Stubborn Town is a story of seven chapters, posted serially by me, your slow host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Please excuse the delay in getting this chapter posted. Service should now resume as usual. All of you should consider yourselves issued coupons for 25% off the price of the next chapter.
(SPAM: Have you snagged a copy of Hot Buttered Something yet?)
And now, let's finally begin the new story:
It's summer in S. Inlet, and the sun rises in the night.
The unambitious hills are garlands of wilting spring flowers, the ruby reds turning to blood, the hot yellows turning to mustard, their heads thrust high to poke out among grasses undulating in the fragrant, southerly breeze.
The beaches are pebbled, watched over by crude Inukshuk figures of piled stone slabs. The water is bright green and light blue like a tropical sea, but it's frigid: the colours come from blooms of algae.
S. Inlet itself is humble: a hamlet of parked trailers and plywood shacks, ramshackle bungalows and streak-stained tube shelters ringing the NorthMart with its fancy concrete foundation and hoity-toity eavestroughs. There are no street signs, but there is one street lamp. It doesn't work, though.
It's a quiet morning.
An insectile buzz rises from the distant blue horizon. Somebody is circling in over Hudson Bay, the sun winking off the plane's fuselage like a daytime star.
Bonnie River uses a wide brown hand to shade her eyes as she tracks the miniscule dot. She loses it, occluded by the letters on the glass, backward from her perspective: OOF TOH. "Hey now," she says, "somebody's on their way, eh?"
The mayor doesn't look up from his newspaper. "No thanks," he mumbles, covering the top of his coffee mug with his hand. "I'm good, Bon."
She squints at him. "Huh?"
The mayor glances up. "What?"
"You want more coffee there, Lyle?"
Outside, the plane comes down on the water. The pontoons skip a little before settling in to kick up crow tails of spume, drowning away flight. The engine calms to a chortle as the aircraft drifts into the town pier. It bumps gently against rubber cushions which squeak to complain.
The plane is detailed in bilingual red and white: it's from the government.
"It's a government somebody," announces Bonnie River over the crackle of frying bread. She pushes her faded blue T-shirt up to expose a tattooed shoulder which she scratches at as she frowns. "They're not thinking of moving us again are they, Lyle?"
"What?" says the mayor. "Who?"
"What about it?"
She uses a spatula to point through the front window. "Try to focus, Lyle. Who's buddy there, eh?"
The plane's engine rumbles and fumes as the craft noses away from the pier, leaving in its wake a lone figure in a long coat. He's carrying a suitcase which he flings in a tight circle as he turns around in an effort to balance against the loping jerkiness of his gait. He begins to hobble up the hill, hips swaying wantonly.
Lyle scratches under his beard. "He walks funny," he observes.
"He kind of skips," agrees Bonnie.
Errol, who's been practicing pool, pauses on his way to the washroom to cast his good eye out the window. "Maybe he's just really happy to be here," he says.
The loping man in the long coat hesitates, deciding whether to announce himself at the lodge, the store, the administrative trailer or the Hot Foo. This is an understandable conundrum, as the throbbing heart of S. Inlet is only readily apparent once the drinking hour comes. With remarkable prescience the man looks directly to Bonnie, Lyle and Errol gawking in the front window and then heads up the Hot Foo's cracked patio stone walkway, pushing the door open ahead of him with a stiff left arm.
"Morning," says Bonnie brightly, hands on her wide hips. "Can I get you something?"
He's native, but he's from the south. His hair is a short bristle of salt and pepper. His face is lean and copper coloured, sharp cheeks pock-marked beneath surprisingly lush brown eyes fringed in doe-like lashes.
"No," says the stranger. "I'm supposed to meet with the mayor."
Lyle looks up sharply. "Are you from Revenue Canada?"
"No," says the stranger. "I've been sent from the Ministry of the Environment."
Lyle seems on the verge of being scandalized. "Did we spill something, or is this about the bears?" he asks defensively.
"Are you Mayor MacDougal?"
"Yeah," says Lyle suspiciously, offering his hand to shake. "I'm just having some eggs here."
The stranger's leather gloved hand is hard and unresponsive like a mannequin's. "Mr. S. Mississauga, Mr. Mayor. Is there somewhere where we can talk in private?"
"We can go to the trailer," says Lyle. "But I want to finish my eggs first. Why don't you sit down, Mr. Mississippi?"
"Sorry. Here, let me move my crap."
Lyle leans over the flecked formica table to scoop up his jacket and his smokes, stuffing both into a plaid ball on the seat beside him. Mr. Mississauga carefully rests his suitcase on the floor and then lowers himself into the booth with a strange kind of grace, at the last moment folding neatly and using his right hand to knock on each knee. In response they collapse, his shins swinging like disembodied props, creaking slightly.
Cued by the change in posture, Bonnie squeezes out from behind the counter and sallies over with a faded yellow pad in her meaty hand. "You'll have to let me get you a cup of coffee, at least," she says. "It's on the mayor's tab, eh?"
Lyle blinks. "What?"
"No," says the stranger. "I don't drink coffee."
"Tea? We don't have nothing fancy, but we got Red Rose and we got Irish Breakfast. That comes with or without liquor in it, depending on how Irish you're feeling."
"Milk and sugar?"
Bonnie hovers, her smile straining, but the stranger has no smile in return. There is something child-like about his deep eyes, however, that belays any suggestion of ill will. She turns and ambles back to the counter to put on a kettle.
Lyle shovels in another mouthful of eggs and then wipes the dregs from his beard as he lays the newspaper aside. "So okay," he says, folding his hands on the table and then pausing to inspect the grime under his nails, "I don't want to beat around the bush, Mister. There's no way, and I mean no way, we're putting Churchill's garbage in our landfill. I've said it before and I'm not changing my mind now. That's final. Um, unless the terms have changed. Are they making a new offer?"
"I'm not here about the landfill, Mr. Mayor," says Mr. Mississauga evenly.
Mr. Mississauga does not elaborate, but merely stares at the mayor with an open brow and his bottomless chocolate eyes. This is his standard technique for encouraging people to speak, and it works. Lyle stammers about baby seals, purple gasoline, polar bear counts and melting ice shelves before he settles on a clear question: "So what are you here about, Mr. Mississauga?"
Mr. Mississauga always responds to direct questions. He says, "I've been sent by the ministry to investigate the sleep abnormality affecting your town, in an effort to discover the cause and, if possible, to aid in determining a solution."
Lyle scoffs. "Sleep abnormality? Is that what you're calling it?"
With a sigh he uses a crust of toast to absorb the puddle of yolk on his plate. "Listen, Mr. Mississauga: no offense to you or anything, but probably the last thing I need is one more egghead nosing around here writing a report about how crazy we all are."
"Amen," agrees Bonnie, placing a saucer and cup on the table.
Lyle pushes aside his plate and reaches for his cigarettes. His eyes are blue and flat. "Do you care if I smoke?"
As Lyle draws one out Mr. Mississauga mirrors him, slipping a thin silver case out of his inside pocket. It pops open to reveal a row of handrolled cigarettes. Mr. Mississauga's black-gloved right hand hovers over the row for a second, then carefully plucks one free accompanied by a faint humming sound. He inserts it into his mouth and lets Lyle light it for him.
"Are you some kind of shrink?" asks Lyle, dropping the lighter into his breast pocket and patting it into place.
"No," replies Mr. Mississauga. "I'm a detective, Mr. Mayor."
"Are you a cop?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I am a private operator, contracted by the federal government for the purposes of this case."
Lyle draws on his smoke, ashes dribbling into his beard. "An outside expert, eh?"
"Do you have a lot of experience with this sort of thing? Like, what did you call it? Sleep disorders and whatever."
"So what're you an expert about, then?"
Mr. Mississauga allows himself a small, tight smile. "My forte is the unusual, Mr. Mayor. I'm a specialist in the field of unsolvable quandaries that defy traditional methods of analysis."
"I don't think I caught that."
"Anomalies are my business, Mr. Mayor. I investigate the strange."
"You're a bit of a strange customer yourself, aren't you?" says Lyle and then blinks, distracted. "Hey now, um, I think your arm's come off there, Mister."
Mr. Mississauga glances down at his left forearm, then pushes his elbow into the end of it with a quiet click. He moves his right arm over the ashtray and knocks his motionless fist against the edge to ash his smoke. "When did you first notice the sleep abnormality?" he asks.
"You got yourself two artificial arms, don't you?"
"Did you have some sort of accident?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I was poisoned by thalidomide in utero. Phocomelia is a common side effect."
"Flipper limbs," explains Mr. Mississauga. "I have neither legs nor arms, Mr. Mayor."
"Jesus. Does that interfere with your job a lot?"
"Still, it's got to be hard."
"I manage, Mr. Mayor."
Bonnie shuffles over to fill his cup with steaming tea, trying to size Mr. Mississauga up out of the corner of her eye. He draws on his cigarette. "Tell me, Mr. Mayor, when did it all begin?"
Lyle blows a long, slow stream of air from his lips, then shrugs theatrically. "Honestly, I can't go over it all again. I just can't. No offense to you, Mr. Mississauga, but I've done it too many times already. I'm a busy man. I got places to go this afternoon, so I tell you what: I'm going to set you up with my administrative assistant, and she'll take care of whatever it is you need. How's that sound?"
"She's a pretty thing, though, so you got to give me your word you'll keep your mitts to yourself or I'll never hear the end of it from her mother."
"I can assure you there's no cause for concern."
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I am a homosexual."
Lyle pauses, cigarette halfway to his lips. He swallows awkwardly. "Well, okay. Great, I guess. Thanks for, um, telling me about that issue, Mister. Is that a thalidomide thing, too?"
Lyle coughs clumsily and then turns away to wave for Bonnie's attention. "Er -- Bon, honey, do you think you could raise Aglakti on the horn for me? Tell her I'm bringing Mr. Mississauga here over to the trailer. Maybe tell her to clean up a little, if she can."
Lyle turns back to Mr. Mississauga. "If you don't mind my asking, how long you planning on staying with us?"
"Until the end of the week, Mr. Mayor."
"That's not a long time."
"You a fast worker?"
Lyle blinks away from the detective's eyes. Bonnie is hanging up the telephone, gives him a nod from behind the counter. The mayor sidles out of the booth and pulls on his plaid jacket, knocking the pocket to make sure his smokes are where they should be. "So, uh, you saw where the admin trailer is, right?"
Lyle forces an uncertain smile through his beard, then thrusts out a big hand and concentrates on not wincing as it touches Mr. Mississauga's lifeless glove. "Good luck," says Lyle.
Mr. Mississauga says nothing, so Lyle goes away.
When he's finished the tea he turns sideways on the seat, then braces his left arm against the tabletop as he balances forward and kicks his knees unbent. He straightens his torso with an almost inaudible grunt and smooths down his coat. He picks up his suitcase and begins wobbling purposefully toward the door.
"Take care, eh?" calls Bonnie.
Mr. Mississauga hesitates. He frowns, eyes sweeping the space behind the counter, crossing like radar over the register, the lazy susan of sunglasses, the deep fryer, Bonnie's belly, the sink...
He takes an abrupt step forward, craning his head to see over the sink's edge. Bonnie is startled, unnerved by the way he stares.
"Mister?" she prompts.
Mr. Mississauga looks at her, expressionless. He says, "It drains counter-clockwise."
"Um, okaip," agrees Bonnie, crossing her arms over her chest.
Mr. Mississauga gives her a tight little smile, a pert nod, then turns on heel and ambles out of the Hot Foo, suitcase swinging at his side.