Bring in two million pairs of tube socks, bring ’em in via the Salt Wharf, and then store ’em in the Warehouse District all safe and secure, and parcel off your supply at a mark-up to as many retailers as you could find, who then ratchet up the price again and sell ’em to the fellow or gal who wanted themselves a fine, cotton stocking. Guy who does that is called a wholesaler.
But when I do it, Lucy Twigg always thought, I’m a trafficker.
A man grows a plant. A plant! A man bets his stake that the earth will be giving, and the rains will be steady, and the sun will be true. If that blossom blooms, the man–tenderly and with great affection–plucks that plant. Then he does some bullshit to it, and it’s rum. He is feted, respected, adored, this rum-making man. Political office is his for the taking. Hooray, cry the children. Hooray for the rum-making man. A different man grows a different plant, does some different bullshit to it, and it’s cocaine. The army comes and gets the different man, and a tank shoots him in the face. Ludicrous. The same action was performed, Lucy thought. The same need was met.
Homo ebrius. This is the true nature of man, Lucy believed. Homo sapiens meant “man, the self-aware,” but most people she met were anything but. Marx suggested Homo faber, the tool-making man, but Lucy didn’t take suggestions from Marx if she could help it. Schopenhauer proposed Homo metaphysicus, but he would, wouldn’t he? Maybe we should get a bit more specific with our nomencladding, that hippie who wrote all those long books with all the fuck scenes in ’em said: humans are actually two species, Homo neophilus and neophobus. It had something to do with one’s relationship to novelty. None of those books ever made any sense to Lucy. She went with Homo ebrius. Man, the fucked-up. The Lord gives us a perfectly good consciousness, and there we go altering it the second He turns His head. Eve didn’t tempt Adam with no apple; she was just sharing her stash. Little something to take the edge off, cuz even the Garden of Eden gets boring.
She told herself these stories when she got bored. She was bored.
“Boredom is good. I love being bored. Even better is when everyone else is bored. You know why?”
“Cuz when people are bored they shoot more dice, and they shoot more dope.”
The Friend smiled. He still had his teeth, but they looked like dentures, and his eyebrows were jet black even though the small ruff of hair semi-circling his head was silver. His suit was the size of a bar mitzvah boy’s, but it was the price of the party. Lucy could not recall ever seeing The Friend in anything other than a suit. She couldn’t even picture it.
“That’s why I always liked you. Student of human nature. It is the stable society and predictable outcome that allows vice to thrive. When presented with a world lacking excitement, man will search it out. Or woman, excuse me.”
“You’re pardoned, my patron,” she said, and waved the sign of the cross at him.
“Of course, women pursue different avenues of excitement than men. Drugs are about equal. Gambling, too, but ladies like card games more than dice. Sports book’s almost equal, which always surprises people. Men buy all the sex. Not all, but all enough. If women are paying for it, they’re not coming into the marketplace. Making private arrangements, maybe.”
“Or maybe not.”
“Yeah, or maybe not. I wasn’t advocating a position, just illuminating a possible explanation. But I return to my original point: boredom is good. It is desired. You see my Cadillac?”
Room 104 faced the alley behind the Hotel Synod; there was a 1977 Cadillac Coupe de Ville parked there. For almost four decades, The Friend had driven–been driven in, more rightly–that year’s model. There was no dealership in Little Aleppo, so the owner of the lot in C—–a City would drive the first one he received over the pass into the neighborhood each October. Around 1983 or 84, The Friend decided GM no longer knew what the fuck it was doing, and that the new Caddies were abominations. He found himself a Naples Yellow coupe from ’77 with doors the size of hockey arenas, and understood America not at all. What was the point of being rich if Cadillacs were ugly?
“It’s a classic.”
“Complete bore. Never surprises you. Turn the key, starts right up. Hit the brakes, car stops. Every time. And because it does so, it performs its essential task with efficiency, which is to get me where I wanna go. All machines have essential tasks. Little Aleppo’s a machine.”
“And what is its essential task?”
“To make me money.”
She laughed and half-stood and reached across her desk, which was far too large for her or the room. Lucy liked it that way; it made her associates flash back to being called before the principal, the nun, the judge. Her feet came off the floor, she grunted Oooof, worked the top drawer open, snatched the edge of the jellybean bag with her fingertips. On her way back to her seat, Lucy plucked an small, heart-shaped glass candy dish from atop her blotter. When she summoned people to her office, they knew instantly upon entrance what kind of meeting it would be by the presence (or lack thereof) of the sugary treat. On occasion, people saw that there were no jellybeans forthcoming and tried to book it out of the room, but so far they have all been physically prevented from doing so by a large gentleman named Kirk who Lucy insisted on referring to as Kirk the Guard.
“Excuse my terrible manners.”
“Absolutely not. Nothing to excuse. I’m the rude one. I came by without calling.”
She shook out the ‘beans into the dish, and offered it forth with both hands to The Friend. They were both sitting on the supplicant’s side of Lucy’s desk. She would never receive him from behind that battleship, with the wall behind it with the apothecary’s cabinet the size of two coffins standing side-by-side, and covered with writing from multiple alphabets, most of which had been identified. To the left and right of the cabinet were six-foot sculptures, owls, not healthy ones, owls with rotten souls that held grudges; their beaks followed you around the room. The desk was secretly raised two inches, and the hidden platform below the high-backed chair was jacked up another two. Whenever The Friend came by, she offered him her perch. He always declined, which Lucy thought was lovely of him.
There was a couch–a love seat, technically–behind the visitor’s chairs, along the wall with the door, but no one sat there for very long, or twice. That was Shitty’s couch, though he only took up one of the two cushions. If you tried to occupy the open seat, Shitty would live up to his name and sink his teeth into your thigh, or dick, or thigh and dick. He wouldn’t even let Kirk the Guard near him, and Kirk was the one who fed him. Lucy had never been within five feet of him. She loved the cat deeply.
“I can’t argue with that.”
The Friend picked a single green candy from the dish, ate it, put his hand back in his lap, took another green one, and then he ate that and did not say anything for a long moment. Lucy thought fondly of her usual meetings, when she was the fuck-er and not the fuck-ee, and could pull the prolonged silence bit just to make people sweat.
“Did you stop by just for candy?”
“Wanted to see you,” he said and tapped her forearm lightly. “You know you’re one of my favorite people.”
Lucy slapped the jellybeans on the desk and slumped over her knees.
“I’m so fucking bored I wanna die,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I was talking about boredom before.”
“How would you know?”
He smiled, a large face on a small head.
“How long I have I been in charge?”
“Is that common?”
“I hear all; I see all.”
“That sounds like a curse,” Lucy said.
“Sounds right. That’s my whole life, Tuesdays. It’s always Tuesday afternoon in here.”
Most places have glory days. The Norwegian Hotel originally hosted fancy people (the glitterati) and feted writers (the literati) and loose women (the titterati) before it turned into a flophouse. Ella Fitzgerald headlined at the Menefreghista Club, and so did Jimmy Durante, and Tommy Amici; now there were punker girls in fishnets with electrical tape X-ing out their nipples on stage every night but Wednesdays, when mulleted men in improbable underwear shook their semi-hard dicks at bachelorette parties. Everything changes; nothing lasts.
But not The Nod. It was a dump the day it opened, and has shown no improvement since. None of the doors quite fit the frames, and the carpets offered multiple and contradictory explanations to the question What did you do during the war? The sconces were surly. The drywall wasn’t. The entire third floor had been overly wainscoted. All of the glass was stained, and not in the Jesus way.
“I hear it was built on an Indian graveyard.”
“The whole neighborhood’s built on an Indian graveyard. They were called the Pulaski.”
“I love their peak.”
“Top-notch peak. Lost my virginity up there.”
“Common location for that milestone.”
Pulaski Peak was the tallest of the seven Segovian Hills that separated Little Aleppo from America. The summit had been flattened into a soft diamond ten acres in area, and at the western vertex was the Harper Observatory, which looked just like the White House, but a little bit bigger and with a giant telescope sticking out of it where the Truman Balcony should be. East of that were well-kept fields for picnicking, and a bandshell for musicking, and maintenance buildings, and a churro guy during the day.
To the south of the observatory was the parking lot. It was large, to accommodate the tourists and school buses; and poorly-lit, because the New Deal money the site had been built with ran out before light stanchions were installed; and the view was of Little Aleppo, the harbor, the ocean, the stars and moon. Teen horniness was not taken into consideration during the creation of the parking lot, but the result was as if it had: borrowed station wagons and shitboxes paid for with after-school jobs bounced up and down all night. Rich kids’ cars, too. Occultists had a theory that the amount of teenage humping waxed and waned with the moon’s phases, but the astronomers who worked at the observatory collected a year’s worth of evidence and proved that teenage humping was, in fact, a constant.
Evan. His name was Evan, Lucy remembered. He was tall and gawky and had a brutal face. Nose like an expressionist. KSOS was playing golden oldies, she remembered that, too. All the emotion of opera, but only four of the chords. Pre-Motown. Skinny black men in matching suits sharing a microphone in some storefront studio. He climbed on top and slid back off, that was all there was to it. Lucy was happy to get it over with. Sh-boom, sh-boom.
“I’m dying here.”
“No. You’d know if you were dying.”
“Can I be honest with you?”
“I insist,” The Friend said.
“I imagined that the life of a criminal would be more interesting than this.”
He chuckled and took another green jellybean.
“Nah. Turns out that if you do it right, it’s just a job.”
“Buy some shit.”
“I got everything I want.”
“Yoga. You tried yoga?”
“I’ve been doing yoga since I’m eight. Yoga has nothing to do with this. Leave yoga out of it.”
“It’s just that I’ve noticed women love yoga.”
“Forget the yoga.”
“Do you like Tahoe?”
“I don’t gamble, I don’t drink, and I don’t give a shit about lakes. There’s nothing in Tahoe for me. Besides, I can’t go away.”
Lucy was right. There were two problems with the drug trade, as she saw it. The first was the drugs. They took up a mindboggling amount of space. A bookie needed a notebook to run his business, and a prostitute walked herself to work; selling drugs required warehouses and forklifts. And guards, obviously, and for the whole shabang to be moved every couple months because thieving-ass junkies would find it and wriggle in through the water pipes
The second problem was is that criminal organizations are made up of criminals. Lot of sweethearts sell dope, but all of ’em are small-timers and Lucy Twigg did not deal with small-timers. The fuckers she had to spend her days contending with were scabrous, and sweaty, and plain delusional. Lucy had several friends on the faculty of Harper College, and when she would see them for drinks, they would tell her about the ambitious machinations going down in their departments, and Lucy would just think to herself that she had regular conversations with a man who demanded to be called “Fuck.” First thing he said to her.
“Call me Fuck.”
“You have to. It’s my name.”
“No, it isn’t. It might be what people call you. but it’s not your name.”
“I’m Fuck, dammit.”
And then they argued about the price of heroin for a little bit. Lucy envied her academic friends. She had been a poor student, but thought she’d make a great professor. Light schedules, tweed, ruining grad students’ lives. Idyllic. She could walk across campus and the kids would call out to her Hey Professor Twigg! and she could call back Hey, Steve-a-rino! or whatever the fuck the kid’s name was. She could fuck a colleague from Wesleyan at the same conference each year, mean to write a novel about the relationship, never get around to it. This was not her life. Her life was spent haggling over the cost of pharmaceuticals in a junkie’s hotel that was, at least, mostly haunted.
(Structural-spiritual possession was so common in Little Aleppo that residents had developed a system of qualifiers. Toilets flush at random, windows slap shut out of nowhere? Slightly haunted. Furniture rearrange itself? Somewhat haunted. Furniture rearrange itself while you’re sitting on it? Well-enough haunted. Stairwells come to life and chase inhabitants down the hallways? Mostly haunted. It took an actual ghost–friendly or otherwise–to be called “haunted” without an adjective. The Nod had no officially-recognized ghosts, although the poet Boylan Burcke used to wander around going OOOOOO with a sheet over his head when he got drunk.)
Fuck was one of the better ones, she thought. Virago Kidd sold all the cocaine on the Upside, and wore too much cologne. He told her one time that it was to throw the drug dogs off, but Lucy knew that was a lie; the LAPD (No, Not That One) had not had any drug dogs since Scraps was caught selling pills he had stole from the evidence locker. BAD DOG! was the headline on the Cenotaph the day after his arrest. Ibrahim Thlem moved kilos of dope every week, and every week he would get in a furious wrestling match with Kirk the Guard and they would fuck up the kitchenette. The pot dealers were the worst. The theories. The fucking theories. About the government, about the weather, about the role of intradimensional beings in the ’81 World Series. They’d start in Hey, man, you know the real story behind that shit? and then they were up to speed and gone.
Thieves, liars, and maniacs, the lot of ’em, and they all wanted to be king. Fuckhead! she wanted to yell at them. Being the king means talking to idiots like you. I’m the king and I don’t recommend the job. She kept it to herself, though. Easier to talk a piranha out its teeth than talk a man out of his ambition. Why bother? They’d last a few years, simmering in the little chair across her desk, until one day they made a play for power, and then the next week a new face would be in the little chair across her desk, and someone new would sell all the cocaine on the Upside and wear too much cologne.
“What if I quit?”
“I don’t accept your resignation,” The Friend answered.
“Not resign. Quit.”
The room was still. Sound of the elevator, someone getting beaten, the traffic out on Clarke Street.
“I don’t accept your resignation.”
The room was still still. There were no more green jellybeans left in the dish, so The Friend did not take one. Just sat there softly.
“How about art?”
“Not Art, art. Paintings. Cheer this place up.”
Several years ago, Lucy had tried to remove the wallpaper, but it fought back.
“What? Art? Sure, okay, great, a painting. I tell you I’m bored and you give me a painting?”
“When I was a kid and I’d tell my mother I was bored, I got a slap. Painting’s a good deal. You like Mondrian?”
“The lines and the rectangles?”
“You’ll put it on the wall over there,” he motioned towards the space over the cat-occupied couch, “and you can look it at it all day. Happiest fucking painting you’ve ever seen. Lots of red and yellow, nice. Your mood will rise like bread. I’ll send my guy over to hang it tomorrow morning. Best decision you ever made.”
She did not recall making any decisions, and he stood up. She followed.
“Virago’s stopping by soon, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, and checked her watch. “Real soon.”
“Okay. Do me a favor.”
The Friend took a baseball-sized roll of cash from his pocket, peeled off a hundred, replaced the roll, extended the bill.
“Lemme talk to him. You take a walk around the block.”
“It’s a shitty block.”
“Then take a run. Go get some Chinese.”
Lucy knew better than to play Oh, no, I couldn’t with the hundred, so she took it and said,
“Don’t adjust my chair.”
“I’m gonna adjust your chair.”
“Don’t pet the cat.”
“I won’t pet the cat.”
“Will I see you again soon?”
“The future’s no snitch.”
The door closed behind her on The Friend adjusting her chair, and past Kirk on the couch, and the two enormous men she did not know by name, and the kitchenette and the teevee set with the rabbit ears, and down the hallway, same story told different behind each door, and Frankie Teakettle proprieting the shit out of the lobby where the Christmas tree still leaned in May, and then Clarke Street with all her accidental pedestrians, Stretch the legs, get some chow mein. And then back again, always back, always returning to the Hotel Synod, which is a junkie’s hotel in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.