It rained every 18 days in Little Aleppo. Like clockwork, but wetter. Low clouds would roll in from the sea, from the west, and spill themselves on to the neighborhood when they ran into the Segovian Hills starting before dawn. Steady all day, no sun, no color, and you could smell the Verdance from three blocks away. Every 18 days: exactly and on the dot and never wavering, and locals still managed to get caught without their umbrellas, or schedule outdoor events. It wasn’t that people forgot. Everyone in the neighborhood marked the rain days on the calendar first thing in January, but everyone would also get distracted somewhere around February and accidentally mark off 17 or 19 days, and once you do that you’re fucked for the year.
Scientists had theories. Scientists also had eye protectors and student debt, but mostly they had theories. Just outside the harbor’s entrance was a sheer underwater cliff that dropped off almost a mile; this was the cause of the weather cycle, Harper College’s oceanologists said. Nonsense, the geology department said: it was the shape of the Segovian Hills that led to the regular rains. The herpetelepathics were busy trying to read snakes’ minds, and had little to contribute to the conversation. The Meteorological Society of America was quoted in The Cenotaph as saying that Little Aleppo’s predictable rains were the result of “fosculated heminumbus clouds with a counter-strange rotation cassiating in a localized foci.” It had taken Mr. Venable nearly ten minutes to come up with that nonsense; he laughed for almost twenty the next morning when he saw that they had printed it.
The rain did not sluice and barge through the neighborhood in waves or painful pellets, but nor did it mist and drizzle: the downpour was solid and dignified. Like a firm handshake or a well-made shoe. Dependable when so much else was not, every 18 days come back in from sea. Like a horny sailor. When it rained, Little Aleppo turned into something it wasn’t, but it also kinda was. Like a simile.
“I have no idea what to say.”
“Say hello. Then introduce yourself,” Mr. Venable said.
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was sitting in Mr. Venable’s customary seat in the bookstore with no title. The desk was semi-cleared; several biographies of Tommy Amici on the left, phone on the right. Yellow legal pad with notes in Gussy’s neat pencil: every line that wasn’t crossed out had a question mark next to it. There was also an unflattering doodle of Mr. Venable.
“Yes, I know how phone conversations work. After that.”
“He owes you.”
“He doesn’t, actually.”
“The man started a riot in your theater. How much did that cost you?”
“Tommy sent a check two days later. For, like, double the amount of the damage.”
“You made money on a riot.”
“God bless America.”
“Plep,” said the tortoiseshell cat in Gussy’s lap, and purred. Gussy gave her neck scritchy-scratches, and the cat purred some more.
“So, yeah, you know: technically, he doesn’t owe me anything.”
“No. Okay. So, you want to go to him for a favor. Tommy is the big man. He likes that sort of thing. Vulgar displays of respect.”
“This is your studied opinion?” Gussy asked, looking at the books. There was a weighty, glossy, classy tome titled The Singer, and a couple paperback cheapies, and there was Jacob George’s Tommy Boy: My LIfe With Mr. Amici, which Tommy hated more than any of the others, more than any article written by any reporter he had subsequently punched, and more than any picture taken by any photographer he had also subsequently punched. Tommy hated that book more than he hated his ex-wives, and he had one of them murdered.
Sometimes, Tommy called Jacob “Big George,” and sometimes Tommy called him “nigger.” Tommy was funny that way. You couldn’t tell when the snarl was coming, but it was always on its way. He was predictably unpredictable, Jacob grew to understand. Precisely what was going to set Tommy off was an unknowable variable, but that it would happen was a constant. Toast too burnt, toast too light, marriage breaks up: all worthy of a tantrum. Tommy had never hit Jacob, but he had hurled cocktail glasses and lit cigarettes towards his general vicinity. Tommy had also pushed him into several pools, but Tommy pushed everybody into pools.
Jacob’s parents owned a bar on the Chitlin Circuit in Mobile, Alabama; he liked show business, so when he got out of the Navy he went to Los Angeles and took the first show biz job he was offered: gardener for a talent agency, The Bugle Agency was the biggest in town. That, Jacob figured, made him more important than the gardeners at lesser agencies. Hollywood was all about knowing your place. Jacob learned all the agents’ names–and their assistants, too–and started running errands for them, little things at first, but soon he was taking advantage of the fact that white guys always think that all black guys can “get them stuff.” An in was an in, he figured. People had sucked and fucked their way into show biz, so scoring some weed for a little Jewish boy wasn’t so bad. Or hooking another little Jewish boy up with a girl he knew from his neighborhood.
And, Lord, all these agents were tiny. Jacob had met Jews growing up, and then in the Navy: they were all normal-sized. But these Hollywood Jews must have from one of the other twelve tribes, he thought. Wee little bastards in suits made out of a handkerchief’s worth of imported silk, all the same suit, too: double-breasted and barrel-shaped and pinstriped to within an inch if its life. The agents’ suits were aggressively pinstriped. Oxford lace-ups, polished, and if you can’t tie your goddamned tie like a white man, Stein, then you can go the fuck home!
That was Irwin Katz, who was the smallest and biggest of the agents. Everyone called him Sharky.
Sharky was the president and founder of the Bugle Agency. Years later, a reporter would ask Sharky why he hadn’t named his business after himself. “Because it would have sounded like a deli,” he answered. Bugles play for kings and queens, he thought. Something important’s about to happen? Bugle. Sharky also liked going to the horse track, and they played bugles there, too. Bugle Agency, whatever, who gives a shit, name’s a name, let’s make some money.
Ageless and hairless but for thick eyebrows that shot up the pale hillock of forehead and scrunched down over a Levantine nose, and his feet dangled when he sat at the iceberg-sized desk in his office. Every morning at 8:45, Sharky pulled up in that year’s Cadillac and threw the keys to the nearest employee. By nine, he was at his desk reading Variety and Matinee Daily and the Hollywood Reporter and Stage Door, and–if it was a Tuesday–the gossip magazines Snapshot and Confidential. After that, he made calls and took calls and made calls and took calls. Lunch at the Schooner on Sunset with a colleague. Second table on the left with a view of the whole dining room so he could see the people he wasn’t talking to. Two to six, back at the office on the phone. Dinner at Archie’s or Morrison’s or the Cowboy Grill with Mrs. Katz. After that, Mrs. Katz was driven home to Beverly Hills and Sharky went to the nightclubs. The Mocambo and Rocky’s and Ciro’s and the Pantheum. He represented the acts onstage, and the celebrities in the crowd that the acts introduced. One of the showgirls would give him a blowjob. Professional courtesy. At midnight, he would drink one whiskey, neat, and drive his Cadillac to Beverly Hills, where he would put on silk pajamas with an ironed crease in the leg and go to sleep. In the morning, he would do the whole thing again. Sharky was a machine.
One morning not long after Jacob George started gardening for the Bugle Agency, he was trimming a bush out front when Sharky pulled up. The Cadillac was going PAFpuffpuffPAFpuffpuff and Sharky looked pissed.
“You know what the fuck this is?” he yelled at Jacob.
“You got a misfire. Might just be a bad spark plug.”
“Fix it,” Sharky told Jacob as he tossed him the keys and went inside.
The agency employed a driver to fetch clients who were too drunk or foreign to drive, writers who couldn’t figure out the gearshift, that sort of thing, and he wore an old-fashioned chauffeur’s cap. Jacob borrowed it for the price of a bag of reefer he was going to sell to an agent later. A black man had to be smart in a white man’s world, Jacob figured, and that meant seizing your opportunities. It also meant not driving through Beverly Hills in a Cadillac unless you were wearing a chauffeur’s cap. He was of the mind that a man would come upon a great deal of trouble in this life naturally, so it was no use deliberately seeking out any more. He drove south to Hawthorne where he lived with his wife, and gave his mechanic neighbor the other bag of reefer he was going to sell to an agent. It was the spark plug. Back in the hat, back to Beverly Hills, up to Sharky’s office.
“You fucking fixed it? Already?”
“Just like you said. Good work. Good fucking work.”
And then Jacob wasn’t a gardener anymore, he was working for Sharky. The papers in the morning, fanned out on the top left of the desk. Legal pad in the middle. Four sharpened pencils to the right of the legal pad. Not three.
“I don’t have enough fucking pencils!”
“Are you trying to kill me with all these fucking pencils?”
Four pencils, sharpened. On Fridays, Sharky would inspect his laundry. Twice a year, he would fly to London to visit his tailor, and 52 times a year, he would ship his clothes back to be laundered. Jacob understood the Saville Row tailor, especially after Sharky took him to London and had some suits made for him, but shipping shirts across the Atlantic to be washed felt a bit excessive. He kept his feelings to himself. Sharky would examine the freshly-arrived shirts and trousers when they got back; they would be wrapped in crinkly paper. Presents to himself, Jacob thought.
Not to say Sharky wasn’t any fun.
Jacob went to the closet, opened it: shelf after shelf of unsold screenplays, treatments, book galleys. A small library’s worth of car chases and shootouts and last-minute rescues. So many writers waiting for their chance to sell out.
“Pick something. Random, fucking random.”
“You got ten minutes to tell me what it’s about and who should star in it. Gentlemen, circumcise your watches.”
Sharky had heard Joe E. Lewis tell that joke at the Trocadero, and it had struck him as witty; he said it a lot. Jacob sat down on the sofa and began leafing through the script. Ten minutes later, Sharky said,
Jacob had been not been working for Sharky long, but he had been working for him long enough to know to keep it brief.
“Comedy/Western. Dude from the East gets mistaken for a legendary outlaw. Hijinks ensue. Bob Hope as the Dude, Donna Ray as the Lady.”
Sharky smiled and said,
“One hour! Circumcise your watches!”
And then Sharky got on the phone. To Paramount, to the Adamo Brothers, to that self-serious putz Zanuck over at 20th Century. He called Barry Alsop at Sunrise just to tell them he wasn’t getting next year’s comedy smash, and then called him back to tell him he wasn’t getting next year’s western hit, either; then he called one final time just to let Barry know he was a schmuck and hang up on him. Sharky got a ‘maybe’ from Lee Scheinman at Maestro, so he got Balaban from Paramount back on the line.
“You gonna let that little pisher take your money, Barney? Western with Bob fucking Hope? It’s a fucking smash, Barn. It’s money in the bank,” he sang into the phone, and then he smiled and looked up at Jacob. Two minutes later, he hung up.
“Easy fucking money in this town. Now get Bob Hope on the line.”
“Is he our client?”
“One hour! Circumcise your watch!”
Jacob George worked for Sharky Katz at the Bugle Agency for several years. He delivered scripts to actors that hit on him, and actresses that did, too. He snuck Retty Keefe out of Los Angeles that time her gangster boyfriend beat her up, and the next time, too, and when he turned up dead one day, Jacob didn’t feel bad at all. He took calls and placed them, and he scheduled Sharky’s blowjobs, and any time Sharky said that he had read something it was really Jacob who had. He felt indispensable right up until the second that Sharky told him he was going to go work for Tommy Amici.
Jacob tried as hard as he could not to feel like he had been sold. He could say no. Quit. He knew that. Navy taught him how to cook; he could get a job in a day. Wasn’t as bad as it used to be, he told himself. He also knew that these motherfuckers would never treat a white man this way.
Jacob knew Tommy, liked him. That wasn’t the problem. Fifty percent raise, too. Also not the problem. Jacob wondered how much Sharky traded him for, and he considered telling everyone involved to go fuck themselves, but Rhonda was pregnant with their second kid and a fifty percent raise is not something you tell to go fuck itself in that situation.
And so Jacob George went to work for Tommy Amici. A valet. Tommy insisted on pronouncing it “vah-LET” like he was a member of the aristocracy instead of a Mexican kid from Little Aleppo who didn’t want anyone to know he was Mexican or from Little Aleppo. The clothes. The food. The house. The hotel suite. The dressing room. Jacob took care of it all. Perfect for Tommy, everything perfect for Tommy so he could sing. All his sins would be forgiven by the whole wide world just as long as he sang, and he knew it, so when the eggs were a little runny he would throw the breakfast table off the balcony. Jacob was a quick study, and Tommy’s first wife Theresa taught him what to do. This kind of pasta for this many minutes, paper-thin steaks and eggs that did not run at all, pantry stocked with Campbell’s Soup at all times.
Theresa did not teach him about the girls. Tommy would kick them out of his bedroom around ten am. When they were starlets, Jacob would cook them breakfast and make sure they didn’t steal anything. When they were hookers, Jacob would pay them, and then cook them breakfast and make sure they didn’t steal anything. Sometimes, he didn’t know to which group the girl belonged and he would err on the side of payment: it was never refused. There were girls just off the bus, and Oscar winners, and royalty, and colleagues’ wives; Jacob pretended not to know who they were all the same. If they wanted to talk, he would talk. If they were quiet, he would retreat to the next room and call a taxi. If they were still hungry, then he would cook them more eggs.
But not Cara Thorn. Tommy had never thrown her out, not once, although she had stormed from the house on many occasions. Every occasion, if Jacob thought about it: she and Tommy would go in that bedroom and then she’d storm out. Might take ten minutes, might be three days. She and Tommy fought while they fucked, and fucked while they fought, and then she would slam the door behind her and fly to Africa to date a big-game hunter. Sometimes he would chase her, and other times he would take out his frustrations on reporters or waiters or both. Tommy had left Theresa for her; Cara didn’t give a shit. She liked torturing him. Made the sex better, she thought.
But Jacob would be stuck with him when she left: maudlin Tommy breaking things and drinking and listening to his old albums. The same song, over and over. I’ll Never Dance Again when she served him with the divorce papers. Unlucky Heart when she called off the second wedding. No Hand In Mine when the second set of divorce papers arrived. Anger and booze and torch songs and those eyes of his flashing emerald like the Verdance at the height of summer. Wet and brimming, too. Jacob saw Tommy Amici cry, and Tommy never quite forgave him for it.
Recording session. Lay out the clothes. Not the slacks, though: they stay on the hanger until it’s time to go. Yellow sweater, vee-neck. Tommy’s color, yellow. Like the sun. Complemented his eyes. Only his, though. One day his arranger Kippy Van Dorr showed up to a session in Tommy’s yellow, and he didn’t work for Tommy for six years after that. Tommy Amici protected his yellow like the Roman Senators protected their purple. Shoes shined to leather mirrors. Sheer, calf-high socks. Daytime toupee. Hat.
Dressing room. The tuxedo. Black tie? Shawl collar. White tie? Notched. Rules to this sort of thing. The evening hairpiece, which was more glamorous. Tea with honey and lemon. Who’s playing around town? You’d better know. Patent leather shoes, lace-up. The Hollywood Reporter and Stage Door. (Tommy did not read Variety; in fact, he had punched 70% of the masthead.) Pancake makeup for the port wine stain that started on his right shulder and crept up his neck past his collar. Set list–typed, not handwritten–on the makeup table in front of him.
Stage. The table with the decanter, heavy crystal, on it. Whiskey, Tommy would say, and salute the crowd. It’s post time, he’d announce and take a slug. Just iced tea. Ashtray. Open pack of Marlboros, soft pack, with two cigarettes sticking out. Gold Dunhill lighter. Copy of the set list–handwritten, not typed–taped to the table.
But all appointments were contingent upon Cara. Tommy canceled shows for her, sessions, he had walked off film sets on two separate continents due to her phone calls. She was his, goddammit, and she knew it–she knew it, she knew it, she knew it–but she wouldn’t acknowledge the plain fact. And he couldn’t seem to convince her, that rotten bitch. Tommy would cut her out of the photos on the wall, and Jacob would tape her back in.
Jacob could understand why. Working for Tommy, you got used to beautiful women. That was his type. Beautiful. White, black, whatever: Tommy only discriminated when it came to beauty. And class. Right kind of dress–chicks in pants drove Tommy nuts–and not too much perfume and definitely not too forward. Tommy followed one girl out of the bedroom one morning with a sneer on his face.
“Pushy broads, Jesus. I hate pushy broads. I can take my own dick out. What’s the world come to, Jakey? No more hookers. Just whores.”
“The world grows coarse and belligerent around us, Mr. A.”
“Let’s go to the desert.”
Cactus ringed the pool that should not be there, which contained two men that should not be there. The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, splashed in the water that was shaped like diamonds in the air, hanging immobile and profuse and suspended–it was a jewel heist, it was an explosion of light–while under that was froth and bubble as the two men giggled and gurgled at one another.
They were deeply high.
(The Jeremiad flowers are cousins to peyote buttons, kind of. Think of it as convergent entheoevolution. The cacti they grew on weren’t related at all, but the two substances produced similar effects. Like tea and coffee.)
It was around two or three. The afternoon was in its prime: it sizzled and when the heat convected back off the ground, it shimmied. The mountains in the distance looked like hula dancers. The horses snoozed under the shaggy fan palms, and sometimes they would shake their massive heads in their sleep and make a noise like HARblph and a dozen flies would alight from out of their manes, only to go right back in. The springs were really one pool, but looked like two because it was pinched in the middle. From above, the springs were shaped like a snowman missing his head. They were ringed by pinyon pine, and Buckman’s oak, and a wide-crowned Blood elm that kept the water in shade during the scorching hours after midday.
“Should the Christ not be contemplated in starkest sobriety?”
“The Christ is in cold water; the Christ is in reckless abandon. The path that leads to the Christ is the holy path.”
The Reverend was floating on his back with his arms spread lazily.
“I just mean that we get high a lot.”
“We’re holy men, Reverend,” Peter said.
“We are very holy.”
“Oh, the holiest,” Peter said, and the word became fact and existed–a thing, a powerful thing–and was. It just sat there existing.
“Stanton Box? That’s a silly name.”
“You take that back. Heroic name. It’s a name that presents itself with aplomb.”
“And world-worn brio.”
“That name’s doing a lot of work, Reverend.”
Peter kicked a foot out from the water, examined it, put it back under.
“The Pistol-Packing Preacher. He had the kind of adventures I imagined myself having. My time in America was less spectacular.”
“You survived it.”
“But Preacher Box lived. People would seek him out, and whenever he would go to a new town, they would know who he was. All across the West, the little guy knew about Stanton Box.”
“You’re a little guy. You knew about him.”
“Yes. But I was covetous of his life. He’s just made up, I know that. I’m not mad. But I envied him. He wasn’t only brave. He was smart. In one book, an axe gang of Chinese were threatening a town. They wanted control of the copper mine. Do you know what Stanton Box did?”
“No clue,” Peter said.
“He gave it to them! ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Take it. It’s yours.’ And he and all the townspeople rode off.”
“Not very heroic.”
“Wait, wait. So, the Chinese start working the mine. When most of them are in there, Preacher Box blows up the entrance with dynamite he had planted ahead of time. He traps the majority of them, and then he and the townspeople shoot the rest.”
“Still not very heroic.”
“No. Pragmatic, sure, but not heroic.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Style,” Peter said as he dragged himself out of the springs and up the sloped sand bank. He brushed the grit off himself the best he could, gave up, laid on his bedroll. He could feel the water evaporate off his skin. He could count each individual goose bump from the inside. He could feel the breeze that lapped at his toes and balls and nipples and nostrils. Busybody stayed in the water. He did not know how to swim, but he could do a spastic dog paddle and he pushed off against the side SPLOSHSPLOSHSPLISH across the diameter of the springs, and then he would turn around and push off again and SPLISHSPLISHSPLOSH back.
“But does the Christ not manifest through competence?”
“It does,” Peter said.
“And would we not see the Christ in efficiency?”
“I rest my case.”
Most people think deserts are quiet, and that is because most people haven’t been to deserts. There is little vegetation to soak up sound. Just rock, and hardpan ground, and billions of insects shrieking WHO WANTS TO FUCK? at each other, and moles and voles scrabbling through the soil, and the wind up above your head goes fwiiiiiiish but sometimes it snaps its fingers right in your ears FWOP and then dies down entirely, and when the wind dies down entirely in the desert, you can hear voices. The Anasazi said the voices were their ancestors. The Zuni said they were vanquished enemies planning their revenge.
Peter thought it was God was talking to Himself again. Who else does He have? The angels are just employees. There was only one guy who didn’t kiss His ass, and He locked him in Hell. Peter felt bad for God, and then he remembered smallpox and didn’t have as much sympathy.
“The Christ is free will.”
“He must be,” Peter said.
“And the Christ is destiny.”
Busybody had splashed over to the bank nearest Peter, and he flopped himself halfway out of the water like a skinny walrus.
“How? Free will and destiny cannot coexist! They are mutually exclusive states!”
“Said the man swimming in the desert.”
“Plep,” said the cat who lived in the bookstore with no title. She was a brown and black tortoiseshell, and she had never been to the Low Desert, nor any desert. If there was a commotion on the Main Drag, or it was very a very sunny day, then she would go out to the sidewalk; the desert was too big an ask. The cat stayed inside with her books. She was like a character in a short story by Chekhov, but not Russian, and a cat.
“I’ll just play it by ear,” Gussy said.
“Best sensory organ to play things by. I tried to play it by my nostril once. Didn’t work at all.”
“Excellent idea,” Mr. Venable said. He walked to the coffee machine and topped his mug off. If you asked his feelings on the cat, Mr. Venable would profess to have none one way or the other. She’s just part of the shop, he had told many customers. This did not stop him from getting jealous over how long she had been sitting in Gussy’s lap.
Gussy tapped in the number with a pencil, and put the pencil in her mouth. It was an old phone, a landline, with a curly-cue cord from the base to the receiver. It was made of plastic from before plastic was called plastic: it was made of bakelite. The number buttons were square with depressions in the middle and four sharp points on the corners
It rang once, twice. Mr. Venable removed a copy of Spengler’s The Decline of the West from the shelf behind Gussy’s head, and reached in the cavity it left. The cat (who did not have a name) looked up.
Before he had pulled the catnip out of its hiding place, the cat was off Gussy’s lap and at Mr. Venable’s feet, her tail shinning back and forth like a metronome that wanted to get high.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s just…Hello? Gloria? Hi, sweetie, it’s Gussy from The Tahitian.”
“No, I got the check. I got the check. I sent you a thank you note!”
“It’s about the Observatory thing.”
“If you could–”
“We just want to talk, Gloria. Just a meeting. A sit-down.”
“Who? Representatives of Little Aleppo.”
“You’re kidding me! She was going to be there the whole time. Her and the lady who runs the Observatory and a priest. A preacher. Whatever”
“Tuesday is good.”
Mr. Venable gave questioning thumbs up as Gussy wrote on the pad.
“See you Tuesday.”
She hung up the phone.
“Pleeeeeeeehhhp,” came from the floor under Mr. Venable’s desk. The cat was on her back, batting at imaginary floating mice.
“Gloria said that Tommy says that Little Aleppo can burn to the ground for all he cares, and the only one of us filthy losers he would even consider meeting is the vampire with the big tits.”
Mr. Venable smiled.
“We know her.”
Gussy smiled back.
“Amazing the doors those things can open.”
“A great set of tits is like a Swiss Army Knife,” Gussy said, standing up and smoothing down her pleated, red dress. “I’m going to Sheila’s.”
“I’m staying here.”
She nodded. He nodded back. Her umbrella was on the floor just inside the front door, where customers had been leaving their umbrellas for years; the blonde floorboards in the spot warped and buckled.
“Try not to announce this to the entire neighborhood.”
Gussy picked up her umbrella and gave him the finger and walked out the door of the bookstore with no title, which went TINKadink, and she pressed a button on the handle of her umbrella and it expanded PLOOMPF it was bright baby blue with yellow duckies and it made Gussy smile every time she saw it, even though it was raining, and she turned north on the Main Drag where puddles dared her to leap. Leaves and chip bags washed towards the sewers, caught up in temporary rivers in the street’s gutters, but what’s temporary for one is permanent for another and so they disappear down the grates and get chomped up in purifying plants and blasted out to sea just a shred of their former selves. The sky had no color at all, and irregularly it would clear its throat like God was talking to Himself again, but no one noticed in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.