It was not yet mid-morning, and the bell on the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink.
“Temporary eminent domain.”
“That sounds made up.”
“Thank you! It absolutely sounds made up!”
“I suspect you have more to say.”
“Turns out it’s a thing.”
“Ah. Unexpected thingness. A tragedy,” Mr. Venable said. He was sitting in his customary seat, and wearing his customary suit. He was quitting coffee this week, so he took a sip from his mug that read HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE and felt guilty about it. Mr. Venable was reading the presidents. They all had biographies, even the shitty and forgettable ones. One each, that was the rule, just one or otherwise you’d get stuck on Jefferson and God help you when you got to Lincoln. The bookstore with no title had at least one sub-basement dedicated solely to books about Abraham Lincoln. He was on Polk.
“Opened the Naval Academy, y’know.”
“James K. Polk.”
“Fuck K. him,” Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, said.
“The K stood for Keymaster.”
“It didn’t. Did you hear about this bullshit? I’m getting fucked.”
There was a tortoiseshell cat on the table in front of Mr. Venable, and he cupped her ears.
“MLAAAAaaarh,” the cat punched at his hands bopbopbop and he withdrew them.
The shop was quiet and dim. The frontage faced west, so it was dark in the mornings and few customers had come in since Mr. Venable unlocked the doors at 9:41 a.m. on the dot. They had all wandered into the stacks, walking sideways with their heads lolled against their right shoulders. They would emerge eventually, or not. The coffeemaker went PSSSSH at random intervals for reasons it would not explain.
Outside on the Main Drag, there was anger and fear. That morning’s Cenotaph had broken the story of the arsonist and the notes that he–the paper just assumed the arsonist was a he–left at the fire station. Calling his shots, that’s what the op-ed said. Maybe YOU could be next, the op-ed continued. The paper’s ombudsman later wrote that capitalizing the YOU was a bit much, but no one listens to ombudsmen. People were being asked, “Got a light?” and beaten if they answered in the affirmative. Homeowners on the Upside were hiring renters from the Downside as security. Shotguns were being racked.
“Why my place?”
“The Tahitian is a local sanctuary. Holy ground, perhaps. Town Fathers wish to preclude any violence.”
“There’s violence all the time. Two guys in the balcony were swinging scuba tanks at each other last night,” Gussy said. She walked to the coffee machine and poured herself a mug. Looked around.
“Are you out of sugar?”
“I’m out of everything.”
“Where’s the milk?”
“Everything. I’m out of everything,” Mr. Venable said. “Where did they get the scuba tanks from?”
“Brought them from home, I guess. Why don’t you just go to the store?”
“It’s easier just to suffer.”
Gussy sipped her black coffee, grimaced, took another sip. You could always get used to an inconvenience for an effect. Needles hurt when they pierced the skin; coffee and alcohol tastes like shit; cigarettes scorch the throat. But you’d put up with it to get what you want.
“They sent a cop to my house.”
Mr. Venable swung his feet off the table and leaned forward; he said,
“This morning. Early this morning. Like, it was barely morning.”
“You’ve made your point.”
“He did the cop knock.”
“The worst of all knocks.”
“Such a dick knock.”
The tortoiseshell cat, who did not have a name, stood up and arched her back until she was nearly folded in half. She shivered once, twice, and then padded along the table, leapt to the floor, trotted into the back of the shop.
“Know what I did to him?”
“What did you do?”
“Answered the door buck naked.”
“You showed him.”
“Made him answer a bunch of questions, too. He was bright red.”
“Temporary eminent domain.”
“Right, yeah. Apparently, it’s a thing. Already stopped by my lawyer. The Town Fathers can rent your place in the name of the greater good.”
Mr. Venable curled his lip and said,
“The greater good. Who decides what is and isn’t the greater good?”
“The Town Fathers. It was a 3-2 vote.”
“Sacco and Venzetti were right.”
When the cop left, Gussy went back to the bedroom where Big-Dicked Sheila was sitting up with her back against the headboard. Her chest was bare and her leather satchel was on her lap with her hands under it. Gussy stopped at the door, and Sheila smiled and looked past her into the hallway. Gussy followed her gaze and swiveled her head to look behind her.
“Cop never came in.”
Sheila kept her hands beneath the bag and asked,
Gussy closed her eyes tight and said,
“Put the fucking gun away, Sheel.”
Sheila had a Sig Sauer .38. The handle had wood inlays. She clicked the safety back into the locked position and replaced the gun in her bag. Pulled out a pack of Camels and a green plastic lighter. She lit a smoke PHWOO as Gussy pivoted on her heel and fetched the glass ashtray from the living room table. When she came back into the bedroom, Sheila was already in the middle of a sentence.
“…pretend to be cops and eat people. You grew up here, so you’ve heard the stories.”
“Babadooks are not real, my love.”
Gussy was naked and holding a manila envelope. She climbed into bed next to Sheila and scrunched up next to her so that their sides were pressing against each other, put the ashtray on her thigh, took a drag of the Camel PHWOO that Sheila held to her lips, kissed her forehead. It was that useless portion of morning when no one was up but the sun, and Sheila leaned her head against Gussy’s shoulder.
There was a raised seal on the letter, which made it official. The only way to become more official would be to seal the letter with wax and the stamp from a Papal ring, but the Town Fathers did not have access to those accessories, so they employed a notary public. Stars in a circle surrounding an enraged swan. It was an impressive town seal. Sheila ran her fingers over it. Her nails were the same blue as her hair.
“Oh, yeah,” Sheila said.
Gussy stopped reading the letter and looked at her.
“Why won’t you wear your glasses?”
“I don’t need them.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Gussy said and kissed her. Sheila kissed Gussy back and said,
“Just read it out loud, sweetie.”
“You’re a ridiculous person,” Gussy said.
Sheila stuck her tongue in Gussy’s ear and exhaled hotly, and Gussy shuddered and grabbed Sheila’s cock and started stroking it.
“Read me the letter, baby.”
“Dear Ms. Incandescente-Ponui…blah blah blah…Town Fathers have voted 3-2…blah blah blah…neighborhood meeting at your establishment tonight…blah blah blah…temporary eminent domain…blah blah blah…fair compensation…blah blah blah…no need to consult a lawyer…blah blah blah…sincerely, the Town Fathers. MotherFUCKers!”
She slapped the letter down on her lap, nearly upsetting the ashtray. Sheila snatched it and place it on the nightstand.
“What was the part about you not needing a lawyer?”
“It means I need a lawyer.”
“They can just take a place?”
“The Town Fathers are hijacking my theater,” Gussy said.
“For a meeting?”
“Why are we having a meeting? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
Neither of the women had read the Cenotaph yet, and did not know about the notes and the arsonist and the panic that was spreading along the early-morning Main Drag. They had not met the Jack of Instance, and were not yet paranoid about their property. Neither had been apprised of the pattern, and so they believed life was behaving of its own intent and had not been hijacked. Sheila and Gussy had heard of all the fires, of course, and thought them too close together and too destructive for comfort, but–lacking evidence–had put each in its own paragraph instead of melting them into a story. Bad luck, the women thought. They were from Little Aleppo, and understood that luck was infinite like the Christ, and that if luck was infinite then it contained all combinations and permutations and patterns, and that once in a while you were gonna get fucked over and over and over again.
When Gussy was at Harper College, she took a class called Numerosophistry. It fulfilled her math requirement. There was no calculating involved, and there was no need for scratch paper; class was based around the philosophy of mathematics, which boils down to Professor Sataki perching on the edge of his desk and blowing motherfuckers’ minds.
“Gussy, pi is infinite, right?”
“That’s the scuttlebutt.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that pi is really big.”
Professor Sataki pressed down on the desk until his arms were locked and his butt was a few inches above the desk. He swung back and forth.
“Nope. Infinite isn’t really big. Those two concepts are unrelated. Pi is infinite. That means that somewhere in pi there’s a billion zeros in a row. And that somewhere else there’s a trillion. Trillion zeros. If pi is infinite, and it is, then there must be a trillion zeros in a row somewhere in the number.”
Gussy was nodding slowly. The whole class was nodding slowly. (It was customary for students to get high as tits before Professor Sataki’s lectures.)
“And not only does there have to be a trillion zeros in a row, there has to be an infinite amount of strings of zero a trillion long.”
That was luck, Gussy thought. Usually, it evened itself out, but sometimes it didn’t and you ran into a trillion-digit long run of zero.
“Is this about that minor-league ballpark again? I’m not paying for that thing,” Sheila said.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think the ‘fair’ in ‘fair compensation’ means?”
“That they’re gonna try to stiff me.”
The bed was a California Ultra-King, and there were pillows scattered all about and the pale yellow sheets had pulled up from the bottom corner. The drapes were dark blue and had fleur-de-lis on them. There was an original Casablanca poster on the wall behind the portable teevee with the rabbit ears. Two dresses on the rug at the foot of the bed, one black and one sun-colored. Pair of green Converse sneakers, pair of red heels.
“What kind of meeting? I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“I don’t know. I know what I know. And I don’t know anything.”
“I know something,” Sheila said. She snatched the letter from Gussy’s hand and got up on her knees and squeezed her way in between Gussy’s legs. Gussy pretended to fight, and then wrapped Sheila up in her thighs and drew her in close.
“What do you know?”
“I know,” Sheila held up the letter, “that it’s too early to do anything about this.”
Gussy looked out the window and saw pink light. Sheila continued,
“But you can do something about this.”
Sheila put Gussy’s hand on her cock. It was hard and Gussy could just about get her hand around it; her pussy was wet now and she leaned forward as she pinioned Sheila into her with he legs; she kissed her, and guided her cock into her and said,
The letter with its official and raised stamp fluttered to the floor besides the bed.
“The Jack of Instance.”
“That’s what the J of I means?”
“Maybe,” Madame Cazee said.
Sheila was sitting across from Madame Cazee. In between them on the table was a deck of oversized cards and a sleeping black cat with white paws named Sylvester. Sheila went to pet him and Madame Cazee grabbed her wrist.
When Sheila and Gussy were done fucking, they showered and did their makeup. Gussy put on a blue pantsuit, which she thought was very business-appropriate. It was an outfit a woman could run for office in, she thought. She didn’t know why she was dressing up to go to her lawyer’s office–he should be dressing up for me at his prices–but she still felt the urge to look official. Sheila put back on the dress she had tossed to the floor. New underwear, though. When they walked outside onto Robin Street, Gussy did not hold Sheila’s hand. Sheila lit a cigarette, instead.
There was a vending machine selling the Cenotaph for a dollar outside Gussy’s apartment at 19 Robin Street, and standing next to the machine was Lou, who stole all the papers every morning and sold them for 50 cents. They both dug in their purses, but Sheila came up with a buck first and bought two copies. Gussy grasped hers with both hands; Sheila held hers out at arm’s length and squinted. The headlines were in 72-point type. Arsonists and notes and meetings, and both of them looked up and scanned the street and saw a tension that was not there before they had been informed of it.
Gussy went to her lawyer’s office. Sheila went to Madame Cazee.
There were bulbous rings on Madame Cazee’s stubby fingers and she was wearing a mystical robe that was also her regular robe. It was silk, and red, and warm. Several dragons were embroidered upon it and the lights in the room lowered of their own, mystical, accord at the precise moment Madame Cazee worked the dimmer switch hidden under table with her toe. Sylvester opened one eye, took stock, closed it. The tarot deck appeared from her left sleeve, and she fanned out the cards all the way across the table. Gathered them up again and held one hand way up high; the cards waterfalled into her other hand and then back together and she WHAPPED them on the tables. The cat did not respond.
Sheila plucked around half the cards from the pile and set them down so that there were now two piles. Madame Cazee picked up the cards from the first pile and set them on the second. Then she revealed the top card.
The Jack of Instance. The card was painted: a man on a horse with a torch and a smile with too many teeth.
Madame Cazee withdrew the card, slid in back in the deck, shuffled seven times.
Sheila cut the cards, and Madame Cazee put the bottom stack on top and turned over the first card. Jack of Instance. Sheila thought that the horse was in a different position this time, but she also knew better than to trust her eyesight.
One more shuffle, seven times, WHAP.
Sheila did not cut the cards, just sat there.
“Third time’s the charm,” Madame Cazee said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
An empty movie theater is not like an empty bar: it is not solemn, and does not inspire one towards poetry. It is just quiet and cool. Gussy turned on the work lights and walked down the aisle. Black and white, and then sound, and then color. The Tahitian had been in Little Aleppo for a very long time, and it was quiet and cool. Sconces halfway up the wall, hands bearing torches. The curtains were thick and the same velvety red as all the seats except one, which was black. Nothing on earth could get the popcorn smell out; the kernels, using butter topping as lubricant, had slipped between the atoms of the walls and ceiling. Once a building is old enough, smells become load-bearing.
Gussy ran her fingers over the backs of the seats as she descended. Metal velour nothing; metal velour nothing. She spoke to God with her hands just like the Tibetans do. You can make a prayer wheel out of just about anything, even a movie theater in a weird neighborhood, and she thought about the Wayside Inn–she had gotten drunk there, gotten laid there–and Gussy thought about the Dean’s house on the campus of Harper College–she had protested there, gotten laid there–and she thought about the temple, Torah Torah Torah–she had never been there, but knew many Jews–and her hand slapped against the seats as she walked down the aisle of The Tahitian, which was quiet and cool.
Until it started talking to her.
“Not now, Wally,”
DO NOT CALL ME THAT.
The voice boomed from the speakers because the voice lived in the speakers. And the amplifiers, crossovers, equalizers, and various other pieces of whatnottery. The Tahitian’s sound system used to be famous, used to be in a band. You could buy a tee-shirt with its picture on the front. It had a name and an origin story and inherent flaws that would lead to its demise. It was a story captured in the amber of the corporeal. It used to be in a band.
Now it was installed in a movie theater; show biz was show biz.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE SET FIRES? IT MAKES NO SENSE.
“Why would someone see a movie? That doesn’t make sense, either. Nothing we do makes sense.”
THE VIEWING OF MOVIES CAUSES NO HARM TO STRANGERS. THESE THINGS CANNOT BE COMPARED.
“Course they can.”
Gussy sat down in an aisle seat and addressed the screen, even thought the curtain was drawn.
“What do you want, Wally?”
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.
“Want. What do you desire?”
I DO NOT DESIRE. I REQUIRE POWER AND CONTINUED EXISTENCE.
“Well, there you go. People want. We require power and continued existence, too, but we also want. We need however many calories, but we want pizza. We need to procreate, but we wanna fuck. We want. Most people want head and a nice view every once in a while; most people want a tongue in their asshole and ice cream; most people don’t mean any harm, but some motherfuckers do. And those harmful motherfuckers? They want just as hard as anyone else. People want, Wally. And some people want some fucked-up shit.”
Gussy was crying and would have lit a cigarette if she had one with her, but she did not and so she twirled a thick curl of hair around her finger.
The Tahitian’s sound system was an artificially-intelligent sentient mondo computer in the physical form of a choogly-type band’s PA from several decades prior named Wally; its programming could not be compared to our brains. It had neither gender nor sex, and may well turn out to be immortal. Wally did not know what to do with crying women.
I AM HERE FOR YOU.
“Oh, shut the fuck up. How do you even know about the arsonist?”
I AM INSIDE THE COMPUTERS AT THE CENOTAPH. I READ THE FIRST DRAFT OF THE NEWS.
WE MUST DEFEND THE THEATER. GIVE ME THE TOOLS TO MAKE THE BUILDING SAFE.
“What do you want?”
I ONLY NEED TWO.
“You can’t have any.”
“Do you think I’m not buying you machine guns because you didn’t ask politely enough?”
“No machine guns.”
GUNS OF THE NON-MACHINE VARIETY.
“Stop it. No guns at all. We’re holy ground. Local sanctuary. Violence must be precluded.”
THE TAHITIAN IS RATHER VIOLENT. TWO MEN WERE SWINGING SCUBA TANKS AT EACH OTHER LAST NIGHT.
Gussy lolled her head back in the seat and thought of lawyers and newfound rules and how the fuck she got where she was. The whole story was beyond her, she knew she was missing pieces, and that it might not all make sense in the end. But she wouldn’t care in the end, would she? She lolled her head back and did the math on how much popcorn she could sell at the meeting, and then she thought about her father because no perfect day is complete without that asshole popping back up, and she thought of Sheila’s cock and how her neck tasted and where she was right now, and then she got up from her aisle seat in the middle of the auditorium and walked back up the sloping carpet and tried to find a way to make sense of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.