baseball glove made out of Willie Nelson. She was wearing a tie-dyed tank top, and that made Precarious smile. He put his tweed briefcase on the counter, face up, so she could see the small red and blue inlay near the handle.
“We need a room, please,” he said.
Jemima eyed them up and said,
“This a pervert orgy?”
“I don’t care, but there’s a deposit for the cleaning.”
“Not an orgy,” Precarious said.
“I’m gonna check.”
“Fine by me.”
“Do you have any pets?”
Jemima reached under the counter and pulled out a puppy.
Arcade Jones isn’t fast any more, not since he shredded his knee playing LSU, but he’s still quick to the point of blurriness for the first six or eight feet and Precarious did not register him coming up besides.
“Oh, Lord; puppy-wuppy, come here.”
The Reverend scooped the dog up–it fit in one boat-sized hand–and brought it close to his face.
“Are you a puppy? Who is a puppy? Is it you?”
The puppy did not know if it was a puppy, or refused to answer the question on ideological grounds. Either way, it said nothing and wriggled furiously.
“Are you pretty or handsome? Let’s see.”
He picked up the dog’s backside, checked.
“Who is my handsome little man? Who is?”
The three women were by now circled around Arcade and the dog.
“He is. He is the handsomest,” Sheila said, scratching the dog’s wiggly rump.
“Professor, what kind of dog is he?” Tiresias asked.
“I’m not that kind of professor.”
The puppy was short-coated and dirty blond–the color of rusty gold–and he shook his floppy ears out of his eyes every few seconds. Couldn’t be a shepherd or a retriever; didn’t have the right tail. Snout was too wide to be a doberman, but not wide enough to be a pit. Too big to be a terrier. Not a dachshund.
“Canis Intersectionalis,” Penny said.
The dog had flopped happily onto his back, and four people were rubbing his belly.
“That sounds fancy,” Sheila said.
“It means mutt.”
“The fanciest mutt in the whole wide world. Yes, he is.”
Sheila was standing in the Reverend’s shadow, and she leaned her bright-red head up against the sleeve of his bright-red jacket.
“Y’know, Reverend, every church needs a dog. I mean, that’s just the way things work. A bookstore needs a cat, and a church needs a dog.”
From behind the office, there was a splash as a child cannonballed into the pool.
“I’ve never heard of that before,” Arcade said
“Yeah, not a thing,” Tiresias added.
“A dog can’t belong to a building. Cats can. You can have a church cat, and the cat belongs to the building, but not a dog. Not how dogs work,” Penny said.
“I thought you weren’t that kind of scientist,” Sheila answered.
“None of this has anything to do with science.”
Jemima flipped open the guest book on the counter in front of her and said,
“$50 for the room, and $50 for the dog.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones felt guilty about the $50. Deacon Blue had given him a few hundred in cash out of the First Church of the Infinite Christ’s petty cash. For emergencies, he had said. So he named the dog Emergency.
The Reverend was beginning to understand Little Aleppo
He was dripping over the sides of his lounge chair next to Sheila by the pool. The Reverend was larger than whoever the chair was built for, and the effect was like an overstuffed sandwich, or Godzilla laying atop an oil rig: more was off than on. Penny and Tiresias were using the bathroom in the room, so he was waiting outside. His jacket was off, and his tie, and so were his shoes and socks; the legs of his stop sign-red pants were rolled up to his knee. There was a puppy on his broad chest.
“Always had dogs growing up. Chessy. Big Duke. We had one dog: his name was Gator, and Gator was just about the smartest person in any room he was in. Always used to growl at my cousin Rodney, bit him once or twice. Turned out that Gator was right. Rodney got caught up in the devil. There was evil in his acts. Gator knew. Always trusted his judgement after that.”
“We had Derby,” Precarious said. He was on the lounge chair next to Sheila, and had his shoes off, too. The sun was high and hot.
“Smart?” Sheila asked.
“Shit, no. Scared of pine cones and spent most days trying to mount the chickens.”
“Least she didn’t eat them,” Arcade said.
“Preacher, she was too dumb to know they were food.”
Emergency had fallen asleep on the Reverend’s chest, and let out a small snore/hiccup, and the three of them–even Precarious–made small noises in response.
Tiresias had debated getting a black wig, straight and long, maybe do a half-Draculette for Tommy, but then decided that half of a Draculette was no Draculette at all. Kohl for the eyes, though, just for reference’s sake. Old Hollywood chic, yes, that was what was called for: taupe wide-legged slacks that were tight around the ass and billowed out. White blouse over a sheer white tank top, ribbed. The buttons above her belly button had never even been introduced to one another. Old asshole wants the vampire with the big tits? Here ya go, she thought.
The room was pale green and creamy white, and there was a painting of palm trees bolted to the wall. The bathroom was bifurcated: the shower and toilet in a small chamber behind a door, and the sink and mirror right outside in a small hallway. Penny was in the shower, and country music was playing from the clock radio on the nightstand in between the two queen beds. That Bakersfield sound.
Tiresias felt good. But not great.
Sheila had left her purse on the bed to the right.
HOW WILL IT END?
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was not easily startled. She had stopped going to haunted houses many Halloweens ago, as they were just a waste of money. Some teenager in a floppy mask would leap at her, and she’d say, “Hello, there,” and everyone involved in the exchange would feel hollow. Gussy was scared of the right things: failure, and death, and rats.
Still, though: when the entire building surrounding her began bellowing melancholy wonderings at her without warning, she jumped.
“You need to clear your throat before you start talking.”
I DO NOT HAVE A THROAT.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT.
“–we need some sort of noise to let me know you’re going to talk.”
YOU WILL KNOW I AM SPEAKING BY THE FACT THAT I AM SPEAKING.
Gussy was qualified for her life – the professional part of it, at least. Double-major in Business and Film Studies at Harper College, and she graduated magna cum laude. “Why not summa?” her father, David O. Incandescente-Ponui asked at her graduation party in front of the whole family. Gussy’s father was an asshole. She prepared, did her homework, kept up with the literature. She knew more than you did about the history of Bollywood, and also the per-unit cost of Fanta.
She was a hard-worker, too, and if the deep crimson runners that covered both lengths of the aisles in the orchestra needed vacuuming, then she grabbed the ancient, heavy Electrolux–Gussy had been meaning to look up when the company went out of business and vaguely place the device’s vintage–and the bright-yellow 200′ extension cord.
Patterns swooping up, and then curve back down. The nap of the carpet. Lay it this way, and then that. It catches the light different, looks different. Roll the Electrolux away from you, lighter; bring it back, darker. Take a step forward. Repeat. Repeat. When you get to the front of the auditorium, turn around and do it again.
Gussy was thinking about Sheila’s collarbone, and the way it stretched the skin away from her shoulder, the concave pocks on either side of the ridge, and how much she’d like to put her mouth on one of them when her theater started talking to her.
“Repeat after me: ahem.”
“No, don’t just say the word.”
ALEA IACTA EST.
IT IS LATIN. THE DIE IS CAST. IT IS WHAT CAESAR SAID WHEN HIS ARMIES CROSSED THE RUBICON TO TAKE ROME. HE HAD COMMITTED AN IRREVOCABLE ACTION WITH NO FIXED OUTCOME. THIS IS THE PRESENT SITUATION, WITH REGARDS TO THE OBSERVATORY.
The Tahitian had 1,200 seats in the orchestra, and Gussy sat down in one. She was wearing a yellow dress because when she was getting dressed she was thinking about Sheila, and worried about her–no specific reason, just vague dread–and so she decided to cheer herself up by wearing her favorite color. Crossed her legs, ladylike, and pulled the hem of the skirt over her knees, ladylike.
“What the fuck are you talking about?
FLUXUS. THE INCORRUPTIBLE SPACE BETWEEN A QUESTION AND AN ANSWER.
Neither her film nor business classes had ever covered how to deal with a sentient sound system with a philosophical bent. Wally was an artificial mondo-intelligence in the physical form of a sound system lashed together by savants, dopesuckers, and Oregonians. It had belonged to the band Precarious Lee used to work for, and now it belonged to her because she had neglected to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“You’re the supercomputer.”
I AM SO FAR BEYOND A SUPERCOMPUTER THAT IT WOULD MAKE YOUR HEAD SPIN.
“Pardon me,” she said, and curtsied in her seat sarcastically. “You’re…what are you?”
I AM THAT I AM.
“Uh-huh. So, you tell me. What do you think?”
I HAVE NO FAITH IN ANY OF MY PREDICTIONS. THE RANGE OF MY VARIABLES IS TOO WIDE, AND I BELIEVE THERE ARE IMPORTANT FACTORS I AM UNAWARE OF. I CAN TELL YOU WHAT THE WEATHER WILL BE IN THE NEXT HOUR WITH 99.998% ACCURACY, IN THE NEXT DAY WITH 99.87%, THE NEXT WEEK WITH 96.21%.
“But not a land dispute in a shitty neighborhood?”
NO. TRILLIONS OF ATMOSPHERIC PARTICLES ARE EASIER TO KEEP TRACK OF THAN ONE HUMAN HEART.
Gussy had never felt empathy for a sound system before. Odd sensation. Like falling in love with toaster.
“If it makes you feel any better, none of us have figured us out, either.”
EVEN WHEN YOUR INTENTIONS ARE CLEAR, YOUR ACTIONS CANNOT BE PREDICTED. IF I WERE TO COMPARE YOU TO MYSELF: IT IS THOUGH YOU HAVE SUB-ROUTINES RUNNING THAT YOU ARE NOT AWARE OF. ERRORS IN YOUR GRAMMAR THAT ITERATE DOWN THE LINE OF CODE.
“It’s a lump of jelly.”
“The brain. We’re not like you. We don’t understand ourselves, and we can’t run a diagnostic. There’s no wiring. Just jelly. When we’re born, it’s a certain shape, and then the world pokes at it. When the world pokes hard enough, it leaves a fingerprint.”
She said this to the empty screen. Gussy pretended that the screen was Wally’s face, because Gussy did not know how to speak to someone who did not have a face, and so she pretended that the screen was Wally’s face.
AND WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THESE FINGERPRINTS?
“Ignore ’em. Make ’em into art. Fuck. Pray. Some turn to drink.”
YOU LACK THE CAPACITY FOR A HARD REBOOT.
“We do, indeed.”
IT IS VERY REFRESHING.
“I would imagine,” Gussy said, and stood up. She flipped the switch of the Electrolux and it went WGREEEEEE as she rocked it up and back on The Tahitian’s deep crimson runners, WGREEEEEEE–
She flicked the power switch up and back, and spun around to face the screen.
“Did you do that!?”
I AM WIRED INTO THE MAINS.
Gussy made a mental note to push Precarious out a window the next time she saw him.
“I thought we were done.”
HOW WILL IT END?
“The Observatory and Tommy and all that?”
Both hands on the grip of the vacuum, and knees together, and eyes down.
“I don’t know.”
There was quiet in the auditorium, even from the balcony, and dust motes mated in the thin light.
TAKE ME TO HARPER OBSERVATORY. I WISH TO SEE THE STARS.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
Sheila held up a prescription bottle, green and translucent.
“Please tell me you only took one.”
Tiresias was checking her makeup in the motel room’s mirror and not making eye contact with Sheila. The Reverend Arcade Jones was in the shower.
“Sweetie, I don’t mind. What’s mine is yours. But these fuckers are strong.”
Her hair was the color of a chipmunk’s fur; wavy across her forehead, and exploded into chaos below her jawline. Thin, long brows. Tiresias had the suggestion of a cleft in her chin, and her lips were dull-red and very glossy. Nails matched the lips. No rings. Watch on her left wrist, tiny and gold like the cross that was–well, there’s no other word for it–nestled in her cleavage. She had spent a week finding the right length chain. Didn’t want the cross to disappear in there, but couldn’t come up short, either. A half-inch above the junction where chest turned into tits, a smidge above that was where you wanted Jesus, she figured. It’s all show biz, she figured, as the strong afternoon light glinted off the cross and into the mirror and back and the mirror and back, and Tiresias went into her reflection deeper–that better not be a pimple; motherfucker, that’s a pimple–and tried to avoid looking at Sheila, especially after she noticed how blown-out her pupils were.
Behind Tiresias was the small room with the shower and sink in it, and the sound of water stopped.
Sheila had left her sneakers out by the pool, and she padded silently besides Tiresias.
“Give a girl an ‘ahem’ or something.”
Tiresias to the left of Sheila. (To the right in the mirror.) Tiresias tall, Sheila short; long hair, short hair; shirt and slacks; little black dress.
They leaned into each other.
“Precarious’ angels,” Sheila said.
They did the pose.
The door behind them opened up, steam billowed out and so did a great, black, bald head.
The two ladies turned around. Tiresias cocked her head, and Sheila leaned back against the vanity seductively.
“Gentleman,” Sheila said.
“Ooh, you look so clean.”
SLAM. (That’s the sound of the door.)
“You’re very inappropriate people.”
“Us? We’re in a motel, Padre,” Sheila said through the door.
“You’re the weird one,” Tiresias added.
“There is something inherently dirty about a motel.”
“Why do you think people stay in them? AAAAHahaha!”
Sheila reached up and scratched Tiresias’ shoulder, right where the blade is, and then peered into the mirror and asked,
“Are my eyeballs too white?”
“That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.”
From in the bathroom,
And then the room’s door opened CLIK-TCHACK spilling sunlight, blazing, into the pale-green and creamy-white rented sanctuary of Room 18 of the Heliotropicana. Precarious.
“We gotta get a move on.”
“I’ve been telling them that!”
Precarious looked around the room: the beds, the dresser, the ceiling.
“The bathroom, dummy.”
Precarious saw the door to the bathroom, the women, understood what was happening.
“You two.” Pointing with his index and pinky. “Out.” Pointing with his thumb.
And then they were gone and the motel room was quiet and the Reverend Arcade Jones could escape the tiny bathroom with just a shower and toilet, both of which were not made for people his size. He wasn’t shy, or a prude, but the thin white towels did not wrap all the way around his waist. The best he could do was two–one in front and one in back–gathered up in his hands and prone to slippage.
He stood before the mirror behind the vanity, turned the sink on. Toothpaste on the brush. He liked the kind with the stripes, mostly because the company had never changed its packaging too much. Arcade couldn’t read a damned word in the supermarket, but he could pick out shapes and patterns like a dyslexic hawk. Just don’t change the box, that’s all he asked of his consumables. The shampoo he liked had completely revamped its logo a decade ago, new colors and everything, and he had started shaving his head.
The Reverend Arcade Jones’ suit was redder than Mao, and hung in the dissipating steam of the bathroom.
Just four miles from the motel to Tommy Amici’s place. 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, with the radio playing low. Man and two women up front. Man, woman, and dog in the back.
“Your name is Emergency.”
Tiresias only smoked cigarettes when she was nervous, or fucked up, and she was nervous and fucked up, and so she wanted a cigarette but the Reverend had forbidden smoking around the puppy; there was an ashtray in the armrest of the Cadillac’s door, and she flipped it up and back, and up and back, nostrils wide open and sinuses like valleys and she felt good, almost too good, but good very good and she hoped she would not feel any gooder: gooder would be bad, this was the level of good she was comfortable with–cruising altitude–and she desired no further goodening.
These are not words, she thought to herself. Gooder is not a word. Goodening is even more not a word.
Pinyon Way was named after the trees that had been cut down to build the road, and you could not see Tommy’s house from it. There was the sidewalk, and twenty feet of impossible grass, and then a wall made from very fancy and expensive cinderblock. Ten feet high, and above that were the crowns of fan palms that blocked the view.
He had built it for Cara. He had built it for them. A little fucking privacy, is that too much to ask from you creeps? Singing’s my job, and I’m off work. Fuck off, would ya? He built the house for her.
Cara Thorn was dead twelve years when Precarious Lee pulled up to the curb.
It was late afternoon in the Low Desert, and there was a cloud to the east. Blue, otherwise. The palm trees had their hands up on defense. Chinch bugs up high, and chiggers at your ankle. Down the street, a team of gardeners with bandanas around their faces forced the sandy earth to grow grass and bushes and other plants that should not have been there. Anything will grow anywhere, if you have enough money.
Engine clicked off. Quiet in the Cadillac.
“We’re here,” Precarious said.
“Yaay,” Tiresias muttered, and Sheila grabbed her hand.
The Reverend Arcade Jones was holding Emergency in one of his hands, close in to his chest, and the dog was staring up at him.
“Would it be all right if I said a little prayer?” he said, not looking at Penny Arrabbiata. The Reverend tried not to judge people, and he thought Penny was quite lovely and very smart, but he had never gotten a warm reception from academic-type folks when he offered a prayer. He didn’t understand why people would get angry when you wanted to pray for them, but they did.
Penny took his hand, the one that didn’t have the puppy in it.
“Not too little,” she said.
In the front seat, Sheila was already holding Tiresias’ hand, and so she reached out for Precarious’ and it was right there. The five of them were silent for moment, and then the Reverend Arcade Jones said,
And then it was silent for another moment, and Penny said,
“That’s my prayer,” Arcade said.
“A bit underdone.”
“What else do you need?’
“Fire? Brimstone? How about a hallelujah or two?’
Sheila turned around and leaned over the seat and reached out to pet Emergency.
“It was a good prayer,” she said, and Tiresias added,
“The brevity informed the sanctity, which can be read as the inherence of the…thing.”
Sheila closed her eyes deliberately, grabbed Tiresias’ wrist, squeezed a little too hard.
“Nice prayer, Padre,” Precarious said.
Arcade Jones handed the puppy to Sheila, who cradled him in her skinny chest and kneaded his belly until she found the right spot to get his leg kicking, and he opened the door and once out he smoothed down his shirt and trousers and put on his ketchup-red jacket. Penny out the other side, into traffic but there was no traffic at all: she was wearing her scientist drag, khakis and a fleece vest with an obscure patch on the breast.
Sheila grabbed the back of Tiresias’ neck, squeezed a little too hard, and drug her face in close.
“Don’t fuck this up.”
“Sheel, I’m gonna kill it.”
“Tirry if you fuck this up, I’m gonna be pissed.”
Tiresias licked her lips, but she had left all her spittle back at the motel.
“I’m in the pipe.”
Sheila squeezed her neck a bit harder.
“Don’t. Fuck. This. Up.”
Tiresias grabbed Sheila by her ears and kissed her full on the mouth.
“Berf,” the puppy said.
“I’m gonna kill this shit.”
And then Tiresias was outside the Cadillac and walking towards the door in the front gate, adjusting all of her clothing and putting things in their proper place. She still wanted a cigarette. Maybe Tommy still smoked.
The car was quiet again, and Sheila scooted over so she could close the door that Tiresias had left open, but it was massive and heavy and her angle was wrong, so she put Emergency in her lap and reached out her left arm. Precarious took it and dragged her back, and the door closed, and now the car was even quieter.
He reaches into the pocket of his tee-shirt. Soft pack of Camels. Jerks his wrist up and two cigarettes pop out, and he squeezes the pack so they don’t fall back down. Offers. She takes one. Pack to his mouth, draws the smoke out with his lips. Back in the pocket. Zippo is in the jeans, so he arches his butt off the maroon velour seat and plucks it out. SHNITKT. They light their cigarettes, and then look at the puppy in her lap. She eases the dog onto the bench seat, and they each retreat to the far side of the car with their arms hanging out the windows, and thrust their heads out to take drags.
“How will it end?”
And Precarious took a drag off his cigarette and PHWOO exhaled, and then he thought for a second and said,
“Well for some, poorly for others.”
And Sheila thought that was so funny that she started crying. Precarious turns into her, and she comes back across the bench seat, waking Emergency up and nearly squishing him between their legs. She leans into him and puts her head on his chest, and his heartbeat is in her ear.
The sky is still blue.
“The preacher from the weird church, a scientist who hates people, and a vampire with big tits.”
“Who’s off her ass on stolen pills,” Precarious added.
“Who’s off her ass on stolen pills.”
Sheila wipes her eyes on Precarious’ tee-shirt leaving a bit of mascara, sighs.
“This was the best we could do.”
Precarious stroked Sheila’s bright-red hair with one hand, and took a drag off his Camel with the other. PHWOO. He said,
“We’ll get our shit together one of these days.”
“One of these days.”
The door buzzed and opened, and the man and two women entered the compound, and the door closed behind them. There was a Cadillac on the street, idling with the windows down, and there was a man and a woman and a dog inside. There were towering palm trees, and squat ones, but none like the two rising from within Tommy’s yard. Washingtonia robusta. Skinny trunks that swayed upwards for ten stories with tufted fronds up top. There was nothing so impressive for miles, and nothing to do but wait in the car in a place that was very far from Little Aleppo, which was a neighborhood in America.