Winter slides into spring in Little Aleppo; it’s not like Back East, where the trees explode green in the course of a week and a new wardrobe is required all of a sudden. Coldest it gets–and this is deep into January and February–is the high 50’s, and the temperature gradualizes itself upwards throughout March until most days are around 70 until the end of June, when the mercury hits about 80 and stays there all summer (except for the three unbearably hot days of the Bake); reverse the process for the second half of the year. Little Aleppo’s climate was as gentle and predictable as she was not. There was no weather that would kill you quickly. Lightning, sure, but lightning kills you immediately. We’re talking about quickly. A couple minutes to an hour. Blizzards, for example. Or tornadoes or hurricanes, and the neighborhood was in the wrong hemisphere for cyclones or typhoons. There were no dust-making droughts because it rained every 18 days, and because it rained every 18 days there were a lot of trees that you could hide from the sun under so you would not exhaust, and stroke, and die.
But still spring sprung, just a bit, just subconsciously; it was a smell, some certain and prehistoric freshness. It wafted through the neighborhood and into windows while everyone was choosing their clothes. Pick the short skirt, the smell whispered; put on the sleeveless tee-shirt. And Little Aleppians did, and since it was 198-, the skirts were stretchy tube skirts and the shirts had flaking iron-on decals. Men’s shorts were tiny, and women’s hair was enormous. The Rollergirls were out in force, weaving between Toyotas and Buicks to their own headphone’d soundtracks, and quick-thieving pocketbooks and wallets out of open windows.
Everyone still had pubes.
“That’s a much better argument,” Mr. Venable said.
Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, started shimmying before Mr. Venable’s desk, an off-kilter and sexless hula. She had dyed her hair yellow–not blonde, yellow–and she was still in her Catholic schoolgirl-skirt phase. Crisp white button-down shirt open to right below her silver crucifix and goat’s head. (Gussy was a Capricorn.) She had red-white-and-blue sweatbands on her wrists; she thought they looked cute. She was wearing the boots you are imagining she was wearing. The skirt did not sway with rhythm: it jerked back and forth like curtains having a seizure. Hucka hucka hoooom–Gussy was now accompanying her dance with her human beatbox routine–WOOM wicky wicky, and then she did something with her arms that was possibly the Swim, but objectively not the Monkey.
“Why is this happening?”
“Ice cream dance,” she said without stopping.
Mr. Venable was in his customary seat, and wearing his customary suit. His feet, in shapeless brown-black loafers, were up on the table he used for a desk, and he was reading Crenshaw Walls. He wrote cheap detective novels about Los Angeles, with lots of action and sex, but there was something about the sentences, the paragraphs, the hero–Ricky King–and his secretary, Honey Cielo, and the way the plot slid forward like a sunnyside egg off a metal spatula. All the murders were about sex or land deals, and the wealthy had different laws than the skint, and the cops were brutal and to be avoided. Mr Venable closed the paperback around his index finger.
“Stop the ice cream dance.”
The shimmying continued.
“Damn you, woman.”
“Give in to that ice cream feeling. It’s cold and lickable.”
“Calling something ‘lickable’ is not an advertisement.”
“Yummy semi-frozen lactose fat.”
“Are you trying to make it sound unappetizing?”
This was from the cat, who had no name. She was a tortoiseshell who, prior to the Ice Cream Dance, had been happily asleep on that morning’s Cenotaph. The headline was the latest in a series of downers.
And even though the headline didn’t technically mean anything, everyone got the drift. The cat was all black on her belly, and above that gray-speckled; she bridged herself and for a moment was the precise shape of the St. Louis Arch, but furrier and without an elevator. Gave all assembled a dirty look, leapt off the table, padded back into the rows of books and she was gone.
“Ice cream monster.”
Now Gussy began singing.
“Ice cream song
Sing it all ice cream day long.”
“Damn you, woman.”
The bell on the door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink, and Mr. Venable slotted the key in the lock KCHACK and he and Gussy were on the Main Drag walking north.
“We are Nebuchadnezzar.”
“In what way?”
“I agree,” Gussy said, and put her arm through his as though he were a gentleman. The evening was warm and the light was diffuse, soft, flattering: everyone looked plausibly sexual. They passed the Boogie Bug, and the Meaty Boy’s Chuckwagon, and half-a-dozen storefronts that were barren with windows protected by plywood. They passed the 37-Cent Store, which sold sneezed-on fruit and defective pencils.
Right turn on Pankow Street, which is where Sternwood & Tulle was located; no one in Little Aleppo knew why an ice cream shop needed such a fancy name. They had every flavor: Genocide by Chocolate, and Inverse Strawberry, and Pralines & Opium. You could get a cup, you could get a bowl, you could get a bucket if you were a disgusting pig with enough money; toppings included gummy Teddy Kenndys, caramel pepperoni, and jimmies of varying provenance; cones made of sugar or waffle or the teenager behind the counter would wing a pancake at your face. Only teenagers can scoop ice cream.
“Do you have any money?”
“You’re fired,” Mr. Venable said.
“Do we have any money?”
“What about gold?”
“Less,” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said.
Talks To Whites spat green at a ceder tree and eyed up the Reverend. Ten inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter. The majority of Whites that Talks To Whites had met were smaller than the Pulaski, but the Reverend was particularly tiny. His neck would snap in my hands, Talks To Whites thought. He imagined himself stepping forward and embracing Busybody like a dance partner, left arm around the back. Then, with the right, swift and precise punches to the ribs going up and down the cage, shattering each in turn. This was his fault, after all, all of this.
The Pulaski had lived in the valley that would later be called Little Aleppo for dozens of generations. The village was by the lake, which was fed by three streams that descended from the seven hills. They lived in kotchas, which were shaped like teepees, but made of strips of redwood bark with grasses to plug in the holes. The communal fire burned all day and night, and there was a storehouse for drying grains and meats next to it. The women of the village fished in the lake, and the men tended to the garden, which was north of the village in an oval patch of soil where everything grew. The foothills were wooded, and so was the basin plain beneath them; game was everywhere: rabbits and turkey and deer and bear.
The hills were a natural barrier against other people’s bullshit. For years, they had protected the Pulaski against other Natives’ bullshit, and then they were too much of a hassle for the Spaniards to bring their bullshit over; when the Spaniards became Californios, they maintained the same position. There was no mission in Little Aleppo. And for a while, they even kept out the Whites’ bullshit, but the Whites always had more bullshit up their sleeves.
“We have rifles and knives,” Talks To Whites said.
“Oh, no. Stop that talk.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
Talks To Whites was leaning against an elm several hundred yards from the Pulaski’s new home to the south, in what used to be their hunting grounds. There was a clearing with a brook, but no lake. The Whites were now shitting in their lake. (The Pulaski also used to shit in the lake, but they did it more discreetly.) Kotchas were disassembled, humped a few miles, recast. The communal fire burned all day and night just as it had before. Perhaps it burned purer and more robustly, for the Pulaski were now protected not just by the Turtle Who Was And One Day Will Be Again, but by the United States government and all her armies and navies and even the banknotes.
A treaty had been signed.
The first White in the valley that would one day be called Little Aleppo was the Reverend Busybody Tyndale, who had been washed up on the Pulaski’s loamy shores by America’s storms. He was a Christian, and told people about it. The Reverend was enthusiastic in his preaching, and unencumbered by guile or a wife, so he tossed about the States: barracks in Wyoming, and whorehouses in Boston, and on trains traveling through Ohio in the middle of the night. He was from there, Ohio, a town called W——-g. It wasn’t his home. Busybody Tyndale lived in the Word, and he walked in the Gospel, and for years he followed his Bible around America shouting about Jesus.
He was in Cascabel, which is in Texas, when he lost sight of the Lord. The Whitworth girl, who was White, said that Jesse Pitcher, who was Black, had raped her. The Reverend had been preaching in town for room and board; he was rich in the Christ; the pitch was bubbling by the tree, and the town screamed vulgarity and slur, words that Busybody Tyndale did not use and did not note down in his journal. He did not also mention–not directly–that the Whites cut off his cock with a knife and laughed at his screams, then went back for the balls. It was tar, black and for roofing, and it was boiling and slopped onto Jesse’s thighs while the Mayor put the rope ’round his neck and his constituents let out a cheer, even moreso when the Mayor began cutting off toes and handing them out. The length was looped around the tree’s thick branch, and the men pulled Jesse up even as more pitch was applied. He shrieked and then his vocal chords went and he made no more noise. Busybody could see the train station from his vantage; there was a clock extending from its frontage. He noted the time. It took Jesse Pitcher 82 minutes to die. They lifted him up and dropped him down, and they cut small chunks from him and lifted him again.
The next morning, Busybody Tyndale headed Out West and did not stop until the ocean forced him to.
“What will they do?”
“Die. If we shoot them.”
“Yes. Yes, they will. But then there will be more,” Busybody said. “They’ll send the Army.”
“There is one pass in and out. We will defend it.”
Talks To Whites said nothing, just spat green and leaned a little deeper.
“What the fuck else can we do?”
“The woman who sells other women.”
“–affirmed that she would she would take care of the problem,” the Reverend said.
His black suit was more holes than suit, just ruined fabric in a coat-and-trouser formation, and his boots were caked with mud and shit from the Main Drag of the settlement that would soon be called Little Aleppo. It wasn’t a half-hour walk between the Whites and the Pulaski. Walk north from the communal fire through a mile of gentle woods, the rest was flat and grassy. You could do it in ten minutes if you were liquored up and on a horse.
Talks To Whites fished the rolled-up peregrine leaf from his mouth and flicked it away. The Reverend offered him a fresh one from his pocket. The Peruvians had coca, and the Whites had coffee, and the Africans had khat; the Pulaski had the peregrine leaf.
“Next time they come in to the village at night and someone stabs one…what then?”
“We have been promised.”
He walked away from the Reverend, south, his moccasins making no noise on the mossy ground. The Reverend looked back towards the settlement; he could see smoke rising, black and thick and boiling. He followed after Talks To Whites.
“Dolley Madison was a genius.”
“She didn’t invent ice cream,” Mr. Venable said.
“She did. In a shed out back of the White House. Then she served it to the Wright Brothers.”
“Where did you learn your history?”
“Paul Bunyan,” Gussy said.
“Go Blue Oxen.”
It was a springy evening, it was the springiest kind of evening, which is the first spring evening when the sky still has possibilities in it at seven o’clock; all the restaurants have thrown their doors open and the smells are sharper than the night before, or maybe your senses are keener
“Everyone’s a sexual pilgrim on the first day of spring.”
“In what way?”
“In some way,” Mr. Venable said, and licked his ice cream. He had mint chocolate chip. Gussy chose cookies-and-cream with rainbow sprinkles. His jacket pocket was jammed full of paper napkins.
“How long have you owned the shop?”
“Seems like forever.”
“But how long actually?”
“More than a few years.”
Gussy had been working for Mr. Venable for a little over a week, and still had not gotten a straight answer out of him. Even on the basic stuff, like what time to show up in the morning and her precise rate of pay. He had mentioned a commission system, but Gussy was certain that commission systems required writing down the transactions, whereas the cash register of the bookstore with no title was a drawer in the table Mr. Venable used as a desk. Or his coat pocket. Or pants pocket. More than once in the little over a week, he had asked her if she had change for a twenty, and–when she said yes–instructed the customer to buy the book from her. So there most likely was not a commission system in place. There was enough cash in the till, though, she figured, even if the till did not exist. The bell went TINKadink all day long: steady readers making their way through this author or that, and needful students, and collectors with their grades, and anxious parents, and weird fuckers searching for secrets.
They were still on Pankow heading west towards the Main Drag. They passed the Rookery, which was a bar frequented by small-time art dealers, and Japanese Ed’s Fish, which sold tropical fish and aquarium supplies, and Ed’s Japanese Fish, which was a sushi joint. She picked a napkin from his left jacket pocket, wiped her mouth, looked for a place to dispose of it, did not find one, kept looking; he yanked the napkin from her hand and put it in his right jacket pocket. Gussy smiled, and so did Mr. Venable, and then there was a man with a knife blocking their path.
“Money. Your money. Come on.”
“You’re joking,” Mr. Venable said.
“We’re in public, dude,” Gussy added.
She was right. Pedestrians streamed by on both sides, pretending not to see what was happening. Little Aleppians were Olympians when it came to pretending not to see things.
The man waved the knife, which was large, about. His clothes were dirty, but not filthy, and his eyes were glazed. It had taken a couple to talk himself into it.
And then a sound like OOFOO from the man, whose white sneakers were untied, as he collapsed to the ground. Mr. Venable and Gussy hitched up: they were about to run in the opposite direction, because they were from Little Aleppo and in Little Aleppo there is no shame in running in the opposite direction from a man with a knife. It is, in fact, the recommended course of action; your friends and family will question you if you do anything but. They were held in place by the sight of a massive figure piledriving the would-be mugger into the sidewalk. Had he come from the roof? The roof was five stories up.
Now the figure–in black, hooded–beat the mugger; learned kicks and punches designed to cripple and maim.
“Is he wearing a cape?”
“He is, yes,” Mr. Venable said.
There is no blood on the paving stones, as all the injuries were internal. The mugger was not getting up, not for months, and the figure–a man by silhouette–stood up far too straight and nodded at Mr. Venable and Gussy.
“You’re welcome,” he growled.
There was a device in his hand, relatively gun-shaped, that he aimed skywards and FSHWANG a hook attached to cabling shot out, and then the figure disappeared into the new spring night.
“That was new,” Gussy said.
“I’m sure it won’t be a huge deal.”
They stepped over the mugger, whose legs and face were broken, and enjoyed their ice cream as they turned south on the Main Drag. Spring was springing all over the place in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.