During a cold snap several winters ago, Bell Lake froze over. Just a skin of ice on the surface: not all the way through, not enough to support a person, but enough so that the swans could stand on it. They toodled out, three pairs of them, and examined their redecorated home; they did not like it. Few animals are equipped to walk confidently on ice; least of all swans. They danced against their wills, skinny legs splayed and wings flapping, hissing in fury; so enraged that they forgot that they could fly away. Being animal lovers, Little Aleppians gathered, but knowing these particular swans, the neighborhood made no effort whatsoever to aid the birds. Several in the crowd had beak-shaped scars on their calves. There may have been jeering. The swans made careful note of faces.
It was warm tonight, though, and Mr. Venable had removed his suit jacket and draped it over his left arm as he walked north on the Main Drag with Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy. She had stopped for an ice cream: sugar cone, soft-serve vanilla/chocolate, swirling six inches above her now-sticky hand. It was the most casual anyone had ever been right before breaking into a government building.
Gussy thrust the cone towards Mr. Venable.
“If I wanted one, I would have gotten one.”
“Liiiiiiiick,” she said, waving the ice cream in his face. The long, tapered pyramid almost toppled over, but Gussy moved her arm under the fall.
“You’ve gone from taking this too seriously to not taking it seriously enough,” he said.
“We’re walking through the front door. You said it yourself.”
“But still: a bit of propriety.”
“Propriety? Pro-PRI-ety? You have, sir, removed your coat in the presence of a lady.”
“You’re no lady,” he said, smirking.
“It’s warm out. I took off my coat.”
Gussy was joking, but then she realized that she had seen Mr. Venable out of his coat perhaps three times in all the years she’d known him. Three times? Maybe just twice. She stopped short on the sidewalk.
“Jesus Christ, we’re all gonna die.”
He pulled up short, and looked at the sky. Mr Venable kept God in his sky so he could blame Him for things.
“It’s not symbolism, Gussy.”
“It’s a sign, is what it is! Let’s get out of town.”
“It’s not a sign, you daft woman! I was warm! If I were barefoot, it would be symbolic. Or flowers or something. You don’t take a coat off when you’re dead; the undertaker puts one on you.”
Gussy weighed this information. He may have been right.
“You may be right.”
But she figured there was no point in tempting fate.
“But there’s no point in tempting fate. Put the jacket back on.”
“I am warm, you daffy thicko!”
“PUT THE JACKET ON!”
Pedestrians nearby pretended not to look, but they all did.
Mr. Venable made a mental note to wonder why all the women in his life felt so comfortable in yelling at him. For now, he put his suit coat back on. He had several suits, all the same black with faded pinstripes. Someone who loved him had bought them for him years ago; the jacket’s lining was silk and the same dark red as his shirts.
They walked north again, side by side, and did not speak until they did again.
“We’re at an important part in the story,” Gussy said quietly. “It could tip either way. Good guy could win, bad guy could take it. We need to be careful with our subtext.”
“You never know. We might just be tasked with advancing the plot, Gus.”
And then they were in front of Town Hall. It was almost midnight.
Time for KSOS’ late movie, presented by Little Aleppo’s favorite Horror Host, Draculette. The film–and that’s using the word loosely–was called The Cousin Of Frankenstein, and it was about evil gremlins eating everyone at a Quinceañera. The insomniacs, the regretful, the drinkers, all the unhappy and awake: they’d get five minutes of movie, and then five minutes of commercials, and then five minutes of Draculette from midnight to three in the morning. After that, the National Anthem would play and they would be on their own.
Draculette had eight-inch heels, completely unwalkable, and the strappy laces wrapped around her milk-white ankle three times. The dress was actually quite long–down to her mid-calf–but there was a slit up the front, and she swept one half of the skirt over her thigh, double-checking in the monitor that the draping fell right and just enough leg–but not too much!–was on display. She lay on her side on her purple-upholstered faux-Edwardian couch, and this jutted her hip out to the point of satire: Draculette was not curvy, but bulbous. She erupted from herself in heaves and blossoms except for where she didn’t: her waist was cinched tight by a hidden corset sewn into the dress, her stomach flat as a Kansas highway.
And above the stomach were the tits. Draculette did not have boobs or breasts, but tits. Boobs are for teenagers, and breasts are for doctors; tits are for teevee, and Draculette was a teevee star. Her dress had a massive V cut out of the front that started at the bottom of her sternum and radiated outwards in both directions up towards her jutting clavicles; the shanks of the dress had bolsters and grippy fabric that gathered and pushed and cajoled every ounce of excess flesh into that frontward-facing V. The makeup–cat’s eye mascara and heavy on the foundation; lipstick redder than Lenin–went on after the dress, and finally the wig. Long as a whip, black.
Under all that was a woman named Tiresias Richardson, who was both still-hungover and newly-drunk at the same time; she wasn’t aware that was possible, but here she was.
The current drunkenness wasn’t her fault, she thought. You try putting together a 24-hour teevee show with no budget; you’d need a drink, too. She had been in her dressing room with Big-Dicked Sheila since seven o’clock working the phones and lying to the semi-talented. She needed acts, something, anything, just fill up the corkboard oh God the corkboard–The Board–in the corner of the room only half-full of index cards: too much brown and not enough white 24 motherfucking hours and, yes, it was for sick children and sick children are very sad and need money but JESUS FUCKING CHRIST 24 fucking hours of teevee and sitting there in the goddamned prison of a dress we need to fill the board feed the board feed the board The Board, and you know what? You’d need a drink, too.
The hangover, though, was entirely her fault. When strangers give you pills, Tirry, you don’t have to take them, she reminded herself.
Sheila was on the couch. Tiresias was on the floor. Sheila had a list on a legal pad, and Tiresias had her sweatshirt over her face.
“Martin the Squeamish confirmed,” Sheila said.
“Martin the Squeamish.”
“What does he do?”
“He gets grossed out by everything.”
“That’s not an act. How is that an act?”
“He juggles while he gags.”
“He can do seven minutes,” Sheila said.
“He can do three hours, see what I care.”
“Great. Putzy Glick.”
“Fine,” Tiresias said. She probably would have agreed to let Idi Amin on the show at this point if he could fill ten minutes. Anything to get Sheila to stop talking.
“Wilbur Hampton and his Fascinating Nipples.”
Okay, maybe not anything.
“Tirry, you have to see them. They really are fascinating.”
“In what possible way?”
Tiresias pulled the sweatshirt down, uncovering one eye and casting it towards Sheila.
“I wouldn’t lie about nipples. You have to see them.”
Tiresias re-covered her eye.
“Book the nipples,” she said.
“Gonna be the highlight of the show. Mark my words.”
Tiresias did not think she fell asleep, but she did–just for a minute–and she woke up with a POP! that came from the couch. She pulled the sweatshirt back down.
“Oh, sweetie. Red?”
“I was in the mood.”
“But I need a straw.”
Sheila smiled, and pulled two paper-wrapped straws from her bag. Poured herself one, Tiresias one; they sat in sober silence taking short, sharp sips. The evening became easier.
At midnight, Tiresias went away and Draculette took over: crammed into a costume, and slathered in makeup, and rolled down the hall in a stolen wheelchair, and propped up on a smelly couch, Draculette laughed her nighttime laugh and made the homes in Little Aleppo a little less lonesome just for a moment. She had no idea what she was doing; she was making it up as she went, and the situation might have been killing her, but people seemed to like it. And people seemed to laugh at her jokes.
And Hollywood was not calling.
Moving the 100-inch telescope at the Harper Observatory was a quieter process than such an enormous procedure usually produces. The entire cupola rotates, and the ‘scope–a cannon filled with glass and mirrors–pitches up and down according to the computer’s dictates; there is a thrum of generators and a whir and shoooosh, but no CLANGCLANGCLANG you might expect from such large machinery, and if you are more than fifty feet outside the building you can hear nothing at all. Especially not if you’re in a bulldozer.
Officer Romeo Rodriguez, who had been murdered several months prior, was in a bulldozer. When he was a cop he had a mission, but he wasn’t a cop any more. He had no fucking idea what a ghost was supposed to do, but he was presently a ghost. He had no idea what he was doing; he was making it up as he went. Romeo did know how to drive the bulldozer; several trees and a bench had been destroyed in his education, but he finally got a handle on the thing. He held onto that small piece of competence like a rosary bead; he had taken to sitting in the cab when he wanted to think.
Harper Observatory belonged to Little Aleppo, he thought. But, he countered himself, the land had been bought fair and square. BUT, he rebutted, Pulaski Peak had obviously been meant to be purchased and given to the neighborhood in perpetuity. YET, he offered in response, the judge had ruled. It was a loophole and a technicality! The law is the law!
But slavery was the law, he figured, and he felt bad immediately for thinking that–can’t quite compare a land dispute to human bondage–but it proved that there was a category: unjust laws. Just because something was legal didn’t make it right. In boot camp, his drill instructor had lectured the battalion about a just order and an unjust one, and when a Marine could refuse an order. Gunnery Sergeant Puschke was tall, and he had a haircut you could slice bread with; if you tried to do an impression of his guttural voice, you would start coughing within a sentence.
“Here’s the deal: you’re fucked either way, so might as well do the right thing,” Gunny Puschke told them.
And that struck Romeo Rodriguez as sound thinking.
There was an owl 40 feet up one of the Peregrine trees in the stand to the east. It went WHO!
“Venable’s not here, man,” came Omar’s voice from behind the front door of Town Hall.
Mr. Venable’s nostrils flared and he stamped his mouth shut, eyes wide, and he walked away from the door several feet. Gussy was aghast and amused.
“He started it,” Mr. Venable muttered.
“Omar, open the door.”
“Is that my Gussy?”
The door flew open, and a small man in a hideous sweater and a knitted kufi stood there with his arms open.
“Omar,” Gussy said, and hugged him.
Next to Omar was a large dog.
“Argus,” Gussy said, and hugged the dog. She would never touch any other seeing-eye dog, but Argus took it personally if you didn’t say hi.
Mr. Venable squeezed by all the hugging into the lobby of Town Hall.
Mr. Venable and Gussy walked down to the basement, where all the records that Mr. Venable has not yet stolen are kept. Birth certificates; death certificates; ransom notes, notarized and in triplicate; several shelves of plans, re: the turtlemonsters’ inevitable return; construction permits, receipts for the bribes to get the construction permits; meteorological records; draft papers; pictures of weird-looking babies; incunabula; palimpsests; an illuminated monograph focusing on a flower called the Kicking Bird Lily; foreclosures; evictions; a rib bone from the whale that beached itself on the second floor of the freshman dorm at Harper College; mineral surveys; back copies of The Cenotaph; marriage licenses; divorce decrees; blueprints to every building in the neighborhood; bills of sale for every animal in the zoo.
And train schedules, and tax returns.
“Proof of life, Gussy. Everything that’s ever happened in Little Aleppo: here is it.”
“Awesome. Why don’t you sing about it?” she said and wandered away, down the stacks and into the darkness. Mr. Venable called after her.
“Do you even know what you’re looking for?”
“Do you?” she called back.
She had an excellent point, so he pretended not to hear her and began examining the books and collections and stacks all around him. Ghosts wandered the aisles, and Mr. Venable could see several Midnight Librarians on the other side of the room, by the EXIT sign; he nodded at them. Tomas Valenzuela. Tomas Valenzuela. Where are you hiding, Tomas Valenzuela?
He was not in the property records, and he was not in the draft notices, and he paid no tax, and he had–
–opened no businesses except that pet store–
–that tipped Mr. Venable off to the name, and he–
Gussy was all the way across the dark basement. She yelled out:
“What’s a Chinaman Count?”
“I’m looking at a book. It’s, like, this official-looking ledger. It’s called the Chinaman Count.”
“The Town Fathers used to count the Chinese people.”
“So they knew how many there were, I suppose.”
“I understand how counting works. I meant why would they count Chinese people?”
“I don’t know. Nothing positive, one would presume.”
The basement was quiet for a moment.
“Is he in there?”
“Tomas Valenzuela? I don’t think he’s included in the Chinaman Count.”
“Did you check?”
“There aren’t even any V names whatsoever.”
“Well, now we know for sure. Research must be diligent, or it’s just reading.”
Gussy gave him the finger.
“Are you giving me the finger?”
A birth certificate, finally, from 19–. Mr. Venable found it i the first folio he looked in, the cover went SHWAMP opening onto the table and inside were the records; they were pale blue and typed with the occasional X-ing out, and they had the raised seal of Little Aleppo in the corner: two swans fighting over a piece of gold in front of a mountain. From that, school enrollment; Mr. Venable found the elementary records, and then two years of high school. Then, nothing. He wasn’t drafted, he didn’t die. No sign of him anywhere.
Gussy had fallen asleep on the Chinaman Count. He shook her shoulder, and she looked up, bleary.
“For a moment. Then I lost him.”
Gussy stretched out her shoulders and stood up. Mr. Venable was still not wearing his jacket, and his hair looked thin and pathetic; he could not meet Gussy’s eyes, She reached out and put her fingertips on his elbow.
“We’ll figure something out.”
“Yeah. You want an ice cream?”
“I do, actually. I would very much like an ice cream. But it’s five in the morning.”
“Then do you want a drink?”
“Do you want several drinks?”
The two of them trudged out of the basement, and up the stairs, and down the checkerboard-tiled main corridor of Town Hall. When they got to the front door, Omar and Argus were waiting there. From halfway down the hall, Mr. Venable called out.
“Omar, you know who Tomas Valenzuela is?”
“Tommy Amici’s real name.”
Gussy stopped short, but Mr. Venable grabbed her by the elbow and forced her along. She was about to say something, and loudly, when he put a warning finger up to her mouth.
“Why?” Omar asked.
“Yes. Why you asking that? Weird question.”
“Someone at the bookstore told me that was his real name, and I didn’t believe him.”
“Yeah. Changed his name, got famous. Embarrassed of where he’s from. Mister Big Shot. Punk kid.”
They had reached the door, and Mr. Venable was still threatening Gussy with his finger and facial expression.
“Well, now I know,” he said.
Gussy gave Omar a hug, and Argus a scritchy-scratch under his chin. His tail went thumpthumpthump on the checkerboard-tile floor, and the two of them, a man in his customary suit and a woman in a white dress with a blue stripe around the skirt, walked out of Town Hall. Down the veined and cloudy marble steps and past the scraggly forsythia on either side of the path out to the sidewalk, where they turned left.
“Little boys,” Gussy said.
“It would have killed you to let Omar know he helped?”
“Yes, it might. Good chance.”
“Little boys,” Gussy said.
The moon had dipped below the buildings, leaving only the boldest stars. The sun would be up soon, bully that it was, and there was no city noise and there was no human noise and there were no cars; there was the whiffling of the wind rushing down the Segovian Hills and BLAAAT BLAAAT from the horned toads that no one ever saw but everyone always heard.
“Still want that drink?”
Mr. Venable was walking with a spring, and his hair looked thicker; he had put his coat back on.
“Still want several drinks?”
The Morning Tavern had just opened, and Tiresias and Sheila were at the bar; the Poet Laureate was at a table alone, and soon Mr. Venable and Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, would be there. They walked south on the Main Drag for a little bit, and then turned west onto Widow Street; they could hear the bar before they could see it, which is how it works with good bars, even at five in the morning in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America