Little Aleppo has survived many disasters, even the ones it did not cause. Earthquakes, fires, that time the trees got drunk. In the morning, everyone grabbed brooms and unspooled hoses and shot looters; life went on even when it limped. In ’03, there was a drought, and the land turned silty and fine enough that when the rains came in April there was nothing to hold the ground to the Segovian Hills and an avalanche of earth came crushing into town. The worst wounds were always self-inflicted. Mother Nature can break your back, but only a brother’s actions can break your heart. Sometimes it seemed that the only use Little Aleppo had for hearts was their destruction, like wooden boards at a karate class.
There was every scam known to man, plus several imported from Felicidae IV, Throneworld to the Felis Empire. Several got out of hand and started multiplying exponentially until everyone in town was broke, as Little Aleppians see being scammed not as a loss of money, but as a gain in knowledge, and immediately rush out to pull the newly-learned con on friends and neighbors. The whole town lost their shirts in a Ponzi scheme, and then everyone lost their leather jackets in a Fonzi scheme. There was Three-Card Monty Hall, in which not only did you have to guess where the queen was, but you also had to be wearing a clown suit and have an egg in your purse. Plus, one of the cards might have a goat under it. No one really understood the rules.
In the middle of Little Aleppo is the Verdance, and in the middle of the Verdance is Bell Lake, and both of them have been sold more times than can be counted. At least once a week, the police haul away a rich, dumb foreigner screaming, “Vat you mean ‘park?’ I buy! Is mine!” and the cops try their hardest not to laugh.
Little Aleppo was also given to sabotage its own economy from time to time: the neighborhood has seen more bubbles than the judge at a Beverly Sills impersonator’s contest. Gold, silver, roses, professional wrestler’s trading cards, really tender pot roasts. Everyone would be rich (on paper) for a month, and then some jackass would set his price too high to find a buyer, and everyone would realize at the exact same time that they should have gotten out yesterday. In 1985, a fifth-grader won Lyndon LaRouche Elementary’s science fair by proving, mathematically, how economic bubbles could be avoided. The neighborhood responded by buying up clever fifth-graders, which of course led to an economic bubble.
One financial catastrophe of late can be traced back a hundred years to Gussy Incandescente-Ponui’s drunken dunce of a brother, Todd. As you’ll recall, The Tahitian began as a nickelodeon that charged nine cents for two tickets; generally, the fee was paid with a dime and the change returned was a coin out the ton of counterfeit pennies that Todd had won in a whist game. This made ten percent of Gussy’s income untraceable, but you could certainly find the house she bought with the money.
(Gussy never got a good answer to the question “How much whist do you have to play to win a ton of anything, let alone fake money?” This may be because there is no good answer to that question.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to The Tahitian: the collector’s market. An article in an influential national magazine by an important writer about the theater’s history–and about Gussy’s scam–was read by millions, and that original batch of Todd’s fake pennies became valuable overnight.
“Guess what happened next,” Mr. Venable said to the teenager standing at his desk. The boy’s hair was close-cropped, and he had a pair of headphones the size of dinner plates around his neck; his sneakers were bulbous.
“What?” His name was Julio Montez and he was scared of adults. Mostly his parents, but all the other grown-ups, too. And he was scared of calculus and driving and being in the apartment by himself and water he couldn’t see the bottom of, and also cows. Just something about their eyes that creeped Julio out.
“Guess. What. Happened. Next.” Mr. Venable enjoyed being mean to teenagers, because Mr. Venable did not like teenagers. They were sticky, and smelled like yearning.
“A scholar. So: the collector’s market goes wild for Gussy’s–well, Todd’s–counterfeit pennies, what with their historical significance or whatnot. Within days, half the neighborhood had purchased–well, procured–home smelters and were counterfeiting the counterfeit pennies. Thus began the counterfeit counterfeit penny bubble. Concurrently, there was a home smelter bubble.”
“None of that sounds good.”
“No, no. Especially when word of the scam got out.”
“And that was the end?”
“You’d think. But–and I had no idea, either–there is apparently a large collector’s market for paraphernalia used in con jobs, and the value of the counterfeit counterfeit pennies soared. Now can you guess what happened next, young man?”
“Counterfeit counterfeit counterfeit pennies.”
“Not as dumb as you look. Yes. And, let us remember, the price of home smelting equipment has risen to a price no longer tethered to reality. And on a Tuesday afternoon, some bright-eyed junior analyst at the Bank of Little Aleppo got an idea: why not invest in home smelters using the counterfeit counterfeit counterfeit pennies? The crash occurred ninety minutes later.”
“He was thinking outside the box, I guess.”
“Yes, but the box he was outside of was the one containing all the good ideas. Certain boxes should be rummaged through.”
“How bad was it?” Julio asked.
“Horrendous. The financial underpinnings of society itself shattered, like a mango frozen in nitrogen and thrown at a nurse. The Town Fathers pleaded with Washington for help. Gerald Ford came to town so he could personally tell us to go fuck ourselves.”
“People didn’t take it well. He was pelted with pennies of varying origin. Couple folks threw home smelters at him; it was an ugly day all around.”
“And then what happened?”
“Life went on. It does that. Blame was assessed. Someone was at fault.”
“The general consensus was ‘someone else.’ And lessons were learned.”
“Same lesson Little Aleppo always learns: next time will be different.”
Mr. Venable took a sip of his coffee, which had gone cold. He blamed the boy.
“Why are you here?”
“Oh. Um. Do you have the Cliff No–”
The bell attached to the door of the bookstore with no title went TINKadink and Julio Montez walked out onto the Main Drag empty-handed and ears ringing, but not so much that he didn’t put his mammoth headphones on, and turn his music up real loud, and make believe that he was the singer. He was in a good mood, and there are few things in this world more unbreakable than the good mood of a teenage boy with a date that evening.
It’s different for girls. Romy Schott was not in a good mood. Unlike Julio, she was not afraid of calculus in the slightest: it was just a bunch of rules. Do this first, and then that second, and then you find the derivative. That was the class they met in–pre-calc, actually–at Paul Bunyan High School (go Blue Oxen!) and though Romy didn’t care much about the subject of math, she did care deeply about her grade in math, and she blamed the 78 she had received on the last test on Julio. More specifically, his nose.
She sat to the right and back of him, her last name coming after his, and though Romy was a conscientious student, and she liked Mrs. Donnnigan, she couldn’t pay any attention because of his damn nose. It had angles and bumps, not one straight line, and it zigged left and then zagged back right, but most of all it was just big like an aircraft carrier. Not a shitty country’s shitty aircraft carrier with the dainty little ramp at the end, either: an American aircraft carrier. With nostrils.
Romy Schott looked at her grade of 78, and then she looked at Julio Montez’s nose, and then she realized that she liked a boy.
The balcony of The Tahitian is an excellent place to take a first date: it’s dark, and you don’t have to talk, and–if the night is going well–you can buy drugs. Neither Romy nor Julio did drugs, so they did not buy any, but Julio did buy the popcorn. Romy insisted on paying for her own ticket, and secretly he was glad: if he had bought her ticket, then he couldn’t have bought the largest popcorn combo. Julio felt it was important to buy the largest amount of food possible for Romy, though he would not be able to explain why if you had asked him.
He was at that particular intersection that is only available to a teenage boy of terrified, cocky, and utterly oblivious. While Julio didn’t usually wear cologne, his muddy little teen mind connected “date” with “smell fancy” and he doused himself with his father’s Hai Karate aftershave, including his balls, which you are not supposed to do, and Julio could hear his little sisters’ hysterical laughter outside the bathroom door as he desperately washed his scrotum. Worse than the burning was the fact that he had to do his hair again.
(Like I told you: Julio had a buzzer cut–number two on the top, one on the sides–but I also told you that Julio was a teenage boy, and so therefore it took him a half-hour to do his hair.)
It only took Romy ten minutes to do her hair, even though it was past her shoulders and blondish-brown, but she did it fourteen times that afternoon. She had a nice routine going: do her hair, yell at herself in the mirror about how he wasn’t even cute and that she didn’t like him, and then do her hair again. It’s different for girls.
The largest bucket of popcorn at The Tahitian is served in a flat-bottomed basket with sides woven from redwood bark and comes with 18 gallons of any soft drink other than Fanta, and the stairs up to the balcony run along either side of the building, just one long set of steps up five stories with a door for the mezzanine and carpet with palm trees on it.
The movie was an old comedy, neither had heard of it, but their parents said it was funny. It was called My Favorite Year. There was a Jewish guy and a drunk English actor, and they were in New York in the Fifties. It was about choosing to believe in silly stories, in needing to believe in them. It was about how bravery and wisdom can be learned from people who don’t actually exist. The kids in the balcony, the teens on their first date, they didn’t catch a damn word of the flick.
Julio had a buzzing in his head like a fly with worn-out bearings, and Romy was experiencing total awareness of her surroundings: her cilia and antennae were twitching and peering around. His elbow just brushed against me. Did he mean that? Was it intentional? And Julio’s heart was pounding in his shoulders and his stomach and his throat, everywhere except where it was supposed to be, his chest, where there was just an ice cube shouting WHAT THE FUCK at the top of its lungs.
They had sat there, petrified of one another, for an hour. Neither could tell you what was happening on the screen, but then there was a scene where the Jewish guy buys the cute girl Chinese food, and they watch a movie starring the drunk English actor, and watching people watch a movie reminded Romy of a movie she had once watched, and a line it that she had thought very cool when a movie star said it with the right lighting, and she turned to Julio.
“Do you want to see a magic trick?” she said.
Julio said that he did, so she kissed him and the whole world disappeared. It was a good trick.
This is where the movie fades, cuts to the next scene, and ends on a passionate, but close-mouthed kiss, but Romy and Julio were not in a movie, just at one, and after that first kiss they went at it like only teenagers in public can: you could hear them slobbering on one another from three rows away, and there was grabbing and groping and little happy noises. A certain form of humping was performed. Neither noticed when their popcorn was stolen.
Outside on the Main Drag, the Town Cryer dodges parked cars and weeps, accosting mailboxes and accusing streetlights, that lachrymose fucker crying for our sins and demanding our mortality. “We’re all fucked!” he screams through his tears, and all of the grown-ups have long since accepted his presence as incontrovertible.
But the teenagers are too stupid to know they’re going to die, and so they wing counterfeit pennies at the Town Cryer, aiming for his eyes, and chase him laughing into the Verdance. They fall in love instead, using hearts that have never been broken, and never would be if the world had a heart of its own. But it doesn’t, and so they banish it with kisses in a dark balcony. No matter how dark it is, teenagers keep falling in love. They do that. Even in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.