Alan sanded the house on Wales Avenue. It took six months, and the whole timeit was the smell of the sawdust, ancient and sweet, and the reek of chemicalstripper and the damp smell of rusting steel wool.
Alan took possession of the house on January 1, and paid for it in full bymeans of an e-gold transfer. He had to do a fair bit of hand-holding with therealtor to get her set up and running on e-gold, but he loved to do that sortof thing, loved to sit at the elbow of a novitiate and guide her through theclicks and taps and forms. He loved to break off for impromptu lectures on theunderlying principles of the transaction, and so he treated the poor realtorlady to a dozen addresses on the nature of international currency markets, thevalue of precious metal as a kind of financial lingua franca to which anycurrency could be converted, the poetry of vault shelves in a hundred banksaround the world piled with the heaviest of metals, glinting dully in thefluorescent tube lighting, tended by gnomish bankers who spoke a hundredlanguages but communicated with one another by means of this universal tongueof weights and measures and purity.
The clerks who’d tended Alan’s many stores—the used clothing store in theBeaches, the used book-store in the Annex, the collectible tin-toy store inYorkville, the antique shop on Queen Street—had both benefited from and hadtheir patience tried by Alan’s discursive nature. Alan had pretended never tonotice the surreptitious rolling of eyes and twirling fingers aimed templewiseamong his employees when he got himself warmed up to a good oration, but intruth very little ever escaped his attention. His customers loved his littletalks, loved the way he could wax rhapsodic about the tortured prose in aVictorian potboiler, the nearly erotic curve of a beat-up old table leg, thevoluminous cuffs of an embroidered silk smoking jacket. The clerks wholistened 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 hisprotégés: Wooden bookcases! His cell-phone rang every day, bringing news ofanother wooden bookcase found at this flea market, that thrift store, thisrummage 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 hisbig panel van to pick up the case and deliver it to the cellar of the house onWales Avenue, which was ramified by cold storages, root cellars, disused coalchutes 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 everysize and description and repair.
Alan worked through the long Toronto winter at his sanding. The house had beengutted by the previous owners, who’d had big plans for the building but hadbeen tempted away by a job in Boston. They’d had to sell fast, and no amountof realtor magic—flowers on the dining-room table, soup simmering on thestove—could charm away the essential dagginess of the gutted house, theexposed timbers with sagging wires and conduit, the runnels gouged in thefloor by careless draggers of furniture. Alan got it for a song, and wasdelighted by his fortune.
He was drunk on the wood, of course, and would have paid much more had therealtor noticed this, but Alan had spent his whole life drunk on trivialthings from others’ lives that no one else noticed and he’d developed thealcoholic’s knack of disguising his intoxication. Alan went to work as soon asthe realtor staggered off, reeling with a New Year’s Day hangover. He pulledhis pickup truck onto the frozen lawn, unlocked the Kryptonite bike lock heused to secure the camper bed, and dragged out his big belt sander and hismany boxes of sandpaper of all grains and sizes, his heat strippers and hisjugs of caustic chemical peeler. He still had his jumbled, messy place acrosstown in a nondescript two-bedroom on the Danforth, would keep on paying therent there until his big sanding project was done and the house on WalesAvenue was fit for habitation.
Alan’s sanding project: First, finish gutting the house. Get rid of thesubstandard wiring, the ancient, lead-leaching plumbing, the cracked tile andwater-warped crumbling plaster. He filled a half-dozen dumpsters, working withTony and Tony’s homie Nat, who was happy to help out in exchange for cash onthe barrelhead, provided that he wasn’t required to report for work on twoconsecutive days, since he’d need one day to recover from the heroic drinkinghe’d do immediately after Alan laid the cash across his palm.
Once the house was gutted to brick and timber and delirious wood, the plumbersand the electricians came in and laid down their straight shining ducts andpipes and conduit.
Alan tarped the floors and brought in the heavy sandblaster and stripped theage and soot and gunge off of the brickwork throughout, until it glowed red asa golem’s ass.
Alan’s father, the mountain, had many golems that called him home. They livedround 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 oneit lives in.
Then Alan tackled the timbers, reaching over his head with palm-sanders andsandpaper of ever finer grains until the timbers were as smooth as Adirondackchairs, 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 wassaving 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 hisperson, giving him unsolicited advice on the care and feeding of his shopsbased on the kind of useless book-learning and jargon-slinging that Fortune100 companies apparently paid big bucks for. When an MBA said “low-hangingfruit,” he meant “easy pickings,” something that could and should be snatchedwith minimal effort. But real low-hanging fruit ripens last, and should betherefore picked as late as possible. Further, picking the low-hanging fruitfirst meant that you’d have to carry your bushel basket higher and higher asthe day wore on, which was plainly stupid. Low-hanging fruit was meant to bepicked last. It was one of the ways that he understood people, and one of thekinds of people that he’d come to understand. That was the game, afterall—understanding people.
So the floors would come last, after the molding, after the stairs, after therailings and the paneling. The railings, in particular, were horrible bastardsto get clean, covered in ten or thirty coats of enamel of varying colors andtoxicity. Alan spent days working with a wire brush and pointed twists ofsteel wool and oozing stinging paint stripper, until the grain was as spotlessand unmarked as the day it came off the lathe.
Then he did the floors, using the big rotary sander first. It had been yearssince he’d last swung a sander around—it had been when he opened the tin-toyshop in Yorkville and he’d rented one while he was prepping the place. Thetechnique came back to him quickly enough, and he fell into a steady rhythmthat soon had all the floors cool and dry and soft with naked, exposed woodyheartmeat. He swept the place out and locked up and returned home.
The next day, he stopped at the Portuguese contractor-supply on Ossington thathe liked. They opened at five a.m., and the men behind the counter were alwayshappy to sketch out alternative solutions to his amateur constructionproblems, they never mocked him for his incompetence, and always threw in aten percent “contractor’s discount” for him that made him swell up withirrational pride that confused him. Why should the son of a mountain needaffirmation from runty Portugees with pencil stubs behind their ears andscarred fingers? He picked up a pair of foam-rubber knee pads and a ten-kilobox 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 nowstarting to thaw and show deep muddy ruts from his tires. He spent the nexttwelve hours crawling around on his knees, lugging a tool bucket filled withsandpaper and steel wool and putty and wood-crayons and shop rags. He ran hisfingertips over every inch of floor and molding and paneling, feeling the talcsoftness of the sifted sawdust, feeling for rough spots and gouges, smoothingthem out with his tools. He tried puttying over the gouges in the flooringthat he’d seen the day he took possession, but the putty seemed like a lie tohim, less honest than the gouged-out boards were, and so he scooped the puttyout 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 andyellow. So he rubbed wax until his elbows ached, massaged the wax into thewood, 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. Morebuffing and the house took on a high shine, a slippery slickness. He nearlybroke his neck on the slippery staircase treads, and the Portuguese helped himout with a bag of clear grit made from ground walnut shells. He used a foambrush to put one more coat of urethane on each tread of the stairs, thensprinkled granulated walnut shells on while it was still sticky. He committeda rare error in judgment and did the stairs from the bottom up and trappedhimself on the third floor, with its attic ceilings and dormer windows, andfelt 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 urethanemust be getting to his head.
The bookcases came out of the cellar one by one. Alan wrestled them onto thefront porch with Tony’s help and sanded them clean, then turned them over toTony for urethane and dooring.
The doors were UV-filtering glass, hinged at the top and surrounded by felt ontheir 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 formeasuring each bookcase after he retrieved it from Alan’s protégés’ shops andfor sending the measurements off to a glazier in Mississauga.
The glazier was technically retired, but he’d built every display case thathad ever sat inside any of Alan’s shops and was happy to make use of the smallworkshop that his daughter and son-in-law had installed in his garage whenthey retired him to the burbs.
The bookcases went into the house, along each wall, according to a system ofnumbers marked on their backs. Alan had used Tony’s measurements and some CADsoftware to come up with a permutation of stacking and shouldering cases thathad them completely covering every wall—except for the wall by the mantelpiecein the front parlor, the wall over the countertop in the kitchen, and the wallbeside the staircases—to the ceiling.
He and Tony didn’t speak much. Tony was thinking about whatever people whodrive moving vans think about, and Alan was thinking about the story he wasbuilding the house to write in.
May smelled great in Kensington Market. The fossilized dog shit had melted andwashed away in the April rains, and the smells were all springy ones, loam andblossoms and spilled tetrapak fruit punch left behind by the pan-ethnicstreet-hockey league that formed up spontaneously in front of his house. Whenthe winds blew from the east, he smelled the fish stalls on Spadina, salty andredolent of Chinese barbecue spices. When it blew from the north, he smelledbaking bread in the kosher bakeries and sometimes a rare whiff of roastinggarlic from the pizzas in the steaming ovens at Massimo’s all the way up onCollege. The western winds smelled of hospital incinerator, acrid and smoky.
His father, the mountain, had attuned Art to smells, since they were theleading indicators of his moods, sulfurous belches from deep in the cavernswhen he was displeased, the cold non-smell of spring water when he wasthoughtful, the new-mown hay smell from his slopes when he was happy.
Understanding smells was something that you did, when the mountain was yourfather.
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 thickas cinderblocks. They were mostly used when he’d gotten them, and that waswhat he loved most about them: They smelled like other people and their pagescontained hints of their lives: marginalia and pawn tickets, bus transfersgone yellow with age and smears of long-ago meals. When he read them, he wasin three places: his living room, the authors’ heads, and the world of theirprevious owners.
They came off his shelves at home, from the ten-by-ten storage down on thelakeshore, they came from friends and enemies who’d borrowed his books yearsbefore and who’d “forgotten” to return them, but Alan never forgot, he keptevery book in a great and deep relational database that had begun as a humbleflatfile but which had been imported into successive generations ofindustrial-grade database software.
This, in turn, was but a pocket in the Ur-database, The Inventory in whichAlan had input the value, the cost, the salient features, the uniqueidentifiers, and the photographic record of every single thing he owned, fromthe socks in his sock drawer to the pots in his cupboard. Maintaining TheInventory was serious business, no less important now than it had been when hehad begun it in the course of securing insurance for the bookshop.
Alan was an insurance man’s worst nightmare, a customer from hell who’dmessenger over five bankers’ boxes of detailed, cross-referenced Inventory atthe slightest provocation.
The books filled the shelves, row on row, behind the dust-proof, light-proofglass 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 themaster bedroom and the master bath, climbed the short walls to the dormerceilings on the third floor. They were organized by idiosyncratic subjectcategories, and alphabetical by author within those categories.