Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town - Cover

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by Cory Doctorow

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Alan is a middle-aged entrepreneur in contemporary Toronto, who has devoted himself to fixing up a house in a bohemian neighborhood. This naturally brings him in contact with the house full of students and layabouts next door, including a young woman who, in a moment of stress, reveals to him that she has wings--wings, moreover, which grow back after each attempt to cut them off.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Alan sanded the house on Wales Avenue. It took six months, and the whole time it was the smell of the sawdust, ancient and sweet, and the reek of chemical stripper and the damp smell of rusting steel wool.

Alan took possession of the house on January 1, and paid for it in full by means of an e-gold transfer. He had to do a fair bit of hand-holding with the realtor to get her set up and running on e-gold, but he loved to do that sort of thing, loved to sit at the elbow of a novitiate and guide her through the clicks and taps and forms. He loved to break off for impromptu lectures on the underlying principles of the transaction, and so he treated the poor realtor lady to a dozen addresses on the nature of international currency markets, the value of precious metal as a kind of financial lingua franca to which any currency could be converted, the poetry of vault shelves in a hundred banks around the world piled with the heaviest of metals, glinting dully in the fluorescent tube lighting, tended by gnomish bankers who spoke a hundred languages but communicated with one another by means of this universal tongue of weights and measures and purity.

The clerks who’d tended Alan’s many stores -- the used clothing store in the Beaches, the used book-store in the Annex, the collectible tin-toy store in Yorkville, the antique shop on Queen Street -- had both benefited from and had their patience tried by Alan’s discursive nature. Alan had pretended never to notice the surreptitious rolling of eyes and twirling fingers aimed templewise among his employees when he got himself warmed up to a good oration, but in truth very little ever escaped his attention. His customers loved his little talks, loved the way he could wax rhapsodic about the tortured prose in a Victorian potboiler, the nearly erotic curve of a beat-up old table leg, the voluminous cuffs of an embroidered silk smoking jacket. The clerks who listened to Alan’s lectures went on to open their own stores all about town, and by and large, they did very well.

He’d put the word out when he bought the house on Wales Avenue to all his protégés: Wooden bookcases! His cell-phone rang every day, bringing news of another wooden bookcase found at this flea market, that thrift store, this rummage sale or estate auction.

He had a man he used part-time, Tony, who ran a small man-with-van service, and when the phone rang, he’d send Tony over to his protégé’s shop with his big panel van to pick up the case and deliver it to the cellar of the house on Wales Avenue, which was ramified by cold storages, root cellars, disused coal chutes and storm cellars. By the time Alan had finished with his sanding, every nook and cranny of the cellar was packed with wooden bookcases of every size and description and repair.

Alan worked through the long Toronto winter at his sanding. The house had been gutted by the previous owners, who’d had big plans for the building but had been tempted away by a job in Boston. They’d had to sell fast, and no amount of realtor magic -- flowers on the dining-room table, soup simmering on the stove -- could charm away the essential dagginess of the gutted house, the exposed timbers with sagging wires and conduit, the runnels gouged in the floor by careless draggers of furniture. Alan got it for a song, and was delighted by his fortune.

He was drunk on the wood, of course, and would have paid much more had the realtor noticed this, but Alan had spent his whole life drunk on trivial things from others’ lives that no one else noticed and he’d developed the alcoholic’s knack of disguising his intoxication. Alan went to work as soon as the realtor staggered off, reeling with a New Year’s Day hangover. He pulled his pickup truck onto the frozen lawn, unlocked the Kryptonite bike lock he used to secure the camper bed, and dragged out his big belt sander and his many boxes of sandpaper of all grains and sizes, his heat strippers and his jugs of caustic chemical peeler. He still had his jumbled, messy place across town in a nondescript two-bedroom on the Danforth, would keep on paying the rent there until his big sanding project was done and the house on Wales Avenue was fit for habitation.

Alan’s sanding project: First, finish gutting the house. Get rid of the substandard wiring, the ancient, lead-leaching plumbing, the cracked tile and water-warped crumbling plaster. He filled a half-dozen dumpsters, working with Tony and Tony’s homie Nat, who was happy to help out in exchange for cash on the barrelhead, provided that he wasn’t required to report for work on two consecutive days, since he’d need one day to recover from the heroic drinking he’d do immediately after Alan laid the cash across his palm.

Once the house was gutted to brick and timber and delirious wood, the plumbers and the electricians came in and laid down their straight shining ducts and pipes and conduit.

Alan tarped the floors and brought in the heavy sandblaster and stripped the age and soot and gunge off of the brickwork throughout, until it glowed red as a golem’s ass.

Alan’s father, the mountain, had many golems that called him home. They lived round the other side of his father and left Alan and his brothers alone, because even a golem has the sense not to piss off a mountain, especially one it lives in.

Then Alan tackled the timbers, reaching over his head with palm-sanders and sandpaper of ever finer grains until the timbers were as smooth as Adirondack chairs, his chest and arms and shoulders athrob with the agony of two weeks’ work. Then it was the floorwork, but *not the floors themselves*, which he was saving for last on the grounds that they were low-hanging fruit.

This materialized a new lecture in his mind, one about the proper role of low-hanging fruit, a favorite topic of MBAs who’d patronize his stores and his person, giving him unsolicited advice on the care and feeding of his shops based on the kind of useless book-learning and jargon-slinging that Fortune 100 companies apparently paid big bucks for. When an MBA said “low-hanging fruit,” he meant “easy pickings,” something that could and should be snatched with minimal effort. But real low-hanging fruit ripens last, and should be therefore picked as late as possible. Further, picking the low-hanging fruit first meant that you’d have to carry your bushel basket higher and higher as the day wore on, which was plainly stupid. Low-hanging fruit was meant to be picked last. It was one of the ways that he understood people, and one of the kinds of people that he’d come to understand. That was the game, after all -- understanding people.

So the floors would come last, after the molding, after the stairs, after the railings and the paneling. The railings, in particular, were horrible bastards to get clean, covered in ten or thirty coats of enamel of varying colors and toxicity. Alan spent days working with a wire brush and pointed twists of steel wool and oozing stinging paint stripper, until the grain was as spotless and unmarked as the day it came off the lathe.

Then he did the floors, using the big rotary sander first. It had been years since he’d last swung a sander around -- it had been when he opened the tin-toy shop in Yorkville and he’d rented one while he was prepping the place. The technique came back to him quickly enough, and he fell into a steady rhythm that soon had all the floors cool and dry and soft with naked, exposed woody heartmeat. He swept the place out and locked up and returned home.

The next day, he stopped at the Portuguese contractor-supply on Ossington that he liked. They opened at five a.m., and the men behind the counter were always happy to sketch out alternative solutions to his amateur construction problems, they never mocked him for his incompetence, and always threw in a ten percent “contractor’s discount” for him that made him swell up with irrational pride that confused him. Why should the son of a mountain need affirmation from runty Portugees with pencil stubs behind their ears and scarred fingers? He picked up a pair of foam-rubber knee pads and a ten-kilo box of lint-free shop rags and another carton of disposable paper masks.

He drove to the house on Wales Avenue, parked on the lawn, which was now starting to thaw and show deep muddy ruts from his tires. He spent the next twelve hours crawling around on his knees, lugging a tool bucket filled with sandpaper and steel wool and putty and wood-crayons and shop rags. He ran his fingertips over every inch of floor and molding and paneling, feeling the talc softness of the sifted sawdust, feeling for rough spots and gouges, smoothing them out with his tools. He tried puttying over the gouges in the flooring that he’d seen the day he took possession, but the putty seemed like a lie to him, less honest than the gouged-out boards were, and so he scooped the putty out and sanded the grooves until they were as smooth as the wood around them.

Next came the beeswax, sweet and shiny. It almost broke his heart to apply it, because the soft, newly exposed wood was so deliciously tender and sensuous. But he knew that wood left to its own would eventually chip and splinter and yellow. So he rubbed wax until his elbows ached, massaged the wax into the wood, buffed it with shop rags so that the house shone.

Twenty coats of urethane took forty days -- a day to coat and a day to dry. More buffing and the house took on a high shine, a slippery slickness. He nearly broke his neck on the slippery staircase treads, and the Portuguese helped him out with a bag of clear grit made from ground walnut shells. He used a foam brush to put one more coat of urethane on each tread of the stairs, then sprinkled granulated walnut shells on while it was still sticky. He committed a rare error in judgment and did the stairs from the bottom up and trapped himself on the third floor, with its attic ceilings and dormer windows, and felt like a goddamned idiot as he curled up to sleep on the cold, hard, slippery, smooth floor while he waited for his stairs to dry. The urethane must be getting to his head.

The bookcases came out of the cellar one by one. Alan wrestled them onto the front porch with Tony’s help and sanded them clean, then turned them over to Tony for urethane and dooring.

The doors were UV-filtering glass, hinged at the top and surrounded by felt on their inside lips so that they closed softly. Each one had a small brass prop-rod on the left side that could brace it open. Tony had been responsible for measuring each bookcase after he retrieved it from Alan’s protégés’ shops and for sending the measurements off to a glazier in Mississauga.

The glazier was technically retired, but he’d built every display case that had ever sat inside any of Alan’s shops and was happy to make use of the small workshop that his daughter and son-in-law had installed in his garage when they retired him to the burbs.

The bookcases went into the house, along each wall, according to a system of numbers marked on their backs. Alan had used Tony’s measurements and some CAD software to come up with a permutation of stacking and shouldering cases that had them completely covering every wall -- except for the wall by the mantelpiece in the front parlor, the wall over the countertop in the kitchen, and the wall beside the staircases -- to the ceiling.

He and Tony didn’t speak much. Tony was thinking about whatever people who drive moving vans think about, and Alan was thinking about the story he was building the house to write in.

May smelled great in Kensington Market. The fossilized dog shit had melted and washed away in the April rains, and the smells were all springy ones, loam and blossoms and spilled tetrapak fruit punch left behind by the pan-ethnic street-hockey league that formed up spontaneously in front of his house. When the winds blew from the east, he smelled the fish stalls on Spadina, salty and redolent of Chinese barbecue spices. When it blew from the north, he smelled baking bread in the kosher bakeries and sometimes a rare whiff of roasting garlic from the pizzas in the steaming ovens at Massimo’s all the way up on College. The western winds smelled of hospital incinerator, acrid and smoky.

His father, the mountain, had attuned Art to smells, since they were the leading indicators of his moods, sulfurous belches from deep in the caverns when he was displeased, the cold non-smell of spring water when he was thoughtful, the new-mown hay smell from his slopes when he was happy. Understanding smells was something that you did, when the mountain was your father.

Once the bookcases were seated and screwed into the walls, out came the books, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them.

Little kids’ books with loose signatures, ancient first-edition hardcovers, outsized novelty art books, mass-market paperbacks, reference books as thick as cinderblocks. They were mostly used when he’d gotten them, and that was what he loved most about them: They smelled like other people and their pages contained hints of their lives: marginalia and pawn tickets, bus transfers gone yellow with age and smears of long-ago meals. When he read them, he was in three places: his living room, the authors’ heads, and the world of their previous owners.

They came off his shelves at home, from the ten-by-ten storage down on the lakeshore, they came from friends and enemies who’d borrowed his books years before and who’d “forgotten” to return them, but Alan never forgot, he kept every book in a great and deep relational database that had begun as a humble flatfile but which had been imported into successive generations of industrial-grade database software.

This, in turn, was but a pocket in the Ur-database, The Inventory in which Alan had input the value, the cost, the salient features, the unique identifiers, and the photographic record of every single thing he owned, from the socks in his sock drawer to the pots in his cupboard. Maintaining The Inventory was serious business, no less important now than it had been when he had begun it in the course of securing insurance for the bookshop.

Alan was an insurance man’s worst nightmare, a customer from hell who’d messenger over five bankers’ boxes of detailed, cross-referenced Inventory at the slightest provocation.

The books filled the shelves, row on row, behind the dust-proof, light-proof glass doors. The books began in the foyer and wrapped around the living room, covered the wall behind the dining room in the kitchen, filled the den and the master bedroom and the master bath, climbed the short walls to the dormer ceilings on the third floor. They were organized by idiosyncratic subject categories, and alphabetical by author within those categories.

Alan’s father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine -- he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes. There was one where his family stood on his father’s slopes, Mom out in the open for a rare exception, a long tail of extension cords snaking away from her to the cave and the diesel generator’s three-prong outlet. He hung it over the mantel, using two hooks and a level to make sure that it came out perfectly even.

Tony helped Alan install the shallow collectibles cases along the house’s two-story stairwell, holding the level while Alan worked the cordless powerdriver. Alan’s glazier had built the cases to Alan’s specs, and they stretched from the treads to the ceiling. Alan filled them with Made-in-Occupied-Japan tin toys, felt tourist pennants from central Florida gator farms, a stone from Marie Laveau’s tomb in the St. Louis I Cemetery in New Orleans, tarnished brass Zippos, small framed comic-book bodybuilding ads, carved Polynesian coconut monkeys, melamine transistor radios, Bakelite snow globes, all the tchotchkes he’d accumulated over a lifetime of picking and hunting and digging.

They were gloriously scuffed and non-mint: he’d always sold off the sterile mint-in-package goods as quickly as he could, squirreling away the items that were marked with “Property of Freddy Terazzo” in shaky ballpoint, the ones with tooth marks and frayed boxes taped shut with brands of stickytape not offered for sale in fifty years.

The last thing to go in was the cellar. They knocked out any wall that wasn’t load-bearing, smeared concrete on every surface, and worked in a loose mosaic of beach glass and beach china, smooth and white with spidery blue illustrations pale as a dream. Three coats of urethane made the surfaces gleam.

Then it was just a matter of stringing out the cables for the clip-on halogens whose beams he took care to scatter off the ceilings to keep the glare to a minimum. He moved in his horsehair sofa and armchairs, his big old bed, his pots and pans and sideboard with its novelty decanters, and his entertainment totem.

A man from Bell Canada came out and terminated the data line in his basement, in a room that he’d outfitted with an uninterruptible power supply, a false floor, dry fire extinguishers and a pipe-break sensor. He installed and configured the router, set up his modest rack and home servers, fished three four-pair wires through to the living room, the den, and the attic, where he attached them to unobtrusive wireless access points and thence to weatherproofed omnidirectional antennae made from copper tubing and PVC that he’d affixed to the building’s exterior on short masts, aimed out over Kensington Market, blanketing a whole block with free Internet access.

He had an idea that the story he was going to write would require some perambulatory cogitation, and he wanted to be able to take his laptop anywhere in the market and sit down and write and hop online and check out little factoids with a search engine so he wouldn’t get hung up on stupid details.

The house on Wales Avenue was done. He’d repainted the exterior a lovely robin’s-egg blue, fixed the front step, and planted a low-maintenance combination of outsized rocks from the Canadian Shield and wild grasses on the front lawn. On July first, Alan celebrated Canada Day by crawling out of the attic window onto the roof and watching the fireworks and listening to the collective sighs of the people densely packed around him in the Market, then he went back into the house and walked from room to room, looking for something out of place, some spot still rough and unsanded, and found none. The books and the collections lined the walls, the fans whirred softly in the ceilings, the filters beneath the open windows hummed as they sucked the pollen and particulate out of the rooms -- Alan’s retail experience had convinced him long ago of the selling power of fresh air and street sounds, so he refused to keep the windows closed, despite the fantastic volume of city dust that blew in.

The house was perfect. The ergonomic marvel of a chair that UPS had dropped off the previous day was tucked under the wooden sideboard he’d set up as a desk in the second-floor den. His brand-new computer sat centered on the desk, a top-of-the-line laptop with a wireless card and a screen big enough to qualify as a home theater in some circles.

Tomorrow, he’d start the story.

Alan rang the next-door house’s doorbell at eight a.m. He had a bag of coffees from the Greek diner. Five coffees, one for each bicycle locked to the wooden railing on the sagging porch plus one for him.

He waited five minutes, then rang the bell again, holding it down, listening for the sound of footsteps over the muffled jangling of the buzzer. It took two minutes more, he estimated, but he didn’t mind. It was a beautiful summer day, soft and moist and green, and he could already smell the fish market over the mellow brown vapors of the strong coffee.

A young woman in long johns and a baggy tartan T-shirt opened the door. She was excitingly plump, round and a little jiggly, the kind of woman Alan had always gone for. Of course, she was all of twenty-two, and so was certainly not an appropriate romantic interest for him, but she was fun to look at as she ungummed her eyes and worked the sleep out of her voice.

“Yes?” she said through the locked screen door. Her voice brooked no nonsense, which Alan also liked. He’d hire her in a second, if he were still running a shop. He liked to hire sharp kids like her, get to know them, try to winkle out their motives and emotions through observation.

“Good morning!” Alan said. “I’m Alan, and I just moved in next door. I’ve brought coffee!” He hefted his sack in her direction.

“Good morning, Alan,” she said. “Thanks and all, but --”

“Oh, no need to thank me! Just being neighborly. I brought five -- one for each of you and one for me.”

“Well, that’s awfully nice of you --”

“Nothing at all. Nice morning, huh? I saw a robin just there, on that tree in the park, not an hour ago. Fantastic.”

“Great.” She unlatched the screen door and opened it, reaching for the sack.

Alan stepped into the foyer and handed it to her. “There’s cream and sugar in there,” he said. “Lots -- don’t know how you folks take it, so I just figured better sure than miserable, better to err on the side of caution. Wow, look at this, your place has a completely different layout from mine. I think they were built at the same time, I mean, they look a lot alike. I don’t really know much about architecture, but they really do seem the same, don’t they, from the outside? But look at this! In my place, I’ve got a long corridor before you get to the living room, but your place is all open. I wonder if it was built that way, or if someone did that later. Do you know?”

“No,” she said, hefting the sack.

“Well, I’ll just have a seat while you get your roommates up, all right? Then we can all have a nice cup of coffee and a chat and get to know each other.”

She dithered for a moment, then stepped back toward the kitchen and the stairwell. Alan nodded and took a little tour of the living room. There was a very nice media totem, endless shelves of DVDs and videos, including a good selection of Chinese kung-fu VCDs and black and white comedies. There was a stack of guitar magazines on the battered coffee table, and a cozy sofa with an afghan folded neatly on one arm. Good kids, he could tell that just by looking at their possessions.

Not very security-conscious, though. She should have either kicked him out or dragged him around the house while she got her roomies out of bed. He thought about slipping some VCDs into his pocket and returning them later, just to make the point, but decided it would be getting off on the wrong foot.

She returned a moment later, wearing a fuzzy yellow robe whose belt and seams were gray with grime and wear. “They’re coming down,” she said.

“Terrific!” Alan said, and planted himself on the sofa. “How about that coffee, hey?”

She shook her head, smiled a little, and retrieved a coffee for him. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Nope,” Alan said. “The Greek makes it just the way I like it. Black and strong and aromatic. Try some before you add anything -- it’s really fantastic. One of the best things about the neighborhood, if you ask me.”

Another young woman, rail-thin with a shaved head, baggy jeans, and a tight t-shirt that he could count her ribs through, shuffled into the living room. Alan got to his feet and extended his hand. “Hi there! I’m Adam, your new neighbor! I brought coffees!”

She shook his hand, her long fingernails sharp on his palm. “Natalie,” she said.

The other young woman passed a coffee to her. “He brought coffees,” she said. “Try it before you add anything to it.” She turned to Alan. “I thought you said your name was Alan?”

“Alan, Adam, Andy. Doesn’t matter, I answer to any of them. My mom had a hard time keeping our names straight.”

“Funny,” Natalie said, sipping at her coffee. “Two sugars, three creams,” she said, holding her hand out. The other woman silently passed them to her.

“I haven’t gotten your name yet,” Alan said.

“Right,” the other one said. “You sure haven’t.”

A young man, all of seventeen, with straggly sideburns and a shock of pink hair sticking straight up in the air, shuffled into the room, wearing cutoffs and an unbuttoned guayabera.

“Adam,” Natalie said, “this is Link, my kid brother. Link, this is Arthur -- he brought coffees.”

“Hey, thanks, Arthur,” Link said. He accepted his coffee and stood by his sister, sipping reverently.

“So that leaves one more,” Alan said. “And then we can get started.”

Link snorted. “Not likely. Krishna doesn’t get out of bed before noon.”

“Krishna?” Alan said.

“My boyfriend,” the nameless woman said. “He was up late.”

“More coffee for the rest of us, I suppose,” Alan said. “Let’s all sit and get to know one another, then, shall we?”

They sat. Alan slurped down the rest of his coffee, then gestured at the sack. The nameless woman passed it to him and he got the last one, and set to drinking.

“I’m Andreas, your new next-door neighbor. I’ve just finished renovating, and I moved in last night. I’m really looking forward to spending time in the neighborhood -- I work from home, so I’ll be around a bunch. Feel free to drop by if you need to borrow a cup of sugar or anything.”

“That’s so nice of you,” Natalie said. “I’m sure we’ll get along fine!”

“Thanks, Natalie. Are you a student?”

“Yup,” she said. She fished in the voluminous pockets of her jeans, tugging them lower on her knobby hips, and came up with a pack of cigarettes. She offered one to her brother -- who took it -- and one to Alan, who declined, then lit up. “Studying fashion design at OCAD. I’m in my last year, so it’s all practicum from now on.”

“Fashion! How interesting,” Alan said. “I used to run a little vintage clothes shop in the Beaches, called Tropicál.”

“Oh, I loved that shop,” she said. “You had the best stuff! I used to sneak out there on the streetcar after school.” Yup. He didn’t remember her, exactly, but her type, sure. Solo girls with hardcover sketch books and vintage clothes home-tailored to a nice fit.

“Well, I’d be happy to introduce you to some of the people I know -- there’s a vintage shop that a friend of mine runs in Parkdale. He’s always looking for designers to help with rehab and repros.”

“That would be so cool!”

“Now, Link, what do you study?”

Link pulled at his smoke, ashed in the fireplace grate. “Not much. I didn’t get into Ryerson for electrical engineering, so I’m spending a year as a bike courier, taking night classes, and reapplying for next year.”

“Well, that’ll keep you out of trouble at least,” Alan said. He turned to the nameless woman.

“So, what do you do, Apu?” she said to him, before he could say anything.

“Oh, I’m retired, Mimi,” he said.

“Mimi?” she said.

“Why not? It’s as good a name as any.”

“Her name is --” Link started to say, but she cut him off.

“Mimi is as good a name as any. I’m unemployed. Krishna’s a bartender.”

“Are you looking for work?”

She smirked. “Sure. Whatcha got?”

“What can you do?”

“I’ve got three-quarters of a degree in environmental studies, one year of kinesiology, and a half-written one-act play. Oh, and student debt until the year 3000.”

“A play!” he said, slapping his thighs. “You should finish it. I’m a writer, too, you know.”

“I thought you had a clothing shop.”

“I did. And a bookshop, and a collectibles shop, and an antique shop. Not all at the same time, you understand. But now I’m writing. Going to write a story, then I imagine I’ll open another shop. But I’m more interested in you, Mimi, and your play. Why half-finished?”

She shrugged and combed her hair back with her fingers. Her hair was brown and thick and curly, down to her shoulders. Alan adored curly hair. He’d had a clerk at the comics shop with curly hair just like hers, an earnest and bright young thing who drew her own comics in the back room on her breaks, using the receiving table as a drawing board. She’d never made much of a go of it as an artist, but she did end up publishing a popular annual anthology of underground comics that had captured the interest of the New Yorker the year before. “I just ran out of inspiration,” Mimi said, tugging at her hair.

“Well, there you are. Time to get inspired again. Stop by any time and we’ll talk about it, all right?”

“If I get back to it, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Tremendous!” he said. “I just know it’ll be fantastic. Now, who plays the guitar?”

“Krishna,” Link said. “I noodle a bit, but he’s really good.”

“He sure is,” Alan said. “He was in fine form last night, about three a.m.!” He chuckled pointedly.

There was an awkward silence. Alan slurped down his second coffee. “Whoops!” he said. “I believe I need to impose on you for the use of your facilities?”

“What?” Natalie and Link said simultaneously.

“He wants the toilet,” Mimi said. “Up the stairs, second door on the right. Jiggle the handle after you flush.”

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