A small town with two funeral parlours was an oddity, one with two mattress stores was a peculiarity. For the first, the town required enough deaths to sustain both undertakers. For the second, the community needed to treat their mattresses like fast fashion. Disposing of them as quickly as the latest styles but not as rapidly as their cell phones. John Fullmore Freemore Fillmore IV, or More to his friends and anyone who thought his full name was ridiculous, which, coincidentally was everyone who met him, was unnerved to find all the computer systems in his car died in this small town with two mattress shops and two funeral parlours.
His car stopped, abruptly, outside the elementary school, proudly advertising their fifth successful run of the Princess and the Pea, as interpreted by Mrs. MacIllroy. He banged his head against the plush leather steering wheel as he repeatedly turned the key. The car would not start. There wasn’t even the sound of a spark plug sparking. He hit his head on the steering wheel again, after futilely turning the key a fourteenth time. “Really, this is bordering on obsessive now,” he said, turning the key one more time and banging his head against the steering wheel twice, for good measure. It wouldn’t bruise, he was too stubborn for that. But no amount of obstinacy would start the car again.
A heavy knuckled knock on the driver’s side window startled him. He thought he looked ridiculous, reflected wide eyed and gasping in the glass, a red pressure mark on his forehead. “You got troubles there?” a rotund man with an impeccably groomed long white beard in an oil stained coverall yelled through the window. Behind him, an old fashioned looking gas station and garage, as oil smeared as he was, with the sign “MacTavish’s Auto”.
More nodded and reached for the door handle as the man stepped back from the car. “Everything shut off,” he said, lunging out of the car, putting one foot directly in a murky puddle, splashing the stagnant filmy water over his shoe and up his sock. He wrinkled his nose. “I think it might have something to do with the electrics?” Which is what he assumed the computer systems in cars were called. He hated driving. He hated cars. He rented this one to visit his grandfather, deep in the country, where no trains went. In hindsight, it was a mistake.
“Safety systems all controlled by a central computer in the car and if they get damaged …” the elderly mechanic trailed off and drew his left index finger across his throat in the dramatic gesture, sticking his tongue out for effect. “I can run a diagnostic and see if you can get this back on the road.” He smiled; his cheeks crowding his eyes.
“It’s a rental, actually. Is there a train nearby?”
“Nope. Nearest train is further than Nat wants to drive anymore. She is getting on in years. Turned eighty-six last May,” the mechanic settled his hands over his substantial belly. He looked like a man replete with good food.
“It’s May now. When is her birthday?” More asked, but he didn’t expect to, his own curiosity caught him off guard.
“Ah,” More said, mostly because his couldn’t think of another response.
“I’ll go get the gadget that’s supposed to read this,” the mechanic said, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. “Be back in less time than it takes to post to social media.”
More leaned against the hood of the car, hands fisted in his trouser pockets trying not to think about what was in the puddle, given it hadn’t rained anywhere for several days. He kicked at a spray of gravel, near the tire. A youngish man with a brick jaw and a forehead of gelled spiked hair hurried past, papers in hand. More looked back down the street, to see what caused his rush. There was a green grocer, a butcher of the old school, a cheese monger of the new school, the stately signs of the two funeral homes, and the two mattress stores. “Why two of them? Who needs that many beds? Is there a hidden suburb?” More asked himself. He heard the laughter of children behind him.
“High jump today,” a teacher yelled over the din. “Tommy and Timmy, get the equipment from the shed.”
More turned to see two young boys trot off to the prefabricated plastic shed, the kind which mimicked ceramic shingles and cedar siding all in one colour. They each dragged a memory foam mattress onto the field while the teacher fussed with the set-up of the crossbars. “Might need double today lads,” the teacher called, sending them running back.
“Got it,” the mechanic’s cheerful voice broke into the scene. “Now, let’s hook her up and see what the problem is,” he said, as More popped the hood on the car. There was a grunt as the older man bent over the mess of parts. More walked around and looked at the engine, which was covered and proved to be more of a mystery than he expected. Wires now trailed out of the car to a diagnostic tablet. There was a lot of beeping, which meant nothing to More but apparently meant something to the jovial mechanic, who hummed with a purpose. “Well, I am not sure how to tell you this, but this car won’t move. You see this connecter here?” he pointed to a maze of wires on the small screen. “It isn’t transmitting the information like it is was meant. It’ll take me at least a week to get the part in.”
“This is a rental. You are probably going to have to take it up with the company, who will take it up with my insurance, who will take it up with me. In six months, you might be able replace it,” More said, kicking the front bumper of the car. “I hate cars. And now I shall have to spend hours on my phone talking about them so I can get a new one to get back to the city. ”
“I think you might be here for the night. Regular business hours and all,” the mechanic said, checking his watch before unhooking the wires from the tablet and coiling them back into another mysterious compartment in the enigma which made the car run.
More glanced at his own watch, pulling his cell phone from his pocket. It was ticking up to four in the afternoon. “That explains track and field practice,” he said, dialling the number helpfully stickered on the dashboard. The mechanic waited with More, rocking back on his heels, his thumbs hooked into the loose armholes of his coveralls, the tablet hooked deftly to his belt. A recording answered after one ring. The computerized woman’s voice informing him of regular business hours, which were predictably Monday through Wednesday from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. “Damn,” he was short of polysyllabic responses today.
“There is a motel, a short jaunt down the road,” the mechanic pointed up the street. It was there, the garish sign visible, lit by a hundred lightbulbs surrounding it, beyond the puppet theatre and puppet factory. There was a part of him wishing to ask out loud, why puppets and then realized mattresses were made of foam and so were puppets.
“Do we need to push the car in?” More gestured to the inert lump of metal in the street.
“No, there is no traffic and it is far enough out of the way, we can leave it here,” the jovial mechanic said with a wave of his hand. He was starting to remind More of Father Christmas in the off season. “You go get yourself settled in and fed.”
More walked down the street, past the puppet factory, there was a display of the seasonal wares in the window. A furry princess with a shiny tin crown, there was a large card pinned to her crystal covered dress which said, “Real Austrian Crystal”. There was a hippie musician, holding a bassoon, made of perfectly formed foam, hardened with paint and glue. There was an orange, ragged monster popping out of a recycling bin, a starburst placard screamed “EDUCATIONAL”. The puppet theatre was showing a run of The Princess and the Pea, as interpreted by Mr. MacIllroy, THE famous local dramatist. “I wonder what play the high school is putting on,” More said as he passed. “Probably, The Prince and the Bowling Ball by Ms. MacIllroy.” The door to the puppet theatre swung outwards and the brick jawed young man stamped onto the sidewalk. He might have been considered attractive in the manner of all older frat boys, More thought, which wasn’t really at all, but his expression made one think better of knowing him. More continued his walk, barley a few steps further to the motel.
The motel’s front office sported a sign boasting “the most comfortable beds in town” but the elderly lady behind the desk leaned over and said, in the confidential way of someone stating a perfectly known fact as a secret, “the only beds in town.” She handed him a key, an old one on a heavy metal fob. The kind never forgotten in a pocket. The kind which forces pockets down to ankles while simultaneously denying belts exist. He walked under the portico lined by cheery red doors. He unlocked the door and turned the handle. The door wouldn’t move. He put his shoulder to it. Slammed against it. Eventually, it moved, opened enough. He slipped through. He was not surprised by the carpet choice: mattresses.
He kicked the corner of the mattress nearest the door and bounced along to the one stacked upon the rest which had sheets, pillows, and a coverlet. It felt like a trampoline park. The television, smartly, was recessed into the wall, otherwise he would have hit his head in a wild bounce which sent him careening. More bounced to the window and back, it was fun, which surprised him. He laughed out loud which faded into a light chuckle as he locked the door and decided to go off in search of the answer to his earlier question about the two mattress shops.
He took his time, looking in the windows of all the shops. The bookstore with its old fashioned bell. The hand drawn sign in the window, with the website and social media profiles listed. The trendy bicycle repair café, an old house repurposed and the sign above the door read “MacTavish’s Cycles”. More wondered if it was the mechanic’s wife or daughter. “Maybe a niece,” he said, as a young woman with hair piled messily on top of her head pushed a newly repaired bicycle while taking a large bite of a homemade chocolate chip cookie. She glared at the young man with the fondness for hair gel, who was still stomping from business to business along the main street, the stack of papers in his arm looking more ragged and dogeared.
The town was more puzzling than the engine. It was too disparate. Pleasant, smiling people but one angry man stomping everywhere he went. One part charming businesses in quaint old homes. The other covered in mattresses and their innards.
He shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and continued strolling. There was a pleasant little restaurant, the kind found on all main streets in all small towns. The one that served homemade soup, delicious baked breads, and whatever wine was to hand. And he decided needed supper. Serendipity made the choice, he thought, pushing the door inwards to the pleasant jingle of a wind chime. He was seated by a quiet and serious young man. He ordered a glass of red wine, not really caring what it was, as long as it was good. He sipped it happily when it arrived. It tasted like berries. It was something More would serve himself at home.
“Ah, nice to see you soaking up some of the local product,” the mechanic said, coming through the door with the jangle of the bell. “I was afraid you were going to sit in your motel room all night.” He rubbed his large hands together, no longer oil smeared. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all. It would be nice to have some friendly conversation,” More said, waving to the seat across from him, a poor imitation of a birthday party magician.
“Marge makes a mean nut roast, if you’re interested,” the older man said. “By the way, name’s Ed. Ed MacTavish.”
“More.” More responded.
“First or last?”
“Mostly last, but that is what everyone calls me. And I am very interested in that nut roast. And the town. It is such a bevy of contradiction.”
“That’s what happens when the younger generation moves back from the city and when the older generation gets ideas.” MacTavish leaned back in his chair; hands once again folded over his well-fed stomach.
“The cycle café is your daughter’s?” More guessed, twirling the wine glass stem between his fingers, letting the deep red vintage catch the light.
“Absolutely. Proudest I have ever been was the day she opened. She is a mechanical engineer. No jobs left in the city. She learned to fix bicycles and bake instead. I go there for the free cookies.” He laughed, patting his protruding stomach.
“The bookshop sells online?” More asked, leaning back in his chair and taking his wine with him.
“They send to anywhere in the world, provided you pay the postage. You in the market for a new book?” Ed leaned forward on the table.
“Always. And, it is nice to find an independent bookshop surviving in the world of big box stores,” More sipped from his glass and then smiled. “This town, it feels almost…hipster.”
“Marge does serve avocado toast for breakfast.” Ed nodded, playing the knowledgeable sage. “We like the feel. All the independence with none of the lumberjack chic,” he gestured at the décor, which was minimalist and modern.
“The thing that puzzles me the most…” More trailed off, thinking better of asking the question.
“The two funeral homes,” Ed said, clasping his hands together on the table as the server brought him a glass of wine.
“No. That one I know. One is modern traditional and the other is ultra-traditional, in the care for your own dead at home and dig the grave yourself tradition.” More looked across the table to see Ed’s bewilderment. “I read an advertisement at the motel. Either the proprietor is considering her options or guests require some interesting services, but that is beside the point. No, it is the mattress stores. And it is clear the whole town leaned in to it. Is there a hidden factory? Are mattress themed things what this town is known for? Do people buy them as souvenirs when their cars break down?” More sipped from his glass.
“Ah, now that is a tale to tell,” Ed said, settling his shoulders back into the chair. “Sadly, it is a cautionary tale. We’ve learned balance since then.”
“Intriguing,” More said, thinking at least he achieved more than one syllable this time as he placed his wine back on the table.
Ed winked at him. “Well, back when this town was struggling in the crash. Social media was starting out. The big ones weren’t even known properties yet. And we had this young lad, went off to university in the city. Took a marketing degree. Tried for a while to get a job. But the economy was down.”
“It was everywhere,” More agreed.
“And well, times being what they were, he moved home. Back to his parents’ basement. Now, start-up culture was going strong. And he has an idea. He is going to start his own business. From his parents’ basement. Be a real basement operator. He started looking around town for clients. Offering social media marketing packages. The next wave of customer engagement. He had packages for everything, blog posts, picture posts, witty captions. You must be familiar with all the terms by now.” Ed waved towards More, dismissing the details of the story in favour of shared knowledge.
“Who isn’t? The marketing is ubiquitous and insidious. There isn’t a moment I am not being sold something, even if I am reading a recipe blog. I have to scroll through a billion ads and the content of the blog post is trying to sell me the equipment they used,” More shuddered, the theatrical gesture a knowing parody of their earlier meeting.
“Exactly. Follow the link from the website, cookies are all tracked, and the seller and the advertiser get the money you spend. Well, we weren’t as knowledgeable then as we are now. I didn’t even have a diagnostic computer back in those days. Only the Johnsons took him up on his deal. They were his first clients.” Ed said, reaching for his own wine on the table.
“His only clients?” More raised an eyebrow.
“At the time. The man did not know what an exclusivity clause was. Neither did I, at the time. But we all know now.” Ed sipped from his glass. “Oh, but that is a nice Chablis.” He smacked his lips.
“The young lad or Johnson?” More said, reaching for his own glass and swirling the Margaux.
“The young lad knew full well what he was doing,” Ed said, his eyebrows drawing together. It was the first time More saw him disgruntled. Granted, their acquaintance wasn’t long but he had a sense this man was always happy and friendly. “Johnson happily signs him up. The young lad goes to work. Creating content. Photos, blog posts about how amazing mattresses are, pseudo-scientific nonsense about sleep. Everyone in town has friended everyone else on all of these platforms. Suddenly, we are getting three, four, ten advertisements a day to go buy a new mattress at Johnson’s. And we all do. It was weird. We all bought comfy new beds and everyone was happy for a time. Slept better, I guess. Johnson took his family on some expensive vacation to somewhere like Abu Dhabi or something. A trendy place at the time. Or maybe it was one of those islands everyone says is disappearing. Anyway, while he is gone for a month, a new mattress shop opens. Telfer, from the city, heard some pillow-talk the sales here skyrocketed. He sets up shop and our enterprising young lad offers his services.” He paused to take a sip of his wine. And then another.
The server came by and dropped off two plates of nut roast with sautéed vegetables and vegan mashed potatoes. More pulled himself back to the table and spread his napkin out over his lap. “So, this young lad omits the exclusivity clause again.” He picked up his fork.
“Got it in one,” Ed said, almost exactly copying More’s movements. “Telfer’s business is going so well, through whatever advertising campaign the young lad put together, that the mattress companies start sending him free product. Now, Johnson doesn’t want to be outdone. He has the young lad scale up his campaign. And he starts getting free mattresses. Soon, it is cheaper to buy a new mattress than it is to buy new carpet. Buy one get one free and all that,” he said, fork in hand, poised to dig into the pile of fluffy potatoes.
“That explains why my motel room is a trampoline,” More said, cutting into the nut roast with the side of his fork.
“That was absolutely criminal what he did to Agnes. She is still paying off all those mattresses. The young lad said the big chains in the city were putting mattresses all over the floor to attract families. Owes Johnson several thousand still. If you have the time, stay for a few days, it would really help her out,” Ed looked at More, his expression earnest and pleading. “We force our own families from out of town to stay there so she doesn’t die in debt.”
The chime over the door jangled once more. The man with the furiously spiked hair stepped in, determined. “Out,” the quiet server said, pointing to the door. “We don’t want to talk to you.”
Ed picked his napkin off his lap and threw it on the table. He pushed his chair out and stood. “Marge said no the last three times. I doubt the answer changed.” His voice was even, exaggerated with patience but he seemed to grow larger as the cheerfulness left him. Not someone More wished to see fully angered. The young man pushed his jaw forward, making him look petulant, stubborn, and seething. He glared for a moment and stomped out. The mechanic sat down once more. He breathed heavily as he replaced his napkin and sighed as he took up his fork. “Sorry,” he said.
More nodded. “I have a week I can sacrifice. And no car.” He chuckled and Ed joined in, breaking the tension in the quiet restaurant. Even the server sighed with relief.
Ed nodded; the bargain struck.
“And meanwhile, our young lad,” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder, “convinces Telfer and Johnson people will purchase more if they can buy into the message of the company. And then, both of them are donating mattresses to local concerns, Telfer donates a half tonne of product to the RSPCA. Johnson heads for the schools. Telfer posts on the company page that they are donating to the theatre. Johnson says he is giving them away for naptime at the community centre.”
“But this must have been a decade ago. Why are there still two mattress stores?” More said, a fork stacked with nut roast, perfectly cooked carrot, and mustard and roasted garlic mashed potatoes, half way to his mouth.
“You know how things are. Parents start insisting on fresh props for all the school plays. They go off and buy more mattresses. They find lice on the jump pads in the school, those get trashed and the school buys more mattresses.” He paused and took a bite of his own supper. “Really, Marge has a deft hand with this. I cannot make my own taste this good.” He pointed at his plate with the tines of his fork.
“But that only explains the school. There are enough mattresses to keep a puppet factory going.” More said, taking the last sip of his wine. The server, silent once more, appeared from nowhere to fill his glass the moment he put it on the table.
“Well, people adapt to their environment. Alex was up to the city, took a mixed media arts degree. Comes home to find her childhood backyard piled high with mattresses. So, she does something about it. She pulls them apart, makes a few puppets, and sells them on that crafting platform. Suddenly, we have a puppet factory. She makes so many of them she gets used to the material and refuses to use anything else. Johnson and Telfer sell her more mattresses and she makes more puppets. They are still making money hand over fist. They aren’t going anywhere.” Ed cut his nut roast into meticulous little squares.
“And the intrepid entrepreneur?” More asked, leaning slightly forward, hoping there was some form of justice, more than what he saw, the man tramping from business to business.
“Well, Johnson and Telfer realized they were being played against each other. They got talking, for the first time. And decided to not pay the lad for anymore work. They were his only two clients.” Ed shrugged.
“Couldn’t he have gone to the two funeral homes?”
“We only got the radical one last year,” Ed reached for his wine glass. “Anyway, the whole town, by this point, knows what he did to Agnes. Which he claims was completely out of character and only a desperate act to keep his income. His parents are mortally embarrassed because Agnes, turns out, lent them the money for their house when they were starting. They have to kick him out or leave town in embarrassment. Naturally, they all chose to move to the next town over. Problem is, that town had someone who did the exact same thing. Taught us a thing or two in the process,” Ed said, taking a heaping forkful of mashed potatoes.
More nodded his agreement. He pondered the answer to his question. He now knew why a small town had two mattress stores but it made him think about other things. About unrestrained capitalist markets and about justice; what was possible in a small town with limited selection. Especially when it came to perfectly legal, if unscrupulous, business practices. They had enacted some form of justice amongst themselves, proportionate to the ethical transgression. “Vote with your dollar,” More said with a shrug. Ed nodded. They ate in silence for a few minutes. Not long, but long enough for More to contemplate buying puppets for all his nieces and nephews.