Little Aleppo was a colorful neighborhood–blood red, and black-and-blue, and hangover-piss dark yellow–and so it was prepared for the tough times like other places were not. The Main Drag saw spontaneous operas and long-awaited knife fights, so a bit of political or economic instability wasn’t going to cause a panic. When Little Aleppo found herself in times of trouble, Mother Mary came to her.
No one knew how the local lottery came to be called the Mother Mary, but the current theory was that the name was coined by one of the wags down at the Morning Tavern about the game’s unfixable nature.
“Ought to call it the Mother Mary: everybody’s trying to fuck it, but it just ain’t how the story goes.”
Fuck the Mother Mary, Sally Moon thought, and then crossed himself.
When Sally Moon crossed himself he may as well have been tracing the actual crucifix for the distance his fingers went. He was a large gentleman who didn’t own one single pair of blue jeans, and he hung out with other large gentlemen, and they all did large gentlemen things together. Although it seemed that Sally Moon did all the specifically large gentleman stuff, at least to Sally.
Sally, go watch this guy.
Sally, stand in this doorway.
Sally, punch this family.
And he was good at the work, and didn’t mind doing it, but he wanted more. Sally Moon wanted to be the guy running the boiler room, not the guy who comes in to beat up the boiler room when they’re not producing. Being a criminal was fine, he thought. He just wanted to be a higher class of criminal, the kind of criminal that everyone respected.
But at the moment, he was standing watch on the Mother Mary like he did twice a week, every week.
Gower Avenue runs perpendicular off the the Main Drag–it it the cross-street that The Tahitian is on–and on the south side of the street is the Broadside Newstand. It runs along the outer wall of the theater, in fact, and goes for almost 200 feet: there are four levels of graduated shelving, and the newspapers are stacked below that on the ground, and jutting out above is a wooden awning painted green.
Omar owns the Broadside, and he has news of the world, and worlds, and subscriptions to periodicals that were delivered via Route 77. The Cascadia Times-Register, and the Cahokia Gazette-Picayune-Register, and the Pennysaver from Cascabel, Texas. (For some reason.) There was Unpopular Mechanics, which often featured articles about DIY machines that would stab strangers on the bus. Every morning, Tiresias Richardson bought the Muliplicative, the Hollywood paper with the articles about big stars like Peg Entwistle and Stevie Lubetkin. Montgomery Clift was having another comeback.
Omar had a last name, but he was certain that no one would be able to pronounce it up to his standards, so he refused to tell anyone what it was. The way they said “Omar” was bad enough, attacking the first vowel like an intruder–OH!mar OH!mar–when it should rise and fall in welcome–oOoh-MAar–but to let everyone butcher his family name was unacceptable. He was Omar, and he sat on a tall wooden stool by the cash register. No matter the weather, he wore brown sandals with thick straps. A kufi was on his head, which needed a haircut, and he generally wore sweaters only a blind man would choose, although he had a good excuse.
Argus was Omar’s seeing-eye dog, and they hated each other like only an old married couple could. A regular conversation topic in bars and barbershops around Little Aleppo is “Just how old is that dog, anyway?” Big-Dicked Shelia was sure that Argus had been here when she got to the neighborhood, and that was a while ago; Precarious Lee distinctly remembers giving Argus a drink the night the Berlin Wall came down; Gussy Incandescente-Ponui is certain she has a photograph of her grandfather Irving at The Tahitian with Argus in the background.
Argus was a German Retriever. The breed would go get stuff for you, but it would lecture you while it did. He was never more than three feet from Omar, and had come to deeply resent the man. The way he chewed. Breathed, oh God, the way he breathed! In, out, in out. Fuck you and your breathing, Omar! Argus tried to walk him into traffic daily, but Omar had good ears.
“Stop that, asshole! I hear the cars!”
And they would continue down the Main Drag, Omar occasionally whacking the dog in the snout with his cane, and Argus once in a while bumping the man into parking meters.
At the Broadside, though, they were a team. A terribly inefficient and slow one, but a team. You’d bring your purchases to the end of the stand where Omar sat, and then you’d hand him everything one by one. You say the name of the magazine, and he’s memorized the price. Let’s say it’s $3.95. You tell him, “I’m giving you four singles,” and then you hand Omar the bills one by one, and he lets Argus smell each dollar.
Most people don’t know that ones smell different than fives. All dogs do, but most people don’t.
Each time Omar showed money to Argus, he would say its denomination–One! Five!–and if the bill matched the description, Argus would make a friendly little sound–boof–and if it didn’t, Argus would bite the fucker trying to get one over on a blind guy. He may not have liked Omar, but you just didn’t steal from the blind. Argus could put aside the personal for his principles
Getting the change was equally involved, and I won’t mention how long it took to do the final count most evenings.
And from morning until well into the night Tuesday and Friday, Sally Moon was standing over Omar and Argus for every excruciating second.
And so on, all day and through lunch and then the afternoon and straight through the sunset’s glare over the Salt Wharf, and Sally Moon stood there watching, so as to make sure that the illegal act was performed honestly.
Other days, the Broadside opened when Omar and Argus got there, and closed when no one had bought anything for a while and it was getting cold. On Tuesdays and Fridays, though, it opened exactly when the bells at the First Church of the Iterated Christ rang ten am, and closed when they signaled nine pm.
At 9:01 pm those two days, Sally Moon would do the count for Omar, quickly, and then he would walk down to Cagliostro’s to meet his friends, who were large gentlemen like himself, and give them the final tally, along with the receipts. At the bottom of the paper, Sally would write the day’s total gross in big block print, and the last three digits of that gross would be circled. The large gentlemen would tell smaller large gentlemen, who would tell runners, and by 9:30 everyone knew what the winning number for the Mother Mary was.
Sally had wondered why he couldn’t just make sure Omar was there in the morning and then stop by at night, instead of this maddening biweekly sentinel he had to stand, but he also knew what neighborhood he lived in; without some sort of stabilizing presence, nonsense would be invariably gotten up to. When the Mother Mary started, Little Aleppo tripped over itself trying to rig it: elaborate mathematical models of magazine purchasing, and a couple gangs tried betting heavy on “000” and then keeping people away all day. Both Omar and Argus were offered bribes, which they took, just to be polite.
BUT, Sally Moon fumed over twice a week, all this corruption made the Mother Mary incorruptible. Just the numbers involved in one person’s scam would be daunting, but once you introduce a second, third, fourth, scoundrel into the mix–and everyone now has to correct their magazine-and-newspaper buying for each others’ deceptions–the math quickly becomes undoable. It was only algebra–time X (price X quantity)(sales tax)–but the equation had 9000 variables and stretched 200 feet alongside a movie theater. Also, several other people were trying to solve it at the same time as you, and they were armed. There was no way of rigging the outcome that didn’t add to the chaos, he thought
Sally Moon was right: a person is a terrible random number generator, but a whole bunch of people acting independently is a terrific random number generator. He had tried to beg off his job with this argument, but the other large gentlemen laughed at him.
“People wanna see a big guy standing by the register. You’re talking math? These are people playing the lottery. They don’t know from math. They know from a big guy standing by the register. Go, Mooney, go.”
So on Tuesdays and Fridays, from when the bells at the First Church of the Iterated Christ stuck ten in the morning until the rang nine at night, Sally Moon stood there at the western end of the Broadside Newstand on Gower Avenue next to the cash register. It was in a cubby flush with the wall, and Omar sat on his high wooden stool in front of it facing his stock and listening for shoplifters.
Argus lay on a worn grey blanket to Omar’s right, in between the customers and the stool. Next to Argus was the latest in an infinite series of expensive dog beds Argus refuses to use, chews to death, and then demands replacement of. Argus also listened for shoplifters; unlike Omar, he was actually capable of it.
It was a long day for Sally Moon. He would have preferred to have hit someone. Or everyone. Anything but this billboardery. He was capable of more. Sally knew he had great crime within him, but he was stuck at the Broadside twice a week safeguarding the innocence of the Mother Mary, which could not be fucked. He was going slightly mad.
“Why isn’t that dog dead yet?”
“Why aren’t you dead yet?”
Every. Fucking. Tuesday and Friday. Of Sally Moon’s fucking life. Some days, he thought about grad school. Other days, arson.
The odds on the Mother Mary weren’t bad if you compared them to the legal lottery. Only three digits, that’s ten times ten times ten, which means 1000-to-1. If they ran it every day, went the saying down on the Salt Wharf, you’d win once every three years.
But they didn’t. (And you wouldn’t.) Just twice a week, and sometimes no one would win, and the money would carry over, and a buzz would hit Little Aleppo and the Morning Tavern would be filled with promises of shared fortune. Even when the pot grew, it never got too big–this was a local game, after all–and the prize was never life-changing. Certainly weekend-changing, but not the kind of scratch that buys you the dream house.
It was 8:45 on a Friday Night and the minute hand of Sally Moon’s watch was giving him the finger. The movie at The Tahitian started at 10:00, but Draculette was making a special appearance to introduce the film, Satan And All His Testicles. It was about a swampmonster. Sally had been watching the Late Show religiously since she became the Horror Host, and he tried to go see her in person when he could.
The count took ten minutes, and then a five minute walk to Cagliostro’s, and then get his balls busted–which is the variable in this equation, he thought–and then five back to the theater. There would always be a seat in the balcony, and in the inside pocket of his jacket was an index card with his big block lettering on it. It read A large popcorn and an orange soda, and on the other side was Thank you.
And then the bells of the Iterated Christ rang out, followed by St. Clements and St. Martin and the Bailey. Argus’ shoulders go up and in–he hates the bells–and Sally Moon whangs ENTER on the cash register, which prints out a long ribbon of paper that many people have money riding on.
“Don’t do that. I’ll do that. My cash register.”
Sally Moon pays Omar no mind except to slip him the usual payment, but as he leaves he puts his huge hand on Omar’s narrow shoulder and squeezes it very gently. Omar reaches across his chest and pats Sally’s hand twice, then squeezes it. Sally shows the long ribbon of paper to Argus.
And then Sally leaves; he is writing down the final tally in his big block letters as he walks with silent purpose down the Main Drag, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.