Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Stubborn Town, Part One


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:



1/7

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?"

"No."

"Okaip."

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?"

"The government."

"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?"

"Mississauga."

"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."

"Red Rose."

"Milk and sugar?"

"No."

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.

"No?"

"No."

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?"

"Yes."

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?"

"No."

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?"

"Yes."

"Do you have a lot of experience with this sort of thing? Like, what did you call it? Sleep disorders and whatever."

"No."

"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?"

"Yes."

"Did you have some sort of accident?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I was poisoned by thalidomide in utero. Phocomelia is a common side effect."

"Phoco-what?"

"Flipper limbs," explains Mr. Mississauga. "I have neither legs nor arms, Mr. Mayor."

"Jesus. Does that interfere with your job a lot?"

"No."

"Still, it's got to be hard."

"I manage, Mr. Mayor."

"Jesus."

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?"

"Very well."

"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."

"You married?"

"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?"

"No."

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."

"Okaip."

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."

"No."

"You a fast worker?"

"Yes."

"Huh."

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?"

"Yes."

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.


13 comments:

Compu73E said...

Damn fine Red Rose, and hot!

See, we survived, and you appear to have got some rest and dollop of mojo. Feel free to do so again. Possibly not entirely unexpected that the story deals with sleep...

Reetay Arvaysay said...

Yay! Good beginning. I'm particularly engaged by the reactions of the locals to Mr. Mississauga; the contrast between them is made all the more interesting by his bluntness of speech.

Mark said...

Uncle Miss makes his big appearance, flippers and all.

S. Inlet, huh? So, they don't do anything truly bad. They just commit a little "sinlet" here or there.

See, it's that kind of crap my English professors had us doing at University.

Intriguing start, CBB. Looking forward to this one. I love a good mystery, and can't wait to read your take.

Simon said...

Is that entirely a hand-drawn illustration at the head? 'Cause how did you do that water? Nice.

'Uncle Miss' makes a lot more sense now. The name anyway. With a double entendre to boot. I love layers!

The present tense was a big hook in this first chapter. That, combined with some pressing unanswered questions made for a very engaging read. The entire conversation between the two in the booth was delightful.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Compu73e,

Well, I'll try to fall off schedule as infrequently as possible, but thanks for your understanding. Sometimes life is not just thick but hard, too.

Dear Reetay,

Part of the inspiration for Mr. Miss' conversational habits comes from Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, in which the character Richie answers every direct question put to him truthfully, regardless of sarcasm, sardony or rhetoric. It isn't a big point in the film, but I always thought it was an intriguing bit of screenplay rule-breaking that made Richie a useful foil for the other characters.

Dear Mark,

This may be a bit of an unconventional mystery. What Mr. Miss is attempting to get to the bottom of is an issue much larger than just this specific story, but this story will provide him with some important clues for his larger quest.

Dear Simon,

Sorry, but I'm not that good a craftsman. The water funnel comes from photographic reference, as do most of my illustrations unless they're heavily stylized.

I took years of life drawing and still life classes but I still never managed to develop the skill to the point where I can invent believable architecture or anatomy without a reference. I have friends who are that cool, but I've come to terms with that fact that my drawing talents are mediocre but serviceable, leaving always a pretender to the throne of real artists in this respect.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

orick of toronto said...

Welcome back CBB. Nice ending to the last story.

I believe the clockwise drain thing is a myth.

http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_161.html

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Great start. I love the nice, tight script; there are some gems already in the first chapter.

One thing still confuses me, though; why does Lansing (same last name) call him "Uncle Miss"? That would be like you calling a relative "Uncle Hemm", wouldn't it?

+1 for the cool picture, and I can't wait to see where your recent obsession with sleep will take this story.

mandrill said...

orick,
Myths are why we're here. I've seen it happen btw. Has to be a sink with specific characteristics (it won't work with a bath or a toilet for instance)

sheik,
Have you tried to pronounce Mississauga? I have enough bother spelling it. Uncle Miss is a suitable and understandable diminutive, I reckon.

I like this one already, its like the X-files (filmed in your fair land I believe, Mr.Brown) with a Mulder that's even odder than the real one. A homosexual thalidomide victim with artificial arms and legs, wherever did you dig that one up from? I'm looking forward to the Scully counterpart (if there is one) but have the feeling that they may be unashamedly normal.

Simon said...

Sheik,

I took the "Uncle Miss" appellation to be a clever bastardization of his last name that also made reference to his open homosexuality. There may be more to it yet since we're so early into this story.

I find it very intriguing that he only chose to introduce himself by his first initial rather than a name. And that it matches the town. S. Inlet. S. Mississauga. I may be stretching here...

(For those not in the know, CBB's "Uncle Hemm" moonlights as a vigilante seamstress, single-handedly correcting Toronto's sartorial faux pas one pant leg at a time.)

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Orick,

It certainly is a myth. I will say no more for the time being.

Dear Sheik,

The issue of appellation comes back to Mr. Mississauga's first name, which we will address presently.

Dear Mandrill,

"Misses-awga." Luckily I was born on part of what had been the Mississauga Nation, so I find the pronunciation easy.

As for the thalidomide, it has wrought numerous effects on Mr. Miss' physiology, some of which are less apparent than others. The net will be revealed when the time is right.

The idea began germinating after seeing a Flickr series of babies poisoned by Agent Orange. I couldn't find a plausible way to have Mr. Miss exposed to Agent Orange as a baby, so I moved to thalidomide, which has some effects in common.

Also, I have a personal interest in medicines given to pregnant women which turn out to be associated with birth defects, as this happened to me and my mom (though not with thalidomide). After I was born I wore leg braces to correct my deformed shins and had to have surgery on my tongue to allow it the necessary mobility for speech.

There's some little known CBB biographical details for you, eh?

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

SaintPeter said...

1) I am so glad I read the comments because apperently I am an innatentive reader and didn't catch the "Uncle Miss" reference, or the "Sinlet".

2) Am I the only one who finds the formation "S. Inlet" to be exceedingly hard to read? The single letter and period stab me in the eye like a red hot poker, causing me to have to stop for extra processing each time I read it. It reminds be of the trouble I had reading Les Misribles, with M. This and M. That. Or where names were replaced with underscores - M. D____. Gah. A Lexographical phobia?

3) I am intrigued. For a moment, I was thinking the figure might be the robot Felix. As always, a great begining.

(BTW, this made me remember that I wanted to read another Felix story. Any hope of that soon?)

gl. said...

i thought he was a robot, too, for a while.

i find most random homosexual jokes tactless & offensive, but this one was extremely well-done, as is most of your deadpan humour. the reaction from the mayor was totally worth it. :)

Moksha Gren said...

I'm loving Uncle Miss. Can't wait to see where this goes.

You seem in better spirts today than when last we heard from you. Hope the rest helped.

I got the Hot Buttered today and am looking foward to browsing back through some old favorites. I gave it a little push on my blog..but since I met most my readers through your site...I'm not sure how much traffic I'll drum up for you.