The Kools were on the counter before Iffy Bould reached it. Two packs, soft, and the same amount of matchbooks atop them; their front covers had “Holly, Wood, and Vine” written on them, along with a phone number, and on the back was a drawing of Lady Justice with her blindfold on her forehead, and she was winking. The slogan read Let us explain what you were doing.
“What happened to the turtle?”
“Used to be a turtle on the matchbook. If you drew him right, you could go to art school,” Iffy said.
“Fuck I know about turtles? Fuck turtles. Cowards.”
Esperanza Guillaume hated. This may have been the result of owning a liquor store in the shitty part of a shitty neighborhood for 20 years, or she may have been like this as a child. No one knew, and no one bothered to ask, as they knew this would get them cursed out by Esperanza. She hated the drunks who feigned sloth on the sidewalk waiting for her to open in the morning, and the last-minute assholes who couldn’t decide between two $4 bottles of wine as she yelled “WE’RE CLOSING, SHITEYES!” late at night. The kids with fake IDs who thought she was stupid. The cops who stopped in and smiled as pints of whiskey disappeared into their pockets. The whores who drank banana schnapps. The stick-up boys who thought the idea of robbing her came to them first. God help you if you asked to use the bathroom.
“Hiding in their fucking shells. Fight like a man.”
There was no bulletproof glass separating Esperanza from the customer at 792 Liquors, and she had a .38 in a holster on her left hip. Her name was stitched on the gun belt in flowing white cursive, and after her name were check marks. Many of them. No one bothered to ask. Short, gray hair and enormous eyeglasses and smoker’s wrinkles that radiated around her mouth.
“You don’t see me hiding.”
“You’re not a turtle.”
“Because I work hard.”
“Forget I brought it up.”
“No, now you got me worked up over those lazy motherfuckers.”
Iffy tossed a fiver on the counter, grabbed the Kools. One in the inside pocket of his checked sport coat. A little raggedy; elbows with a bit of shine. The other WAP WAP WAP against the back of his hand, and then the cellophane spirals off. His nails are very short because otherwise they clack against the keys of his typewriter, so he has to dig the foil up with his fingers, and he rolls the detritus up into a tiny ball that refuses to stay a tiny ball and springs back to form. Esperanza hands him his change, a buck, and holds out her hand palm-up. Iffy gives her the trash, and she puts it into the basket under the counter. FLUP FLUP his middle finger flicks the underside of the pack and two brown filters emerge. Takes both, offers one. Esperanza takes the smoke with her left hand, right slides the ashtray in between them. FFT POP is the sound of the match, and even though they are inside and there is no wind, Iffy cups his left hand around the flame as he lights her cigarette and then his own. Shakes out the match. In the tray. Kools go in the hip pocket of the jacket. Matches, too.
“Whaddya hear about the guy?”
“Which guy? No guys around here. I ain’t been laid since Ford.”
“That’s a fucking drought, when you stop counting by years and start going by presidents.”
“You know who I’m talking about. The big guy.”
“The one beating the shit out of the muggers? I see him, I’m shooting him.”
“He put my little cousin Marielito in the hospital. That kid’s no mugger.”
“What was he doing when the guy beat him up?”
Esperanza blew out a plume of smoke FWOOO and hacked once, twice.
“Oh, he was mugging someone. But he’s not a mugger.”
“You’re talking about the dichotomy between action and character.”
“I’m talking about that big fucking lunatic kicked Marielito’s jaw into his fucking shoulder. Who’s that painter that doesn’t know how to paint?”
Iffy tapped his ashes into the tray.
“That’s what he looks like. The boy’s all fucked up.”
“Still at the hospital?”
“You know how you can get beat so hard you start pissing blood?”
“He’s crying blood. The boy is fucked the fuck up. Yeah, he’s still at the hospital.”
“I might go talk to him.”
“You doing a story?”
“Good. You find out who this asshole is.”
Two speed freaks walked in–the door went BZZZZ–and split up as to examine every single label in the store more efficiently. They smelled like ammonia and scams. Iffy walked towards the door, turned back, said,
“The Aleppo Avenger.”
“Fuck you talking about?”
“Guy needs a name. Can’t sell papers without a name.”
“‘Aleppo Avenger?’ Get the fuck out of my store with that. Fuck is he avenging? He’s running around the Downside punching poor people.”
“I’ll work on it.”
“Take a six-pack of Arrows with you if you’re going to see Marielito.”
Iffy nodded, veered off to the nearest cooler, grabbed a sixer with its cardboard carrying case.
“Nuh-uh. Nuh-uh. Cans.”
Iffy nodded again, replaced the bottles, hooked his fingers through the plastic tabs of the six-pack. He walked out BZZZZ onto the Main Drag, and Esperanza stubbed out the Kool and watched the speed freaks speed.
Before the Whites, there was no alcohol in the valley that would become Little Aleppo. There were intoxicants, surely–the leaf of the peregrine maria tree, and the psilocybin cybelinus mushrooms that grew from squatch scat after the rains–but neither the Pulaski nor any of the tribes that preceded them had fermented the fruits which grew bountiful all around them.
After the Whites, there was alcohol fucking everywhere (and the valley had been named Little Aleppo). There was whiskey, because it was America, and there was tequila, because it was California. And beer, of course, steam beer so-called because the fermenting tubs were placed on the roof of the Büntz Brewery and cooled by the breeze from the harbor; this threw up great pilpations of steam, smoke signals for the thirsty. The beer was light and sweet and around 6% by volume, but people could handle their booze better back then. Men drank while they worked, and women drank in the home, and children drank because they worked because the past was terrible. Working women, too, tippled. The first business in Little Aleppo was the mine that carved out the Turnaway Lode, and the third was a hardware store, but the second was a bar. The fourth through 19th were also bars. Upscale with paintings on the wall and ladies you could rent, or a plank across some barrels where you’d get punched in the asshole for speaking French. Taverns, saloons, dance halls, hoocheries, bierhausen, nominal restaurants, grog huts, and the long-ago ancestor of Beer-Cooler Ethel, Goat-Bladder Murph, who would squirt a penny’s worth of rotgut into your mouth right on the sidewalk. Finding water that wouldn’t leave you shitting out your ears might take a while, but you could always get a drink.
Temperance came to Little Aleppo by rumor; it was some story a guy at the bar told. Large women with hatchets destroyed saloons on occasion, but they had almost always been drinking in said saloons up until the destruction began, and the weapons were not produced out of principle, but because motherfuckers were talking shit. A man’s drinking habit was not cause for public policy, the neighborhood thought, and neither was a woman’s. The kids should probably cut down, the neighborhood further thought, but again: not the government’s business. Little Aleppians believed that the government which governs best is the one which stays on the other side of the continent.
But America snuck in, and on January 17, 1920, Prohibition became the law of the land. Locals had a rather Jewish feeling about the Volstead Act, in that they thought it would pass over them, but the neighborhood awoke to the sound of crashing glass and shouting men. The LAPD (No, Not That One) was rousing innkeepers and bartenders and boozeslingers and my God even Goat-Bladder Murph! The cops were pouring the alcohol into the Main Drag, some of it, and carrying off the rest. Sharp-eyed residents noticed that they were carrying off a lot more than they spilled. These same observant folks also saw that several establishments, the newly-opened Irving Club included among them, were not party to such molestations. Later that day, those watchful locals made the barrels and cases and kegs going into the Irving, via the back door, and carried in by the same cops who had carried them out of the other joints.
Not that the Irving was a joint. Shit, it was swanky: the chain on the toilet was gold-plated, and all the glasses were clean instead of just most of ’em, and immensely-stemmed women sauntered about selling cigarettes and cigars and hits of ether and zip guns and pocket Constitutions. Stylish. The fellows wore tuxedos and the skirts wore dresses. Scandalous. The public casino was in the back: roulette, craps, blackjack; the room upstairs was for poker, and more exclusive. Salacious. There were private dining rooms that for some reason had beds in them. Spectacular. The Irvettes did the can-can, which was some Parisian shit. Billy McGlory didn’t get into that. When the girls kicked real high, everybody could see their underpants. What more was there to think about? The one thing Billy did know was that Prohibition was the best thing that ever happened to a bartender.
Some months before the Volstead Act went into effect, this conversation took place:
“We got a visit today.”
“It’s September, Billy.”
“Who the fuck came to see you, Sean?”
“Chief of Police from C—-a City.”
“Royster came? In person, like?”
“Why didn’t he call on the telephone?”
“He did, but we kept pretending we had a bad connection and hanging up on him.”
“We figured no good could come from talking to him. So the bloated fucker shows up in his fancy dress blues. The man’s enormous. It was like the ocean walked in.”
“And what’d he say?”
“That we gotta shut down all the booze. All the bars, liquor stores, whatever. You gotta see the stack of fuckin’ legal documents he threw at us. Fat as he is.”
“You didn’t bring ’em over?”
“No. Oh. Should I have?”
“Jesus, you’re fuckin’ thick sometime. Send somebody down with ’em when you get back to the station.”
“Okay. So, what do we do?”
“As we’re fuckin’ well told, brother. Prohibtion will be the law of the land, and we are solid citizens. We’re a nation of fuckin’ laws, Sean.”
“So you and your boys are gonna shutter every fuckin’ gin-joint in this neighborhood.”
“What about the ones we own?”
“Except for those.”
That was a conversation that took place some time before the Volstead Act went into effect.
In ’33, the 21st Amendment nullified the 18th, and America swore to never do anything that dumb again. The country kept its self-made promise for almost four years, and then made marijuana illegal so as to have work for the new government employees hired to prohibit things. Booze was back, anyway, and well-regulated this time. Prospective purveyors needed something called a liquor license. You had to apply, for fuck’s sake, and the government–of all fucking people–was allowed to turn you down. You couldn’t sell beer next to, or within, a school anymore. No more ratfights in the basement. Jesus Christ, you had to pay taxes. What’s the world come to when you have to pay taxes?
“Gimme one of those.”
“The cigarettes or the beer?”
“The cigarette. I’m on duty. And it’s nine in the morning,” Fancy Delaware said.
“Lots of people drink at nine in the morning,” Iffy Bould answered.
Fancy Delaware had a blue ballcap on; it had a yellow cartoon ox on the front, and was pulled down to the tops of her sunglasses, which were black and she thought she looked bitchin’ in. They were the ones whats-his-face wore in the movie where he danced in his underwear. She had a butt-chin and a white coat and blue scrubs and neon yellow sneakers. People who wear scrubs every day tend towards outlandish footwear.
Iffy wore brown lace-ups that needed a shine.
They were standing behind the dumpster on the far side of St. Agatha’s parking lot. Iffy was used to meeting sources in secret: Town Fathers in Foole’s Yard, and whistleblowers at Harper Zoo, and assassins the Town Fathers had hired but neglected to pay in The Tahitian. Iffy always wanted to tell them, “We don’t have to be so dramatic. Just call me,” but everyone thinks they’re in a movie and so passwords and dead drops were involved.
There was no subterfuge this morning, however: Fancy was on her way to the dumpster for her twice-daily smoke break when she saw him slouch up. She didn’t like to smoke in sight of the hospital.
“There’s quite a few. Which one?”
“The one who’s been giving you extra work.”
Iffy snorted a puff of used Kool out his nose.
“Is that what you’re calling him?”
“Yeah. That asshole’s a real asshole. You gotta see these kids.”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said and looked at his notebook. “Marielito. Shit, I didn’t write down his last name.”
“I can’t tell you it’s Germain.”
“I won’t write that down.”
He wrote it down.
“There were two more waiting for me this morning when I got in. You ever see a donkey stomp a coyote to death?”
“You don’t want to. These kids are fucked up.”
“16, 17. They’re committing street crimes. You grow out of that in your twenties. Ever see an old mugger?”
“Age leads us to indoor felonies, I suppose.”
“Right. You want to sit down while you rob someone. Some of these poor bastards are going to be sitting a lot for a while. Maybe forever. He literally shoved a guy’s leg up his own asshole.”
Fancy took off her sunglasses; her thick eyebrows were just as black, but hairier.
“Lit-uh-ruh-lee. Let me say it all doctor-like: patient presented with left leg inserted in rectum up to the middle of the tibia and fibula.”
“I don’t think your knee is supposed to bend that way.”
“I know it’s not. I learned that fact at medical school. The human knee is incapable of that motion. I got all sorts of books that prove it.”
Iffy copied down her words in shorthand. It was 198-, and he was a reporter, so he knew shorthand.
“He’s fucked up.”
“People keep saying.”
“That motherfucker the Muggerfucker punched his jaw into his shoulder.”
He looked up, and the Kool that was dangling in the corner of his mouth dropped its ash in response.
“Wait, he really did that? I thought Esperanza was making things up.”
“His jaw. In his shoulder. His mandible worked its way through his neck and into his fucking shoulder. Again: something that medical school had assured me was impossible.”
She put her sunglasses back on. Fancy preferred the night shift. It was simply more interesting, but she forced herself to take a week of day shifts every month. The real world happened during the day, she thought, and she knew that she could drift from it if she was not careful. Her eyes never did quite adjust to the sun, though.
“Did you put it back?”
“Not me. They called in specialists. Team of them. They said they never saw anything like it, either. Well, first they said, ‘What the fuck kind of neighborhood are you running here?’ and then they said they never saw anything like it.”
Fancy clocked her butt to see how much she had left FWOO and said,
“You have to do something about this.”
“Me? I’m gonna write a story.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean. Write the real story.”
“Some would say that the real story is a man taking back the streets for law-abiding citizens.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Playing devil’s advocate.”
“Don’t. Devil’s got enough advocates.”
He nodded, and did not write that down in shorthand in his notebook.
“This guy’s an asshole. He’s the bad guy, If. Get the story right.”
She stubbed out her Kool with her
“I didn’t tell you Marielito is in Room 402. Don’t walk back with me.”
Fancy Delaware flapped her white coat like a stork’s wings as she walked across the parking lot of St. Agatha’s and back to the Emergency Room entrance, new glass doors fixed into the old masonry with the department’s motto chiseled above: Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi. SWOOSH the doors withdrew for her and then SWOOSH they clapped shut behind her, and Iffy Bould counted down from 30; when he was past “one,” he crushed his cigarette under his brown lace-up and carried his notebook and a six-pack of beer towards the story–whatever the fuck it would turn out to be–in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.