Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 19)

A Burnout In Little Aleppo

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.

“Calling shmalling.”

“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.”

“Do I?”

“You should.”

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?”

“Forever.”

“Is that common?”

“Nope.”

“I hear all; I see all.”

“That sounds like a curse,” Lucy said.

“Some days.”

“Which days?”

“Tuesdays.”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re bored?”

“Stiff.”

“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.”

“I won’t.”

“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?”

“Who?”

“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?”

“Yeah, him.”

“He’s okay.”

“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.

A Funeral In Little Aleppo

Little Aleppo kept God in all His iterations penned up on Rose Street, which was on the Upside, and all the corpses in Foole’s Yard, which was on the Downside, so funeral processions ran south down the Main Drag. Praise the dead in the church, and bury them in the graveyard; in between, there was a parade. When Larry Shambles the banjo player played his last chord, half the musicians in the neighborhood stepped sprightly behind the casket with their trombones and bass drums; the trumpeters had the traditional fistfight. Lana Lynn delivered for Vafunculo’s before a Chevy sideswiped her into oncoming traffic, and all the other pizza boys painted their scooters black and weaved through traffic to count coup against the hearse’s windows. Gilroy Catcher’s liver fell out of his asshole at the Armadillo Room, and his buddies made the driver go real slow so they could walk behind because none of them had driver’s licenses anymore.

The processions proceeded. One a day, sometimes. Sidewalk kept bustling, commerce continued. Old men removed their hats, but not always. Life went on for Little Aleppians, even when they were presented with concrete evidence that it didn’t.

But not when it was a kid.

“The rabbi spoke really well. I never heard that story before.”

“It’s not a Bible story. It’s from the Midrash.”

“I don’t know what that is,” Deacon Blue said. He and the Reverend Arcade Jones were trying to–gently, o so gently–pull the sheet off of the larger-than-life-sized Jesus suspended over the pulpit of the First Church of the Infinite Christ. The congregation from Torah, Torah, Torah had been worshiping there since their synagogue burned down, and the crucifix was covered during their services. The reverend and the deacon had discussed whether or not cloaking Christ was a sin; they came to the conclusion that it might be, but He would forgive them.

The sheet had gotten stuck on the Crown of Thorns.

“The Midrash is a commentary. Ancient rabbis read the Old Testament, and they argued about it, and they wrote down the arguments.”

“The Jews are a contentious people.”

“Mm-hmm.”

Both men had removed their black suit jackets. Revered Jones tried holding the end of the sheet and flipping his hands up real quick, so that an amplitude wave would travel through the fabric, but he couldn’t get the angle right and there was just a noise SNAP SNAP in the empty church.

Rabbi Levy was in the first car of the procession, which was a Mercedes that Eugene and Imogene Teitel had borrowed from her uncle, Manny, because their Camry was beige, and had dents in it. The Mercedes was big, and it was black, and it was perfect to drive behind your boy’s body. That’s the kind of situation that calls for vehicular gravitas. The Rabbi sat in the back with Imogene. Eugene was in the passenger seat. They hated each other. The cancer had spread beyond its wildest dreams.

A woman named Bruriah met her husband at the door of their home. He was rabbi, and he had been at study.

“Husband, something was lent to me many years ago. Today, the man who made the loan came to reclaim what was his.”

The rabbi did not understand.

“If it was lent to you, then you must return it. You have no choice in the matter.”

“But, husband, that which I was lent is dear to me. I do not know whether I will be able to go on without its presence in my life.”

“But, my wife, it was never yours in the first place. You should praise this man for his generosity, and receive joy from the fact that he will surely enjoy it as much as you did.”

She took the rabbi’s hand and led him into the house, where lay the body of their son.

That was the story Rabbi Levy told to the congregation.

The hearse was a Cadillac, because most of the caskets it carried contained Americans, and Americans go to their graves in Cadillacs. Immaculate inside and out. No fingerprints at all on the chrome. Sign of respect. Bench seat up front. Crushed velour, not leather. Counter-intuitively, it is easier to get odors out of velour than leather. The rear compartment had no fabric at all. It could be hosed out. Funeral business is full of secrets, and one of them is that there is far more leakage than one would expect. Metal shelf slid out–well-oiled, noiseless–and the coffin went on the shelf, and the shelf slid back in. The platform was grown-up size, but little caskets fit on it just fine.

“He was two?”

“Almost.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah, you could blame Him,” Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, said.

Julio Montez was a Catholic, and he crossed himself when she said that. Gussy had been sending him up and down the aisles of The Tahitian with a coffee can for months. The can had a black-and-white copy of a picture of Baby Al taped to it. People threw in a buck, five, nothing, some change. Gussy did it a few times, but she’d lose it halfway through and start bawling, so she made Julio do the job. She ran the cash over to Rose Street at the end of the week. People like to feel like they’re helping, even when they can’t.

“There’s a God.”

“I dunno,” she said.

“No, there’s a God. There is.”

Julio was sure of God’s existence. Every authority figure he’d ever encountered had assured him of the fact. He continued,

“But I don’t understand how He lets kids get sick.”

“Maybe He’s a mean drunk.”

They stood on the sidewalk underneath the jutting marquee of The Tahitian, with black block letters all uppercase against the illuminated white background and reading UNIVERSAL MONSTER MARATHON. Gussy screened ’em all once a year, and sold out the house. Dracula, and Wolfman, and Frankenstein, and Lagoon Creature. Each represented a different primal fear: sex, night, birth, lagoons. They were barely an hour apiece, and so could make up one long night’s programming. The house cheered the monsters, and heckled the decent burghers trying to stop them. Everyone loves movie monsters, because movie monsters get theirs in the end. Gussy wished the screen was a prison, and she could keep the wicked trapped in light. It was silly to wish, she thought. She still did.

First came the cop car, with the green light flashing, and then the Cadillac, long and discreet, and then the Mercedes, thick and rumbling. The procession followed. Cousins in a Datsun passing around a bottle of vodka, and the Montreal contingent of the family in rented mini-vans. Dr. Cho and two oncology nurses from St Agatha’s in his Beemer. The Melted Fucktoads spent most of their days dealing meth and hitting each other with pool cues, but they had a soft spot for kids and had done several charity motorcycle rides for Baby Al; they rode their Harleys two abreast; they had removed all the swastikas from their jackets out of respect.

All four grandparents. They were not very old at all.

Past Randy’s Record Barn, which was playing no music at all from the speakers Randy Plaster dragged out onto the sidewalk every morning, and past Mendoza’s, where Mundy Proft ignored her tacos al carbon to stand and watch the child go by, and past Leslie Easterbrook and his wife, Leslie, in the doorway of the sock rental place, and shoppers and barkeeps and secret perverts and the unconscionably tall. The poor who had commuted to the Upside to work, or steal; the rich who belonged on the Upside because of how hard they worked, or stole. Pavement stopped, frozen and heads bowed and openly wailing. If there were pickpockets present, they did not practice their craft.

Midden Street divides Little Aleppo between Upside and Downside, and was named by someone who did not know what “midden” means.

“All is random, and all is terrible. This is the only possible conclusion.”

“Mlaaaargh.”

“No, I cannot imagine. I do not want to. Desperately, I do not want to,” Mr. Venable said.

“Plep.”

The cat had no name, and she was a tortoiseshell, all black on her belly and legs, and mixed black and gray on her back and head. She leaned her right shoulder into his left shin. The sidewalk was not part of her territory, and she had not marked her surroundings with her scent; she was fearful outside, but still followed Mr. Venable outside. He was wearing his customary suit, and a black tie that he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. It was not tightened, and the top button of his oxblood shirt was not done. There were still customers in the bookstore with no title, but they would be fine. (Unless they wandered into the Circular Annex, which contained the Maps Section; the maps had eidetically transcoagulated themselves into the territory, and it was easy to get lost.)

“I’ve asked. I’ve asked a thousand times,” he said.

“Mlaaaargh.”

“No answer. Never an answer.”

“Plep.”

“Of course I’ll keep asking.”

“Plep.”

The Cadillac brumbling in first gear. Barely feathering the accelerator. Mercedes behind with Eugene in the front, who be divorced in ten months, and Imogene, who will be divorced in ten months and dead in thirteen, in the back with Rabbi Levy. He is holding her hand. My hand is bigger than his, Imogene notices. She can see his fingernails, which are very neat, and she wonders if the rabbi gets manicures, and then the loathing–towering and rushing forward like that famous Japanese wave–swept over her. She should be thinking about her boy. He needed his mother right now. He would always need his mother.

The nurses and doctors from St. Agatha’s were outside the Emergency Room, and its brick entrance that bore the inscription Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi chiseled above the electric doors. Rest of the staff, too, and some of the ambulatory patients. Cop gripping the upper arm of a handcuffed drunk. Two drug reps with tight, short skirts and enormous, rolling briefcases. Barry Cho from the Cenotaph was there. He was Dr. Cho’s brother. He wrote the first story about Baby Al. Young couple, Eugene and Imogene, just starting out in the world. They both worked at a bar called Fiddlerhead’s, which had a Canadian theme. He was from Outremont, and it reminded him of home. She was from the neighborhood, needed a job, and didn’t mind Rush. They met, fell in love. Five months after the marriage came the baby. Albert Holiday Teitel. Albert after his uncle Avi. Holiday for Holiday Rhodes, He proposed at The Snug’s annual Christmas show at the Absalom Ballroom, and she said “yes” there. Happy baby for a year, and then his eyes went blurry and he began to scream. He wouldn’t stop screaming.

It all hurt so much.

“Worst thing I ever seen, and I seen some fucked-up shit.”

“The boy died for our sins,” said the man who demanded to be called Captain Thumbfucker.

And since he had bought the last four rounds and slipped her a handful of pills, Tiresias Richardson was going along with his choice of names. She had promised herself that she would not go to the Armadillo Room any more; it wasn’t the sort of joint you wanted to be a regular at. There was a non-zero chance of being human trafficked every time you walked into the Armadillo. The pool table was mined. Two of the urinals have been indicted for manslaughter, though both cases fell apart before trial.

“No, he didn’t. That’s bullshit.”

“Are you calling me bullshit?”

“I’m calling this whole thing bullshit. All of it.”

“I am not bullshit!”

Captain Thumbfucker started windmilling his sloppy arms at her, leaning forward at waist with his head down. Tiresias slapped back and forth at him. She was tall and strong, he was short and liked sticking his thumb in assholes, and both were shitfaced: it was an even brawl.

The Cadillac rolled on, rolled south, still on the Main Drag, and now it makes a left to head east on Chambers Street. The procession follows, and the sidewalk halts here too. All kinds of buyers and sellers, and the lonely, and mechanics of all sorts. Students, teachers, truants, the dogs who ate the homework. Beer-Cooler Ethel closes the lid of the cooler strapped ’round her neck. Con men stop conning, and shoplifters stop lifting, and there is a pause in postal service. Behind the Cadillac with Baby Al in the back is the Mercedes, and then the family and the friends and the coworkers and the Melted Fucktoads and another cop car, two, three.

East on Chambers Street into the foothills, and the land undulates beneath you like fortune.

“How old is two?”

“Two is two. I don’t follow.”

“What can they do? A baby. When it’s two. What do they do?”

“Talk,” Precarious Lee said. He was a retired roadie and Romeo Rodriguez was a ghost cop, and they were standing by the entrance to Foole’s Yard. Technically, Romeo was floating. Precarious was wearing a black suit and a tie. Romeo was in the patrol outfit he always wore because he was a ghost and stuck in the same clothes for eternity.

“Yeah?”

“Not real good, though,” Precarious continued. “Words, not sentences. But they get the concept that things have names. And they know what they like and what they don’t. Two-year-olds got real strong preferences. Haven’t quite figured out wiping their ass.”

“That ain’t fair.”

“Who told you life was fair?”

Romeo was quiet for a moment.

“No one ever did,” he finally said.

“They were right.”

The hearse turned south again, onto Carrier Place where the entrance to Foole’s Yard is, and then the families’ cars, and the rest of the procession. Everyone would park, and Rabbi Levy would chant in a language that no one but he understood. The shovel was there, sticking out of the loose soil by the fresh grave. Eugene first, and then Imogene. The dirt went FUNCH when it hit the casket. It was a high-pitched sound, and it would not stop ringing all across the valley and up and down the Main Drag of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Yes, We’re Open In Little Aleppo

Businesses, in Little Aleppo and elsewhere in America, succeed for one of only two reasons: they offer a good or service unavailable anywhere else, or location. The Declaration of Fistependence, which sold rubber sex-fists that were said to be replicas of our greatest Presidents’ hands, was tucked away in a backstreet off Caliper Court; both patron and proprietor preferred it that way.  Froggy’s, which sold ugly shoes to depressed people, was similarly out-of-the-way, and so was Skins. Skins was one of those joints where you could eat off of hot chicks, but not just sushi. You could eat whatever you wanted off the girls at Skins: ham sandwich, pie, stuff you brought from home. These businesses can give you what no place else in the neighborhood can, and so can afford to be hard to find.

Other entrepreneurs–the ones providing a fungible, replicable service like cheeseburgers or haircuts–had to choose where they pitched their tents with more care. Smart money was on the Main Drag. No better place for a diner than the Main Drag. Couldn’t really even be a Main Drag without a diner, could it? The Tahitian, too. Movie theaters are big and pompous, and they should be on the shiniest street available. The Santa Maria sold single slices from its sidewalk counter for a dollar, two and a Coke for two bucks. You had to hassle with them over the napkins. They’d go stingy with the napkins if you didn’t stand up for yourself.

But there was also steady money in a more parasitic approach: finding a flock of drunks and building a bar right next to them. Neptune’s Throne was for the men who worked at the Salt Wharf, and the Botany Bar was for the men who owned boats in Boone’s Docks. (Most of Little Aleppo’s cocaine supply arrived through the Docks registering around 90% pure and costing $20 an ounce; you could buy a thumbnail-sized baggie that was 20% pure for $20 bucks at Neptune’s. From this fact, all of modern economic theory can be extrapolated.) Brewster’s opened up before St. Agatha’s was even completed: they got the workers plastered, and then continued to schnocker the doctors, nurses, escaped patients. The bar was forced to move around the corner early on; its original location directly across the street led to several patients watching their doctors wander straight from the tavern into their surgeries. The Pampered Moose shared a property line with Harper College, and refused to check IDs on principle. Its owners, Candy and Spud, were libertarians. People who run cash businesses tend to skew libertarian. The right of a young man or woman to give us their money shall not be impinged, and so forth and so on, Candy and Spud often accused the Constitution of saying, and no one would correct them.

The Cenotaph‘s ethanol requirements were fulfilled by Flick’s, which was 159 feet across Pryor Street from the front door of the Braunce Building. (Long ago, the journalists had measured the distance with a pedometer. More recently, a professor from Harper was talked into dragging all sorts of laser gadgets down; the original finding was confirmed, and there was an article trashing all the professors’ rivals the next week.) Flick’s was owned by Fred Flickerson, who always hated his parents for naming him that, and there wasn’t much to it: tables, bar, all of Flick’s old bullfighting crap. No jukebox, just a paint-splatted transistor radio playing KHAY. It was the cheap kind of dark in Flick’s, like it wasn’t so much an aesthetic choice as it was that there weren’t enough lightbulbs.

Everyone from the paper drank there. Pearl-Handled Lou, who had been fixing the printing press so long that he could diagnose problems by smell, and his crew of mechanics. Janet Di Peppi sold ads and hustled newcomers at darts. The photogs would come in stinking of darkroom chemicals and be banished to the far corner. Marilda Swank, who wrote the advice column, was generally found under the foosball table, most often not solo. Barry Cho could hand his copy off to the copyboy, leave his desk, down the stairs, out the door, across the street, into Flick’s, and take a shot before his story reached the editor’s in-box.

Iffy Bould just walked over. He made the trip a lot–his second wife sent the divorce papers to the bar–but he did it casually. The pint of Arrow he was drinking was not his first, and he said,

“Shall we count offences or coin excuses,
Or weigh with scales the soul of a man,
Whom a strong hand binds and a sure hand looses,
Whose light is a spark and his life a span ?
The seed he sowed or the soil he cumbered,
The time he served or the space he slumbered ;
Will it profit a man when his days are numbered,
Or his deeds since the days of his life began.”

Lolly Tangiers polished off her pint, belched, roused to her feet.

“Is this another lesson?’

“Nah, I just love reciting bad poetry. That was Australian.”

“It had that feel to it,” she said and motioned for his glass. He upturned it, handed it to her, she went to the bar. Flick had two waiting. He still wore his hair like a toreador. When she got back, Iffy said.

“You need to start smoking.”

“You chain-smoke and I stand next to you all day.”

“Right. I can’t take it.”

“You can’t?”

“How do you bear the smell? I quit smoking once and it turns out these things stink. Stench was so bad I had to start up again so I wouldn’t notice it anymore.”

“You can get used to anything,” Lolly shrugged, and slugged her beer.

“Sad fact.”

Little Aleppo was still getting used to the bombing, but locals had–without conspiring explicitly–decided that the proper way to mourn the victims was to immediately use their deaths for political or financial gain. Tee-shirts began flowing from shops on the Downside before the building had stopped smoldering. Most of the shirts commemorated the dead, or proclaimed Little Aleppo unfazed by the attack, but a few had pictures of the guy who did the bombing, which sold well in bars that catered to punkers. The LAPD (No, Not That One) kicked in several doors they had been itching to kick in for months.

KSOS was still covering the attack at midnight. A television station had a duty to cover local news, Paul Loomis thought. Sacred one, which means that God said to do it. Paul Loomis did not quarrel with The Lord. He ignored Him a great deal of the time, especially the stuff He said about cheating on your wife and stealing and being an asshole, but he did not argue. Especially when the ratings were so high. Paul Loomis was too smart to say out loud that he wished there was a bombing every week, but everyone around him could tell how happy he was.

Trusted Meese was still on the air, and his steady baritone slipped out of apartment windows and tavern doors under cover of blue light. The bombing happened during his newscast at five, and he’d manned the desk ever since, despite running out of new information around three hours previous. No matter: the people of Little Aleppo needed Trusted Meese in times of crisis, and dammit he was gonna deliver. Also, Paul Loomis had stolen his car keys , so he couldn’t leave. Trusted had spoken to a half-dozen experts via the phone (all of whom turned out to be prank callers), shown several semi-accurate watercolors of the explosion that Sonar the Intern With The Stupid Name painted, and told an elaborate story about an acquaintance named Fuzzy who can putt a golf ball with his johnson. Paul Loomis was interviewed several times in regards to the possibility that Communists were to blame.

“I understand that you believe that Communists are responsible for the bombing, but what I’m asking is: why do you believe that? What factual information is the belief based in?”

“Meese, you a homosexual?”

“I’m a Presbyterian.”

They did that once an hour until around 10:30, when the two of them got all worked up and started wrestling. Knocked the backdrop over, the whole deal. The camera guy and Sonar had to break them up, and then Trusted threatened to walk home, or get a ride, if Paul wasn’t locked in his office. Trusted sat staring at the lens for a while after that. Smoking. Muttering about opportunities and wicked women. He threw it back…

“…to Cakey Frankel who’s still at the scene. Cakey, what updates can you give us?”

“Which ones do you want, Trusted? I’m your update gal.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Cakey had been at the crime scene since ten minutes after it became a crime scene, along with her camera guy and technician and producer. The producer and tech were armed, as it was KSOS’ policy that the news van be protected at all costs. Paul Loomis’ management philosophy was that people could be replaced, but gear cost money. Hell, dummies lined up to work for free because they thought it was show business, but microwave van salesmen were not impressed by glamorous trappings. Protect the news van.

(This was not paranoia on his part: the mobile-studio-in-a-Chevy was stolen within 24 hours of its purchase in the late 70’s and used to broadcast sexual acts of an anti-government nature to unsuspecting KSOS viewers. No recording survives, but a woman was famously quoted in the Cenotaph describing it as “the least patriotic fucking you’ve ever seen.” Retrieved–and then ransomed back to the station–by the cops, the van would be hijacked twice more before Paul started riding shotgun, He shot three teenagers with that shotgun, too. The incidences of grand theft news van have declined since, but the threat remained.)

“The bombing, woman. Is there anything going on with the bombing?”

“This one?”

“What?”

“This bombing or has there been another?”

“There’s just one damn bombing, and it happened where you are. The piano store.”

“Right. It blew up.”

“Hours ago! It blew up hours ago! What’s happened recently?”

Aloferra Street was less populated than before, but still roiling. The flames were doused, and then the traditional cop/fireman fistfight began over who had operational jurisdiction at the scene. (There was also the traditional fistfight at the charity softball game, but this fight was over principle, and the law, and who got to tell whom where they were allowed to be, and so was more valued in the Little Aleppo First Responder community.) The police had set their yellow tape well back from the site, though, and so Cakey and her team could see none of this.

This did not stop Paul Loomis from putting her on air every twenty minutes. At first, she interviewed members of the gathered crowd. None of them knew anything, but several folks had real thick accents that Cakey only semi-understood, and that made for decent teevee. The gawkers thinned. Cakey interviewed Beer-Cooler Ethel, who adroitly turned the conversation to the topic of the original Mercury Seven, and which one was, in Beer-Cooler Ethel’s words the pony with the most baloney. Cakey kept talking for five minutes without having a clue she was discussing the dicks of American heroes. When the camera cut back to the studio, Trusted was laughing so hard he blew a wet token of snot out of his nose.

But now even Beer-Cooler Ethel had departed, and so he and Cakey were improvising.

“Has anything new happened?”

“The tamale man came by. But not the usual tamale man.”

“Tamale Macho?”

“Him, yeah. Tamale Macho is on vacation, so his buddy Bertrand is filling in. Same tamales, though.”

“Does he wear the costume?”

Cakey consulted her notebook.

“No, Trusted. He doesn’t. Jeans and a tee-shirt. Wait!”

She flipped a page.

“And a light jacket. I can confirm that he was wearing a light jacket.”

Back in the studio, Trusted took a swallow from his coffee mug. It had not been filled with coffee for many years.

“What about the song? Does this Bert fellow even sing the song? For he’s tamale good FELLLL-ooowww. Tell me he sings the song.”

“No song, Trusted. Just walks up to you and offers tamales. Very low-key about the whole enterprise. He let the tamales sell themselves. The crew thought it was a refreshing change from Tamale Macho’s aggressive tactics.”

“The crew are dumbfucks, Cakey.”

In the control booth, the director launched himself across three people to hit the BLEEP button.

“The costume, the song, that’s all part of it. The tamale experience. You’re walking home from the bar, you’ve had a few pops, and then in front of you arises something miraculous. Tamale Macho! The dream you never had that came true. That’s the American dream right there, young lady. Tamale fucking Macho.”

“Oh, COME ON,” yelped the voice from the control room.

Cakey had no idea what the hell Trusted was babbling about, and she responded in her usual fashion: smiling politely. This strategy had never failed her. Either people would keep talking until they reentered her sphere of comprehension, or they would give up and walk away. Trusted saw it on the monitor.

“That’s your confused face. I know that one. Cakey, is anyone there you can talk to?”

“There’s a police officer.”

“Great. Go bother him.”

Cakey was excellent at talking on television, which is a skill separate from your everyday blathering. You gotta pronounce your words real sharpish, but not be prissy about it. Flat, but not Midwestern. No ummm and ahhhh, and never drop your G’s. Raising your voice–at all–makes you sound crazy. And what the hell do you  do with your hands? Cakey knew all of these things, and more.

But not walking on television. It was fascinating. She sprinted from place to place, crouched over and protecting her head; then, she’d straighten up and continue with her report. The local opinion was that she saw a reporter do it in a movie, and it was a beloved move. Fans called it the Cakewalk, and had orchestrated a successful letter-writing campaign to Paul Loomis. Please never discuss this with her and just let her keep doing it, the messages read, and he agreed with the sentiment. Also, every time he saw it, Trusted would blow a gasket, and so Paul double-liked the idea.

Cakey zipped across the street to where a cop car was parked, her crew rushing to keep up. The shot from the bobbling camera remained on the screen.

“Every time,” Trusted muttered into his mug.

She exploded into frame, upright and chipper and grinning, right next to the open driver’s window of a 1978 black-and-white Dodge Diplomat. Officer Honey was snoozing, and then HOLY SHIT SUDDEN CAKEY he wasn’t, and he grabbed for his gun just a little bit.

“Jesus, woman!”

“Cakey Frankel, KSOS News.”

“You can’t sneak up on people like that. I’m all jerbibbled over here now.”

“Is that a word?”

“Sure,” Officer Honey said. “Sure.”

Jerbibbled was not a word. It has the sound of a private family expression, perhaps something Honey’s mother used to say, but it wasn’t. Officer Honey had never met a star before, and he was nervous. He did not know what to do with his hands. Or the rest of his body. He felt that he should get out of the car, but he had undone his belt and popped the button on his pants, so he’d have to reorient himself on teevee. Staying put was the better bet. Put the ol’ elbow up on the ledge, he decided. Very authoritative move, putting your elbow on stuff. Cakey was prettier in person.

“Can I ask your name?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“What?”

“Ask me anything.”

“Your name.”

“Honey.”

“Cakey.”

Back in the studio, Trusted said,

“Jesus,” and stood up and roared, “Tell that asshole Loomis I’m leaving,” and drained the rest of his coffee mug. The proper storming out. There was silence from the control booth, until the director said something and Sonar ran out of the booth.

Cakey had been on-and-off the air for going on seven hours–doing her reports, and conducting interviews, and trying to avoid having too many people in her shots with their dicks out–and her makeup was still perfect.

“Officer, what are you hearing at this moment.”

“I’m hearing Cakey Frankel.”

“Oh. Am I a suspect?”

“No.”

“Thank goodness. I would crack under questioning. What about motive?”

“For the bombing?”

“Yes.”

“Sure. Well, we’ve ruled out ‘being a good neighbor.’ That was definitely not the motivation behind the bomb. Whoever did this wasn’t trying to help. That’s off the table. ”

“And there was the video.”

She was referring to the copper-helmeted man who hijacked the airwaves immediately before the blast to take credit.

“Sure. Sure, that’s a clue. That’s something we’re gonna take into account.”

“Officer, you’re a decorated veteran of Little Aleppo’s police force–”

Honey had never been decorated for anything, ever.

“–what did that tape reveal to you? Using your investigative skills.”

“Huh. Well, we know he’s got a head. And we know he doesn’t have a condition that makes him unable to wear a helmet.”

“I had a cousin like that,” Cakey said.

The voice in her ear said,

“Cakey?

She answered,

“Trusted?”

“No, Cakey. It’s the Honorable Elijah von Draculicious.”

The Honorable Elijah von Draculicious was the Horror Host of the moment: he was from both the Nation of Islam, and the Nation of Transylvania. He introduced the movies in between monologues about his evenings spent “suckin’ on honky neck;” there were also martial arts demonstrations and nutritional lectures. The Hon. Elijah had not had time to remove his makeup, not change out of his dashiki with the giant swoopy cowl.

“Trusted is having technical difficulties, Cakey.”

Blue light windows, all up and down the Main Drag; from separate bedrooms on the Upside, and bodegas with drunks and the owner huddled around a rabbit-eared portable. No teevee at Flick’s, just the transistor radio playing KHAY, which was playing bouzouki music and wouldn’t tell anyone why. It was midnight, and Barry Cho was so hammered he was under all the tables at once. He was superpositionally drunk, and very soon the screeching would begin and Barry would need to be wrangled outside, but presently he was amenable.

“This doesn’t count.”

“It’s a good start,” Iffy said about the cigarette in her hand.

“I’m drunk,” Lolly answered, waving the bummed Kool around. “It doesn’t count as smoking when you’re drunk. I could be, like, plastered all day at work. I could smoke as much as you do if I did that. A lot of people at the office are drunk all day.”

“And they’re all your superiors. They’ve earned the right to be drunk at work.”

“Maybe one day.”

“Keep working hard, reporting your ass off, breaking stories, and yeah: you’ll be able to chug vodka out of a thermos starting at eight in the morning.”

“A girl’s gotta have dreams.”

They clinked their pints, sipped, PHWOO, and behind them Flick was explaining the various cuts of beef to a young man who worked on the Cenotaph‘s ad side

“You know the Village Idiot Theory yet?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe. You gotta lotta theories.”

“I’m a theory-ous man.”

“That was terrible.”

“The Village Idiot Theory. A deep understanding of any organization can be gleaned from identifying its Idiot. Any business, agency, team, any whatever–any dynamic group of human beings working towards a collective goal–you’re always gonna have an Idiot. The question is How big a dumbfuck is the organization willing to put up with? Says a lot about standards.”

“Okay, right.”

“And each village creates its own idiot. You get what you make in this life, kid.”

“Don’t call me ‘kid.’ It sounds so screwball comedy.”

“We’re not in one?

“What brought up the Village Idiot Theory?”

“Thinking about the cops,” Iffy said.

He downed his the last half of his Arrow and slapped the glass on the table; the ashtray clattered.

“Someone’s gotta figure out what the fuck is going on, and I don’t think they’re capable.”

“We are,” Lolly said, and poured some of her beer into his glass so they could CLINK glasses and drink together.

“This is our story.”

Lolly staggered to her feet and yelled,

“WOODW–”

Until Iffy snatched her by the elbow and dragged her back seated, hissed into her ear,

“If you scream Woodward & Bernstein WOO! in this establishment, I will break both of your legs.”

“I was excited.”

“Dignity above all. We start first thing in the morning. Go get two more beers.”

And then Barry Cho began screeching. It sounded like eternity itself, if eternity smoked. Bloody and lost and dancing through the windows of Flick’s, and unstoppable even though Janet Di Peppi chucked darts at him. The boys who ran the presses walked him out, and the normal noise returned. Conversations and unaccounted-for bouzouki, and Flick ringing the till. Business was as usual in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Party Time In Little Aleppo

“How do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

“The same way I know I wouldn’t like being shat upon: instinctually.”

“Orgies are fun, if you’re in the mood.”

“Nuh-uh. They gimme the shkeeves,” Tiresias Richardson said.

She and Big-Dicked Sheila were nearly immobile in pool chairs; attractive people rogered one another in the water before them. An Olympic-sized pool for Olympic-sized fucking. Shoals of dick slammed into great reefs of pussy. The diving board was used improperly, and so were buttholes. Titties flopped, slapped, burbled, celebrated, shimmied: oh, those polymathic Hollywood titties. A character actor was being pissed upon. The pool house–far larger than Sheila and Tiresias’ homes combined–was behind them. Couples assignated within, and their hoots and grunts and safe words spilled out, rushed by the two women, dove into the pool, drowned.

“I feel like we’re being wallflowers,” Sheila said.

“Sweetie, if you wanna fuck, then go fuck. I’ll find Precarious.”

“I totally don’t wanna fuck. I have literally never had good sex on acid.”

“I can’t even imagine fucking right now. Like…some guy…like…GLAAAAAH all over me? Oh, God, not now.”

“So find a girl. They’re softer.”

Tiresias reached over, took Sheila’s hand, squeezed.

“Not bisexual, Sheel.”

“Everyone is bisexual, Tirry.”

“I can’t have this argument with you again.”

Overhead, the stars were orbiting as predicted; around the pool, the stars spanked each other and did foot stuff. The entire cast and crew of The Murph Show was there, including the monkey. It was a Capuchin named Frank, and he was wearing a toddler-sized Afrika Corps uniform. Murph insisted; he was really into Rommel. Citronella torches burned in tasteful lamps to keep the chinchity bugs and beetles off of sweaty flesh; the aroma of chemical lemons fought for dominance with the odor of balls. Murph showed his dominance by plowing his showrunner. I HAVE NOTES, Murph bellowed as he plunged.

“What’s Murph got that I haven’t?”

“A hard-on and a monkey,” Sheila said.

“The show’s gonna be syncopated.”

Both sat in silence only interrupted by the orgy going on around them.

“Syndicated,” Tiresias corrected herself. Acid always loosened the relationship between her brain and mouth; where they were–on a day-to-day basis–best friends, under the influence of LSD, they were merely fond acquaintances.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Tremendous amount of money.”

“That’s the best amount of money there is.”

“What about ‘all?”

“But, you know, you couldn’t have all the money. Because it wouldn’t be worth anything. Because no one else would have any money and they couldn’t provide you with goods. Because it takes money to make money.”

More silence, orgy.

“AAAAHahaha! What the fuck did that mean?”

“I’m absolutely right, I just said it inside-out. Value is based in transaction.”

“Money is a verb.”

“We should be writing this shit down,” Sheila said, and began raccooning through her massive purse.

Murph stood athwart two lounge chairs. The actresses who played his daughters lapped at a ball apiece. He tried to piss on them, but his prostate was swollen. Murph demanded that the actor who played his best friend apply a forceful thumb to the gland. MASH THE BUTTON, he cried. A hesitant dribble issued from his dick, the urine’s arc not parabolic enough to reach either daughter. It was the middle of the night, so the moon was in charge, and the pool sparkled like a disco fractal–infinite mirrors spinning within mirrors-with an inflatable William Holden floating face-down, bobbing with inciting incidence. Murph had a laugh like sour meat.

Having forgotten why she dug into her bag, Sheila acted on muscle memory and pulled out her Camels and a lighter. Two from the pack, halfway to her mouth; there was a bird, maybe, or just her eyes getting giggly; she stared for a beat, two, three, four; turned to Tiresias, said,

“Yeah, okay.”

The cigarettes in her mouth, FFT PHWOO, and one to Tiresias.

“Guy’s a shmoo.”

“Which?”

“Murph,” Tiresias said, trying and failing to keep herself from pointing. “Goddamned shmoo.”

“Short Jew?”

“What?”

“I thought that’s what ‘shmoo’ meant,” Sheila said. “I’ve never heard you say that before.”

“Well, first of all: he’s not Jewish. And, second of all: I don’t call Jewish people ‘Jews.’ I mean, not in that tone of voice.”

“No, you’re like the fourth or fifth least-racist person I know. That’s why I was asking.”

“A shmoo. From the cartoon. Big white Blooby-blobby thing that bounced around. Dumb but unkillable. That guy is a shmoo.”

Sheila sat up, sort of, and squinted across the pool.

“Shmoo, yeah, okay.”

“Look at him, Sheel. Look at him.”

“I’m looking. It’s not great.”

“Objectively, I am better-looking than him.”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah. That’s not an opinion.”

“And I’m funnier.”

“Without writers,” Sheila said.

“That is a wonderful point to point out.”

“Point.”

“Stop it.”

“Point.”

The women collapsed back into the chaises, dragged their Camels PHWOO, and watched the sky above them wrestle itself. There was much zipping. The stars held hands, formed highways, rebuked one another. Brushstrokes were unignorable.

The deejay was spinning that Fungicore sound, with the occasional dip into Pagan House: it was music that was completely, utterly, 100% unlistenable if you weren’t on drugs. Was it even music, or just assembled frequencies? It sure did THROMP with purpose. Precarious Lee had not heard of Fungicore or Pagan House, so he had classified his current soundtrack as THROMP music. The blond was bopping his head along with the beat, strenuous as it was.

“You were in Brewster & McCloud.”

“That’s not the name of the movie. It’s just Brewster McCloud. You’re getting it mixed up with McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”

“You were Brewster.”

“Uh-uh.”

“You were McCloud.”

“Same person.”

Precarious supposed the blond fellow was an actor, and he was right. Tusk Cant had starred in several unaired pilots, five independent films, almost a dozen (national) commercials, and had an open invitation to the Scientology Celebrity Center on Franklin to “come down and hang out, real chill scene.”  His wrists were draped with bullshit–leather straps and red strings of yarn and a Rolex Submariner–and the flap of denim that covered the buttons of his fly had been sliced off. He was 34 and still referred to sexual acts by way of baseball analogy.

“You know how this guy made his money?”

“Which guy?”

Tusk gestured around.

“Guy who owns the house.”

“Buttermilk,” Precarious said.

“Yeah.”

“How?”

“Director’s chairs. Canvas and wood? Name printed on the back? Town goes through thousands and thousands a year, and he sells every one.”

Precarious looked around the ballroom. He was unaware that selling chairs could result in “house with a ballroom” money. Selling drugs or stocks, sure, but chairs?

“Huh.”

The cast of The Murph Show had been joined by the players from Pittsburgh Bomb Squad. The Top Dog, who was ex-military and loved his team, and the Main Hot Lady, who played it by the book, and the Secondary Hot Lady, who was the techie, and New Guy, who was the new guy. They ganged up on Wacky Neighbor, and Cantankerous Old Fucker. It was a crossover event for the ages. Murph had claimed Main Hot Lady, as was his right as an Executive Producer. She was bent over, and he behind her and thrusting, and a small but distinct bolus of vomit burped out of his mouth and spattered onto her back. There was no pause at all to the fucking.

“And they say romance is dead,” Sheila said, and Tiresias laughed AAAAHahaha! way too fucking loud; Murph searched around for the source of the laughter. The women cowered together, tried to suck their skulls into their chests, Sheila laid her purse over their heads.

“Don’t get his attention.”

“I don’t think he can see us,” Tiresias said. “We’re not famous.”

“If he comes over here, I’ll fuck him, but I’d rather he didn’t come over here.”

“Why would you fuck him?”

“An orgy is like a mosh pit: if you’re on the edge of it, then you’re in it.”

“Noooooo.”

Sheila popped an eye up, saw that Murph was no longer scanning the area, lowered the purse to her lap. Her left leg was out straight, and her right knee was up; now the other way; now the other way; now the other way. Her gestures were florid.

“Well, I could piss on him.”

“Go blow your nose on his balls.”

“I think that would play well over there,” Sheila said. “I’ll schnot all over his johnson.”

“AAAAHahaha!” and this time Murph did see them, but neither woman cared and they kept laughing. A rabbit, sizable and brown hopped behind their chairs. That morning, the animal had been in the north of France. Nibbled on some fescue WHAZZOOM now it was in a rich guy’s backyard in Los Angeles. The rabbit had no way to express what had happened. It had no way to understand what had happened. Stochastic teleportation was lost on rabbits.

Here is Frank now. You’ll recall the Capuchin. He has removed his khaki trousers but not the desert jacket. He is noticeably erect, and far faster than anyone–including a lagamorph recently become unstuck in time–would imagine. The rabbit lunges towards its left, but Frank has come under Sheila’s chaise. The only thing worse than a monkey with a boner is a monkey with a boner and the element of surprise. Frank drags the rabbit in between the two lounge chairs, hammers it right between the ears twice three four five times until its eyes go jagged, reaches around and grabs inside its mouth SNAP the lower jaw hangs dumb. Frank now gets to the fucking.

The women propped themselves on their sides, watched.

“I feel like we should stop this,” Tiresias said.

“Go ahead.”

“Hey! Monkey!” she stage-whispered.

“Be respectful. He’s got an Iron Cross. That monkey must be a war hero.”

(Frank did, indeed, have an Iron Cross on his chest. Murph insisted.)

Tiresias swatted at the air five or six feet from Frank and the rabbit. She would put her hand no closer, as she was not a complete idiot. Frank ignored both her entreaties and her pantomime. Frank kept fucking.

“Stop it. You’re better than this.”

“He’s clearly not, Tirry. Some monkeys are rapists.”

“I think all of them are.”

“No, that’s ducks.”

“Giraffes fuck way up high,” Tiresias answered.

“And they only got one position.”

“Giraffe-style.”

“People are lucky. We can fuck every which way.”

“It’s not lucky. I’d love it if, like, the human body could physically only do one sex position. It would take so much pressure off.”

Frank had the rabbit’s forepaws in his hands SNAP the limbs slop about; Frank is fucking hard tonight.

“Sheel, shoot him.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“This is why guns were invented. Shoot him. Or the rabbit. Put the poor thing out of its miserable.”

“Miserable.”

“Misery.”

“Tirry, sweetie, it’s a party. I’m not shooting a monkey.”

“Fire a warning shot.”

“Noooooo.”

“You fire warning shots all the fucking time. You did it twice last week.”

“Back home, sweetie, in Little Aleppo. We’re in a rich guy’s backyard in Los Angeles. And also we’re hiding from the police, remember? All the felonies we committed? And the cop I might have killed?”

“I don’t think he died.”

“But he might have.”

“His face hit the steering wheel pretty hard.”

“Right. So I’m gonna pass on the warning shot. What’s happening here–”

Frank fucked.

“–is gonna happen here.”

“You should be an action hero. You’re so good under pressure.”

Sheila started to reach out for Tiresias, but then thought better of it and snatched her hand back. Whatever hole Frank had chosen was beginning to expand, tear, fissure. The rabbit’s ass looked like an envelope opened by a toddler, the blood brown under the pool’s lighting.

“HEY,” Murph called from across the water. He was up to his balls in his own stand-in. “IS FRANK OVER THERE?”

The women both looked up. Tiresias gave a thumbs-up.

“HE FUCKING?”

Sheila added her thumb.

“THAT’S MY BOY!”

The rabbit had stopped moving. It experienced a miracle six hours previous, and now had been fucked to death by a monkey wearing half of an Afrika Corps uniform. Let that be a lesson to you.

“You never did any acting?”

“I was married twice.”

“Niiiice,” Tusk Cant said, and raised a hand for fiving. Precarious did, as he didn’t see the need to be rude yet. He had read somewhere that a gentleman is someone who is only rude on purpose, and he liked that. He was sure that the idiot with the expensive haircut he was talking to was an idiot, but he had nowhere else to be.

“I got a thing going. Pilot called Bletchley Park. About the code-breakers. I play Nigel Smythe-Yessington.”

“You break codes?

“I break hearts,” Tusk said. “And there’s, like, dramatic shit. I’m British and I fuck.”

“Cool,” Precarious said.

“This would be huge for me.”

“Yeah.”

“Second lead. Lots of comedy stuff, sex stuff. It’s the star role. I could break out from this. I mean, if the network’s behind it.”

“Network’s gotta be behind it.”

The ballroom was the tell. Wealthy is different than rich, and the ballroom is the tell. Rich folks have the same kind of houses as poor people, just moreso. Both got kitchens, the rich just got nicer; both got bedroom, the rich just got more. But only the wealthy got ballrooms and whatnot. Inspired sluttery amongst maximalist furniture; incommunicado drug deals under the eaves; O, those men in ascots and cock rings; the slapping like a captain’s table; Emilio Estevez fingering an Asian woman; good Christ, what’s occurring upon that pool table; get down , get real loose with it, disco dresses on all; some bastards like to fuck like the whole world’s watching. Hey, man, why do you think they call it a ballroom? Precarious took in the sights.

“You get it, man.”

“Sure, yeah.”

“What was your name again?”

“Archibald Leach,” Precarious spat into Tusk’s ear.

“Hey, Archie.”

“Hey, man.”

They clasped hands. Not “shook,” as this is for lessers. Thumbs back and manly. WHAMP the palms sturck. Chins thrusted.

“You get it, man. You really get it,” Tusk said.

“Thanks, bro.”

Precarious had been told that he “got it” on three continents and counting,, but he was clocking the window overlooking the backyard, overlooking the pool and the orgy that was going on, and the two women on chaise lounge chairs caught completely unaware by the large man with the crewcut and the broken nose standing above them. It was just like Precarious always said:  A good plan will work most of the time, but a terrible plan will work every time.

Memorial Day In Little Aleppo

Apparently, I got Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day mixed up. Forgive me my trespasses. This is from November of 2017, and I’ve always been fond of it. Republished here with a correct title.

An ex-roadie and a ghost cop were in a cemetery. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The day had barely taken hold and it was still foggy, but a very thin fog, the kind that does not obscure but makes the world blurry like an aging movie star filmed through a vaseline-coated lens. They had met at the Victory Diner before dawn. Ghosts don’t need to eat, but a short stack of pancakes is delicious even to the dead; ex-roadies do need to eat, but not pancakes. They sat in his stomach too heavy. Both had coffee, black. Tipped too much and walked out to the curb. 1961 Lincoln Continental in triple black: the paint, the leather, and the ragtop, which was down.

South on the Main Drag. Mile or two. Left turn onto Chambers Street. This is the Downside, and it is waking up. Sidewalks are shiny and slick. Men and women with their first names written in script on the breast pockets of their shirts walk to work. There are no joggers or children. Paperboys lean forward over their handlebars and toss the Cenotaph onto stoops and steps. Head east, head towards the Segovian Hills. The sun is behind the range, peaking through the steep canyon that separates Pulaski Peak from Mt. Charity. Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Faith, Mt. Fortitude, Mt. Chastity, Pulaski Peak, Mt. Charity, Mt. Booth. The seven hills, left to right if you’re standing on the Main Drag. Foothills now, and the land is lumpy and bumpy and undulating like it is gathering the courage to become a mountain. Turn south again onto Carrier Place. Park the Continental and get out. Only the driver’s side door opens and closes.

“Told you to stop floating out of the damn car,” Precarious Lee says.

“It’s easier.”

“Shitting in your pants is easier than finding the john, but that’s not the point.”

“Worry about yourself,” Officer Romeo Rodriguez says.

And they were in the cemetery.

Foole’s Yard was where Little Aleppo buried the decent. After the Wayside Fire in 1871, Miss Valentine was interred there under a white marble tombstone that had chubby little angels chiseled into it. Had her birthday on it, and the day she died, and a simple epitaph reading “Pillar of the Community.” The whores she owned were dumped into a mass grave in the southwest corner of the Verdance. The Pulaski were there, too, and so were the residents of the first Chinatown. Foole’s Yard had the Town Fathers, even the disgraced ones, and judges and businessmen and businessmen’s wives. Boat owners and sportswriters. Three generations of the McGlory clan. Dillon Kenny, Little Aleppo’s first Fire Chief, was in the far corner surrounded by his men, Dillon’s Dousers. Near the entrance was a fresh grave; the sod had not yet been laid in over it; bare dirt in a rectangle. The stone had Manfred Pierce’s name on it, and the epitaph was simple. “Hello, beautiful.” Below that it read “Seaman First Class – US Navy.”

Precarious had a grocery bag full of American flags, the size of 3 x 5 cards and made of thick, cheap cloth and affixed to a thin wooden dowel. He stuck one at the head of the grave. He had not been raised Catholic, so he did not cross himself, but he lowered his head and closed his eyes and then opened them and read the stone again and smirked. Manfred told the same jokes for 30 years, and one of them involved the phrase “first class seaman.”

“You know him?”

“Sure,” Precarious said. “Went by the Wayside every so often.”

Romeo cocked an eye and said,

“It was a gay bar.”

“I didn’t suck anybody’s cock while I was in there. I just had a beer.”

“Not my type of place.”

“Grow the fuck up.”

Precarious had his boots on. Thick leather, square-toed, mid-calf. Black. He had shined them the night prior the way he had been taught in the Army. The process involves spit, and a lighter, and more grease than an old man’s elbow should produce in one sitting; the joint throbbed now. Precarious had been wearing sneakers more and more lately, cushiony soles and supportive inseams. His knees chose his footwear in the mornings. No sneakers today, though. To the living, one owes respect, but to the dead, one owes a real pair of shoes.

He could see the boundaries of the graveyard. A fence, metal, spiked. Easily climbable by acid-soaked teens and raccoons scooted through the bars at will. The barrier between the living and the dead had holes in it, and it was simple to slide between the two.

Officer Romeo Rodriguez had a shopping bag the same as Precarious, and he read the gravestones. Beloved mothers, and cherished husbands. Babies. The Mackinack family, they all had the same date of death on their stones. There was a story there. He looked for the chiseled service records, stuck a flag in the soft ground. Romeo had been raised Catholic, so he crossed himself. He had not taken Communion since he’d been murdered, and he felt guilty about it; he had been raised Catholic.

Where are you fuckers? I came back, he thought. Where are all of you?

Flag for the sergeant, the petty officer, flag for the WACs and WAVEs. Flag for the Marines, hoorah the Corps, and Romeo planted them for the other, lesser, services. The fog had lifted, but he was still slightly blurry. He had not shined his boots because they would not take a shine. Tactical footwear. Mesh and formulated fabric and laces and gel in the soles. Not a drop of leather.

“Precarious?”

“Yo.”

“What’s a Hello Girl?”

“Oh, yeah. Louise Breton.”

“Yeah.”

Precarious had walked over to Romeo and now they stood at Louise Breton’s grave. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. 1897-1989. Hello Girl.

“World War I. We got in it in 1917, right?”

“Right.”

Romeo said “right” because he was good at reading vocal inflections, not because of his grasp of history. He knew that World War I came before World War II, but that was about it.

“Pershing. Blackjack Pershing. He said that wars were won by the side that communicated the best. At the time, France had their own way of running a telephone system. French got their own way of doing fucking everything. So he hires a bunch of girls to be switchboard operators. Connects the trenches to command.”

“Never heard about them.”

“Yeah. They were called the Hello Girls. Wore uniforms, got medals, and when the war ended, they got stiffed out of their benefits.”

“Welcome to the military.”

“Yup.”

Precarious took the north side of the graveyard and Romeo took the south; they’d meet in the middle, squabble, separate. Crosses, stars, crescents. Caduceus for a doctor named Proctor, Thalia and Melpomene for an actor named Shachter. Teachers and preachers and middlemen.

“Precarious?”

“Yo.”

“C’mere.”

He did. Romeo was standing in front of a tombstone that read “Otto Dasch – Nazi Spy, Beloved Father and Husband.”

“What the fuck?”

“Otto. Yeah. Funny story: Otto was a Nazi spy.”

“I got that. What the fuck?”

“Well, this was before my time, but I heard the story.”

“Who’d you hear it from?”

“You know Holly, Wood, and Vine? The lawyers? Holly told me.”

“Lawrence Holly? You knew him?”

The law school at Harper College was named after Lawrence Holly, and so was a mud wrestling club far on the Downside.

“Sure I knew him.”

“Why?”

Cop habits die hard, even after the cop is dead.

“He was my lawyer,” Precarious said.

“Why’d you need a lawyer?”

“I claim attorney-client privilege. And stop asking so many questions. I thought you wanted a story.”

“Now I don’t know which story I want to hear.”

Precarious reached under his black vest to the breast pocket of his shirt and took out a soft pack of Camels. He had worn his vest because it was a formal occasion. He had a suit and tie for funerals, but that was for people who had died. These people, Precarious figured, had not died. These fuckers were dead. They got the vest. He popped a smoke out of the pack by twitching his wrist and pulled it from the pack with his lips. Replaced the pack in the pocket. Zippo from the change pocket that lay within the right hip pocket of his Levi’s.

FFT.

PHWOO.

And the lighter slid back into his jeans.

“This was ’42? ’43? Before D-Day. Germans are pulling all sorts of bullshit. I suppose we were, too, but fuck ’em. There’s submarines off Long Island and all kinds of saboteur nonsense. Undercover agents. Real fifth column type stuff.”

“Sure.”

Romeo had no idea what a fifth column was.

“And Otto here? He got sent to Little Aleppo.”

“Why the fuck would you send a spy here?”

“Well, you know, the Nazis were a lot dumber than we make ’em out to be. They did lose the war.”

“Yup.”

“And according to the story I heard, Otto might have gotten lost or confused, See, he was the worst Nazi spy in the world. You know how con-men don’t do too well in Little Aleppo?”

“They do seem to get caught quick.”

“Yeah. And being a spy is just like being a con-man. And Otto was just awful at it. Thick accent. Shit, he even had the little mustache. Plus, he’d get drunk and straight-up admit to being a Nazi spy. Brag about it.”

Romeo turned to face Precarious and said,

“Why didn’t anyone turn him in?”

“Well, think about it. If they got rid of the terrible spy, then the Nazis might send one that knew what he was doing. Then you got all sorts of insecurity. Every new person that comes into the neighborhood, you start wondering if they’re a spy. Better to have a spy you could keep your eye on.”

“That makes no sense.”

“In addition to being a bad spy, Otto was also a bad Nazi. He took to America hard. Grew up on Hollywood and now here he was in California. Decided he wasn’t going back his first week here.”

“But he was still a spy,” Romeo said.

“Yeah, but more of an unofficial double-agent. Him and his buddies down at the Buntz Bierhaus would come up with outlandish stories to send back to Berlin. They’d try to figure out what would cause the most confusion. Told ’em we were training chimpanzees to jump out of planes. Gonna shoot ’em full of tuberculosis and drop ’em into city centers with open wounds and rifles. That story got all the way up to Himmler. There’s memos and everything. It’s fucking history.”

Romeo smiled.

“That’s kinda funny.”

“Funny as fuck. By ’44, the Cenotaph was running polls about what the next bullshit he should send back would be. Otto became a bit of a local celebrity.”

“This fucking neighborhood.”

“Hey, who else had a honest-to-goodness Nazi spy? He made everyone feel a part of the war. Until he showed up, it was mostly profiteering and draft dodging.”

“There was no draft dodging in World War II.”

“There was in Little Aleppo.”

Precarious took one last drag off his cigarette PHWOO; he raised his left foot up to his right knee and brushed out the cherry on his heel. Crumpled the remainder into a little ball and shoved it in his back pocket.

“And after the war?”

“Otto settled in. Opened a shoe store. Collected butterflies. Married a black chick.”

“Black chick?”

“I told you: he was a bad Nazi.”

Romeo didn’t put a flag down for Otto Dasch, but Precarious did. The sun was higher in the sky now and from around the cemetery came work sounds. Crunching transmissions and the beepbeepbeep of reversing trucks and garment racks rolling along the sidewalk. In the southeast corner of Foole’s Yard, a gravedigger did just that with a Bobcat, The mechanized shovel pulled dirt from the ground with ease; the earth had no hold of its soil and it slipped away with no argument or protest, just the thrum of the diesel engine in the back of the ‘cat.

There is always a need for a fresh grave.

Marine and Soldier and Sailor and Airman and one or two Coasties. You get a flag, and you get a flag, and you get a flag. The Barkwith brothers, who fought for the Confederacy, got flags. Precarious smirked as he stuck Old Glory at their feet. Korea and Vietnam. Various Middle Eastern locales. Hiram Creech was a Rough Rider. Veracruz and Nicaragua and Manila. Hawaii and Honduras. Cuba and China and Cambodia. You name it.

“Precarious.”

“Yo.”

“What does this mean?”

Precarious walked over to Romeo and read the tombstone of a man named Guy LeFaun. 1918-1944. It read Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

“It is sweet and proper to die for your country.”

The only noise in the cemetery was the Bobcat.

“I don’t know about that,” Romeo said.

“Yeah. Me, neither.”

They were out of flags and out of graves, so the ex-roadie and the ghost cop walked out of Foole’s Yard and back to the 1961 Lincoln Continental, triple black with suicide doors, and Precarious Lee glided the car away from the curb nice and smooth and none of the dead cared at all about Veteran’s Day in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Bar Hopping In Little Aleppo

For many semesters, a debate has been ongoing at Harper College about humanity and its priorities. The first structure we erected was a house–this is self-evident– but what was the second? The History Department backs what is called the Church Hypothesis. Worship comes first with homo sapiens: twas ever thus, the Historians say. (Historians are prone to using phrases like Twas ever thus, which is why they get invited to so few parties.) The Sociologists, who did get invited to shindigs, preferred the Tavern Theory. History is something that happened while people were drinking, the Sociologists often said. The Archaeology Department claimed to know the definitive answer, then tried to barter the information for more shovels and khaki shorts; they were ignored. The Chemists asked if anyone had considered dissolving the problem in acid; they were similarly ignored, but more politely. (Everyone on campus was a bit scared of the Chemistry Department, possibly because the Chemistry Department liked that everyone was a bit scared of them, and so every few years would “accidentally” aerosolize herpes or something.) Little Aleppians ignore academic quarrels until they turn into court cases or riots, and did so here.

The neighborhood had the answer. Bar. Bar won, bar none. Bar was first, second, third, fifth, and sixth, and fourth was not a church, but a hardware store. Little Aleppians got around to God, but they needed a drink first.

There was the Wayside Inn, which was almost verging on classy (except for the sexual slavery). Right down the Main Drag was Shakespeare Phil’s place, which catered to your more degenerated of gamblers and so eschewed whores as distractions; and the Clay Pigeon, where the owner had rigged up a contraption to chill beer–Our Beer Is Cold As Dick! was what the sign out front read–that exploded regularly; and Dale’s Room, where even locals with the temerity not to be white were allowed to drink; and a small but sturdy saloon in Chinatown whose name nobody wrote down before it was torched in a race riot.

La Salon Intempertioux opened in 1885, when far fewer people spoke French; the carpets were from Paris (Texas) and the bartender had a rambunctious mustache. Can-can dancers could, and did. Verna’s opened the same year, and had a dirt floor which patrons would leave their effluences upon. The Büntz brewery had a biergarten attached (as did the high school for a few years in the 1970’s, but that’s a whole different story), and the Parker Bar had a rooftop lounge, which was open for well over an hour before customers started pissing onto pedestrians below. Spooling Antwerp’s was good for a fight, but you might get your hair stolen. The Fantic, which was on Fantic, served tequila and the bartenders spoke Spanish; it was a swell night out except for when the cops would come by and beat people up. Nobody in the neighborhood felt bad in the slightest for drinkers slipped a Mickey Finn at the Choral Hydration.

In 1900, you had the Hotel Bar at the Norwegian. Big-time writers and big-game hunters drank there, and diplomats with briefcases cuffed to their wrists, and men who said they were “businessmen” and left it at that. The lion tamer, when the circus was in town. Women who knew many horses. Actors, but only the right kind, and not too Jewish. Giorgio was at the bar: he was known locally as Gorgeous George, and not ironically. He was black-haired and blue-eyed, which is a combination that short-circuits onlookers’ brains, and tall, and he had an Italian accent that other Italians would have pegged as hickish, but Little Aleppians thought was the height of sophistication. Giorgio went by only his first name because the Norwegian’s owner, Duke Dorleans, was a man of propriety and custom, and so the bartender was called by his first name, the chef went by “Chef,” and everyone else was “Boy.”

Kellerhaus opened in 1902, in the basement of a workshop on the Downside that produced counterfeit glue. The adhesive was less adulterated than the whiskey; no one came to the Kellerhaus for the drinks. They came for the pit. They came for the rats. They came to see King. 100 in six minutes was his best. All present noted the lack of blood on King’s muzzle, and agreed it was the sign of a true athlete. The dog was awarded a beefsteak for his efforts, and the rats were burned in a ditch out back. The crowd was the same as the Norwegian, mostly.

Corner bars. Lukie’s and Smitty’s and the Tuscaloosa. Nickel beers and pickled eggs, and a place to put your foot up; Americans have always demanded the ability. Juke Joints. Spartan’s and Big Lou’s Opry. Piano and a drummer. Sweaty-type places with tin roofs.

Prohibition began in 1920, the same day that the Irving Club started pouring. First nightclub in the neighborhood. Shows nightly, and then the tables would disappear from the dance floor and the Irving Orchestra would play hot jazz for the tipsy-doodles to flap about to. It was the kind of place they wrote about in gossip columns; hell, it was the kind of place in which gossip columns were written: a waiter would bring the telephone to Darcine Fast’s table, and she would get the Cenotaph on the line, dictate her copy. Popper Girls came by the tables, so-called because their cameras had flashbulbs the size of basketballs that went POPzhweeeeee when they would snap you and your wife. (The first skill a Popper Girl needed to learn was how to work the camera, but how to spot a man who was with a woman he’d rather not be photographed next to was a close second.) Around the corner, in a rented corner of a basement, was a makeshift dark room; the girls would, at the end of a roll of film, dash from the club to the darkroom and cook up glossy black-and-white portraits, then dash back to the club and sell them for two dollars a print.

The Irving was owned by Billy McGlory. Every place that served alcohol in Little Aleppo was owned by Billy McGlory, although “owned” is not the precise term. Perhaps something like “possessed a controlling interest” is better, as his name rarely appeared in any paperwork. He was an egalitarian publican; no matter how much money you had in your pocket, Billy had a drink that was exactly that price. Whiskey and tequila that came in via the Salt Wharf for the rich folks, and leppy for the poor. (Leppy was a distilled liquor that got its name because–as the saying went–“the only thing y’know for sure is that it’s made in Little Aleppo.” Was it made from corn? Wheat? Potatoes? A guy named Lou? This information was unknowable, as was how any given bottle would taste or the effects it would have. There was the occasional death, or blinding. But you could buy a pint for a dime, so: leppy.)

Little Aleppo: Everything We Can Prove notes the dearth of records directly concerning drinking establishments during the Prohibition, but makes a sturdy case via newspaper reports, diary entries, correspondence, and various other sources that the number of bars remained consistent throughout the Volstead Act’s enforcement. The cops weren’t a problem, unless you didn’t pay them. The feds would pull their dicks out every month or so and raid a place, but Billy would always get word and send his guys over to replace the actual stock with bottles full of water. The next day, he’d sell the booze back to the bar owner. It wasn’t the kind of business you kept detailed records about.

The raids stopped after the 21st Amendment passed in ’33, but that was about it. Right after ratification, a few guys told Billy that they would be buying their alcohol from another purveyor. No hard feelings and all, Billy. It’s business. Billy smiled, and shook their hands, and that evening decided which of the group annoyed him the most, and then had his brother Liam kill the guy that very night. No hard feelings. It is in that fashion that Billy McGlory shifted careers from bootlegger to wholesaler.

The Depression hit Little Aleppo in a way that was both fair and not: everybody lost some money, but some money was all the poor people had in the first place. There was talk in the barrooms of Communism, though the bartenders remained stalwart believers in (and enforcers of) Capitalism, and several putsches took place at the Büntz bierhaus, but none of them had historical repercussions. The Irving Club changed its name to the Menefreghista when the man known locally as The Friend became the new non-owner, and when the war started, two choice tables would be occupied every show by uniformed men and their dates. The Friend picked up the tab, and even supplied the dates. Always good for business to be patriotic, he thought.

The Friend also had a stake in the USO Bar during the war, and much preferred that the servicemen stayed there. They didn’t have any money, first of all, and were constantly fighting or breaking into musical numbers. (The USO Bar was not legally–or in any way, really–connected to the United Service Organization, which did not serve alcohol. The Friend thought that was downright un-American. The boys are defending our country; least you could do is offer ’em a drink, so he opened up a new joint right next to the actual USO hall, named it the USO Bar, charged the boys a dime for a cold beer, and then ignored all the letters from the military’s lawyers.

There were experimental places all through the years. Candle’s was children’s birthday-themed, and each drink came gift-wrapped; a sudden spike in ribbon prices drove them to bankruptcy, along with the fact that no one would ever return for a second visit. Sunsplash On Your Goolies was not helping itself with the name, and no one enjoyed the glass-walled toilets. (This is inaccurate: almost no one enjoyed the glass-walled toilets. A small number of people enjoyed them far too enthusiastically.) Fausto’s Den was billed as for swingers, but what that meant was that Fausto would take his pants off when he got liquored up, which happened at around 7 pm. He had a long, skinny dick that he would helicopter around and slap on the back of patrons’ necks; nobody like it, not even folks who were into that sort of thing. Some nights, he’d jack it in one of the booths. Sweet Ellen’s Banjo Fancy was a beer-and-a-shot-and-a-dozen-banjo-players kind of place, and the business’ demise is the single instance in all American case law to feature the phrase “mercy arson.”

The Hula Hula Lounge on Belly Street did better. Still there to this day. On Belly Street, which is just far enough into the Downside to make rich folks feel like they were having an adventure, but not so deep that they would actually get into one. The world’s only ukebox–a Wurlitzer filled with Don Ho singles–and the sign outside advertised the scorpionest bowls in the neighborhood. No one had any clue what the fuck that meant, but all who sampled the communal cocktail were forced to agree that, yes, the bowl was very scorpiony. Similarly featured were the waiters, who were described on a permanent display as being Fresh From Samoa! (Leading observant patrons to marvel at how much Samoan accents sound like Mexican guys saying “brah” a lot.) Guy named Archie Canton owned it. Sat by the door and greeted his guests–Hello, thank you for your hula energy. Hello–and sometimes fell off the stool. Didn’t matter: the bar had become a pilgrimage, twice over. Crime nerds come by to sit at the table where Boss Tummy got it between the eyes, and rock nerds come by to see the bar The Snug sang about in their song Freaky Tiki, which almost made it onto the charts in ’76.

The Pampered Moose is still around, too, and just as unkillable, but not by cultural milestone: the Moose is directly next door to Harper College. It was a segregated facility: undergrads trying to get laid on the ground floor, and faculty (also trying to get laid) on the second. (Grad students were, by tradition, allowed upstairs upon invitation. The professors had–consistently and relentlessly–always abused this tradition by allowing and banishing grad students for petty reasons, political reasons, and no reason at all. By the end of most nights, post-docs and master’s candidates would be crashing into one another on the stairs.) Moose heads jank out of the walls, real ones, massive. Candy shot ’em and Spud stuffed ’em. She was a hunter and he was a taxidermist. Candy and Spud owned the place; they had a good thing going.

(There are, as you might expect from members of an institution that introduced the concept of “Surprise Bolshevism” into the discourse, occasional rousing discussions about the morality of the moose heads. The Philosophy Department has accused everyone of speciesism; the English Department has demanded Philosophy stop using that word. Queer Studies had almost publicly denounced the trophies several times over the years; the lesbians were all for it, but the gay guys loved the moose and sabotaged each attempt. The Chemistry Department noted that the moose were not perfectly aligned, and they were fixed immediately.)

No students to argue about the armadillos on the walls of the Armadillo Room, and also there were no armadillos on the walls. Folks got fucked up in the Armadillo Room. Could be that another patron would do it to you all of a sudden, or maybe you and the bartender would collaborate on it all night, but you were getting fucked up in the Armadillo Room.

Everyone in Little Aleppo had been there once. Maybe twice. Any more than that was suspect. It was where disgraced teachers hung out. Failed actors. Stuttering con artists. Men who sold fictitious real estate; women missing fingers. Child actors now grown, with faces warped yet familiar. The lowest-level criminals you can imagine. Lower than that. Lower. Guys who tackled supermarket cashiers, that sort of thing, the worst kind of miscreant. The Armadillo was a mean drunk.

It was also directly across the street from police headquarters, and so the denizens of the Armadillo would brawl with the LAPD (No, Not That One) semi-annually. Sometimes the cops would start it; they’d saunter in three and four across, and the biggest one would cuss out the bartender around until some drunk dope threw a punch; the rest of the force would come rushing in through all doors at that point. Other years, the patrons would walk across the street, knock on the cops’ door, and say, “Wanna fight?” And usually–just to make sure that the answer is “yes”–somebody would coldcock the officer who answered the door.

It was tough to find a bar in Little Aleppo without a coke dealer, but the Armadillo Room was the only place in the neighborhood with a PCP dealer. Dedicated PCP guy, too. Not “I can make a call.” Had it on him.

God protects fools and drunks, we’re told, and the Armadillo Room was full of foolish drunks and drunken fools and they belched out their treason and plans; this sort of thing seeps into the masonry. Buildings become infected. Rooms redouble upon themselves. And thus the walls did become strong and the loads become bearable, and so in the Quake of 8- received nary a scratch.

You know about the Wayside Inn. The second one, the one without the slavery. (There were many patrons over the years who enjoyed role-playing at a master-slave relationship, but it wasn’t the same.) Manfred Pierce opened up in ’64. Journalists and historians would write articles about him after the fire. Little Aleppo: Everything We Can Prove called him a “radical capitalist.” Manfred would’ve liked that.

And you know about the Morning Tavern. Opens at dawn, closes at nightfall. For the real special drinkers. Bartender had inky-black hair and inked-up arms, She was in a tank top that had a duck on it; it was giving the middle finger, and fraying letters underneath read DUCK YOU.

“At first, we’re in caves. Or just huddling under a tree like an asshole.”

“Yeah, okay,” she said.

The bar was sparse, and the young man was clean-cut. He looked over-educated. No socks.

“Birds and beavers and bees figured out how to build themselves houses, but humans are primates and none of our cousins have managed it. It was a paradigmatic type of idea.”

“Gorillas just sit there in the rain and look miserable,” the bartender said. “I saw it on a documentary. It was a little pathetic.”

“I mean, they pile some leaves on top of each other, but that’s not what we’re talking about. A structure. A permanent, enclosed, space. You gotta manipulate the shit out of your environment to produce such a thing. This isn’t digging a burrow or wriggling into a found shell. Building requires second and third-level thinking. It was where we zagged when the rest of the animal kingdom zigged,”

“Our original sin.”

“Nah. We were fucked since we learned to stand.”

He was drinking Braddock’s. She took his empty glass, brought another, filled it. He raised it to her, smiled, sipped.

“The first building was used for shelter. Shit used to eat us. Remember that: shit used to eat us. And, you know, no one wants to get rained on, so the first one was for shelter. The first ones for were sleeping in. Has to be.”

“Has to be,” the bartender half-agreed.

“But what was the second? What was the first communal structure? The first gathering place? It was either a church or a bar. There’s not too many other options, are they? Wasn’t gonna be a Dairy Queen. Church or a bar. Which came first?”

“You got a cigarette?”

“I quit.”

“Me, too, but I want one.”

“Church or bar?”

“Or. Or, or, or. You clever kids and your taxonomies.”

The bartender walked away from the man, down the el-shaped bar towards a regular who could be counted on for a smoke. No matter how much money you had in your pocket, there was a drink for that price in the Morning Tavern, which is just another bar in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Nice Place To Visit, But You Wouldn’t Want To Live In Little Aleppo

Squid and humans have the same eyeballs, just about, and koalas and humans both got fingerprints. There’s a prehensility to all sorts of creatures’ tails. A scientist could swap out a woodpecker’s tongue for an anteater’s, though that might be illegal or against laboratory rules. Dolphins and bats! Sonar, the both of ’em, even though they’ve nothing else in common except the inability to do jumping jacks. This is called convergent evolution. Cultures display convergent evolution, too. Bushido and chivalry are the same bullshit, and folks on every continent figured out independently how to let fruit rot just enough to turn it into booze.

And then there is the problem of corpses. The ancients of the Canary Islands, the Egyptians, and the Aztecs all came up with the same mummification techniques; the primitives of Europe, Australia, the Levant had easily-turned earth, and so they invented burials; the first inhabitants of the Aegean Sea and the Carpathian Mountains liked to play with matches. In what is now Iran and what is Tibet, the living let the vultures take care of the dead.

So, too, in the valley between the ocean and the hills that would one day be called Little Aleppo.

“That’s me.”

“No. That’s your body.”

“I live in my body,” Cannot Swim said.

The eyeballs, so like a squid’s, were already gone, along with most of the softer bits of the face, and the neck was a mess. Belly. Genitals. Vultures go for the soft meat first.

“You don’t want to be in there right now,” Here And There said.

Cannot Swim was a Pulaski, as was she, and so did not have a detailed view of the afterlife. Had he been Christian, he would have expected clouds and sainted doormen, or perhaps flames and torment. Your everyday Ancient Greek would be looking for a guy with a boat. The Pulaski were vaguer. One has a spirit, an essence, an inhabitant, and when one dies, it becomes part of the natural world. They did not care to flesh out the idea more than that, and children who questioned the concept would be told the story of Snakes Flee From Him.

One day, the adults would say, two young men were arguing. The first claimed that, when we die, our spirits are reborn into animals. No, no, no, the second said. When we die, we become one of the trees in the woods.

And though the two young men were good friends, they could not agree and quickly became cross with one another. Their arguments ruined the peace of the village. The elders could not sleep, and the men and women could not work, and the children could not play. Finally, the other Pulaski made the two young men go see Snakes Flee From Him, whom everyone knew was the wisest of them all.

So they did.

Each young man made his case, and Snakes Flee From Him listened carefully. When they finished, he was silent for a long moment, and then drew his knife.

I do not know which of you is right, Snakes Flee From Him said. Only the dead know.

He lay the knife in front of the two young men.

The first young man did not pick it up, and neither did the second young man.

So, Snakes Flee From Him said, I see that you are not as interested in the answer to your question as it seemed. One day, you will find out. We all will. Until then, cut the shit. Catch a fish, write a song. Make yourselves useful.

The tribe excarnated the dead–technically, the vultures did the excarnating–upon a sacred rock a third of the way up the highest of the seven hills that cleaved their home from America. When the prayers were said and the songs finished, the name of the dead was never spoken. The spirit returns to nature, and receives a new name from The Bear Who Is Always Pregnant. To call the dead by their former names would be an insult, and The Bear had told no living soul, so better to not say anything. The Pulaski tried their hardest not to insult nature; there were still monsters in the forest in those times.

So Cannot Swim was in uncharted territory, theologically speaking.

“Am I dead?”

“Apparently not entirely,” Here And There said.

“I feel strange.”

“I would imagine.”

“Does this happen a lot?”

“More than you’d imagine, less than you’d hope for.”

The two were standing–hovering lowishly is more correct–on a smallish plateau that contained a sacred rock about a third of the way up the highest of the seven hills. The condors had arrived, shoved the vultures from the meal. This was 18– and so California was greasy with condors, nine feet across and stinking like only an animal with no sense of smell could. The wind shifted and blew the stench towards the two Pulaski.

“Holy fuck,” Cannot Swim said, recoiled.

“They’re a whiffy bird.”

“This is what death smells like.”

“No, condors shit on their legs to keep ’em cool. This is what condor shit smells like.”

“Oh.”

Neither was see-through, but both were far more translucent than humans usually are.

“I am dead.”

“For a certain definition of the word, sure.”

“I was shot by the White.”

“Right in the face.”

“And that killed me.”

“It didn’t help,” Here And There shrugged. “Let’s say that getting shot in the face was not beneficial to you. That’s a fair statement.”

“You are not helping, either.”

“Cousin, I’ve never helped you.”

Here And There was Cannot Swim’s cousin, but only because there weren’t that many Pulaski; technically, everybody was everybody’s cousin. She had been an only child (this was common to shamans), and her parents had both died when she was young (this was common to shamans’ parents), and the members of the tribe old enough to remember which clan she was from didn’t like talking about her, because sometimes when you talked about her, she just appeared.

“Could you start?”

“Anything could happen.”

Anything could be provided at the Norwegian Hotel. In fact, it had been provided while you weren’t looking, and just the way you liked it, too. Without anything as uncouth as asking. Guests’ preferences were noted, recorded, respected. There were elevators, and not like the other two elevators in Little Aleppo, which were fake and would trap people inside to be beaten and robbed. Real elevators with real elevator operators: two per cab. It was in no way a two-man job, but that was the meaning of luxury. There was no room service at the Norwegian: it was guest service. We are, the hotel said, merely the background for your life. You are the star here. We are scenery; we exist so that you may live.

There were two telephones in the lobby, one at the desk and another in a private sanctum (filigreed, oak, custom) with a clever sliding door available to all guests; the hotel’s operator would get the local operator on the line, and they’d dial out together, and soon thereafter report on your calls to various interested parties.

Electric light. Not the first in the neighborhood when the hotel (re)opened in 1901, but the brightest. The glow blasted from too many windows. That is what the builders told Duke Dorleans during (re)construction.

“This is bishwah,” Duke told them. “Without windows, a soul cripples itself. They are integral.”

One cannot overstate how gloomy the past was, even during the day, and so Monsieur Dorleans knew that he had to (re)build the Norwegian Hotel to be light and airy in the day and . And thus: the windows and the electric lights.

The carpet was plush enough to have political opinions, but elegant enough to keep them to itself. There was more ivory than the waiting room of an elephant dentist. The glass that was supposed to be stained was stained miraculously; the glass that was not supposed to be stained was immaculately clean. The long, low desk in the lobby was made from thustled oak, which only grew in one North Carolina wood, and did so sporadically. The naked ladies in the art had the classiest titties anyone in Little Aleppo had ever laid eyes upon. None of it was the star.

Bathrooms. Each suite had its own private, indoor bathrooms with running hot and cold water, all hygienic-white with gleaming, unchipped porcelain; where the suites were overstuffed and soft and cozy, the bathrooms were stark and pure. They were clean. It was 1900, and this was madness. 92 bathrooms? My God, were there even 92 bathrooms in the entire neighborhood? Local pastors drew analogies between Dorleans’ hotel and the Flight of Icarus. At least one Town Father declared it was Communism, but, it being 1900 and all, no one knew what the hell he was talking about. Many believed it to be faluting of a high nature. Some of the wealthy on the Upside had installed water closets, but everybody else did as humans had been doing for thousands of years, which was pissing out windows and shitting in holes in the backyards.

There was to be no yard-shitting in the Norwegian Hotel, not once Duke Dorleans (re)built it.

The original owner’s name is unknown, but his place of origin is to be assumed; the first Norwegian opened in 18– as a tent with canvas-partitioned rooms and cots with rotten mattresses. It burned down immediately, killing three, one of whom was the very first mime to ever visit the neighborhood. Within days, construction had begun on a simple plank-and-beam structure, two stories, with a dining room and a kitchen. You could have your meals brought to your room, but you still had to shit in the backyard. Whitey Tonch ran the place; it would have been segregated had Little Aleppo been large enough. Burned down again in the Wayside Fire of 1871. Once more during reconstruction in 1872. Small fire in 1889, nothing too scary. The one in 1899 took half the block and twenty people, including most of the bucket brigade.

So it was 1900 and the Norwegian Hotel was (re)built again, with private bathrooms. Brick and iron this time, and the floorboards treated to make them incapable of sustaining flames, and the walls and crawlspaces stuffed with asbestos.

“The fuckers try burning my hotel, they get burned. I BURN THE FUCKERS!”

That was Duke Dorleans. He said it to a foreman who suggested a wood roof instead of the demanded tin with asphalt shingles. He was from Europe, that much was certain. He spoke French with a German accent, English with a French accent, and Spanish with a Portuguese accent. His suits were from London, his shoes were from Rome, and his haircut had been the inspiration for several cocktails and a light opera. No one knew whether “Duke” was his name or title: his guests never asked as it seemed rude, and his staff never asked because he was liable to start yelling about burning fuckers if you got him worked up.

There was also the dining room to attend to. Prior to the (re)build, tables were jammed together and food was served buffet-style. A local simpleton named Fuckface Archie did the cooking; Whitey didn’t buy the choicest cuts of meat, so Fuckface Archie made chili most of the time, and diners sat around farting their asses off. In their defense, it was the 19th century and there was very little to do. This was not what Duke Dorleans wanted for his hotel. Glamour. He would have glamour. There would be sexy and secretive assignations. Maybe a band in the corner. It was to be the first restaurant in Little Aleppo with tablecloths. Respectable women could enter by themselves, but prostitutes required escorts. (If you let unaccompanied hookers in, they start hooking.) And because Duke Dorleans had Monsieur Tarare, he would have the finest food in Little Aleppo.

(This was, in 1900, an eminently achievable goal. Besides eating at home, which was what most did, there were few options and certainly nothing for a gourmand. There was Yung Man’s, of course, but that was Chinese food and so therefore did not count in any rankings. The Chophouse, near the newly-built Valentine Courthouse, served chops. They would be no more specific. Customers would indicate with their hands how much meat they wanted, and then the meat would arrive at the table. Cigars were enjoyed concurrently. A fellow once asked for some creamed spinach; he was beaten.  Women were not permitted in the Chophouse; women were completely fine with that. Over by the harbor, unnamed fish fries occupied rickety shacks and served various perches and smelts, all of which tasted like shit with bones in it. It was best to eat at home.)

“Looks just like a deer.”

“We’re all the same guts on the inside,” Here And There said.

Cannot Swim’s body was opened up, raggedly, and the condors shoved their heads into his belly; one of the birds had a rib in its beak and worried it back and forth. It made a sound like wet wood breaking.

“This is upsetting me. Why am I watching this?”

“Not many get to view their own funeral, cousin. You’re lucky.”

Cannot Swim (all the parts of him that were not his body and standing/hovering about a dozen feet from the sacred rock) turned to the short woman (who was also sort of hovering) and waved an aghast arm towards the scavengers’ feast.

“How is this lucky!?”

Here And There said nothing. A vulture hopped over to them. Pecked Cannot Swim on the calf, hard. Hopped back to the rock. Here And There said,

“Don’t yell at me.”

“I’m sorry. I’m watching vultures eat my dick. I’m a bit overwhelmed.”

“You’re having a lot of new experiences today. First time talking to a White.”

“No. I spoke with one once. When I accompanied Talks To Whites on his last visit.”

“How did it go?”

“Poorly.”

It was not his fault. The Pulaski had avoided most contact with the Whites. They had let that raggedy little preacher idiot stay with them, but he had learned precisely none of the Pulaski language in his time with the tribe, so he was treated more like a pet than a person. As for goods, the Pulaski did not trade with the Whites for anything except guns and ammo, Also, knives. These objects were the only machined metal Cannot Swim had ever seen in his life. The Pulaski did not mine, nor did they smith, and so had no finished steel; this meant no axes to fell trees, nor saws to plank the wood, so he had also never seen a framed house before. He had never smelled tobacco. He had no concept of glass. It was unfair of his cousin to shove him right onto the thoroughfare of the settlement they were calling C—– City.

“I would not doubt it,” Here And There said. When she smiled, her eyes disappeared behind her freckles. They spread from her nose like bat wings. She was the only Pulaski with freckles. “What happened?”

“Their village is stressful. I didn’t know what anything was called. Like, I didn’t recognize anything. And the sunlight was strange. It bounced all over.”

“Like off the lake?”

“Yes. Just like that. But from everywhere. And the hats.”

“You have mentioned the hats.”

“Some made sense. Some had large brims that provided shade. They were like the hoods we wear when working the crops. I understood those hats. But most of ’em were useless. A lot of their clothes looked useless, honestly. They wore tunics over their tunics. Talks To Whites told me the words, but I forgot.”

“Maybe they were cold.”

“It was a warm day. My cousin brought me into the building where he buys the rifles and ammo.”

“Also, knives.”

“The room gleamed at me. I could hear mountains running in fear. What could make a mountain flee? I did not know. I could barely keep breathing. My lungs were full of tree sap. There was a man on the wall of the store, and he was watching me.”

Here And There was barefoot, but left no prints in the grass. She looked up at Cannot Swim. He looked over at the birds, the rock, his corpse.

“The man was leaning against the wall?”

“No. He was hanging there. He was carved from wood. He was not a real man, but I felt a presence coming from him.”

“Then perhaps he was real. The Whites have magick of their own, just as we do.”

“Do you think they would keep their magick in a gun store?”

“I have no idea what those people are capable of,” Here And There said.

“The man who was in charge refused to sell the guns to Talks To Whites unless I was…I forgot the word. He’s taught it to me a hundred times, but I forget. He poured water on my head while yelling some stuff.”

“Why?”

“Because the man on the wall loved me.”

They were both wearing their tunics, which came down to right below the knee, and Here And There had her satchel, which she reached into and pulled a handful of leaves from the peregrina maria tree. Shared, rolled, chewed. Both the taste and the effect were refreshing.

“What else do you remember about him?”

“The man on the wall?”

“Keep up, cousin.”

“He was wearing only his breechcloth and he was nailed to a tree.”

“Most people would have put the thing about the tree first.”

“Talks To Whites is the person you want to ask about this. He knows all about it.”

And, for a moment, there was silence on the side of the mountain, except for the sound of a two vultures fighting over a spleen.

“Is he okay? How is my cousin?”

“He is physically unharmed. As is Black Eyes. Look.”

She grabbed his elbow and they were 50, 100, 200 feet up so that the whole northwestern slope of the hill, the tallest of the seven that separated the Pulaski village from the rest of the world, lay beneath them. She pointed. Young man, short woman, big dog. The path was more of a trail, and so the three were picking their way through the scrub.

Cannot Swim peered in a little bit more.

“Is that you?”

“Down there?”

“Yes.”

“Yes,” she answered.

“But you’re here.”

“And there. Get it?”

The wind was strong and blew around Cannot Swim, and also through, and he had never been here before. He had never been anywhere near here before, and he did not know the names of anything in the world, but he was feeling a bit chilly and sort of nauseous ; the air currents were waves and he was in the lake, the harbor, the open sea and all the stars had fucked off for the evening, so he had no compass at all in the valley which would one day be a neighborhood in America called Little Aleppo,

Just Another Lunch In Little Aleppo

Lunch is day’s disputed territory. Is it the climax to the morning or the introduction to the afternoon? No one could agree on it, especially not in Little Aleppo. Lunch was factionalized in the neighborhood. Hard chargers forswore the meal as a waste of time, and for the weak, and they held to this belief right up to, and during, their first heart attacks at age 43. Drug dealers loved lunch, and often took it for five or six hours at a time. The Spanish gorged, then napped; the French nibbled, then argued; the Nepalese diaspora sucked down a coffee, then scampered up the side of a building.

It was sacred, though, lunch; all Little Aleppians knew that. (Except for those hard chargers, but fuck them.) Lunch had been won! Carved from the flanks of the bosses! Goons and Pinkertons had split open the heads of those who asked for lunch, never mind weekends. To not exercise your lunch franchise…that was akin to scabbery, and Little Aleppians liked scabs even less than they liked narcs. Snitches get stitches, but a scab gets the slab was how the local saying went. No, residents believed, lunch must never be ignored, lest our Wobbly ancestors be disrespected.

There was one thing Little Aleppians liked more than slacking off, and it was slacking off while being self-righteous about it.

“This is where deforestation comes from.”

“It’s eight napkins. Nine, ten. Ten napkins.”

“Entire woods. Gone,” Rabbi Levy said.

“If I have to choose between a tree and my suit, it’s always gonna be my suit,” the Reverend Arcade Jones answered, tucking another napkin into the waistband of his ketchup-red pants. There were four, overlapped and forming a Shakespearean ruff, flowing from his collar; another half-dozen decorating his shirtfront; his lap was double-ply defended. His jacket–the same red as the pants–was hanging off the back of the unused chair to his left. The Reverend never slung his coat behind him: first off, the lapels would wrinkle; second, Arcade had impeccable table manners, but an enthusiasm to his meal-taking that occasionally loosed flecks of this sauce or that gravy.

The Rabbi had, many Victory Diner meals ago, advised the Reverend to avail himself of the coat rack at the front of the restaurant by the toothpick dispenser and old-fashioned CHUNK KIH-CHACK credit card machine.

“They even got hangers,” he said. “Just like civilization.”

“Mm-hmm. Take my eyes off it for a minute and it disappears.”

“Disappear? It’s a stop-sign red 64 long. Can’t disappear.”

“Size doesn’t come into it,” the Reverend said. “Cars get stolen.”

“Sure, yeah, but cars have a general utility. Anyone can drive any car. Whereas, there’s a dozen guys in the neighborhood who your jacket would fit. And none of them could pull it off.”

“Style is 90% confidence.”

“The other ten?”

“Your pants gotta have a crease in ’em so sharp they could slice tomatoes.”

So Reverend Jones did not use the coat rack at the front of the Victory Diner, by the front door with the bell and the upright display case that dizzied cakes, and Rabbi Levy did not bring it up again.

After Torah, Torah, Torah burned, the Jews wandered briefly. They did not complain any more than they usually complained, which is to say there was an almost impossible amount of complaining. Taken in, moving on. The ancient rhythms of Jewish life. Of course, their two-month journey was entirely confined to Rose Street, which was better than 40 years in the desert, and also there were no pogroms. On the contrary, there were several interfaith dances thrown for the youth groups. It was almost certainly the chillest expulsion from a home the Jews had ever weathered, and soon they had a semi-permanent home at the First Church of the Infinite Christ when the Reverend Arcade Jones, while giving a sermon to the combined congregations, talked himself into Holy Ghost Mode and opened his doors to the Jews.

(The doors in question were not entirely his; the First Church has deacons and a lay board and an icon of Saint Michael with full voting rights.)

Mitzvah and sin. Just like yin and yang, but without the bitchin’ logo to doodle on your denim jacket. And they were, Rabbi Levy always recalled, presuppositionary. He had heard the terms referred to as such in rabbinical school by a student named Amos Varon, who was one of those types who would always choose a grad-school word over a factory-floor word. Couldn’t have secular mitzvah; no sin without the Lord. It was not the act that the words referred to, but God’s reaction to the act. Package deal sort of thing.

And there were levels. Shoving your slobbery leftovers into a bum’s hands on the way home from Nero’s? This was a mitzvah, but only in the way that plucking a quarter from behind a child’s ear is a magic trick. Buying the guy a whole meal was a higher mitzvah, but teaching him to fish was even better, and all mitzvot were improved by anonymity because to not sign your name is to credit God. Let Him take the bow. This is what Torah teaches.

Rabbi Levy didn’t know about that, though. Seemed complicated, and the human soul is not as complicated as holy books would have one believe. You need a place to stay? That right there, that simple question with so many side effects: that was the kindest one man could be to another.

So, if someone were to treat you and yours with such munificence, the least you could do was buy him an enormous lunch once a week.

“Rabbi, I’ve been thinking about the nature of intent.”

“Oh, it’s gonna be one of those lunches.”

“Would you rather we gossip?”

“Sew my lips shut before we do that.”

“Or we could talk about sports,” the Reverend said.

“You could.”

“I don’t just follow football, y’know. We could talk baseball.”

“What do I know about baseball?”

“You’re Jewish.”

“And?”

“Jews love baseball.”

“This belief you have is too silly to be offended by, but still: not true.”

Rabbi Levy did not take milk or sugar in his coffee at home or work, because he splurged on the fancy grounds. The Victory Diner bought their coffee in bulk from a guy named Rudy who never showed up in the same van twice, so the Rabbi took milk and sugar.

“I mean…it’s not entirely wrong.”

“There you go,” the Reverend said.

“What about intent?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Course it does,” the Rabbi answered quickly. “What you just said, the thing about Jews and baseball. Your intent mattered in my interpretation of the statement. You could have meant harm by it.”

“How can saying that Jews like baseball be harmful?”

The Reverend had a quarter-slice of club sandwich left. Half of a cheeseburger. Several remaining bites of a Spanish omelette with extra cheese, hold the mushrooms. He was 80% of the way to ordering a milkshake.

“In this neighborhood, someone would figure it out,” Rabbi Levy said. “I’ll tell you a story. This is maybe ten, fifteen years ago. No, I was still at Harper, so it was 15. Many years before you would grace us with your presence.”

“The Lord was toughening me up.”

“I have no doubt. So there’s these two Town Fathers. Billows and Hoy. Can’t tell ’em apart. Big dumb schmucks. Naturally, they hate each other.”

“As is tradition.”

“And at first, it’s funny. Whole neighborhood got in on it. Tee-shirts: Team Billows and Team Hoy. And none of this is political. Identical voting records. One was a developer, and the other owned construction firms. Their agendas were in complete lockstep. It was 100% personal.”

“I have a question that I am already quite sure of the answer to.”

“Yes?”

“Was the origin of these men’s feud ever discovered?”

“You’re really starting to get the hang of Little Aleppo.”

“Thank you,” Reverend Jones said. “Thank you? Is that a compliment?”

“Kind of. Anyway: no, of course no one ever found out why they hated each other. There were stories. I heard something about a parking spot or a parrot. Maybe it was a parking spot and a parrot.”

“A parrot?”

“Or a mynah. Cockatiel? A talking bird. I remember that it was important to the story that the bird could talk. Beyond that, I do not recall. It was most likely nonsense, anyhow. No one knew why Billlows and Hoy hated each other except Billows and Hoy, and neither of them ever gave it up.”

“Gotta admire their commitment, at least.”

“Sure. So, like I said: it’s funny at first. They’d be vulgar to each other at open meetings, and leak lies to the Cenotaph. And then the public fist-fights. started.”

“These are grown-ass men?”

“As grown-ass as you can get. In their 50’s, I would imagine.”

“That’s not all right,” the Reverend said.

“No. Especially when they became regular. You know Booty Palace?”

Booty Palace was Little Aleppo’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and it is named that because when Yahya Muqsaf opened it in the 70’s, he was in that slippery zone between fluent and idiomatic in his English acquisition, and he was into pirates. Row upon row of steamy chafing pans disappearing off in the distance, and enough sneeze-guards for a million cold-and-flu seasons. Sushi of a quality matching, but not exceeding, a supermarket. Piles of ripped-apart crabs, as though the crabs had been the occupants of a city which had displeased the Khan. Lamb done three ways (broasted, broiled, jerkied). Soup du jour, soup du semaine, and soup du mois. (Pass on the soup du mois after the 18th or so.) The mashed potatoes came pre-portioned into bowls; Little Aleppians could not resist the siren call of a serving tray full of creamy whipped taters, and they would plunge their faces SPLAP into the starchy side, or satisfy their buttholes’ curiosity with a deep squat into the tray.

“I know Booty Palace each and every Wednesday night; yes, I do.”

“Half-price night, right. Well they did it back then, too, and Billows and Hoy were both cheap bastards, and neither of ’em would stop going. They’d throw pudding cups at each other, it was embarrassing. The other Town Fathers go to Yahya to see if he’ll make an exception, charge one of the two idiots half-price some other night.”

“Yahya said no.”

“Of course he did. The fights were drawing a crowd. It was the best thing to happen to him since the health inspector died. But, you know, it’s like I said: first, it was funny; then, it was embarrassing. Next step no one expected. It got dangerous and sad. Billows, this putz, he starts holding rallies.”

“Campaign rallies?”

“Like them. Very much like them,” the Rabbi said.

“Town Fathers don’t run for office.”

“No. That’s why I said they were like campaign rallies. Had all the mishegos–stage and flags and podiums and all that–but Billows wasn’t running for anything. He just wanted to–pardon my French–talk shit about Hoy in front of a crowd. He’d buy donuts and coffee, too, so people would show up.”

“That’s how we get folks into AA meetings.”

“It’s good bait.”

“This man’s setting up all kinds of whatnot just to–pardon your French–talk shit about this other dummy? Who’s paying for this?”

The Rabbi lifted his coffee cup, smiled. The Reverend picked up his Coke, tapped it against the mug.

“The very learned Hillel said that the two most important questions were If I am not for myself, then who will be? and If not now, then when? He did not grow up in Little Aleppo, or he would have realized there were two other vital questions: Where did all the money come from, and where did all the money go? Turns out Billows owned the production company that set up the stages, and paid himself out of the treasury.”

“This is my shocked face,” the Reverend said, and did not change his facial expression.

“So he’s having this dumb rallies and he calls Hoy all sorts of things. Communist, socialist, fascist, anarchist. And, you know, some of those terms are mutually exclusive. Accused him of engaging in pedagogy and practicing bilaterality, but that didn’t work. Little Aleppians have weirdly large vocabularies.”

“One can’t help but notice.”

“Finally, Billows finds something that the crowds go for. Hoy’s got manners like you wouldn’t believe. Old school. Please and Pardon me from morning til midnight. Stands up when women enter the room, pushes in their chairs. Handwritten thank-you notes. The man’s elbows had never touched a table!”

“I get it.”

“Not once!”

“I get it.”

The last quarter of the club sandwich disappeared into the Reverend’s mouth; he chased it with a handful of fries.

Tommy at the counter spoke Greek, but gestured in Italian, and cursed in Spanish; the man expressed himself expressively. Louie Bucca behind the grill had been sweating for nine years straight. No urination whatsoever. Louie had mentioned the fact to a nurse friend once, and she freaked out, so he didn’t tell anyone any more. Lunch rush, best rush according to the waitresses. Customers were cranky at breakfast, and there were too many of ’em at dinner, and the late-night crowd was full of hooch and sass. Lunch rush, though? Polite and predictable. Busy enough to fatten your pockets, but not so packed as to be frantic. Never had a table been thrown across the dining room during the lunch rush, which could not be said for the other rushes; the waitresses believed that fact to speak to a larger truth.

“So, Billows starts in on Hoy about the manners thing. Just hammering him. This guy, he tells the crowds. This guy thinks he’s better than you. He’s judging your fork use. That kind of shtick. Crowd goes wild. Billows even works up a whole impression. Does a silly voice, everything.”

“That’s just cruel.”

“And this is my point about intention. Billows intended to be cruel, so therefore the statement This man has wonderful manners became a weapon.”

The Reverend Arcade Jones took a second to think about that, but accidentally started thinking about the milkshake he wanted and just asked,

“How did it end?”

“How could it possibly end?”

“Murder/suicide?”

“What else?”

The Rabbi sipped his going-tepid coffee and said,

“But he left the loveliest note.”

The two men, both professionally holy, looked around for a waitress. Order 10 up! came the cry from inside the kitchen, and then a spatula rings a bell DING! and another lunch has been summoned in the Victory Diner on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Fashionably Late From Little Aleppo

“My father was a small surge of electricity. Not enough to kill you, but he could singe your fingers. He lived in an outlet in the dining room. We ate in the kitchen.”

“And I’d like a root beer float.”

Neither Big-Dicked Sheila nor Tiresias Richardson had expected the acid to come on as quite as fast and strong as it had, which was foolish on their part because it was Precarious Lee’s acid, and they were now having difficulty ordering drinks. LSD tends to make conversations with, say, the Archangel Michael much easier, but conversations with, say, the cashier at Burger King much tougher.

“I don’t understand whatever that was,” the bartender said to Sheila. He was a bantamweight ginger named Roscoe–just Roscoe–who was trying to break into the stunt performers’ union and writing a screenplay about Lewis & Clark’s expedition. He was having a rough go of finding the arc of the story. He had the three acts–Let’s Keep Going This Way; Oh, Here’s The Ocean; Welp, Better Head Home–but the beats were eluding him. Until its sale, or his entrenchment into the ranks of working stuntmen, he worked for a catering company to pay the rent. To pay the bills, he let weird men take pictures of his feet. It’s a rough business, the show business industry.

Roscoe looked up at Tiresias and said, “And I don’t have the ingredients for that.”

“We’re friends of the Buttermilks,” she answered.

“Okay, great.”

“So…it’s cool.”

“What?”

“It’s cool. Root beer float, sailor.”

“I can’t make you–”

“I told you: it’s cool. Two straws.”

Tiresias leaned towards Roscoe like a Vargas Girl, like the cheesecake on the nose of a B-29 headed for Berlin, jutting her head at him all angled coyly, and her hands spread with wide fingers down on the portable bar. The heels were helping her attitude, she felt. They were six-inch leopard print beauties. Neither Tiresias nor Sheila had ever heard of the company that made them–Hoggins Aviation & Byproducts–but both agreed that it didn’t pay to be a snob in a 24-hour shoe store in Hollywood. Tiresias had lost her shoes three or four felonies ago, and they almost pulled the Super Bee over on Sunset and bought a pair off a hooker’s feet, but then spotted the lit-up shop.

Sheila bought a pair of black boots to replace her yellow Converse hi-tops; she got the blood off the rubber toe cap, but droplets and splotches had soaked into the canvas sidewalls. The boots were made, the label said, of laather; flexing the material in her hands, Sheila thought that the misspelling may have been deliberate. Her pair of perfectly shabby Doc Martens was back in the Lincoln, and Precarious refused to go back to the car until dawn. Sheila argued with him; she loved those boots; it had taken a decade to get the tongues to loll just right.

“No, not until it’s light out.”

“Don’t make me wear these things.”

“I’m not making you do anything,” Precarious said. He was sitting down and trying on a pair of sneakers that looked exactly, but not precisely, like the sneakers he had been wearing. “If I was making you do something, I’d make you leave town.”

“We can’t. I wanna find out how this all ends.”

“What if it ends badly?”

“Nothing ends badly in Los Angeles, Lee-Lee.”

Sheila was quite literally the only human being on the planet, including his ex-wives and children, who Precarious would let call him “Lee-Lee,” and she was only allowed to once in a while. She was standing over him in her socks, and she bent over to kiss the top of his maroon ball cap. Precarious looked up at her, kindly, and said,

“That’s the dumbest shit you’ve said all night.”

She straightened back up and rummaged through her enormous purse.

“You have no sense of adventure.”

“I have a sense of self-preservation. We should book it for home.”

Sheila held out a pack of Juicy Fruit. Precarious took a stick, unwrapped the foil, slipped the gum in his mouth.

“The gum doesn’t change my opinion.”

“It wasn’t a bribe,” she said, chewing. “And we’re going to this party. Fucker set us up.”

“Which fucker?”

“One of ’em. What brand are those sneakers?”

The running shoes were gray, with red accents and tan soles. There was mesh involved. Other fabrics, possibly.

“None. No distinguishing markings whatsoever. And nothing on the box.”

“That’s very authentic.”

“Yeah, they fit.”

There was a cashier up front behind the desk. He was chubby, and reading a magazine about a very specific kind of fishing; the trio had been notified upon entrance that he would not be helping them, and he wasn’t checking in the back for anything.

Tiresias stalked out of the aisles to the front section where Sheila and Precarious were. Leopard-skin high heels.

“Well? These were the sleaziest ones in my size.”

“Ooh, I love ’em,” Sheila said.

“And they’re only kinda my size,” Tiresias grimaced. “Why must we suffer for our beauty?”

“You don’t have to. I look hot as fuck in comfortable shoes.”

“You look hot as fuck always.”

“Love you. Seriously, those are fabulous. You look like an off-duty stripper.”

“I look like an off-duty mud wrestler, sweetie. AAAAHahaha!”

She catwalked up and down the length of the shop. The woman was a master of high heelery. Tiresias had, as a child, been scolded en pointe by various balletmistresses, and sweated through years of dance lessons in jazz shoes, and attended many dance parties in towering platforms. She had once shot a commercial for Arrow Beer where she ran down a flight of steps in stilettos, full speed; she nailed it on the first take, then refused to sleep with the director, who made her do it 15 more times, and she didn’t break any of her ankles The trick, she thought, was keeping all your weight on your toes as if the heel wasn’t there at all. The other trick was not caring that your feet hurt. Sheila wouldn’t wear shoes she couldn’t run or fight in. The two of them had different childhoods.

Precarious had utterly no idea why women wore those damn things. Looked uncomfortable. Neither had he ever seen the sexual appeal, but Precarious had spent his entire working life surrounded by hippies; for at least a decade, every women he dated had been wearing barefoot when they met, and so maybe his tastes were a bit skewed.

“What are those?”

“The best I could find,” Sheila said about the boots. She was sat next to Precarious and lacing them up.

“Why didn’t you just get new Converse? I saw some over there.”

“Those aren’t Chuck Taylors. They’re Chick Tylers. Everything about them is…off.”

“Oh.”

“And they were damp. But, like, not the boxes. Just the shoes. I didn’t want any part of it.”

“You made the right call, sweetie.”

“We should take acid,” Tiresias said. “You have some, right?”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Precarious answered.

“It’s a party. I love going to parties on acid. Everyone’s faces go all wobbly and you get to say real stupid shit to people. C’mon, sweetie.”

“No.”

“Sugar pie.”

“No.”

“Daddy badger.”

“Badger?”

“Your mustache is thick like badger fur.”

“Yeah, okay. But we shouldn’t take acid.”

Sheila stood up next to Tiresias and they made Charlie’s Angels poses in the full-length mirror. Clompy jackboots, black leathers with the lace-up crotch, The Snug tee-shirt; leopard-print six-inch heels, straight-legged trousers cut to accentuate the tushee, white button-up not that was not very buttoned up.

Tiresias fussed with her cleavage and said,

“This bra is not the one for the job.”

“Fuck that. You look great.”

“I’m thinking no bra.”

“It’s a Hollywood party,” Sheila nodded.

“You’re saying no bra?”

“I’m saying that it’s a Hollywood party.”

“You’re right. Fuck it. I’m going to this shindig loosey-goosey. Maybe there’ll be producers there.”

Sheila took her by the elbow, and pivoted her from the mirror; looked her deep in the eyes.

“You do know that Pilot Season is over for you, right? This year, at least.”

Tiresias knew that she was 27 years old (29, if you asked her driver’s license) and that 27 was, in actress years, a billion. How long could she host the Late Movie as Draculette? Ten years? Twenty? That wasn’t a career, it was a sentence. Window was shutting for her, she thought.

But she was not a complete idiot, and–thinking of the murder they’d been framed for along with the murder they’d actually committed–saw the logic in skipping town.

“I’m just gonna count it as a success despite what actually happened.”

“Sweetie, you made more money in one day than most actresses in LA make in a year.”

“Yeah, but–you know–it wasn’t for acting.”

“No, fuck that,” Sheila said. “When we were with Lady Buttermilk? You acted your ass off. You reminded me of Isabella Rossellini.”

“I’m nothing like her.”

“No, like, your aura.”

“Oh, thank you.”

“We’ll come back next year, okay? We’ll find out if it’s okay to come back next year, and if it is, we’ll come back. And we’ll be much more organized.”

“I need to get more organized. What do you mean, ‘We’ll find out if it’s okay to come back?'”

“Dude, we fucked shit up hardcore here.”

“Hardcore,” Precarious added from his seat.

“That’s because we’re punk,” Tiresias said.

“We’re punk as fuck, yeah. But we assaulted a cop and stole from rich people.”

“What you’re saying is that we’re folk heroes?”

“Tell me you understand that we need to leave town.”

“After the party.”

“Right,” Sheila agreed. “After the party. And we get my car.”

“So it’s not urgent?”

“Escape should be sooner rather than later. But one of those Buttermilk assholes framed us for murder and I’m gonna find out what the fuck. I’m gonna find out what precisely the fuck. And the fuck is at that party, so we’re going and finding what the fuck.”

“You’re pissed.”

“I am. I’ve never been framed for murder before. It’s infuriating. What the fuck?”

“It wasn’t personal,” Tiresias said, rubbing Sheila’s arms.

“That makes it worse. I can name half-dozen people with valid reasons for framing me for murder. But this is just us being some disposable piece in a rich asshole’s plan. When someone you know frames you, it’s like they’re saying ‘You matter.'”

Tiresias hugged her, and said,

“You do matter.”

The hug became deeper.

“Tell Precarious we should take acid for the party.”

“She’s right,” Sheila said. “It just makes sense.”

It did not make sense to Precarious, but he recognized the logic as similar to that employed by his former organization. Why not floor it? You already grew your hair long and read the wrong books. He had read way too many of the wrong books: self-published malarkey about how various ethnicities were secretly aliens; rumorology (that is, the study of Sacred Gossip); far too many volumes involving ley lines and what they had to do with George Washington’s secret spy corps; experimental novels written in first through sixth person; but mostly nerdy sci-fi. Cheap, thick paperbacks with lurid covers and pre-yellowed page edges that would float around the band and road crew. The kind of science fiction where the author did a lot of research and didn’t want to waste anything, so there’s 14 pages on sword-smithing. You could learn something in between the fuck scenes in those books, Precarious always figured.

“Polytely,” he said.

“Wha?”

“Hah?”

“I think I’m saying it right. I only read it. It’s got to do with how you solve a problem with multiple goals that contradict with one another. Which is what we got. We wanna retreat and revenge at the same time. Ran into this kinda thing all the time in the Dead.”

Sheila sat down next to him and said,

“What did you usually do?”

“Well, the second thing we did varied, but generally the first response was to drop acid.”

She pecked Precarious on the cheek and leapt up; Tiresias did a move she liked to call the Boogaloo.

“Look how happy I am. I’m doing the Boogaloo,”she said.

“Tirry, you gotta stop saying that.”

The move was not the Boogaloo. It was a spastic mixture of the Running Man and the Cabbage Patch. Tiresias just enjoyed saying “boogaloo.” The two women did their Charlie’s Angels poses into the mirror again.

“Come here,” Tiresias said. “You be Charlie.”

“Charlie was just a voice on the phone,” Precarious told her, not rising.

“Then get on up and make yourself manifest, Chuck.”

The flavor had run out of his Juicy Fruit–the gum is notoriously lossy in re: flavor tenacity–and he wanted a cigarette, so he spat the pink wad into a piece of tissue paper yoinked from a shoebox, cleared his throat, walked out the front door in the gray-with-red-accent sneakers he had not paid for, got into the 1971 Super Bee parked outside, started it up VRAAAAAM and then occupied himself with finding his smokes.

The chubby cashier put down his fishing magazine and stared at the two women.

“We’re paying for that gentleman’s shoes,” Sheila said.

They did, and their own, and joined Precarious in the car, where he had taken a dark-brown glass bottle from leather pouch with a familiarly skull-shaped logo burnt into both sides. Dropper. Back of the hand, back of the hand, back of the hand, salud, lick, lick, lick. VRAAAM the car and FFT PHWOO the cigarettes and west on Sunset once more, through the sloppy, weaving cars. It was after midnight in Los Angeles, and Angelenos believe in drunken driving. If God did not mean for us to drive drunk, then why did He create alcohol and cars? Furthermore, why would He put Santa Monica so far from Silverlake? It’s not like you can walk; that’s not a walk, that’s a migration. The bus is out of the question. Once were trolley cars that zipped and clanged and connected the L.A. Basin, but no longer. They made a movie about it, starred a cartoon rabbit. The boulevards are wide, but dangerous, and the best you can hope for is that whoever you hit is as plastered as you, and waves off any legal or financial entanglements in favor of getting moving before a cop drives by.

Tiresias did, indeed, go loosey-goosey. It came in handy soon when they arrived at the Buttermilk place to find the gate guarded by immense men; they had bulgy sports jackets and asked for names. Before Precarious could answer, Tiresias was across his lap and halfway out the window (and halfway out of her shirt). They were with Holiday Rhodes, she told him, the man’s much-needed management team. The immense man, who gave far less of a shit than his earpiece suggested, waved them through.

Sheila slipped the five hundreds back in her purse as Precarious eased the muscle car onto the grounds, then pitched her torso over the front bench seat. She kissed Tiresias on the cheek and said,

“I thought we were gonna have to bribe him.”

“Tits are nature’s Swiss Army Knife. Useful in almost any situation. AAAHahaha!”

“Not jogging.”

“Almost. I said almost. Nothing is without drawback. Are we packing?”

“I am. I don’t know about Precarious; I’ve never seen his dick.”

Tiresias headbutted the side of her skull, softly.

We’re not,” Sheila said.

“No,” Precarious shook his head. “We’re not.”

“Both of you are?”

“Yes.”

“Yup.”

“And I don’t get a gun?”

“No.”

“Nope.”

She palmed the top of Sheila’s head and pushed her into the backseat.

“Why nooooot?”

“You’re whining,” Sheila said.

“It’s a choice. Telllll meeeee why I can’t have a guuuuuuun.”

“What did Polonius say? C’mon, Tirry, what did Polonius say?”

“Polonius, the reptile wholesaler on Merwin Street?”

“The other one.”

“He said Know thyself.”

Sheila popped back over the seat right behind Tiresias and nuzzled her cheek-to-cheek, rubbed her arms up-and-down.

“Right, sweetie. And I want you to answer me honestly because I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

“Do you really think you should get a gun?”

“Yes.”

“What happened when I took you shooting?”

“I cried because I was startled. Not because of the gunfire itself. My finger just jerked on the trigger and the noise was much louder than I expected.”

“And I’m not trying to invalidate your feelings here.”

“I am totally not getting that from you.”

“Good, good, good. But you did cry, and then you put the gun down, and then you left and walked home.”

“That was Little Aleppo Tiresias. This is Los Angeles Tiresias. I’m pistol-packing and hard-bitten.”

“That’s what you should do: if there’s trouble, bite someone hard.”

“Oh, c’mon.”

“Absolutely not. Since when do you know Polonius the reptile guy?”

“I didn’t tell you ’cause I wanted it to be a surprise. Thinking about adding a snake to the act.”

Back home, Tiresias was the Horror Host for KSOS’ The Late Movie Show, or at least Draculette was. Monday through Friday, midnight crept up and there she was reclined along the spookiest couch anyone had ever seen, in a dress blacker than a cave and so tight that it precluded any activity more strenuous than telling dirty jokes. Far too much mascara. The wig. Never fangs, though. Tiresias tried them once and her cameraman–whose whooping and easy off-camera laugh stood in for the audience–found her vocal fumblings so hilarious that he pissed himself. As a comedienne, she was incredibly proud of herself, but her producer side recognized that sounding like she just had a stroke was not a sustainable bit.

The movie, the commercials, her. Five minutes each. Repeat until three AM. Hour a night, when you add it up. There was no money for writers, or other actors, or props. Tiresias found the skeleton who played her ex-husband, Fatty, in the studio building’s basement; it had been left there by Mortuary Mindy, a previous Horror Host; no one had ever looked into the bones’ provenance. The devil made regular appearances as a frog figurine painted black. A fan sent in a stuffed bat, so she hung it from the rafters and called it Count Fang. Sometimes she made prank phone calls. Rarely, she would discuss the films, and then it was mostly to apologize. She was forbidden to talk about the commercials.

“Ooh, that would be great. You’re not gonna become one of those snake people, are you?”

“That’s the thing keeping me from getting it.”

“No one who has a snake has one snake. They have, like, nine. And they’re gateway pets. First, it’s a snake, and then you’ve got a frilled lizard or a coatamundi in your apartment. Stick to cats and dogs.”

Precarious feathered the accelerator and asked,

“How is your cat?”

“I don’t have a cat,” she answered to her left, then swiveled her head to the right. “Why does everyone think I have a cat?

“You seem like you have a cat. Your aura,” Tiresias said as she checked her makeup in a handheld compact mirror.

“It’s a Sagittarius thing.”

“You blame everything on that.”

“Longest driveway I ever seen,” Precarious muttered.

The main house was lit up like a nuclear explosion on Christmas morning; the gables were spackled with color; the Corinthian columns blazed. Were it not for the solar panels and temperate weather, the house might have been in Devonshire overlooking the moors and the peasants. Great, swooping wings off the center structure–three floors? four?–with its isoceletic pediment making a frowning brow over the grand doors. Shallow steps leading up.

“Gimme two of those hundreds,” Precarious said. Sheila slipped the bills over his shoulder; he folded them, palmed them, pulled the car up next to the valet, shifted into Park, left the key in the ignition. Tiresias got out, slid the seat forward, yanked Sheila from the back. They primped themselves, groomed each other, checked for boogers.

“Just leave it right there,” the women heard Precarious telling the valet as they set off up the stairs. Sheila had her industrial-sized purse; Tiresias carried nothing, having locked the Halliburton briefcase (containing most of the money and all of the incriminating evidence) in the trunk of the Super Bee.

“I couldn’t feed a snake,” Sheila said.

“The intern will do it.”

“Then get the snake. Very sexy.”

“Natassja Kinski in that poster.”

“Hot. Do it.”

“The only problem is that the big ones are expensive. I could only afford, like, a gopher snake or something.”

“Is that a real animal,” Sheila asked, “or something you made up?”

“Real thing. They eat gophers.”

“Are they pretty?”

“If you’re really into the color ‘brownish,’ I guess.”

“How big?”

“Two, three feet.”

“Sweetie, you’ll look like you have a turd draped on you. It’s one step up from waving a handful of garter snakes at the camera. You need a snake like Alice Cooper’s.”

“I told you: they’re expensive.”

“You made six grand today. Buy the cool snake. Just don’t become a snake person.”

“Are turtles sexy?”

“No,” Sheila said.

“Scary?”

“Not in the slightest. Why?”

“I could get a great deal on a turtle.”

Polonius Humble ran the reptile shop back in Little Aleppo; he had named it Herpes despite friends’ protestations. They did not know his customer base. Bawdy bunch: the overlap between the reptile-owning and orgy-attending communities was heavy. He sold skinks and night lizards and tonguebacked igunanas. Snakes from adders to vipers. Itty-bitty turtles and giant, snappity beasts. He could get you a gila monster, but you needed to put down a deposit.

“You don’t buy turtles, sweetie. They live in ponds. You can just, like, pick one up.”

“Not the ones Polonius has. The man’s got the fanciest turtles you’ve ever seen. You think the butler is gonna recognize us?”

“We were here, like, six hours ago and haven’t changed clothes,” Sheila said.

“We have new shoes.”

“I still think he’ll know it’s us. The question is whether he goes to Lord or Lady Buttermilk when he sees us.”

“Hundred bucks on Lord.”

“No bet.”

The party had whipped loose from its moorings, and elegance had hidden in the back bedroom, cowering under the duvet; all the canapes were long gone. The good coke had come out, not that nine p.m. shit you had to share with your agent’s assistant. Several beautiful teens had been concussed. The music was loud, and by someone’s client. The hallways were staggering. The pool table had been desecrated. Emilio Estevez was fingering an Asian woman. Couples snuck off, sweaty scrums humped next to the pool. A hand, semi-greased, shot out for Sheila’s ankle. She leapt, dodged, swerved, smacked into Tiresias.

“Babadook!”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Sheel.”

“We know one. He’s a cop. You have a crush on him.”

“I do not. And Romeo’s not really a ghost; he’s just spiritual.”

Tiresias muttered that last bit. Her spine was spitting off sparks and etchysketch lines drew themselves between stars, shook away into nothing, the pool was breathing. From her left and a foot lower came Sheila:

“Holy shit.”

“You, too?”

“Drinks?”

“Something.”

Which is how they came to be standing in front of the portable bar on the back patio by the pool manned by a bantamweight named Roscoe–just Roscoe–asking for a root beer float and talking whatever nonsense Sheila was talking, and so engrossed in their dealings with said bartender that they didn’t notice the big guy with the crewcut and the broken nose staring at them from across the pool high in the Hollywood Hills, which are so very far from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

By The Fire In Little Aleppo

A columnist from the Cenotaph once described Little Aleppians as “carbon-based random opinion generators” and she had her finger on the pulse on the community. Locals tended to believe in the official story (Oswald killed Kennedy), the official unofficial story (the CIA did it), the alternate official unofficial story (the Mafia did it), the predictable unofficial unofficial story (the Illuminati did it), the unpredictable unofficial unofficial story (two opposing sides of a holographic universe collided at the exact spacetime point that was JFK’s skull), and the batshit crazy story (invisible draculas) in equal measures and also depending on who was asking. Agreed-upon reality was argued over in Little Aleppo, at least until something blew up.

Something blew up.

Dampin’s Pianos had been on Aloferra Street for going on 50 years; the showroom was the size of two basketball courts, and its windows took up half the block and advertised sales on Bösendorfers and Bechsteins and Beisners. Most were black, and a few were brown, and none were white because white pianos are for assholes. That’s what Mercy Dampin thought, at least, and she owned the place so she must have been right. Grands, too. There were a few Babys over in the corner by the bathrooms, but mostly it was the imperious Grand in all her slightly-different-but-always-massive variant: Classic, Full, Recital, and the queen herself, the Concert Grand. (Pianos were female, Mercy thought. It was obvious. Look at them.) Other instruments often have gargantuan subspecies, but most are novelty creations useful on few occasions, and all except the upright bass is ridiculous-looking. The baritone sax is among the least dignified of all horns, and no one wants to hump the contrabassoonist. Only the mighty piano becomes glorious with size.

Along the intrastellar lanes that whiz and gee high above and slightly to the west of Little Aleppo and every other neighborhood in the galaxy, alien races often apply the Grand Piano Cutoff to civilizations they encounter. “Have they whipped up a grand piano yet?” That was the whole test. Had to think up a culture’s worth of bric-a-brac beforehand to build a piano. Needed to invent math, and have an Industrial Revolution, and figure out how to kill elephants. The piano is an unaccidental object, and the alien races who zip and zop along the interstellar lanes apply the Grand Piano Cutoff: it is forbidden to vacation on any planet that has invented the instrument.

Mercy Dampin did not know about the GPC, and did not believe in spacemen of any sort, but she would have agreed with their choice of benchmark. Something about the curves, maybe the shine, maybe that she did her homework lying under one as her father, Forthright Dampin, played and waited for customers. Bach and Beethoven and all that mustiness, and jazz, too, and just whatever came into his head or fingers at the time. Mercy took lessons, practiced, never came to her. She could play–put the music in front of her and she could perform it–but not musically. Forthright died when Mercy was at Harper College, and she took over the shop.

She let the local players swing by. It was quiet in between customers, and there is a great deal of “in between customers” at a piano showroom. Freddy from Senegal would thank her for letting him “get rambunctious for a moment,” and Plums Jenner teased forgotten chords out of the keys until he started crying and left; Mercy finally had to 86 Smiles Davis for his recidivistic smuggling of one or more cats into the store. Annabelle Monk came in a lot. She was Mercy’s favorite. She smelled the best, for one, and had not once nodded off in the bathrooms back where the soundproofed cubicles with uprights in them waited for school to let out. Dampin’s had since its opening seen moderately-priced piano lessons from moderately-talented piano teachers as its most lucrative stream of revenue, which is why Alan Delon, who was 12, and Laila Ma, who was a sophomore at Harper College, died in the explosion along with Mercy.

All the sound there could ever be, and then none. There were pedestrians on Aloferra, but not right in front of the shop and so there were no deaths on the sidewalk, but a couple on their first date had their ear drums blown out and so did a man walking his dog, a terrier, that sprinted away after the blast. The Toyota parked outside had shattered windows and the heat had bubbled the blue paint off the doors. The man did not notice the terrier’s flight, then he did. “LUCY!” he yelled, and then dug around in his ears with both fingers, and yelled again. “LUCY!” The dust and smoke hit the daters, and they were gray and she threw up on him, and he ran like the terrier, and she threw up again. The globe had been blown off the lamppost, and the bulb was hanging and then fell a dozen feet to the ground.

And then the sirens wailed. Atop the Fords in red-and-blue bubbles that the cops of the LAPD (No, Not That One) scorned as out-of-date but the Brass wouldn’t replace, and in thick red bars crowning three-axled trucks bristling with jacks and prybars and ladders. Grand pianos burn for longer than you’d expect even under direct hosing, and the strings melt and break and PING WHANG themselves free from their moorings. After a few of the firemen got their coats sliced open, the chief pulled them and watered down the building until it put itself out. The cops kept the crowds, which had begun to gather, from approaching the scene or stealing a firetruck. The paramedics tended to the deafened couple and the dogwalker. The reporters showed up. Print first. The Cenotaph‘s offices were closer than KSOS’ studio, plus the bomb went off during the 5 o’clock news so all of the cameras were being used.

“Hey, Chief. Chief,” Iffy Bould called out from behind a round cop. “Honey, lemme through.”

The round cop was Officer Honey. He was the most spherical man anyone had ever seen; the Abstract Mathematicians at Harper had proven that you could derive Pi from him.

“Chief said he didn’t wanna talk to you.”

“Which chief?”

“What?”

“There’s two chiefs on the other side of you. Police Chief and Fire Chief. Which one said he didn’t wanna talk to me?”

Officer Honey had big round thoughts; he sensed a trick, but could not pin it down. Honey wanted to take his nightstick to him, but Iffy was a journalist, so he could not be struck in the head with a baton, at least not without much more distraction present. Were he poor, or a minority, Honey could get away with what was locally referred to as a Little Aleppo Knighting, but it was 198- and you weren’t allowed to beat up reporters in public anymore. This was a serious to blow to Honey, as it was his customary opening move when dealing with the public.

A thought occurred, bounced around, lost momentum, left a smeary husk. A gotcha thought. A plug for that big fucking mouth of Iffy’s. It was:

“Which one did you want to talk to?”

“The one who didn’t say he doesn’t wanna talk to me.”

The plug was chewed up, spat back. Honey now contemplated his customary second move: sneaking off. The only bad thing about being a cop, Honey had decided very quickly upon receiving his badge, was the work. He liked the uniform, and he liked hitting people and telling them what to do, and he liked the free food. Oh, and parking wherever he wanted. Sometimes Honey parked in his neighbor’s driveway because fuck him, that’s why. Great perks being a cop. But the actual copping part of being a cop was not for Officer Honey, and so he had mastered the art of being somewhere other than a crime scene.

“Which one didn’t say that?”

“I got no idea what people aren’t saying, Honey. You can’t quote a negative.”

After fighting and flighting, Honey was all out of ideas. He had been with the force for over ten years, and had never needed anything beyond violence and absence, so he decided to start again and hope for a different result, or the piano store to explode and kill him.

“Chief said he doesn’t wanna talk to you.”

“Me specifically?”

“Maybe.”

“Did he mention my name?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you remember whether or not he said my name?”

“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.”

“You don’t.”

“Chief said–”

“HONEY, LET HIM OVER, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!”

That was Chief Somme–Frenchy to his friends–the police chief. He was standing by the hood of his car around eight feet away, within the protective cordon of bright-yellow sawhorses that cut off Alaferro Street on both sides and contained the blaze and the firetrucks and two cop cars. Except for keeping the crowd back, there was little for the police to do until the flames died out. The chief was staring into the fire pondering the immense load of shit that had just been dumped in his lap. He was trying to, more rightly, but Officer Honey’s voice had wrapped around his brainstem like ivy climbing a pole, but instead of chlorophyll, the ivy was powered by dumbfuck. Chief Somme could picture it, was enveloped in the vision, the curling tendrils reaching towards his mind and infecting all they touch, turning sunlight into sweet stupidity. He swayed a bit, caught himself.

Officer Honey pulled the sawhorse back, and Iffy slid through. Lolly Tangiers followed; Honey closed the barrier on her waist.

“Ow,” Lolly protested. “Really?”

“She’s with me,” Iffy said.

“Chief told me to let you over. That’s it.”

“She’s part of my equipment.”

“Hey,” Lolly protested again.

“Equipment is a step up from where you were a couple weeks ago,” Iffy said to her. “I worked for the Cenotaph for two years before I was technically equipment. There’s kids out there that would kill to be equipment.”

While she was sure that statement was not specifically correct, Lolly did appreciate the truth in it. She had started as a Copyboy, which is the journalistic equivalent of one of those novice monks always getting whamped with bamboo sticks. Plus, she had to make the lunch run, and there is no less thankful job in all the indoor-employment world. It is the Kobayashi Maru of the office world, in that the lunch run can never be perfectly completed and is therefore more a test of character than a simple errand. The deli will always be out of beef stroganoff, or you would buy the weird, expensive mango-carrot-blackberry juice instead of the weird, expensive mango-carrot-boysenberry juice for Barry Cho and he’d break into tears. One time Lolly had been sent on the lunch run and forgot the list back in the office. She had gone around the bullpen with her notebook, carefully recording each order, and then–she guessed and verified later–set the notebook down while putting on her jacket and not picked it up. She couldn’t go back up. The male reporters would make fun of her. She didn’t feel it was sexist, as the male reporters had the previous week tormented a Copyboy into quitting by sending him out for fictitious foods such as  face cheese, Baked Alabama, and gluten-free seitan in the shape of a robust panther. She couldn’t go back upstairs.

So, Lolly took the cash and went to Cagliostro’s for pizzas; it was only a couple blocks and the pies were still hot when she got back, so the smell hit the reporters before they could get mad and no one complained, except for Barry Cho, who broke into tears. She only had to get Iffy’s lunch now, and he got a tuna sandwich from the deli on the corner pretty much everyday, and always gave her enough money (unlike half the cheap bastards in the bullpen) and a couple times he bought her lunch, too. It was easy lifting as far as paying dues went. Herbert “Hurl” Lowry was the Cenotaph‘s star columnist. He wrote square-cut sentences about the average Little Aleppian on Tuesdays and Fridays, and physically berated his cub reporter the other days. Hurl did so, and fequently. It was how he had received the nickname. Iffy had so far not winged anything at her skull. He had tossed her some things–car keys, a banana–but that doesn’t count. He had also so far not hit on her, not even a little bit, not even when he was drunk. She had drawn aces as far as the mentor thing went, she figured, so if her lot was to be called “equipment,” then so be it.

“Let me in,” Lolly said. “The man can’t do his job without me.”

“You heard the equipment,” Iffy agreed.

“I’m press!”

Iffy drew his pack of Kools from his pocket, offered it to Lolly, Honey, both refused.

“The equipment is press equipment,” he said

“Chief Somme only said for you,” Honey stuck to his talking point.

“She’s like my shoes. Can I wear my shoes over to talk to the chief? Think of her as my shoes.”

“Is she equipment or shoes?”

“Shoes are equipment. They absolutely fit within the category.”

“Then why are they two different words?”

“Did you really just ask me that?”

“Can’t answer, huh?”

“HONEY, YOU CRETIN, LET ‘EM IN!”

That was Chief Somme again. He often thought of murdering Officer Honey, just straight-up shooting him in the face during roll call one morning. Or running him over six or seven times: forward, reverse, forward again. He had tried sending Honey out on dangerous missions, but the muffin-headed fuck was incapable of getting killed. He got lost on the way to active gunfire incidents, and ran out of gas on the way to hostage situations. Plus, he was too recognizable to send undercover. (Chief Somme had tried sending Honey to infiltrate the Gabacho Brothers’ organization, but they just got him drunk and sent him home and had their lawyer file a complaint in court.) The chief thought about staging a break-in at Harper Zoo, dispatching Honey, then pushing him into the lion’s enclosure. On the other hand, the chief thought, why should the lion get the pleasure of killing the fat little fungus? One shot, no one would blame me.

The worst part was that Chief Somme had no one to blame, not for sure. The position of Chief of the LAPD (No, Not That One) had only recently fully professionalized. Until the mid-70’s, the position–had been filled by representatives of whatever criminal faction was in charge. It was much like being a medieval Pope. To further the analogy, there were on two occasions in the late 50’s more than one Police Chief “appointed” at the same time. The Cenotaph made tons of jokes about schisms and Avignon, but nobody got them. 1963 was the Year of Four Chiefs . Marleybone, Tannoy, Finnegan, and Beginagain. All the paperwork was fucked up from that year. One of them must have hired Honey. He had checked the files, but there was no definitive answer. Honey just arrived, full-formed and round and shitheaded. Was he immortal? Was he even human?

“Chief Somme,” Iffy said. He had lit his Kool along the short way, and it dangled from his lip as he flipped open his leather notebook.

“Bould.”

“How many dead?”

“I got no idea. At least one.”

“What happened?”

“Building exploded.”

“Someone blew it up.”

“Gotta wait for the forensics team to say that.”

“A masked figure hacked into the evening news earlier tonight and said this…”

Iffy flipped through his notebook, Lolly handed him hers, he read from the opened page:

“Good evening, Little Aleppo. My name is not important. What is important is that the man calling himself the Downsider reveal his identity and take nude photographs of himself. If my demands are not met, things are going to start blowing up. This is the part where I show you I’m serious.”

And handed her notebook back.

“Shouldn’t we take this threat at face value?”

“How can we take someone who won’t show their face at face value? Checkmate, dingus.”

“I don’t call you names, Chief.”

“Off the record?”

“Sure. Off the record.”

“I just saw the fucking teevee thing just like you did. That was ten minutes ago, I got here five minutes ago, and now it’s now. I got no idea what’s going on. No one does. It insults both of our intelligences that you thought I would.”

“Don’t blame me: you give off an air of authority and competence.”

“I’ll know what I know when I know it. Which will be sooner rather than later, but right now I don’t know dick about fuck. As clueless as you, and that’s saying something. Let’s go back on the record.”

“Sure.”

“As you can see, our response was almost immediate. Within minutes. My officers formed a cordon around the area to give Little Aleppo’s brave firemen the proper space to do their jobs. They have not completed their search of the building, but we have one dead so far. We are working right now to identify the victim and notify the family. Off the record again.”

“Okay.”

Chief Somme pointed at the young woman in the brownish sport coat that she had chosen specifically for its shapelessness. Iffy had approved: it was one of the most boring garments he had ever seen. Reporters don’t put themselves in their stories, he had lectured her, and that begins with the wardrobe.

“Who is this person?”

“Lolly Tangiers,” she said, and extended her hand; Chief Somme shook it.

“Tangiers?”

“Tangiers.”

“Like the fruit?”

“Like the city.”

“I don’t give a shit. Back on the record.”

“Okay,” Lolly answered.

“She doesn’t get to say when I’m on and off the record,” he said to Iffy. “I don’t know her. That’s your job.”

“She has my proxy,” Iffy said.

“She can’t have your proxy. You’re present.”

“Let’s go back on the record.”

“The Little Aleppo Police Department will work tirelessly to ascertain the facts behind this incident. We will pursue every lead, and in fact we’re working on several leads right now. If there is a connection between the broadcast and the explosion, it will be fully explored and the perpetrator brought to justice.”

“You have leads?”

“Several. Like I said.”

“Can you tell me about them?”

“Of course not.”

“How do you have them? The bomb just went off. Was there a warning from somewhere? Did you keep this information from the public?”

“Off the record. Don’t be an asshole, Bould. I have no fucking leads.”

“That’s not how the record works. I have to say we’re off it.”

“I declared it.”

“No. It’s not a declaration thing. It’s the thing where the two guys are launching the nuke and they both have to turn their keys at the same time. You can’t just call it.”

“The girl nodded her head when I said ‘off the record.’ I saw it.”

“She’s a young woman,” Iffy replied.

“My name would be great thing for you fellows to call me,” she said.

“Quiet, equipment. Chief, would you like to amend your statement about working on leads?”

“What I meant to say was that we are working on developing leads. And remaining open to all possibilities.”

“Such as?”

“Commies.”

“You think the Russians did this?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ’em. Fuckers don’t fight fair.”

Chief Somme had a brick-sized walkie-talkie on his belt, which squawked three times and a deep voice came out.

“Chief?”

He took it to his mouth, clicked the talk button.

“Chief Somme here.”

“This is Aron. Me and Relleno are over at the teevee studios, Chief. No one weird’s been in or out today. No new hires. The guy who owns the place, Loomis? He says it was Communists.”

The walkie-talkie dropped to the chief’s waist, and he pointed at Iffy with the other hand and said,

“I told you it was Commies.”

“I really don’t think it was them, Chief.”

Back on the walkie:

“Question everybody hard. And check every inch of the building. And then go check the antenna.”

To Iffy:

“The teevee comes from the antenna, right?”

“The one on Mount Lincoln?

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

The walkie:

“Go check the antenna.”

“The one on Mount Lincoln?”

“The giant fucking antenna on the top of the mountain that can be seen at all times from everywhere in the fucking neighborhood, yes. The antenna. Go up there and check it out.”

“For what?”

“For irregularities. Be a fucking detective.”

“Hey, Relleno! You know anything about antennas?”

There was a crackle.

“No, Chief, he doesn’t know anything about antennas, either.”

“Aron, get the fuck up there.”

“Chief, it’s getting dark.”

“And take pictures of the scene so I can look at ’em when you get back. Over.”

The walkie back on the belt, but it squawked again.

“Whaaat?”

“Chief, you around a teevee?”

“I’m at the fire, dipshit.”

“Yeah, sure, okay. So, uh, Loomis? The owner? He’s on camera now and ranting about Communists infiltrators in the neighborhood. He’s gonna get everyone all riled up.”

Paul Loomis owned Little Aleppo’s teevee station, KSOS, and he was a Commie-fighting man. He was a business-owner. He was an entrepreneur. He had a massive head, and had to his knowledge never been wrong. That watch he’s wearing? Same one the astronauts wear.

“Aron, what are you saying?”

“Should we stop him?”

“Is he threatening anyone by name?”

“No.”

“But you want to stop him?”

“He’s really going wackadoodle, Chief.”

“Detective. Son. What you’re describing is a coup.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Still. Let’s not do that, okay?”

“Off the table, Chief.”

“Do the interviews and get the fuck up that hill. Over.”

Chief Somme replaced the walkie on his belt and said to Iffy,

“All of that was off the record.”

“The junta attempt? Sure.”

Crowds growing on either side of the trucks and cars and men and fire. Not the usual boisterous tumult, and the food carts stay a respectful distance back. No one even heckled the cops, and Little Aleppians had been known to heckle cops during religious services. Folks in the neighborhood were not virgins to explosions. Criminals blew each other up all the time. The Gabacho Brothers simply adored sending bombs to people, but the recipients always deserved their fates. This was different. This was not that.

Beer-Cooler Ethel still sold tallboys of Arrow, though. Iffy bought two, slipped one in his coat pocket, popped the top PSHT and slurped the foam from the lip. He was walking south, back to Pryor Street, back to the Braunce Building, walking quickly. Back to the typewriters and presses and deadlines. The Cenotaph‘s readers needed to be told what had happened, and it didn’t matter that the Cenotaph‘s writers had no idea themselves. The paper’s gonna thump onto doorsteps 12 hours from now, Iffy figured. Might as well not be blank.

Lolly caught up with him, matched speed, and said,

“I interviewed the Fire Chief.”

“He tell you to fuck off?”

Tell is underselling it. He demanded I fuck off.”

“Yeah. He’s working. There’s a building on fire.”

Iffy handed her the tallboy. It was white with “Arrow” in red script letters; the cross-bar of the “A” is an arrow pointed towards a bullseye that replaces the “O.” Over the years, there had been dozens of varieties from the local brewery. Arrow Air was the low-calorie offering (it was half-water). Arrow Paprika sold phenomenally in the Hungarian diaspora, but that was only a handful of guys named László. There was also Crossbow, which was the company’s attempt at entering the “alcoholic beverages you can’t get in a bar, only a liquor store and not a nice liquor store, one with bulletproof glass in between you and the cashier” market. On paper, Crossbow was a malt liquor, but in the can or 40-ounce bottle, it was plain old Arrow with two or three shots of pure grain alcohol poured in. Introduced at a price point intended to lure customers away from their customary tipple (addicts are brand-loyal), Crossbow was an immediate success with the cirrhotic and belligerent. The Town Fathers made it illegal within weeks, their argument being that “the only people drinking this shit are the exact people who shouldn’t be drinking this shit.”

Beer-Color Ethel sold plain old Arrow. PSSHT Lolly raised her can up towards Iffy. He clunked it with his, and she took a sip.

“You gotta drink that down. Finish it before we get back to the office.”

“A lot of guys drink at the office,” she said.

“Yeah, they’re degenerates. Y’gotta at least keep up appearances.”

He lit a Kool.

“Paper went to bed at 4:30, though,” she said. “It was already printing when the explosion happened.”

“Yeah.”

“Are they gonna stop the presses?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Do you think they’ve already done it or do we get to do it?”

“Do it? Do what, dramatically burst into the room and yell ‘Stop the presses?'”

“Yeah, that.”

“It’s so much more mundane than that,” Iffy said. “Goose tells one of the union guys to turn a key.”

“It’s not a big red button under a plexiglass shield that flips up?”

“Nah. Guy named Eddie turning a key.”

“Is it an impressive-looking key?”

“Regular key.”

The smell of fried piano was still in the air, and both slugged from their tallboys. In the morning, the Cenotaph would name the dead, Mercy Dampin and Alan Delon and Laila Ma, and note their ages and home addresses. A black-and-white photograph of the fire held purchase above the fold, and within the newspaper were various conjectures, and residents snapped it up. A second printing, even. Something about the story just hooked the readers, and there were plenty of them in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

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