The bookworms had recently chewed through Sun Tzu, so they were far more strategic than usual. They were the yellow of sickness, the yellow of the outer edges of a cheap paperback’s pages, and striped through with black like cancerous boogers; segmented, and one end had triangular teeth arranged in an asshole-like mouth that evolution had made perfect to eat paragraphs and devour sentences. Eyeless, because bookworms didn’t need sight-vision is the last sense to be trusted around a book–and they left a trail behind them of dryness like reverse-snails.
If you wanted to own a magical bookstore, then you were going to have to deal with bookworms.
Mr. Venable was in his customary suit; it was black-ish and used to be pinstriped, and bought for him a long time ago by someone who loved him very much. His shirt was oxblood, and he did not wear a tie. His lace-up shoes had never been shined, and he needed a haircut and a shave. Mr. Venable was in his customary spot: leaning back in the green leather chair behind an overflowing desk to the left of the door to the bookstore with no title. His fingers were tented in front of his chest like a Bond villain, and his eyes were not focused somewhere in the middle distance.
“Flamethrowers are out. It’s a bookstore. The building is made of wood, and its contents are made of paper. A flamethrower would provide a Pyrrhic victory at best.”
There was a tortoiseshell cat on his desk. Black on her belly, and gray-and-black splotches and spots on her back and head. If she were a calico, then she would have some white mixed in, but she was a tortoiseshell and so was just gray and black. Her tail made a question mark to the left, and then to the right. The cat had no name, or at least none that she would tell Mr. Venable. He had asked a million times, but cats are good with secrets. The cat with no name did not belong to him: she belonged to the bookstore with no title.
Of course, he often thought, so did he.
They were equal partners.
“Poison would do the trick. I’ve been blunt so far. Poison is a subtle ally.”
“Well, yes. So far. But there must be something that kills them. I’ve tried self-help books and the Twilight novels. Nothing. Nothing at all. They just grow fatter.”
“Oh, I shan’t feed them Norman Mailer. I want to kill them, not torture them.”
The cat rolled onto her back and batted the air several times, then spread her legs far and looked up at Mr. Venable like she wanted her belly rubbed. He smiled.
“I know this trick.”
She had to give it to him: it was absolutely a trick; she was gonna claw his wrist something fierce. A good office relationship is based on mutual respect.
The door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, rushed in and before the door had even closed she said,
“It’s not good.”
“How not good?”
“They’ve taken the elevator.”
“The elevator is broken,” Gussy said.
“And that’s why it’s not good. If the elevator worked, it would be bad.”
“There’s such a thing as choosing your words too carefully.”
“Balderdash. Language is a scalpel.”
When Mr. Venable said things like that, Gussy ignored him.
The front room of the bookstore with no title had a high ceiling, and there were two overflowing tables labeled Non-Fiction and Non-Non-Fiction. Biographies of Teddy Roosevelt, and books about shooting elephants by Teddy Roosevelt; memoirs from actors who could no longer get work acting; books about wars from long ago, and countries that no longer existed; and cookbooks from famously skinny women. Funny novels that lasted for 300 pages, and space operas that went on for 1400 pages without one joke at all; men writing about their dicks, and women writing about their families; experimental works that waggled their assholes at you and dared you to figure them out.
And Don Quixote. Mr. Venable rotated the stock on the Non-Non-Fiction table often, but there was always a stack of Don Quixote in whichever translation was currently annoying him the least. It was the most perfectly human book ever written, he thought. Messy and repetitive and aware of its own shortcomings. An insane man in a boring world, or a sane man in a lunatic’s paradise: Quixote was up to you to decipher. The novel doubled back on itself, and flagged its own lies, and told the same stories again and again but different and better each time, and memory was equated to madness.
And it didn’t have a plot. Books should be about people, Mr. Venable believed, and people do not have plots. Movies have plots. People? People don’t have plots. Things happen to people, and they react.
The coffee machine was on a small table by the bay window, and Gussy poured herself a cup. Sugar and…where’s the milk? No milk? Oh, what the fuck.
“I ran out of milk and haven’t been to the store.”
Gussy sprinkled the foul chemicals in her mug that read HARPER OBSERVATORY: WHERE THE STARS SHINE and stirred with a pencil. The coffee streaked but did not lighten.
“I’m as unhappy about it as you are.”
“Milk is literally next door.”
There was a bodega with a dairy selection literally next door to the bookstore with no title. Mr. Venable avoided Gussy’s eye and said,
“It’s a long story.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
As far as Gussy could tell, Mr. Venable had no friends in Little Aleppo. Just varying antagonisms.
“One of these days, you need to get your shit together,” she said.
He smiled around his coffee and said,
“That’s my favorite translation of the Lord’s Prayer.”
Gussy squinched her eyes in annoyed confusion, and then remembered that she would almost certainly have a conversation just as irritating with her sound system later that day, and she just closed her eyes entirely.
Gussy owns The Tahitian, Little Aleppo’s grand movie theater; she raised it from the dead all by herself. Her father David O. Incandescente-Ponui left her a robbed grave. The container was almost all that remained, and what was still present was torn and shattered and stained with bodily fluids. All the bones were not gone; in the balcony, there were the thumbless skeletons of a fat man and a bald man.
“This is your birthright, Gussy.”
Her father had actually said that to her. The Tahitian was teetering on the edge of disrepute at that point: it was not yet a fuck house for lonely masturbators, and criminals hiding from the police, and police hiding from their sergeants, but the theater was no longer the palace it had been. Decades had gone by since the orchestra of live musicians (and one dead trumpet player, but that’s another story entirely) and years since the grand machine of an organ rose and lowered from within the stage in front of the screen.
The Tahitian was showing that space movie. The one with the farm boy and the asthmatic and the guns that went PYEW PYEW. Gussy saw it eleven times, and after one showing her father actually said that to her; he didn’t really mean the theater, he meant the cash flow, but she didn’t know that.
First, David O. Incandescente-Ponui increased the cost of a ticket, and then the snacks. After raising prices, he cut costs. The Coca-Cola fountains were replaced by Arbitrary Cola, which tasted as if it were made by people who had read about soda but never drank one themselves. The bulbs in the projectors were bought second-hand, and so showed weak and pale images. Coin-operated latches were installed in the women’s bathroom. He fired all the ushers.
By the time the sequel to that space movie Gussy saw eleven times came out, The Tahitian was no longer showing first-runs. And by the time the sequel to the sequel came out, The Tahitian was showing porn and kung fu movies. Shortly after that, the theater closed. And shortly after that, the ushers that David O. Incandescente-Ponui had fired stabbed him in broad daylight on the Main Drag.
No charges were ever filed.
Gussy went to the funeral in Foole’s Yard. Had her father been a monster, she would not have, but her father was not a monster, just an asshole, and so she gave a begrudging eulogy that was mostly about herself and shoveled a scoop of dirt onto his casket and never once went back to visit his grave. She was still in high school and hated herself for her gladness. But she was. She could stay home for college. She was going to go the East Coast to get away from him, but he was dead now and so she could stay in Little Aleppo and go to Harper College. She went to therapists to deal with the guilt for years, but stopped after a while. Some things, Gussy realized, were best to just try not to think about. If one couldn’t resist, there was alcohol.
Wills are read in Little Aleppo. The family gathers in the lawyer’s office in their blackest clothing and tries to outmourn each other. Her mother and brothers got the money. She got The Tahitian. Her mother and brothers bolted from the lawyer’s office to meet (respectively) their lover, drug dealer, and bookie. The lawyer was balding, and offered her a drink even though she was still in high school. She turned him down. The lawyer tried to grab her tit. She turned him down, and walked up the Main Drag about a mile to The Tahitian. The marquee jutted out over the sidewalk like a Roman nose and there were still black letters against the dingy white background: DEBBY FUCKS EVERYTHING THAT MOVES. In addition to attempting to molest her, the lawyer had also given Gussy the key.
The coffin was open in the funeral home, backstage. Gussy knew it was not called backstage, but she did not know the proper name of the room so she called it backstage. The director had opened it for the family, and she was the only one in there. Her mother and her brothers professed to love him, but they did not go backstage to see him; she had openly hated him and shoved him once with both hands in his chest. Her father was gray and in a box, and she was in a black dress that went to her mid-calf and covered her arms. Gussy took a twenty out of her purse, and slipped it in the inner pocket of her father’s suit jacket. Tried to remember the Lord’s Prayer but couldn’t. Went back in her purse and pulled out a ten. Put that in his pocket, and took the twenty back.
Walking into The Tahitian, she wanted the ten back, too. The popcorn machine had been sold, and the snack counter stolen: there were discolored indentations in the red-and-yellow carpet where they had been, and the chandelier shaped like an upside-down palm tree was gone, too. Just a chain swinging from the high ceiling in the lobby. The seats had been ripped up, or ripped out entirely, and the screen was sliced through right down the middle. The place smelled like stale cigarettes and dirty dicks.
It was dark in the auditorium, and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy and was still in high school and had just buried her father, stepped in a mound of human shit.
She begged and tricked her mother and brothers into ponying up to seal the theater off. Halt the rot, she figured. She could not sell The Tahitian, even though she now owned it. The Broadside Newsstand runs along the southern wall of the building on Gower Avenue, and Omar who runs it has some sort of lien or easement or right-of-way. Some legal bullshit. Several lawyers had explained it to Gussy, some of whom had not tried to grab her tit, but she didn’t quite understand any of it beyond “you can’t sell.” Gussy had been bequeathed shit; even worse, she had been bequeathed shit that she could not unload to a shit purveyor.
But roses grow from shit.
The Tahitian lived again, eventually. It took work and money and maybe a blowjob or two–all good things take work and money and maybe a blowjob or two–but she lived again and so could tell the same stories she used to tell, once more. With feeling. Different and better each time.
“Where are they?”
“The majority are in sub-basement 12,” Mr. Venable said.
“What about the minority?”
“They might be right behind us.”
“When else is there?”
The cat, who had no name, spread her four legs again and begged someone to stick their hand where she could slice at it.
Gussy did not work for Mr. Venable any more, but still had his back. Sometimes people adopt each other.
“We need swords,” she said.
“We need moving swords,” he answered.
“Doable,” Mr. Venable said, and stood up. Behind him were bookshelves, and The Revelation of the Intrinsic by Mahdi Zaman was on the fourth shelf. He clicked it back towards him, and the shelf revealed itself as a door. He smiled the smile of someone who was about to chainsaw his enemies straight through, and so did Gussy. Infestations needed to be put down, and there was no law against having fun while doing it. At least there wasn’t in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.