Tommy Amici always said that he had taken his stage name in honor of The Friend, who was the largest of all the large gentlemen in Little Aleppo. For as long as most could remember, The Friend had been a friend to everyone in the neighborhood, sometimes against their wishes. A friend in need is a friend indeed, The Friend loved telling people, and he had friends that needed their workers not to strike, and their trucks not to break down, and their businesses not to catch fire. The Friend was always there for you, and if you fucked him then The Friend would really be there for you.
So when he stroked out in front of Cagliostro’s one Tuesday afternoon, Little Aleppo didn’t know what to do with itself. Like dogs, nature abhors a vacuum, and criminality is only natural; ergo facto: locals figured this was going to get ugly, bloody, and odd. The only sliver of hope for a semi-peaceful resolution was the public and clearly medical nature of The Friend’s death. Large gentlemen usually disappeared, which you might think tough given how large they are. Sometimes the coroners declared their deaths suicide; you would be shocked to learn how many large gentlemen from Little Aleppo killed themselves by slicing their own brake lines
In the old days, things were worse. Pinstriped men hung off the running boards of Cadillacs shooting at each other, occasionally during recess at the local elementary. Retribution led to reprise, and various factions of large gentlemen would brandish elaborate nicknames at one another, and pronounce the word “whore” in a particularly amusing way.
“Philly Lemons” Merengi blew up the candy store where Tony “Tony” Danza and his crew hung out, so “Nicky Nose” Lagniappi shot Brian Piccolo by the tollbooth on the causeway to Boone’s Docks.
In the 60’s, a guy who read too much named Joey and his brother turned President Street into a fortress and went to war with the entire neighborhood, but that’s a story for a different night.
The Friend–the young man who would bear that name fairly soon–came to his place of prominence with a simple realization, but one that served him very well throughout his entire life: there’s more money in relationships than retaliation. The Friend was a people person. He also was raised in the neighborhood and knew something that all Little Aleppians knew: you can get away with some serious bullshit for a very long time, if you can only manage not to run down the Main Drag with your dick out.
What good could going to the mattresses do? Who does that help besides Mattress Marge? (Mattress Marge owned Little Aleppo’s bedding warehouse and viewed gang wars the same way bears view the salmon run: feast time.) Shoot-outs in the public? Who was The Friend, some Mustache Pete? I thought we were trying to make some fucking money, The Friend always smiled at his associates when they brought up violence.
When they brought it up too early is really the proper thought. If you reached out your hand to The Friend, he would take it. Sometimes, though, people just didn’t want to be amicable. Or they wanted to steal. Not just steal, but do it greedily or stupidly. He knew what business he was in, and expected foolishness at all levels, but to take too much off the top or pilfer from someone important: well, that spoke to character and decision-making ability, The Friend thought, and maybe that wasn’t a friend he wanted.
But violence was such a small part of his business now, The Friend thought on a Tuesday afternoon outside of Cagliostro’s. He had the threat of violence. And lawyers. And Ames. Fucking Ames, Iowa, secret vacation spot of crossword puzzlers nationwide. The Friend dreamed of Ames, Iowa, and a life spent with the land. A farmer, he thought. I could’ve been a farmer. Thank fucking Christ I’m not a farmer, but that asshole is burning that bread back there and Ames farmers Lincoln I’m dactyl momma too fast Satan is quicker and the and man is tractile can I phlump on the ground on the sidewalk on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo.
The door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink.
Mr. Venable had been yelling at E.L Doctorow–
“SENTENCES DON’T NEED TO BE THIS LONG!”
–and he looked up and said,
“Jesus? Tell Reverend Jones. He’ll want to know.”
Gussy Incandescente-Ponui was wearing a white dress with ducks all over it, and she took a deep breath and shouted,
“Oh, God, there’s going to be a memorial concert.”
“Even you can’t ruin this.”
“Is that a dare?”
Gussy had a wide face with eyes a tiny bit too far apart, and a big mouth she liked putting the reddest lipstick she could find on, and when she smiled her ears moved.
“AT THE TAHITIAN!”
“–scream. Ow. You’re fired.”
“Noted. Tommy Amici! At my place!”
“Why is he appearing at a movie theater?”
“Nowhere else big enough. Plus we have the new sound system.”
“How is that going?”
“Honestly? It won’t shut the fuck up.”
“I told you not to install a sentient, super-intelligent sound system built by the Grateful Dead.”
“Precarious vouched for it.”
“He might be the craziest one in the neighborhood, Gussy.”
Gussy was not, strictly speaking, telling the truth about there not being another venue large enough to accommodate Tommy Amici. There was the stately Absalom Theater all the way Upside, and the raucous and enormous Davidian Theatre halfway out to Boone’s Docks in the middle of the Downside. Budd Dwyer Memorial Coliseum held ten thousand, and the Verdance had seen its share of concerts. But Tommy Amici had punched the man in charge of all the places I just mentioned, and he had not yet punched the man in charge of The Tahitian, who was a woman.
“So he won’t punch me.”
“He might, Gussy. He’s just such a shit.”
“He doesn’t punch women he isn’t married to.”
“Man’s gotta have a code.”
“Besides, nothing’s going to go wrong.”
Gussy wasn’t telling the truth here, either, but this one wasn’t as much of an outright lie as the first one. Foolish optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence, more like. Something was going to go wrong. Something always went wrong when Tommy Amici came back home.
Tommy was from Little Aleppo, and his favorite thing about that fact was the word “from.” It meant you weren’t there any longer, and Tommy Amici’s favorite thing about Little Aleppo is not being anywhere near the fucking place. Everyone there saw who he was, and refused to respect the man that he is, he thought. Also, Tommy couldn’t stand the weird bullshit.
Little Aleppo isn’t for everyone, and Tommy wasn’t just anyone. It takes a certain attitude to live in the neighborhood. There are ghosts, and sometimes they hold office. One year, Wednesday left to teach English in Japan, so weeks were only six days long; Little Aleppians went with it. Tommy Amici did not go with it: it went with Tommy. Tommy Amici did things his way.
For eleven years straight–Tommy counted–he had fucked at least one Best Supporting Actress nominee. He started a riot in Atlantic City by not showing up to a gig, and then started a bigger one when he got onstage the next night. Presidents came to his house, and he had thrown pasta on one of them (Carter). All his girlfriends were stolen from bullfighters and royalty; he treated all of them like shit. Tommy Amici had punched photographers on every continent. (Every one. Life Magazine sent him down to Antarctica with a photographer, whom he punched. Issue sold well.)
But Tommy Amici had eyes the color of the Verdance in summer. And he could sing.
Art, expression, creativity, whatever you want to call it: it’s not sport. There’s no clear winner at the end because there’s no winner at all. Art cannot be graded because it is subjective, but it is still subject to gradation: there’s no best movie, but there are certainly a group of movies you can’t have the discussion without. And there isn’t such a thing as a best singer, but if there were, it would be Tommy.
Tommy’s voice went past your ears, didn’t even stop there, and certainly not to somewhere as pedestrian as the heart, or base as the crotch: Tommy’s voice struck at the catch in your throat, and made you swallow and your face fill with tears. Tommy’s voice sounded like the backseat of a taxi cab, when you find yourself suddenly alone, and he employed very little vibrato or melisma or fillip; he sang the notes that were in the song. Tommy tried to never let too many notes get in the way of his voice.
He would lean forward on his left leg onstage, back straight and head up, and he would sing to the front rows–first to tables in nightclubs, and then theaters, and then arenas, and then stadiums–and Tommy always had the spotlights positioned as low as they could be, so they would shine right in his summer eyes, and he did not grip the microphone like some vulgar rocker, in a caveman fist: Tommy held the mic like an ice cream cone, loosely, like he was cradling the back of a woman’s neck as he kissed her.
After the show, Tommy went back to the hotel where he had an entire floor–usually the second or third, due to his fear of heights–for himself and his entourage. His valet, Jacob George, had long ago been taught the proper way to cook all of Tommy’s favorite dishes, and all of the hotel’s sheets and towels had been replaced with his monogrammed linen. Blackout curtains had been drawn in every room up and down the hall, because Tommy’s day ended after dawn, which meant everyone’s day ended after dawn, and if the sun didn’t want to cooperate, then fuck that yellow square. His way.
And then The Friend stroked out in front of Cagliostro’s and Tommy had to go back to that fucking neighborhood with all its fucking weirdos and all their fucking bullshit. Something was going to go wrong.
“I don’t know how to work the projector, Miss Incarassasa-poopoo.”
“Julio. I will fire you if you don’t call me Gussy.”
“Supposed to be respectful to adults.”
“You’re seventeen, sweetie. Almost an adult yourself. Fine line between being polite and being a doofus.”
“I don’t know how to work the projector.”
“Work it? You’re not allowed to touch it.”
“If you touch the projector, I’ll fire you.”
“Don’t touch the projector. You’re just gonna be in the projectionist’s booth when Tommy’s here. Or you can stay home.”
“No! Everyone’s all freaking out about this thing. I wanna check it out!”
“All right, all right.”
“Why can’t I just work like normal?”
“Because there are no men working for The Tahitian tonight. Not while Tommy’s here. Just women to whom he is not married.”
Gussy wasn’t telling the truth, but it looked like she was: everyone from stage manager to janitor was female, but it was just for the night and most of the women were just friends of Gussy’s who wanted to see the show and didn’t know what they were doing, so the whole day was taking on a bit of a catastrophic vibe.
There was no place in the neighborhood up to Tommy’s standards, so he was staying out-of-town and flew in just before showtime on his helicopter. All week on KSOS, Draculette had been begging viewers not to shoot it down, and no one did.
He stood stage left, in a tuxedo that cost as much as an economy car, fuming and daring the universe to start with him. The Friend. The fucking Friend. I owe him? thought Tommy. Maybe he owes me. He owes me, yeah. How much money did I make that little motherfucker?
A million years ago in Little Aleppo, there was a nightclub called the Menefreghista. It was the place to see, and be seen, and be seen seeing others see you. There was banqueting everywhere and the upholstery was so plush it would chase you out into the parking lot and convince you to buy aluminum siding. There were cigarette girls, and cigar women, and old ladies selling pipes. The food was terrible, but the show was great.
Usually. On this particular Tuesday night a million years ago, the show was competent at best. The highlight was probably the shield-swallower; no one had ever seen that routine before. Then there was a band, a big one, Porkchop Paxton and his Pittsburgh Players and Porkchop had strings and horns and a girl singer and a boy singer, a local boy, whose name was Tomás Velenzuela, and he had eyes the color of the Verdance in summer. And he could sing.
After the show, the man excused himself–he was with a blonde in a dark-blue dress–and went backstage. He was allowed backstage.
“Tomás. With those eyes? C’mon.”
“How are ya. Who are you?”
“Tommy Amici. What do you think? How’s that for a name?”
“It is. Who gives a shit? I thought we were trying to make some fucking money. Which you could make a lot more of as an Italian.”
“Oh, I’m Tommy Amici. Get the fuck out of here.”
“You like money, kid?”
“What about pussy? You like pussy?”
“Love that, too.”
“You could have as much as you want of both those things, kid. With that voice? You can have the world. But not with this fucking amateur band.”
“Mr. Paxton has me under contract.”
“I’m sure he does. Tommy-can I call you Tommy?–let’s be friends.”
And they were, for a long time and even when they had to pretend not to be so the newspapers would stop telling lies for a little while. The man who people would later call The Friend was telling the truth when he made Tommy those promises, to an extent that neither man could have ever dreamed, but Tommy accepted grudgingly as his just reward for showing up, all the while sending ten cents of every dollar–every single fucking dollar he ever fucking made after that night–back to this shithole and back to that smiling motherfucker who finally–finally!–fucking died, stroked out in front of that filthy little pizza place in that neighborhood he was from, and did not want to be reminded of, but was every fucking day.
Tommy Amici came not to bury The Friend, but to gloat.
YOUR HAIRPIECE LOOKS RADIANT IN THIS LIGHTING. IT WAS AN EXCELLENT CHOICE.
“Who the fuck is that!?”
THE SOUND SYSTEM. I DID NOT MEAN TO SNEAK UP ON YOU, ALTHOUGH I DID NOT SNEAK UP ON YOU. I HAVE BEEN HERE THE ENTIRE TIME.
“Why are you fucking talking?”
I THOUGHT IT MIGHT BE AWKWARD TO REMAIN SILENT. WE ARE CHIT-CHATTING.
Tommy Amici’s eyes were the color of a summer storm.
“I hate this fucking neighborhood.”
Up and down Rose Street, the church bells rung out BONGdong in the strong mid-morning light, nine am, and Julio Montez takes the steps of St. Clemens three at a time. It is Little Aleppo’s Catholic Church, and it looks like a Hammer Film exploded inside: just as spooky as shit. Lot of Jesus imagery, candles.
There is no line for the confessional, and he steps in and closes the door behind him, and kneels and crosses himself. The wooded partition slides open from the other side, revealing a screen with a pattern that–when lit properly–makes a scene look very dramatic.
Julio crosses himself again. Can’t hurt, he figured.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“I forgive you.”
“You are forgiven. Eternally and completely. Forgiveness is a refraction of the Christ; see yourself in Him.”
“No. He is in the hospital. Asked me to fill in for him.”
“A lot of people are in the hospital.”
“Folks are calling it the worst riot since the minor-league team did Nickel Shot Night.”
“Is Father Linehan gonna be all right?”
“Oh, yeah. You only need one shoulder.”
“Okay. Are you the preacher from that weird church?”
“What does the preacher from that weird church look like?”
“Enormous black guy.”
“I would be him, yes. Arcade Jones, pleased to meet you. What’s your name, young man?”
“Um, what, no…you’re not supposed to ask…are you even a Catholic?”
“No! No, no, not at all. But almost all of the neighborhood’s religious leaders are laid up today, so I’m stepping up and filling in. Baptized some Episcopalians, handled some snakes. Blew a shofar! That was fun.”
“That’s the Jewish horn?”
“Uh-huh. BuhhRAAAAAAHHHH, I got a good noise out of it. Lot of fun. The bris didn’t go as well.”
“I was not prepared. We’re in a confessional, right? I was not prepared.”
“I’m supposed to confess to you.”
“Right! Right, sorry. Learning as I go, but all things are possible with the Lord as a teacher. What did you do wrong?”
“Well, I could have been of help to my fellow man, but I wasn’t. I was at The Tahitian last night. I work there.”
“Okay. And you ran? When the fracas broke out?”
“No. I was hiding in the projectionist’s booth the whole time.”
“Well, that’s okay. You got scared, that’s okay, that’s no sin.”
“I wasn’t scared. I snuck my girlfriend in the booth and we were having sex throughout the whole riot.”
“During the fire?”
“Yeah. Kept going.”
“What about the flood?”
“Lord, why can’t I be a teenager in love? HAAha!”
“You’re laughing at me.”
“I’m forgiving you.”
“It sounds like laughter.”
“It often does.”
Mr. Venable had a book on his desk, facing upside down from him, towards the person he was looking forward to speaking to. The book was The Idiot’s Guide To Getting Blood Out Of A Theater For Dummies, and soon he would be able to smirk and say “I told you so,” but for now he sipped his coffee in the bookstore with no title, which is on the Main Drag of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.