Little Aleppo has a natural harbor that is shaped like a bass clef, or the right side of a cartoon heart. Whichever imagery you find more appealing, and it is an appealing place. To the north, jutting into the sea and sheering down into the water, was Mt. Lincoln; the hill provided a rocky promontory that sheltered the harbor from the crashing waves of the Pacific and had–geologists from Harper College speculated–ripped a goodly chunk out of the seafloor. This made the harbor deep enough for commercial ships and private boats: the former were unloaded and rigged at the Salt Wharf; the latter tied up and orgied upon at Boone’s Docks. Visitors to the neighborhood would often look out on the crescent cut out of the ocean, bustling and brimming with trade commerce life work houseboats, and they would ask,
“Is the Salt Wharf the one on the left or the right?”
And then their wallets would be stolen, and they would not find out the answer to their question. People didn’t visit Little Aleppo a lot.
The Salt Wharf was on the right, if you’re looking out from the Segovian Hills, or more locally specific, it was on the Upside of town which made little sense until you recall that the Salt Wharf was built before the rich folks decided where they wanted to live, and you can’t move a wharf. Petitions had circulated, nevertheless.
“What the hell is this?”
“A petition, sir.”
“Lady, I’m a stevedore.”
“That’s what the petition is about. We demand you and Boone’s Docks switch places. It works out for everyone: the poor people get to be closer to their jobs, and the rich people get to be closer to their boats. Everyone wins.”
A Blue Ribbon Committee was even appointed by the Town Fathers, all of whom just happened to live on the Upside, to study the feasibility of the proposal to switch the locations of the Dock and the Wharf. After months of careful deliberation, the committee returned a finding:
And that was pretty much the end of that, but–like Flat-Earthers–catch someone drunk on $100 scotch at the right moment, and you’ll hear the idea defended.
“How tough could it be? I put together million-dollar real estate deals. Those are complicated. This? Not so bad. Move this here, move that there. Bing bang boom.”
Mostly, the Upside tolerated the Salt Wharf and the work done there. (It didn’t hurt that many residents of the Upside profited from the work that was done there.) They similarly tolerated the businesses that catered to the Salt Wharf, and the men and women who worked there. A rich Little Aleppian is still a Little Aleppian, and therefore instinctively knows that people are fuck-ups–they get drunk, sloppy, and weird–and that furthermore any suppression of said propensity to fuck up was not just counterproductive, but exponentially counterproductive: folks go squirrelly at the rate they’re told not to, squared. “Keep Off The Grass” signs lead to walked-on grass and stolen signs. Give people a reason to walk someplace that’s not the grass, that’s better than the grass, or so they think. Somewhere they chose of their own free will. If people don’t have somewhere to go, they’ll find a place.
The Upside figured it was better to deal with a couple dives and hovels than to have drunken sailors breaking into people’s houses to make love to the linen closet.
There was the Morning Tavern, which originally opened to service the fishmongers and hands whose day ended thirsty at dawn, and the Hotel Salt Wharf, which housed the sailors on turnaround dreaming of home. Anatoly’s American was a luncheonette: counter with the metal stools attached, square formica-topped tables. Plastic squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard, and no menus: sign above the cashier listed your choices. Anatoly’s lived up to its name; only the most American food: hamburgers, pizzas, tacos, French fries. The fries come in plastic baskets diapered with cheap paper that soaks up the grease and salt
Anatoly cooked; Brickel was the waitress, countergirl, cashier. He was tall and rangy, and quiet; she was short and spherical, and spoke only slightly more. Brickel had “You. What you want?” down, and she had no problem telling you how much you owed, but beyond that she was as silent as Anatoly. The only thing that regular customers knew was that Anatoly was most likely not actually named Anatoly, as the joint was called that before he bought it. If and when the man told everyone his real name, then people would call him that, but until then, Anatoly it was. Brickel had a tag on her uniform that read “Brickel.”
After that, no one had a clue as to the details. They were from somewhere not local: they had been overheard speaking to each other, and no one could place the language. A professor from the linguistics department at Harper College once got a chance to eavesdrop on an entire conversation, and she declared that they were using a pidgin of Quechua, Xhosa, Hungarian, and Klingon. There were also several fricatives and plosives she had previously assumed humans incapable of making.
But he made a mean taco, and so no one gave a shit past idle speculation.
If you could do something–do something well–then no matter where you from, Little Aleppo would accept you. Or if you were completely useless, snuck in, and refused to leave. Either way.
Swingtown Nutt was in the corner working on his third grilled cheese sandwich and wondering what shape an inside-out bagel would be. The Blister Sisters were out of their work clothes; their private show from the night before had run long, and they were dragging and shot over their coffees and shared basket of fries. The Reverend Arcade Jones and Deacon Blue were at a table.
Arcade enjoyed eating with the deacon. He was good to talk to, and he also knew when to stop talking and let a hungry man work. And he didn’t comment on how much food Arcade was eating. Lord, did he hate that. Look at the size of me, he thought. Course I got four or five plates. The reverend also liked that the church was buying when he ate with the deacon. They had felt like tacos, and Anatoly made a mean taco, so the two men had walked over from the First Church of the Iterated Christ on Rose Street; when they got there, Arcade decided that he also felt like a club sandwich and a breakfast burrito and a cheeseburger.
“Reverend, my chief concern is that you’re gonna deck him.”
“That is the single most absurd thing I’ve heard today, and I sat in on the Prevaricators Anonymous meeting this morning.
The men’s suit coats were on the back of their chairs: Arcade’s was bright yellow; Deacon Blue’s was suit-colored. Paper napkins covering their thighs.
“This guy’s a real asshole.”
“I don’t overreact to things like that.”
“You tackled a parade on the Main Drag.”
“A parade of Nazis! Context is important.”
“Still impulsive,” Deacon Blue said. “I got your back here, but I’m just worried.”
“Guy’s a button-pusher.”
“Got no buttons. Nothing but switches.”
“Might say certain words.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones took down half of his fish taco in one bite without breaking eye contact with Deacon Blue.
“I have heard those words before, Deacon.”
“Hey, hey, I dunno. Those words, y’know. Sometimes guys hear ’em and they just lose it.”
Sometimes Arcade felt like explaining things to white people, and sometimes he didn’t. He popped the remaining half of the taco in his mouth.
“I’ll be all right.”
“Okay. Just warning you.”
Deacon Blue had spent the past day reading up on Tommy Amici; he had inadvertently discovered an axiom about famous people: you only needed to read two books about them. One by a disinterested biographer, and one by someone they know. It is preferable that the second book is written by someone who bears a grudge. Put them together and you’ve got everything you need to know.
The deacon felt like he knew too much, punch-drunk from Tommy’s bullshit. The divorces, the fights, that coup he had instigated. For Christ’s sake, he had slugged a president. And sure, Deacon Blue thought, it was a president that truly deserved to get the shit kicked out him, but it was the principle of the thing. Intercontinental love affairs and jet-set blowjobs. Jesus, the blowjobs. Deacon Blue had not always been a deacon, and he had received what he thought was a healthy portion of blowjobs, but apparently he was a piker. How did he even find time to sing, the deacon wondered halfway through his research.
From what he could tell, Tommy Amici had only had one love: Cara Thorn. She would laugh at him and then fuck him, or fuck him and then laugh. It was the combination Deacon Blue figured. Other women had laughed at him, and Tommy spat at them and called them bitches; the ones who just fucked him, he called whores, But Cara Thorn did both, and it drove Tommy insane with need; he hated her for it. No other broad made him need, and that’s what he hated: the weakness of it, that he would so easily beg for her. And she called him “Thomas.” No one else did. It wasn’t even Tommy’s name. He didn’t care.
Cara Thorn had wavy hair–all the actresses back then had wavy hair–and she was originally from Piscataway, New Jersey, but you couldn’t tell until she got drunk. She was the fifth of six children, only her sister Lainie was younger; Cara doted on her until she died at age four of meningitis. Father was a butcher with thick, hairy forearms. She inherited his hirsute nature and underwent regular electrolysis, having tried every other form of depilatory there was. Her mother sang beautifully, but she did not inherit that.
The studio paid for the voice lessons while she did bit parts: she was under contract to Barry Alsop at Sunrise Pictures. $400 a week, which sounds good for the 40’s, but that’s before taxes and agency fees and the PR bill and, let’s not forget, she was expected to look presentable when out and about, and that cost quite a bit, so when Stompy Happ asked her to marry him, she didn’t let him finish the question. Stompy had been a child star, and he had not grown since: he was a cherubic and tiny thing with a puppy’s face, and he was also the biggest goddamned pervert Cara had ever met. Weird shit she could simply not get into, even though she tried. The marriage lasted almost five weeks, and she did not return any of the wedding gifts.
After that was the bandleader, Koy Montage, but that didn’t last–a clarinetist just wasn’t going to make it–and the roles were getting bigger, and so was the money now that she was represented by Sharky Katz at the Bugle Agency: she played doomed countesses, lusty wenches, an empress or two. The breakthrough was Mata Hari. Cara played the spy/exotic dancer to perfection, and it was a big budget flick: there were sets of France, Holland, England, everywhere. No expense was spared after first being haggled over. It was a hit. Variety called her “sex personified,” and Spotlight said she was “a delicious dish that may inspire tumescence in observant viewers.” She didn’t believe them. The thing about beautiful people is that some of them are just as fucked-up as ugly ones, and Cara Thorn just saw a little girl from Piscataway in the mirror, a little girl who couldn’t help her sister. Booze helped. It does that.
Cara and Tommy met in Tahoe at the Borderline Casino & Lodge. He was singing, she was waiting out the six-week residency requirement to file for divorce. Same suite she had stayed in last time she got divorced. Be cheaper to buy a place if this is going to become a habit, she thought, and poured herself more scotch. Everyone told her how gorgeous Tahoe was in the fall. Everyone was a stooge: Tahoe was boring. Ooh, a lake. Big shit, a lake. There was a lake in Piscataway. Vegas was an hour away, but Koy was there. With his drummer. Cara was fairly sure she knew what was going on there. Women can tell.
Reno was out of the question.
She read, drank, made long-distance calls for hours. And then: Tommy. The Borderline plumped til the seams burst, spilling debutantes and comics and viscounts and hookers out into the lake’s implacable depths: everybody came out for Tommy, full occupancy and then some. The casino rocked on its foundations and there was a wheel of fortune you could hear clacking and stealing from miles away out the doors, open to let in the breeze; the sky outside was purple and the dealers were all white. The only black people in the room were celebrities. There were no clocks in the casino, but all the lights dimmed at 7:50–once, twice, three times–and chips were abandoned, roulette balls ignored, a mad rush to the showroom to their tables to the spotlight to the overture and then: Tommy.
Still skinny and hipless, waist the diameter of a Marlboro cigarette smoldering in a heavy glass ashtray on a wooden stool; he would light them, puff puff, set them down, forget them; the ash would prop up the filter until the drummer hit his toms BROCKADOOM and the whole shebang would crumble into the ashtray’s cupola. Gleaming black tuxedo–beyond black, infrablack, the color of a landscape painted by a blind man–with satin lapels that shimmered in the spotlight and crepe piping up the legs. Warm Beside You was the opener–Tommy would always sing it as Warm Inside You during soundcheck–and it was a sad tale about a schmuck, but the brass section was hopping and the tempo was brisk: couple had a fight and the guy leaves, dead of winter, to seek refuge in his local bar and he has an imaginary conversation with her. I’ll take cold and alone over warm beside yooooooooou, Tommy held the last note as the band shifted chords beneath him and the conductor made a fist. For a tiny moment, there was nothing in the room, no noise sound music, just the reverberation of an echo, and then the swells swelled up in another standing ovation, his second of the night. Some entertainers got standing ovations for performing, but Tommy Amici got them for showing up.
Except Cara. Front row of tables, only one sitting. Her wavy hair was up, one strand of pearls. Yellow dress–she was so tanned that she could pull off yellow–with bustling and crinoline and all that busy shit that was the fashion of the moment. Legs crossed at the ankle and looking up at Tommy, who was looking back at her, and so she smiled with only half of her mouth, and raised one eyebrow and he was looking back at her still. Was her drink full enough? She examined it, determined that it was not, searched the crowd for the waiter. Anything but look back at Tommy, and his eyes that were green as the Verdance in the summer. That waiter was around here somewhere, and she casually wiped a hair that did not exist from her cleavage. He was still looking. Women can tell.
Tommy sang All That I Am and Meet Me In My Heart and Last Train To Lonely and The Devil’s In The Details.
You say you love me
You tell me you need me
Oh baby I’ll call you
The devil’s iiiiiiiiiin the details.
The showroom was full of stars. Grown men with little boys’ names: Johnny, Sammy, Kicky, Tushy. Women with elegant necks who wore dresses with sleeves. Fuck ’em all, Tommy thought. Look at ’em clap. Like seals. Urk urk, you lowlife motherfuckers. You want a song? Here’s a song.
I knew you were his
From how he took your coat,
And the way he pulled out the chair.
I remember when you sat here;
Now you’re sitting over there
When the band stops playing,
We’ll play musical chairs.
Ladies wearing jewelry clapped, and men in large watches whistled and stomped their feet. Cara applauded politely, and the crowd swept her back into the casino. Buzzing, everyone buzzing and buzzed–at least–and hurling down chips onto the tables: it was a competition, who could not give a shit the loudest, and the dealers called BLACKJACK the top of their voices with a smile that didn’t reach their eyes; a very famous comedian climbed atop the craps table and removed his trousers to the delight of the punters, and then: Tommy. It’s Tommy, they murmured; he’s here, they said. Sauntered. Pointing. Hey, Stevie, you still alive.? Haw haw haw. Another ovation, of course: he had shown up.
Cara did not turn around. She was at a blackjack table playing blue chips; she had no idea how much they were worth, but she thought they complemented her dress.
“Take a break, yeah?” Tommy said to the dealer. Folded hundred in the shirt pocket. Pit boss nodded. Dealer scrammed.
She had a ten and a three up in front of her. The dealer was showing a five.
“You wanna stand on that.”
“I’ll stand wherever I like, thank you,” and she looked up at him for the first time, eye contact, and that was all there was to it.
When Tommy Amici smiled, his eyes got greener.
“Just friendly advice.”
“Perish the thought.”
Cara was a good actress, and you could not tell how hard her heart was going thrump thrump thrump.
“Oh, you don’t want that.”
She took a cigarette out of her clutch bag. Tommy had a lighter.
Queen of Hearts.
Tommy flicked the card away like a cockroach on a wedding cake. Filthy thing.
“Dunno. Haven’t dealt yet.”
“Hop to it, slowpoke.”
Eight of Diamonds.
“Well, ain’t that lucky?” he said.
“Mister Amici, where would a girl be in this world without luck?”
“She’d be getting some fuckin’ TACOS but fuckin’ people are trying to stop the processions and proceedings because of jealousy and the motherfuckin’ patriarchy and the FUCK are you lookin’ at, pal?”
Tiresias Richardson was fucked up and wanted tacos, and Anatoly’s American served up a mean taco. She was leaning–sprawling–on Big-Dicked Sheila, who looked vaguely embarrassed but also quite used to the feeling. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, followed them in. The Reverend Arcade Jones and Deacon Jones looked up, caught their eye.
The women froze like teenagers caught out on a panty raid.
“Reverend,” Sheila said with an involuntary curtsy. (She had had several drinks and several toots.)
“Deacon,” Gussy said, and waved. (She had had the same amount of whatnot as Sheila.)
“Tacos!” Tiresias yelled. (She was fucked up and wanted tacos.)
The Reverend Arcade Jones put his breakfast burrito down on one of his empty plates, smiled wide and friendly, raised a giant hand. Deacon Blue was turned around in his seat, but he tried to adopt a cheerful posture. It was tough; he had a dodgy back.
“Ladies,” the reverend said.
“Hi, girls,” the deacon said.
Sheila and Gussy poured Tiresias into a chair. Anatoly started making tacos, chicken: Tiresias had been in before and he knew what she liked. Deacon Blue swiveled back towards the table. The Reverend Arcade Jones picked up his breakfast burrito.
“Please repeat your concerns to me,” the reverend said.
“Knock it off.”
“No, no: you were worried about how I would behave at the meeting.”
“Not ‘worried.’ I had concerns.”
“And they were?”
“TACOS!” Tiresias mumble-yelled from across the room.
“Tirry, shush,” Sheila told her.
“All gone now,” Deacon Blue said.
“You sure? You sure you’re not still worried about the sober man of God and not the actress who’s stinking drunk at noon?”
“In her defense, she works nights.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones took a bite out of his breakfast burrito.
“I’ll talk to her,” the deacon said.
Anatoly worked the grill. He cooked with his nose–the beef smelled like this when it was ready, the pork smelled like that–on the metal slab. 400 degrees; he would chop at it with his metal spatula, the oils would sizzle and pop pop pop: order of bacon, burger plain, burger cheese, shrimp for the tacos; eggs in the top right corner: sunnyside and scrambled they would bubble and he would poke them with the edge of his worn metal spatula POP again the yellow juice hits his apron as the church bells start to go WHANG. It is noon: first, the First Church of the Iterated Christ, and then St. Clemen’s, and St. Martin’s, and St Mary’s. WHANG a dozen times to let everyone know that the sun is half-dead and it is time for lunch in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.