Harper College was quieter in August of 1969 than it had been the previous year. In 1968, the students had remained on campus to fight one another in the name of international brotherhood. There were riots and protests and barricades were erected. No one tried to get over the barricades, mostly because the LAPD (No, Not That One) hadn’t taken the bait and were ignoring the school entirely. The leaders of the students’ organization, needing an enemy to rally the troops against, tried setting the Tyndale Pagoda on fire and picking a fight with the firemen and holy shit did that not go well.
Failing to secure an outside force, the leaders shored up their base. Stacey Siegel was stocky and had an afro like a great chocolate lollipop; he bullshitted well and had the best pot connection on campus, so he was a natural leader. He’d give you whatever rap he sized you up as receptive to: Communism, Buddhism, Rothschilds, whatever. The other guys did the intellectual heavy lifting; Stacey did a great Nixon impression and got laid a lot. Natural leader.
The students had radicalized just like at the other schools that tempestuous year, shattering into sects and schisming further every week or so. Harper Students Against The War broke down into Harper Students Against This Particular War and Harper Students Against Any War Whatsoever. The Militant Feminists were fighting with the Slightly Less Militant Feminists. There was a small but vocal group called Fuck Water Fountains, and no one liked them because they weren’t taking 1968 seriously.
Stacey Siegel led them all to the small, neat Victorian house tucked up in the northwest corner of the campus. Three steps up to the porch which had two mismatched cloth-upholstered chairs on either side of the door. The siding was dark green, and the shingles and shutters were darker green. The roof had two gabled windows on the second floor that led to Carter Spants and Molly McGlory-Spants’ bedroom, and a room that was supposed to be a child’s bedroom four times; it was now an office.
All of the student leaders had been pumping up their constituents all day, and a local band played in between speeches on the Quad, and the kids were drunk and high and had been promised a revolution. Several books, many albums, and Rolling Stone magazine had promised them a revolution, but they were stuck in a weird, semi-accredited college in the part of town people actively avoided. The kids were antsy, and so Stacey Siegel led them to the Victorian house where Dean Spants had lived since Harper College was founded, and Dr. McGlory-Spants had lived since three weeks after that.
(Carter was in his 30’s and Molly was his assistant and an undergraduate student at the time, but it was 1934 and that sort of nonsense was appropriate. Also, Molly had twelve brothers who were vicious criminals and they didn’t have any problem with it.)
The sun was setting and the mob was at their door. Carter had been trying to teach himself hieroglyphics for months, and Molly was reading an article trying and failing to make the case that Ezra Pound was secretly an Indonesian woman named Gladys.
“Mob’s here, Dr. McGlory-Spants.”
“Were we expecting them, Dean Spants?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“We don’t have enough wine. The mob will think us the rudest hosts.”
Carter Spants laid his book aside and rose. As he had been relaxing after a long day of scholarship and administration, he had unbuttoned his vest and loosened his tie. He fixed this oversight, and drew himself up to his full 6’3″ and opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed it and removed his reading glasses and slid them in the breast pocket of his tweed coat. Then he looked over the mob and said,
And the mob said,
“HELLO, DEAN SPANTS!”
“Have you brought your pitchforks and torches?”
The mob had neither. There were no farms around, so pitchforks were scarce; a sophomore had tried to make a torch, but he just pulled the leg off a chair and wrapped the end in a towel and a couple people got hurt when the flaming towel unraveled.
“Who is in charge, then?”
“I am,” Stacey Siegel answered, stepping forward.
“Mr. Siegel?” Dean Spants looked out at the rest of the students. “Him? Really?”
The mob laughed, and Stacey could feel his hold on them wavering so he yelled,
“We’re occupying the campus!”
“You’ve been occupying the campus. You live here.”
“Not like that!”
“We’re declaring the campus a free state.”
“Ah. Yes. Have you read the school charter, Mr. Siegel?’
The mob answered,
“THE SCHOOL CHARTER!”
Dean Spants smiled at his kids. He thought about pulling out his pipe, but decided it was a bit much. Always underplay to a mob.
Stacey Siegel was slouching. He said,
Dean Spants lifted his great patrician skull and looked over his nose at the mob like they were third graders.
“Who can help Mr. Siegel? Anyone? Put your hand down, Miss Packwith; let someone else have a turn.”
The mob tittered, and there may have been note-passing. Many hands were raised. Several students made sounds like “ooh, ooh” quietly.
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Why didn’t you go before you joined the mob?”
“I didn’t have to go then,” he said.
Angel Singh ran off towards the Quad.
“No running!” the dean called after him.
Angel Singh downshifted to a fast trot.
“The Harper College charter gives the school massive exemptions from federal, state, local, and physical laws. That’s why none of the buildings have fire escapes and gravity doesn’t work right in the gym. The campus is to Little Aleppo like what Vatican City is to Rome, kinda. And it’s held up in court a million times. You can’t turn Harper College into a free zone because it already is a free zone,” Joey the Spaz said, and fell into a bush.
“Excellent work, Joseph. Help Joseph out of the bush, please.”
“Capital. So, Mr. Siegel. What is it that you’re doing?”
Stacey Siegel punted.
“We’re staying here all summer and protesting Nixon’s war?”
“That sounds fine. In your dorm rooms?”
“You’re staying in your rooms? All of you?”
The mob had not thought this through.
“I suppose,” Stacey Siegel answered.
“Hardly the Communards’ last stand, is it?”
The mob was expecting a swift rebuke, but had run into patient sarcasm and their collective energy was dissipating.
“Oh, wait. No. No, the occcupation won’t do at all,” Dean Spants puffed. “Won’t be any food in the summer. Cafeteria staff is laid off.”
Stacey saw his moment. A tiny pushback he could magnify into a war for the righteousness of humanity.
“Then we will open a food co-op right on the quad, and everyone will work and all food will be free!”
The mob cheered him on, and Molly McGlory-Spants came to the railing of the porch. She asked,
“Mr. Siegel, will there be a farmer’s market?”
A voice from within the mob cried out,
“There’s nothing like a good farmer’s market!”
And the mob cheered, because that was true.
“There could probably be a farmer’s market,” Stacey said.
“Then I’m in,” she said, turning to Carter. “I vote for the occupation.”
“That settles it,” he announced. “Occupation approved. You shall strike a powerful blow against the man by remaining where you live and setting up a farmer’s market.”
“FUCK WATER FOUNTAINS!” a dozen students yelled in unison.
“I agree,” the dean lifted his voice and said. “Unhygienic and awkward. All that bending over. So! That ought about cover it. All right, then. Good night, mob!”
And the mob said,
“Good night, Dean Spants.”
But the summer of 1969 was quieter than the previous year, especially August. Most of the students had gone east for a concert, hitchhiking or pooling funds for an ancient bus quickly painted in the fashion of the day. Several of the more accomplished students in the Chemistry department had bought new cars to drive to the concert, and Dean Spants made a mental note to inspect the labs; it could wait until tomorrow when it wasn’t raining.
It rained every 18 days in Little Aleppo: you could set your calendar by it. Nowadays, there are all sorts of scientific notions about the downpours’ regularity, but in 1969 the leading belief was that it was the Communists’ fault. 1917 was the Russian Revolution, a popular theory that originated in the Morning Tavern went, and therefore 1918 was the first full year of the Soviet Union. 1918, 18 days? It’s obvious, man. Bastards are fucking with us. We need to worry about the Symbolism Gap.
Regardless of cause, it had been 18 days since the last rain and it was pissing down. It was August and so the sun set very late, but the Main Drag had been dark for hours except for the bright white seconds of lightning that shot from the low clouds. Mr. Venable was standing inside the door of the bookstore with no title with his hand on the knob and fear in his heart. He had a date. The shop had many basements and annexes, he thought: he could hide in one. Possibly forever.
He looked back at his desk. A tortoiseshell cat was sitting on it. The cat had no name, and said,
“Well said. I shall return. Or maybe not: this woman might murder me.”
“True, true. I might murder her. Future’s yet to be written.”
Mr. Venable twisted the knob and the bell attached to the door went TINKadink, and once he was on the other side he opened his black umbrella and locked the door. The tortoiseshell leapt to the chair to the floor and then batted off into the dark coolness of the bookstore with no title to commit murder, no “might” about it.
Nero’s was the only classy establishment in town. There were two dining rooms and a bar and a tank with lobsters in it. The staff wore bright white button-down shirts, and carried thick leather flip-pads, and would not sell you drugs at the table. It was the only restaurant in the neighborhood that trusted their customers with steak knives. There were fees for sharing, and for corkage. It was a classy establishment. It was not, though, fancy. Little Aleppians appreciated fancy as it puttered by as a float in a parade, or installed in an art museum. Fancy parties were a hoot, but parties only last one night. Fancy doesn’t have staying power; it is by its nature novel. Deconstruction? Tasting menus? Fancy. But a well-cooked piece of fish with some art on the wall and a white tablecloth? That’s classy, and it’s eternal.
Penny Arrabbiata woke up at four in the afternoon, and then she sat on her couch for a while deciding between a shower and suicide. There was also coffee involved. She had taken a first-floor apartment on Bransauer Avenue. It was unfinished, so Penny drove her baby-blue ’69 VW Beetle through Christy Canyon and into C—-a City to the Furniture Metropolis. She had heard their ads on the radio, and she walked through the warehouse pointing at things; she sent the bill to her father.
A date. With whoever the hell this man was. Who he was–she reminded herself–was the only person in the neighborhood she’d talked to since she’d been here that didn’t work at Harper Observatory. The only man, certainly. Penny’s mother fully expected her to be married by the end of her first year at college, and then she hoped so her second year, and by the third was openly questioning Penny’s sexuality at family functions. Penny’s mom called her a lesbian so many times that she talked her into it. Maybe she’s right, Penny thought, and so she got drunk on gin and fucked her friend Brenda. It went poorly. Penny was straight.
She just had work to do. The stars came out at night, and so she worked at night. All the men she’d met were awake during the day, which she couldn’t fault them for, but they all seemed personally aggrieved that she was not. Every relationship the same: dinner dinner dinner, hump hump hump, and then the talk.
“You stay up all night every night? This isn’t just a…temporary…thing with you?”
And Penny would know it was over. She liked the humping, though. And the dinner.
There would be no suicide. She would shower.
Nero’s was on the Upside, and the lunch crowd was from the Valentine Courthouse and Town Hall. Lawyers and politicians and bagmen ate a club sandwich on deep-fried rye bread called a Fiddler and bribed one another. Occasionally, the corruption would achieve critical mass and a feeding frenzy would begin and everyone would start bribing everyone. It was blind and random and bloody and it was democracy in action.
Dinner at Nero’s was for celebrations. Birthdays and anniversaries and the funerals of rich, but hated, relatives. Promotion at work, or successful art heist. It was a special occasion kind of place. First date kind of place.
“I hate this place,” Penny said.
“It’s every sort of dreadful, isn’t it?”
“Every sort? Every?”
“Every,” Mr. Venable said.
A two waiters steered a cart topped with a huge metal press to a table in the middle of the dining room where an older man sat with a younger woman. Two waitresses joined the waiters, and the four sang the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. Then, they stuffed a dead duck into the press. Still had its beak. Crushed into a smooth poultry-gravy. The pulp was plated and served, with toast points and a fruity Pinot Noir.
“Okay, every,” Penny said.
“It’s like a dominance ritual over the animal kingdom.”
“I like eating duck and that’s fucked up.”
“If you pay them enough, they’ll chuck a chicken in a food processor for you.”
Penny laughed, and drained her second gin and tonic. The drinks had had no noticeable effect on her. Mr. Venable was having red wine, as he thought gin and tonic tasted like greasy sunshine. He did not drink often and his face had become noticeably full of blood.
The rain pounded on the windows like a spurned lover.
“Do you know who your wondrous Observatory is named after?”
“A guy named Harper,” Penny said.
“Mm. Full name Harper T. Harper. Late in his life, he became a philanthropist.”
“What was he early in his life?”
“A capitalist,” Mr Venable said.
“Funny how those professions always seem to be in that order.”
“Funny. Mr. Harper was a good capitalist, too.”
“And where did he practice his economic beliefs?”
“The Congo Free State.”
Penny had hair down past her shoulders, brown going on black, and she brushed it from her eyes. She sipped her drink and said,
“I think I read a book about that place.”
“Mr. Harper dealt in rubber, and Mr. Harper dealt in hands.”
“Is there a market for hands?”
The waiter set Penny’s third gin and tonic in front of her.
“That’s the thing about capitalists: if there isn’t a market, then they’ll create one.”
“Native hands, one would assume,” Penny said.
“The very nativest.”
“The business of America is business, Mr. Venable.”
“And still the sun comes up in the morning,” he said while raising his half-filled glass.
A Town Father was in the corner eating veal with his niece; his underage mistress, a friend of his niece’s, was also there. The sommelier and the guy with the pepper shaker were eyefucking each other across the dining room. There were no incursions into the lobster tank, and the air conditioners rattled mighty and strong.
“Yeah, speaking of which. Why is it so hot?”
“People keep saying this to me like it means something,” Penny said.
“Three days a summer. Hotter than the sun with a fever.”
“Which three days?”
“It is a stochastic process.”
“That’s just a fancy word for random.”
“There you go. The Bake occurs sometime between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Beyond that, no one can say for sure until it happens.”
Penny Arrabbiata was wearing a red and orange dress–the colors alternated in stripes–and her white clutch was set on the table next to her unused plate. She opened it and took out a Lucky Strike, which was unfiltered. Set it between her lips, lipstick staining the thin paper, and raised her eyes to Mr. Venable.
He looked back.
“Are you waiting for a light? I don’t have a light. You’re the one who smokes.”
She rolled her eyes and dug in her purse for her matches.
“Can I get one?”
Penny gave him a smoke, and lit a match. It sounded like FfffPOP and she lit her Lucky Strike PHWOO and then his PHWOO and shook out the match and placed it in the glass ashtray with the logo of a Roman man in a toga playing the violin, and they stared each other down until Mr. Venable started coughing just a little bit.
“Smooth,” he said.
“It’s the soothing tobacco for today’s frenzied world.”
“They go well with drinks, though.”
The waiter brought Mr. Venable another glass of wine even though he had not asked for one, which is the definition of service.
“Very rare, you know.”
“The Bake lining up with the rains. Very rare.”
“It rains every 18 days here.”
“Like a clock’s work.”
“And the Bake is a random three-day period during the summer?”
“Mm-hm. Very rare.”
Penny took a drag off her Lucky Strike PHWOO and said,
“No. Around one out of six.”
“I’m sure not.”
“I’m literally a scientist.”
“There’s 91 days in the summer, correct?”
“91.25, but okay. And the number of days doesn’t matter.”
“And three days in the Bake.”
“Okay,” Penny said.
“So on every day there is a 3/91 chance of the Bake occurring.”
“Who taught you math?”
“We then divide this by the number of rains during the summer.”
“This gives us an almost infinitesimal probability of the Bake and the rains happening simultaneously. On paper.”
“In reality, how often does it happen?”
“Every six years or so.”
“Which the math says is completely impossible.”
“So, when the math and reality countermand each other, you go with the math?”
“One needs an anchor in a fluid world,” Mr. Venable said, and gulped down half of his wine, and that was the moment Penny Arrabbiata decided to fuck him. She didn’t know why. Something about his chin, maybe. Penny had a semi-detached relationship with her sex drive: it told her what to do and she didn’t ask questions. The lighting was generous, and he needed a haircut. The waiters brought more drinks, and eventually food, and then more drinks; the two stumbled into each other on purpose and by accident on the way to her first floor apartment on Bransauer Avenue. She kissed him before they went in–none of that “come in for coffee” bullshit for Penny Arrabbiata–and her shoes were by the door, and her dress was in the living room, and her underwear was at the foot of the bed.
When the sun came up, the Bake was done with and so was the rain: another temperate and sunny day. Back East, there was a concert in a field and a man came out at dawn to play guitar and wear headbands, but on Bransauer Avenue there was a man kept awake all night by a women used to staying up all night, and though he complained he did not mind losing the sleep in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.