The bell on the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink, and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy) bopped in. She flipped the sign behind her from GO AWAY to IF YOU MUST, and walked over to the crusty coffee station behind the crowded table that Mr. Venable used as his desk. He was not in his customary seat.
The grounds, the water, the switch; GLUG PSSSH GLUG it was not very good coffee; the pyrex pot was stained, and the orange plastic handle was chipped. Mug that read “Harper Zoo: Where Animals Are” with a cartoon of a dog riding an elephant on it. She had the same one at home; everyone in Little Aleppo did. Locals were proud of the zoo in a way that they were not of other civic institutions: Harper College was full of Communists and student filmmakers; Absalom Ballroom was crumbling and smelled like ugly sex; the minor-league ballpark had never been built. The zoo never bothered anyone, except for when the animals got loose, and most residents enjoyed the escapes. Nothing broke up a boring afternoon like a giant anteater sprint-waddling down the Main Drag followed by several net-wielding young people in khakis yelling, “COME BACK HERE, AUNT FANCY!”
(The Harper Zoo’s giant anteater was named Aunt Fancy. It was both a pun and a tribute to James Buchanan.)
It was wholesome where so much of Little Aleppo was seedy, or skeevy, or even downright sleazy. There was no wet tee-shirt night, unlike the library. The bathrooms had no coke dealers whatsoever. No spontaneous match of Sex Rover had ever broken out in the zoo. (Sex Rover was like Red Rover, except with sexual assault. It’s not technically “sexual assault” in the legal sense because everyone’s into it, but the game is both sexual and assaultive.) The wooden planks that made up the floor of the main promenade were clean and sound; not one lightbulb was broken or missing. You could eat off the hedges. When Harper T. Harper died in ’63, he left no children and only three mistresses, so he had endowed the zoo heavily enough to keep the prices low, which kept folks coming and buying popcorn and soda, which are coincidentally the two most profitable items any human being can ever wish to sell. Third is booze, but fourth on the list is souvenirs, and Harper Zoo sold those, too. There was enough money to keep the place spit-shined, even if its inhabitants insisted on shitting on the floor constantly.
Not so with the rest of the neighborhood. It was 198- and Reaganomics simply hadn’t worked for Little Aleppo. In their defense, they had tried their hardest.
“I’m the official Reaganomics Cheerleader.”
“Whaddya mean ‘official?'”
“Town Fathers hired me. C’mon and Reaganom with me!”
“Holy shit, tax money is paying your salary?”
And then the Reaganomics Cheerleader was stabbed many, many times. Little Aleppians know a flawed economic policy when they see one.
Barko Brothers Balloons closed in ’81; the factory employed 65. Industry insiders point to the brothers’ insistence on producing party-animal balloons exclusively. The “why” wasn’t so important to the 65 workers. (The Barkos would several years later die in a murder/suicide. Investigators still don’t know which brother was the murder and which was the suicide.) The sofa factory burned down in ’79, and everything smelled couchy for a week. 50 people worked there.
Everybody else just outsourced to China.
Whole sector of jobs: poof, gone. This, of course, ripples outward and upward. Restaurants are affected, which means that restaurant staff is affected, which means that coke dealers are affected; this distresses car dealerships, which in turn depresses seller’s of men’s blazers. Businesses on the Main Drag are out of business, except for Going Out Of Business Signs R Us, which everyone told Fern Watusi not to open because it would never make a profit, but who’s laughing now, you sons of bitches? Little Aleppo turned to its usual standbys in times of recession–scamming each other, and fleecing outsiders–but Lesson Day broke the financial back of the neighborhood.
It was called Lesson Day because of the headline of the Cenotaph the next morning.
We Have Learned A Lesson Today
The lesson was that a Town Father was able to write herself a check for the entirety of the neighborhood’s treasury. The whole thing, literally all the money. One check. Admittedly, it was one of those really long checks from the fancy books, but still: one check. Messina Bam had been way overseas for twelve days when paychecks started bouncing–cops and firemen and garbage guys–and questions started a-piling up. The remaining four Town Fathers had a very tense meeting with the Comptroller.
“Nothing,” the Comptroller said.
“She could, so she did.”
“Shouldn’t she have not been able to do that?”
“But she could,” the Town Fathers said.
“So she did.”
“We should fix that.”
So the Town Fathers dismissed the Comptroller and decided on a course of action: they would skip town. Unfortunately, the cops and the firemen and the garbage guys were already standing outside Town Hall at this point, so they voted again. “Blame the Comptroller” beat “Shoot our way outta here” three votes to one, and so they blamed the Comptroller. This was a poor political decision, as Little Aleppo didn’t know how to pronounce comptroller and so they blamed the Town Fathers, who then tried blaming each other, but that didn’t work, either, because locals had enough anger for all four of them. The cops and the firemen and the garbage guys lounged against their cars and trucks outside Town Hall. They revved their engines. Sullenly, the Town Fathers attempted to solve the problem they had caused.
The FDLA kept answering the phone despite not getting paid, but the LAPD (No, Not That One) immediately went on strike. About an hour after the strike was called, a fellow at the Aardvark Lounge who appreciated being called Tambourine convinced the bar that: hey, if they weren’t gonna be the cops, well, we should. This was an excellent argument, the cirrhotic men answered him, and seven or eight drinks later, they took the station. Obviously, the real cops aren’t going to stand for this, so they mount a counter-attack, but all their stuff is inside and now the drunks are shooting the cops with rubber bullets and the sidewalk along Peel Street is full of yahoos cheering on the dummies. It’s not the neighborhood’s best look.
Emergency loans were procured from various sources. The Fifth First Bank of Little Aleppo only charged the neighborhood slightly above prime, but also refused to lend it that much. After all, the bank said, we know what it’s like around here. The Fifth First also sent over cash to Town Hall, and once the cops had retaken their headquarters, they all came by and got paid and were sent back out with the instructions to shake down every criminal they saw. The large gentlemen that hung out at Cagliostro’s also did their civic duty, and forced the Town Fathers to accept several loans. This led to a conversation that the Comptroller recounted to several grand juries in the years that followed.
“Where did this money come from?”
“A guy named Rudy,” the Town Fathers answered the Comptroller.
“Is that a bank?”
“No. It’s a guy.”
“But I have to write down where the money came from. What should I write down?”
“Write down? Oh, fuck, no. Don’t write any of this shit down.”
The interest payments soon became onerous. Services were slashed, maintenance deferred. Potholes grew, declared political positions, gathered followers, warred; the graffiti gangs hissed their way along the Downside. There was a new set of Town Fathers to replace the four who were now in jail and Messina Bam, who was still missing and so was the money. It had transferred from a dummy account at the Fifth First Bank of Little Aleppo to a bank in Macedonia, and then there was some sort of only-on-paper real estate deal in Buenos Aires that resulted in a payment to a shell corporation in a place called St. Isadora. C—-a City investigators working for the District Attorney have determined that “St. Isadora” is a made-up place, but not much past that. The five new leaders imposed austerity measures on Little Aleppo. Garbage pick-up went from everyday to three times a week. The street-cleaner was sold off to a rich pervert who owned a town just for fucking. There was a program in which the elderly were startled to make sure they were still alive, and that was canceled. The poolmobile, obviously, was mothballed.
There was crime. Say a prayer for the little, old ladies. Little Aleppo had the littlest, oldest ladies you’ve ever seen; their purses were snatched–on average–seven times a day. And the wayward youths joined with one another, having failed to find employment and fulfillment in the straight world: they adopted colors and claimed turf and named themselves. There were the Darkmouthed Himalayas and the Circle Circle Circle and the Hi, We’re A Gang. (Little Aleppians were awful at coming up with gang names; no one knew why.) Sometimes, the gangs fought. Other times, they danced. The dancing invariably turned into fighting, though.
The Main Drag was rough with missing teeth and grime, and the Salt Wharf was covered in barnacles. The Hotel Synod was making a body a week. There was some bus piracy. You didn’t walk through the Verdance at night. There were rip-off artists and stick-up men and getaway drivers. Merchants kept shotguns under their counters, and used them.
Neighborhood didn’t even have a movie theater anymore.
Gussy sipped her terrible coffee. Out on the sidewalk, a junkie was arguing with a pigeon. They spoke as equals, and Gussy watched the junkie concede several points. That’s one persuasive pigeon, she thought. A man in a faded black suit with no tie walked up behind the bird, frightening it off. The junkie accosted the man. The man was carrying a folded-up copy of the newspaper, and he beat the junkie about the head and shoulders with it. The man in the suit became chased. Gussy set her mug down on a first edition of something-or-other, walked outside, and PLANTED the junkie into a Plymouth. She flipped her skirt back down–she was in the middle of a protracted Catholic schoolgirl look–and asked the junkie,
“Can I have five dollars?”
She walked back to the shop and opened the front door for the man in the faded suit with the newspaper. He needed a haircut. Gussy walked in behind him, picked up her coffee. He made himself a cup and Mr. Venable settled into his customary seat.
“Why are you here?”
“I work here,” Gussy said. It had only been a week, but she was positive she had made more of an impression than that.
“I meant: How did you get in?”
“You gave me the key.”
“I didn’t expect you to actually use it. I feel infringed upon.”
“Pigeons, junkies, employees. A confederacy of dunces aligned against you.”
“A truer word never spoken.”
The ceiling of the front room of the bookstore with no title is much higher than it appears from outside. Some see it like a rotunda, and others like the inside of a pagoda, and others can make out the spandrels and pendentives. Books shimmer down the walls–two stories, three, four–accessible by ladders with politely-greased wheels and a sign affixed at eye level reading “STAFF ONLY.” there are two large, square tables in the middle of the space. Piles of books. The tables look like topographical maps, like models of Civil War battlefields in failing children’s museums. Sometimes, the tables were split between fiction and non, and other times they were male authors and female, and sometimes Mr. Venable separated the books by the color of their covers.
“It’s getting worse,” Gussy said.
“The neighborhood. Yeah.”
“Wait until you see this.”
He flattened out the Cenotaph on the desk in front of him, spun it around.
Horn To Neighborhood:
“Suck My Balls”
“Can they print that?”
“Oh, there’s a whole page on the journalistic reasons they quoted Mayor Horn precisely. Reporters love having consciences in public.”
“We’re not getting the loan, huh?”
“Oh, no. You should read the account. Mayor Horn didn’t call. He came here in person. He said–”
Mr. Venable picked the broadsheet back up, and fetched his reading glasses from the pocket of his oxblood shirt.
“–that he wanted to come here so he could–and I’m quoting–‘look Little Aleppo in the eye when I tell it to go fuck itself.’ He’s a man of position.”
Johnson Horn was the mayor of C—-a City in 198-, and if he had a nuclear bomb, he would have dropped it on Little Aleppo the moment he was sworn in. He had tried on several occasions to swap it for another city’s shittiest neighborhood, perhaps with a park to be named later. No takers. He had the city’s lawyers look into whether forcible secession was a thing, but it turned out not to be.
So when the Town Fathers came begging for a bail-out, he was full of glee and hardened. The erection lasted for the entire ride over, and for his statement. Mayor Horn was wearing tan slacks, and you could see his boner as he told Little Aleppo to blow him. The Cenotaph did not directly report the hard-on, but it did refer to the mayor as “full of passion” and “aroused with sentiment.”
Mr. Venable’s mug was from Harper Observatory. “WHERE STARS COME TO SHINE” it said on the side that faced out for a righty. They drank their coffee and watched the junkie and the pigeon. The two had regrouped, and they had felt something. Some call it love. Some call it sin. They were not in the configuration you would expect. Each being was both pleasing and being pleased. It was beautiful.
“It’s getting worse,” Gussy said.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn. Sometimes, though, it just remains dark. No dawn.”
“This isn’t the worst it can get.”
“Oh, no. These are just tremors.”
There was still the zoo, the unsullied and well-lit zoo that was safe for children and the elderly. That was not overgrown and unwashed, and did not frighten anyone. Free for all who had the entrance fee to walk through. Gussy sipped her terrible coffee from the mug with the cartoon dog riding the cartoon elephant, and forced herself to be proud of her home, Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America