Little Aleppo has a bookstore with no title, and it has a black door–a real door with a brass knob, not a glass window on a hinge with a bar that says PUSH like you’re a moron–that is connected by a string to a bell. When you open the door, the bell goes TINK–
“Cardiomuscularity, Mr. Venable.”
“Jesus, you’re fast.”
“My God is a rapid God.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones was telling the truth. He was the pastor at the First Church of the Iterated Christ, and he preached about Jesus the Infinite, who was in all things and assumed all poses and, presumably, traveled at all speeds. A visiting theologian had once described it as “trinitarian animism” right before one of the altar boys stole his wallet. If you didn’t know any better, you might think it was a denomination started by a man who didn’t understand the Bible, and currently run by someone who hadn’t read it.
“Do you know what cardiomuscularity is, Mr. Venable?”
“A word you made up, Preacher.”
“No, sir. I heard it from a guy.”
“Gotta give your heart a workout. World’s your gym, Mr. Venable. All them people surrounding you? They’re the weights. Love’s an active process. We gotta participate in it, y’see.”
“And after you’ve lifted the weights in the gym, they’re still in the same place.”
“Oh, yeah. Yes, sir. But you’re not.”
Mr. Venable had nothing to say to that, so he made a snorting noise and sipped his coffee, which had gone cold. He blamed the Lord.
The Reverend was massive; he did not have to duck when he came through the door, but he did need to turn sideways just slightly. He had wrists the circumference of a fat child’s waist and a shaved head the color of the soil houseplants come planted in, but he did not loom in front of the table on the left side of the room that Mr. Venable sat at; he was pigeon-toed and stood on the balls of his feet, lightly. Arcade Jones stood like a long-awaited friend.
“I’m aware, yes. I’ll be there. Of course. I’ve even written it down.”
Mr. Venable looked down. There were at least six books open at once, with dozens stacked around them, and newspapers and magazines of all vintage. A pile of legal pads–white ones yellowing, and yellow ones going white–sat next to the fresh one open to a half-filled page of scribblings, jottings, doodlings, and phone numbers. (Some of the phone numbers were circled; none had a name attached to it.)
Disobeying the laws of physics, but obeying the laws of comedy, a dusty parchment rolled across the desk.
“I wrote it down. Trust me.”
“I’ll take a chance on you, Mr. Venable. Oh, I can’t wait for you to see the flowers! Supposed to be good weather all week, and we’ll get sun, and the garden will look tremendous. Great day for a flower show. And such beauties!”
“And you went with my suggestion for the theme? Hard-to-spell flowers?”
“We have Bougainvillea, Hydrangea, Chrysanthemum, Ranunculus. One of our gardeners, Mrs. Ableworth, is growing something called a Daxrypraghus.”
“She made that name up.”
“But it smells lovely.”
“Pat Mrs. Ableworth down for perfume bottles.”
“O ye of little faith.”
“O me of many experiences. If you don’t want me to judge people, then don’t have me as a judge.”
Mr. Venable had been one of the judges at the church’s flower show for several years. He also judged Little Aleppo’s film festival, chili cook-off, bake-off, and annual Halloween costume contest. Residents believed him to be the most impartial of critics: he took everyone’s bribes, regardless of background or affiliation, and that spelled honesty to Little Aleppians.
“You are judging the flowers, Mr. Venable. Not the people. And, come on, there’s not going to be any funny business at a flower show. Most of the participants are little old ladies.”
“Those are the most dangerous kind of ladies. Preacher.”
“You’re a cynic.”
“I’m a longtime resident of the neighborhood.”
When the Reverend Arcade Jones laughed, he looked like he was trying to eat the sun: he launched himself onto his toes, and threw back his fire hydrant-shaped head, and opened his fireplace-sized mouth wide; he made a joyful noise, and loud. Even Mr. Venable could not help but smile along and make a small sound that was not quite laughing, but could be interpreted as “laughing.”
“And the neighborhood needs you! Can’t hide from humanity any more than you can hide from the Lord! Even in your bookstore.”
“Who’s hiding? I have whole sections dedicated to Him.”
“Now, you know I’m not talking about the God you find in a book.”
“Mm. No. I’ve not found Him in there, either.”
“And not for lack of looking.”
“We’ll all stop looking one day.”
“Until then, though. Thursday, sir!”
“Gonna be a great day.”
“Every day’s a great day in Little Aleppo.”
And the Reverend Arcade Jones left the bookstore with no title, TINKadink. The room seemed much larger with his absence, but twice again quieter, and the door had whipped the dust mites into a frenzy as the sun cut beams across the bookshelves. Mr. Venable was the only living soul in the shop.
He took his duties as a judge seriously, and so he went back to idly examining drawings of flowers in a book from some white guy’s safari in 1912. Without looking up from the page, he said,
“I see you back there.”
And then he sipped his coffee, which had gone cold. He blamed Mrs. Ableworth.
The week went by so quickly that it seemed like only seven days; it was an unremarkable one for the neighborhood. It had rained several nights. There had been fewer muggings in the Verdance than usual. Those two facts may have been related. On the Downside of town–most places had a Northside and a Southside, but Little Aleppo had an Upside and a Downside–there was a big heroin bust. No one died in any of the rooms at the Nod. All the cops on the drug task force bought new cars. Those three facts were definitely related.
On Tuesday afternoon, a large man in a checkered coat repossessed the Poet Laureate’s haircut.
Little Aleppo loves a show, and if the zoo had hired armed guards to make sure no one opened up all the cages again, then a flower show would have to do. Folks had been tailgating in the parking lot of the First Church of the Iterated Christ, where the Lord could be found in all things, including chicken wings and hard liquor for breakfast, and then fistfights for brunch.
The Reverend Arcade Jones believed in the Gospel of Infinicy. That Jesus was in all things. That it was all holy, or none of it was. He also believed that faith was the soul’s immune system, and it did an immune system no good to be in a sterile environment. Faith, the preacher thought, should be a struggle sometimes. If a burden isn’t heavy, then how do you feel when it lifts, he thought? Despair must be fought, Arcade Jones knew. Get your ass to the gym.
Then a women picked up a statue of St. Columba and hurled it at a stranger. For a second, the Reverend thought that maybe Jesus was just almost infinite, and he bounded down the steps four at a time to break up the brawl. Before he came to Little Aleppo, Arcade Jones had never had to 86 someone from church.
The lightweights all fell out, and the amateurs got frog-walked out onto the sidewalk of Rose Street (“You know I love you, and the Lord shines in your eyes, but you’re throwing punches at children and you’ve gotta go for now.”) and by ten AM, only the serious troublemakers remained, most of whom were the little old ladies whose flowers were competing in the show.
Little old ladies got to be old by being smart or lucky, and either one of those attributes can be weaponized. Plus, these were flower-growing little old ladies, which means they were patient; they thought in the long-term both forward and back: plans and grudges. Little old ladies in Little Aleppo were made up of nothing but plans, grudges, and doctor’s appointments. As a last resort, they could hit each other with their handbags, which were the size of one-room schoolhouses.
“This year’s a success already,” Tiresias Richardson said to Big-Dicked Sheila.
“Neither of us got suplexed.”
“Right? Better than last year. AAAAAHhahaha!”
Tiresias and Sheila had a yearly date to see the flower show, and they dressed the part: they had decided on yellow, and were both wearing crinkled and stained prom dresses the color of the sun’s piss that they had found in a secondhand shop on the edge of the Low Desert. Sheila’s dress was scandalously short, and Tiresias’ was scandalously low, and–owing to their stop at the Morning Tavern before the show–they were both scandalous.
One more than the other, though, and noticeably: Tiresias had been Draculette until three in the morning, presenting an utterly dreadful film called Maniac Mountebanks of the Moon. It was about werewolfs. It was four by the time she wriggled out of the dress, and took off the makeup, and ate the half-a-vegan-burrito she had hidden in the crisper of the station’s fridge, and so she decided to just stay up; she was meeting Sheila at dawn, anyway. Besides: she used to stay up all night and start drinking at dawn all the time.
Perhaps you can see the flaw in her plan. “All the time” really only meant “a couple times at age 19,” and 19-year-olds are incapable of dying. They can be killed, but they’re too dumb to die, and are therefore impervious to chemical and emotional assaults that would wrack and riddle an adult. 19-year-olds are immortal morons who fuck, misunderstand things, and shoplift.
Tiresias had not been 19 for ten years if you asked her driver’s license, seven years if you asked her. She was shitfaced, and leaning on Sheila, or more rightly falling on top of her in a forward motion: Sheila was barely over five feet, and Tiresias was tall and had broad shoulders, and they were both wearing bright yellow: it looked like a canary chick helping his canary dad home from the bar.
“You are a sloppy bitch,” Sheila said. “Ooh, the Cymbidium is gorgeous.”
“I am not. I am the sloppiest bitch. Pay me my propers.”
“Put some respect on your name.”
“This is much better than the year with the carnivorous plants.”
“God, yes. Remember how long it took to get all the Audrey Two’s out of the Verdance?”
“They had such lovely singing voices, though,” Tiresias said as the two of them, as one, stambled and mumbled up the main footpath of the First Church of the Iterated Christ’s garden. On the left was Nierembergia, and on the right was Dahlinovas, and there had been sun all week except for when it rained, so all the flowers were blooming at once out loud all day.
“You’re like a superhero,” Sheila said. She had drunk as much as Tiresias, more if anyone was counting, but Sheila had gotten a good night’s sleep and was therefore keeping it together. She was also not a stranger to starting the bottle early in the morning, and tugging at it through the rest of the day.
“No one knows you’re Draculette.”
She was right: there was little resemblance between Tiresias and Draculette, except for the laugh, and Tiresias had noticed that no one had ever recognized her out of costume, and she was getting–pardon the bragging–kinda famous. She had endorsement deals with a local car dealership and Creepy Ernie’s; on Saturday nights, she hosted the Midnight Movie at The Tahitians and got a piece of the door. The ushers wheeled her, on her couch, on and off the stage to tell her jokes for the kids, who howled and loved her.
“No. They don’t. Tragic. But Draculette can’t walk.”
“You can’t walk right now, sweetie.”
Mr. Venable had thought about putting on his funeral tie for the occasion, but decided it was a bit much and went with an open collar and a scowl. He was having a secret blast appearing to be deadly serious; he even whipped a magnifying glass out of his pocket to examine a Liatris more closely.
“Interesting,” he said as he straightened up and put the glass back in his pocket. He walked to the next flower, a Poinsettia, and pretended to be shocked.
At the Eucalyptus, he said nothing and felt almost nothing. (He was tiny bit hungry, but other than that: nothing.) Then he asked, where did the koala come from? Then he asked, didn’t the zoo hire armed guards? Then he remembered that koalas all have chlamydia, and stopped asking questions and walked down the path.
The door to the bookstore with no title opened TINKadink on Friday morning, and the room was full of the Reverend Arcade Jones. Mr. Venable was in his customary seat, in his customary suit, with an uncustomary black eye.
“Did one of the little old ladies give you that?”
“Oh, no, Preacher. The tall woman in yellow who started windmilling her fists when the fight broke out.”
“Yes, the whole outcome was unfortunate.”
“Rather mild, honestly. Mrs. Ableworth threw a live wolverine at the other women a few years ago. No axe gangs showed up.”
“Praise the Lord.”
“Has He claimed responsibility?”
The Reverend threw his head back and laughed like he was eating the sun.
“He signs his name to all things! Just gotta learn how to read, Mr. Venable.”
“I’ll get around to that one day, Preacher.”
“Always an extra seat in my church. Sunday morning’s coming up.”
“It does that.”
The door opened and closed and went TINKadink, and it was early in the morning in the bookstore with no title, which faced west onto the Main Drag, and so it was still murky and dark inside. Mr. Venable was the only living soul in the shop, and back in the shelves the bioluminescent books glowed every color of the rainbow, plus several homophobic colors that had refused to join the rainbow.
He was reading an old paperback, a trashy dime-store hack job made to fit in the back pocket of a pair of Levi’s, they used to sell them on spinner racks in drugstores, and he sipped his coffee which was still hot, and turned a page.
“Fuck off, Officer Rodriguez,” Mr. Venable said without taking his eyes off the book. “Think you’re special? Little Aleppo’s had her share of ghosts. Find something to do other than haunt my cookbook section.”
The door did not open or close but it went TINKadink, and it was early in the morning in the bookstore with no title, which is on the Main Drag of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.