Sometimes the most fragile things seem the most permanent. Governments. Businesses. Teevee shows. The ones that have been on since you were a kid, or longer, and have become load-bearing berms in your life. That news show with the stopwatch that always runs late because of football. The comedy show with the topical sketches and teenybopper bands. They seem like mountains, but they’re not: you don’t need to make a new mountain every week. Mountains require no maintenance at all, in fact, which is the opposite of a teevee show, and the double-opposite of a daily teevee show.
Like a soap opera.
It was almost one o’clock in the bookstore with no title. It was almost one o’clock everywhere else, too, but Mr. Venable didn’t care about those places, as they did not have his television set. In his customary suit, he rose from his customary seat and went to the door, locked it. The door had bay windows on either side, and Mr. Venable picked up a well-worn and laminated piece of paper attached to a suction cup. He stuck it on the glass of the door. The sign read,
Can’t a man have his lunch in peace? A half of an hour, this is what I beg of you to allow me, your humble purveyor of tomes both antiquarian and best-selling, to sustain himself. Am I not entitled to that?
I believe that I am. Come back. Or not.
God bless America and all her ships at sea.
Mr. Venable walked back towards his desk and past it to the wall of shelves behind. The Revelation of the Intrinsic by Mahdi Zaman was on the fourth shelf. No dust jacket. He looked around one last time to make sure there were no customers watching him, and pulled the top of the book towards himself. There was a sound from behind the shelf CHACK and the wall of books sprang forward towards him an inch, and then swung open, and then there was his office.
A tortoiseshell cat darted between his feet and went inside.
Mr. Venable had never measured his office, partially because he was quite sure that the space was unmeasureable and might, in fact, respond poorly to the attempt. He had found it was a bad idea to try and pin a magic bookstore down on specifics.
There were books in his office, uncountable and receding into the horizon–Mr. Venable’s office was so large as to contain a horizon–and scrolls and at least several tablets that were contained either cuneiform writing, or artwork with a triangle motif. The Mayan Codices and the card catalog from the Library at Alexandria. Books that were too ferocious to leave out for the public, the ones you had to ask for and have a damn good reason to need. The Athervaveda was open on a table off to the right next to the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. There were no windows, so the office was lit by illuminated manuscripts.
And a raggedy green couch in front of a table with a television on it. A portable model, faded white plastic, and it had rabbit ears: the picture was clear unless the bookworms started chewing on the ozone again. Two big dials, one on top of the other, and a smaller knob underneath. Top dial for the channel. Second dial for something. Small knob pulled out CHOCK to turn the power on, and pushed in CHICK to turn it off, and rotating it controlled the volume. Little Aleppo was wired for cable teevee, but Mr. Venable didn’t trust it and didn’t want to pay for it, plus there were quite a few books in his office he didn’t want to leave alone around a hardwired line to the outside world. Rabbit ears are good enough for rabbits, he thought. Am I so superior to a rabbit?
Yes, he thought further. I am completely superior to a rabbit. Twitchy little lagomorphs. Still, he wasn’t paying for cable.
The set took a second to warm up–the new ones are either/or propositions: off off off WHAMMO–but teevee sets used to ease into their duties: less a big bang than a steadily-increasing state. The sound came in before the picture.
“…and I was acquitted of all of those charges, and have removed all the cameras from the dressing rooms.”
When the screen fuzzed in, there was a man on the screen in the most incorrect pair of slacks you’ll ever see.
“So come on back to Creepy Ernie’s House of Inappropriate Trousers. This month, socks are 20% off if you try them on in front of me.”
KSOS was a local station, and so it had local sponsors. Creepy Ernie had been doing his own commercials for years, and his wide-eyed awkwardness in the spots was one of the two things that kept the neighborhood from losing their patience with him, the other being that Little Aleppians figured if you went into a place named Creepy Ernie’s, then whatever happened to you was your fault. Ernie told you right up front that he was creepy.
The picture was clear, and the colors loud and waxy and almost parodic in their reds and blues: teevee was smaller than life, but so much brighter. Mr. Venable did not have to futz with the rabbit ears at all. Why should he? He could just about see KSOS’ studios from the sidewalk in front of his shop. He knew it didn’t work that way, but he also didn’t care. Gadgets and gizmos didn’t interest him much, and he sat down on the raggedy couch and put his feet up on the table.
The familiar intro, reshot in color years ago, but always the same: a helicopter shot of a beach community, which dissolved into a family portrait, and then shots of windmills, and then actors and actresses and finally a shot of an Airedale terrier. The beach community was named Valley Heights, and the family was the Chambers family, and they battled each other and outsiders for control of the local wind farms, and the actors had names like Brince Bompleton and Alabaster Hart, and the dog was called Jumpy.
There was a very baritone voice-over, too:
“Ambition. Family. Revenge. Lussssssssst. Today is always uncertain in…Yesterday’s Tomorrows.”
Mr. Venable always said the voice-over along with the teevee.
Yesterday’s Tomorrow’s had been on a long time, and that was as specific as you could get. The first few years were live and there were no recordings made, and no one wrote anything down. It didn’t seem important at the time. Just a soap opera. Late 50’s was as close as anyone was willing to stake their reputation on. An actress who worked on the show from the beginning named Ingmar Hanson kept a diary, but it was undated and also descended into madness very shortly upon her taking the job with the soap.
An hour a day. Live. Five days a week, and of course Paul Loomis, Sr., had refused to staff the show up to its needs and so a skeleton crew was expected to produce a full body’s worth of work every single day: an hour–a motherfucking hour of scripted teevee–a day, and so the breakdowns and outbursts began almost immediately. At first, there was no writing room. One guy would do it, an hour of teevee a day, 60 pages. Two weeks later, when the writer had fled the country or shot himself, Paul Loomis, Sr., would hire another one. It was cost-effective, but the consistency of the show varied too widely and the sponsor complained.
Pilot soap leaves your hands flying free of germs. That was one line the writers didn’t have to bother coming up with, because the actors had to say it four times a show. Commercials were integrated into the narrative of the program at first, and characters would often interrupt their affairs or kidnappings or reunions with their long-lost amnesiac twins to wash their hands while chatting enthusiastically about the efficacy of their chosen soap, which was Pilot.
The Chambers family needed soap, though: they were often stabbing one another in the back, sometimes figuratively but mostly literally. The wind farm, dammit. Whoever controlled the wind farm controlled Valley Heights. But, so often, love got in the way. And then revenge would get in the way of love. But family would get in the way of revenge, and then love would get in the way of family. Everything was in everything’s way, and so there was no completion, ever, it was written into the charter: thou shalt not wrap up storylines, and so cliffs were left to hang, and bodies were never recovered, and the status quo was never too upset. Books, movies, records: these are lakes. Soap opera is a river. Doesn’t have boundaries, it has a direction.
Take a story. Remove from it the beginning, middle, and end. No beginning, you have no reason; no end, you have no consequence. What’s left? People doing things to one another.
Maybe that’s why Mr. Venable loved Yesterday’s Tomorrow’s so. Books had climaxes, and stories had structure, but the soap just flowed on forever without a whit of concern for acts or monomyths or dramatic convention or any of that fancy bullshit. The Chambers family just went round and round forever. Death was negotiable, too. If the character died, then they’d probably be back after they apologized to the producer for setting the dressing room on fire; if the actor died, that was generally more permanent, but sometimes the part would be recast and the show would plow onward as if nothing had happened.
The selfish and pretty, ooh, he loved them. Monsters, the lot of them, and always so well-dressed and their hair was so right. My God, the teeth. He loved the melodramatic revelations–“No, sister: I hired the sexual assassin! Ah-HA-haha!”–and the blatant cue card-reading. The wheezy organ playing augmented chords behind betrayal, and the cheap backdrops and suspended stuffed seagulls that stood in for the beach. Every couple years, an ingenue would appear on the show, and sex her way through the entire town, only to be cast in a Hollywood movie and skedaddle as fast as she could. One even won an Oscar; the neighborhood was very proud; she had not been back since receiving the award.
The patriarch was Vox Chambers, tall and silver-haired and rapacious in all ways. He was married to Whippoorwill Chambers, and she had murdered him four times; it never took. Their children: Hamp, Singer, and Westminster. Vox’s brother, Prance, who was always angling for those windmills. The family physician, Dr. Priest, and his randy nurse, Randee. The family bartender, Beverleen Switzer, and her sneaky barback, Snag Fort. An Airedale terrier called Jumpy. (Depending on who you believed, the show was on either its ninth or twelfth Jumpy.)
Mr. Venable cackled at it all, the double-crosses and two-timings and affairs, and especially the long-lost twins. Yesterday’s Tomorrows knew its audience, and gave the people what they wanted, and so each character on the show had at least two long-lost twins that would show up fairly regularly, and it was always accomplished with the least special of effects: obvious doubles in cheap wigs shot from behind, or a split screen where the halves didn’t quite sync up. Nothing meant anything; how lovely.
“Oh, that’s Spartacus Amethyst. She’s married to Hamp now.”
The cat, who had no name, was crouched next to Mr. Venable on the ragged, green couch. She did not understand teevee, but it was warm right next to him.
“Last week. You weren’t here. Mercenaries attacked the wedding.”
“Well, you should have been here, then. It was very exciting. Shush, commercial’s over.”
The cat’s head was oddly tiny under his fingers–he had not noticed how small and fragile the animal was before–and he stroked her head with the tips of his first two fingers, slowly and softly. Out in the bookstore with no title, there were customers and business, and on the Main Drag was the world, and in a car approaching Jeremiad Springs was the future, but Yesterday’s Tomorrows contained only a permanent present where no one ever suffered for mistakes, and cruelty could be laughed off. Where nothing ever ended, but just went round and round in living color on your teevee screen on KSOS, which is the local station in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.