The First Bank of Little Aleppo was actually the fifth. The first one was a ledger and a safe behind the counter of Samperand’s Hardware. When the Wayside Fire took out half the neighborhood in ’71, including the hardware store, Old Man Samperand rebuilt on what was being called the Main Drag; it was the first brick building in Little Aleppo, and it stood as a beacon to commerce until 1902, when it got robbed.
“Wasn’t the bank right there?”
“I guess someone robbed it.”
Old Man Samperand rebuilt once again, and bigger. Walnut and marble and carpets the precise color and thickness of Christmas pudding. Artists from Back East painted a mural along the walls of angels representing all the different loopholes in the Biblical proscription against usury. The pens were attached to the tables by sterling silver chain. Most importantly, the building was far heavier than the previous iteration. Let’s see ’em steal this one, Samperand said, and it must have been a good strategy, because when he died in 1922, the bank had not moved one inch. Old Man Samperand left the place to his 28-year-old son, Oldman.
Oldman Samperand was a prim little man who parted his hair in the middle and slicked it down with Dapper Dan pomade; he had elaborate and exacting opinions on life, business, and clothing. Reputation is paramount, he lectured his employees, some of whom had been working there long enough to remember when he was a prim little boy. A banker must appear trustworthy, Oldman preached, which is why he would not open accounts for, or lend to, minorities. You never know what people will think if they see you doing business with those sorts, he said. He had a good idea what people would say if they saw him doing business with rumrunners and bootleggers, so he did it at night. Prohibition was a swell time for the First Bank, but Oldman made more off the speculation fever that had taken hold of Little Aleppo. He did not invest in the stock market–he derided it a “peculiarly Jewish racket”–but he was glad to lend you the money to do so. Oldman specialized in small loans with high interest, paid weekly and in cash. When the crash came, he had socked away so much in reserve that could deal with the bank run. Everyone who wanted to withdraw their savings was given the whole sum in greenbacks. After a few dozen withdrawals, locals realized that the bank wasn’t going to run out of money and stopped trying to make the bank run out of money.
The Depression was even more profitable for the First Bank than Prohibition was. Most of the New Deal money didn’t come directly from the Feds: they just guaranteed the loans that local banks made, and holy shit did the First Bank make a lot of loans once they became fully insured; some were even to people that existed. Oldman bought up the Segovian Hills, piece by piece, as the Works Program sliced roadways through the chaparral. He was becoming a very rich man, but no amount of money could save the (third) First Bank of Little Aleppo from World War II.
The after-action report regarding the events of June 2nd, 1942, lists several failures but does not place fault as no one could find anyone to blame. While there is no doubt that installing a howitzer next to the anti-aircraft guns set up at the harbor to repel possible Japanese invasion was a mistake, it could not be determined who authorized the cannon’s placement. Nor was it ever ascertained where the howitzer came from, as all of the serial numbers and identifying markings had been filed off. Similarly, the name of the person who fired the weapon that night was never discovered, let alone the circumstances that came to see the barrel of the gun point towards the Main Drag instead of out to sea. The First Bank was hit three times and the walls caved in. Oldman Samperand rebuilt, and went to his grave four years later believing it was the Japanese who had destroyed his bank. His only child was named Sprout, and she took over.
Sprout Samperand changed the First Bank’s policies. She was a forward-thinker and a progressive, not like her father. Of course she would lend to minorities, as long as they were buying homes or opening businesses in the right part of the neighborhood. Certain people belonged in certain places. Sprout was 52 years old in 1968, and a brand-new grandmother, which was bothering her. She was a young woman. Not a grandmother–certain people are grandmothers, not her–and so she was looking for new friends, young friends, and she found them. People with money can always find new friends. Friends you find with money are rarely the friends you want. Sprout’s new set was much younger than her, and they fed her acid and sang about the Revolution.
No one ever talks about the Revolution, just songs and lectures.
The Cenotaph said that Sprout Samparand had been brainwashed, hypnotized, taken in: she was a pillar of the community until those damnable hippies got their hooks in her and whispered lies into her ear. Sprout was tricked! Yes, that was it: Sprout was hornswoggled by those kids. Maybe they took off their shirts and showed her their nipples. Or slipped drugs into her booze. There was a scenario in which the First Bank of Little Aleppo’s destruction by half-assed bomb was not Sprout’s fault, and the neighborhood’s establishment would find it if it killed them.
The bomb was meant for Town Hall. It was to set off the Revolution. Didn’t you hear the songs, the lectures?
With Sprout gone, the twins took over. Manticore and Tim. Manticore was pissed that she was named Manticore, and Tim was crazy as a Bolivian soccer riot; neither came out of their offices that much, leaving Seymour Golden to manage the day-to-day operations.
“Doesn’t Little Aleppo have enough bars?”
“That’s subjective. It does have one fewer than it did rather recently. So, I wouldn’t be adding a bar to the neighborhood, just replacing the lost one,” Lower Montana said.
Mr. Golden had a shiny bald head and a gray three-piece suit. Three piece-suits are contronymic garments: they are worn only by men admired for their seriousness or appreciated for their silliness. No one wears a three-piece suit by accident or default. It is an outfit of intention, a statement. Behind every three-piece suit is a chain of decisions. His shirt was light-blue with a spotless white spread collar, and his dark-blue tie had a full Windsor knot, which complemented his thin and horsey face.
“You’re in the bar business, Ms. Montana?”
“No, I’m an assistant professor at Harper College.”
“Business? Economics? Restaurant management?”
“But you’ve owned businesses before?”
“When I was an undergrad, I sold pot. Does that count?”
Lower laughed, but she was the only one. Flower Childs stared straight ahead and blinked slowly. The two women were sitting in green leather chairs with backs that swooped around their shoulders. The padding had buttons dimpled into it, and the arms had metal rivets marching in between the leather and the wood. Mr. Golden did not smile even out of courtesy, and he adjusted his reading glasses and scanned the business proposal in his hand.
“Police department could have made some progress if you had turned over those notes sooner,” he said.
The expression on Flower’s face did not change. She had walked over from the station on Alfalfa Street and had her walkie-talkie clipped onto the hip of her blue khakis.
“Police department couldn’t find their own dicks with a metal detector,” she said.
Lower Montana smiled too wide and blinked slowly. Mr. Golden flicked a page back and drew a long line with his pencil. Then he read for a moment. Then, another long line.
“You own the rights to the name?”
“The Wayside Inn,” Mr. Golden said.”
“You don’t need the rights to that name. A billion bars are named that.”
“Whaddya mean, a panther?”
“A motherfucking panther, Pedro. The fucking cat in a fucking tree is a motherfucking panther, you asshole.”
Flower was on-duty, and so had to keep her walkie-talkie on, and now it crackled with two male voices, one of whom was far less frazzled than the other, probably because he wasn’t standing in a yard on Fournier Way brandishing an axe at a hissing panther ten feet above him in a tree.
The cops took people to jail, and the paramedics took people to St,. Agatha’s, and the firemen did everything else. All the uncategorizable calls, the weird shit, the fuckers who got themselves jammed into playground equipment. Or cars. People got jammed in cars sometimes. The LAFD got called when children or old folks wandered off. They had saved the universe once, but by accident and they were unaware of their achievement.
And they got cats out of trees, although most of the time the cats were not cats. Ten-year-olds, more often. A ten-year-old is at the right power/weight ratio to climb the fuck out of a tree, but a ten-year-old is also ten years old and so will look down from that tree’s upper branches and freeze in fear. Dogs, sometimes, usually boxers; they would tremble as the straps went around their chest and picked up and hoisted over a shoulder and humped back down the ladder. The firemen had noticed that they never had to rescue the same dog twice, but kids were repeat offenders.
But this was a fucking panther. Dwayne McGlory had seen panthers before, and that was a panther ten feet above him and hissing. He had his axe in one hand and his walkie-talkie in the other.
“It’s a motherfucking black panther, Pedro.”
Pedro’s voice crackled back,
“I am gonna beat your ass when I get back there. I’m looking at a fucking panther.”
“There’s no panthers in Little Aleppo, McGlory. It’s just a big cat, you big baby.”
It wasn’t. It was a panther.
“It isn’t! It’s a fucking panther!”
The animal drew back its lips and snarled at Dwayne McGlory, who did not like cats of any size. Cats were for weirdos and loners and drunks and monks. They had no point, he would say loudly so everyone could hear him and wouldn’t realize that he had been afraid of cats ever since one had attacked him as a child.
“Well, where did it come from?”
“I dunno! Did you call the fucking zoo?”
There was silence on the walkie-talkie.
“Lemme get right back to you.”
“You fucking do that.”
And now there was silence in Mr. Golden’s office in the First Bank of Little Aleppo. He said,
“Do you need to take that call?”
Lower Montana had her head in her hand, and Flower Childs said,
“They can handle it.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, and then nothing, just stared at the papers in front of him. Outside, there were men depositing checks and women making withdrawals, and tellers behind a thick counter made of mahogany wood. A line had formed for the Coin-o-tron: you dumped your change into the metal funnel and it clinkclinkclanked down to the hopper and all the hidden gizmodic intestines within; when it finished counting, a receipt would shoot out of the slot and you could redeem it for cash. Or you could slide it back into the machine for a chance at the progressive jackpot, which flashed on a tote board above the Coin-o-tron in bright yellow letters. The carpet was thicker than peanut butter and the windows were so clean you could see through them. The First Bank of Little Aleppo was solid and everlasting and secure and would be there forever, even though it burned down and blown up four times previous.
“Now, Ms. Montana–”
“She’s a PhD. Doctor Montana,” Flower said.
Mr. Golden smiled with just his lips.
“You can call me Lower.”
“Dr. Montana, you have listed as your collateral a house on Alfalfa Street.”
“But you do not own the house.”
“Technically, no. Flower–uh, Chief Childs–owns the house. It’s in her name. Technically.”
“Uh-huh. But the loan would be to you?”
Mr. Golden removed his reading glasses, folded in the arms, placed them in his breast pocket. Set the business proposal down on the green blotter atop the desk. Interlaced his fingers in front of his chest and blew out air.
“Well,” he said, “that will be a problem. You see–”
The walkie-talkie snapped back to life.
“The zoo has lost a panther.”
“Those motherfuckers couldn’t keep shit in a toilet!”
“The keepers are on their way to your location with a tranq gun,” Pedro said.
“I swear the cages at that fucking place have revolving doors!”
“Chief,” Mr. Golden said. “Are you sure you don’t need to take care of this?”
“I have the utmost faith in my men, Mr. Golden,” she said.
He cleared his throat and looked Lower Montana in the eyes.
“Ma’am, the problem is that you–you–have no equity in the home you’re offering up for collateral. It is Chief Childs’ property. You two are…roommates?”
Lower Montana nodded her head and smiled; Flower Childs stared at the banker.
“So,” he continued,” I could–perhaps–authorize this loan to Chief Childs, but not to you. You see–”
“It’s our house,” Flower stated. “It’s both of ours.”
“Not legally,” Mr. Golden answered. “Not on paper. Legally, on paper, it belongs to you, Chief. If you’d like to put your name on the application, then we might start over, but with only Ms.–excuse me, Doctor–Montana’s name on the loan, it is not feasible.”
Lower Montana still had a gladhanding smile on her face; she still believed in the benevolence of faceless institutions even after coming face-to-face with so many of them. Flower Childs had no faith in faceless institutions, mostly because she worked for one, and she was not smiling at all at the horse-faced cocksucker across the pretentious desk from her, and his face became that of Lower’s father blacking her eye and tossing her out and Branny Dade with her fucking signs and everyone else that had ever hurt her friends. Flower was 6’1″ and 200 pounds by the time she was 13, and so people did not talk shit to her but for some reason felt free to talk shit to everyone she had ever loved.
People only talk as much shit as you let them.
“Seymour,” she said.
Lower muttered, “Shit,” under her breath; she recognized this tone of voice. It meant they were leaving.
“Take your loan. And your bank. And your ugly fucking suit. And shove ’em up your ass.”
Flower Childs stood up using just her thighs. Lower Montana pushed herself out of her chair with her arms.
“Apparently,” Lower Montana said, and handed the joint back to Steppy Alouette. Steppy’s house on Pharaoh Lane was loaded with art, some you’d recognize: that skinny Dutch fellow who went crazy, and the Spanish one who fucked too much and saw through time, and a few Americans, too. Americans didn’t know what to do with color, Steppy thought. Too much or too little, always. Sculptures and objets and enough Tiffany lamps to light up the Albert Hall. Steppy and Lower were in the sitting room.
They were sitting.
“Is a panther bigger than a leopard?”
“I don’t know,” Lower said. “It’s less South American. I know that. Far less.”
Steppy’s left eye was shot–there’s only so much cataract surgery one eyeball can take–and so were her hips. Too much dancing at the Wayside Inn. Worth it, she thought. That one night–was it ’78 or ’83?–when the floor rose up to catch her feet and everyone she ever loved was there, and the music was far too goddamned loud; Manfred Pierce had leapt over the bar to do his moves. His move. Manfred only had one move, this swimming motion to the left and right, and every regular at the Wayside could do an imitation of it, but on this night–on that one night–he was caught up in the fresculated spotlight of the mirror ball, checkered against his cheek, and he was graceful and beautiful just like all of us, and that night–that one night, that one moment–it came back to Steppy two or three times a day and she tried to live in the memory but could not, Her hips were shot and so was her left eye, and she did not leave her house full of art on Pharaoh Lane much lately.
They were sitting on a Gropius couch. Off-white leather. Steppy waved the joint in front of her until Lower took it from her.
“She told Golden to fuck himself?”
“In so many words,” Lower said.
“Good. That prick’s good for paperwork and not much else. You should have come to me first.”
Steppy Alouette’s family made its money in furs 200 years ago, and then in sugar 150 years ago, and then in coffee and steel 100 years ago. The Alouette fortune was solid and everlasting and secure and would be there forever, and had never burned down or blown up.
“You’ve done enough,” Lower said.
“Bullshit. When I’m dead, I’ve done enough.”
Lower was right. Steppy had sponsored most of the runaways and castaways that came through the Wayside over the years. Deposits on apartments, tuitions, plane tickets home. Walking-around money. All the mongrels and mutts, they had an angel at the Wayside. Steppy got taken a few times by con-men. She didn’t care; she got a story out of it. Rather get conned a million times than turn away one scholar, one entrepreneur, one drunk. Steppy Alouette was a soft touch, and she reached out and took Lower Montana’s hand and said,
And Lower told her, and Steppy said that was fine. There used to be a Wayside Inn, and there would be a Wayside Inn again, a place that would take you in when no one else would, a place with a mirror ball and bathrooms full of mystery and a sprung dance floor that bobbed up and down in time with the music while outside, on Sylvester Street, the respectable folks went about their business in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.