Little Aleppo always enjoyed wars, mostly because everyone stayed home. Locals were fine with getting into fights, but a person could get hurt in a war. Besides, there was usually a reason for a fight, an explainable if usually dumb rationale: money, or sex, or status. Those three things do tend to lead to fisticuffs. But a war? One of the more pointless ones started because someone shot an archduke. No one in Little Aleppo had ever met a regular duke, let alone one of the arch variety. The general consensus up and down the Main Drag was that the archduke’s death was the archduchess’ problem.
Before the white people showed up, the Pulaski tribe lived in the area that would later be called Little Aleppo. They lived in kotchas, which were teepees made of long, broad strips of redwood bark; several dozen were arranged in a semi-circle around a communal stone hearth, and to the west was a lake. North of the village was a field shaped like an egg where the Pulaski planted in the traditional way, everything on top of each other, and in that field everything grew. They knew no war.
The humans who lived in what would later be called America acted just like the humans who lived in what was and is called Europe: they organized themselves into leagues and nations, and there was all sorts of political intrigue and backstabbing, and neighboring tribes bickered constantly. Noble savages were neither noble, nor savage; just people.
The Pulaski were a genial bunch of folks, and tried not to get involved in conflicts between rival factions. They had a lake full of fish, and the breeze that came off it was warm and friendly in the afternoons; they also had the leaves of the peregrine maria tree, which they chewed. The Pulaski had everything they needed to be left alone, if only people would let them alone.
But there are assholes everywhere, and when the Pulaski were met with direct aggression, they would try to laugh it off. Someone who wants to fight a stranger can’t be that bright, the Pulaski thought, and so they would try to confuse and misdirect their opponents away. Some fuckers just won’t take a hint, though.
I said that the Pulaski knew no war, but more specifically: the Pulaski would not stand for war. If they knew a conflict could not be avoided, they would sneak into their enemy’s village in the middle of the night and slit every single throat. And if you solve a problem that way, you only have to do it once or twice before you never have that kind of problem again. The other tribes smiled when they met a Pulaski, and the Pulaski would always smile back twice as wide.
The Pulaski did not weigh in on whether extremism in defense of liberty is a vice, but they stated quite clearly their belief that psychopathic overreaction to being fucked with is a virtue.
One day, a Pawnee man who was not named Peter wandered into the village; shortly thereafter, a white man who was named Busybody Tyndale staggered in. The Pulaski fed both of them, and did not slit their throats. The two men found Jesus everywhere, and then Busybody found gold in a creek; neither of these discoveries were good for the Pulaski in the long run. The white men that the gold attracted also knew how to slit throats in the middle of the night, and the Pulaski that did not pack up and run at the first sniff of the future were buried without their names in the southwest corner of what would later be called the Verdance, where everything grows.
Little Aleppo avoided the Civil War by being 3,000 miles away from it, which is an excellent way to avoid dying in a war. Until very recently, “being on the other side of the continent” was an unimpeachable strategy. It was a boom time: the gold seam that the Reverend Busybody Tyndale discovered (and had been immediately swindled out of) had proved out hundreds of times greater than expectation, so much gold you couldn’t look away and so it was called the Turnaway Lode.
Both Union and Confederate forces wanted access to the Turnaway Lode, and both parties sent representatives out; everyone in Little Aleppo would testify in a court of law that they had never see the representatives arrive. The Union and Confederates sent more men, which the locals would swear they had not seen, either.
General Napoleon Buford (Union) and Beauford Napoleon (Confederacy) both sent telegrams to the sheriff of Little Aleppo, Miss Valentine, who was also the proprietor of the largest saloon on the Main Drag, the Wayside Inn. The last sheriff was a pain-in-the-ass, so he stopped being a sheriff and started being a corpse, and Miss Valentine decided it was far simpler to skip the corruption and go straight to hypocrisy; she pinned on the badge.
Miss Valentine owned the Wayside Inn, and she owned a dozen whores and four goons, and she owned the town’s telegraph machine and printing press. She had a piece of the transit company and the livery, and the hotel, and everything else except the Turnaway. Which was the one thing she wanted, and she saw no advantage in letting the mine belong to one side or the other of Mr. Lincoln’s War.
The generals’ telegrams read:
WHERE ARE THE MEN WE SENT STOP
Miss Valentine sent back the following:
MOST LIKELY EATEN BY BEARS STOP MANY BEARS STOP BIG STOP SCARY STOP GRRRRR STOP
Luckily for Miss Valentine, both generals died in their sleep very soon thereafter. (They were both found early in the morning, in their beds with their throats cut; that counts as dying in their sleep.) The task of procuring the Turnaway Lode fell to new generals for the North and South. They sent messengers to Little Aleppo. The cycle began anew. Miss Valentine gave herself 6-1 odds that she could keep this up for the whole war.
She burned to death inside the Wayside in ’71; the second First Church of the Iterated Christ went up, too, and so did all the rest of the Main Drag. The Reverend ministered, and he cleaned wounds; he knew the name of every person that had died, 38 of them, and conducted each funeral. It broke his faith and he saw Jesus in his Infinicy no more, no matter where he looked, Busybody Tyndale saw not one Christ at all.
The fire didn’t touch the mine, though. The Turnaway Lode kept shitting out gold as the Main Drag crackled and died, and so the town was rebuilt as soon as possible, along the same north-south axis, and the Main Drag was laid down with pitched macadam, which was a new process that did not turn to mud and shit when the rains came. Both the new bank and the new whorehouse were made of brick. The church was still wood.
The Reverend’s parishioners built it, the third First Church of the Iterated Christ, and they made him a little apartment behind the offices with a private privy out back; he didn’t preach much, but they didn’t expect him to.
I’ll tell you how Reverend Tyndale died one day. It’s a good story with a sad ending.
Little Aleppo did not think about wars again until 1917, when the draft was signed into law by President Wilson. The Cenotaph printed the full measure on the front page of a special edition, and hustled stacks of still-hot and smudging pulpy broadsheet out the doors. Men aged 21 to 31 needed to join up, unless you were clergy, or morally unfit. Half the men in Little Aleppo aged 21 to 31 went to the church, the other half began shooting up and blowing one another in public. Also exempt from the draft were men convicted of treason, so the men aged 21 to 31 staged attempted an armed overthrow of the United States government. The government did not notice, so the men went back to pretending to be priests and public perversion.
A few months later, the draft was expanded to include all men from 18 to 45, and the neighborhood stole the registration office building in the middle of the night and buried it in the southwest corner of the Verdance. This revolt was led by the women, in fact. They secretly wanted the men in their twenties run out of town on a rail, but sending a 45-year-old man to war struck them as absurd. The women of Little Aleppo all knew 45-year-old men and those men were ratchety and confused, and if the war was going so poorly as to require their assistance, then maybe it would be best for all to sit the whole thing out.
“Why is it wrong to wanna sit out a war? I’ll contribute my way. No. No. No. Listen, fuck Hitler and the Emperor and all that–you know I’m a patriot–but I don’t wanna fight.”
“You’re a lover.”
Tommy Amici was married, which didn’t stop him from sticking his dick in every movie star he met, but did stop him from being drafted until ’43. But now husbands were now being pressed into service. The press–these fucking nothings at these fucking newspapers–wouldn’t stop writing about it. One of the creeps ran a doctored picture of him in a uniform with a crewcut. How is that allowed? How is that fair? Tommy was considering either a lawsuit, or sucker-punching the writer in a bar.
“What if me and Theresa have a baby?”
“What, this week?”
Tommy loved America, and he loved America in a very American way: he had never given it one second of thought. Freedom, voting, flags, yes. He had given some thought to the ass-kickings he had taken growing up, when he was named Tomás Valenzuela, but he had more money than that now. Tommy had noticed a distinct relationship–a personal one, at least–between his bank balance and his patriotism. The more records he sold, the more he loved America.
The Menefreghista was a nightclub in Little Aleppo, the only one that deserved the title: everything else was just a bar. There was a show, and terrible food; a Jew comic, and then a band; the headliner wore a tuxedo and introduced the celebrities in the crowd. The air was blue, and so was the late show, but the curtains on either side of the small stage were the deepest red–ultrared, if red were a baritone, not lipstick red–and so were the booths’ banqueting, creamy leather folded in on itself over and over. The benches and tables in the booths were short, though, and the tables on the inside of the room surrounding the dance floor were tiny, maybe two feet by two feet, and packed tight.
But that was the second iteration of the club. Before it was called the Menefreghista, it was called the Irving. A criminal named Billy McGlory opened it on January 17th, 1920, as a speakeasy. To gain entrance, you needed to know the password: “Please let me in. I have money.” The Irving served bathtub gin, and washtub whiskey, and tequila that a guy named Carl made in his sink. There was flapping, and roaring, and the bartenders borrowed money from the waiters to invest in the stock market. The sign outside was a giant, unblinking eyeball.
Other speakeasies around the nation had codes, and lookouts, and methods of disguise and escape for when the cops came by, but Little Aleppo’s criminals and cops prefer to have a more mutually beneficial relationship than that. The police in Little Aleppo are not dumb, and never have been. They are greedy and lazy, but not dumb The people paid them to rid the town of crime, and the cops had noticed that the more graft they took, the less crime there was. Until the police reforms of the 1980’s, the LAPD (No, Not That One) badge bore the motto Munera reducere scelus.
Occasionally, the cops would have to do something about the Irving. Every neighborhood has its wangs and stiffs, and Little Aleppo was no exception: the Temperance League was still strong, and they all had hatchets and dramatic names, so the police would need to perform a bit of kabuki once every few months. They would call over first.
OLD-TIMEY TELEPHONE NOISE
“Irving. Blly speaking.”
“Sean! How are ya?”
“Good, good. Gotta raid ya.”
“Ah, fuck ya. Today?”
“Today’s good for me. Tomorrow doesn’t work at all.”
“Let’s just say Friday, then.”
“Ah, fuck ya, Billy. Get it over with.”
“Fine. Come by now, there’s nobody here.”
“Why weren’t you at Ma’s on Sunday?”
“Carol had the shits.”
“Ah, terrible. Come on down, then. An’ I’ll give ya this week’s envelope.”
“Two birds with one stone.”
“Ma was mad.”
“Ma’s always mad. Coming down. Pick a bartender I can arrest.”
“You can have the lot of ’em.”
And so on.
Little Aleppo was a neighborhood in America, but it was a small one; everyone knew each other, and once in a while the police chief wound up being the brother of the biggest crime boss on the block. (Actually, the crime boss was invariably the police chief’s brother. After around a century, the locals stopped pretending it wasn’t happening and started holding a dual swearing-in ceremony.)
The history of American organized crime is by necessity a history of ethnic groups shooting one another to gain power, with the occasional poisoning. Whoever was on the bottom in legitimate society was often on the top in the underworld: the Irish, and then the Jews and Italians, and then Black and Puerto Rican and Mexican, and Jamaicans and Russians and the Triads and Tongs in Chinatown.
But, like I said, Little Aleppo is small and most gangs have had to resort to color-blind hiring practices. The Pastafazoo family includes two Nigerians, a Finn, and a tall woman of unknown origin. The local Yakuza is entirely Canadian. (Gordon Koniko is of Japanese descent, sure, but both sides of his family settled in Winnipeg 80 years ago.)
During Prohibition, it was Billy McGlory and his gang, plus his brother Sean the police chief, on top of the dogpile. The gang was made up entirely of his brothers that were not police chiefs; there were 14 of them. Billy used to say “Ma and Pa are real good Catholics, and they like to fuck.” Billy had a way with words.
The Depression came, and the Irving weathered the storm. Billy McGlory figured out the angle: he raised prices, went upscale. Then he invented a job which is still seen at certain establishments today. Billy assigned his meanest brother, Furious Kevin, to stand right outside the club refusing entrance to the ugly and poor. The modern nightclub doorman was born in Little Aleppo. It worked, until the day it didn’t.
That day was December 5th, 1933. Prohibition was repealed and competition sprouted up, a new bar every week no matter how many prospective bar owners Billy sent his brothers to stab. You could drink again at restaurants, too, and buy bottles from the shop to take home and listen to the radio with; the neighborhood was changing. It did that. Billy dreamed about Lake Tahoe. A compound for all the brothers. Where the children could play with their toys. He needed a buyer. Billy McGlory needed a friend. A young man in a black homburg hat came to the Irving, smiling, on a Tuesday afternoon.
Before the young man in the black homburg hat was known as The Friend, no one called him that. It wouldn’t have made sense. But even before he was The Friend, the young man–did he even shave yet?–in the black homburg hat was a friend to all. “The man who is not my friend does not exist,” The Friend would often say during introductory meetings; intelligent people understood the sentence as the threat it was.
The Friend wanted to own a nightclub, and he had always loved the ultrared banquets and curtains. Show people, too. The Friend liked show people. Singers and dancers and comics. They were funny. They were beautiful. They read books. Guys he hung out with? Most of them were sneakthiefs and motherpunchers. A nightclub sounded right.
But not the name, good God, that name: the Irving. The Irving? The Friend was going to book Duke Ellngton, for fuck’s sake. The place couldn’t be called the Irving.
Maybe you’re expecting The Friend to have Billy McGlory and all his brothers’ throats cut in the middle of the night, but if you are then you’ve not been listening. The Friend was a pragmatist, and paying people was almost always easier than killing them. Hell, sometimes paying people is cheaper than killing them. And Billy was a criminal, which made the whole transaction much smoother: straight businessmen wanted checks and official bullshit, but Billy was happy with cash.
In fact, the McGlory family crest featured the motto Nummis semper accipitur. The Friend read it off the crest over the bar when he and Billy were finalizing the deal; the club was remodeled several times, but the crest stayed where it was.
“Ya gonna rename the joint?” Billy asked.
“I think so. I hope you won’t mind.”
“I don’t give a fuck.”
The Friend admired Billy McGlory’s attitude. He named the club the Menefreghista, and amused himself for years writing nasty letters to critics who spelled it wrong.
Everyone played his club–household names to this day, the superstars–but Tommy Amici was special in so many ways. The voice. The eyes. The problems. Even before he was mildly famous, way before he was a worldwide star, Tommy hit strangers in restaurants and shouted racial epithets at those who displeased him and fucked others’ wives. The Friend would be involved in show business for many decades, and he knew quite a few performers who let success go their heads. Turned them into real assholes. Not Tommy. Success did not turn Tommy Amici into an asshole; it just gave him more money to be an asshole with. In a way, he was the most honest man The Friend had ever met.
Tommy was also special because he arrived at the Menefreghista as Tomás Valenzuela, and under ironclad contract to a bandleader named Porkchop Paxton, and he left as a free man named Tommy Amici. That was what being friends with The Friend got you. What it got The Friend was ten percent of Tommy’s earnings for the next fifty or so years.
“Nothing in it for you if I’m dead,” Tommy said. They were standing at the bar, and the room was slightly ajar from reality as only a nightclub in the afternoon can be.
“Don’t be crass, Tommy. This isn’t business. I couldn’t bear you going overseas. You’re too much fun having around.”
Tommy was smoking a cigarette; he held it between his thumb and index finger, cherry in towards the palm, like he was offering it to a lover. Quick drags and he would stub them out before they were half smoked down. Every time Tommy would put out a cigarette, The Friend would take the ashtray with a smile and replace it with a clean one that a silent and smooth bartender had provided. The Friend did not smoke.
“You want to sit out the war.”
“But not your career.”
“Oh, Tommy. That’s a needle to thread. Public opinion’s not with the draft-resistant. Plenty of celebrities putting on uniforms. Jimmy Stewart’s flying planes.”
“Good for that stuttering fuck. I don’t wanna.”
The Friend took a sip of his black coffee.
“Tommy, you’re not soldier material.”
“And I can’t swim.”
“So the Marines and the Navy are out, too.”
Tommy stubbed out another cigarette. The Friend removed the dirty ashtray, handed it to a silent and smooth bartender, and replaced it with a clean one. Tommy lit another cigarette.
“You’re going to sing Night and Day tonight, right?”
“What? I’m not singing tonight.”
“You’re going to sing Night and Day tonight, right?”
“How could I not?”
“Great. You sing. I’ll figure that other thing out.”
World War II got along just fine without Tommy Amici, who would have punched his drill sergeant on the first of boot camp anyway, and the war got along without too many Little Aleppians at all. Historians have called WWII “the good war,” but locals put more emphasis on the second word in that phrase than the first. If any Nazis or Japanese come to Little Aleppo, locals figured, then we will surely and patriotically murder them. But traveling 6,000 miles–in either direction–to murder Nazis and Japanese seemed a bit drastic. Let’s just keep the oceans between us and the Nazis and Japanese, Little Aleppo figured.
Plus, they all had doctor’s notes.
The draft continued after WWII; Little Aleppians saw avoiding service as their duty, and not one man went to Korea or Vietnam. (Several filmmakers and concert promoters went to Vietnam, but they volunteered.) In 1973, the draft ended and the residents paid no more attention to foreign wars; there were enough right at home in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America