It was Monday morning in Little Aleppo, and the Frankie Nickels Show was on the air.
“If the Pacific Ocean was the size of a football field, the Hawaiian Islands would be the size of home plate. I’m mixing my sports up, I know, but you can picture it. Awful small out there in all that blue. Nothing around it, neither. Thousands of miles in all directions: nothing but water. Easy to get there now! They’ll even feed you on the plane. Or you could take a cruise in comfort and luxury.
“That’s recent, cats and kittens. So many things are recent.
“It’s the last settled place, Hawaii. When you think we set foot? Not white folks. You always know when white folks show up somewhere, cuz they write it down. Not talking about white folks, I’m talking about Homo sapiens. When you think it happened? Twenty thousand years ago? Ten?
“1200 AD. Roundabout there, anyway. There were Crusades going on, and a fellow named Marco was playing polo. There’s a bridge in Greece, in Mycanae, called the Arkadiko. There’s someone walking over that bridge right now, and it was built two millennia before Hawaii got settled. Rome rose and fell, and there were birds on those islands, and Christianity conquered all it saw, and there were trees on those islands, and Mohammad rode his army to Mecca, and the tide lapped at the beaches, and the age became dark, and there was no fire that was not accidental.
“And then the sound of a canoe crunching up onto the sand.
“And that sound was the difference between the thing that was, and the thing that is. Man had entered the forest. Began to build, plant, cultivate. Re-routed the damn streams. Ain’t that just like us? Got to Hawaii–Hawaii!–and the first damn thing we did was start changing everything. That’s humanity in a coconut shell right there, cats and kittens. Anybody gives you that noble savage crap, smack ’em right in the suck. Ain’t a human alive who ain’t a tree-chopping son of a bitch.
“Home plate. Size of home plate on a football field. How’d they find it? Didn’t just happen upon it in the middle of the night, did they? Some Norwegian jackass thought they did. Rafts. He said they took rafts from South America and floated out by the caprices of the currents.
“That sound right to you?
“Sounded right to a lot of people. Theory was that the Polynesians weren’t smart enough to figure out navigation. How could they be? No compass. No sextant. Couldn’t tell you latitude from longitude. Not to mention the incontrovertible fact that these Polynesians had never even heard of Jesus. How smart could they be if they hadn’t heard of Jesus?
“Smart enough to know the stars. Smart enough to know the swells. Smart enough to know that it’s easier to remember a song than a speech, so the navigators would sing their way from island to island. They were smart enough to pay attention.
“Paying attention is all being smart is.
“That’s the distal question, cats and kittens. How. How is for engineers. How boring ‘how’ is. The proximal question is what we concern ourselves with here on KHAY–Hey!–this Monday morning. And that question is: Why? Now, those engineers will tell you that Pacific immigration was generally due to population constraints. The land you’re standing on has a carrying capacity. Exceed it, and you’re in trouble. For any given square acreage, only so many folks are gonna eat. That’s what the engineers will tell you. And, it makes sense.
“People don’t make sense, do they? Not all the time, and certainly not when the horizon is calling them. That horizon seems to have our direct line, don’t it? Horizon’ll get in your head and start bouncing around.
“I think it was the navigators. Forget food, forget population, forget it all: I think it was the navigators.
“They were a guild, you see. Just like in Europe, just like the white folks and their civilization. Navigators, brought up in the tradition and schooled out on that open water: they used the apprentice system, too. Convergent evolution in action, and all them navigators from all those islands in all that water knew each other. A guild brings like-minded people together.
“You ever know like-minded people not to compete?
“Let’s go farther. You went here? I went there. Rope a couple dozen people into your status game, and now you got a breeding population. Pack some livestock and seeds in the canoe, and now you got a settlement. If you can find the damn island. A navigator finds islands. I thought you said you were a navigator.
“Home plate on a football field. Man who finds that is a man, indeed.
“Humanity settled the world via pissing contest, cats and kittens.”
“You’ll need to be more specific,” Mr. Venable said.
Mr. Venable was in his customary seat in the bookstore with no title, in his customary suit, and he swiveled his chair around to face the bookshelves behind his desk. He removed a copy of Spengler’s Decline Of The West and reached into the socket that was left. Catnip in a slippery plastic bag, greasy with advertisements, and he shook it once twice and the cat, who had no name, stared. Pupils went from linear to orbital in a heartbeat, purring, whiskers flicking. She was a tortoiseshell, and she was on the desk.
“Yes, plep. You’ve mentioned.”
He sprinkled a dimebag’s worth of ‘nip on Dickens. Bleak House. It was originally serialized, and though Mr. Venable had read enough history to not romanticize any bit of the past, he felt a small bit of jealousy towards those who got to experience the story the way it was meant to be told. A little bit at a time: you would pass by the newsstand and there it was–perhaps you had forgotten from the previous month–and then you could dive back into the story that had been rattling around since the last time you sat at the campfire. A little bit at a time, Mr. Venable thought. That’s how life happens, doesn’t it? After everything is over, you slap a grand narrative on it, but mostly life just happens a little bit at a time.
So why shouldn’t stories do the same?
The cat who lived in the bookstore with no title did not know anything about Charles Dickens, nor could she tell you the first thing about Victorian London. She was an uneducated cat. Cheeks through the catnip, muzzle smack into the pile of dull green specklings. Then a backwards step. Another. Still. Step. And down on her side on the table, legs stiffened and splayed out in front of her, and staring at nothing but heavenly mouses and intradimensional sunbeams.
“Oh, don’t give me that. We all had rough childhoods.”
When the cat was high, she had very little recourse to scritchy-scratchces, and so Mr. Venable gave her scritchy-scratches. If you asked the cat, she would not admit to purring, but she was.
The door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink and man stooped under the jamb to enter the shop. Black suit, black, shirt, black tie. Barefoot and bald and pale. Stood in front of Mr. Venable, who said,
“No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
“I do not need service. I need a book,” the tall man said.
“Can’t really argue with that.”
“And I am wearing a shirt. I am entitled to half-service.”
“I don’t think that’s how that works.”
“And a tie. I have a tie on. A tie should count for the same as shoes.”
“It’s not a point-based system.”
“What about pants?”
“What about them?”
“You specifically require shirts and shoes, but make no mention of pants.”
“Pants are implied,” Mr. Venable said.
“Your clothing rules are a tort waiting to happen.”
“Can I point you towards a book that is far away from me?”
The tall man’s ears were flat against his skull like they were repulsed by the world.
Mr. Venable stroked the cat’s forehead with his thumb, and took a sip of coffee.
“Magic, magick, or magik?”
“You said the same word three times.”
“I most certainly did not. Check the spelling.”
The tall man shifted his weight from one bare foot to the other.
“Tuxedos, tantra, or Trianon the Ravenous? Are you entertaining children, impressing a hippie girlfriend, or trying to summon things?”
Mr. Venable swiveled towards the bookshelf behind him again and removed another book. Minor Acts and Their Amplifications by Fontaine Grondis. A baggie, greasy but with no advertisements: fogged and creased plastic with dull green flecks of plant matter inside. He took a pinch with his thumb and pinky, the middle three fingers extended, and then he sprinkled it onto the table in front of him making a barrier in between him and the tall man. Then he set the baggie aside and took a sip of coffee.
The tall man smiled. He had too many teeth.
“The middle aisle. All the way down. If you hit the wall, you’ve gone too far. Turn left and walk to the annex. There, you’ll see an Aborigine with a bull-roarer. Run. If you want to remain in this reality, run. Get in the elevator and press the button marked Θ. Get off the elevator. It’s broken. Stairs are a better option. The second sub-basement from the right is the one you want. When you get there, turn left. You’ll come to a fork. Please pick it up and bring it back to me. I’ve been eating nothing but soup for days. Fifteenth row, seventh aisle. Can’t miss it.”
“Virtually a straight shot,” the tall man said.
“Mm. Take care around the preetas.”
“Would you care to define that word?’
“No,” Mr. Venable said.
“The service here is terrible.”
“You’re not wearing shoes.”
The tall man disappeared into the back of the bookstore with no title, and Mr. Venable poked the green specks into an evener line on his desk, got back to his Dickens. A good story. A well-observed location. Someone to root for, someone to boo. Lady Dedlock and Inspector Bucket. Mr. Venable always liked stories where the characters had silly names. Why would you write about Doug Collins? Or Jane Anything? Names had a kind of magic in them, Mr. Venable thought, and glanced back towards the stacks and idly wondered if the tall man would ever reappear.
Amateur, he thought. Thinks I don’t recognize him.
Mr. Venable crossed his left leg over his right and took a sip of his no-longer warm coffee and he was in England, London to be precise, and there wills being contested and Victoria was in charge. Monday morning was assaulting the Main Drag: there were casualties on the sidewalk and in the offices and shops, sleepy-eyed cranks relying on muscle memory to make it to Tuesday afternoon–this is the longest period of the week, Monday morning to Tuesday afternoon–and the week stretched ahead like a forced marathon. There would be intrigue and boredom, and digression, fucking, and self-sabotage. All that human shit. Death, too. Mr. Venable had never met a story that was any good where someone important didn’t die. Someone you weren’t expecting. He knew how the story ended, but he liked the sentences and so he gave the cat, who had no name, scritchy-scratches while he drank his coffee in the bookstore with no title, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.