The Town Fathers were not stabbing each other in the back, but only because the conference room had a metal detector. There had been incidents. In 1916, a Town Father named Cornelius Amberforth cane-whipped Barnstable Undercock into a coma. Jimmy Harms went nuts with a machete at a budget meeting in ’43; he said he was cutting taxes. Francie Bulmanny shot the other four Town Fathers in 1979 during the debate over building a minor-league baseball stadium. They were for it; in her defense, it was fiscally irresponsible. Now, there were patdowns and wandings. Little Aleppo’s politicians were well-protected from themselves.
Something had to be done. What, precisely, was only known to the Lord or their donors (not in that order) but something had to be done. A serial arsonist? Leaving notes like some sort of comic book villain? Something had to be done, and loudly. The Town Fathers needed to make a huge racket out of the something. They had held a meeting and hoped that would be enough, but it was not: locals prowled Town Hall wailing and terrified, and civilian watch groups formed all over the neighborhood. These led, obviously, to turf battles. The Cenotaph had published several cartoons in which the Town Fathers were depicted as ostriches with their heads in the sand, or possums playing dead. Something had to be done, and they were going to do it just as soon as they figured out what it was.
Big Bobby Barr said,
“I say we offer a reward f’r the sumbitch. Get the community involved in a l’il self-policin’.”
He was drunk, but he was that stupid when he was sober, too.
“Folks know. Gotta trust the folks, folks. They’re some smart fuckers. I bet a bunch of ’em got hunches. What we gotta do here is incentivize those hunches. Wouldn’t even need t’be that much. Couple hundred bucks oughta do it.”
“No, we’re not doing that,” Anetta Housell said.
She said that to everything. Anetta believed that the government that governed least governed best, so therefore the government that governed at all governed worst. She had judgmental posture and enormous hair; her fingers were interlaced on the table in front of her. Big Bobby’s cowboy boots were also up on the table. The people’s money belonged to the people, Anetta believed–with the exception of her salary, which she voted to increase every year–and the government belonged out of their business. Creeping socialism. It was everywhere, Anetta warned no matter how many times you asked her to stop. She was an individualist who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and never asked for a handout, she told attendees at fundraisers. She had a simple crucifix hanging around her neck. Big Bobby also had a crucifix, but Jesus had diamonds for eyes on his.
“Oh, why the hell not?”
“It’s not in the budget.”
“Emergency funds,” Big Bobby said.
“An emergency has not been officially declared. Therefore, no emergency funds.”
“Aw, shit, I’ll pay it myself.”
“No. Charter code 13.22-g. No Town Father shall use his or her own money to foment vigilantism.”
“Woman, we’re not talkin’ ’bout the law here. We’re talkin’ ’bout politics.”
“They are interdependent.”
“And I’m interdependent with my asshole, but I don’t let it rule the roost.”
Sandy Hereford said,
“Can we not talk about assholes, please?
Sandy Hereford had aspirational posture. Beauty queen posture, which makes sense; she had been Miss Little Aleppo as a teenager. Her talent was tanning. It took several weeks , and many tanks of stomped-upon urine, but eventually she produced a lovely and supple pair of leather trousers. The judges admired her perseverance as much as anything else. This single-mindedness propelled her to Town Hall, and also to the Valentine Courthouse. Sandy Hereford was quite sure that the right way to make a living was lying to others. She had sold lottery tickets from countries that did not exist, stock from companies that did not exist, real estate that did not exist. It was their fault for believing me, Sandy thought. The court rarely agreed, and she was wearing an ankle monitor that beeped randomly. She was awaiting trial for her latest scam, which was a Ponzi scheme based around the market price of formica.
“It was a metaphorical anus, darlin’.”
“And let’s leave the word ‘anus’ out of it entirely?”
“My friends. My friiiiiiiennnnnnds.”
No one knew how old Bartholomew Porridge was, least of all Bartholomew. “I was born ‘fore they started paying attention to what year it was,” he would answer if you asked him. If you asked anyone else, they would say, “Like, a million? Around a million billion years old?” And they would be right, except for the numbers. No matter: he was beloved in Little Aleppo. Barty (everyone called him Barty) was our link to the past, locals thought even if he didn’t remember much of it. An unbroken chain to the old days, people said of him; Barty had attended several lynchings.
“We have a scared populace. Means we ought be scared, too.”
He leaned forward. His wrist swam in his sleeve and his hand was just tendon and skin.
“We need, my friends, to come up with some sort of plan. Don’t even matter what, not really. Cops are doing what they do, fire department’s doing what it does. I have faith in our first responders, except for the cops, and they’re the best to handle this little firebug fellow. But we have to do something, too. A show of strength. We gotta show this neighborhood that we’re on it.”
Big Bobby Barr tilted his silver flask straight up for a two-count. Wiped his lip. Put the flask back in his jacket. Exhaled deeply and said,
“We could round up the Japanese.”
“That’s your suggestion for everything,” Big Bobby said.
“Well, fine. Who do you suggest we round up?”
“Nobody, Barty. We ain’t roundin’ up nobody.”
“It’s a robust action! Shows we’re taking the offensive.”
“Nobody’s gettin’ rounded up.”
Barty made a sound like “Plfeh” and sat back in his chair, annoyed.
“Whole world’s gone pussy.”
“Mr. Porridge. Watch your language, please,” Sandy Hereford said.
“Ah, bite me, jailbird.”
It was raining outside. 18 days had gone by, and it was raining outside. Umberto Clamme had doubled the prices of his umbrellas, but still did brisk business on the Main Drag. Some scurried under the drops, and others walked: optimism versus fatalism. Little Aleppo loved the rains for the break they brought, except the kids. The kids still had to go to school, but their day was full of substitutes and movies; the teacher’s union had negotiated into the contract that calling in sick when it rained only counted as half a sick day. Locals who owned motorcycles canceled appointments, and so did those who walked. Car owners canceled, too, but they had to come up with lies.
There was a nylon pagoda set up at the Broadside Newsstand on Gower Avenue. It was temporary, but not flimsy. Omar shook it to test its stability after Sally Moon set it up in the morning.
“I resent this,” Omar said.
“Boof,” Argus added.
Omar owned the Broadside. Argus was a dog. Sally Moon was a large gentleman, but one of the smaller ones. He watched over Omar and the Broadside on Tuesdays and Fridays, when they drew the Mother Mary. The Mother Mary was Little Aleppo’s lottery, and the winning numbers were the last three digits of the newsstand’s take on Tuesday and Friday. Sally Moon stood there and looked threatening. He made people feel secure in their investments. The math department at Harper College had proven–to nine or ten decimal points–that fixing the Mother Mary was impossible, but locals preferred a big guy standing by the cash register over math any day. The Mother Mary was Tuesday and Friday. It rained every 18 days. This meant that it rained on a Mother Mary day two or three times a year. Omar bitched every time.
“A man should not sit out in the rain like a beast.”
“We are better than this. We have built great cities. We have visited the moon. And still I sit out here like a fucking orangutan in a drizzle.”
“Do you hear that? Do you hear how unhappy Argus is? Tell him, Argus.”
The pagoda was technically a hunting blind. Sally Moon had bought it from Ambercock & Sons, the sporting goods store on the Main Drag, and it was camouflage: dark green against neutral green against light green. Omar had made Sally buy it. On the days when it rained that were not Mother Mary days, Omar did not open the Broadside Newsstand at all. He had been raised in a drier climate. Rain was for mushrooms and Noah, Omar thought. Argus did not think that rain was for mushrooms and Noah, but only because he was a dog and unfamiliar with fungus and the Old Testament. He did, however, not like the rain one tiny little fucking bit. The two or three times a year that Omar forced him to leave their apartment when it was raining were traumatic experiences and Argus complained the entire day.
“Oh, shut up. No one’s happy. You’re not special.”
The pagoda was four-sided. Two of the sides (facing the cash register and the shelves) were open and the other two (facing the street and the sidewalk) were closed. Omar sat on his stool in his sweater and kufi. He had a puffy jacket with elastic sleeves on; he had been told it was maroon. Argus was on his latest mattress against the wall under the register, as far away from the rain as possible. Sally had neither a stool nor a mattress, so he stood there in his checked blazer and black slacks and looked large. He had stepped in a puddle earlier, and his sock had not dried yet. He was unhappy, and felt as though he were not special.
A man finished his browsing, and came to pay for his magazine.
“Gary the Pervert.”
Gary the Pervert did not acknowledge Sally Moon, and vice versa.
Gary handed Omar the latest copy of Feetfuckers. Three women were on the cover. They had six feet. Omar handed it back.
“Four bucks,” Omar said, and Gary gave over four singles.
Omar slipped the bills under Argus’ nose to see if they were counterfeit.
They weren’t. The register went CHING and the singles went in the slot all the way to the right and then the drawer shut CHANG and before Omar could look up, Gary the Pervert had gone. Most likely to take a whack at himself where people could see him; Gary liked unwitting accomplices to his masturbation. Omar did not feel responsible. The vast majority of people can handle their pornographies, he thought. He sold art magazines, too, expensive and incomprehensible and quarterly, and celebrity mags and a shelf full of news and analysis and deeply-pondered essays; the porn sold better.
Locals had come by in the morning for the Cenotaph, and after that it was just those playing the Mother Mary and weirdos. Sally Moon dealt with the Mother Mary. Give the big man a dollar, two, five; tell him your number. Sally didn’t need to write anything down. It wasn’t out of fear of leaving evidence–several cops, some in uniform, stopped by the Broadside every Tuesday and Friday–but out of style. Criminals these days were slackbodies, Sally thought. Shine your shoes and don’t take notes. Do the wrong thing the right way.
Omar dealt with the weirdos.
A man stood at the far end of the shelves, copying the latest issue of Cat Fancy into a notebook.
“I’m almost done!”
“Buy the magazine! Not a library!”
“The future has to know what happened here!”
“I kicked your ass, that’s what happened here if you keep this shit up!”
Leibowitz scurried away like a beetle.
Omar turned to Sally, approximately.
“How long was he there? You don’t want to say nothing?”
Sally said nothing, looked down at Argus.
“You got anything to say for yourself?”
The windows of the Victory Diner are fogged up and you cannot see in or out: the grill does not care; it produces cheeseburgers and pancakes anyway. There are three umbrellas just inside the door of the bookstore with no title. They are laying on the floor made of maple planks in the same place that they always rest every 18 days; the wood is warped and funky in that spot. Children leap into the air and down FWAP into puddles as their irritated parents pulls them along. A blind man, a mute man, and a dog on Gower Avenue argue, in their own way.
“My friends. My distinguished friends. How can we argue now? How can we fight? Little Aleppo needs us. Yes, need. There comes a time when the authorities must step in. For the greater good. For the general welfare. There is, as the Honorable Mr. Porridge reminds us, fear sizzling upon the Main Drag.”
The fifth Town Father rose from his seat at the table. His suit was immaculate: midnight blue with charcoal pinstripes, and his umber tie had a Windsor knot. They were at the Crisis Table: it was ten feet in diameter and had a scale model of the entire neighborhood built onto its top. Sometimes when Big Bobby Barr was sloshed in a particular way, he would borrow his kids’ toys and stage tiny military invasions. Raggedy Whoever steps on The Tahitian BOOM! G.I. Whatshisfuck shoots his bazooka into the high school BASHOOM! The cleaning staff would generally find Big Bobby asleep on the floor the next morning.
“Mr. Barr, you made such a wonderful point,” the fifth Town Father said, putting his hand on Big Bobby’s meaty shoulder.
“Of course you do. Community involvement. This is the key. Fear can so quickly turn to panic, but it can also be funneled into positivity. Not into vigilantism, but into vigilance.”
The tall man continued around the table and stood over Annetta Housell. He leaned in from his waist, solicitously.
“And we all know that Ms. Housell is correct. We have been given a sacred honor. The power of the purse. Not to be taken lightly! Every dollar–every cent!–belongs to the people. Not to us. We must guard against any foolish expenditure, no matter how necessary it seems at the time.”
“Well said,” Anetta nodded. She had spent the day in the Town Fathers’ hot tub, which was custom-made of obsidian and carbon fiber, with lapis lazuli inlays.
“I appreciate the support. And our leader! Our great man! The elder statesman of our humble group! Mr. Porridge.”
“I told you to call me Barty.”
“And I told you that I would never dare.”
The fifth Town Father had a pale shaved head that was almost perfectly rectangular. He put both hands on Barty’s shoulders. Barty reached up and went patpatpat.
“Good boy,” Barty said.
“I agree with Mr. Porridge. In spirit, not in specifics. I believe we might leave our Japanese brothers and sisters alone for the moment, but there is something to be said for a hunt. My distinguished colleagues, we need a bad guy.”
There was murmuring and chitchat as the man walked behind Sandy Hereford. He was barefoot.
“And Ms. Hereford is correct. We should avoid the word ‘anus’ during meetings.”
Having made his way around the table, the man sat down and smiled. He had too many teeth.
“Whatcha suggestin’, Slim?”
Mr. Leopard despised Big Bobby Barr and his nicknames, but his smile never faltered.
“A distraction, Mr. Barr. Without a target to aim their ire at, our neighbors will lash out indiscriminately. Chaos will jam its spurs in. But if there is a task…”
“You sayin’ we send the neighborhood on a wild goose chase?”
Mr. Leopard laced his hand together as in prayer and his smile was bulletproof.
“Not a goose. A werewolf.”
All the trees in the Verdance looked downtrodden. The rain beat down on their leaves, and there were no teenage drug deals on the benches. In Harper Zoo, all the animals refused to come out from the roofed portions of their enclosures except for the anteater, who was too stupid to know it was raining. The Morning Tavern was packed, and Anatoly’s American luncheonette was empty. It was the day of the rains, it was the day of the Mother Mary, it was the day of a fateful suggestion in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.