Stubborn Town is a story of seven chapters, posted serially by me, your spring-lusting host, Cheeseburger Brown.
It doesn't seem to matter that we got a discount on winter this year -- come my birthday I'm sick to death of the whole thing. Granted, I've learned to manoeuvre my traction-free car like an expert, navigating by a series of controlled slides and doing the Tokyo Drift around corners. And granted, it hasn't been a very harsh season this year.
None the less, I thirst for spring. I want open windows and the smell of grass. I want birdsong and twilight at nine. My kingdom for a barbecued steak eaten on the porch, my soul for the contrast of cold beer against a sun-warmed bottle.
I count the days.
In the meantime, let's get on with the story:
Friendless visitors to S. Inlet are obliged to stay in the Elk's Head Lodge. It's the only game in town. At two storeys tall it towers over everything except the church. It's made of brick, and a patched fissure runs through the brickwork around the foundation, a scar from when the building was moved from the old town to the new town on the back of a flat-bed truck of monstrous proportions.
That was last summer. The truck's giant treadmarks can still be discerned in the grass behind the lodge, rounded by rain and grown through with grass.
Mr. Mississauga notes these details as he carefully lopes over the furrows, crossing the trash-spotted field toward a dirty beige trailer on concrete blocks. The trailer bears a hand-lettered sign: CITY HALL.
He knocks on the door.
It's opened by an Inuit girl with long black braids and glasses. She's wearing a stained sweatshirt that reads RED VICIOUS DID YOUR MOM. "Hey," she says carelessly. "Are you Mr. Minnesota?"
"Mississauga," says Mr. Mississauga.
"Sorry," she says. "My name's Aglakti. I'm supposed to help you with something?"
"I'm here to investigate the sleep situation."
"We're not crazy."
Mr. Mississauga does not reply, but merely continues to look into the girl's face expressionlessly. She blinks, looks down, looks away, looks back again. "Do you want to come in?" she says at last.
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga.
The trailer is filthy, a jungle whose trees are stacks of file folders bleeding papers onto the floor. It smells like old coffee and cheap tobacco. The pale green fluorescent lights buzz and stutter, casting everything in a faint dazzle of rapid strobing. There are two desks: one covered in tattered issues of Playboy and overflowing ashtrays, the other buried under a quilt of paperwork, flimsy carbons and dense tax forms fixed into distinct classes by soapstone paperweights of polar bears and loons.
Aglakti plops down behind the non-Playboy desk and gestures to an undersized school chair with a cracked orange seat for her guest. She watches him as he settles into it, bending his knees with a practiced jerk from the thighs.
"Do you have a bad leg?" she asks, pushing her glasses up on her forehead.
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I have no legs at all."
From his suitcase he withdraws a small pink notebook featuring Hello Kitty on the cover. He opens it to a page splashed with tight scrawls of shorthand, then transfers it methodically into the opposite hand before picking up a pen. Aglakti observes a squeeze of concentration pass over his face as his gloved thumb and fingers draw together to pinch the pencil, whirring quietly.
She says, "Is that a robot arm?"
"That's cool. How do you move it?"
"It's controlled by my ulnar nerve."
"So you're like Darth Vader or something, I guess. A cyborg."
This isn't a question, so Mr. Mississauga says nothing. Aglakti clears her throat and crosses legs swathed in shiny sport pants with a stripe running down the seam. The pants make swishing sounds as she fidgets. "Um, what do you want to know?" she asks.
"When did the abnormal situation first become apparent?"
"It started when we moved the town."
Mr. Mississauga's hand scritches across the page. "That was on account of the mine, is that correct?"
"Yeah," she says. She stands up and wanders over to a large paper surveyors' map tacked to the wall. "See here, this is the old site, right over the mine. When the ground started to collapse out from under us the Department of Indian Affairs came in with a bunch of big trucks and hauled everything up to where we are now. They said we had no choice. They said it was for safety."
"The entire town was transplanted?"
"Actually, no. Most people just moved away. I mean, they'd been moving away for years since the mine closed, but when the Earth started caving in that was pretty much the last straw. Most of them went to the big city."
The telephone rings. Aglakti leans over and picks it up, jamming it between her braids and shoulder. "Shit," she says. "Okay, I'll come right over." She hangs up. "They need me at the lodge. You might as well come too, so you can put your luggage in your room."
"Is everything alright?" asks Mr. Mississauga.
"It usually isn't," she shrugs.
They leave the trailer and cross the grass, Mr. Mississauga ambling patiently behind her. At the foot of the steps leading up to the lodge she hangs back. "Do you need any help on the stairs?" she asks.
She waits for him at the top, then holds open the door. The foyer is abandoned but voices can be heard from the diningroom. Mr. Mississauga follows the girl into the wide hall finished in oak, a brace of long tables angled before a cold hearth. An old man with squinty eyes sits at the bar, shouting at a young, chubby Inuit swathed in stubble. He looks up. "Aggie! Thank God you're here."
She gives the bartender a nod as she comes up behind the old man and gently touches his shoulder. He turns around abruptly and unleashes a vicious stream of staccato Inuktitut.
She replies in a soothing tone, pulling on his elbow.
Mr. Mississauga looks to the stubbled bartender. "What's the problem?" he asks.
"When he gets to drinking he forgets his English, starts going all ape-shit on everyone who can't understand him," says the bartender, turning his attention back to wiping glasses clean. "Are you the government guy?" he adds in a friendly way.
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga.
"I'm Charlie," says the bartender, wiping a hand on his apron and then offering it to shake. "Aglakti's got to be the only person under sixty around here who stills speaks the tongue. You got a stiff grip, eh?"
"The arm is artificial."
"Seriously?" whistles Charlie, looking impressed. "Science, eh?"
Aglakti taps him on the shoulder. "Look, Mr. Mississauga, I have to take my grandfather home. Charlie will help you get checked in and stuff, and then I'll come back to meet you. Okay?"
"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga.
Even an uncertain smile lights up her young face. "Yeah so okay, I'll see you in a bit. Charlie -- can you help out Mr. Mississauga here?"
"No worries, Aggie."
After Aglakti and the old man shuffle out Charlie folds open a wing at the end of the bar and waddles out, untying his apron. Mr. Mississauga trails him back to the foyer where he takes his place behind the reception desk. "Okay, okay..." mumbles Charlie, flipping through a binder. "What was your name again, buddy? Mr. Mohawk?"
"Here we go. Mr. S. Mississauga, right?"
"What's the S. stand for?"
"Sky, eh?" says Charlie, furrowing his brow and sticking out his tongue as he fills out the register. "Isn't that a girl's name?"
"That's why I use the initial."
Charlie chuckles. "Yeah, I guess you don't want everyone thinking you're queer or nothing."
Mr. Mississauga says nothing, so Charlie focusses on his penmanship for a moment, then plucks a key from a row pinned onto a bulletin board. Only one other key is gone. He presents a slip to be signed and holds out a pen. He watches in fascination as Mr. Mississauga gingerly places the pen into his right hand and then signs his name by artfully wiggling the entire arm in a series of tight, controlled loops.
When he's done Charlie comes around and picks up his suitcase. They head up the stairs together and down a short hall decorated with monochrome prints of native hunting scenes in flowing lines of hard-edged ink. They stop in front of scuffed door which Charlie swings open. "This is it," he says. "Washroom's down the hall, dinner's at six. If you need anything you just give me a holler, okay?"
"This is a good room. Nice view, soft bed. You might even wake up here tomorrow morning -- who knows?"
"Why would I wake up anywhere else?" asks Mr. Mississauga.
Charlie looks awkward. "You don't know?"
"Shit, buddy -- pardon my language -- I didn't know you didn't know yet."
"What is it I should know, Charlie?"
Charlie draws breath but hesitates. "I'm just going to leave that for to Aggie to cover, eh? She's good at explaining things. She'll be back soon."
Once Charlie has gone Mr. Mississauga opens his suitcase and takes out the charging unit for the battery pack he wears at his waist to power his right arm, and plugs it into a scratched, paint-rounded socket over the nightstand. With the mindless precision of well-worn routine he detaches the arm, uncouples the wires and fits the battery into the charger. A little amber light winks on.
He applies balm to the stump, humming quietly.
The sunlight tilts and turns ruddier as the afternoon wanes. When Mr. Mississauga leaves his room he's met by the smells of cooking: sizzling oil and meat, stinging onion vapour and boiling potato water. As he nears the diningroom he hears the overlapping of enthusiastic voices, joking and laughing in jocular German.
"Another guest! Hello, hello! Come join us at our table -- willkommen!"
Three blonde giants are arrayed around one of the long tables with pints of beer in front of them. They're red-cheeked and farmer-tanned from being outside, dressed in mottled green camouflage jackets and matching caps.
Mr. Mississauga introduces himself. The Germans are delighted to meet him. "I am Lars," gushes the tallest, then points to his companions; "this is my brother Klaus, and this is our cousin Arnivolfe."
"Hello!" says Klaus, grinning toothily.
Arnivolfe makes a curious grunt Mr. Mississauga recognizes as the international noise of incomprehension. "Gutenabend," he offers hopefully. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
"Nein," replies Mr. Mississauga.
"Arnivolfe can't learn English," explains Lars cheerfully. "He takes a class and he takes a class, but nothing happens inside of his brain to make him speak."
Arnivolfe makes another baffled sound. Klaus rolls his eyes. "We tolt him novone would speak German here, but he does not belief. He says, 'Who needs English to shoot a bear?'"
Lars and Klaus laugh uproariously. Arnivolfe smiles politely and sips his beer.
"You're the only guests at the lodge?" asks Mr. Mississauga as he manoeuvres himself into a wooden chair and slips the Hello Kitty notebook out of his coat.
"Ja, we have the whole place for ourselves," says Lars.
"Ja, und we got a discount," adds Klaus.
"Huh?" says Arnivolfe, looking between them with a look of consternation.
Mr. Mississauga glances up. "Why the discount?"
"Because of the problem with the town at night, naturally," says Lars. "But it is causing us no trouble, this problem, is it, Klaus?"
"No," agrees Klaus, "we wake up here every morning so far, sount und safe. It is a great mystery, ja?"
"Ja," chimes in Lars, nodding. "It is like we are on the X-Files television, where there is always an enigma such as this. Also this television they shoot it in Canada, so it is a double vacation for us: the polar bears, ja, and the mystery."
They're interrupted as Charlie swoops in with three plates on a tray: roast beef, mashed potatoes, fried beets, green beans swimming in butter. As he places them before each of the Germans he asks, "What can I get for you, Mr. Mississauga? You got to be hungry after your trip, eh?"
"I would like a can of Campbell's Scotch Broth," says Mr. Mississauga.
"That's all? Anything on the side?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "Just bring the can and a spoon."
Charlie scratches his jaw. "You don't even want me to heat it up?"
Charlie is bewildered and chews the inside of his cheek. He wonders if the guest is pulling his leg. "...You just want me to open it for you, is that all?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I'll open it myself."
"You know," says Charlie, "we do offer a full menu, Mr. Mississauga. And it's early in the season so we even have the stuff to make most of it."
Mr. Mississauga looks at Charlie politely but says nothing. Charlie shrugs and walks back to the kitchen behind the bar. Lars says, "Why not we should buy you some beer, ja? Let us treat you, friend."
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I don't drink alcohol."
"Not ever?" asks Klaus, incredulous.
"Not ever," he confirms.
"Not even during the Oktoberfest?"
"Are you a Muslim?"
Charlie returns with the tin of Campbell's soup, a silver spoon and a tarnished can opener. He lays them down before Mr. Mississauga and then adds a fabric napkin to complete the composition. "Are you sure that's all you want?" asks Charlie, frowning.
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga.
The Germans observe him opening the can, transferring items methodically from his holding hand to his gripping hand, both swathed in leather. "You are an amputated?" asks Lars, raising his brow. His eyelashes and eyebrows are so blonde they're transparent.
"No," replies Mr. Mississauga as he cranks open the soup. "I am the victim of various birth defects, including phocomelia."
"I am sorry to hear this."
Mr. Mississauga swallows a spoonful of cold soup, then turns back to his little pink notebook. "You mentioned, Klaus, that you wake up safe and sound each morning in this lodge. Do others have a different experience?"
"Ja, this is why the discount. The guests before us they wake up with the townspeople."
"But not us," adds Klaus. "We wake up in our beds."
"Where do the townspeople wake up?" asks Mr. Mississauga.
"Huh?" grunts Arnivolfe.
The Germans stare over Mr. Mississauga's head to catch a glimpse of Aglakti as she returns, hands jammed in her pockets, sport pants swishing. She walks up beside Mr. Mississauga's chair. "Sorry that took so long," she mutters. "There was trouble at home."
The Germans rocket to their feet. Klaus pushes past Lars to draw out a chair. "Please, heff a seat, Miss. Allow me."
"Gutenabend, Fraulein," smiles Arnivolfe, straightening his wire-rimmed glasses fastidiously.
Aglakti sits down and so do the Germans. "You want to get me a Coca-Cola, Charlie?" she calls. Charlie nods from behind the bar and turns to fetch a bottle. It chuffs open with a clink and a sigh.
Mr. Mississauga downs another spoonful of soup. "Where does everyone wake up each morning, Aglakti?" he asks.
She shrugs awkwardly. "We're not supposed to talk about it in front of the guests." Charlie hands her the Coke. "Thanks," she says.
"Do not worry for us," says Lars, holding aloft a fork tipped in beef. "We already know all about it. It is nothing to us but interesting."
"Like X-Files," adds Klaus, nodding.
"Huh?" squints Arnivolfe.
Klaus rolls his eyes again. "X-Files, Arni. Das Fernsehprogramm!"
"Ja, ja," agrees Arnivolfe with a wide smile. "Scully und Mulder."
Mr. Mississauga turns back to Aglakti expectantly, pen poised over the page. She makes a face and then settles her chin into her palm resignedly. "You're not allowed to say we're crazy." Mr. Mississauga says nothing, so she continues: "Just about everybody who goes to sleep here wakes up in the old town -- exactly where their beds would be if we'd never moved."
Mr. Mississauga pauses, considering. "Mass sleepwalking?" he says, his eyes distant and pensive. "How far away is the old town site?"
"It's not sleepwalking," insists Aglakti. "They just go to sleep here, wake up there. Like, poof."
"Poof?" echoes Mr. Mississauga.
"Ja, poof," agrees Lars. He snaps his fingers to illustrate.
Arnivolfe suddenly catches on to the subject of conversation. "Wie ein Zaubertrick," he says, nodding quickly.
"Can I see this happen?" asks Mr. Mississauga.
"You can't see anything," says Aglakti. "I mean, you can watch but it doesn't look like nothing. There's no flash of light or puff of smoke or whatever. It just kind of happens. Or, I guess, it happens and then a second later you notice."
Lars snaps his fingers again. "Poof."
Arnivolfe frowns. "Was bedeutet dieses Wort, das 'poof'?"
Charlie bends over the hearth and starts a fire. Mr. Mississauga makes a final, decisive scrawl in his notebook, then gets to his feet and stumps over beside Charlie. He tosses the notebook into the flames and watches it burn, the pages curling as they brown. "Don't you need that, Mister?" asks Charlie.
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "Writing helps me commit things to memory. I have no use for the debris."
"Also it could fall into the wrong hands," suggests Lars. "Perhaps a shadow government, or the people who control the bees."
"Ja, I saw that episode!" enthuses Klaus.
"Huh?" says Arnivolfe.
Mr. Mississauga turns to Aglakti. "I'd like to see this for myself. Can you arrange that?"
"I guess so. You want to watch somebody sleep?"
Lars nods. "Perhaps we could help you. We could also watch. More eyes are better, ja? We can all watch Aglakti sleeping in her bed."
Klaus nods, too. "Ja, that is a goot idea."
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I work alone."
The Germans seem deflated.
Aglakti says, "I bet Charlie'll let you. He sleeps here at the lodge, so we don't have to go nowhere."
"Very well," agrees Mr. Mississauga.
Charlie's gone back to the kitchen so Aglakti and Mr. Mississauga slip behind the bar to find him. He's standing over a stainless steel double sink, taking a dripping pot encrusted with potatoes out of the water to be scrubbed as he whistles a pop tune. "You want to watch me what?" he says, brow furrowed.
"I want to watch you sleep," repeats Mr. Mississauga. "I want to see it happen."
Charlie wipes his hands on his apron, then puts them on his hips as he gnaws his bristly upper lip thoughtfully. "Well, okay I guess. If it's for the investigation and all. It sounds a little creepy though, eh?" With a chuckle he adds, "You're not some kind of weirdo, are you?"
Mr. Mississauga isn't paying attention. He's sidled up next to the sink, peering inside as the soapy, grey water gurgles downward and begins to swirl down the drain. He reaches into the pocket of his long coat and withdraws a bright yellow notebook that says LUCKY DIARY on the cover surrounded by Japanese ideograms and purple hearts.
"Counter-clockwise," mumbles Mr. Mississauga, making a note.
Aglakti and Charlie exchange a nervous look. "Don't worry, Charlie," she says. "I'll be there, too."