There was a concert going on Back East and the Bake had settled over Little Aleppo, and it felt like the Main Drag was on fire. All the brightly-colored teenagers and blue-jeaned drug dealers and halter-topped socialites had left for the New York State mud–the teens had hitchhiked, and the dealers had driven, and the socialites had flown–and the neighborhood was half-empty like a whisper. KSOS and KHAY ran public service announcements reminding everyone that alcohol didn’t actually make you cooler; Little Aleppians countered by saying that they knew that, but alcohol did make the heat bearable. Even the ghosts were sweating, and the giant bronze hand in the Verdance was sizzling and dared anyone to touch it. Americans had walked on the moon, and were losing the war in Vietnam. It was 1969.
Tomorrow was the rain, though. It rained every 18 days in Little Aleppo, and it was Day 17 in the cycle; tomorrow would bring coolness and relief. Dogs could smell the coming weather, and so could humans with bad knees.
But that was tomorrow: now it was four o’clock and as hot as it would get. Local wags were cooking eggs on the sidewalk, and local hungry people were knocking over wags to steal their eggs. As Seen On Teevee Takata was hawking his latest gadget, Chilly Pants, which were unisex underwear with a pouch for an ice pack in the crotch. He did brisk business. (The ice would melt rapidly, leaving you just as hot as before but now you had wet genitals.) Beer Cooler Ethel had to restock a dozen times, and the cops had very little to do because everyone was too hot to commit crime. The LAFD played whack-a-mole with fire hydrants: folks would open them up, and they’d close them down, and then one would start spraying two blocks over, and on and on. The firemen started openly decking grown-ups and slapping children after a while, but locals deemed their actions understandable.
The bell to the bookstore with no title goes TINKadink when it opens, but Mr. Venable was not in his customary spot and he was not wearing his customary suit. He had dragged his desk by the bay window and directly under the creaky window-unit air conditioner.
He had a book open in his lap.
“To Kill A Mockingbird.”
“Truman Capote’s finest work.”
“Didn’t you read that in high school?”
Mr. Venable slid his glasses down the length of his twice-broken nose and looked up.
“Penny. Penny Something-Or-Other. Stacia tackled you, and I saved you. Have you come to thank me? I should be your hero.”
“I was going to thank you, but now I don’t want to. Arrabbiata.”
“It’s too hot for Italian food.”
“Are you always like this?”
“Argumentative for no reason.”
“No, not always. Just when I speak. Good God, are you barefoot, woman?”
She was. Penny Arrabbiata’s jeans were rolled up to just below her knee and her still-being-broken-in combat boots were in the red backpack slung over her shoulder. On her first night at work at Harper Observatory high atop Pulaski Peak, she had worn a pair of respectable pumps, only to be informed about the metric shit-ton of rattlesnakes and sidewinders on the mountain. She woke up early the next day–two in the afternoon is early for an astronomer–and drove her Beetle into C—–a City to the Army/Navy store for a pair of boots.
But it was too hot for boots and the thick socks she had to wear because the boots were not-quite-broken-in, so she put them in her backpack, rolled up her jeans, and walked around like the kids on campus. No one looked twice, which was something Penny was noticing about Little Aleppo. What she’d really like is a skirt–get a nice little breeze going on her asshole–but scientists wore pants and she had to be at the Observatory soon.
“It’s too hot for shoes.”
“By that thinking, it should be too hot for trousers. Take them off! Let’s all run about with our bits a-dangling because of a little spike in the temperature. What are you doing?”
Penny was intercepting the chill. She had walked over to where Mr. Venable had moved his desk, and was standing in between him and the air conditioner. Her blue checked shirt was unbuttoned, and she did not have a bra under her white ribbed tank top. She leaned over and peeled the tank away from her sticky chest and let the icy air slide down over her tits and stomach.
“Stealing your air conditioning.”
“I give you no permission to do such.”
“Duh. That’s why I said ‘stealing.’ If you were okay with it, I’d say ‘taking.’ Keep up.”
“Is this your way of thanking me for my heroics? Barefootery and theft?”
“I would not classify your actions as heroic.”
Mr. Venable was outraged by this statement.
“I’m outraged by that statement.”
“You seem outraged by almost every statement.”
“I pulled Stacia off of you. Stacia. Stacia.”
“This is a wonderful argument you’ve developed. Were you on the debate team?”
The air conditioner hummed.
“That women has fought taverns before. She broke into the zoo to wrestle Edgar.”
“A big bear?”
“A bear-sized bear. Edgar is perfectly bear-sized.”
“It was a draw.”
“Good showing for Stacia.”
“Bit embarrassing for Edgar.”
“He sulked for a month.”
“How can you tell when a bear is sulking?”
“Bears sulk the same as people: get drunk, take their high school yearbooks down, that sort of thing.”
Penny Arrabbiata rolled her eyes and walked over to the Non-Non-Fiction table in the middle of room. She began holding up books.
“Italian Crap,” Mr. Venable said.
Naked Came The Stranger.
There was a stack of Don Quixote, and she picked up a thick copy.
“That one’s not bad. Ever read it?”
“Yes,” Penny said. “Crazy man and his pet peasant wander around Andalusia causing trouble.”
“Reductive. Reductive and dubious.”
“Did you ever tell me your first name?”
“Quixote is the perfect book. Nothing in this entire shop sums up life like Quixote.”
“It’s about a lunatic and there’s no story!”
“I rest my case.”
Penny took a good look at Mr. Venable: he was not in his customary spot, but he was in his customary seat–a faded green leather chair–and she could not tell if he was tall or short, but his brown hair was messy and uncombed. Fingers like a pianist; ink stain (blue) on the knife-edge of his left palm. He was not wearing one of his customary suits because she had not bought them for him yet. Feet up on the desk, crossed.
She had seen worse.
“I actually did come in to thank you,” Penny said.
“I’m right so occasionally; I celebrate when it happens.”
“And I’m going to buy you dinner.”
And Mr. Venable wanted her to leave. Or to disappear. Either one would be fine, anything to stop the heart in his chest that just started hammering like an idiot, that was charging up hills with a lance, that was facing the invasion all by itself–WHAMPOM WHAMPOM–he could taste it, taste his heart right in his throat, and he swallowed it back down–twice for good measure–and checked in with his face: had he given himself away? Impassivity was the key when it came to the face, Mr. Venable figured. Anything else was just a shitty way to play poker.
So he hoped his face was still in the hand and said,
“Dinner. Least I could do.”
“No. The least you could do would be nothing.”
“Just to get it straight: you’re always like this?”
“Gotcha. Still: dinner. Are there any good restaurants in the neighborhood?”
“There’s the sushi place.”
“What’s it called?”
“The fondue place burned down.”
“I suppose there’s always Nero’s.”
“What kind of place is that?”
“Steaks. Seafood. Weighty cutlery. The tablecloths are made of actual cloth. Several Town Fathers have had heart attacks there while dining with their mistresses.”
“They wrap your leftovers up in tin foil made to look like a swan.”
“The rawest of elegance.”
Penny Arrabbiata held up the copy of Don Quixote she’d been riffling the pages of and said,
“Done. And I’m buying this.”
“I thought you were buying dinner.”
Penny smiled–she had a toothy smile–and put the crazy man and his pet peasant in her red backpack next to her not-yet-broken-in combat boots.
“Tomorrow night. Seven o’clock.”
“It’s going to be raining.”
“No. Definitely. It’s going to be raining.”
“And I’m going to be at Nero’s at seven. It’s my only night off for a week, so that’s all there is to it.”
“All right, then.”
And Penny Arrabbiata, who was barefoot, walked out of the bookstore with no title onto the Main Drag. The bell on the door went TINKadink, and before it had stopped dinking, a tortoiseshell cat leapt silently onto Mr. Venable’s desk. She settled in front of Mr. Venable and demanded scritchy-scratches.
He did so.
“I have a date.”
“You’re right. We should flee the country.”
“Or commit suicide. Either seems appropriate.”
The rickety air conditioner shot an unnatural breeze at the two of them. Outside, there was swelter and sweat. Men removed their shirts and women went commando under flowing skirts and dresses, and everyone was drunk from the heat and also the beer. Twelve hours from now, there would be rain; now there was just the Bake in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.