Craphound - Cover


by Cory Doctorow

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: An antiques collector in a peculiar post-contact world where exccentric aliens do strange deeds.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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:




“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.

Some people!

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.

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