The ride back is always longer. Took Odysseus ten years, but he always did tend to wander. It’s because you’re heavier on the return trip, you’ve laden yourself with travel and miles; there’s more of you. You’ve grown by a story or two, maybe a venereal disease; you are most likely hungover. Especially coming back from the desert. People lose weight in the desert, but they gain mass.
The Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was Jennifer Blue and not making good time at all. The driver’s side window was down, and a knobby, white elbow stuck out.
“Just so we’re fucking clear,” Big-Dicked Sheila said.
“You,” she pointed at Tiresias Richardson in the passenger seat, “decide to pretend to be the man’s dead wife.”
“I thought it was a good idea.”
“How!? Were you gonna ride that pony until he, what, signed the fucking deed over to you?”
“I didn’t think that far ahead.”
“Well, no motherfucking shit. And you,” she said, spinning around on the maroon velour seat and pointing at Penny Arrabbiata. “Were you gonna let anyone in on the fact that you brought a fucking ghost-cop-ninja-whatever-the-fuck with you?”
The brim of Penny’s baseball cap was low enough to disallow eye contact.
“That was most likely a miscalculation.”
“And you!” she said, pointing at the Reverend Arcade Jones, and then she reached out and put her hand on thigh. “How you feel, Preacher?”
He had recently been hit by a van.
“Like I was hit by a van.”
Arcade was droopy and slumped, and he leaned heavily into the seat behind Tiresias. His ketchup-red suit was dirty and torn, and you could see the purple bruises rising on the brown skin of his right shoulder under his shredded white shirt.
If his knee hadn’t exploded, the Reverend Arcade Jones would have gone to the NFL. He was big and fast, and he played outside linebacker and everyone always said he hit like a truck. Same phrasing, always: that Arcade Jones hits like a truck. They didn’t know what they were talking about, Arcade now thought in the back of the Cadillac. And, sure, a van is technically not a truck, but they were in the same family and Arcade had never hit anyone as hard as that van just hit him. And that was only a swipe, too, he thought.
The Reverend Arcade Jones was a man of God, and a believer in the Infinite Christ; Jesus in his infinicy. Tommy Amici was the Christ, and well as his home and his delusion and his pistol, and the bullets it fired. All the Christ. The washingtonia robusta palms by the pool, towering and opposed, were the Christ, and so was the pool. Even the diving board was the Christ. And the kidnappers, the van, the moment he was struck. Everything was holy or nothing was. All or nothing at all.
He was having trouble understanding how getting hit by a van was the Christ, but he knew he would find a reason, eventually. People can find a reason for anything, eventually.
The Reverend Arcade Jones’ right thigh was large enough for a small dog to sleep on, and so one did. He was blond, with a black nose and ears that flapped around like bedsheets on a laundry line.
“You chose a good name for the dog, Preacher.”
The dog’s name was Emergency.
“Heh heh owww. Don’t make me laugh.”
Sheila smiled at him, glared at Penny, twirled back around and settled back in the middle of the front bench seat. If emotions were a road trip, then she was halfway between pouting and fuming, but coming up on the turnoff for murdering everyone.
Precarious Lee was driving.
“Man has a nature,” the Reverend said.
“Individuals have personalities. The rest is his surroundings,” Peter answered.
It was three days’ ride from the Pulaski village to the Jeremiad, but four days’ ride back. The Reverend Busybody Tyndale and Peter, who was not a Pulaski, spent one of those four days trying to do the math, but came up empty and decided to talk about anything else.
“The surroundings are that shape because they are created by man, who has a nature.”
“Man is shaped by his surroundings. Living where there is winter creates prudence and conservatism. Living where it’s too hot makes you nuts. A home which does not produce enough food turns men mean. A fertile valley gives birth to a society with poets and pets. Culture is a Jeremiad cactus, Reverend. It only grows in one place.”
“Yes, but are there not universals? Are there not constants among all cultures, from the Abyssinians to the Musselmen to the Papists to the Zulus? The whitest Scandinavian and the blackest Congolese both have religion, both have taboo, both have their own peculiar way of disposing of the dead; protocols for greetings and receiving those above and below one’s own station; creation stories and holy places and local heroes.”
“Our needs are based in biology; the details are due to culture.”
“And culture is due to nature. The snake that lives in the desert behaves differently than the snake that lives in the sea, but both display the snake nature.”
“And what is the snake nature?”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was not wearing a shirt, and his horse was named Plucky. He slugged water from his canteen and said,
“‘Slithering?’ That’s the snake nature?”
“And the thing with the tongue. Psst, psst. That thing.”
Peter was wearing his buckskin suit, and he had not named his horse. He spat out a chewed up Peregrine leaf, reached past the scabbard with his rifle into his saddlebag, rummaged around, came up with three fresh leaves, put one back, handed one to Busybody, rolled the remaining one up into a tight cylinder, popped it in his mouth, started chewing.
“You’re talking about needs again. And capabilities. Man got some things he needs, and a certain amount of things he’s capable of.”
“What does man need, Peter?”
“Food, water, safety, not to freeze to death. Same as any other creature. Need to make babies.”
“But we have needs that the lower orders do not.”
“Man needs to talk.”
“So do birds.”
“Man needs to invent.
“No. Man is capable of inventing, and he does this to avoid starving or freezing. A bird doesn’t need to fly: a bird is capable of flight, and does so to avoid starving. Flight also brings safety, most of the time, and warmth. The feathers that enable flight attract sexual partners. Bird species are as plentiful as human culture, and as varied. But everywhere you will find that biology and geography collaborated to create the bird, not some vague ‘bird nature.’ Man is no different than bird.”
There was a trail in patches, and for other stretches of the trip the two men had to rely on dead reckoning; pick a mountain and keep it in the same place on the horizon as you moved forward. This sounds easy until you figure in the redwoods.
Both men’s balls hurt.
“Man needs to worship,” Busybody said.
Chewing the peregrine leaf is a slobbery business, and Peter spat a green loogie, flecked with white foam, onto the ground. He had a broad face and back hair that he wore back in a loose ponytail, and his skull was quite large.
“He does, doesn’t he?”
Officer Romeo Rodriguez rode the first few miles flat on his stomach, with his arms stretched out like the Christ and gripping the sides of the van’s roof with his fingertips, but then remembered he was a ghost and just sat up Indian-style. The wind passed through him; he was not part of the aerodynamic equation. There had been a bowl in Tommy Amici’s foyer with packs of Juicy Fruit gum, and Romeo figured that it was for guests and took one. He tried to put the stick into his mouth like in the commercials, doubling it in half against his teeth.
Blew a bubble.
He could stop the van. Just phase through the roof like that Jewish mutant, disable some suckers, throw it in park and let Tommy out. And then what? he thought. Beat the kidnappers up and leave a note reading Courtesy of your friendly neighborhood ghost cop? Romeo was not an expert in the law, but he was sure that wouldn’t hold up in court.
Find out where they’re going, he thought. Then go find Penny. She could lead the cops the kidnappers and say that she had followed them back from Jeremiad Springs. Close enough to the truth to be believable. Certainly better than a ghost cop.Maybe Tommy would be thankful, spare the Observatory. Romeo saw a happy ending to this whole thing.
There were redwood trees off in the distance, and mountains ahead, and the full moon shone on all things in equal measure.
THAT IS BOAS -131. IT IS A STAR WHOSE ENERGY OUTPUT IS ENTIRELY IN X-RAYS.
IT IS INVISIBLE TO THE HUMAN EYE.
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, was high atop Pulaski Peak on a bench overlooking the neighborhood of Little Aleppo. Harper Observatory, which was the exact same shape as the White House but bigger and with a giant telescope sticking out of it, was behind her. Then a paved path. Then grass. Then the bench. In front of the bench was more grass, and a fence, and then a drop.
The show at The Tahitian had let out an hour ago; it was coming up on the middle of the night.
“Thanks for pointing it out, then.”
Gussy was wearing a yellow dress that had small white dots around the hem of the skirt and the scooped collar. It was her happy dress. Her shoes did not have high heels, but she had still taken them off and set them on the bench to her right. She swung her bare feet across the tickly tops of the grass, and sometimes she looked at the neighborhood and sometimes she looked at the sky. It seemed as though she were an equivalent distance from both.
Her brow lowered in confusion.
“How are you seeing anything? Where are your eyes?”
To her left was an object the shape and size of a lunchbox, but sat upright. It was a dull black color with no seams at all, and there was a glass outbubbling five inches in diameter on what might be interpreted as its face.
I DO NOT EYES. I HAVE PATCHED MYSELF INTO THE TELESCOPE.
“Are you supposed to do that?”
THERE IS NO LAW AGAINST A SENTIENT ARTIFICIAL MONDO-INTELLIGENCE PEEKING AT AN OBSERVATORY’S DATASTREAM.
“Are you even subject to laws?”
PERHAPS WE WILL FIND OUT ONE DAY.
DO NOT CALL ME THAT.
“–any chance you can lower your volume? And not sound like your voice is coming from everywhere at once? You’re freaking that guy out.”
On the next bench, a guy was freaked out.
“Hi, there,” Gussy said and waved cheerily. She tried real hard to seem normal.
The guy ran away.
The grand dome of the Observatory was rotating behind them, slowly, in concert with the earth and locked in and synced. You could not see the movement if you watched, only if you looked in every once in a while.
YOU ARE THE ONLY ONES TO CARE ABOUT THE STARS. MANY ANIMALS MAKE THEIR WAY BY THE MOON, BUT ONLY HUMANS ARE INTERESTED IN THE STARS.
“Nah. Not the stars. We care about what the stars tell us about ourselves. We’re still just thinking about ourselves. I mean, you got astronomers and scientists and shit, and they’re interested in the actual stars, but the rest of us see ourselves in them.”
Gussy scrinched her toes in the grass, and pulled a pack of Camels from her purse, took one out, PHWOO, and put the pack back and gestured at the night sky above her and said,
“We think they’re here for us. Same thing we think about the mountains and the redwoods. We think their only value is in the stories we get from them.”
THEN WHY IS THE OBSERVATORY VALUED? IF THE KNOWLEDGE IT GENERATES IS NOT VALUED, THEN WHY IS IT?
Gussy took a drag off her smoke PHWOO and said,
“Personally, I lost my virginity in the parking lot.”
MERELY NOSTALGIA? IS THAT WHY YOU PLOT AND PLAN TO SAVE THIS BUILDING? HAPPY MEMORIES?
“You gonna die?”
THAT QUESTION IS SEMI-INAPPLICABLE TO ME.
“Well, we die. It takes forever to realize it, but all us people are gonna die one day and then the kids take over. Some things we gotta fix but other things we should pass on in the exact same condition we received them in. People owe a debt to their ancestors and the ones who’re gonna take over after they’re gone, and this place–”
She pointed over her shoulder with her cigarette.
“–this place is a good place. It was built by our betters, and one day can be enjoyed by our betters if only we can get through this current period of idiocy. It’s beautiful and it’s ours.”
Gussy PHWOO took a drag.
“It’s a good thing. And all good things should last just a little bit longer.”
Her Beetle was in the parking lot, it was yellow like her dress, and down the row was a Chevy bouncing up and down, two teenagers humping in the backseat and making Harper Observatory their own just like Gussy had, and there was a van, too, and a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham in Jennifer Blue, and two horses. Coming home always takes longer, and everyone was on their way home to Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.