There were no powers attached to the title of Mayor of Little Aleppo, which may be why people fought so viciously for the job. The residents accepted as true Spider-Man’s maxim that with great power came great responsibility, but they innately understood the obverse: with no power comes no responsibility. Little Aleppians saw the mayoralty as a consequence-free nickname, plus you became steward of the Penguin of Leadership.
(Letting the penguin die was the only offense guaranteed to get you impeached: former mayors have been caught making love to rental cars in public, re-introducing potato blight to Ireland, and secretly selling off the community center to businessmen. Luckily, a group of diverse children led by a hot white lady danced their asses off in the talent show, distracting the businessmen enough for another group of diverse children to go to their houses and hold their families hostage until they called off the deal.)
Mr. Venable, who owned the bookstore with no title, had been working on a history of the neighborhood for years: there was too much history, that was the problem. When a place has been a place for a long time, it sheds skin. Leaves hair, and fingerprints, and the imprint of a boot in the mud, and you can piece it together just like the detectives on the teevee if you look carefully. There were diaries from the sailors that lived in the Hotel at Chalk Wharf; and back copies of The Cenotaph, the old daily broadsheet, on both microfiche and microfinch, which is an inherently flawed storage medium in that it tends to fly away or die; and quotidian flyers, saved for reasons no one could ever tell you: lost cat, found dog, whose fucking ostrich is this?
First-person sources, a historian’s dream, voluminous but strangely patchy, and though he did not tell anyone this, Mr. Venable was quite convinced that Little Aleppo had simply not existed during certain time periods. He was also sure–he would testify to this in court–that the entire neighborhood had spent July of 1982 in the Holy Roman Empire. Mr. Venable had lived and worked in the area long enough to no longer be surprised by neither magical realism nor realistic magic, but that one was a new one by him, and he had a theory that it was intentional.
As far as he could tell, elections began somewhen in the 1850’s, right after white folks settled the area. People had been living on the land since the Clovis, but had never felt the need to make campaign speeches to each other before America showed up. There was a lot still left from those days, and Mr. Venable catalogued it all. He read letters from candidates to associates back East requesting troops be sent to aid in their campaigns, quite a few of them as a matter of fact; he noted that a man named Archimedes Cole had run in 1867 on a platform of “I promise I will not send for troops,” and then further noted that his opponent had responded by sending for troops.
(It should be mentioned that women had the vote since the neighborhood’s beginnings, though not due to an anachronistically-progressive nature of the residents, but because there were at least a half-dozen witches in the area who thought they should be allowed to vote, and the men were all so scared of them that they agreed.)
Little Aleppo got civilized over time, and electioneering via cannon became frowned upon. The dawn of the 20th century saw the neighborhood follow the country’s lead and reject open violence for open corruption. At first there was chaos: Mr. Venable read that vote trading and outright sale was so common that, in 1908, a commodities market dealing strictly in votes was founded, and he closed his eyes and predicted that this led to bubble and devastating crash, and then he turned the page and read that there was a bubble and devastating crash.
This begat the rise of the Little Aleppo political machines, massive steam-powered robots that rampaged through the neighborhood on Election Day herding people into polling places; these proved cost-prohibitive and were soon abandoned in favor of organized groups of people trading favors for votes for patronage for bribes. The most powerful was led by Boss Paisley, who had millions of votes backing his plays, and he ruled Little Aleppo for decades, until everyone realized that only ten thousand people lived there and he had been printing ballots in his basement. Unsurprisingly, he was elected mayor the next year, as everyone was rather impressed he had kept the scam going for so long.
Mr. Venable did his research after he had closed the bookstore with no title: the shop would be dark except for the bioluminescent books, which he does not recall ordering, but nevertheless were all over the place, and his old-fashioned green reader’s lamp on the desk. He would clear a space in the jumble with a forceful sweep of his arm, and set the boxes from the Historical Society in the clearing. (Mr Venable called his basement the Historical Society, but he did not tell anyone this.) Muffled metal clinked in cardboard, and he exhumed all the dead people’s stuff from the box and laid it on his blotter, which was the same shade of green as his lamp.
Buttons and pins, the occasional t-shirt or half-rotted straw boater with a tattered and yellowing paper band around the crown advising you to vote for Fuzzy, who was a tabby cat and won handily before being quickly impeached. (Fuzzy killed and devoured the Penguin of Leadership at his swearing-in ceremony.) If you set the campaign swag in order, Mr. Venable noticed with a smile, then you could see larger stories: moral decency was the theme of the slogans and ads for a few years, and then all of a sudden everything had rainbows all over it, and you didn’t need to check the census figures to see what happened, but he did anyway.
There were plenty of vicious campaigns over the years–the debate in 1938 ended with the candidates setting one another on fire–and just as many ludicrous ones: both a bowl of cereal and a stuffed yak ran and served successful terms. And then, as it was Little Aleppo, there was the weird bullshit, such as the Schism of 1897 that saw nine Aleppians declare themselves Mayor and accuse each other of being Anti-Mayors; turmoil raged until someone had the clever idea of setting them all on fire.
But for all his information, Mr. Venable didn’t have a story yet. Where was the greater theme, the overarching narrative, the ligamentuary fiber? Rascals, prophets, lunatics, megalomaniacs, peabrains, and a stuffed yak. Mr. Venable poured another cup of coffee and thought that his fellow Aleppians might have been addicted to electing the wrong person, and then he knew what his story was.
It was the voters’ fault, Mr. Venable realized as he began scratching out notes on a white legal pad. Little Aleppo thought politics was a sideshow, Mr. Venable thought, and Little Aleppo loved nothing more than a good sideshow. The problem was the people.
“Someone should do something about those fuckers,” Mr. Venable said out loud in the darkness.
“You’re just realizing this?” a voice answered him from the aforementioned darkness.
“Hey! Who’s that?”
“No one. Just us books.”
He packed the pins and buttons that were on the desk back into the box, and set the box on the floor to his left, and began to write a book that–had he known where to look–was already on a shelf in the bookstore with no title.