Manfred Pierce was in the Navy. Served on the USS Dextrous during the Korean War, which was an Auk-class minesweeper that was recommissioned from World War II. Ship took some shelling from the Communist artillery, and Manfred received several medals. He had them framed, and hung them over the bar when he opened the Wayside Inn. New customers would invariably say something about the medals, and Manfred would invariably respond,
“I loved the Navy. Most sex I’ve ever had.”
And then he’d buy them their first drink, and maybe the second if they were cute.
The first Wayside Inn burned down in 1871 with 38 souls inside. Miss Valentine, who owned the place and all the people who worked there, was buried beneath a tombstone imported from Back East; chiselled seraphim and cherubim and an epithet in italics declaring her The Linchpin of Civilization. The courthouse was named after her, too. A dozen whores died in the fire. They were chucked into the mass grave in the southwestern corner of the Verdance, and seven of them were so unimportant that no one wrote down their last names. Piano player named Ace Cooley burned, also, and so did eight miners and four goons and an advance man from a consortium. Four gamblers, and a poker dealer, and two men who owned a hardware concern, and five men who were not identified but were prayed over by the Reverend Busybody Tyndale, and noted in his diary that is the only first-hand source of the Wayside Fire and currently resides in the Special Collection of Spants Library.
The new Wayside Inn was on Sylvester Street, and it did not have a sign at first. It didn’t have running water at first, either, just a cheap plywood bar with soapy buckets behind it and a dance floor you shouldn’t dance on, and mismatched stools and chairs and tables. A jukebox that took dimes when all the other jukeboxes in the neighborhood took nickels. Sometimes, customers wouldn’t work up the nerve to come in, just walk around the block a few times and go home, jerk off, cry.
Little Aleppo is a neighborhood in America, and America is full of mean motherfuckers, and so it was illegal to be a faggot in 1968 and it was illegal to be a dyke, too.
Strangely enough, these laws did not put an end to homosexuality.
Orphic Mystery was going to name herself Eleusinian Mystery, but it was too hard to spell. Her driver’s license said she was a 6’4″, 130 pound man named Thomas Andrew Mold, but a license is a government-issued document and Orphic didn’t trust the government. Shit, they had tried to draft her, send her to Vietnam! How could you trust anyone like that? (The draft board sent Tom Mold the letter, but Orphic Mystery showed up at the recruiting office and was quickly sent home; Tom Mold received no more letters from the draft board.) She wanted to protest the war, and tried to march with the hippies. They called her the same names that the hard-hats beating up the hippies called her. Hippies were for free love, but only for a specific definition of “free.”
The first time she went to the Wayside, she changed in the bathroom of the Victory Diner. Jeans and tee-shirt go in the bag, orange-and-yellow mod dress came out. She painted her nails sitting on the toilet, and then the white high-heels she had rented a P.O box to order. There was no place to buy size-13 women’s shoes in Little Aleppo at the time, and she still lived with her parents so the package couldn’t come to the house. Orphic kept the shoes with her at all times: in her bag or in her locker at Paul Bunyan High. The clothes she hid at home in the drop ceiling in her closet, but those could be explained.
“Girlfriend left them here, Dad. I hid them so you wouldn’t know we were sleeping together.”
Orphic’s father would have loved to hear that lie, would have leapt to believe it.
But size 13 high heels?
Orphic Mystery’s dress had fringes on it like a go-go dancer, and a blonde wig with a flip ‘do. Her makeup was a mess, and she tottered out of the bathroom of the Victory Diner so nervous she couldn’t swallow, and did not make eye contact with anyone. Out the door and south on the Main Drag for two blocks. More tottering. She had practiced in her house when her parents were out, and was vaguely proficient at carpets and hardwood floors, but she had never walked on the crumbly and uneven sidewalk before in heels. She was tall and skinny and wobbly: she looked like a newborn giraffe that had been drinking tequila all morning. Orphic had never drank tequila before; she was sixteen.
East on Sylvester and a half-a-block down. Long half-a-block. Couples on stoops that stared, and a shout from across the street. Orphic wanted to step out of her heels and run, but she didn’t, and finally there was the Wayside Inn on the south side of the street across from the Wash ‘N Slosh.
It was dark out, but it was darker in the Wayside–the jukebox was the only light–and Orphic Mystery went to the bar where Manfred Pierce was working and said,
And Manfred smiled and said,
When he asked her what she wanted, she didn’t know and so he made her a whiskey sour, because whiskey sours do not taste like alcohol and so people too young to be drinking alcohol like them.
The bar was not busy, so he had time to talk to Orphic for most of the night. It was the first conversation she could remember having where she did not tell one lie or leave anything out. Manfred introduced her around. Kisses and hugs. A woman in a suit named Phillipa Humber shared a joint with her, and she made out with a guy who called himself the Living Hamper. James Brown and Tommy Amici were on the jukebox, and Orphic Mystery was on the dance floor dancing with no one in particular and the entire world; she never wanted to go home, and she didn’t get a chance that night because the LAPD (No, Not That One) stormed in and arrested everyone they saw. The cops tore her wig off, and one swung his foot into hers and broke the heel on her shoe, and one called her freak and two called her faggot, and she was chucked in the back of the wagon with the rest of the Wayside’s customers with whom she had been having such a lovely time only moments before. It was not as much of a party in the paddy wagon. Perhaps it was the lighting.
Her parents picked her up at the jail, and threw her out of the house.
Orphic Mystery went back to the Wayside Inn because she had nowhere else to go, and Manfred Pierce took her in. He had a house on Fantic Street that was never without a runaway or two; Manfred collected stray animals and people. When Orphic moved in, there were two cats, two dogs, and two teenagers. There was also a turtle named Myrtle. She slept on the couch for a while, and thought about cruelty. You’re supposed to learn about cruelty a little at a time, but some people get the crash course.
The Cenotaph had printed the names of all those busted in the Wayside. They always did, because it was news and journalists are nothing if not objective.
To her credit, Orphic tried to go back to school. She made it to third period.
Her neighborhood had told her she was illegal, the cops arrested her, the media fucked her, her school slapped and cursed at her, and her parents disowned her.
Everyone in the Wayside was a peach, though. Finster Tabb was a retired high school teacher, and he helped her get her GED; Steppy Alouette came from money, and she gave her some; Manfred Pierce owned the place, kinda, and he gave her a job.
Sixteen year olds shouldn’t be working at bars, sure, and if it were a legal establishment, she wouldn’t have. But the Wayside Inn did not belong to Manfred Pierce, not really. It was actually owned by several large gentlemen who had never set foot in the place. There was no liquor license–a liquor license would be pulled if the proprietor was allowing wanton homosexuality in the establishment–and all the power came from an extension cord extruding from the barbershop next door. A teenager working there was the least of the Wayside’s problems.
So Orphic Mystery worked at the Wayside for a couple years. She got her own place, and learned how to do her makeup, and ordered shoes directly to her home. It was a big world, though, and she wanted to see it. New York, especially. She had never been to New York
It was 1968, and Barbarella was playing at The Tahitian. Orphic loved it, and Finster Tabb thought it was vulgar. They were on their way to the Wayside for a drink. He was wearing grey slacks and a blue vee-neck sweater; she was wearing a red-and-white baby doll dress, and she walked expertly in her blue high heels. Orphic towered over Finster, and they debated the film.
That was from a stoop, from the fattest of three men sitting on the stoop. Orphic didn’t turn around. She had turned around before, and wound up with black eyes and broken fingers. Just keep walking and–besides–we are on the Main Drag and there are many people around and nothing bad could happen in a crowd as long as you stay under the streetlights but this was not true because the fattest one of the three men rushed up behind Orphic Mystery and cracked her skull open with a length of rebar; the other two were laughing and pushed Finster into a mailbox very hard so he broke three ribs.
Orphic Mystery lay on the sidewalk of the Main Drag making a small noise like muuuuh muuuuh, and then her pupils dilated and she didn’t make any more noises. She was 18 years old, and one of her blue high heels had come off and she had pissed and shit herself.
The three men ran off.
Everyone saw them.
Everyone knew their names.
No charges were filed.
The Wayside Inn was full to bursting that night, and the dance floor was crying and there was grief-fucking going on in the bathrooms; Finster Tabb was taped up and being fed drinks in the corner. The jukebox was the only light, and charged a dime while the other jukeboxes in the neighborhood charged a nickel. Sam Cooke was singing. He was telling the operator to put his baby on the phone, and the band was following him, and the door to Sylvester Street was closed shut real tight and no one could come in, this was a sacred place and FUCK YOU how fucking dare you treat us like this just keep the door closed and the jukebox blaring Sam Cooke and things are fine things are fine and boats are not to be rocked and you will be a coward until you’re buried in your grave and you’ll take the fucking you coward and standing up is for giraffes standing up is for giraffes, and we’re just faggots and dykes with a dead child in our arms and we will sit here and take what we are given.
And then the cops raided the place.
Which was a tactical error.
All those faggots, all those dykes, all those American men and women did not discuss nor did they plan and nor did they assess the fucking situation: they threw tables and picked up chairs and smacked cops on their heads just like Orphic was hit, but they showed mercy unlike her murderers, and when reinforcements came, they charged out and tackled anyone in a uniform.
The Wayside Riots lasted two nights. On the first, all the homosexuals of the neighborhood came out to fight; on the second, the entire neighborhood came out. The locals were not in favor of gay rights–Little Aleppo was no more progressive than anywhere else in America. in 1968–but they instinctively took the opposing position to the cops. The LAPD (No, Not That One) retreated after a deal was struck: Manfred Pierce would be arrested for something or other, and the charges dropped. His regulars met him at the jailhouse.
The Cenotaph ran a picture of Orphic Mystery dead on the sidewalk of the Main Drag; she looked very young. The photo won several awards. Manfred Pierce sued the Town Fathers, and eventually became one. The Wayside Inn is still there, and there’s a plaque commemorating the riots. Locals stream in and out, and 16-year-olds are no longer allowed in because it is a legitimate establishment that sponsors a Little League team and follows the rules. Over the bar, there is a silhouette box with medals from a forgotten war and a photograph of a tall woman with her friends, and the old man behind the bar will welcome you in, no matter who you are and what you’ve done, and buy you your first drink–and second if you’re cute–in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.