From "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," a short story collection published in September, 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows Press (ISBN 1568582862). See http://craphound.com/place for more.
Originally Published in Science Fiction Age, March 1998
"Like most aliens-mingling-with-human-society stories, Doctorow's story serves mostly to hold a mirror up to human nature, but the odd corner of human nature it examines is fascinating, and the story is smoothly and expertly written, with some good detail and local color and some shrewd insights into human nature and human culture, and an almost Bradburian vein of rich nostalgia running through it (although the nostalgia is quirky enough that perhaps it might more usefully be compared to R.A. Lafferty or Terry Bisson than to Bradbury)."
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This story is from my collection, "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," published by Four Walls Eight Windows Press in September, 2003, ISBN 1568582862. I've released this story, along with five others, under the terms of a Creative Commons license that gives you, the reader, a bunch of rights that copyright normally reserves for me, the creator.
I recently did the same thing with the entire text of my novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (http://craphound.com/down), and it was an unmitigated success. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the book -- good news -- and thousands of people bought the book -- also good news. It turns out that, as near as anyone can tell, distributing free electronic versions of books is a great way to sell more of the paper editions, while simultaneously getting the book into the hands of readers who would otherwise not be exposed to my work.
I still don't know how it is artists will earn a living in the age of the Internet, but I remain convinced that the way to find out is to do basic science: that is, to do stuff and observe the outcome. That's what I'm doing here. The thing to remember is that the very worst thing you can do to me as an artist is to not read my work -- to let it languish in obscurity and disappear from posterity. Most of the fiction I grew up on is out-of-print, and this is doubly true for the short stories. Losing a couple bucks to people who would have bought the book save for the availability of the free electronic text is no big deal, at least when compared to the horror that is being irrelevant and unread. And luckily for me, it appears that giving away the text for free gets me more paying customers than it loses me.
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Craphound had wicked yard-sale karma, for a rotten, filthy alien bastard. He was too good at panning out the single grain of gold in a raging river of uselessness for me not to like him -- respect him, anyway. But then he found the cowboy trunk. It was two months' rent to me and nothing but some squirrelly alien kitsch-fetish to Craphound.
So I did the unthinkable. I violated the Code. I got into a bidding war with a buddy. Never let them tell you that women poison friendships: in my experience, wounds from women-fights heal quickly; fights over garbage leave nothing behind but scorched earth.
Craphound spotted the sign -- his karma, plus the goggles in his exoskeleton, gave him the advantage when we were doing 80 kmh on some stretch of back-highway in cottage country. He was riding shotgun while I drove, and we had the radio on to the CBC's summer-Saturday programming: eight weekends with eight hours of old radio dramas: "The Shadow," "Quiet Please," "Tom Mix," "The Crypt-Keeper" with Bela Lugosi. It was hour three, and Bogey was phoning in his performance on a radio adaptation of _The African Queen_. I had the windows of the old truck rolled down so that I could smoke without fouling Craphound's breather. My arm was hanging out the window, the radio was booming, and Craphound said "Turn around! Turn around, now, Jerry, now, turn around!"
When Craphound gets that excited, it's a sign that he's spotted a rich vein. I checked the side-mirror quickly, pounded the brakes and spun around. The transmission creaked, the wheels squealed, and then we were creeping along the way we'd come.
"There," Craphound said, gesturing with his long, skinny arm. I saw it. A wooden A-frame real-estate sign, a piece of hand-lettered cardboard stuck overtop of the realtor's name:
EAST MUSKOKA VOLUNTEER FIRE-DEPT
LADIES AUXILIARY RUMMAGE SALE
SAT 25 JUNE
"Hoo-eee!" I hollered, and spun the truck onto the dirt road. I gunned the engine as we cruised along the tree-lined road, trusting Craphound to spot any deer, signs, or hikers in time to avert disaster. The sky was a perfect blue and the smells of summer were all around us. I snapped off the radio and listened to the wind rushing through the truck. Ontario is _beautiful_ in the summer.
"There!" Craphound shouted. I hit the turn-off and down-shifted and then we were back on a paved road. Soon, we were rolling into a country fire-station, an ugly brick barn. The hall was lined with long, folding tables, stacked high. The mother lode!
Craphound beat me out the door, as usual. His exoskeleton is programmable, so he can record little scripts for it like: move left arm to door handle, pop it, swing legs out to running-board, jump to ground, close door, move forward. Meanwhile, I'm still making sure I've switched off the headlights and that I've got my wallet.
Two blue-haired grannies had a card-table set up out front of the hall, with a big tin pitcher of lemonade and three boxes of Tim Horton assorted donuts. That stopped us both, since we share the superstition that you _always_ buy food from old ladies and little kids, as a sacrifice to the crap-gods. One of the old ladies poured out the lemonade while the other smiled and greeted us.
"Welcome, welcome! My, you've come a long way for us!"
"Just up from Toronto, ma'am," I said. It's an old joke, but it's also part of the ritual, and it's got to be done.
"I meant your friend, sir. This gentleman."
Craphound smiled without baring his gums and sipped his lemonade. "Of course I came, dear lady. I wouldn't miss it for the worlds!" His accent is pretty good, but when it comes to stock phrases like this, he's got so much polish you'd think he was reading the news.
The biddie _blushed_ and _giggled_, and I felt faintly sick. I walked off to the tables, trying not to hurry. I chose my first spot, about halfway down, where things wouldn't be quite so picked-over. I grabbed an empty box from underneath and started putting stuff into it: four matched highball glasses with gold crossed bowling-pins and a line of black around the rim; an Expo '67 wall-hanging that wasn't even a little faded; a shoebox full of late sixties O-Pee-Chee hockey cards; a worn, wooden-handled steel cleaver that you could butcher a steer with.
I picked up my box and moved on: a deck of playing cards copyrighted '57, with the logo for the Royal Canadian Dairy, Bala Ontario printed on the backs; a fireman's cap with a brass badge so tarnished I couldn't read it; a three-story wedding-cake trophy for the 1974 Eastern Region Curling Championships. The cash-register in my mind was ringing, ringing, ringing. God bless the East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies' Auxiliary.
I'd mined that table long enough. I moved to the other end of the hall. Time was, I'd start at the beginning and turn over each item, build one pile of maybes and another pile of definites, try to strategise. In time, I came to rely on instinct and on the fates, to whom I make my obeisances at every opportunity.
Let's hear it for the fates: a genuine collapsible top-hat; a white-tipped evening cane; a hand-carved cherry-wood walking stick; a beautiful black lace parasol; a wrought-iron lightning rod with a rooster on top; all of it in an elephant-leg umbrella-stand. I filled the box, folded it over, and started on another.
I collided with Craphound. He grinned his natural grin, the one that showed row on row of wet, slimy gums, tipped with writhing, poisonous suckers. "Gold! Gold!" he said, and moved along. I turned my head after him, just as he bent over the cowboy trunk.
I sucked air between my teeth. It was magnificent: a leather-bound miniature steamer trunk, the leather worked with lariats, Stetson hats, war-bonnets and six-guns. I moved toward him, and he popped the latch. I caught my breath.
On top, there was a kid's cowboy costume: miniature leather chaps, a tiny Stetson, a pair of scuffed white-leather cowboy boots with long, worn spurs affixed to the heels. Craphound moved it reverently to the table and continued to pull more magic from the trunk's depths: a stack of cardboard-bound Hopalong Cassidy 78s; a pair of tin six-guns with gunbelt and holsters; a silver star that said Sheriff; a bundle of Roy Rogers comics tied with twine, in mint condition; and a leather satchel filled with plastic cowboys and Indians, enough to re-enact the Alamo.
"Oh, my God," I breathed, as he spread the loot out on the table.
"What are these, Jerry?" Craphound asked, holding up the 78s.
"Old records, like LPs, but you need a special record player to listen to them." I took one out of its sleeve. It gleamed, scratch-free, in the overhead fluorescents.
"I got a 78 player here," said a member of the East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies' Auxiliary. She was short enough to look Craphound in the eye, a hair under five feet, and had a skinny, rawboned look to her. "That's my Billy's things, Billy the Kid we called him. He was dotty for cowboys when he was a boy. Couldn't get him to take off that fool outfit -- nearly got him thrown out of school. He's a lawyer now, in Toronto, got a fancy office on Bay Street. I called him to ask if he minded my putting his cowboy things in the sale, and you know what? He didn't know what I was talking about! Doesn't that beat everything? He was dotty for cowboys when he was a boy."
It's another of my rituals to smile and nod and be as polite as possible to the erstwhile owners of crap that I'm trying to buy, so I smiled and nodded and examined the 78 player she had produced. In lariat script, on the top, it said, "Official Bob Wills Little Record Player," and had a crude watercolour of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys grinning on the front. It was the kind of record player that folded up like a suitcase when you weren't using it. I'd had one as a kid, with Yogi Bear silkscreened on the front.
Billy's mom plugged the yellowed cord into a wall jack and took the 78 from me, touched the stylus to the record. A tinny ukelele played, accompanied by horse-clops, and then a narrator with a deep, whisky voice said, "Howdy, Pardners! I was just settin' down by the ole campfire. Why don't you stay an' have some beans, an' I'll tell y'all the story of how Hopalong Cassidy beat the Duke Gang when they come to rob the Santa Fe."
In my head, I was already breaking down the cowboy trunk and its contents, thinking about the minimum bid I'd place on each item at Sotheby's. Sold individually, I figured I could get over two grand for the contents. Then I thought about putting ads in some of the Japanese collectors' magazines, just for a lark, before I sent the lot to the auction house. You never can tell. A buddy I knew had sold a complete packaged set of Welcome Back, Kotter action figures for nearly eight grand that way. Maybe I could buy a new truck. . .
"This is wonderful," Craphound said, interrupting my reverie. "How much would you like for the collection?"
I felt a knife in my guts. Craphound had found the cowboy trunk, so that meant it was his. But he usually let me take the stuff with street-value -- he was interested in _everything_, so it hardly mattered if I picked up a few scraps with which to eke out a living.
Billy's mom looked over the stuff. "I was hoping to get twenty dollars for the lot, but if that's too much, I'm willing to come down."
"I'll give you thirty," my mouth said, without intervention from my brain.
They both turned and stared at me. Craphound was unreadable behind his goggles.
Billy's mom broke the silence. "Oh, my! Thirty dollars for this old mess?"
"I will pay fifty," Craphound said.
"Seventy-five," I said.
"Oh, my," Billy's mom said.
"Five hundred," Craphound said.
I opened my mouth, and shut it. Craphound had built his stake on Earth by selling a complicated biochemical process for non-chlorophyll photosynthesis to a Saudi banker. I wouldn't ever beat him in a bidding war. "A thousand dollars," my mouth said.
"Ten thousand," Craphound said, and extruded a roll of hundreds from somewhere in his exoskeleton.
"My Lord!" Billy's mom said. "Ten thousand dollars!"
The other pickers, the firemen, the blue haired ladies all looked up at that and stared at us, their mouths open.
"It is for a good cause." Craphound said.
"Ten thousand dollars!" Billy's mom said again.
Craphound's digits ruffled through the roll as fast as a croupier's counter, separated off a large chunk of the brown bills, and handed them to Billy's mom.
One of the firemen, a middle-aged paunchy man with a comb-over appeared at Billy's mom's shoulder.
"What's going on, Eva?" he said.
"This. . .gentleman is going to pay ten thousand dollars for Billy's old cowboy things, Tom."
The fireman took the money from Billy's mom and stared at it. He held up the top note under the light and turned it this way and that, watching the holographic stamp change from green to gold, then green again. He looked at the serial number, then the serial number of the next bill. He licked his forefinger and started counting off the bills in piles of ten. Once he had ten piles, he counted them again. "That's ten thousand dollars, all right. Thank you very much, mister. Can I give you a hand getting this to your car?"
Craphound, meanwhile, had re-packed the trunk and balanced the 78 player on top of it. He looked at me, then at the fireman.
"I wonder if I could impose on you to take me to the nearest bus station. I think I'm going to be making my own way home."
The fireman and Billy's mom both stared at me. My cheeks flushed. "Aw, c'mon," I said. "I'll drive you home."
"I think I prefer the bus," Craphound said.
"It's no trouble at all to give you a lift, friend," the fireman said.
I called it quits for the day, and drove home alone with the truck only half-filled. I pulled it into the coach-house and threw a tarp over the load and went inside and cracked a beer and sat on the sofa, watching a nature show on a desert reclamation project in Arizona, where the state legislature had traded a derelict mega-mall and a custom-built habitat to an alien for a local-area weather control machine.
The following Thursday, I went to the little crap-auction house on King Street. I'd put my finds from the weekend in the sale: lower minimum bid, and they took a smaller commission than Sotheby's. Fine for moving the small stuff.
Craphound was there, of course. I knew he'd be. It was where we met, when he bid on a case of Lincoln Logs I'd found at a fire-sale.
I'd known him for a kindred spirit when he bought them, and we'd talked afterwards, at his place, a sprawling, two-storey warehouse amid a cluster of auto-wrecking yards where the junkyard dogs barked, barked, barked.
Inside was paradise. His taste ran to shrines -- a collection of fifties bar kitsch that was a shrine to liquor; a circular waterbed on a raised podium that was nearly buried under seventies bachelor pad-inalia; a kitchen that was nearly unusable, so packed it was with old barn-board furniture and rural memorabilia; a leather-appointed library straight out of a Victorian gentlemen's club; a solarium dressed in wicker and bamboo and tiki-idols. It was a hell of a place.
Craphound had known all about the Goodwills and the Sally Anns, and the auction houses, and the kitsch boutiques on Queen Street, but he still hadn't figured out where it all came from.
"Yard sales, rummage sales, garage sales," I said, reclining in a vibrating naughahyde easy-chair, drinking a glass of his pricey single-malt that he'd bought for the beautiful bottle it came in.
"But where are these? Who is allowed to make them?" Craphound hunched opposite me, his exoskeleton locked into a coiled, semi-seated position.
"Who? Well, anyone. You just one day decide that you need to clean out the basement, you put an ad in the _Star_, tape up a few signs, and voila, yard sale. Sometimes, a school or a church will get donations of old junk and sell it all at one time, as a fundraiser."
"And how do you locate these?" he asked, bobbing up and down slightly with excitement.
"Well, there're amateurs who just read the ads in the weekend papers, or just pick a neighbourhood and wander around, but that's no way to go about it. What I do is, I get in a truck, and I sniff the air, catch the scent of crap and _vroom!_, I'm off like a bloodhound on a trail. You learn things over time: like stay away from Yuppie yard sales, they never have anything worth buying, just the same crap you can buy in any mall."
"Do you think I might accompany you some day?"
"Hell, sure. Next Saturday? We'll head over to Cabbagetown -- those old coach houses, you'd be amazed what people get rid of. It's practically criminal."
"I would like to go with you on next Saturday very much Mr Jerry Abington." He used to talk like that, without commas or question marks. Later, he got better, but then, it was all one big sentence.
"Call me Jerry. It's a date, then. Tell you what, though: there's a Code you got to learn before we go out. The Craphound's Code."
"What is a craphound?"
"You're lookin' at one. You're one, too, unless I miss my guess. You'll get to know some of the local craphounds, you hang around with me long enough. They're the competition, but they're also your buddies, and there're certain rules we have."
And then I explained to him all about how you never bid against a craphound at a yard-sale, how you get to know the other fellows' tastes, and when you see something they might like, you haul it out for them, and they'll do the same for you, and how you never buy something that another craphound might be looking for, if all you're buying it for is to sell it back to him. Just good form and common sense, really, but you'd be surprised how many amateurs just fail to make the jump to pro because they can't grasp it.
There was a bunch of other stuff at the auction, other craphounds' weekend treasures. This was high season, when the sun comes out and people start to clean out the cottage, the basement, the garage. There were some collectors in the crowd, and a whole whack of antique and junk dealers, and a few pickers, and me, and Craphound. I watched the bidding listlessly, waiting for my things to come up and sneaking out for smokes between lots. Craphound never once looked at me or acknowledged my presence, and I became perversely obsessed with catching his eye, so I coughed and shifted and walked past him several times, until the auctioneer glared at me, and one of the attendants asked if I needed a throat lozenge.
My lot came up. The bowling glasses went for five bucks to one of the Queen Street junk dealers; the elephant-foot fetched $350 after a spirited bidding war between an antique dealer and a collector -- the collector won; the dealer took the top-hat for $100. The rest of it came up and sold, or didn't, and at end of the lot, I'd made over $800, which was rent for the month plus beer for the weekend plus gas for the truck.
Craphound bid on and bought more cowboy things -- a box of super-eight cowboy movies, the boxes mouldy, the stock itself running to slime; a Navajo blanket; a plastic donkey that dispensed cigarettes out of its ass; a big neon armadillo sign.
One of the other nice things about that place over Sotheby's, there was none of this waiting thirty days to get a cheque. I queued up with the other pickers after the bidding was through, collected a wad of bills, and headed for my truck.
I spotted Craphound loading his haul into a minivan with handicapped plates. It looked like some kind of fungus was growing over the hood and side-panels. On closer inspection, I saw that the body had been covered in closely glued Lego.
Craphound popped the hatchback and threw his gear in, then opened the driver's side door, and I saw that his van had been fitted out for a legless driver, with brake and accelerator levers. A paraplegic I knew drove one just like it. Craphound's exoskeleton levered him into the seat, and I watched the eerily precise way it executed the macro that started the car, pulled the shoulder-belt, put it into drive and switched on the stereo. I heard tape-hiss, then, loud as a b-boy cruising Yonge Street, an old-timey cowboy voice: "Howdy pardners! Saddle up, we're ridin'!" Then the van backed up and sped out of the lot.
I get into the truck and drove home. Truth be told, I missed the little bastard.
Some people said that we should have run Craphound and his kin off the planet, out of the Solar System. They said that it wasn't fair for the aliens to keep us in the dark about their technologies. They say that we should have captured a ship and reverse-engineered it, built our own and kicked ass.
First of all, nobody with human DNA could survive a trip in one of those ships. They're part of Craphound's people's bodies, as I understand it, and we just don't have the right parts. Second of all, they _were_ sharing their tech with us -- they just weren't giving it away. Fair trades every time.
It's not as if space was off-limits to us. We can any one of us visit their homeworld, just as soon as we figure out how. Only they wouldn't hold our hands along the way.
I spent the week haunting the "Secret Boutique," AKA the Goodwill As-Is Centre on Jarvis. It's all there is to do between yard sales, and sometimes it makes for good finds. Part of my theory of yard-sale karma holds that if I miss one day at the thrift shops, that'll be the day they put out the big score. So I hit the stores diligently and came up with crapola. I had offended the fates, I knew, and wouldn't make another score until I placated them. It was lonely work, still and all, and I missed Craphound's good eye and obsessive delight.
I was at the cash-register with a few items at the Goodwill when a guy in a suit behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
"Sorry to bother you," he said. His suit looked expensive, as did his manicure and his haircut and his wire-rimmed glasses. "I was just wondering where you found that." He gestured at a rhinestone-studded ukelele, with a cowboy hat wood-burned into the body. I had picked it up with a guilty little thrill, thinking that Craphound might buy it at the next auction.
"Second floor, in the toy section."
"There wasn't anything else like it, was there?"
"'Fraid not," I said, and the cashier picked it up and started wrapping it in newspaper.
"Ah," he said, and he looked like a little kid who'd just been told that he couldn't have a puppy. "I don't suppose you'd want to sell it, would you?"
I held up a hand and waited while the cashier bagged it with the rest of my stuff, a few old clothbound novels I thought I could sell at a used book-store, and a Grease belt-buckle with Olivia Newton John on it. I led him out the door by the elbow of his expensive suit.
"How much?" I had paid a dollar.
I nearly said, "Sold!" but I caught myself. "Twenty."
"That's what they'd charge at a boutique on Queen Street."
He took out a slim leather wallet and produced a twenty. I handed him the uke. His face lit up like a lightbulb.
It's not that my adulthood is particularly unhappy. Likewise, it's not that my childhood was particularly happy.
There are memories I have, though, that are like a cool drink of water. My grandfather's place near Milton, an old Victorian farmhouse, where the cat drank out of a milk-glass bowl; and where we sat around a rough pine table as big as my whole apartment; and where my playroom was the draughty barn with hay-filled lofts bulging with farm junk and Tarzan-ropes.
There was Grampa's friend Fyodor, and we spent every evening at his wrecking-yard, he and Grampa talking and smoking while I scampered in the twilight, scaling mountains of auto-junk. The glove-boxes yielded treasures: crumpled photos of college boys mugging in front of signs, roadmaps of far-away places. I found a guidebook from the 1964 New York World's Fair once, and a lipstick like a chrome bullet, and a pair of white leather ladies' gloves.
Fyodor dealt in scrap, too, and once, he had half of a carny carousel, a few horses and part of the canopy, paint flaking and sharp torn edges protruding; next to it, a Korean-war tank minus its turret and treads, and inside the tank were peeling old pinup girls and a rotation schedule and a crude Kilroy. The control-room in the middle of the carousel had a stack of paperback sci-fi novels, Ace Doubles that had two books bound back-to-back, and when you finished the first, you turned it over and read the other. Fyodor let me keep them, and there was a pawn-ticket in one from Macon, Georgia, for a transistor radio.
My parents started leaving me alone when I was fourteen and I couldn't keep from sneaking into their room and snooping. Mom's jewelry box had books of matches from their honeymoon in Acapulco, printed with bad palm-trees. My Dad kept an old photo in his sock drawer, of himself on muscle-beach, shirtless, flexing his biceps.
My grandmother saved every scrap of my mother's life in her basement, in dusty Army trunks. I entertained myself by pulling it out and taking it in: her Mouse Ears from the big family train-trip to Disneyland in '57, and her records, and the glittery pasteboard sign from her sweet sixteen. There were well-chewed stuffed animals, and school exercise books in which she'd practiced variations on her signature for page after page.
It all told a story. The penciled Kilroy in the tank made me see one of those Canadian soldiers in Korea, unshaven and crew-cut like an extra on M*A*S*H, sitting for bored hour after hour, staring at the pinup girls, fiddling with a crossword, finally laying it down and sketching his Kilroy quickly, before anyone saw.
The photo of my Dad posing sent me whirling through time to Toronto's Muscle Beach in the east end, and hearing the tinny AM radios playing weird psychedelic rock while teenagers lounged on their Mustangs and the girls sunbathed in bikinis that made their tits into torpedoes.
It all made poems. The old pulp novels and the pawn ticket, when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away.
After the cowboy trunk episode, I didn't run into Craphound again until the annual Rotary Club charity rummage sale at the Upper Canada Brewing Company. He was wearing the cowboy hat, sixguns and the silver star from the cowboy trunk. It should have looked ridiculous, but the net effect was naive and somehow charming, like he was a little boy whose hair you wanted to muss.
I found a box of nice old melamine dishes, in various shades of green -- four square plates, bowls, salad-plates, and a serving tray. I threw them in the duffel-bag I'd brought and kept browsing, ignoring Craphound as he charmed a salty old Rotarian while fondling a box of leather-bound books.
I browsed a stack of old Ministry of Labour licenses -- barber, chiropodist, bartender, watchmaker. They all had pretty seals and were framed in stark green institutional metal. They all had different names, but all from one family, and I made up a little story to entertain myself, about the proud mother saving her sons' accreditations and framing hanging them in the spare room with their diplomas. "Oh, George Junior's just opened his own barbershop, and little Jimmy's still fixing watches. . ."
I bought them.
In a box of crappy plastic Little Ponies and Barbies and Care Bears, I found a leather Indian headdress, a wooden bow-and-arrow set, and a fringed buckskin vest. Craphound was still buttering up the leather books' owner. I bought them quick, for five bucks.
"Those are beautiful," a voice said at my elbow. I turned around and smiled at the snappy dresser who'd bought the uke at the Secret Boutique. He'd gone casual for the weekend, in an expensive, L.L. Bean button-down way.
"Aren't they, though."
"You sell them on Queen Street? Your finds, I mean?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes at auction. How's the uke?"
"Oh, I got it all tuned up," he said, and smiled the same smile he'd given me when he'd taken hold of it at Goodwill. "I can play 'Don't Fence Me In' on it." He looked at his feet. "Silly, huh?"
"Not at all. You're into cowboy things, huh?" As I said it, I was overcome with the knowledge that this was "Billy the Kid," the original owner of the cowboy trunk. I don't know why I felt that way, but I did, with utter certainty.
"Just trying to re-live a piece of my childhood, I guess. I'm Scott," he said, extending his hand.
_Scott?_ I thought wildly. _Maybe it's his middle name?_ "I'm Jerry."
The Upper Canada Brewery sale has many things going for it, including a beer garden where you can sample their wares and get a good BBQ burger. We gently gravitated to it, looking over the tables as we went.
"You're a pro, right?" he asked after we had plastic cups of beer.
"You could say that."
"I'm an amateur. A rank amateur. Any words of wisdom?"
I laughed and drank some beer, lit a cigarette. "There's no secret to it, I think. Just diligence: you've got to go out every chance you get, or you'll miss the big score."
He chuckled. "I hear that. Sometimes, I'll be sitting in my office, and I'll just _know_ that they're putting out a piece of pure gold at the Goodwill and that someone else will get to it before my lunch. I get so wound up, I'm no good until I go down there and hunt for it. I guess I'm hooked, eh?"
"Cheaper than some other kinds of addictions."
"I guess so. About that Indian stuff -- what do you figure you'd get for it at a Queen Street boutique?"
I looked him in the eye. He may have been something high-powered and cool and collected in his natural environment, but just then, he was as eager and nervous as a kitchen-table poker-player at a high-stakes game.
"Maybe fifty bucks," I said.
"Fifty, huh?" he asked.
"About that," I said.
"Once it sold," he said.
"There is that," I said.
"Might take a month, might take a year," he said.
"Might take a day," I said.
"It might, it might." He finished his beer. "I don't suppose you'd take forty?"
I'd paid five for it, not ten minutes before. It looked like it would fit Craphound, who, after all, was wearing Scott/Billy's own boyhood treasures as we spoke. You don't make a living by feeling guilty over eight hundred percent markups. Still, I'd angered the fates, and needed to redeem myself.
"Make it five," I said.
He started to say something, then closed his mouth and gave me a look of thanks. He took a five out of his wallet and handed it to me. I pulled the vest and bow and headdress out my duffel.
He walked back to a shiny black Jeep with gold detail work, parked next to Craphound's van. Craphound was building onto the Lego body, and the hood had a miniature Lego town attached to it.
Craphound looked around as he passed, and leaned forward with undisguised interest at the booty. I grimaced and finished my beer.
I met Scott/Billy three times more at the Secret Boutique that week.
He was a lawyer, who specialised in alien-technology patents. He had a practice on Bay Street, with two partners, and despite his youth, he was the senior man.
I didn't let on that I knew about Billy the Kid and his mother in the East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies' Auxiliary. But I felt a bond with him, as though we shared an unspoken secret. I pulled any cowboy finds for him, and he developed a pretty good eye for what I was after and returned the favour.
The fates were with me again, and no two ways about it. I took home a ratty old Oriental rug that on closer inspection was a 19th century hand-knotted Persian; an upholstered Turkish footstool; a collection of hand-painted silk Hawaiiana pillows and a carved Meerschaum pipe. Scott/Billy found the last for me, and it cost me two dollars. I knew a collector who would pay thirty in an eye-blink, and from then on, as far as I was concerned, Scott/Billy was a fellow craphound.
"You going to the auction tomorrow night?" I asked him at the checkout line.
"Wouldn't miss it," he said. He'd barely been able to contain his excitement when I told him about the Thursday night auctions and the bargains to be had there. He sure had the bug.
"Want to get together for dinner beforehand? The Rotterdam's got a good patio."
He did, and we did, and I had a glass of framboise that packed a hell of a kick and tasted like fizzy raspberry lemonade; and doorstopper fries and a club sandwich.
I had my nose in my glass when he kicked my ankle under the table. "Look at that!"
It was Craphound in his van, cruising for a parking spot. The Lego village had been joined by a whole postmodern spaceport on the roof, with a red-and-blue castle, a football-sized flying saucer, and a clown's head with blinking eyes.
I went back to my drink and tried to get my appetite back.
"Was that an extee driving?"
"Yeah. Used to be a friend of mine."
"He's a picker?"
"Uh-huh." I turned back to my fries and tried to kill the subject.
"Do you know how he made his stake?"
"The chlorophyll thing, in Saudi Arabia."
"Sweet!" he said. "Very sweet. I've got a client who's got some secondary patents from that one. What's he go after?"
"Oh, pretty much everything," I said, resigning myself to discussing the topic after all. "But lately, the same as you -- cowboys and Injuns."
He laughed and smacked his knee. "Well, what do you know? What could he possibly want with the stuff?"
"What do they want with any of it? He got started one day when we were cruising the Muskokas," I said carefully, watching his face. "Found a trunk of old cowboy things at a rummage sale. East Muskoka Volunteer Fire Department Ladies' Auxiliary." I waited for him to shout or startle. He didn't.
"Yeah? A good find, I guess. Wish I'd made it."
I didn't know what to say to that, so I took a bite of my sandwich.
Scott continued. "I think about what they get out of it a lot. There's nothing we have here that they couldn't make for themselves. I mean, if they picked up and left today, we'd still be making sense of everything they gave us in a hundred years. You know, I just closed a deal for a biochemical computer that's no-shit 10,000 times faster than anything we've built out of silicon. You know what the extee took in trade? Title to a defunct fairground outside of Calgary -- they shut it down ten years ago because the midway was too unsafe to ride. Doesn't that beat all? This thing is worth a billion dollars right out of the gate, I mean, within twenty-four hours of the deal closing, the seller can turn it into the GDP of Bolivia. For a crummy real-estate dog that you couldn't get five grand for!"
It always shocked me when Billy/Scott talked about his job -- it was easy to forget that he was a high-powered lawyer when we were jawing and fooling around like old craphounds. I wondered if maybe he _wasn't_ Billy the Kid; I couldn't think of any reason for him to be playing it all so close to his chest.
"What the hell is some extee going to do with a fairground?"
Craphound got a free Coke from Lisa at the check-in when he made his appearance. He bid high, but shrewdly, and never pulled ten-thousand-dollar stunts. The bidders were wandering the floor, previewing that week's stock, and making notes to themselves.
I rooted through a box-lot full of old tins, and found one with a buckaroo at the Calgary Stampede, riding a bucking bronc. I picked it up and stood to inspect it. Craphound was behind me.
"Nice piece, huh?" I said to him.
"I like it very much," Craphound said, and I felt my cheeks flush.
"You're going to have some competition tonight, I think," I said, and nodded at Scott/Billy. "I think he's Billy; the one whose mother sold us -- you -- the cowboy trunk."
"Really?" Craphound said, and it felt like we were partners again, scoping out the competition. Suddenly I felt a knife of shame, like I was betraying Scott/Billy somehow. I took a step back.
"Jerry, I am very sorry that we argued."
I sighed out a breath I hadn't known I was holding in. "Me, too."
"They're starting the bidding. May I sit with you?"
And so the three of us sat together, and Craphound shook Scott/Billy's hand and the auctioneer started into his harangue.
It was a night for unusual occurrences. I bid on a piece, something I told myself I'd never do. It was a set of four matched Li'l Orphan Annie Ovaltine glasses, like Grandma's had been, and seeing them in the auctioneer's hand took me right back to her kitchen, and endless afternoons passed with my colouring books and weird old-lady hard candies and Liberace albums playing in the living room.
"Ten," I said, opening the bidding.
"I got ten, ten,ten, I got ten, who'll say twenty, who'll say twenty, twenty for the four."
Craphound waved his bidding card, and I jumped as if I'd been stung.
"I got twenty from the space cowboy, I got twenty, sir will you say thirty?"
I waved my card.
"That's thirty to you sir."
"Forty," Craphound said.
"Fifty," I said even before the auctioneer could point back to me. An old pro, he settled back and let us do the work.
"One hundred," Craphound said.
"One fifty," I said.
The room was perfectly silent. I thought about my overextended MasterCard, and wondered if Scott/Billy would give me a loan.
"Two hundred," Craphound said.
Fine, I thought. Pay two hundred for those. I can get a set on Queen Street for thirty bucks.
The auctioneer turned to me. "The bidding stands at two. Will you say two-ten, sir?"
I shook my head. The auctioneer paused a long moment, letting me sweat over the decision to bow out.
"I have two -- do I have any other bids from the floor? Any other bids? Sold, $200, to number 57." An attendant brought Craphound the glasses. He took them and tucked them under his seat.
I was fuming when we left. Craphound was at my elbow. I wanted to punch him -- I'd never punched anyone in my life, but I wanted to punch him.
We entered the cool night air and I sucked in several lungfuls before lighting a cigarette.
"Jerry," Craphound said.
I stopped, but didn't look at him. I watched the taxis pull in and out of the garage next door instead.
"Jerry, my friend," Craphound said.
"_What_?" I said, loud enough to startle myself. Scott, beside me, jerked as well.
"We're going. I wanted to say goodbye, and to give you some things that I won't be taking with me."
"What?" I said again, Scott just a beat behind me.
"My people -- we're going. It has been decided. We've gotten what we came for."
Without another word, he set off towards his van. We followed along behind, shell-shocked.
Craphound's exoskeleton executed another macro and slid the panel-door aside, revealing the cowboy trunk.
"I wanted to give you this. I will keep the glasses."
"I don't understand," I said.
"You're all leaving?" Scott asked, with a note of urgency.
"It has been decided. We'll go over the next twenty-four hours."
"But _why_?" Scott said, sounding almost petulant.
"It's not something that I can easily explain. As you must know, the things we gave you were trinkets to us -- almost worthless. We traded them for something that was almost worthless to you -- a fair trade, you'll agree -- but it's time to move on."
Craphound handed me the cowboy trunk. Holding it, I smelled the lubricant from his exoskeleton and the smell of the attic it had been mummified in before making its way into his hands. I felt like I almost understood.
"This is for me," I said slowly, and Craphound nodded encouragingly. "This is for me, and you're keeping the glasses. And I'll look at this and feel. . ."
"You understand," Craphound said, looking somehow relieved.
And I _did_. I understood that an alien wearing a cowboy hat and sixguns and giving them away was a poem and a story, and a thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month's rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma's kitchen was a story and a poem, and that the disused fairground outside Calgary was a story and a poem, too.
"You're craphounds!" I said. "All of you!"
Craphound smiled so I could see his gums and I put down the cowboy trunk and clapped my hands.
Scott recovered from his shock by spending the night at his office, crunching numbers talking on the phone, and generally getting while the getting was good. He had an edge -- no one else knew that they were going.
He went pro later that week, opened a chi-chi boutique on Queen Street, and hired me on as chief picker and factum factotum.
Scott was not Billy the Kid. Just another Bay Street shyster with a cowboy jones. From the way they come down and spend, there must be a million of them.
Our draw in the window is a beautiful mannequin I found, straight out of the Fifties, a little boy we call The Beaver. He dresses in chaps and a Sheriff's badge and sixguns and a miniature Stetson and cowboy boots with worn spurs, and rests one foot on a beautiful miniature steamer trunk whose leather is worked with cowboy motifs.
He's not for sale at any price.
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<dc:description>A science-fiction short story by Cory Doctorow about alien thrift-store enthusiasts, from the short story collection "A Place So Foreign and Eight More," published by Four Walls Eight Windows press in September, 2003 (ISBN: 1568582862)</dc:description> <dc:creator><Agent>
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