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Mrs. O'Brien was a fat woman with red hair and a red face and two sides to her that Henry saw the minute his father drove off in the Maserati Quattroporte he'd won in a bet. She was all smiles when other people were around but when they were alone she turned into a witch. Mr. O'Brien worked at night somewhere. Henry never knew exactly where, but it must have been a salt mine or a steel factory because Mr. O'Brien was the tiredest, dirtiest man Henry had ever seen. Henry was always glad when he turned up. When Mrs. O'Brien yelled, Mr. O'Brien would tell her to shut up.
Before he was left at the O'Briens', Henry lived in Philadelphia with Sy's sister. Before that he lived with his father in Caesar's Palace. The Palace was always busy. People said you could hear the noise from the slot machines as far away as Smyrna, which was all the way in Delaware. But even if that wasn't true and you could only hear them as far as Colognewhich was halfway to Philadelphiathat was loud. Caesar's Palace was big and people came from all over to play. Henry's father was chief of security. It was sort of like being quaestor of the Sacred Palace and captain of the Blues rolled into one. The Byzantine historian Procopius wrote a lot about the Bluesnot the music but one of the teams that ran in the chariot races in the Hippodrome. In the olden days most of the people in Byzantium were Blues, but there were many Greens too. Procopius said Byzantium was the city where the east toucheth the west. That made it special. When Henry read the old historian'sbooks he decided he wanted to live therenot just in Byzantium but in a place where things touchethed like thateast and west, waves and shore, light and dark, past and present. To be in between two touching things meant you were on the spot where they came together. It meant they came together in you, and after all Henry had seen and read and been through, he couldn't think of anything better than that.
Being chief of security was like living where things come together toolike where a rock toucheth a hard place. That's what Henry's father said all the time after Theodora became general manager of the Palace. Theodora was also the name of the Emperor Justinian's wife, and being general manager of Caesar's Palace was sort of like being an empress. Henry's father was six feet tall and weighed one hundred ninety-one pounds, so for him being between a rock and a hard place was not very comfortable. There were nights when he came off work so tired that he fell asleep right on the sofa holding a bottle of beer in his hand. Even if Henry took off his shoes and socks and tickled his feet he wouldn't wake up. The only thing that could wake him up was his beeper. When that went off he always said, "Jesus Christ," because it meant there was trouble. There was always some kind of trouble going on. Henry liked to go and watch whenever he could. You had to be a grown-up to go most places in the Palace, but that didn't stop Henry. He knew how to sneak into the Bacchus Room and the Gladiator Lounge and had even been backstage at the Forum. His father said he didn't know what was harder, keeping his job or keeping up with Henry.
Then one day his father took him out on the beach. It was the beginning of the summer, and the city was getting crowded. It was the first time Henry had ever been on the beach with his fatheror even seen him wearing swimming trunks. He always dressed in suits because that's how chiefs of security have to dress. It was hot. They walked and walked, past Balley's Wild West and Trump Plaza and the Tropicana and the Taj, past the pier with the Ferris wheel at the end, past everything and everybody until they were alone and there was no one else. Finally his father said, "It's time to get you out of here, kid. Time to go to school." He picked Henry up and put him on his shoulders and they walked for a little while longer. "First you're going to spend the summer with Sy's sister. She lives in Philly." Then he put Henry down. "You're gonna love her, kid." He took his gold chain off and put it around Henry's neck, then picked Henry up again and put him back on his shoulders. "That's so you have something to remember me by," he said, and they headed back to the Palace. "I don't want you to worry, kid. No tears. Everything's gonna be fine." Then he had to put Henry down because his beeper went off.
The summer went by fast and slow at the same time, and even though they didn't fall in love, Henry liked Sy's sister a whole lot. She was older than Sy and lived in a row house that had stained-glass windows that were left over from her hippie days. In the morning when you came downstairs the living room was filled with colored light. It looked sort of like the pictures in the book about the Hagia Sophia, and in the fall, when his father brought him to the O'Briens', Henry brought that book with him to remind him of Sy's sister and her house. Of all the things he did that summer, getting books out of the Philadelphia Public Library had been the funnest. It wasn't stealing, either. It was called borrowing.
He was sent to Catholic school. His father said it would be good for him. He never said why. Henry figured that it was all very complicated and probably had to do with appearances. He had learned all about appearances that summer. Henry was a gnostic. He said so on the playground and in religion class and Sister Theresa told the principal, Sister Agnes Mary, who took him over to the rectory. "We'll just see what Father has to say about these silly stories of yours, young man," she said. "Idle minds are the devil's workshop." Henry could tell she was angry because she was pretending not to be.
Father Crowley had lots of silver hair and dark eyes that made him look tired. Sometimes he wore a black suit and sometimes he wore a black cassock but he never wore a hat. The priest said he wanted to hear all of Henry's story, so on Saturday he came to the O'Briens' house in his black Chevrolet Malibu that said CLERGY on the license plate and talked with Mrs. O'Brien. She became a jolly fat lady as soon as the priest walked into the house. She put her arm on Henry's shoulder and squeezed him against her thigh and talked a lot and forgot to breathe. Henry could tell when Mrs. O'Brien forgot to breathe because her face got red and she made a wiggling motion and said, "Lord, oh Lord!" all the time. Father Crowley and she agreed that the best thing would be for Henry to spend the day at the rectory, where they could have a quiet talk. Mrs. O'Brien said, "Don't you worry about the time, Father. I'll keep his dinner warm."
On the way to the rectory Father Crowley pulled into a shopping center that had a Baskin Robbins. "I love ice cream," he said. "Care to join me for a dip?" He laughed.
Henry went inside with the priest and asked for Rocky Road because that was what he felt like. When they returned to the car Father Crowley didn't drive but sat behind the wheel licking his ice cream cone and frowning. Henry licked his too and watched out his window as cars turned in and out of the parking lot.
Then the priest turned to him. "So, Henry," he said. "Where did you hear about gnosticism?"
Henry said Philadelphia.
The priest's cone dripped and he wiped the ice cream from his lap. Henry began to tell him about veneranda vetustatis auctoritas, which means the venerable authority of antiquity, and the gnostic secrets he'd learned in The Coptic Gnostic Library and about Procopius and The Secret History and about the Hagia Sophia and the Blues and the Greens and his friends Helenawhose mother was the Whore of Jersey Cityand Sy.
Henry missed Helena. He missed Sy and the Palace too. He wanted to go back but his father told him it was impossible because he didn't know who his friends and who his enemies were anymore. He said real friends were the people you did things with that you didn't want anyone else to know about. Real friends were very rare and only came along once or maybe twice in a whole lifetime and you always knew where you stood with them. The only problem was that the same was true for enemies. You always knew where you stood with them too, and things could get real dangerous when you didn't know and weren't sure. Theodora was one of those people who was hard to figure out. She was a powerful bitch.
"Hey, hey, hey," Father Crowley said. "You watch your language, young man." He dripped more ice cream into his lap and said, "Oh gosh," and got a napkin out of the glove box.
Anyway, Henry's father was never sure where he stood with her. He said that one day when everything settled down they would move to an island somewhere far away and buy a houseboat where Henry and he would live together. Henry made him promise and he said, "Kid, if things go according to plan we'll be able to do anything. You name it."
"When did he tell you all these things, Henry?" Father Crowley asked.
Henry said he didn't remember.
"Was it in Atlantic City?"
When they got to the rectory, Father Crowley took Henry to a big, sunny room with a couch and some tables and chairs. It looked like a card room without the card table and there was a whole wall with books. It reminded him of the library near Sy's sister's store in Philadelphia except there was a fireplace with a crucifix over it. Father Crowley wanted Henry to tell him more.
The Whore of Jersey City lived next door to Henry and his father at the Palace. They called her the Whore of Jersey City because once she was in a movie called The Whore of Jersey City. Helena was her daughter. Jersey City worried about her hair too much. She made Ruben come up to her apartment at least once a week and sometimes even more than that. Ruben was a hairdresser from Bethlehem and he did everyone's hair if they were famous because somehow he was famous too. Jersey City had been in more than ten movies and that's why she was famous. Helena went to a college up in the mountains. Not the Carpathians or the Caucasus or the Alps, but mountains like them somewhere in New Hampshire. Jersey City was very proud of her. When she came home after the first semester, she hardly ever left the apartment and her mother told Henry's father that she had become a real snoot and was always arguing and they were driving each other crazy.
Helena used to take Henry out to the beach. She was eighteen and had light brown hair and blue eyes that gave her a faraway look. She was pretty and whenever people told her so she got mad. It happened all the time on the beach. One day she brought a book with her called Huckleberry Finn that starts like this: You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
The priest sat up in his chair. "That's very good, Henry. Did you memorize that all by yourself?"
"Well, now, I have a suggestion. Instead of talking about gnosticism and things you're too young to understand, how about telling the story of Huckleberry Finn? The sisters might not mind that."
Henry said yes, they would mind, because when Sister Helene heard him on the playground she was all smiles at first but when he got to the part where it went, After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers and I was in a sweat to find out all about him but by-and-by she let out out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time so then I didn't care no more about him because I don't take no stock in dead peoplewhen that happened she made him stop.
"I see," said the priest and touched the tips of his folded hands to his lips like he was going to say prayers.
Reading was easy. Helena showed Henry how to do it right out there under the umbrella on the beach. Pretty soon he could do it without moving his lips. Helena said he was smart because he learned without her even having to teach him. They got to be real good friends and pretty soon Henry read to her when they were on the beach and even when they weren't on the beach they did stuff together. Like one day when they dumped a glass of milk out a window right on a man Helena hated because he was hanging around her mother. They ran down the back stairs and all the way to Sy's place. That was how Henry learned about plague sowing.
Father Crowley shook his head. "You're going too fast, Henry. Slow down."
Henry talked about Chryssomallo, who used to be a dancer and a lion tamer and who wrestled with other women gladiators in the Forum but quit and became a bodybuilder, a fortune-teller, and a healer. People went to her to ask for help all the time. She was a friend of the Whore of Jersey City from the old days and Helena said they were in some movies together. You could go to her and for twenty-five dollars she would stand in front of you for ten minutes and flex her muscles. People went to her for healing. Next to Theodora, Henry figured she was one of the busiest women in Byzantium.
Henry nodded and explained that it was the capital of the eastern empire and that there were Trojans in the Palace because of AIDS. Not people from Troyrubbers.
Father Crowley looked like he was going to get mad but he didn't. Henry explained that there were machines in all the bathrooms. Trojans made good plague sowers and Henry dropped them off the roof of the Palace for fun. He pretended that each Trojan was filled with plague germs and when it hit the ground, whoever got splashed would get the plague.
There was another way of plague sowing that was even more fun. Helena taught him. You took a Trojan and put some half-and-half coffee creamer into it. Then when nobody was looking you left it someplacelike in a corridor or on a chair in the lobby. Henry did a lot of plague sowing around the Palace until Theodora made the Palace guards do extra shifts walking the corridors and checking the chairs in the lobby and the staircases. That was just before the Nike riots happened and they had to go to Sy's sister's house in Philadelphia.
Henry explained that he meant the Greek goddess of victory, not the running shoes. Procopius said that Cappadocian John was responsible and the riots started after a Blue and a Green were hung for treason and the rope broke. A miracle of God had saved the two men but the emperor refused to pardon them and so the factions burned and looted and killed. Byzantium was nearly destroyed.
"That's all very interesting, Henry," the priest cut in. "Let's see. Why don't you tell me about Theodora?"
Henry didn't want to talk about Theodora. He was scared of her. His father told him to stay out of her way and not to do anything that made her mad or unhappy. "She could put us out on the street in a minute," he told Henry. There were other things he said too, but they mostly had to do with his job as chief of security or his work with Sy, which had to do with siphoning or skimming, Henry wasn't sure which. All Henry knew for sure was that his father hated Theodora. One time he heard him talking to Sy: "She's squeezing me to death. Doesn't come out and say it. Just drops hints here and there. And those fucking looks! I'm tired of it. Tired of fucking tiptoeing. She wants me to think I owe her big time." Sy said, "You do." Henry's father got mad and started yelling, "I don't owe nobody nothin'! Understand? I do what I want. Nobody owns me, mister! No smart-ass MBA bitch. Nobody!"
Theodora swam every morning in the Palace's Olympic swimming pool. Sometimes Henry would hide and watch. She was tall and thin and her hair was short and very dark and her skin was very white. She would come out of the women's shower room and hang her towel on the back of a chair. She always wore a purple bathing suit that had a black stripe up the side that made her legs look very long. She put on a small purple cap and tucked her hair up into it as she walked to the edge of the pool. She always bent down once or twice to touch her toes. Then she would dive in. She swam very slowlyon her stomach, on her back, on her side, and underwater. Her arms would come out of the water lazily and slide back in and she kicked her feet without splashing. She moved through the water quickly and quietly and left a little bubbly wake behind her. When she reached the end of the pool she flipped, rolled, and resurfaced. She would blow a fine spray of mist into the air, then disappear again into the deep. Procopius said that when Justinian was emperor, a whale lived in the straits of the Bosphorus. People called it Porphyrius because it looked like it was made of the same purple stone as the great column in the Forum of Constantine. The whale lived in the waters around the city for a long, long time and sailors said they saw her as far away as the Black Sea. Theodora was a very good swimmer, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
"I'm waiting," the priest said. "What can you tell me about Theodora?"
Henry said Theodora was the wife of the Emperor Justinian. Procopius called Justinian and Theodora demons in human form.
"Okay," Father Crowley said. "What about Sy? Who is Sy?"
Sy's real name was Simon. He was a Jew from Babylon, the one on Long Island, not the capital of Babylonia. Everybody called him Sy. He came to the Palace one summer, found a job, and never left. That happened to lots of people. Sy lived in a noisy alley not far from the Forum of Constantine. He dealt blackjack and baccarat at the Palace and worked for Henry's father on the side because everybody said he was a genius and had a head for numbers. He wore granny glasses and read books and said things like, "I didn't choose this life, so I might as well make the worst of it." He was one of the nicest people Henry knew.
Henry's father made fun of Sy all the time. He called him a scrawny little nerd, which meant that he liked him and thought he was smart. Sy didn't just have a head for numbers; he was great with cards too and could do lots of different tricks. When they first met, Sy said he was putting together a floor show and looking for a manager, but Henry's father said, "Forget managers; you and me are gonna make a killing some day, and it won't be doing magic shows." Henry's father became good friends with Sy. So did the Whore of Jersey City, but nobody knew they were in troubleor that Sy and Helena's mother were in loveuntil they all ran away together.
"Wait a minute," Father Crowley said. "Who ran away?"
Henry said we all did. Running away is what brought us together.
"I don't understand," the priest said and squinched up his face. Then he waved his hand. "But never mind. Go on."
Sy took Henry to the Hippodrome to watch the races all the time. He also taught him to read and write Greek and Latin and Hebrew and Aramaic and Coptic. Henry studied until late every night because he wanted to be an intellectual. Sy said intellectuals had to read and go to school for a long time. He said there weren't many of them around anymore and it was hard to become one because you had to spend years doing nothing and the cost of living had gotten out of hand. One time Sy took Henry to church. Not the Hagia Sophia but a church just like it in Pleasantville. He told Henry that going to church was sort of like finding a center in the universe. He knelt down and pulled Henry down next to him and took off his granny glasses and put his hands over his eyes and stayed that way for a long time. Henry got up and walked around the empty church and played with the candles until Sy was finished. "I don't want you telling anybody where we were," Sy said on the way back to the Palace.
Henry asked why.
"Because I don't want anybody to know, that's why."
Henry asked why not.
"Because I just don't. It's nobody's business."
Henry asked why not.
"Because I said so."
Henry asked why again.
"Let's just say I'm a catholic Jew."
Henry asked what that meant.
"It means I'm the opposite of a skeptic." He patted Henry on the knee and drove a little longer. "It means I believe in everything. And that means I can't belong to any one group."
Henry asked why not.
"Because that's the way it is."
Henry asked why it was that way.
"Because, by definition, all groups are exclusive. If you buy into one, it means you have to rule certain things out. I'd hate to rule something out and then find out later that I was wrong. Wouldn't you?"
Father Crowley leaned forward. His face was so close that Henry could smell his breath. It smelled badlike the floor of the ice cream store. "Sy said all this to you?"
Henry nodded and the priest shook his head.
When they got back to the Palace, Sy took Henry to a place on the boardwalk to play pinball. "You have to keep the things you take seriously to yourself, Henry. That's the most important thing." They were playing a pinball game called Ace in the Hole. "It's important to keep a low profile. Even if you are certain about everything you know and are dying to shout it from the rooftopsyou can't. Not unless you are willing to pay the price."
Henry asked what the price was.
"Well, for starters, most people will think you're an idiot. But even if you can get past that, the price is too steep. There's no way anyone can pay it and stay alive. Jesus Christ had to die on the cross in order to pay up! He was a catholic Jew too, and said he was the son of God."
Father Crowley sat on the sofa and pinched his eyes with his fingers while Henry talked and took books from the shelf and put them back. He looked at Henry for a long time. "Has anyone besides this Sy ever talked to you about God?"
Henry said God was only a name.
"You watch what you're saying, young man. Blasphemy is a very serious sin. I don't want any more of that talk. Do you understand?"
Henry asked to be taken back to the O'Briens'.
"We'll leave when I'm good and ready," the priest said.
Henry sat down. His sneakers had come untied.
"Tell me more about this Nike business," the priest said.
During the Nike riots Byzantium was almost completely destroyed by the Blues and the Greens. Nike means victory in Greek but that day when they went out on the beach, Henry's father didn't seem victorious. He was worried. Henry knew when his father was worried because he talked on the telephone a lotnot on his cell phone or the one in the suite or even one of the pay phones in the lobby. When Henry's father was worried he left the Palace to make his phone calls. Sometimes he went next door to Bailey's Wild West and sometimes he walked way down the boardwalk and used one of the outside telephones. You couldn't be too careful. The emperor's agents and Theodora's spies were everywhere. Henry's father didn't want to take any chances. That's why he sent Henry and Helena and the Whore of Jersey City out of the city with Sy.
"We'll go back one day and it'll be like nothing happened," Sy said as they drove away in the car.
"You better be right," Helena's mother said. She twisted the rearview mirror so she could look into it and put on some lipstick.
"Things'll fall into place," Sy said.
"They goddamn well better," Helena's mother grumbled.
"Anyway, no point worrying about it now," Sy said. "What's done is done."
They went to Sy's sister's house in Philadelphianot the Greek city but the one on the Delaware River. Henry's father came to Philadelphia the next day. He was driving the Maserati Quattroporte. It was the first time Henry ever saw the car. It was all black and had soft leather seats. Henry asked where he got it. "I won it," his father said. They went out for pizza, but Henry wasn't hungry.
"How come you aren't eating?" his father asked.
Henry said he didn't like anchovies.
"You don't like anchovies? Pizza without anchovies is like a dog without legs, kid." His father picked them off and piled them on his plate.
Henry wanted to know how long he would have to stay in Philadelphia.
His father called the waiter and asked for fresh-squeezed orange juice. "You want anything else to drink, Henry?"
Henry said no.
When the waiter came back his father looked into the glass. "What the hell is this? I asked for fresh-squeezed orange juice." The waiter took it back. "I've found a good school for you, kid. And a nice family to put you up too. Their name is O'Brien."
Henry said he didn't want to go to school or live with anyone called O'Brien.
"I don't want any arguments, kid. I know what's best." He took another slice of pizza. "Besides, it's not just my idea."
Henry wanted to know whose idea it was.
His father took another bite and wiped his mouth before answering. The pizza restaurant was filling up with families and was getting noisy. "Some social workers've been getting on my case. That's the long and short of it. If we don't do it my way, they'll take you and do it their way."
Henry asked what social workers were.
"It's a long story, kid. Don't worry. It'll all make sense to you someday."
Henry asked what day.
"The day you stop picking all the anchovies off your pizza," his father said and folded another slice in his hand and bit down and made a grunting noise.
Henry asked his father if he was growing a beard.
His father chewed and rubbed his cheek. "Thought I'd try out a new look. What do you think?"
Henry said it made him look different.
His father smiled and winked. "Thought maybe it would go with the car. Know what I mean? Hey, what about that chain I gave you?"
Henry showed him the chain. He wore it under his shirt.
"Don't lose it," his father said and took another bite of pizza.
After the restaurant they went for a drive. His father told Henry all about Maseratis and how it wasn't just any old car but a car with a great history behind it. "Ever since I was a kid I loved Maseratis. The year I was born was the year Fangio won the Argentine Grand Prix and the World Championship in a 250F. He was one of the greatest race car drivers ever. When I was your age I wanted to be just like Fangio."
It was bedtime when they got back to Sy's sister's house. Henry's father tucked him in and went downstairs. Henry snuck out of bed and tried to listen at the top of the stairs while the grown-ups talked, but they went into the kitchen and he couldn't hear. He went back to bed and dreamed he was Fangio driving the Maserati 250F that won the World Championship and the Argentine Grand Prix. In the morning when he woke up his father and Sy and Helena's mother were gone.
"Where'd they go?" Helena asked.
"All they said is they have some business," Sy's sister said.
Henry asked where his father was.
"Don't worry, honey," Sy's sister said. "You're staying here with me. They'll be back soon." Then she handed him a box. "He told me to give you this."
Henry opened the box. He didn't want a Gameboy. He didn't want any presents. He wanted to know where his father was.
Helena ran upstairs and locked herself into the bedroom.
Sy's sister took Henry into the kitchen. It was a mess from the night before. "Mind keeping me company while I straighten up a little?"
Henry asked where his father went.
Sy's sister bent down and put her hands on Henry's shoulders. "Don't worry, Henry. He'll be back soon. You and Helena are going to stay with me for a little while. We'll have fun together. I promise."