Today's Reading

Signor Speranza and his assistant were not currently on the best of terms. A little over a month ago, in response to the customary yearly dip in business following spring-cleaning season, the two of them had undertaken an informal campaign of interoffice pranks, as a way of livening things up. Signor Speranza had difficulty now in remembering who had started it, and indeed it might have been accidental—one of them had mixed up the salt and the sugar, or something like that. But, last week, Smilzo had gone too far.

It was just as Signor Speranza was calling a meeting of the local business owners to order. He had a special gavel and block, of carved walnut, and stored in a walnut box lined with dark blue velvet, which he kept in the top drawer of his desk and brought out for just such special occasions. All the council members had sat ranged in a semicircle in front of Signor Speranza's desk. Smilzo, who was not on the council but had been prevailed upon to take notes, had been sitting off to one side. Everyone was chatting when Signor Speranza rapped the gavel.

"Order. Order, please," he had called. The room had fallen silent.

Signor Speranza had smiled pleasantly. "Now," he'd said, and leaned forward at his desk.

At that precise moment, when all eyes and ears were riveted in Signor Speranza's direction, there had come—and most definitely emanating from Signor Speranza's chair—the loudest, most terrific fart anyone had ever heard.


"You should have seen your face, boss," Smilzo had said, when the meeting was finally over. Then he had keeled over and clutched his stomach, engaging in the kind of helpless laughter that is so filled with mirth, it produces no sound. A black box, with a blinking red light, was revealed, taped to the underside of Signor Speranza's chair, and a matching remote with a single button produced from Smilzo's pocket.

"See, boss? Simple." And Smilzo had demonstrated, pressing the button and releasing another thunderous explosion.

Signor Speranza had done the only thing he could do under the circumstances, which was to plant his heavily booted foot on the seat of Smilzo's pants. He had realized later that he should have immediately confiscated the box and remote control. Now, while he wasn't exactly living in fear, it might be said he was living in a state of heightened awareness.

Closing the Compendium with a sigh, Signor Speranza went for a fitful walk around the shop. When he came to Smilzo, he stopped and kicked him gently in the shin. "What's happening now?" he demanded, nodding at the notebook.

Smilzo was writing a screenplay. Signor Speranza didn't approve of screenplays, obviously, but it was sort of interesting that a person could just write something down as if it had actually happened.

Smilzo looked up, his pointy face aglow.

"You'll never believe it, boss. A tornado comes and picks up the house. And then it puts it down in a magical world."

Signor Speranza considered this, his mouth disappearing up into his moustache. "Like ruby slippers?" he asked finally.

Smilzo was very still for a moment, and then a muscle under his eye twitched, and he dived back into his notebook, scrubbing his eraser across the page.

Signor Speranza rolled his eyes and then circled around behind his assistant, so he could read over his shoulder.

"'Enter leading lady, Arabella, twenty-three. Tall, skinny, black hair. Bubbly personality.'" He snorted. "That sounds just like—"

The little bell over the shop door jingled. Smilzo, looking up, yelped, turned three shades of pink, and then sat on his notebook, just as Antonella Capra burst onto the scene. She was the only person Signor Speranza knew of who was skinnier than his assistant—like a walking stick of spaghetti. Today, she was wearing approximately fifty bangle bracelets on each narrow wrist, and a pair of enormous pink plastic hoop earrings, one of which had gotten stuck in her voluminous black hair and was sticking out at an odd angle. Her thin face was bent over her phone, and she was typing very fast.

"Ciao, signore," she said, aiming two air kisses in roughly the direction of Signor Speranza's cheeks without looking up and without ceasing typing. "Do you know where Smilzo is? He's supposed to take a picture of me with a vacuum. For a joke."

Signor Speranza's moustache bristled.

Smilzo jumped up. "Is not really a joke, boss," he said hurriedly. "Is more like an ironic statement."

Antonella looked up. "Oh, there you are."

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