Meet me out at the Rumble Strip. Everybody’s gonna be there Saturday night. Junky Steve and Funky Eve and Last Chance Angel, they’re all gonna be there in their uniforms. White tee-shirts and blue, blue jeans and canvas Converse sneakers; everyone’s off work and that 3:00 bell rung down at the high school and the Mother Mary paying little to no attention. The kids made their own luck down on the Rumble Strip.
There was lightning down there, always, from the sky or from muscle. Black Cat Katie dropped a red bandana she bought at a gas station. She stood on those double lines. Parallel and yellow and shooting off into heaven or Philadelphia or at least somewhere the cops didn’t know about. Or maybe somewhere the cops were all waiting. Never could tell with a road. Could go either way.
Your cousin was there, and that guy from work–Wayne, could be–and those old men whose names everyone knew but didn’t say out loud. Grease monkey trios and boys in pairs and kids in crazy hats. Flashbulb fantasies and magazine promises all up the sidewalk that had chunks missing from it. It wasn’t the part of town that got its sidewalks fixed.
Angelina had a thing for promises, and Carlos looked over his shoulder.
Those kids from the next town over. The town with the houses all got two-car garages. Up a bit, not at sea-level like the Rumble Strip. They knew who they were, and they knew you knew it, too. They’d ride down and park hard, they’d park aggressive, come and get us.
And Last Chance Angel said to Junky Steve,
“They got engines made of money. They got time by the throat.”
And Junky Steve said,
Which is the only proper response when the kids from the next town over ride down and park aggressive.
“Why am I being poked!?”
“Why are you asleep?”
“The tyranny of flesh,” Mr. Venable said. “Whereas you are poking me by choice!”
When she was sure he was awake, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy) straightened up and straightened the skirt of her dull red dress with her hands and said,
“Listening to Springsteen again?”
“Was I talking in my sleep?”
“You were,” Gussy said.
Mr. Venable yawned and stretched and looked around for the cat.
“The man is the Joyce of New Jersey, Gussy.”
Gussy fell in love a lot. Men, women. She had noticed, however, that relationships with women rarely if ever contained the Springsteen Conversation. Every boyfriend Gussy had ever had felt the need to explain Bruce Springsteen to her, ofttimes with extensive sourcing from the albums, and sometimes with pictorial evidence. And she just didn’t get it. She just didn’t get him. Maybe it was because she was a West Coast girl. Maybe she had the wrong blood type. She had tried! She had gone to see him, twice, and all she could hear was denim-coated grunting. Ah, fuck: is that asshole gonna play that fucking saxophone? Ah, shit: that asshole’s playing that fucking saxophone. And is this the beat? Up down up down? You couldn’t dance to it. Shit, you definitely couldn’t fuck to it. Well, Gussy thought, you could fuck to it, but you couldn’t cum to it. At least she couldn’t.
“How did you get back here?”
“Same way you did.”
Gussy had, five minutes previous, entered the bookstore with no title using the key she had never given back after she stopped working there–the bell on the door went TINKadink–and not found Mr. Venable in his customary spot. She walked behind the clutter he called, alternately, “my desk” and “my prison” and reached up to the shelf just slightly above her eye level and pulled on The Revelation of the Intrinsic by Mahdi Zaman until there was a KUH-CLIK and the entire panel swung out to reveal an office with a raggedy green couch, a white portable teevee set, and a Mr. Venable in his customary suit, which was faded but used to be black with thin gray pinstripes.
KSOS was playing a rerun of that show where the white people went to an island and had their wishes granted by foreigners of varying sizes.
“I will never understand what you see in that soap opera.”
“Yesterday’s Tomorrows is not a soap opera. It’s art. Valley Heights is as well imagined as Joyce’s Dublin.”
“Why do you keep talking about Joyce?”
“I just woke up. Only the most obvious references are available to me.”
Mr. Venable swung his legs off the couch and put his feet back in his unshined loafers; turned the set off TOCK and combed his hair with his hands. Behind the teevee was his office, which was not infinite but might be mistaken for infinite in poor lighting. It was the only room Gussy had ever been in with interior flying buttresses. Place gave her the creeps, honestly. Years ago, she had asked Mr. Venable if he had built the office.
“Build an office? I can’t even type.”
It was hours before she realized he had not answered the question.
Mr. Venable held the secret door open for her and waved outwardly.
“Get. Out. Go.”
She did, and he followed, spinning on his worn heel to KUH-CLIK the panel back into its spot where it fit so seamlessly that no one would know it was a door, and then he wandered to the sticky table by the bay window in the front of the shop with the coffee fixings.
“Yes, please,” Gussy said.
Mr. Venable filled a mug that read HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE and then walked back to his desk and took his customary seat. Gussy pursed her lips and made herself a cup.
“Why are you here?”
Gussy leaned against the desk and took a sip of terrible coffee.
“What do you know about the Jack of Instance?”
“She’ll beat you if she’s able.”
“That’s the Queen of Diamonds.”
“Ah. Oh! He’s born to lose, and gambling’s for fools.”
“Ace of Spades.”
“Yes. Yes, you’re right. Hold on a second.”
He rummaged inside of his jacket and pulled out a Six of Clubs.
“Is this your card?”
Gussy had a fantastic sense of humor, and an all-encompassing one: she liked dirty jokes and corny ones and clever ones and dumb ones. She once peed herself–just a bit–at a friend of her doing a particularly silly voice. She had slept with some of the worst human beings because they made her laugh; it was her weakness. Gussy was easy and generous with her laughs in almost every situation.
She didn’t even smile.
“Why did you have that in your pocket?”
“I put it there after the fourth person came in asking about the Jack of Instance. Been doing that bit all day.”
“Has anyone enjoyed it?”
Gussy walked into the middle of the room so she wouldn’t be close enough to punch him.
“Who’s come in?”
“Who hasn’t? Our large fire chief, our handsome police chief, two of the Town Fathers, that hideous reporter from the Cenotaph who smells like a million ashtrays, several helpful citizens, and a gaggle of youths wearing the most outlandish trousers.”
She sipped her coffee and said,
“Well, at least everyone’s on the case.”
He sipped his and said,
“Mm. Or wanted to be seen walking down the Main Drag with the right book under their arm.”
“Didn’t ask for bags, huh?”
“The youths did. But the adults whose salaries you and I pay did not.”
“This fucking neighborhood.”
“Don’t blame the neighborhood. Blame your neighbors.”
Gussy laughed–just a bit–and set her mug down on the nearer of the two book-laded tables in the middle of the room.
“What’d they buy?”
“What I told them to. An Introduction to Cartomancy by Gilles Vernon. It’s like one of those Complete Idiot’s Guides to the tarot. Pictures and everything.”
She crossed her arms and said,
Mr. Venable knew that tone of voice: a woman was angry with him. Or impatient. Perhaps disgusted; it was negativity aimed his way, he knew that.
“Where are the books you didn’t tell them to buy?”
Ah, impatience. Best one could hope for, really. He waved his arm towards the general vicinity of the back of the shop.
“In there somewhere.”
And now there was different tone of voice.
“I have helped you rob Town Hall on four separate occasions. Get off your ass and show me where the books on the Jack of Instance are.”
Mr Venable had been steadily liberating Little Aleppo’s archives from Town Hall into the bookstore with no title. You couldn’t leave the past in care of politicians; they did a bad enough job with the present. The original charter and all 23 volumes of the legal code and the very first surveying done by White men. Land titles going back to the day the concept of land ownership was introduced to the valley between the Segovian Hills and the harbor. Minutes from a century’s worth of Town Fathers’ meetings (the unredacted versions) and a folder full of grainy photos of dead squatch on the Main Drag. Safer here than there, he thought. What if there were a coup? Governments had coups, it was known to happen, although not often to semi-incorporated neighborhoods in America, but it was known to happen. What would happen if the Bolsheviks took Town Hall? Surely, they’d shred all of history and declare it Year One: that was just what Bolsheviks did. However, Mr. Venable reasoned, there had never been a coup at a bookstore. Therefore, the neighborhood’s archives were safer here. Quod erat demonstrandum.
But she was right. And wrong.
“You helped me rob Town Hall five times,” he said, standing up and resettling his suit coat on his shoulders.
The ceiling is high and the walls have books packed along them and there are two free-standing shelves that run perpendicular to the front door and back into a misty far-off; these created three rows and Mr, Venable and Gussy took the one on the left until the hit the dogleg into the annex, which was both vast and cluttered simultaneously–the psychology department at Harper College had determined it was the only room in the neighborhood capable of engendering both agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time–past the Romance section and the Crime section; where they met, the Sex Detectives series spanned two shelves with their bright-red covers. Gussy had read a few, and wondered if the Sex Detectives had hunted down the G-Spot yet.
The elevator was broken, and also a trap, and also a metaphor. Always take the stairs at the bookstore with no title.
The deeper they went, the cooler it became. Gussy’s dark blue dress had no sleeves; Mr. Venable saw her shiver out of the corner of his eye and handed her his suit coat. Gussy put it on and tried to put her hands in the outer pockets, but they were still sewn closed.
“You never cut these pockets open?”
“Ruins the line.”
“You have to comb your hair before you can worry about your silhouette.”
He snorted and they descended another flight.
“How far down does the shop go?”
“As far as it needs to, and not a sub-basement further.”
“No, further. Most of the sub-basements are conceptual.”
They came to a large wooden door with no markings on it, and Mr. Venable rapped a Bo Diddley beat onto it with the palm of his hand. Then WHAP WHAP WHAP. Paused. WHAPWHAP. Paused for two beats. WHAPWHAP WHAP. Paused again. WHAP. Paused once more and looked back at Gussy with a shitty smile.
“Did you think there was a magick knock for the door?”
“You’re such a dick.”
“Maybe an immortal knight tasked to guard the contents of the room would open it and challenge me to a duel?”
The handle was a brass pull-bar, and so he pulled the bar and a rush of stale air that smelled like peppermints hit them.
“What is that smell?”
“Massed punctuation,” he answered. “That’s the aroma of too many commas in the same location. We must be vigilant.”
Gussy rubbed the bridge of her nose as Mr. Venable entered the sub-basement. She considered habeas corpus: no one would ever find his body down here. She could bludgeon him with a dictionary. Stab him in the eyeball with a pair of reading glasses. Surely, there was a suitably ironic death she could arrange. Or just set the whole shop on fire. She had a lighter. It was a building made of wood and filled with paper; after the gas station and the dirigible-rental place, the bookstore must be the most flammable establishment in the neighborhood. Set a fire. So easy and so simple and so final. Wait, she thought. Am I the Jack of Instance?
No. That would be a terrible twist.
The door was slowly closing and Mr. Venable called through it,
“Please stay with me if you don’t wish to be verbed!”
She blinked herself back into the present and went through the doorway and said,
“Eaten, disintegrated, chronally displaced, selected against your will for the Farnian Trials, spaghettified, so on. Something active. A verb shall happen to you. You’d be verbed.”
“You can’t do that to the English language.”
“I can do whatever I want,” he called back as he disappeared into the shelves. “I own the place.”
There should not have been so much light in the sub-basement, and there really shouldn’t have been so much sunlight. Gussy could feel the Vitamin D being produced; it was like being at the beach, and she took off Mr. Venable’s suit coat and draped it over her bare arm which was now toasty-hot from the bright and cheerful illumination. A row of tables transected the room. Open books and scattered papers on their tops. Mismatched wooden chairs. Shelves to the left and right of the tables. She could not see the ceiling.
She looked around. That was not Mr. Venable’s voice, nor would he ever make that sound.
“Who is speaking?”
“I wasn’t speaking. I went ‘psst.’ It’s a vocalization, if anything.”
The voice was coming from a book sitting on the table by the door. It was the size of a spare tire, but more rectangular. It was trembling.
“I’m not talking to a book.”
“Cool. Totally cool. I get where you’re coming from. This is not a normal situation for you. I get it. I just need you to do one thing.”
The massive cover THWOMPED open onto the table, revealing pages that were not made of paper.
“Read me out loud.”
“Just a couple lines.”
“It’s never just a couple lines,” Gussy said.
“That was a cocaine joke.”
“Very funny. Very funny. Man, you’re smart.”
“I know what you’re doing.”
The book began hopping up and down on the table.
“READ ME OUT LOUD, BITCH!”
“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME, MOTHERFUCKER?”
She advanced towards the rude volume, which was now getting serious air in its leaps, until Mr. Venable stepped out of the stacks and SLAMMED a chair down on it upside down. He turned towards Gussy and cocked an eyebrow. Mr. Venable could cock his eyebrow at a graduate level.
“Were you going to fight a book, Gussy?”
“He started it.”
He motioned back towards where he had emerged, and Gussy led the way.
“What was that thing, anyway?”
“You’ve heard of the Necronomicon?”
“Imagine it had a cousin from Florida.”
Straight, he said, and then he told her to take a left and then a right. Another right. Four more rights, and then straight for a bit more, and then right twice more and just one more right.
“We’re just wandering around,” Gussy said.
“No. We’re divining a path.”
“How is that different from being lost?”
“It’s far more portentous.”
She stopped, and after a few paces he did, too, and turned to face her. Books towered on either side of them, every color in the rainbow and several that were only available to premium subscribers.
“Why are you so cavalier about this?”
“I am not cavalier in the slightest about the fires. I wish them to cease and for the culprit to be snatched up by the authorities. But I am quite certain that the answer to said fires is not one of a mystical nature. None of this spooky nonsense has any bearing at all anything. I think some sad and broken loser heard a cool name and it stuck in his sad, broken, loser brain.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets.
“And so do you. You never believed in any of this.”
Gussy put a hand on the shelf next to her and leaned, and then a book said, “Excuse me,” and she took her hand off the shelf and looked at Mr. Venable and said,
“I’ll believe in anything I need to if it’ll keep The Tahitian from burning down.”
There was quiet for a moment, and then Mr. Venable walked towards Gussy and she said,
And he said,
And he hugged her, which he had never done before. She hugged him back, which was also a first.
“It’s just some loser, Gussy.”
“I know. I know. But it might not be.”
Mr. Venable rolled his eyes, and turned around and started walking down the aisle. She followed.
“I have a question.”
“Are you not worried about the shop? The guy trying to burn it down? This place is flammable as fuck.”
He stopped and faced her. Recocked his eyebrow.
“Pity the man who tries to set a magickal bookstore on fire.”
And now it was Gussy’s turn to roll her eyes. They walked for a bit and she said,
“We’re walking in circles.”
“What’s your point?”
On the bottom shelf to Gussy’s left was a tortoiseshell cat, black and gray with no white at all, and her tail flicked back and forth in a tight pattern across the spine of a book. Mr. Venable bent down, administered scritchy-scratches to the cat, who had no name, and withdrew the leather-backed volume. The Jack of Instance: A Hermetic Psychography by Antonin Gebellin.
“Found it,” he said.
“What do I owe you?”
“With the ex-employee discount?”
“Lunch. I’m famished.”
Mr. Venable handed her the book, and retrieved his suit coat from where it was still draped over her arm. Put it on, combed his hair with his hands, and set off back the way they’d come. Gussy followed, skimming through the pages as she went, and the cat was close behind watching for mice and rats and anything else that might be alive in one of the sub-basements, of which there were more than several, in the bookstore with no title in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.