There were always protests going on in Little Aleppo; the neighborhood was populated with the most rousable rabble you’ve ever met. There were organized marches that shut down the Main Drag, and disorganized brawls that shut down the Morning Tavern. The stevedores once formed a picket spheroid around the Salt Wharf, and the employees of the Camphor Brothers Mimeograph Company remain on strike to this day, even though the business closed years ago and the factory was sold to a Japanese firm that makes really tiny sex dolls. Protests were so much a tradition in Little Aleppo that the Poet Laureate once noted that it was more transgressive not to protest; no one paid any attention to this proclamation.
Some of the forms that social action in Little Aleppo took were recognizable to outsiders. Placard-bearing strolls were common, and everyone would try to come up with the wittiest sign to hold; the food trucks would do stellar business.
But mostly it was sneaky and weird, or sudden and terrible.
When the sanitation department wanted a raise, they didn’t stage a work stoppage. They went in the other direction. Garbagemen, garbagewomen, and Big Jack the Garbagedog entered people’s homes and apartments to take their trash out for them. They did this rather aggressively, and sometimes they defined “trash” as “your couch,” or pooped on your kitchen table. Within hours, the Town Fathers realized that the money they had repeatedly told the sanitation department didn’t exist actually did.
(It should be stated for the record that Big Jake the Garbagedog did not poop on anyone’s kitchen table; he is a good dog, and knows better than that. The garbagemen and garbagewomen, however, are not good dogs. They are people who poop on strangers’ tables as a means of settling a labor dispute.)
Bartenders protested a beer tax by dropping paper umbrellas into pints and selling them as cocktails; when the Third Bank of C——a City tried to build a branch on Valentine Street, the locals snuck into the construction site at night and undid all the day’s work like Penelope unraveling her burial shroud to stymie the suitors; in search of better hours, the lifeguards at the public pool let several children drown. (That last one backfired.)
But there were also riots.
You have a person. Person might be smart, stupid, a complete whackadoodle: you never know what a person’s going to do. Add another and you have a couple. Two people–that bonded pair–are twice as predictable as that single person. Someone is going to be the reasonable one; a couple regresses to the behavioral mean of the culture they occupy. (Leaving aside Bonnie and Clyde, or Sid and Nancy; we’re talking about the average folks here.)
Add a third and they are four times as predictable; one more person makes it sixteen times more predictable. This is the inverse square law of human interaction: the more people you have, the easier it is to figure out what they’re going to do. Enough people makes a crowd, and crowds are simple, dumb creatures. Give a crowd a song and it will sing. Give it a game and it will cheer.
Piss off a crowd and it will riot.
“I hate Little Aleppo Nazis.”
Tiresias Richardson was slumped into one of the chairs at Big-Dicked Sheila’s Hair Salon for Rock Stars and Their Ilk. She was wearing sunglasses with frames the size of dinner plates, and the hood of her rust-colored sweatshirt was pulled low on her forehead. She had not gotten to bed until ten am.
“Jokes are funny. You’re very funny,” Sheila said as she bent Precarious Lee’s right ear down so she could snip at the hairs behind it. Sheila took great care when giving Precarious a haircut; she knew it was the only one he would get for months.
Precarious Lee drank his coffee black, and he could work for 24 hours straight–drive for twice that–and he had been punched in the face many times. He was in the army, and he was in the Grateful Dead, and he had raised children and divorced wives; Precarious had had many friends’ coffins on his shoulder. He kept his word, which is maybe why he said so few. Precarious Lee had been an adult for a very long time.
But if you waved a barber’s cape and scissors at him, Precarious would run the other way like a little brat.
Semi-retired and creaky as he was, he still had a thick head of hair. Thanks, Mom, he often thought when he saw his contemporaries’ bald spots and pates. It was straight Okie hair, and he would be perfectly content to tuck the whole steel-grey sheaf of it under a bandana and go about his day, but Sheila wouldn’t let him.
“You look like a retired roadie,” Sheila would say.
“Doesn’t mean you have to look like one, sweetie.”
And just to shut her up, Precarious would let her cut his hair every eight months or so. He would pout the entire time.
“Too short,” he said.
“Shush. Tirry, these are Nazis. Not just assholes you call Nazis. Nazis.”
“Armbands and jackboots, Tirry.”
“So last season. AAAAAHahaha.”
Scissors stopped mid-snip.
“You’re not seeing the humor in this.”
“There’s no fucking humor in this,” Sheila said. “There’s no fucking HUMOR in NAZIS marching down the MAIN FUCKING DRAG, Tirry!”
Sheila slapped the scissors onto Precarious’ shoulder, and ran out the front door of the shop.
Little Aleppo had been founded upon free speech. That, and the gold mine. Also the harbor. In an economic sense, the neighborhood had been founded upon mineral extraction and the easy access to the sea, but in a very vague and noble way had also been founded on free speech. There was nothing Little Aleppians loved more than talking about free speech, and nothing they hated more than hearing it.
Usually, all the free speech was confined to Shrieker’s Corner in the northeast corner of the Verdance. The Verdance is oval-shaped and has three paths running though it–it looks like ≠ from the air–and in the toppermost right part, the little bitty section that no one has to pass through to get somewhere else is Shrieker’s Corner. Street corner preachers and drunken ufologists, all on their regulation soapboxes and screaming the secrets of the unknown world as loudly as possible. At lunch, Little Aleppians would often come by to heckle while they ate; the shriekers were glad for the company.
Free speech outside of the Corner would cost you $20 for a permit.
The C——a City Nazi Party had $20, and they sent their least Nazi-looking member into Town Hall to fill out the paperwork; everything was notarized and stamped and official, and he walked out with a permit to march on the Main Drag for two hours on the first Saturday of February. Around two weeks after the permit was issued, a Town Hall clerk named Mrs. Pelfrey finally glanced at the paperwork. Then she looked at it. Then she stared at it. Then all hell broke loose.
The Town Fathers immediately revoked the permit; the Nazis, anticipating this, had hired the law firm of Holly, Wood, and Vine. The court case came down to “Freedom of Assembly” vs. “But Nazis” and judges tend to side with the Constitution over common sense, so the march was on.
The debate, too. In the Morning Tavern, the drunks and PhD students argued about the limits of tolerance until no one could take it any more and everyone started swinging pool cues at each other. The junkies in The Nod took time out from shooting up and stealing from one another to discuss the dangers of normalizing deviant philosophies. In the PoliSci class at Paul Bunyan High School (Go Blue Oxen!), the teacher was absent so they watched a movie.
The bell in the tower of the First Church of the Iterated Christ is six feet in diameter and named the Calling Judge, and it goes WHONGGG on the hour. It had just struck five when the Reverend Arcade Jones came out of the back office. The church reverberated along with the bell, and the light melting through the stained glass windows illuminated all the dust in the air, dancing and praying. The pews were empty except for a small woman with spiky black hair sitting up front.
The Reverend walked up the middle aisle and stopped alongside her.
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Well, you know: Precarious let me cut his hair. Miracle, right?”
She had been crying, and there were small, circular tear marks in the Bible she held open on her lap.
“Can I sit with you?”
“It’s your church.”
“It’s everyone’s church.”
He sat down.
“You all right?”
“No. No. You think…you think you find someplace that’s…not safe, but…home? Where you belong? And it follows you. All the shit–excuse me–all the crap you left, it follows you. Why here!? WHY!?”
The church reverberated along with her voice, and the light melting through the stained glass windows illuminated all the dust in the air, dancing and praying.
“I don’t know. Ask the Lord.”
“He doesn’t return my calls.”
“Join the club.”
Sheila twisted on the pew to look straight at Arcade Jones.
“What if it was the Klan? What about that?”
The Reverend Arcade Jones looked straight back at her.
“Young lady, I grew up in Loxachachi, Florida, so don’t you dare lecture me about the Klan.”
They both looked up at the crucifix suspended above the altar. Someone had put a speedo on Jesus, and also stolen the church’s ladder; Arcade Jones had been meaning to get to it for a few days.
“It’s evil. They’re evil, and they’re coming to town.”
“It’s people. They’re people, and they’re coming to town.
The Reverend looked down at the Bible in Sheila’s lap.
“Reading or skimming?”
“‘Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.’ Ephesians 6:11.”
Arcade Jones nodded his head and smiled.
“Bit of an obscure verse.”
“I always liked it.”
“That’s the thing about that book. You can find just about anything in there. Anything you wanna do, there’s a verse backing you up. I always figured it was more honest to look at the general themes.”
“And what are they?”
“Depends on what you wanna do!”
The Reverend Arcade Jones shook the church with his laugh, his head tilted up towards the interior pinnacle seam of the arched roof, mouth wide open so you could see that he had no fillings at all.
“I believe that the Christ is within them,” he said when he had stopped laughing.
“Yes. I’m angered by the hurt they’re causing. But I cannot hate them. Even Nazis are the Christ. Even them. All or nothing at all.”
“I’m not there, Preacher.”
“But you’re here. And so am I. We could pray if you want.”
Arcade Jones held out his hand, palm up, and Sheila put hers in it: it looked so tiny that she laughed.
“What are we praying for, Preacher?”
“I never pray for anything. I just pray.”
And they did.
On the Tuesday before the first Saturday in February, three people tried to rob the Broadside Newsstand; Sally Moon and Argus made a quick hash of them, but everyone was unsettled: no one had ever tried to rob Omar before. On the Wednesday before, the snakes at the Little Aleppo Zoo staged a breakout. On Thursday, the farmer’s market drove through the old folk’s home while screaming “Turnabout is fair play!” On Friday, the swans that lived in Bell Lake wandered into Town Hall and nearly pecked Mrs. Pelfrey to death.
The Nazis were pushing a bow wave of mean and dumb in front of them, and it was sloshing all over the neighborhood.
On Saturday morning, the door to the bookstore with no title opened and the bell went TINKadink. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui was wearing an America flag dress, and she carried a stick with a sign attached that read LITTLE ALEPPO CHOOSES LOVE on it in red and blue marker.
“Fourth of July came early this year?” Mr. Venable said. He was sitting in his customary spot, wearing his customary suit.
“Are you going?”
“Hardly need to, do I? The whole nauseating spectacle will march right past my front door. It’ll be like watching the salmon run, if salmon were chinless flecks of shit in bomber jackets.”
“I think they’re wearing their dress uniforms.”
“Oh, very spiffy. Hugo Boss.”
“I’m sure they’re knockoffs.”
“Oh, no, Gussy. Nazis tend to be sticklers about intellectual property rights.”
She dropped her sign on the cluttered desk and went to the coffee machine.
“You no longer work here. Your access to coffee ended when your employment did.”
She poured herself a mug; there was about a half-inch of coffee left in the pot when she was finished.
“You’re kidding me,” Mr. Venable said.
“You’re not going to make a fresh pot?”
“I no longer work here.”
Gussy held the mug in both hands and took a big gulp without breaking eye contact with Mr. Venable. He did not smile, but did something that might be described as “smiling.”
“This is Little Aleppo’s finest day,” she said.
“How so? How exactly so, Gussy? There are Nazis parading down the Main Drag. That’s not even a good day, let alone the finest one.”
“You’re against this?”
“Of course! They’re Nazis, Gussy.”
“It’s America, Mr. Venable. Government may not blah blah blah freedom of speech. It’s one of our bedrock principles.”
“I sensed the importance from the ‘blah bah blah’ part.”
“Freedom of damn speech. You own a bookstore!”
“And any book whatsoever that starts a world war and attempts to exterminate a race of people shall be expunged from the shelves.”
“That’s Mein Kampf! You have that book.”
“I have many of that book. Original German and translations in a dozen languages. I even have one in Braille.”
“Yes, but it’s tough to read when you’re saluting.”
“Books are not the question here, Gussy. No book ever killed anyone. Ever read Mein Kampf? Actually read the thing?”
“No,” she said.
“It’s dreadful. Fevered gibberings of a nutter. Anyone entranced by the vision put forth in that horrid thing would have been an asshole no matter what.”
“But you carry it.”
“I carry The Bible and Catcher in the Rye, too. Can’t blame books for the assholes that read them. Look at them, Gussy.”
Mr. Venable waved his arm towards the back of the shop, with its two towering double-sided shelves creating three aisles, and the dogleg left to the backroom, and the ladder to the annex, and the stairs to the basements (of which there were more than one).
“Some say to love one another, and others teach you how to make bombs. There is Plato and L. Ron Hubbard, just about every thought humans have had for the past three thousand years. Everything time has not stolen from us is back there, Gussy. People choose which book to believe in. Like I said: I’ve read Mein Kampf. And yet I do not heil anyone, let alone an Austrian speed freak with one testicle.”
“You’re making my point!”
“I’m not, as you’re conflating ideas with actions. Those–”
He pointed to the books again.
“–are ideas. What’s going to go down out there–”
He pointed out the window towards the Main Drag.
“–is an action. An idea is ungovernable and flits about like an oiled-up snake, but an action? The cops can put a stop to that nonsense if they’re ordered to.”
“And you think they should be ordered to?”
“For everyone’s safety, yes.”
Gussy set her mug down on his desk, hard, and picked up her sign. She walked halfway to the door and said,
“This will be a peaceful day. We are going to protest and show our strength.”
“Oh, it will be peaceful,” Mr. Venable said.
The door to the bookstore with no title went TINK–
“Eventually,” he continued.
It was a nice day for a Nazi march, especially for February: the sun was weak but large in the afternoon sky, and there were no clouds. The sky was bigger and bluer than the ocean, but contained fewer sharks. The neighborhood had come out, poured out, onto the Main Drag for the march: there were protestors, and counter-protestors, and buskers, and pickpockets, and teenagers trying to not look stoned. The righteously indignant was there, and the mildly curious. Reporters from The Cenotaph canvassed the crowd to find its stupidest and least-informed members, so that they could be interviewed.
Cops from the LAPD (No, Not That One) were in uniform and spaced out in the gutter between the sidewalk and the macadam. Undercover cops mingled with the crowds, but everyone knew who they were.
“Hey, Stan. Undercover?”
The church bells on Rose Street began to ring two o’clock. First the Calling Judge of the First Church, and then St. Clement’s and St. Mary’s and St. Martin’s. When the churches were quiet, the Nazis began to march.
They weren’t even two dozen strong, all men, and mismatched. Some were wearing the black Panzer coats, and others had on the dull-green general staff coats with the leather strap across their chests; both wore armbands. One had a desert uniform like he was with the Afrikakorps, and another was in a black satin shell coat and Doc Martens; both wore armbands.
Needless to say, their marching was atrocious.
There was quite a bit of yelling, back and forth from the street to the sidewalk, but everything was cool as the Nazis strolled up the Main Drag like they owned it. On the corner of Rose Street was an enormous black man in a bumblebee-yellow suit; he was standing next to a small white woman in a black dress and green Converse sneakers.
The two Nazis leading the march saw the couple, and laughed. They were leading the march because they had the spiffiest uniforms: gleaming knee-high boots, and a black tunic topped off by a hat with a death’s-head skull on it. One leaned into the other and asked just what the fuck that was. The other one said that he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. They were both speaking louder than necessary, so that everyone could hear.
Sheila started towards them, burning tears in her eyes and fists rolled up, but she was stopped by Arcade Jones’ enormous hand on her chest.
His fingertip was at one armpit and his palm at the other; he pushed her back just very slightly, and he could hear 100,000 fans leap to their feet as they realized he had a clear shot to the quarterback because he was 19 again wearing the blue and orange of the University of Florida and had two fine knees unbroken by gravity or time and cleats taped to his feet a helmet strapped to his head hamstrings tight and powerful grinding into the grass that wasn’t grass but the macadam of the Main Drag and the quarterback not the quarterback but still churning against the ground and like his mother taught him back in Loxachachi he mashes his face into his man’s chest and drives drives drives while wrapping up gotta wrap your arms up like a hug and face in the Panzer tunic and driving your man down and following through.
The Reverend Arcade Jones knocked that Nazi’s dick in the dirt.
The neighborhood took this as a starting gun.
The cops pretended to put up a fight.
About a half-mile south along the Main Drag, a man in a worn black suit stood on the sidewalk with a cup of coffee watching the riot. There was a tortoiseshell cat crouched in between his feet.
“I told her so.”
The First Church of the Iterated Christ has a bell named the Calling Judge, and it rings on the hour. It had not stopped echoing noon when Sheila walked in. The Reverend Arcade Jones had found a ladder and was attempting to take the speedos off of Jesus, but ladders were not built for people his size and the whole thing was shimmying and shaking; collapse was imminent.
“Preacher, c’mon. Lemme do that.”
“Hello? Oh, Sheila. I’ve been meaning to come by your shop and talk to you.”
He descended the unsteady grey metal carefully.
“You got scissors?”
“How were you getting the bathing suit off?”
The Reverend hadn’t thought of that.
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
Sheila reached into her bag, and came up with a knife. She flicked out the blade, climbed the ladder, and cut the turquoise speedos off of the Son of God.
“Thank you,” the Reverend said.
Arcade Jones liked that, and he threw back his massive head and laughed.
“I’m not proud of what I did.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“It goeth before a fall, y’know.”
“Then I’ll get off this ladder.”
Sheila came down off the ladder, and they began to walk down the central aisle of the church.
“Why the change of heart, Preacher? I thought that even Nazis were the Christ.”
“They are, they are.”
“So why the tackling?”
The Reverend Arcade Jones stopped walking and turned to face her. He looked down, smiling.
“The thing about Christ? He got the shit kicked out of Him.”
Sheila looked up at the Reverend, and then she slipped her small hand into his large one; they walked down the central aisle of the church, and out the door onto Rose Street, which ran into the Main Drag. The sun had done all it could for the day and would drop towards the ocean soon, but for now it was just a Tuesday afternoon like any other in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.