Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Tag: Little Aleppo (page 1 of 16)

On Background In Little Aleppo

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?”

“What 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.

“Cowards?”

“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.”

“Huh.”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.

“Picasso.”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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?”

“Apparently.”

“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.”

“Santa?”

“It’s September, Billy.”

“Who the fuck came to see you, Sean?”

“Chief of Police from C—-a City.”

“Royster came? In person, like?”

“He did.”

“Why didn’t he call on the telephone?”

“He did, but we kept pretending we had a bad connection and hanging up on him.”

“Tactical decision.”

“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.”

“Sure.”

“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.

“Who?”

“Alcoholics.”

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.

FFT. POP.

“Thank you.”

FWOO

“Any time.”

FWOO.

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.

“The guy.”

“There’s quite a few. Which one?”

“The one who’s been giving you extra work.”

“The Muggerfucker?”

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?”

“No.”

“You don’t want to. These kids are fucked up.”

“Kids?”

“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.”

“Sure.”

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.

“How’s Marielito?”

“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?”

“The jaw?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Rude.”

“Surgeons.”

“Sure.”

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.

Dreaming In The Canyons In Little Aleppo

At first, there was nothing.

Next, there was something, but very little of it.

Stars ignited

Planets formed.

Then, Cannot Swim opened his eyes and Here And There was sitting on the edge of his bed.

“MOTHERFUCKER!”

He didn’t say “motherfucker.” There’s no word in the Pulaski language that directly translates to “motherfucker.” What he said sounded kind of like “ri’znizh’ki” and meant something like “owls shit in your mouth and you enjoy it,” but it had the connotation of “motherfucker.” The Pulaski did have a word that directly translated to “motherfucker” but it was used to address a man who was married to your mother but wasn’t your father. Like a second husband. It wasn’t a curse word, and it certainly wasn’t something you’d yelp in surprised fear when the shaman showed up in your kotcha in the middle of the night.

“Oh, good. You’re awake.”

“I wasn’t. Why are you here?”

“And There.”

“What?”

“Hello, cousin.”

Here And There and Cannot Swim were most probably cousins. Everyone in the tribe was related–there were technically five families, but there was a lot of interhumping–and it was probably true that they were cousins, but Cannot Swim did not know exactly in what way. He knew they weren’t cousins like he and Talks To Whites were cousins: their mothers had been sisters. He also knew that he had never corrected Here And There when she called him “cousin.”

“Hi.”

“Cool out tonight.”

“Mm. Which is why I’m under the blanket. You could be, too.”

“I don’t think Throwing Knife would like that very much.”

“I meant your blanket in your kotcha,” Cannot Swim said, and turned over to look at his wife. She was lightly snoring, she sounded like a happy cat, and her left leg was kicked out from under the bearskin that covered her enormous belly. The Pulaski slept on low wooden platforms, just a few inches off the ground, and their mattresses were made from the same bearskin as their blankets, but shorn of fur. More leather for a pillow, rolled up into a tight cylinder. The bed took up almost half of the floor space; the Pulaski spent little time in their kotchas. Sleeping, fucking, staying out of the rain every 18 days. Otherwise, they were outside.

The only sound was Throwing Knife. She went schWOHz and snorted a little. When she was not pregnant, she slept in total silence. Cannot Swim found that hard to get used to when they moved in together. He would watch her in the dark and wish for just a little plurp or muhhf or something. She looked dead. He wanted to poke her, and did once. He did not do that again. Ever since she started showing, though, she slumbered with more volume. He secretly liked it.

But she was a light sleeper.

“Why is she still sleeping? She wakes up when the dog farts. And, holy shit, why is the dog still asleep?”

In a few hours when the sun rose over the Segovian Hills and blessed the valley, you would be able to see the white in Black Eyes’ muzzle. She slept inside now, where it was warmer and she had a blanket to lay on. Throwing Knife had made fun of Cannot Swim for this: dogs were not pampered in the Pulaski village. They drank from the lake, ate what was tossed to them, and slept on the ground. Cannot Swim agreed with her 100%, and then laid the blanket out, anyway. He had figured out that trick in the short time they had been cohabitating, and was proud of himself. Throwing Knife let him think he had gotten away with something. It wasn’t like she was getting rid of the dog: Black Eyes had heeled up on her right side nine months ago and refused to leave. She had done the math and it said that the dog took up her post the morning after the conception, but Throwing Knife refused to believe the math on account of she didn’t want to.

So Black Eyes was at the foot of the bed. She was a 100-pound lumpish shape in the dark, unmoving.

“I drugged them.”

“What? You drugged Throwing Knife? She’s fucking pregnant!”

“I didn’t drug her. It was a joke.”

“You’re not funny.”

“I drugged you.”

“Motherfucker, you did, didn’t you?”

And now they were atop the pass in between the fourth and fifth peaks of the mountain range that separated the Pulaski’s valley from America. The stars were in their hair, and the wind from the Pacific snapped at their ears, and prickles of grass shot up between the bare, too-long toes of Here And There’s wide, flat feet. Cannot Swim was also barefoot; he shivered in his breachcloth.

“You couldn’t let me put on my shoes?”

“You’re not really cold.”

“I absolutely am.”

“No, you can’t be. We’re not actually here. This is just a dream.”

Cannot Swim was a foot-and-a-half taller than Here And There, and he took a deep breath because he had never struck another member of his tribe before out of anger, and he instinctively knew that he should not start with the shaman.

“Here And There?”

“Yuh-huh?”

“Cousin?”

“Yeah?”

“With all due respect?”

“Oh, of course.”

“Completely unfuckingnecesary. All of this, the entire thing. If you have something to tell me, you could’ve told me at dinner.”

“Oh, no. No, no. I need to discuss shaman shit with you. Can’t do it over a meal while you’re sober. Shaman shit is for the middle of the night with your mind all greased-up.”

He ran his fingers through black hair, which was loose and to his shoulder blades. Throwing Knife braided it every morning, very early, just as the sky is pinking up and the world is quiet and thoughtful. When she was finished, he would braid her hair, which was the same length and shade. It was his favorite time of day.

“I want a straight answer.”

“Man, are you talking to the wrong person.”

“Am I dreaming, or did you drug me?”

Here And There also had black hair, but hers hung to her waist and was shot through with seven vertical white stripes like an overachieving skunk. All the Pulaski had dark eyes, but there was no distinction between the black of her pupils and the corneas. She was the only member of the tribe to have freckles. They splotched winglike around her nose. She had a smile you wished she’d point somewhere else.

“Both.

And now they were back in the kotcha on the bed.

“Neither.”

And now they were atop the pass.

“What does it matter? Stop breaking my balls. It’s magick.”

And now they were standing on the surface of the water in the middle of the lake where the Pulaski fished. Cannot Swim looked down, at Here And There, down again, back, and then up at the sky with his eyes tightly shut.

“We could go back to the pass.”

“Are you sure?”

He did not look down one tiny little bit.

“Yes. Yes. The pass sounds great. I’m up for the pass.”

“You’re gonna stop asking stupid questions?”

“I’m just gonna listen.”

“Oh, no. This is a conversation we’re having, cousin. I welcome your input.”

They were back on the pass, and the stars were back in their hair, and Cannot Swim stomped the ground several times before peeking downwards. He poked a rock with his toe suspiciously. He had never been up here without a rifle before, and definitely not at night. For good reason.

The culls began in earnest in 1920. Little Aleppo had profiteered the living shit out of the federal government during the First World War One. No substandard was too sub, no price was too inflated. The sailors who docked at the Salt Wharf had a buyer for the trash fish they used to use as chum, Hognosed fluke and Tierra del Fuegan flipperdicks and spaghetti mackarel; the garment shops turned out uniforms made from wheat shavings and human stubble; a carpenter named Alan Lamp made a quick buck selling the Army wooden bullets. The neighborhood was making money by the trenchload, slowed only by the still-dirt trail that connected it to America. Trucks had taken over for horses, but not entirely, and it was still not safe to make the journey at night. People still did, and most made it, but more than occasionally the morning would find a truck sitting empty right in the middle of the trail. The merchandise would only be touched if it was food.

Before 1920, there were forays. Hunting trips. Heavily-armed ones, but still just men ambling about the woods while drinking. Couple even nailed a squatch, swear they did, but there was just blood and grass when they got to where the downed corpse should be. Drunken ninnies with rifles, most. Gunther Hundeschreier even made a trip: he was the biggest big game hunter, and he was game. He left from the Irving Club at dawn, accompanied by six porters in native garb. Native to where was not obvious: one guy was in a grass skirt, and another had paint all over his face, and one was a Sherpa. Gunter was in all-khaki: pressed shorts, and a shirt with all sorts of pockets, and tall boots with laces, and one of those hats where you button a side of the brim up and leave the other floppy. He had an elephant gun–must have been five feet long–that he made sure everyone watch him load, then he shouldered the cannon and he and his porters marched towards the Segovian Hills. He handed the gun off to the Sherpa when the crowd could no longer see them. The rifle, badly rusted and occupied by a family of shrews, was discovered in 1972; the hat was never found.

After 1920, though, Little Aleppians got serious about carving their road to America, and they also became much more heavily armed due to all the surplus war materiel coming back from the Pacific part of WWI that everyone has forgotten about. The Browning M1917 is a water-cooled full automatic that shoots 30.06 shells at a rate of 500 a minute and at a range of 1,500 yards. Properly maintained, a Browning M1917 will fire for several hours straight without needing repair. It made killing very easy; the only tough part was carrying all the ammunition. The Town Fathers paid for a militia, but they didn’t pay a lot, so the militia was not well-regulated. Estimates put the number of human dead, from carelessness or drunkenness or falling off the mountains, at about commensurate with the number of squatch deaths. Men outnumbered beast, so it was a game of attrition. If you ever find yourself in a game attrition, try to be on the side with the machine guns. In 1922, the hills were declared clear, and construction begun on not only Christy Canyon, but also on Skyway Drive and Biscuit Court and Gitcheegoomee Way and a hundred other concrete tributaries tracing upwards. The machine guns were locked away in the armory.

They were hurriedly fetched from the armory in 1923 when it came to be known, bloodily, that the hills had not been cleared. The last stand of the squatch was called the Battle of the Main Drag, and there are still one or two buildings with bullet holes in them from that day, but they blend in with all the other bullet holes made since then, so the historic ones are tough to find.

And then the Whites lived everywhere in Little Aleppo. (The Blacks and Hispanics and Asians, too. The hills were not segregated, mostly because the homes were so spread apart or tucked away that no one had to see their neighbors.) The final foot of tarmac was laid on the crest of the pass in ’24, and then there was the world and there was America, but not in that order. No more horses. Just cars and trucks and even buses. Motorcyclists zoomed over, and died a lot. Move your product inland in a tenth of the time. Commerce, baby.

The road was for the merchants, but the streets were for the people. Mostly the rich, lazy, or weird people; it was a pain in the ass getting from your house on, say, Mount Fortitude to the Main Drag, and it was completely impossible without an automobile. There were mansions–Harper T. Harper built his Roman-ish villa up on Mount Charity, and so did the Braunce family, and also the Boones–and writers had shacks where their editors would lay in a month’s supply of whiskey and cigarettes and lock them in. The monastery is on Mount Faith. The Observatory went up in the 30’s high atop Pulaski Peak, and the 100-foot-tall antenna went up on Mount Lincoln. During the Second World War Two, fallout shelters were dug into Mount Booth. (No one in the neighborhood was informed of these shelters; they were suspiciously light on concrete and supplies, but chockful of the Town Father’s families and they all had pools, too.)

The artists lived on Mount Chastity, which is the mountain directly north of Pulaski Peak; Christy Canyon divides them. It is the steepest of the seven hills, and therefore the toughest to climb and descend, which means it was inexpensive to live there. Artists can smell cheap rent from across a continent, and Chastity filled up with creative types: drunken painters, and drunken novelists, and drunken guitar players. Barkeeps can smell artists, too, and so The Colonel’s opened up. Everyone was positive that Evelyn Wood had never attained the rank of colonel, mostly because the Army wasn’t letting women in at the time, but she’d throw you right the fuck out if you didn’t call her Colonel, so no one poked about into her story too hard. You could also get groceries, and all the mail for the mountain was delivered there, and small home goods, too. When there were puppies or kitties to be given away, they were placed in a cardboard box on the counter. The Colonel’s was more of a general store.

You’d be shocked how many of your favorite records happened because of The Colonel’s. It was where Kate Skye met Arnie Delviking. She had all those songs, all those whispers of songs sitting there in the living room of the pad she was renting from a friend of a friend of the guy who cut her hair. The place came with furniture, but she moved every stick of it into a back bedroom. Better acoustics. She wrote her lyrics in green pen. She had a thing about it. They were in a composition book with a crease down the front from where she folded it up and carried it around in the back pocket of her bell-bottom dungarees. She had these songs, these little whispers of songs, and she played them for Arnie after they got drunk at The Colonel’s and went back to her bare bungalow. She sat on the hearth in front of the unlit fireplace, and she played guitar like it was a magic trick. When she was done, they smoked a joint and fucked, and then Arnie–who used to write hit teenybopper singles at the Brill Building before dropping acid and moving Out West–drove Kate to his place, where he had a small recording studio and called up muscians who owed him favors and he sat at the piano while she sat on a stool. Arnie arranged ’em, and Kate sang ’em–twice, maybe three times–and the pickup band picked up what they were laying down. Took three days. Kate called the album The Fireplace Sessions, and it went Gold. Kate went on tour, got famous, married poorly, then well. Arnie built a bigger studio on Hyperion Lane.

He called it Virgin Studios–thought it was clever, being on Mount Chastity and all–but received an angry letter from some rich asshole in London, and gave up trying to be clever and just called the place Hyperion Studios. There was a small parking lot out front, and then the lounge and the offices and the little kitchen where rhythm sections had screaming matches, and behind that was the studio proper. It was built into the hill itself: the builders plugged the whole structure into an existing cave. This gave the room a resonance that was tough to find in recording studios not built into mountains.

Muggley, Finch, and Bowels laid down Spinner Topper right there in that room.  Sold two million. The drummer was in the corner behind wooden curtains, and the bass player sat by the pianist, and Muggley, Finch and Bowels were in the middle of the space equidistant around one suspended microphone. They would smoke joints and harmonize. By their next album, they were also snorting cocaine and harmonizing, which may be why they named the album Carbonated Underwear Vs. the Jukebox Pirates of Titan. It did not sell as well.

The Snug’s first album didn’t move, either. This made Arnie Delviking ecstatic. He had met poorly-behaved bands before–Keith Richards had once thrown a ladder at him–but The Snug was special. Most bands grew into their arrogance, but The Snug’s entitled dickishness existed fully-formed at their inception, like gods bursting forth from Cronos, but instead of gods there were insane demands and spontaneous tantrums and poorly-timed OD’s. The poorly-timed OD is what separates the wheat from the boys, Arnie thought. Anyone could overdose, but only a true Rock Star would choose to do so while performing at the Grammys, or signing a desperately-needed new contract.

None of them had been in a recording studio before, which didn’t stop them for one instant telling everyone what to do. Johnny Mister insisted on turning his Hi-Watt amps up as loud as they’d go, which Arnie explained was not the way to do it; Johnny countered by taking a shit on the floor. Holiday Rhodes was 99% finished with the lyrics. All that was left to do was to pick out the exact right words, and also the order they went in: 99% finished. He spent most of the sessions hectoring the drummer, Rut Morgan, who was replaced on the second record after losing all of his limbs in a high-stakes poker game. He was probably going to be fired, anyway, but Johnny and Holiday were glad for the excuse. Bassist Dave Ronn sat on his stool and didn’t bother anyone, drinking steadily until he flopped off his stool; the roadies would prop him against a speaker cabinet, where he would continue to not bother anyone.

“Arnie?”

Arnie hit the button on the mixing board that turned on his mic into the studio.

“Johnny?”

“We need a marching band.”

“I’ll check in my office.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t fit in there. Don’t bother checking,” Johnny said. He had taken acid, and was now earnest.

“We can’t get a marching band.”

“I need one.”

“Well, it’s two in the morning. So that’s going to be a barrier. Marching bands are almost exclusively found in the daytime.”

“They call that circadian rhythm.”

“And you can’t afford a marching band.”

“They’ll do it for art, man.”

“They won’t.”

And Johnny took another shit on the floor, this time earnestly.

Hyperion Studios is still there, and Arnie still owns it. Spends more time retelling old stories for rock and roll documentaries than recording lately. The big room hasn’t changed, not a baffle. During tours, Arnie points out the stain on the carpet and say, “That was Johnny Mister.” Young musicians come by to hang out and smoke dope, and they ask him for advice. He tells them to go back in time and purchase a bunch of real estate in the early 70’s. “Worked out great for me,” he says.

“Raspberry?”

“No, thank you.”

“They’re ripe as hell.”

“I’m good,” Cannot Swim said.

“I didn’t put drugs in them.”

He said nothing. It would have been dramatic if a shooting star passed overhead, but none did.

“Okay, yeah, there’s drugs in them,” Here And There laughed and popped a plump berry in her mouth.

Pulaski Peak was behind her; its summit would not be smoothed down and colonized for 50 years, and it was jagged and no human being had ever stood atop it. There was no reason to do so, and every reason not to even think about trying. The hill that would be called Mount Chastity was behind him. Its summit was nubby and sawed-off and covered in gentle grass where Pulaski Peak’s was rocky. Nobody had been up there, either.

“What will you do in the morning?”

“Oversee the hiding of the gold. Then Talks To Whites and I will go and speak to the White.”

“That should work. They seem reasonable.”

“Well, what should we do?”

“I’m not the one to ask. Shamans aren’t good with tactics.”

“Why don’t you use your magick?”

Here And There had several laughs: the low heheheheh she used on purpose, and the sudden BWA that leapt from her when a laugh was forced from her. She went BWA! and a shooting star crossed the sky, finally.

“You don’t use magick. And it’s not mine. But besides that: great idea.”

“You don’t use magick? What do you do with it?”

“Entice it into a temporary alliance. Try not to annoy it. Be elsewhere when it gets cranky. But you can’t use it. Magick isn’t a tool.”

FWOMP there was a neat campfire in front of them, with a log pleasant for sitting.

“I mean, sometimes it’s a tool. But you don’t wanna press your luck.”

She flattened her tunic under her tush as she sat, then patted the empty space next to her. Cannot Swim flattened his tunic the same way, joined her, extended his hands towards the fire.

“Go with your cousin tomorrow. Take Black Eyes, too.”

“She won’t leave Throwing Knife’s side”

“She will. Take her. Pay attention to your cousin. He cannot be objective about the Whites. Their language is in his brain too deeply. His father taught it to him at too young an age. He sees the world as they do.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay. Are there any raspberries without drugs in them?”

“No, but I have some blueberries like that.”

He held out his hand and said, “Please,” and she filled it. The blueberries that grew near their village were the size of popcorn kernels from an upscale movie theater. Cannot Swim chucked a few back, chewed, swallowed.

“No, wait. I drugged the blueberries, too.”

“When I was a boy, my father told me to stay the hell away from you.”

“You should’ve listened.”

The fire popped and sizzled and was the only source of light. It played across Here And There’s forehead; she had tucked her hair behind her ears and her face fractured, came back together, rebroke in the hopping, yellow glow.

Now the fire leapt outwards, not evenly, tendrils and branches that climbed over each other; the radius of flame was increasing and SHWAMP it was all around Cannot Swim and the shaman, all seven hills and now the valley to the west and America to the east: fully involved and here goes the sky and there went the sea; the fire took it all but would not die out. The two Pulaski sat and burned forever.

“Can you see the future, cousin?”

“No.”

“Me, neither. Maybe there’s a trick to it.”

And now the fire is back where it should be, a tool to be used, and the two Pulaski sat in the cold night and wished they knew what tomorrow would be like.

The Middle Of The Night In Little Aleppo

The middle of the night’s got its own economy, heroes, political third rails. It’s a whole different place than daytime, which is why it takes so long to get there. There’s that first little bit, the couple hours after evening when folks fuck and drink and watch teevee and wash the children, and then there’s the final squeezings, that inky-purple patch that morning people and joggers claim as their own–because they’re greedy fucks, morning people and joggers–but between them is the middle of the night, which is ruled by cannot.

Can’t have a fancy wedding at two in the morning. (And bear in mind we’re not speaking of Las Vegas here, just normal locales.) Fan belt’s not getting replaced; shit, the bus isn’t coming by for hours. Translators and stenographers are of little to no use; piano tuners, even less. Your options for ethnic foods are severely curtailed. Art museums, pick-your-own apple farms, pool supply stores: no, no, no. You could not adopt a pet or a child in the middle of the night, at least not legally. The teevee went off at three. Draculette signed off–“Good night, boogers. Try not to die.”–and then you were on your own. You could get a drink, or a burger, or stabbed, but that was about it and some folks couldn’t even get out for the stabbing. Look up next time you’re walking through the middle of the night: always a few lights burning with the curtains drawn.  Listen, too, and you’ll hear the same voices. Babies crying out hungry, and dying men calling out lonely. Bong-induced coughing fits.

And the AM radio. AM radio lives in the middle of the night, and that’s when Mark Lake did his show on 770 KHAY.

He had competition, too. Draculette and the Late Show ruled the ratings because all the other stations literally stopped coming in clearly around eleven at night, and the FM stations from over the hills got crackly, as well, but the AM powered up at night. FM and teevee are line-of-sight transmitters, but the AM signal gets bounced off the ionosphere and back down to your car radio. When the sun goes down, the air cools and this sends the ionosphere hurtling upwards, increasing the stations’ ranges. It’s just trigonometry, but it brought in all kinds of sounds to Little Aleppo at night. The super-station blasting 150,000 watts from Tijuana, with that scratchy-voiced guy who seemed far too excited about introducing a Dion record. From New York, even: Jews pretending to be Italians, and speaking quickly as a magic trick. There was KJRC from El Paso, and they only broadcast about Jesus and never, ever played a Chuck Berry record, not even once, and you could sense it immediately upon setting on the station; you could listen for only two minutes and know–comprehend in your soul, dig?–that not only did these motherfuckers not play Chuck Berry records, these motherfuckers probably didn’t even own a Chuck Berry record, and by golly what kind of way is that to live? It was understandable to pray to Jesus in the middle of the night, but no one could bear being lectured at about Him at that hour. It was too late to rock and roll, and too early for Jesus.

So Mark Lake didn’t play records. There were recordings, but never records. Mark played stuff he’d get sent. Servicemen, and folks who served, but just not in uniform, and government contractors. Their names and ranks were never revealed.

“It might be as dangerous for you to know their names as it would be for them to be known,” Mark would say. He had a voice from the West: all his consonants got clipped and dropped and swallowed, and the vowels flattened out, and there was almost no nasality. His jaw did more work than his lips did; they sounded thin, and just along for the ride. In stories from his childhood, he would always mention the desert. He never mentioned which one.

“Caller, you’re on The Middle of the Night with Mark Lake. You got Mark.”

“Hey, Mark. Big fan.”

“Uh-huh. What’s your name?”

“I wanted to talk about the Silurian Hypothesis.”

“Oh, yeah. Fascinating stuff. Love to. What’s your name, caller?”

“I’d rather not give it to you, Mark. My safety is paramount on remaining anonymous. I know too much about this.”

“About the Silurian Hypothesis? That there was a lost society of reptile-people around 350,000 years ago? How could any knowledge about that put anyone in danger?”

“The amphibian-people.”

“Oh, okay. That makes sense.”

“Very jealous of the reptile people. It’s like an inferiority complex thing with them.”

“I can see that, sure. Now, caller, how did you come by this information?”

“Working for the amphibian-people.”

“In what capacity?”

“Plumber.”

“Okay.”

“They have specific toilet needs that we as primates don’t take into account when designing buildings. I had to do a lot of modifications for them. They secretly own every racehorse. It’s like how that one company sells every brand of glasses? The amphibian-people own all the racehorses.”

“There’s a lot that never added up about horse racing that, with your contribution, now makes more sense. Why are you coming forward now?”

“They like to purge their human support staff every few years, so I felt my life was in danger.”

“Purge?”

“Eat.”

“Of course.”

Mark’d hang up on you, but he wouldn’t tease you. He took the confessions of the weird, and he had his vows just like a priest. No screeners. You called, and he answered. This was, he often told his listeners, the way of nature. The Lord meant for us to screen our calls, we would’ve been born with secretaries. You called, and he answered, and you could tell your story. He’d poke at it a little, edge it towards the juicy chunks, slap it back in play when it rambled towards the railing, but it was still your story. You could tell it on the radio, late at night.

Workers from Dulce Base had called in, with a strange clicking sound in the background like a tape recorder running. Folks had the wrong ideas about aliens, they said. They were time travelers. The gray ones with the necks and the big eyes? They were us from a million years from now, and all of them–there were currently 411 at Dulce Base alone–had broken the timestream getting here and had no way back; they were hellaciously pissed about it, hence all the anal probing. A sizable portion of the Defense budget went to entertaining them.

Fran Kukla called in every month or so. She had discovered what she called the Moving Mountain, which was a mountain that moved. Fran wasn’t great at naming things, but she could spot the fuck out of a mountain.

“It’s in Utah, Mark. I’m in Utah, right outside of Provo, and Moving Mountain is here. I’m looking right at it.”

“This is exciting news, Fran. I’m glad you call me first with these things, it really means a lot.”

“Oh, thank you, Mark.”

“Now, Fran, do you perhaps have a camera on you?”

“I do not, Mark. You’re just going to have to take my word for it. I could describe it for you if you’d like.”

“Yes, please.”

“It looks like a mountain.”

Fran was good at spotting mountains, not describing them. She and Mark would talk for a while, and then she’d hang up and call back in four or five weeks with Moving Mountain in her sights, this time in Mobile, Alabama or somewhere.

Lights in the sky hovered, zoomed, changed direction impossibly fast on The Middle of the Night with Mark Lake. Drexian warships loaded for bear play peak-a-boo behind skyscrapers in Chicago, Hong Kong. A case was made to give voting rights to maple syrup. Squatch still lurked in the hills and hallucinogenic mushrooms grew from their scat. Most of the Senate were cyborgs; most of the House were androids; the Supreme Court were all secretly related to the Royal Family, and also reptile-people. Virtually everyone is a reptile-person, if you think about it. Reagan (who is also obviously a reptile-person) set up a task force called Glorious-28, which was supposed to take a census of alien life on earth, but ended up collaborating with the Drexians and infiltrating the Department of the Interior.

“Oh, sure,” Mark would say. “Department of Interior doesn’t belong to us anymore. Not for a while.”

The world was shadowy, but a shadow needs a subject. There had to be a reason, Mark’s callers demanded. Someone did this. Someone is responsible. The world wouldn’t have done this to itself, after all. The world was too messy and confusing to be random; hell, it was too damned random to be random. There had to be someone behind all this. Moriarty’s out there. Satan dwells. Amphibian-people gonna getcha.

“Mark, I agree with the last caller. February clearly doesn’t exist.”

“The evidence is there. However you wish to interpret that evidence? Well, that’s up to you. But I do agree that there is strong, strong evidence that the month of Febraury is fictional.”

“It’s a way for the government to get an extra four weeks of work out of us for free.”

“It’s amazing it’s gone on this long.”

“It’s the Big Lie theory.”

“Absolutely.”

“I actually called to talk about Operation: Full Moon.”

“Yes, yes. The Navy’s experiments into weaponized lycanthropics. I hear that they’re still working on it.”

“Me, too. My sources say that they’ve been successful and turned several sailors into werewolfs. I had one question, though, Mark.”

“I have many questions. But go ahead with yours.”

“Sure, okay. Uh, why the Navy? I don’t understand how it helps you to have a werewolf on a boat.”

“The Navy has people who leave the boat.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. They have guns and everything.”

“Huh. Okay. That’s good information, thank you. But it does bring up another question.”

“Questions tend to do that around here.”

“Would the werewolf sailors still have their guns?”

“Now, that’s interesting. It depends. Were your sources specific that they had been changed into werewolfs, and not wolfmen?”

“Quite specific, Mark. I pinned him down on it.”

“Then they would need some sort of custom weapon.”

Mark Lake took your calls until there wasn’t any more night left, picked up the phone himself and let you tell your story. He’d add yours to his, and the listeners would place it with theirs. You weren’t paranoid, Mark’s patience said; the world was stranger than it seemed, but you were not. His show was called The Middle of the Night because that is the only time it could exist, and it was on AM radio broadcasting live and strong from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

 

For Art Bell.

The Road In To Little Aleppo

There is only one way into Little Aleppo, except for all the other ways. There was the harbor to the west, obviously. One might, with the aid of an industrial boring machine, tunnel one’s way to the Main Drag. There was no airport, but there was a dedicated helipad at St. Agatha’s with the big H painted onto it. A mathematically incongruous number of blimps had crashed slowly and humorously into the neighborhood. Parachutists, too, but they were to a man set upon immediately on landing and robbed of their silk, and also their fancy goggles. If you were willing to put in the effort, and probably die along the way, you could get to Little Aleppo from the west, or from under it, or from above it.

But if you were in America, then the Segovian Hills were in the way. They were not hills–they were called that because English speakers prefer a certain rhythm to their phrases and “Segovian Hills” danced from your mouth while “Segovian Mountains” stuck in between your teeth like peanut butter–there were sheer drop-offs and boulder fields and droopy soil that would slip-slide you down a thousand feet in five seconds. There were seven. Lincoln, Faith, Fortitude, Chastity, Pulaski Peak, Charity, and Booth. Left to right if you’re standing in the neighborhood looking east. They were jammed together and their junctions just as dangerous as their summits, except for the saddleback pass between Mount Chastity and Pulaski Peak called Christy Canyon.

Before there was a road, there was a trail bushwhacked by a man named Furlong Christy in 1861. He had surveying equipment, and he took careful note of all his observations in great big notebooks carried by two semi-free black guys whose names no one bothered to write down. They also carried the surveying equipment. Furlong laid out the switchbacks necessary to keep the route from becoming too steep. Trees were uprooted, and sagebrush burned. The land was made more efficient for transit and commerce. Sometimes, Manifest Destiny meant telling mountains to go fuck themselves.

The Pulaski had been using the pass for hundreds of years to trade with the inland tribes, but they did not keep horses and had no wheeled vehicles and so they did not need a trail; they walked over using any number of routes depending on how late in the day it was or how much stuff they had to carry with them.

But the Whites had carriages and wagons and pullcarts and mules and horses, and those things requires a trail.

“What is that thing?”

“The device on the tripod he’s looking through?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s called a…well it’s called a <theodolite> but there’s nothing to translate that to. I saw one in a book once,” Talks To Whites said.

Cannot Swim tried to say theodolite, failed, got past it.

Furlong Christy’s team had crested the pass that morning and for a moment, miles away and in the sky, the men were silhouetted against the sun with their equipment and their notebooks. No one in the village saw them at first, but no one saw Here And There standing in the middle of everyone at first, either. She was barefoot, and her black hair streaked through with gray was loose, and she was the shaman. Physical maladies were treated by Tall As The Sky, who was the medicine man, but spiritual remedies only came from Here And There. She lived south of the village, and kept her own fire. Sometimes, she would disappear entirely for weeks at a time, and other times she would appear right the fuck next to you in the middle of the night. Here And There scared the shit out of the Pulaski. She pointed towards the White man and the Black men on the peak of the pass, and the tribe looked up and saw them, and then looked back and she wasn’t there anymore. Everyone truly hated when she pulled that bullshit.

The elders usually took to the Learning Fire to make decisions, but did not need to this time. Cracked Smile said,

“You two. Go up there and find out what’s happening.”

Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites shouldered rifles and marched off towards the hills. They passed the Reverend Busybody Tyndale on the way.

“You know what that is?” Talks To Whites asked.

“What are we looking at?”

“The men on the pass.”

Busybody squinted, tilted his head, squinted some more.

“Boys, my eyes are not what they once were.”

“Helpful as always, Preacher,” Talks To Whites said, and clapped the small man on the back, and the two Pulaski cousins continued east, and then upwards until they were about 300 yards to the north and downwind of the foreign men. They could smell tobacco. Cannot Swim had led them up, picking through the wooded thatch that covered the bottom half of what would later be named Mount Chastity. Neither man had been in the hills for several years; neither had ever wanted to go back.

A tree had fallen onto a boulder, creating a window, and tall grasses had grown within the window. It was a perfect hunting blind.

“What is he doing?”

“Like, measuring the land. How far away things are, how much higher or lower.”

“Why?”

“It’s a White thing. They need to know exactly how far places are from each other.”

“Really?”

“It’s like a fetish with them. Oh, and building. You have to do this before you build anything.”

“We built our kotchas, and we did not need to do whatever the hell this is.”

“Big stuff.”

“Like what?”

“We don’t have a word for it. <Bridges.>”

Cannot Swim turned to look at his cousin. He had been to the town that would one day grow into C—-a City once, and not for very long, and he did not wish to repeat the experience. He had only spoken to two Whites in his entire life; they may as well have been Martians.

“What is a…bidge? Budge?” He could not quite pronounce it. The hard R sound only comes at the beginning of words in Pulaski.

“<Bridge.> It goes over a big stream, which is called a <river>.”

“River,” Cannot Swim repeated. He could say that one. “How big of a stream?”

“Streams get fucking huge, dude. The ones that flow into the lake? Nothing compared to rivers. As wide as the whole valley.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. And the <bridge> goes over that. They make them out of rocks or something.”

Cannot Swim kept an eye on the White man and the Black men. The device on the tripod seemed to require an inordinate amount of fiddling with. The White would adjust the dials, of which there were many of varying sizes, and peer into a little circle, and then adjust the dials again, and then he would shout at the Black men, who would pretend not to hear him, and he would shout again, and now they answered, and they brought him large notebooks that Cannot Swim could just about make out had drawings and sketches in it, along with small scribbles that he assumed were what Talks To Whites had said was called “writing.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do they build these things?”

“So they can get over the river.”

“Why don’t they just live on one side of the river?”

“The Whites don’t live on one side of anything.”

The White man was yelling at the Black men again, and the two Pulaski were quiet. They were sitting cross-legged, and Cannot Swim pulled two peregrine leaves from his satchel. Handed one to his cousin. They both spat out the dried and flavorless leaves they had been chewing, rolled up the fresh leaves that were the size of a child’s hand and 13-pointed and waxy, and chewed anew.

“What’s he saying?”

“The White is calling the Blacks lazy.”

“But the Blacks are carrying everything.”

“It’s a long story.”

Cannot Swim’s tunic had a squatch embroidered on the front to honor his bravery during his Assignment, which was the Pulaski coming-of-age ceremony. He had been taken by one of the creatures, and had to fight his way out by himself. (And three other men with rifles and a pissed-off horse, but the tribe didn’t need to know all the details of his bravery.) Talks To Whites’ tunic had a half-dozen hummingbirds on it. He liked hummingbirds.

They watched the two Blacks talk with each other, motion towards the sun starting to droop in the west. They are ten yards off from the White, who was not paying attention; he was playing with his device. Now the Blacks speak to the White. The White hollers. The Blacks do not holler back, but they raise their voices and point at the sun.

“What’s happening?”

“The Blacks want to head down. They say it is getting late and they don’t want to be up here when it’s dark.”

“And what is the White saying?”

“He is calling them cowards.”

“But they’re absolutely right. It is dangerous up here at night.”

“Again, there is a lot of context and history going in between those two tribes that you just don’t get.”

The two Pulaski men sat there for only a few more minutes before the Blacks ceased talking to the White, turned their backs on him, and began ambling eastbound and down the pass. The White screamed after them, and then gathered up the black device on the wooden tripod in both of his arms, followed. Yelling all the way. When the cousins could no longer see their heads, they rose from behind their hide and walked west, into the sun and back home.

The Whites did not live in the mountains, which they named the Segovian Hills, for a long time after settling the valley, which they named Little Aleppo. Several men moved up there over the years, but they did not live up there for long, nor did they come back down. The Hausen Cabin is now a tourist attraction on Mount Fortitude. That was a family, and the neighborhood held out hope for a Tarzan, or perhaps Mowgli, type of situation; no sign of the child ever surfaced. Locals were angered by that one, focusing their rage not on the parents who brought a baby up into a mountain where monsters lived, but on the monsters. Hunting parties would coalesce in the taverns; rifles would be fetched; hills would be swarmed. But squatch are guerillas: you see them when they want you to see them, and usually that was the split-second before a humongous hand-paw shwopped your head off your shoulders. It was like fighting the Viet Cong, but if the Viet Cong were composed exclusively of Wookiees. No one made this observation, since it was 1889, but if you traveled back in time and explained the concepts of the Viet Cong and Wookiees to Little Aleppians, they would be all, “Yes. It is exactly like that. Did you really travel back in time just for this?”

The railroad could never defeat the barrier, not without multiple Hiroshimas worth of dynamite, and so for decades the only way in was the zig-zagging trail first surveyed by Furlong Christie. It cut brown back and forth up and then back down against the green. No grasses grew on the path, wildflowers and daffodils along the edges.  It was slow, but none of the vehicles of the time had brakes or a suspension, so it was advisable to go slow. There were drop-offs where you could see the bones of wagons that had tried to make good time; the bones of the men and horses had long been the vultures’ meal. Or the condor. California still had condor then, great stinking flocks of them. Travelers crossing the pass into Little Aleppo would use them for target practice.

August 9th, 1903, was an auspicious day for Christy Canyon, and for Little Aleppo: first car to make the crossing. It was a bet between two drunks in C—-a City, one of whom a State Senator, and therefore rich enough to afford an Oldsmobile. The car was called a Curved Dash, and it was mass-produced. Cadillac and Duryea and Jeffrey made cars before the Olds Curved Dash, but they were relics. Hand-kitted like a carriage. This Olds, though, was the future. Men becoming machines to produce machines! My God, America was something, wasn’t she? That’s what the State Senator would say to his constituents when he bought them beers. He’d lead the men from their taverns to look at the car.

It was a leather bench on top of a wooden platform, essentially, and that was on top of a cast-iron suspension that rode on four sickly wheels–so skinny you wanted to feed them–with wooden spokes. In 1903, it was still possible to get a splinter from your car. The engine was in the middle, under the seat, and it made 5 horsepower. Steering was via tiller, which us like a rudder, but drier. The brake was a lever: when pushed forward, it would apply a wooden block directly to the wheels. The State Senator called the handle the Baptizer.

“If you ain’t a Christian before you push the damn thing, you sure will be once you do. I had me a Hindoo fellow in here not two weeks ago. Let him drive. Second he laid his hand on the Baptizer there, he accepted Jesus Christ into his heart. Now ain’t that a thing? True story, fellas. Who wants another beer?”

“I don’t want no beer, Senator. I want a ride home!”

This was at a joint called Limpy’s in C—-a City. Sawdust on the floor, pickled eggs on the bar. Regulars could cash their checks there, and they were a solid voting bloc. Women weren’t allowed in. It was a 1903 kind of joint.

“Wait, I do want another beer, too. I want another beer and then a ride home.”

The men all laughed and the State Senator called out,

“Who said that?”

Billy McGlory was at the end of the bar, and his sleeves were rolled up over his thick forearms; heavy boots, and a flat cap pulled down lowish on his eyes. He finished his beer, wiped the foam from his prodigious mustache, turned around to face the State Senator.

“I’m your man.”

The State Senator called for a beer for Billy, and shook his hand and said,

“Where you live, son?”

Billy McGlory hated being called son.

“Right over the hill in good old Little Aleppo, sir.”

Now the State Senator stopped smiling, but just for an instant. He was well-practiced at smiling through anything; the man had once gladhanded through his own tonsillectomy.

“Unless your new toy can’t manage a wee incline.”

Limpy’s was watching. There was an equal sentiment towards the State Senator winding up the hero or the chump in this interplay. He did buy quite a few drinks, and hand out quite a few jobs. On the other hand, the money for the drinks came from the kickbacks he required for procuring the jobs.

The bartender put a fresh beer in front of Billy, and Billy laid a $50 next to it.

“I says your buggy won’t make it.”

The State Senator had the best teeth in the bar, and a silken necktie, and a wallet that did not fold and so was twice the size of modern models. He withdrew it from inside his maroon coat and took out a $50 and set it atop Billy’s.

“Finish your beer, son.”

Sound travels faster through steel than it does through air, but sound travels fastest through a bar. Limpy’s erupted. A bet! It was 1903: there was no radio, no teevee, no internet. There were Mark Twain’s novels, the Bible, the morning paper, or you could drink. The past was far more boring than we’ve been led to believe, so when something actually happened, people went bugshit. Side wagers sprouted, and then wagers about the wagers–meta-wagers–branched off from these; the gambling became fractalized , and a fellow named Lonesome Jimmy became so over-excited that he ran straight into a wall, shit himself, died.

A crowd gathered, kibbitzed, judged each other’s clothing, tipped their hats, obviously there was more betting, street vendors picked off the hungry and impulsive, men ignored the exposed titties of the whores to sneak a peak at dignified ladies’ ankles, rootless preachers heckled Satan, more cigars and pipes than cigarettes, hats hats hats hats so many fucking hats, the Sheriff was so tall, and the State Senator was tall, too, but Billy McGlory was not–5’4″ or thereabouts–so he had to hop up into the Olds.

“What’s the time?” the State Senator cried out.

Someone shouted that it was just after one o’clock, and the sun’s nearness to the hills backed that up. He cranked the z-shaped lever at the front of the machine once, twice and BANGPOPOPOP the engine caught and rumbled, and now the State Senator is in the driver’s seat and he shouts,

“Who’s got a gun?”

And everyone does, and they fire into the air to mark the beginning of the journey; the State Senator shifts one of the levers–there are three in front of him–all the way forward and the car lurches ten inches and goes HOCKPLUH and the State Senator says,

“Tricky to get into first.”

He shifts the lever, which is wooden, forward again. Slower, and with his right hand turns the dial controlling the choke, and HOCKPLUH ten more inches.

“Y’know what? Fuck it: we’ll pop start it. Everybody! Push!”

Everybody pushes and once the car hits around five miles an hour the gear catches and there is a sound like THROPTHROPTHROPVRRRRRRRREEEEE and the Olds Curved Dash is pulling away at what is, even given the year, not a particularly swift pace. Now there is more gunfire, this time in celebration. The two men yell at pedestrians to disinhabit their path; they make it to very nearly 20 miles per hour by the time they leave C—-a City.

It was almost dark by the time the two hit Little Aleppo. The front wheels had lost their rubber entirely, and one of the rear suspension leaves had collapsed; both men had needed to piss in the radiator; a horse, spooked, had thrown itself off an embankment at their presence. Coming up, Billy had leapt down from the seat–the load needed lightening–and he almost rolled under the contraption and then caught her up–the Curved Dash was making just about a walking pace–and then he hopped back up for the descent, the application of the braking mechanism during which causing a small fire in said braking mechanism that both men needed to piss out.

But they lived. August 9th, 1903. First car over the mountains.

“There was something about a bet?”

“That there was, Senator.”

Billy McGlory handed the State Senator a banknote as they puttered towards the Main Drag. Locals cheered them on from the sidewalks, and kids tumbled out of doorways to gaze in wild wonder. The car was filthy, and so were the men.

“Is there a hotel in this neighborhood?”

“Couple of ’em.”

“Are any not completely disgusting?”

“One of ’em.

Dogs ran alongside the Olds. The automobile was an outside-context problem for a dog. It had not heard stories about rich people buying horseless carriages, nor seen pictures in Collier’s magazine. The dog could not intuit that this was merely a horseless carriage, because dogs have no innate sense of technological evolution. The universe is as it is, and them WHAMMO and holy shit that is an entirely new thing. With new smells and new sounds, and maybe I can eat it? The dogs nipped at the tires. No, I cannot eat it. What it is, I cannot tell you. I will bark at it. The dogs barked at it. The car did not respond. I will bark louder at it.

The cats of the neighborhood showed no obvious interest.

“The Norwegian’s a real swanky place. Every room’s got its own toilet.”

“You don’t say.”

“They got carpets and everythin’. It’s like you died and went to heaven.”

“Point the way, son.”

Billy smiled.

“You can’t go like that. Neither of us can. We’re covered in half the fuckin’ hills and two tons of horseshit. We could do a minstrel show.”

The Olds, having no windshield, kept none of the dirt of the trail from them; the muck had coated their clothes, and made their faces so dirty that they resembled blackface performers.

“And you know the Norwegian ain’t lettin’ that type in.”

“It’s segregated?”

“No, they don’t admit actors.”

“Standards are everything.”

“We’re gonna stop at my house, wash up. My ma’ll brush up your clothes and my da’ll get us both drunk. Then, to the hotel.”

The State Senator could not argue with this plan, so he followed Billy’s route to a brick two-story on Moran Street. It was like Dublin exploded outwards when they pulled up: redheads girls appeared from the windows, and pale men who did not talk about their emotions from the door; good God, the State Senator thought. There weren’t enough potatoes in the world to feed them.

“Clarke.”

“Mm?”

“You spell it with an E, right?”

“Yes. C-L-A-R-K-E,” State Senator Clarke said.

“Thought so. My ma’ll probably want to write it down. She takes pictures, and she writes down all the names and whatnot. It’s like she’s gatherin’ intelligence or somethin’. Mothers, right? Come on in!”

Billy usually gets the credit for stealing the first car in Little Aleppo’s history, but technically it was Liam. Having no idea how to start the Olds, he simply hitched it to a horse and rolled it away in front of every inhabitant of Moran Street, none of whom saw anything. State Senator Clarke never made it to the Norwegian, and when he woke up with a monstrous headache the next morning in the Verdance, he found that the $50 he had won was gone, and also the rest of his money and shoes.

“We could shoot them.”

“Maybe we should try other options first.”

“Sure, yeah. But I’m just saying that shooting them is on the table,” Cannot Swim said.

“I just don’t know if that’s going to produce the desired result.”

Talks To Whites threw another blackberry into his mouth. The cousins had come upon a tree heavy with ripe bunches of the tiny, sweet fruits and they had both snatched handfuls to put in their satchels. They ate them like popcorn as they came out of the rolling, gentle foothills of the mountains. The sun had just set, but it was light out still. It was the time of day that fireflies call home.

Both men had filled out since they were teenagers, even though neither had been a teenager because the concept did not exist in the Pulaski culture. Cannot Swim was taller and wider than Talks To Whites.

“We need to find out what they’re doing.”

“What they’re doing is building one of those things you talked about.”

“A bridge.”

“Yes. That. However the fuck you pronounce it. Their language is an insult to my ears.”

“You’ve mentioned.”

“They’re building one. Across the mountains. You said it yourself. They want to live on both sides of the river.”

“They won’t want to live here. Why here?”

Cannot Swim did not look at his cousin. as they walked side-by-side across the grassy outlands that surrounded their village. Their satchels bounced against their hips.

“You affection for them makes you stupid.”

“Fuck you.”

“You buy the rifles for the tribe.”

“Yes.”

“With what? What do you use to buy the rifles.”

Talks To Whites’ stride did not break, and he nodded. Threw a blackberry in his mouth.

“Real early tomorrow, we should get everyone to go to the streams and pick out all the gold and hide it.”

“Gosh, y’think?”

They did not speak the rest of the trip. It was the time of the fireflies.

Window Dressing In Little Aleppo

Black fabric bunted the second-floor railing of the Wayside Inn. The cave-in at the Turnaway Lode took 11 men and 16 Chinese; out of respect, Miss Valentine bought the room a round, and lowered the price of pussy. A cheer went up, but it was a somber one. It took six days to dig the corpses all out. The funerals had been that afternoon. The preacher ran out of appropriate Biblical verses after the seventh or eighth man, which angered a mourner, who popped the preacher in the mouth, which caused the rest of the procession to turn on the first mourner; by the end of the brawl, the preacher had two more bodies to pray over. The Chinese were mass-graved in the easily-turned soil to the north of the Main Drag.

The piano player had the night off. Miss Valentine had overseen plenty of evenings after funerals that turned the whole town out. Fire that took out the Muddam family in St. Joseph. That was all the way back in Florida. Whole damn lot of ’em, all four little ones, too. She sold a hell of a lot of whiskey that night, and talked the crowd out of killing the Muddam’s slaves. It was they, the crowd figured, who had set the fire. Miss Valentine cautioned skepticism–might it not just be an overturned candle that caused the blaze?–and kept the rageful mourners at peace right until the very instant she ran out of whiskey and she stopped giving a shit. The mayor in El Paso. Miss Valentine was broken up about that one; it was a shame the mayor made her kill him. Mean Jay Funk in Minneapolis. He was a boxer, but this was the 1850’s, so that meant kicking and biting and choking, too; Mean Jay was good at all of those things, and he was the local champ. Men would come to town, challenge him. Sometimes, Mean Jay would kill the men in the improvised ring. The whole town came out. He put a pistol in his mouth one night. The whole town came out. And there was nothing the fucking piano player could do to ameliorate the situation, Miss Valentine had learned. Play sad music, and the action gets shot, room spins off all maudlin. Play something upbeat, and one of the dipshits at the bar would inevitably take umbrage and stab the pianist. So she gave the piano player the night off, and the room was full only of men’s angry voices.

Some of this story takes place in 198-, which is the past, but this part takes place in 186-, which is far past-ier. It was dark at night so long ago, even in great cities. Little Aleppo was not and would never be a great city. Men that walked about outside wielded torches. Actual ones, not euphemistically-named flashlights. Inside, candles were preferred. The Wayside Inn was as dimly-lit as a parallel institution would be today, but not on purpose: it was the best they could do. There was a lamp on each table, and attached to the walls at six-foot intervals, and clustered above the bar. Not enough, but they shat heat, and stunk, and so the number of lamps was strictly constrained. You could see the lamps’ spherical circumferences, just a couple feet. In some places, they touched one another, and sometimes there were flickering channels of shade that a man could sneak through.

Miss Valentine didn’t like funerals, though she had caused many, and so she hadn’t gone out east to Hank Foole’s land where the locals had taken to burying their dead. Canadian Bill told her about it, and how awful sad it was.

“Except for the fight, right?”

“No, no. The fight was real sad, too.”

She was about to take a shot of whiskey, but she stopped her hand, set the glass down, tilted her head.

“How the fuck is a fight sad?”

“The punchin’ and all. It was lachrymose.”

She picked up the shot and threw it back.

“Goddammit, Bill, you reading that fucking dictionary again?”

He tilted his brown gambler hat way back on his bald head.

“There’s nothin’ else to read around here.”

“Read the paper.”

“It’s one page, Miss Valentine.”

“I don’t wanna hear any of those fucking bullshit words. Speak English in my place.”

She turned around, back against the bar. All-black. Out of respect. Her boots, had they been polished in New York or Paris, could not have gleamed brighter. One of the small pleasures–and there were not many–of owning girls was having your clothes taken care of right. One of them was always teachable. Most people are capable of learning if you hit them hard enough. The stainy, crumbly polish that needed to be activated with spit, and the rag, and the hard bristled hand brush SHWOP SHWOP across the toe until the light reflected. Miss Valentine liked cuffs on her trousers. She ordered them from St. Louis and had Tappy pin them up and sew in the hem by hand. There would be a rigorous examination of the work afterwards. Her collar was open, and she didn’t wear any sort of necklace. Some days, she put on a tie, but thought a black tie on a black shirt in a black suit with black boots was a bit much.

“I was thinkin’ about goin’ back to school.”

“Shut the fuck up, Bill.”

Canadian Bill was behind the bar, and he scowled behind his mustache. Self-improvement was the right of every man, he figured. Black coat, but other than that his usual brown. He and Miss Valentine–and Zeke who was also behind the bar, and Possum who was watching the faro tables, and Tex who was keeping an eye on the girls–were noticeably cleaner than everyone else in the Wayside. Weekly baths were a iron-clad rule of Miss Valentine’s. Otherwise, you might as well just wear a dress and shit yourself all day like the savages to the south.

“It was fucking Braunce! Those cheap fucks killed those fucking men, and you know it! You know it!”

“Shut the fuck up, Lowry.”

“We need a fucking union.”

“Shut the fuck up, Lowry.”

The men, one of whom was named Lowry, were at a table with a lamp on it, along with two other miners, and there was no piano player so their conversation could be heard if one was listening. Miss Valentine was listening.

YOU ARE NOT EVEN LISTENING TO ME.

“No, I’m not.”

SHARE WITH ME YOUR HUMAN SORROWS.

“Shut the fuck up, Wally.”

DO NOT CALL ME THAT.

The Wall of Sound used to belong to the Grateful Dead, and now it was the sound system for The Tahitian. Somewhere in between the first and second fact, it became sentient but still did not appreciate being called “Wally.” Opening a movie theater is expensive, but reopening one built 80 years ago and left to rot for a decade is way more pricey. Several animals–some of which were cataloged for the very first time–had set up camp in the building; the bats and rats had begun interbreeding. The mold had grown cunning. There were at least three boojums, and one time a homeless guy swore he saw a pumpkinhead in there: the basement was like a dozen Stephen King stories having sex with each other. It would have been cheaper to knock the whole structure down and start again, but Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, had had the theater declared a landmark, which meant she was eligible for non-profit status and all sorts of helpful financial shit, but also meant she had to leave as many walls standing as possible.

She didn’t mean to put her own money in. Business classes at Harper College. She got A’s, for fuck’s sake. She knew better than to put her own money in, especially if that money was not actually her money, but personal loans. And she definitely didn’t mean to use her credit cards. She had done both of these things, but she hadn’t meant to. Gussy wondered if that excuse would fly with the bank.

So when Precarious Lee offered her a sound system for free, she was too desperate to be smart. Clearly, she knew, this was some sort of Trojan Horse routine, but she countered that knowledge with the thought that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth. And then she reminded herself that she had no money; ever since, she’d been arguing with a needy artificial intelligence.

I AM HERE FOR YOU.

“Thank you for the offer.”

TEAM GUSSY.

“Why do you even know about this?”

YOU BELLOWED OUT THE FACTS OF THE SITUATION IN THE LOBBY. JULIO HAD A QUESTION FOR YOU AND YOU BEGAN BELLOWING.

Gussy was on the shitty brown couch in her tidy office. She had been laying there a while. Her feet were bare; her flats on the floor. Her purse was on the floor, too, next to the chair she had tried to throw it on. Her right arm dangled and her hand was by an overflowing ashtray. She sat up.

“I do not bellow.”

MY WORDS ARE THE CORRECT ONES.

She had bellowed. Julio was vacuuming the sprightly, gaudy carpet in the lobby with the ancient Electrolux. It was heavy and overbuilt–the headlight above its maw could blind a large cat or small dog–and the handle was angled uncomfortably to remind you that the past was ergonomically benighted. The vacuum was, like the theater, her birthright. Occasionally, Gussy wondered how granular the birthright thing was. She had the toilets replaced during the renovation; should she have kept the old bowls? Were they, too, her birthright?

Julio flipped the power switch so it was quiet in the high-ceilinged room with the popcorn counter and video games. He had a question about that night’s program, a highlight of Swedish action movies.

“There’s not any action in them,” he said when she swayed in several hours later than usual.

“Of course not. They’re Swedish.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Y’know what I don’t get, Julio? I don’t get how she leaves me a LETTER. A fucking LETTER, Julio. She SNUCK OUT and FUCKED OFF to L.A. with that MESSY BITCH Tiresias and she left me a LETTER.”

Then she walked, more or less in a straight line, to her office and locked the door behind her.

SHEILA, WHO HAS A NICKNAME BUT NOT A LAST NAME, AND WHOM YOU ARE IN A CONNUBIAL ARRANGEMENT WITH, HAS DECAMPED FOR LOS ANGELES. SHE DID NOT INFORM YOU PRIOR TO HER FLIGHT, BUT INSTEAD LEFT YOU A NOTE. I USED CONTEXT CLUES TO UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION.

“Well, gooooood for you.”

Gussy’s apartment is on the second floor, with a stairway down that opens onto Robin Street right across from Cagliostro’s. The door has a mail slot, but the post doesn’t come until two in the afternoon. It was odd to see an envelope on the floor of the landing at ten in the morning, and she wouldn’t have noticed it until later but she was out of sugar and grumpily threw her slippers on to shuffle down to the Mini-Mart. When she picked it, a whiff of Big-Dicked Sheila hit her nose and she thought it was a love letter. Which it was, kinda.

Tushee,

(Sheila called Gussy “Tushee.” She had been referring to her this way for a few days before Gussy asked, “Why are you calling me Tushee?” Sheila replied, “Because I like your tushee.”)

Tiresias and I went to Los Angeles. Call you once we get settled. LOVE YOU. 

And here was a waxy imprint in bright red of Sheila’s lips.

B.D. Sheila

It wasn’t exactly Abelard writing to Heloise, but it was a love letter, kinda. Gussy had been punched in the chest about a decade before; this felt like that. The floor was cold against her bare feet. The door had plated glass panels, three of them at eye level, and she saw several rabbis across the street. The letter. She read it five more times, flipped the paper over once or twice, looked in the envelope to see if there was anything she missed. Perhaps a second letter explaining the first one.

“She and her terrible friend have decamped to a terrible place. She’ll call you. I don’t see what you’re missing.”

“I just don’t understand it,” Gussy said.

Mr. Venable leaned over his messy table–he had been in his customary seat in the bookstore with no title–and smiled tightly. Both hands out in front of him, palms down, in the gesture that means “I cannot make this any simpler for you.”

“Sheila…and her terrible friend…have gone. Was it the word ‘decamped’ you had problems with, Gus? Gone. They have gone to Los Angeles. Which is a biiiiiig city south of here.”

Gussy deeply regretted not having girlfriends. She did in high school, and Harper College, but they had all grown apart and now–God help her–she had only Mr. Venable to take Sheila’s letter to. There was a muffled PLOOMPF from deep within the shop.

“What was that?”

“The Revisionist History section is staging a frontal assault on the Actual History section. I’m excited to know the outcome. Everything depends on whom Historicity and Historiography side with.”

She snatched the note from the table in front of him, refolded it, jammed it in the back pocket of her jeans. Gussy didn’t wear jeans often. They were boring, she thought, and they made her legs look short. She was still wearing the Cyndi Lauper tee-shirt she slept in; she had forgotten to brush her teeth. Mr. Venable was in his customary suit, and he had remembered to brush his teeth.

“Who would leave this for a person?”

“Sheila would.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s a flake of the highest order, Gussy. Lovely woman. Winning smile. Adroit with her scissors. And just the biggest, flakiest flake in the entire world.”

“But why would she do it to meeeeeee?”

Gussy threw herself across his table. Mr. Venable patted her on the shoulder exactly twice.

“There, there. Could you not be here, here?”

“What?”

“Up. Get up. Come on. Big girl time.”

“I don’t wanna.”

“The book you’re resting on has a typographically-transmitted disease.”

She recoiled, stood.

“Ew.”

“Mm. I should be wearing gloves. Gus, do you love her?”

Gussy felt like she was about to cry, because she was.

“Yeah.”

He leaned back, triumphant.

“Well, there you are. You only fall in love with flakes.”

She felt like a drink, and then it was several hours later and she was on the shitty brown couch in her office stinking like the Morning Tavern and poking around in her bag for her cigarettes, which she pulled out and they were Camels, like Sheila smoked; Gussy liked Marlboros when she was a smoker, but that was four years ago and she had not had a single one for four years, and then she met Sheila and now she went through a pack a day again, but this time Camels because that was what Sheila smoked, so when she looked at the pack she started crying. It was nighttime now, and she had picked up the letter off her landing floor in the morning, and it did not take that long to drive to Los Angeles.

THERE, THERE.

“Fuck off, Wally.”

LET IT ALL OUT.

“Jesus, I need better friends.”

“Are all the men’s friends in attendance here? Everybody here? I got something to say,” Miss Valentine yelled, and the room got quieter except for a man leaning against a wall upfront singing old songs about Jesus. Possum clocked him in the jaw, and then it was quiet and she continued, “Tragedy strikes at the heart of this community. You hear that word I just said? Community. That’s what we’re starting to build here, and when nightmare comes, we weather it together. We come together to honor–”

She lifted a shot of whiskey in front of her; she was standing on a wooden box behind the bar. The men in the room joined her.

“–our brave brothers.”

She drank, and so did they. The miners refilled their glasses with the bottles on their tables, and she hers from the bottle on the bar.

“And also the Chinks.”

The room drank again.

“And how do we honor them? Not by running around with our cocks soft and our minds confused. We’ll never know what happened in that mine, and that’s a fact. Structural flaw, human error. Shit, maybe there was a little earthquake. Shit, maybe the Chinks are responsible, I don’t know: what I do know is that we won’t ever know.”

Miss Valentine stepped off down and came around the bar and onto the main floor. There were a dozen round tables, and then square ones lining the walls, and up front there were two long, high tables that you stood at. The two faro tables were both oval, and felted in green. Everything else was brown: the tables and the seats and the whiskey and the teeth and the boots and the beer and the Main Drag and the walls and the spittoons and the dirt on top of the new graves. It is impossible to overstate the brownness of the Old West.

“Speculation. Ooh, that’s a killer,” she said. “And it distracts from our true calling. Which is how to honor their memories. I say we build ourselves a monument, and I tell you what: I’m kicking in the first hundred. Possum, c’mere. Take off your hat.”

Possum came there and took off his hat. Miss Valentine dropped a banknote in.

“Give what you care to, gentlemen. I’ll guarantee your contributions. Possum?”

He went from man to man, five here and ten there and big spenders with their hundreds who made sure Miss Valentine was watching when they threw the bills in. She smiled at them, nodded.

“And here’s how I’m gonna honor those brave men. Those heroes.”

She had a handful of straw in a closed fist.

“I’m giving away pussy.”

The men cheered, and not somberly. Discounted pussy was one thing, but free? Wow. They hooted and slapped their rough palms on the tables. There were men with beards, and ones who had stopped shaving some time ago. Needle-thin mustaches that extended far a-cheek. Elaborate muttonchops. One fellow in the corner’s head was made of hair.

“Draw your straw, boys. Lucky man gets lucky!”

She circulated through the room and each man chose his straw and held it up.

“I got it!”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“Lowry!”

“Nice work, Lowry. Hey, girls? Girls?”

The girls all lined up in front of Lowry, along the bar. They were wearing simple dresses; their tits were hanging out; they were high. Miss Valentine leaned into Lowry and asked,

“Who you want?”

Lowry pointed, and Miss Valentine nodded, and Lulu sashayed over. She had only learned to sashay recently. She took his hand, and led him into the back, into Room 5, which was her usual room, where Canadian Bill was standing behind the door with an axe-handle. He cracked Lowry in the head with it, not as hard as he could, but smartly: it sounded TOK like a solidly-hit single. It wasn’t like in the movies. Lowry staggered, his legs leaving him, and he slumped over and seized for ten seconds, and then again, and then he lay still but he had pissed himself. Lulu had turned to face the wall; she was shivering, but she was silent.

Bill slung Lowry up to his shoulders, dead weight, and said, “Hey, hey,” at Lulu, who turned around he motioned towards the window with his head. She walked over and opened it wide as it would go. There was a cheer from outside as Miss Valentine gave away another free lay. Canadian Bill slid the body out the window which overlooked the back alley. Tex was standing there. He made no attempt to catch Lowry.

“I’m sorry you had to see that, honey.”

“Okay.”

“Now, in about ten minutes, you’re gonna run out there and tell Miss Valentine real loud that the fellow you was fuckin’ in here stole your money and jumped out the window.”

“Okay.”

“And I’m sorry.”

“You already said that.”

“No, I’m sorry for this,” Canadian Bill said, and punched Lulu in the eye. She staggered back into the wall and shrank down into a ball with her arm over her head. She did not cry out, and when a second blow was not forthcoming, she peeked up.

“It’d look more convincing if you got a black eye.”

“Okay.”

“All right, honey. Ten minutes. And I’ll make up that eye to you. I owe you one,” he said and climbed out the window. Lulu sank back against the wall and wished she had a watch.

Possum and Zeke were bum’s-rushing the last stragglers by the time Canadian Bill and Tex got back. Miss Valentine was behind the bar, and she poured each of them a drink and then one for herself, and then they drank, and then she poured another round and they drank that. Once more she filled the shot glasses, but this time the three left them on the bar.

“I’m fucking beat”

“Hit the sack, champ.” Tex exited, and it was just Miss Valentine and Canadian Bill.

“You took him to Valhalla?”

“That big rock, yeah. Wasn’t anything left from the last fucker I left up there. Those squatch use every part of the fucker.”

“No such thing as squatch. Pumas, bears, and vultures.”

“Whatever.”

He threw back his shot.

“Why’d I kill that guy?”

“New in town. I never seen him before, so he’s new in town must be. New in town and talking loud about a union? If he ain’t a plant, then he’s just an idiot and either one is of no use. And I think I need something to blame someone for.”

Canadian Bill shoved a wad of chaw into his mouth.

“Who’s the someone?”

“Don’t know yet. I got some idea, though.”

She poured him another whiskey, and it was the middle of the night, which was O so very dark back then.

A Mild-Mannered Reporter In Little Aleppo

At 12:41, the call came in from the chief’s desk. Print. The edition was locked and there were no more corrections and any typos left were the fault of the Lord. First the presses, they KaCHOCKED the news onto the thick, unspooling reels of grayish shit-paper, and then the rollers did so, looping the endless stories around and over, and then the sorter with its blades and shelves to install order; the collator is last, and–just before two in the morning–there she is: the Cenotaph. Circulars and samples of toothpaste were inserted, and then the run went out in the swinging bags and wire baskets of the Paperboys. Pre-dawn THWAP against the  dirty porch or newly-paved driveway, and no sound after that: the Paperboys rode well-greased bicycles. Mountain bikes on the Downside, and ten-speeds on the Upside. No one was awakened, no sleep was disturbed; you woke up and the Cenotaph was there: it was a function of the night just like the morning’s dew. Seven days a week, and Christmas, too. Cows need to be milked every day, and a newspaper needs to be printed every day: both of these things are devoured; both of these things are full of shit.

The presses were on the first floor; the newsroom was on the second; there was no third to the Braunce Building. It took up all of Pryor Street. Brick with rebar innards and concrete pilings sunk deep into the loam. Otherwise, the floor would crack under the weight of the machines: they were made of iron; the were made from exacting tolerances; they required skilled labor to attend to them; they needed regular greasing; they made a thunder like tomorrow; they would outlast the reporters and photographers and editors; they accumulated union members around themselves. The presses were built so right that they would run forever if properly maintained. (As opposed to the reporters. Most of them hadn’t run since grade school, and none of them maintained themselves properly.)

ThrumbleTANKthrumbleTANK was the sound of the machines–all one interlinking monster that the men’s grandfathers had wrangled–and the whole building quaked pleasantly. Like one of those Magic Fingered beds in a sleazy hotel. They had ’em at the Hotel Salt Wharf, where the sailors stayed when they were off the water. Iffy Bould lived there sometimes when his wife threw him out. When the presses roared, he would lay down on the thin carpeting of the newsroom floor and let the vibrations relax his back. When the chief made the call to print, and the building began to idle full-throated, that was the part he loved. Made the paper again. Got the story one more time. He could have a minute before tomorrow’s edition started yowling for attention. Just a minute, a smoke and a minute supine on the shitty carpet of the Cenotaph‘s newsroom on the second floor of the Braunce Building. He would die here. The wife would throw him out one last time–she was the second wife, anyway–and then maybe there would be another wife or maybe there wouldn’t. Who knows? Reporters shouldn’t conjecture, he thought. He’d die in the newsroom, or running down some story so he could come back to the newsroom and peck it out at lightning speed. He’d die under deadline, he knew.

Big Pete Braunce was big, and named Pete. The original press that was installed into his storefront on the Main Drag in 1863 was a rotary machine with a broad wheel that turned through manual labor; it had been made in Philadelphia and humped all the way out to Little Aleppo. The press was cast-iron, and therefore resistant to humping, so it cost Big Pete a fortune to ship. He didn’t care. He had ink in his veins. And he owned a third of the Turnaway Lode. Money had become less and less of an obstacle since Big Pete and his family ventured over the Segovian Hills and staked claim. He wasn’t cut out for mining, anyway. Mineshafts were narrow and cramped, and he was big. Besides, a newspaper can serve a business concern as ably as ten men with pickaxes, Big Pete figured. The Cenotaph was born. No accident ever occurred within the Turnaway, at least within its pages; the Braunce conglomerate was never even mentioned, except for Big Pete’s name on the masthead. When the neighborhood got large enough that politics erupted, the Cenotaph pushed the candidates that had taken the Braunce’s money. When the seam ran dry, the Cenotaph kept printing. The conglomerate had bought up most of the land in the neighborhood by then. Big Pete died in ’91, and Little Big Pete took over.

Little Big Pete was bigger than Big Pete, just a mammoth of a man. It was a good thing he was rich, as clothing his size had to be custom-made; there was no such thing  as a Big & Tall Shop in the 1890’s. Little Big Pete expanded. He moved the offices over to a new brick building on Pryor Street and installed the massive presses. He got a deal on typewriters, both because he was buying in bulk and because the typewriters in question did not have their J keys. There was no radio, certainly no teevee, and the paper was the only notable change in a static world. The news was new as shit in 1891, and for the years following. Little Big Pete sold a morning edition and an afternoon one, too. The paper grew from one page to two, to four and then eight and sixteen, and 32 on Sundays with the Supplement. It was amazing, Little Big Pete thought: the amount of news always matches exactly the number of pages I’ve sold advertising for. He was sure there was a math equation in there somewhere.

There was the news, and that was upfront. “Splashed” is the verb so often employed. The big stuff, the fun stuff, the sex stuff: that was for the Front Page, the ever-holy headline. Right under the mast, in type that was sized commensurately for the situation. A community meeting that broke out into a fight/orgy got an 18-point banner, but the squatch’s last stand at the Battle of the Main Drag got a 72-point blast. You want to sell the story, but not oversell it. Newspapers are built on trust. After that came the national stories, rewritten from a pirated wire subscription, and then the editorials. The editors would write them, sometimes, and they would be reasonable diatribes about the common good, and Little Big Pete would write them, sometimes, and they would be profane screeds threatening Harmonico’s Steakhouse with arson because they lost his gloves. There was also a sports section. The society pages reported on the Upside, and the crime blotter took care of the Downside. The classifieds had led to marriages, murders, screenplays, the sales of quite a few Chevys. The crossword had clues to the Apocalypse, and the movie listings were ironic, and the obituaries were mercenary. Little Aleppians did not mind. Little Aleppians did not read the paper so much as interpret it.

Little Big Pete died in 1941–on Pearl Harbor Day, as a matter of fact–and his son took over. The boy was nicknamed Shit Salad, and for good reason; the editor-in-chief took over the day-to-day operation, as Shit Salad was so often distracted by shiny objects or titties, or drunk. Shit Salad liked to drink, and he liked titties. Beyond that, he had no interests that any investigative reporter could discern. Shit Salad got shitfaced, took his dick out, slapped it on some boobs, and called it a night. The man had a routine. The Cenotaph flourished under his ownership. Stupid and rich were the best qualities a newspaper owner could have.

Newspaper editors, however, needed to be clever.

“Bould.”

“Goose.”

“I told you to call me Chief.”

“You really should come down here. It’s invigorating.”

Gabe Gooseman was still lean, and did not hunch at all, and had all of his white hair. His pants were twill, wool, creased like a well-made paper airplane. It was 12:44 at night–technically in the morning–and the newsroom was wrecked with the litter of another cycle: crumpled balls of paper all over, and spilled coffee, and smoldering ashtrays. It was 198-, and smoking was still permitted in the office. The staff of the Cenotaph took full advantage of this fact. Barry Cho was at his desk by the window already drunk and staring off into the distance; he was the business reporter, which meant everyone he covered tried to either bribe him or run him over, sometimes both in one afternoon. Numerous ham sandwiches, some with cheese and some without, had been abandoned. The Copyboys were sparring in the Bubble. That was Goose’s office. It was glassed-in  and smack in the middle of the newsroom. The morning meeting was in there, all the section heads would sit on the couches and him behind his desk with his feet up. In the Bubble, his suit jacket came off, to be draped around a ceder hangar that hung from a coat rack. He would have hung it directly from the coat rack’s prong, but he wasn’t an animal. When he left the Bubble, even if it were so late at night with the floor empty, he put his suit jacket on.

“I’m fine.”

“Just the once.”

“Just the never. Do the Batman story.”

“There’s no Batman story.”

“We’ll come up with a new name.”

“Well, obviously, but that’s not the point.”

Goose had a cigar in his breast pocket. He took it out, wetted down the tip, leaned over. Iffy raised his right arm and CHANK-FFT lit his Zippo on the first snap. Goose went PWOFF PWOFF and Iffy waved the smoke away from his face with his left hand, which was holding a Kool.

“There’s no story. Some muggers got beat up. People get beat up here; it’s a shitty neighborhood.”

“Yes, they got beat up. By a giant in a pervert suit who leaps on and off of buildings.”

“In a single bound?”

“No, he’s got a grappling gun.”

“Are you even listening to yourself?”

Goose perched on the edge of Iffy’s desk after examining it for alien substances.

“Five eye-witnesses.”

“None of whom are reliable.”

“Pshaw.”

“Two of whom are that jerkoff from the bookstore who likes to call in pretending to be from the college so the junior reporters will quote him saying something stupid, and his employee, who seems like the same kind of jerkoff that he is. Another of whom is a blind man.”

“Omar said that Argus saw the guy,” Goose said.

“Good for Argus.”

“You’re not going to mention the other two witnesses because it hurts your case, huh?”

“Nuns lie all the time. Remember my story about Sister Gladys? Big embezzler. Can’t trust a nun, Goose.”

“Are you denying that this is happening, or do you just not want to cover the story?”

“Which answer will make you go away?”

Iffy’s leg was starting to hurt, and he wanted a drink.

“And I’m on a story.”

“The land deal,” Goose said. “Yeah. Back burner it. The land isn’t going anywhere.”

“You never know around here. Remember that time the Gangeedesh Cult stole all the swimming pools?”

“And who broke that story? You. My prized reporter. My number one guy.”

“The story really didn’t need breaking, Goose. Everyone noticed that the pools were gone.”

“My number one guy.”

Ash dripped off of Iffy’s Kool onto his chest; he blew it off; the flecks settled into the carpet with their brothers and sisters.

“This is a dumb story.”

“But fun. And civic-minded.”

“How exactly is a violent lunatic preying on criminals civic-minded?”

“Promotes the neighborhood. Masked vigilante? That’s big-city stuff. This moves us up at least a notch. Much better than the minor-league ballpark.”

“Amazing how many people got killed by a stadium that never got built.”

Goose popped his cigar in his mouth and crossed his arms, which was his signal that the conversation was over and you were going to do what he told you.

“Just do the fucking story.”

Iffy crossed his arms, too, which was his signal that Goose should go fuck himself.

“It’s gonna be dumb.”

“You’re my number-one guy.”

“Got any ideas on the name?”

“You’re the writer,” Goose said, and walked back towards his office. Iffy called after him.

“Copyboys still fighting?”

“Yes.”

Iffy Bould climbed off the floor using his desk for support, and scrunched out his Kool in an overflowing glass ashtray. He followed Gabe Gooseman down the row of typewriters and deadlines to the Bubble, where the Copyboys waled on each other, bare-chested. There was a sexual component to the matches. Iffy offered three-to-one on the fat kid, and Goose took the action for a tenner.  They had done all they could, and would again tomorrow. The floorboards of the Braunce Building  hummed with the news; it’s where they make the Cenotaph, the paper of record in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

Got The Radio On In Little Aleppo

America started buying radios in early 1922, and Little Aleppo started buying stolen radios in mid-1922. The McGlory Brothers ran them out of the Irving Club. Folks lined up to get themselves an earful of the future. You could even buy on credit; the McGlorys knew where you lived. Soon all the parlors on the Upside and kitchen/bedroom/bathrooms on the Downside had a set: hulking, dresser-sized baroquities with ivory knobs, or desktop plywood with bakelite. And then the world came in, like it had not through books or magazines or the Cenotaph, washing over the neighborhood with ripe sound from elsewhere. Foxtrots from Manhattan, and updates from Washington, London, Paris: it all came crackling out of those undersized speakers like a secret finally told. Little Aleppo couldn’t get enough.

The last squatch died in 1924, and in early 1925 the radio antenna went up on the first (if you’re looking east from the Main Drag) of the Segovian Hills, Mt. Lincoln. Gonzalez Hay paid for it, and the station on Dancing Street with all the complicated equipment, too, and then he named the whole endeavor after himself because he was American and no one could stop him. KHAY went on the air at some point in May, or maybe June. No one wrote anything down; it was the past.

At first, there were no commercials. No sponsors, either: the radio advertised itself–Gonzalez had a deal with the McGlory Brothers–but the neighborhood reached saturation levels quickly, and local merchants started buying time. They would purchase the whole hour, and name the show after themselves because it was America and no one could stop them. The Powdermilk Bakery Mystery Hour repurposed Sherlock Holmes stories and Bastin’s Paint Pays For A Guy To Read Mark Twain was just that. Arrow Beer Classiness Time was classy as fuck: the announcer had the Britishest accent possible, and there were strings, and–according to the press releases–the voice actors wore evening dress during the broadcast. The studios looked like theaters because radio was a truly new idea and had no metaphors of its own, and so borrowed from the previous medium. There was a live audience sometimes.

Backy & Reo were a hit on KHAY, straight from the Davidian Theatre where they did six shows a day. They did their routines in between the no-armed piano player and the gal who juggled with her face. Backy was tall, with a reassuring baritone voice and a broad jaw, and Reo was a stumpy runt who squeaked and invariably misunderstood situations and sayings. Tuesday nights at 8 on the Pennywhistle Trousers Power Hour. They played brothers who owned a radio station, because even when show business was just a baby it was up its own ass. They welcomed guests, many of whom came prepared to do a song or two, and extolled the virtue and durability of Pennywhistle trousers.

“They’re the finest trousers in the land, Reo.”

“What about the sea?”

“What?”

“What about the sea?”

“The sea?”

The audience would laugh to show they’d gotten the premise.

“The sea. What about the sea?”

“What about the sea?”

“Well, you said that Pennywhistle trousers were the finest in the land.”

“They are!”

“So that means I can get better pants from a dolphin?”

“No, no, no…”

And they would continue like that until it was time for the news. Backy and Reo spent the next 50 years breaking up, reuniting, farewell touring, suing one another, fucking one another’s wives, telling horrid lies about one another on chat shows. No one threw acid on anyone’s face, but everyone wanted to.

Swing! Swing! Swing! aired live from the Irving Club, and Trials of the Heart was a daily soap opera about a courtroom in fictional Valley Heights. It was one of those class-based dramas: judges and lawyers were upstairs, and cops and criminals and randy stenographers were downstairs. Where’s The Money with Ken Betters was a political show that aired every Thursday night. Ken would interview someone in local government. Each week, he would start off with the question, “Where’s the money?” and since it was Little Aleppo, there was always an interesting answer. Very occasionally, there would not be an interesting answer, and so Ken would follow up, “Well, if you don’t know where the money is, who would?” and that would invariably produce the correct effect.

Trusted Meese read the news each night. He moved to television in the 50’s, but started at KHAY. Six o’clock every night, here come those chimes BING bing bong ringing in the importance of the hour. Trusted Meese had a voice like hot honey; it just slithered across you, enrapturated you with the ball scores. He read wheat reports from Wichita, and box office totals from Milwaukee: Little Aleppo did not generate enough news on its own, so others’ was conscripted. The news was sponsored by Lou’s Lumber Loft, so Trusted would work that into the stories, especially car crashes.

“Should’ve been made from sturdy pine, maybe oak. Metal cars are a fad, you mark me. You want wood. And when you want wood, you want Lou. Go buy wood and make cars from it.”

When the Second World War Two broke out, Trusted reported from the rooftops of London during the Blitz, and North Africa, and–in one thrilling and award-winning segment–while hastily retreating from Paris as the Nazis swept in. He island-hopped, too, along with the brave boys in those floating tin cans, and sent back word from the Pacific Theater. (Trusted Meese never went east of the Segovian Hills or west of the harbor for the entire War. He had a sound effects guy and an intern named Wink who played all the soldiers Trusted interviewed. When he left the studio on Dancing Street each night, locals pretended not to see him. Otherwise, he would have to give the awards back, and everyone was proud of his victory. Later in life, Trusted would insist he had actually dodged German artillery fire, but he insisted a lot of things by then.)

Video killed the radio stars. Teevee came along, and the same McGlory Brothers that hawked stolen radios now switched to television sets. Gonzalez Hay thought it was a fad; Gonzalez Hay was wrong. He shot himself in ’61, the same day he saw his first color teevee. The widow sold to Faraday Conch, who sold everything: the bleachers and the music stands and the sound effect gear. All that was left were some record players and Wink, who was still for some reason an intern. KHAY went all-music.

Right now, they were playing disco music–Street Dancin’ by the Grant Green Orchestra–and Big-Dicked Sheila had the radio turned all the way up in her 1961 Lincoln Continental, which was triple black and convertible and had suicide doors because what the fuck is the point of a Lincoln Continental without suicide doors?

Fancy pants, I’m
Just entranced by
Your romance, let’s go
Street Dancin’ (Woo!)
Street Dancin’ (Woo!)

It was damn good music to drive drunk to. Sheila tossed an empty can of Arrow beer straight up, where it hit the rushing air and disappeared, and she laughed. Tiresias Richardson popped a fresh one from the cooler at her feet and handed it over. Sheila toasted her.

“Skoal.”

“Sure,” Tiresias said, and knocked her half-full can against Sheila’s. Fizz fizzled out, up, over Sheila’s black nails and onto her leathers. Skin-tight black leather is–if you can pull it off–the right look 99% of the time. The 1% being, obviously, road trips. The Continental’s seats were similarly-slippery cowhide, so she was luging all over the place, and leather doesn’t breathe at all so her balls were half-floating and she wanted no truck with whatever was going on directly outside her asshole.

The car was a skate; the tarmac was either water or ice, depending on which kind of skate you had pictured. Smoothness is the sensation, nothing at all vibrating and lumping and twanging suddenly, just a hum below and a thrum in front and the radio blaring disco music. They were doing 80 and the sun looked amused. This was the coast road. Sometimes, there were cliffs to the east. Once in a while, to the west. The Pacific was blue, green, non-existent, frugal, blue again. Scenic Drives preyed on looky-loos, devouring them whole and spitting out the chassis and hair like owl pellets. Redwoods had tunnels bored through them; these were traps.

“I hate this fucking road.”

“Don’t say that out loud,” Sheila said.

“The road can’t hear me.”

“Eh.”

Sheila wondered why KHAY still came in on Route 77. She would have to ask Precarious Lee. He had helped her buy the car. He stole it a little bit, but then he brought it back and declared the transmission sound. Sheila hadn’t owned a car before. You didn’t really need one in Little Aleppo, but she had to have it when she saw it with the FOR SALE sign on Hughes Street. Chrome framing the black swoopback of the topline, with a snub nose and an overbite, and a sloppy ass hanging eight miles past the rear tires; the trunk was large enough to raise a family in. Wire wheels with the little poky spokes radiating out all lattice-like instead of the whitewalls. The catalog called the color Presidential Black, and this particular vehicle was triple black: the paint and the ragtop and the leather upholstery. There were no headrests, just a low line horizontal across the cabin and above the bench seat–it was an excellent car to put your arm around your baby in–and the horn was a metal ring orbiting within the steering wheel. It was 18 feet long and 7 feet wide and had the turn radius of a small African village; it was a ridiculous car for the city; Sheila had to have it.

She had forgotten the name of the man who sold it to her. It was a boring name. John Brown. Mike Smith. He had a crewcut that he came into the shop to get tightened up. He parked the Continental outside. Sheila had been in love before, but never with a car and not like this. She got just a tiny bit hard looking at it. She felt weird about that later. Crew Cut was wearing a slim-cut black suit. Skinny tie. He was the most forgettable man. Sheila knew a little about cars, but not enough to crawl under the sucker right on the Main Drag, and so she called Precarious Lee, who came right down and looked the Continental over and talked to Crew Cut and took her out for a test drive. An hour later, Sheila conceded that he wasn’t coming back and paid Crew Cut’s asking price without negotiating.

But Precarious is not a car thief, just an overly-aggressive car borrower, and so he brought the Continental back freshly-waxed and with a full tank of gas and a brandy-new pair of fuzzy dice with black faces and white pips.

“We could have just taken the 5.”

“Nah.”

In the next lane was a drag race in spectacular makeup lip-syncing. Tiresias pretended not to notice. She had grown up in Little Aleppo; she was a local girl; she had seen worse. Humans are just reaction strategies in trousers: some Little Aleppians turned into the skid and embraced the weirdness and magick, and others struggled against it in a desperate attempt to reinstate the laws of causality, and some refused to acknowledge that anything odd was going on even during the weekend in ’88 when all the bricks in the neighborhood turned vegetarian. There was enough bullshit in the world, she thought; why seek it out? Tiresias did not care for Route 77. It was asking for trouble, she figured.

Sheila just wanted tacos.

Gordo’s was made of plastic and metal–it was easy to hose down–and the menu above the counter was in Spanish, and the women behind the counter spoke only Spanish, and there were pitchers–plastic–of Pacifica on the tables whatever time of day. They made Mexican soul food–brains and tongues and tails–and shrimp tacos for the gringos. Everything came with beans and rice, even if you just stopped in to use the bathroom. There were murals on the walls of great heroes, and neither Sheila nor Tiresias recognized any of them.

“I can’t believe you wrote her a letter,” Tiresias said. She had a chicken taco.

“It’s romantic,” Sheila said. She had a chicken taco, too, and slightly resented Tiresias for copying her order.

“You’re disappearing,”

“I’m withdrawing strategically.”

“You’re the worst fucking girlfriend in the world, dude.”

“It’s romantic!”

Tiresias took a big chaw out of her taco, and dabbed at her lips with a wad of paper napkins. She was her usual shlubby self, in rust-colored sweatpants and a blue hoodie. The ride had had the effect of a giant hair dryer, so her curly brown hair was massive and surrounding and cumulonimbal. She was wearing no makeup, and her nails were black. She swallowed and said,

“It’s cowardly.”

“I know.”

And Sheila poured herself another cup of pale beer from the pitcher, and waited for the head to die down, and downed half. She thought of cruel things to say, and then did not say anything; they were back on the road, back on Route 77 heading south or at least intending to–Route 77 was the kind of road where you needed to have your intentions in order–and the spedo needle pegged way to the right of the radius. The miles fucked off behind them. Going faster miles an hour. Los Angeles in front of them and KHAY on the radio.

Deejays. That was the new thing. After the dramas and serials and ball games and comical variety shows. Throw some longhair in the booth with a stack of records and let that be the end of it. KHAY featured ’em all. The Juice, and Beefeater Bo, and Slinky Tasteful, and Werewolf Tommy, and Liz Balance the Night Bat. Everybody had a gimmick. The men had smooth voices and the women had raspy ones. The bands that had made the records the deejays played would visit the studio on Dancing Street, and they would be just as outrageous as their press agent promised they would be. On-air, at least. Off-air, the bands would share their cocaine with the deejays, and pretend to be their peers. Then the red light would flash back on, and the bands would regain their surliness and blasphemy.

The Program Director was supposed to pick the records, but the position had not been filled. Faraday Conch had a practical approach to staffing, and he let the deejays pick whatever the fuck they wanted to play. When advertisers called him to complain, he fired the deejay. Then, he let the new deejay play whatever the fuck he wanted to play. Or she. Faraday Conch was not progressive; he just didn’t give a shit. The deejays picked their records, talked in between them, took calls if they felt like it; hung up on whomever they wanted.

Nighttimes nowadays was Moonpipe, who played European punk and really sad country music. Bert Judge did overnights; he spun prog rock demos and ballet overtures, and he took calls about the Apocalypse and Areas 51-64. Frankie Nickels did the morning shift and she played both kinds of music: rock and roll. Scott Meery took over at nine. He’d been around since Little Richard was tiny, and Chuck Berry was just a seed. Told stories about the old days, some of which would veer unexpectedly into pornographic conjectures about the interns. Noon was Lady Halberd. She was so British you wanted to dump tea in a harbor, and she insinuated that she slept with Rod Stewart once or twice a week. Drive-time was Limpet & the Stooge. They took a lot of calls.

The sun was high and plump, and the top was down. Sheila’s short-cropped hair didn’t pay attention to the slipstream around the car, but Tiresias’ mane did; it flapped about around her head and she paid it no mind. Sipped her beer, elbow on the door jamb, thought about having a cigarette but just turned her face outwards to collect the breeze and the California sun that came swirling in around the windshield. There was rock and roll playing on the radio, crunchy and stupid and thick-dicked and giddy, and Sheila clockwised the volume knob. Harmonies and guitars and then the drums went was-SHWAM and the two women sang along at the top of their lungs and into the bright sunshine and along with KHAY, which broadcast out of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

First Appearances In Little Aleppo

Winter slides into spring in Little Aleppo; it’s not like Back East, where the trees explode green in the course of a week and a new wardrobe is required all of a sudden. Coldest it gets–and this is deep into January and February–is the high 50’s, and the temperature gradualizes itself upwards throughout March until most days are around 70 until the end of June, when the mercury hits about 80 and stays there all summer (except for the three unbearably hot days of the Bake); reverse the process for the second half of the year. Little Aleppo’s climate was as gentle and predictable as she was not. There was no weather that would kill you quickly. Lightning, sure, but lightning kills you immediately. We’re talking about quickly. A couple minutes to an hour. Blizzards, for example. Or tornadoes or hurricanes, and the neighborhood was in the wrong hemisphere for cyclones or typhoons. There were no dust-making droughts because it rained every 18 days, and because it rained every 18 days there were a lot of trees that you could hide from the sun under so you would not exhaust, and stroke, and die.

But still spring sprung, just a bit, just subconsciously; it was a smell, some certain and prehistoric freshness. It wafted through the neighborhood and into windows while everyone was choosing their clothes. Pick the short skirt, the smell whispered; put on the sleeveless tee-shirt. And Little Aleppians did, and since it was 198-, the skirts were stretchy tube skirts and the shirts had flaking iron-on decals. Men’s shorts were tiny, and women’s hair was enormous. The Rollergirls were out in force, weaving between Toyotas and Buicks to their own headphone’d soundtracks, and quick-thieving pocketbooks and wallets out of open windows.

Everyone still had pubes.

“Ice cream.”

“No.”

“Ice creeeeeeeeeeeam.”

“That’s a much better argument,” Mr. Venable said.

“Thank you.”

“No.”

Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, started shimmying before Mr. Venable’s desk, an off-kilter and sexless hula. She had dyed her hair yellow–not blonde, yellow–and she was still in her Catholic schoolgirl-skirt phase. Crisp white button-down shirt open to right below her silver crucifix and goat’s head. (Gussy was a Capricorn.) She had red-white-and-blue sweatbands on her wrists; she thought they looked cute. She was wearing the boots you are imagining she was wearing. The skirt did not sway with rhythm: it jerked back and forth like curtains having a seizure. Hucka hucka hoooom–Gussy was now accompanying her dance with her human beatbox routine–WOOM wicky wicky, and then she did something with her arms that was possibly the Swim, but objectively not the Monkey.

“Why is this happening?”

“Ice cream dance,” she said without stopping.

Mr. Venable was in his customary seat, and wearing his customary suit. His feet, in shapeless brown-black loafers, were up on the table he used for a desk, and he was reading Crenshaw Walls. He wrote cheap detective novels about Los Angeles, with lots of action and sex, but there was something about the sentences, the paragraphs, the hero–Ricky King–and his secretary, Honey Cielo, and the way the plot slid forward like a sunnyside egg off a metal spatula. All the murders were about sex or land deals, and the wealthy had different laws than the skint, and the cops were brutal and to be avoided. Mr Venable closed the paperback around his index finger.

“Stop the ice cream dance.”

“Can’t.”

The shimmying continued.

“Damn you, woman.”

“Give in to that ice cream feeling. It’s cold and lickable.”

“Calling something ‘lickable’ is not an advertisement.”

“Yummy semi-frozen lactose fat.”

“Are you trying to make it sound unappetizing?”

“Ice cream!”

“Mlaaaargh.”

This was from the cat, who had no name. She was a tortoiseshell who, prior to the Ice Cream Dance, had been happily asleep on that morning’s Cenotaph. The headline was the latest in a series of downers.

PRIMETIME GRIME,
CRIME CLIMBS!

And even though the headline didn’t technically mean anything, everyone got the drift. The cat was all black on her belly, and above that gray-speckled; she bridged herself and for a moment was the precise shape of the St. Louis Arch, but furrier and without an elevator. Gave all assembled a dirty look, leapt off the table, padded back into the rows of books and she was gone.

“You monster.”

“Ice cream monster.”

Now Gussy began singing.

Ice cream song
Sing it all ice cream day long.”

“Damn you, woman.”

The bell on the door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink, and Mr. Venable slotted the key in the lock KCHACK and he and Gussy were on the Main Drag walking north.

“We are Nebuchadnezzar.”

“In what way?”

“Some way.”

“I agree,” Gussy said, and put her arm through his as though he were a gentleman. The evening was warm and the light was diffuse, soft, flattering: everyone looked plausibly sexual. They passed the Boogie Bug, and the Meaty Boy’s Chuckwagon, and half-a-dozen storefronts that were barren with windows protected by plywood. They passed the 37-Cent Store, which sold sneezed-on fruit and defective pencils.

Right turn on Pankow Street, which is where Sternwood & Tulle was located; no one in Little Aleppo knew why an ice cream shop needed such a fancy name. They had every flavor: Genocide by Chocolate, and Inverse Strawberry, and Pralines & Opium. You could get a cup, you could get a bowl, you could get a bucket if you were a disgusting pig with enough money; toppings included gummy Teddy Kenndys, caramel pepperoni, and jimmies of varying provenance; cones made of sugar or waffle or the teenager behind the counter would wing a pancake at your face. Only teenagers can scoop ice cream.

“Do you have any money?”

“You’re fired,” Mr. Venable said.

“Do we have any money?”

“None.”

“What about gold?”

“Less,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said.

Talks To Whites spat green at a ceder tree and eyed up the Reverend. Ten inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter. The majority of Whites that Talks To Whites had met were smaller than the Pulaski, but the Reverend was particularly tiny. His neck would snap in my hands, Talks To Whites thought. He imagined himself stepping forward and embracing Busybody like a dance partner, left arm around the back. Then, with the right, swift and precise punches to the ribs going up and down the cage, shattering each in turn. This was his fault, after all, all of this.

The Pulaski had lived in the valley that would later be called Little Aleppo for dozens of generations. The village was by the lake, which was fed by three streams that descended from the seven hills. They lived in kotchas, which were shaped like teepees, but made of strips of redwood bark with grasses to plug in the holes. The communal fire burned all day and night, and there was a storehouse for drying grains and meats next to it. The women of the village fished in the lake, and the men tended to the garden, which was north of the village in an oval patch of soil where everything grew. The foothills were wooded, and so was the basin plain beneath them; game was everywhere: rabbits and turkey and deer and bear.

The hills were a natural barrier against other people’s bullshit. For years, they had protected the Pulaski against other Natives’ bullshit, and then they were too much of a hassle for the Spaniards to bring their bullshit over; when the Spaniards became Californios, they maintained the same position. There was no mission in Little Aleppo. And for a while, they even kept out the Whites’ bullshit, but the Whites always had more bullshit up their sleeves.

“We have rifles and knives,” Talks To Whites said.

“Oh, no. Stop that talk.

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Please.”

Talks To Whites was leaning against an elm several hundred yards from the Pulaski’s new home to the south, in what used to be their hunting grounds. There was a clearing with a brook, but no lake. The Whites were now shitting in their lake. (The Pulaski also used to shit in the lake, but they did it more discreetly.) Kotchas were disassembled, humped a few miles, recast. The communal fire burned all day and night just as it had before. Perhaps it burned purer and more robustly, for the Pulaski were now protected not just by the Turtle Who Was And One Day Will Be Again, but by the United States government and all her armies and navies and even the banknotes.

A treaty had been signed.

The first White in the valley that would one day be called Little Aleppo was the Reverend Busybody Tyndale, who had been washed up on the Pulaski’s loamy shores by America’s storms. He was a Christian, and told people about it. The Reverend was enthusiastic in his preaching, and unencumbered by guile or a wife, so he tossed about the States: barracks in Wyoming, and whorehouses in Boston, and on trains traveling through Ohio in the middle of the night. He was from there, Ohio, a town called W——-g. It wasn’t his home. Busybody Tyndale lived in the Word, and he walked in the Gospel, and for years he followed his Bible around America shouting about Jesus.

He was in Cascabel, which is in Texas, when he lost sight of the Lord. The Whitworth girl, who was White, said that Jesse Pitcher, who was Black, had raped her. The Reverend had been preaching in town for room and board; he was rich in the Christ; the pitch was bubbling by the tree, and the town screamed vulgarity and slur, words that Busybody Tyndale did not use and did not note down in his journal. He did not also mention–not directly–that the Whites cut off his cock with a knife and laughed at his screams, then went back for the balls. It was tar, black and for roofing, and it was boiling and slopped onto Jesse’s thighs while the Mayor put the rope ’round his neck and his constituents let out a cheer, even moreso when the Mayor began cutting off toes and handing them out. The length was looped around the tree’s thick branch, and the men pulled Jesse up even as more pitch was applied. He shrieked and then his vocal chords went and he made no more noise. Busybody could see the train station from his vantage; there was a clock extending from its frontage. He noted the time. It took Jesse Pitcher 82 minutes to die. They lifted him up and dropped him down, and they cut small chunks from him and lifted him again.

The next morning, Busybody Tyndale headed Out West and did not stop until the ocean forced him to.

“What will they do?”

“Die. If we shoot them.”

“Yes. Yes, they will. But then there will be more,” Busybody said. “They’ll send the Army.”

“There is one pass in and out. We will defend it.”

“Forever?”

Talks To Whites said nothing, just spat green and leaned a little deeper.

“What the fuck else can we do?”

“Miss Valentine–”

“The woman who sells other women.”

“–affirmed that she would she would take care of the problem,” the Reverend said.

His black suit was more holes than suit, just ruined fabric in a coat-and-trouser formation, and his boots were caked with mud and shit from the Main Drag of the settlement that would soon be called Little Aleppo. It wasn’t a half-hour walk between the Whites and the Pulaski. Walk north from the communal fire through a mile of gentle woods, the rest was flat and grassy. You could do it in ten minutes if you were liquored up and on a horse.

Talks To Whites fished the rolled-up peregrine leaf from his mouth and flicked it away. The Reverend offered him a fresh one from his pocket. The Peruvians had coca, and the Whites had coffee, and the Africans had khat; the Pulaski had the peregrine leaf.

“Next time they come in to the village at night and someone stabs one…what then?”

“We have been promised.”

“We have.”

He walked away from the Reverend, south, his moccasins making no noise on the mossy ground. The Reverend looked back towards the settlement; he could see smoke rising, black and thick and boiling. He followed after Talks To Whites.

“Dolley Madison was a genius.”

“She didn’t invent ice cream,” Mr. Venable said.

“She did. In a shed out back of the White House. Then she served it to the Wright Brothers.”

“Where did you learn your history?”

“Paul Bunyan,” Gussy said.

“Go Blue Oxen.”

It was a springy evening, it was the springiest kind of evening, which is the first spring evening when the sky still has possibilities in it at seven o’clock; all the restaurants have thrown their doors open and the smells are sharper than the night before, or maybe your senses are keener

“Everyone’s a sexual pilgrim on the first day of spring.”

“In what way?”

“In some way,” Mr. Venable said, and licked his ice cream. He had mint chocolate chip. Gussy chose cookies-and-cream with rainbow sprinkles. His jacket pocket was jammed full of paper napkins.

“How long have you owned the shop?”

“Seems like forever.”

“But how long actually?”

“More than a few years.”

Gussy had been working for Mr. Venable for a little over a week, and still had not gotten a straight answer out of him. Even on the basic stuff, like what time to show up in the morning and her precise rate of pay. He had mentioned a commission system, but Gussy was certain that commission systems required writing down the transactions, whereas the cash register of the bookstore with no title was a drawer in the table Mr. Venable used as a desk. Or his coat pocket. Or pants pocket. More than once in the little over a week, he had asked her if she had change for a twenty, and–when she said yes–instructed the customer to buy the book from her. So there most likely was not a commission system in place. There was enough cash in the till, though, she figured, even if the till did not exist. The bell went TINKadink all day long: steady readers making their way through this author or that, and needful students, and collectors with their grades, and anxious parents, and weird fuckers searching for secrets.

They were still on Pankow heading west towards the Main Drag. They passed the Rookery, which was a bar frequented by small-time art dealers, and Japanese Ed’s Fish, which sold tropical fish and aquarium supplies, and Ed’s Japanese Fish, which was a sushi joint. She picked a napkin from his left jacket pocket, wiped her mouth, looked for a place to dispose of it, did not find one, kept looking; he yanked the napkin from her hand and put it in his right jacket pocket. Gussy smiled, and so did Mr. Venable, and then there was a man with a knife blocking their path.

“Money. Your money. Come on.”

“You’re joking,” Mr. Venable said.

“We’re in public, dude,” Gussy added.

She was right. Pedestrians streamed by on both sides, pretending not to see what was happening. Little Aleppians were Olympians when it came to pretending not to see things.

“Money. Now.”

The man waved the knife, which was large, about. His clothes were dirty, but not filthy, and his eyes were glazed. It had taken a couple to talk himself into it.

“Money. Let’s–”

And then a sound like OOFOO from the man, whose white sneakers were untied, as he collapsed to the ground. Mr. Venable and Gussy hitched up: they were about to run in the opposite direction, because they were from Little Aleppo and in Little Aleppo there is no shame in running in the opposite direction from a man with a knife. It is, in fact, the recommended course of action; your friends and family will question you if you do anything but. They were held in place by the sight of a massive figure piledriving the would-be mugger into the sidewalk. Had he come from the roof? The roof was five stories up.

Now the figure–in black, hooded–beat the mugger; learned kicks and punches designed to cripple and maim.

“Is he wearing a cape?”

“He is, yes,” Mr. Venable said.

There is no blood on the paving stones, as all the injuries were internal. The mugger was not getting up, not for months, and the figure–a man by silhouette–stood up far too straight and nodded at Mr. Venable and Gussy.

“You’re welcome,” he growled.

There was a device in his hand, relatively gun-shaped, that he aimed skywards and FSHWANG a hook attached to cabling shot out, and then the figure disappeared into the new spring night.

“That was new,” Gussy said.

“First appearance.”

“I’m sure it won’t be a huge deal.”

“Nah.”

They stepped over the mugger, whose legs and face were broken, and enjoyed their ice cream as they turned south on the Main Drag. Spring was springing all over the place in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

It’s Only Jukebox Music In Little Aleppo

Randy Plaster was far too tall. 6’9″ or 10″. At least six inches past the kind of tall that you wanted, if you were a man. It was an encumbrance, that kind of tall, especially if you were terminally uncoordinated, which Randy was. He had tried basketball. “Just stand under the net,” the coach at Paul Bunyan (Go Blue Oxen!) High told him, but he could barely manage that; he fell a lot, or fouled out on purpose so he could sit down and stop playing. He didn’t see the point of sports, anyway. Did you do the thing with the ball? Did you run to the place? Was there plentiful scoring? Good for you, I don’t give a shit, he thought.

Randy Plaster liked records.

Randy’s Record Barn was on the Main Drag of Little Aleppo, and its wares extended out onto the sidewalk: tables groaning under milk crates full of albums, and two oversized speakers mounted left and right of the door pumping out music all day, and above that was the sign in blue-and-white that read RANDY’S RECORD BARN – BUY & SELL. An awkward man in a tee-shirt flipped through the records; if you put enough used LPs together, an awkward man in a tee-shirt will spontaneously generate to flip through them. This is a form of magick.

The speakers were pulsating in uneven shapes. Neurasthenia by Plug; the double-album that made their record label drop them and the Church of England declare them “naughty and rotten.” Plug played Grammar Rock: some chords were verbs, and others were nouns, and pre-choruses were all adjectivial by default. It sounded similar to, but not quite like, the first Black Sabbath album having a series of mild strokes. The songs were 19 minutes long and not really songs at all, just pieces of music forced to wear names by lawyers; there were a couple of flute solos and some yodeling.

“This is terrible.”

“It’s challenging, Randy. Accept the music for what it is, and deal with it on its own terms.”

“I am: it’s crap.”

“You’re a melodist,” Zorro Chan said. Her parents were only recently immigrated when she was born, and they almost understood American naming conventions. She was wearing a short skirt and a Kinks tee-shirt.

“What the hell is that?”

“You privilege the singalong. You value the catchy over the abrasive.”

“Well, duh.”

There were records everywhere. Hanging on the walls out of reach with price-marked stickers, and in rows alongside all four sides of the store, and in three rows going back in the middle. In the glass case that served as the counter, that Randy Plaster sat behind. Where there weren’t records, there was bullshit: signed promotional photos, and pinned-up magazine articles, and a framed picture of Randy with The Snug. The cash register was a cigar box. Zorro had a pile of newly-arrived albums; some went where they belonged, others she kept back for herself. She had been trying and failing not to take all of her pay in trade.

He was standing behind the counter with the Cenotaph open in front of him; she was walking around alphabetizing.

“Why does music have to sound good?”

“Because otherwise, it’s not music. It’s noise.”

“You discount intentionality,” Zorro said.

“I would never.”

“But yet you do.”

“Go change your shirt.”

Randy had also worn his Kinks tee-shirt (which, just saying, was way older than hers and he had gotten at the gig when they played the Absalom) that day, and he was rather annoyed at Zorro.

“You change.”

“I’m the boss.”

“You’re not the boss of my body.”

“Don’t turn this into a feminist thing.”

“Now it’s a feminist thing. How dare you, patriarch? Will you shackle me into a corset next, and then be-scarf my head?”

“We can’t both wear Kinks shirts. It looks weird.”

“What if I put all the Kinks records up front and mark them down ten percent and we say it’s Kinks Day?”

“I like that, but don’t mark them down.”

There was silence, and Randy grinned, clapped, spun around behind him to where the shop’s record player was. He lifted the silver arm, replaced it on the cradle, and took up the vinyl by the edges. About face, and there on the counter sitting in a metal cradle was the cover for Neurasthania; it was black with dark-pink accents in the shape of a sink, and he slid the disc into the waxy paper within the cardboard, and placed the album in a milk crate at his feet. Came back up with a yellow sleeve, bright and cheerful, with red bubble letters across the top Cinnamon Grove by the Strandeds. They were a girl group from Philadelphia who moved to California, started taking drugs, dating skinny white boys, living in canyons. It was a concept album, sort of, about an alien society composed of pure funkiness who come to earth and spread their booty-shaking nature with humanity, much to the displeasure of President Whiteman. Killers played on it–Bernard Purdie on drums, and Jerome Hoffs on guitar–and the girls wailed above the nimble soul in harmony so tight you couldn’t slip a playing card in between their voices.

What’s up in the sky?
Is that love up in the sky?
I don’t know what’s in the sky.
That is love up in the sky.

That was The Abovening (Part I), which was the first song on the record, and all the other songs were named like that, which may have contributed to the poor sales. The art did not help, either: it depicted the alien spaceships (which were also composed of pure funkiness) arriving over Los Angeles, except the ships looked just like toilets and so it looked like someone in the San Fernando Valley with a trebuchet was chucking commodes over the Hollywood Hills. Cinnamon Grove hit #122 on the album charts, and did not receive a bullet. The label dropped them; they signed with another, smaller, company; one more release to paltry reception, and that was it for the Strandeds. There were three of them. One had a happy ending, and one didn’t, and one disappeared. The album was a Rock Nerd treasure, as it was perfect: it was the record that should have been a hit, and nothing inspires a Rock Nerd like alternate chart histories. If only the public had any taste.

If they had taste, then they wouldn’t be the public.

Randy’s Record Barn looked like it had been there forever, but it was only five years old. Little Aleppo used to get its records at the Boogie Bug, which was also on the Main Drag, right where Tower Tower stands now. Billy “Boogie” Downes opened the place in ’68, and never took a vacation except for the several months a year when he went on tour with the Grateful Dead. Boogie was squat and did not own a pair of proper shoes: if he could not attend an event in his flippity-flops, then he would not attend that event at all. He had a pair of Bierkenstocks for formal occasions, but that was as far as he was prepared to encase his feet.

The Boogie Bug was not quite a Head Shop, but it was heady: one could buy apparati with which to smoke tobacco that no human being had ever used to smoke tobacco, and incense of varying stinkinesses, and bitchin’ posters, and tickets to the rock and roll shows at the Absalom and the Davidian. Mr. California Number One Donuts was next door, and the teenagers would hang out after school. Coffee and crullers and flirting and shoplifting, and once in a while a guy would get to second base in the Jazz section. Boogie was also selling weed, so he didn’t mind the shoplifting so much, but he was old and cranky by the time Tower Gildersleeve offered to buy the store, and he took the first offer.

“Selling the place.”

“What? You can’t,” Randy Plaster said.

“Sure, I can. I own it,” Boogie said.

“But then there won’t be a record store in the neighborhood.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You can’t.”

“We went over this.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Move to Florida and fuck old ladies.”

Randy did not want to move to Florida, and he did not want to fuck old ladies. He wanted to flip through stacks of records in a shop where everyone knew him. He wanted to read through the credits on the back cover, noting producers and studios and putting a story together about the history of rock and roll and whatnot just from gleaned tidbits squeezed from the small print. He wanted to make his pile and take it to the counter and bullshit with Boogie for a half-hour, and talk him down a couple bucks. Most other customers liked to chat up the Record Store Girl. Boogie always had a Record Store Girl, and all the Rock Nerds were in love with her. They came and went over the years, but 90% of them had Betty Page bangs and cat’s-eye glasses. A proper Record Store Girl could increase your take by 20%, Boogie thought.

So when Randy bought all of the inventory and opened up the Record Barn across the Main Drag, Boogie had only one piece of advice.

“Find the hottest employee you can.”

“I’m gonna hire people who know what they’re talking about.”

“Fuck that. Hire a chick with big tits.”

And then Boogie went to Florida, where he did indeed fuck many old ladies.

Randy did not hire anyone for several years, though, mostly because no one had passed the test. Four pages, single-spaced. Questions were both fact and opinion-based, and one of the sections required an essay. Zorro was the first one to pass, even though she misspelled the drummer of Can’s name.

“It’s Kinks Day,” she said.

“Sure, why not?”

“Shouldn’t we play the Kinks?’

“Give the people what they want.”

“Which one?”

“The one about England.”

Zorro Chan came behind the counter with a record, laid it on the player, set the needle, and there it was: scruffy Anglicism and a Vox amplifier and filial friction, all coming through the speakers in Randy’s Record Barn on the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.

A Morning Early In Little Aleppo

The bar at the Wayside Inn was made of wood. Everything in the Wayside Inn was made of wood: the tables and the piano and the staircase and the rooms upstairs and the rooms in the back. The glass was temporary, and so was the flesh: they cycled through, were emptied, discarded. A window might last a year; a bottle, ten minutes. Whore might last a year; gambler, ten minutes. They walked in and stumbled out onto the Main Drag; the sidewalks were made from spruce planking, and the street itself was made of shit.

Horses toppled by, ridden and laden, and you could buy meat and vegetables from pushcart stalls. Buildings abutted tents–a great deal of the neighborhood was still canvas–and everyone was filthy. Mustaches were prodigious, and the hats came in so many varieties: stetsons and bowlers and tops and sombreros and Dakotas and gamblers, in every color that was black or gray or brown. There were no women in the street, which was not even a mile long. Off to the south were the flat fields where the miners camped, their tents laid out in even rows. To the north was the Turnaway Lode. There was so much gold you couldn’t turn away, and the men rushed in to work it and the surrounding foothills. No one ventured all the way up the mountains, but they didn’t have to: there was money just laying there in the rock and under the moss and waiting for you to pick it up.

Freud made the connection between money and shit. We don’t pay much attention to Freud any more, but he got some things right. Money is just like shit: except for a small percentage of fetishists, people prefer to get it away from themselves as fast as possible. There was a need in the valley that would one day be the neighborhood called Little Aleppo, and so solutions presented themselves quickly. The surest way to an answer is a question asked while waving cash. Samperand’s Hardware opened up to overcharge for shovels and sifters and buckets. Anky’s had whiskey and tequila and poker, usually three tables’ worth going all day and night, and the Bronze Colonel has whiskey and tequila and dice, The Wayside Inn had whiskey and tequila and faro.

Faro is played on an oval tables. There is a dealer and as many as five players. The spades are laid out from ace to king, and then a different deck is shuffled. You could make a flat bet, which is that the six or seven or the jack would come up, by slapping a chip onto the proffered spade; you could bet on the Winner or Loser card; you could bet on all sorts of things. The first card is burned off; the next two are dealt face-down, first the Loser and then the Winner. The odds were not terrible if the game was fair. No faro game was fair.

The Wayside also featured girls. Swanny was a chubby blonde, and Tappy was from Pittsburgh, and Bowlegged Louisa still believed in Jesus, and Lulu was 15, and Pansy had slice-marks up and down her thighs she put there with her knife, and Virginia had nightmares so bad her screams woke up the whole building. Peach died–Doc Wallop drunkenly punctured her innards during a routine procedure–and now the Wayside did not feature Peach. Miss Valentine withheld the doctor’s payment for a week or two after that, and he didn’t complain.

Miss Valentine was good with a knife. She kept a Bowie in a black leather scabbard on her hip, right side, and she would make a big deal out of taking it off so you might feel at ease. You shouldn’t, because she always had more: a flick blade in one pocket, and a switch in the other, and another Bowie just as big as the first webbed into her right boot. She could kick up her heel and reach down and gut you in under a second. This is not a guess, or an exaggeration: Miss Valentine had timed herself. And practice made perfect.

She was neither short nor tall for a woman of the time, which was 18–, and she wore her brown hair just long enough to need to pull back into a ponytail when she wrote letters at her desk. Man’s clothes–a blue collarless shirt, black trousers–and freshly-shined boots (brown) with squared-off toes. Her cuffs were spotless and not frayed at all.

It was very early in the morning, because the only light you got for free in the past came during the day. Once the sun went down: that was it, unless you wanted to light something on fire; there is a reason the past burned itself down so much. Breakfast was pork and porridge on a tin plate. Coffee, black, in a tin cup. She wiped her mouth with a bandana, also black.

“Bill.”

“Ma’am?”

Canadian Bill was straw-haired and beefy, and he was from outside Saskatoon.

“I can’t have it.”

“Okay. Yeah, okay.”

She sipped her coffee.

“You got any fucking idea what I’m talking about?”

“You could possibly fill in some of the details for me, sure.”

Canadian Bill had been working for Miss Valentine since Tulsa, which he had reached via Carson City and Chicago. He enjoyed stabbing people, which in the old days meant you had to move a lot; Canadian Bill was like Caravaggio, but without all the painting. Miss Valentine was a hell of a blade, but sometimes it was politically propitious for her to be seen in public while someone was getting stabbed. Canadian Bill was also much bigger than she was, and so could carry bodies and whatnot. They found each other very useful.

“The goddamned caterwauling, Bill. The middle-of-the-night shrieking that issues from the fucking Indian girl’s gob.”

“She ain’t Indian.”

“With that nose? And the hair? Fuck me if she’s not.”

“Told me she was from Shreveport,” Canadian Bill said.

“What the fuck does that have to do with it? Fucking Indians are everywhere.”

“Not in Shreveport. They got Cajuns there.”

“I don’t give a fuck if they got Martians there. We’re talking about the screaming. Concentrate on the screaming, Bill.”

“Yeah, it woke me up.”

His shirt was white with brown pinstripes, and his suspenders and pants were brown, too. Completely bald on the top of his head with a ruff of hair around, also brown. Ludicrously large mustache that was the color you would expect. He gripped his fork like a bat and shoveled his breakfast into his mouth; wiped on his sleeve.

“I can’t fucking have it.”

“I gotcha,” he said.

“Do something about it.”

Canadian Bill stopped eating.

“What?”

“Figure it the fuck out.”

The girls were in the back. They took their meals in the back.

The Morning Tavern technically opened at dawn, but the doors were unlocked before that and the bar was two-deep when the sun came up. The sun was a fascist, in the view of the Morning Tavern’s denizens. At night, you could flick on a lamp or sit in the dark: your level of illumination was up to you. But it was damned tough to avoid that yellow bastard at noon. Some folks need a bit of shade.

There used to be a band–this was back in the Sixties–that set up along the back wall and played 45 minutes out of the hour, five sets a day. Bunch of groups did it: the Slates, and the Earl Of Sandwich, and the Tick-Tocks, and the Sempahore Lightning. The drinkers did the Frug, and they did the Boogaloo. Seven days a week, baby, that’s rock and roll. The Tick-Tocks turned into Lamprey, which had seven Top-40 hits in the 1970’s. The members of Earl Of Sandwich participated in a murder/suicide so complex that the cops had to call in the Mathematics Department at Harper College to figure it out. There was a jukebox now. It glowed blue-and-red in the dim, and there were metal arches and filigree and scalloped edges; it was as tall as a man and twice as wide, and the power cable was as thick as Big-Dicked Sheila’s cock. She hit D3: it was that band from Australia, the loud one that had only written one song. The lead singer needed a lozenge. Sheila needed a cigarette. Her purse was at the bar; Tiresias Richardson was digging in it.

“Gimme that.”

Sheila snatched it from her and hopped up on a stool. Her feet dangled. Bright-yellow Converse high tops with the tongues lolling like dimwitted dogs. Her pants were skin-tight and black and leather and laced up in the front; they were rock and roll pants; they were pants you wanted to get into that, ironically, were nearly impossible to get into.

Tiresias was wearing a pair of navy-blue blue sweatpants with white splotches up and down the left leg where she had splattered bleach. The hood of her sweatshirt was down, and there were no bleach stains, but had it not been rust-colored, then the spilled wine would be evident.

“I was looking for a cigarette,” she said.

Sheila pulls out a soft-pack of Camels, flicks the bottom with her middle finger; two tan filters pop up. Tiresias takes one with her fingers, and Sheila lips the remaining butt from its perch. Feels around in her massive purse like a raccoon at the riverside. Lighter. Plastic, green. FFT. Tiresias juts her head forward, chin-first, and the cigarette is in the middle of her lips. PHWOO. Sheila brings the flame back, her head cocks to the side PHWOO and the two of them are smoking and drinking at dawn on a Wednesday.

“This is lovely.”

“Far better than real life. AAAAHahaha!”

They had meant to go to sleep, they really had. Tiresias was the Horror Host on KSOS, and she worked the late shift because Horror Hosts have to work the late shift. They can’t go on the air at, say, four in the afternoon; that is a very unspooky time of day. Midnight to three, that was the Late Movie on KSOS, and after dark none of the other channels came in all that good if you had rabbit ears–and most of Little Aleppo still did–so everyone tuned in to see Draculette make fun of whatever crap was on that night. Most folks aren’t up real late. Most folks obey their circadian rhythms, and capitalism, and get up early so they go to bed early, too. Can’t be more than ten percent of any given population that’s active at night. The damnable and the dancers went out, met up with each other, bounced, recoiled, ordered another round. The rest stayed in and watched teevee. Procrastinating writers, and deliberate drinkers, and couples on first dates afraid to make the first move; those that could not sleep and those who would not sleep; the overnight shifters at the fire station: everybody caught the Late Movie.

Last night’s flick was called The Girl With A Spider For A Face; in keeping with Late Movie tradition, the plot had nothing to do with the title: the film was about biker draculas who claimed to be from Transmissionvania. Tiresias had very little to work with, as most of the running time was taken up by stock footage of motorcyclists, and so she declared her portion of the show to be in 3D and kept chucking stuff at the camera until her wig fell off.

The Draculette dress–that wicked piece of emphatic fabric–took two to get on and off. There were secret laces in the back that shrank the waist and surged the boobery upwards, outwards, skywards. It was the Mark III costume. The first two had been retired, and then sold to a superfan who Tiresias was 80% sure was going to kidnap and kill her one day but paid in cash. The new model was a leap forward in both tensile strength and stink-wicking.

The first night Sheila brought it in, Tiresias rubbed the dress between her fingers and then against her cheek.

“What is this made of?”

“I dunno. Precarious got a roll of it from a guy he knows. It’s basically sex-kevlar. He said it could stop a bullet.”

“How about bad reviews? AAAAHahaha!”

First the wig caps, two of them to hold down her mop of lazy brown curls, and then the makeup from the hairline down the neck and all of the chest to bring her already-pale skin to deathly. The eyes were green and black, and not subtle; it was not a look for the farmer’s market. Lips redder than a Communist firetruck. Then the supportive undergarments, and next was the dress. This was a two-woman affair: stuffing, yanking, and squeezing were required. It was not unlike trying to put a turtleneck on a cranky ferret. Finally, the wig.

Sometimes, we choose costumes that reveal ourselves. Other times, a gig’s a gig.

At three AM, she signed off with her traditional closer.

“I’ll see you tomorrow night, boogers. Try not to die ’til then.”

Turning back into Tiresias was just as arduous: the wig was wet with sweat and stink, and the makeup took a dozen wipes and half-a-bottle of remover to get off, and the dress clung fast enough to necessitate several occasions of “one, two, three, puuuuuulllllll” from her and Sheila. It was a lot of effort to make a California girl spooky.

They lay there on the shitty carpet, Tiresias naked and Sheila in her leather pants.

“I have vodka.”

“Just one,” Sheila said, but she was not strong in her beliefs and so–four drinks, two joints, and several of Sheila’s pills later–the two women were at the Morning Tavern trying to talk themselves out of buying blow.

“We shouldn’t.”

“No.”

“But let’s.”

“Okay. AAAAHahaha!”

They didn’t try very hard.

The Rejection fluttered on every wall, and from columns and even the ceiling. Letters passing on screenplays, and divorce papers, and eviction notices, and unopened envelopes stamped RETURN TO SENDER, and notes left silently on pillows. So many restraining orders. Denial of benefits, dishonorable discharges, and siblings’ speeches from interventions. Nothing succeeded like failure at the Morning Tavern.

“A month,” Tiresias said.

“A month!? You’re fucking crazy. I have a business. And you have a job.”

“They’ll show reruns and no one’ll notice. Bert can watch the shop.”

“I hate Los Angeles,” Sheila said.

“So does everyone who lives there. You’ll fit right in. AAAAHahaha!”

The music was too loud, which is how you know the Morning Tavern was a bar. The music is not loud enough in a lounge, and way too fucking loud in a club, but in a bar, the music is just the right amount too loud. It made you lean into conversations.

“I can’t go alone,” Tiresias said.

“I can’t go with you.”

“I don’t have anybody else.”

Sheila plucked a cigarette from the pack laying on the bar, didn’t offer Tiresias one, lit it FFT with a green plastic lighter and blew out PHWOO, rolled her eyes.

“Los Angeles sucks.”

“We’ll make it fun.”

“It happened again, Miss Valentine.”

“Reverend.”

The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was not comfortable in the Wayside Inn, and his terrible poker face extended to his whole body: his shoulders caved in when he entered, and his eyes peeked around nervously. He was a small man, and he made himself smaller.

“It happened again.”

“Why don’t you let me buy you a new suit? You look like shit.”

The Reverend’s sleeve was half-detached, and there were holes in the knees of his black pants. His boots were so scuffed that you couldn’t tell what color they were.

“Men from the camp. Miners. They came into the Pulaski village. Uninvited.”

“Maybe they were just being friendly.”

Canadian Bill chuckled, and so did Zeke and Possum. All of Miss Valentine’s guns were standing at the bar eating their breakfasts and drinking their coffees. Their clothes were worn, but clean. She insisted. All three were right-handed and wore their pistols on their right hips. Miss Valentine never wore a gunbelt, and only very rarely used a shotgun or revolver. She was good with her knife. Back in Tulsa, she had been Pammy and belonged to someone just like the girls taking their breakfasts in the back belonged to her now. Her mother had died and her father, a drunk, had sold her. She learned her first lesson the first day in bondage: it is better to own than to be owned. She learned her second lesson the night her face got carved up: be good with a knife. Miss Valentine learned her lessons well.

“They were not. It was only my intervention that prevented an irrevocable outcome.”

“Well, thank God for you, huh?”

“Miss Valentine.”

“Reverend Tyndale. Seriously, man, you need new boots. I’ll pay.”

“This can’t keep happening.”

“No, it can’t.”

“And you’ll do something about it?”

“Assuredly.”

“There is a treaty.”

“I appreciate that.”

The Reverend smoothed down the front of his suit coat. There were no buttons left.

“God bless you, Miss Valentine.”

“Uh-huh.”

He walked out, pretending not to hear the guns laughing at him, and turned left–south–on the spruce planks that lined the side of the shit-river that was the Main Drag. Stepped over shit-caked drunks, and maneuvered through barrels of apples and boxes of nails, and danced through a fistfight, and edged by an opium fiend perched at an unsustainable angle. Then, the sidewalk ended and the Reverend was walking on grass again–south–past the lake and the harbor, and into the woods where the Pulaski used to patrol as their hunting grounds, and where they now lived.

“Can’t have that, either,” Miss Valentine said. Her guns said nothing. She sipped her coffee and thought about the future.

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