From the author: A little morality tale from my early crime-writing days. I wrote it for a friend of mine who was editing a worthy little fiction magazine called Storyteller.
MEAN MR. MUSTARD
by Matt Hughes
The room was small and simple, but neatly kept and warmed by the early summer sun. There was a narrow bed with a clean but well worn quilt, a wooden table and chair, and a chest of drawers. No one piece matched any of the others; it was a room furnished from the Goodwill store.
"Very nice," said Anthony Mostardi. It was not his first lie of the day. He put his suitcase on the faded throw rug and limped to the window. "That's a good looking vegetable garden. Must be rich soil."
"A lot depends on what you plant," said Mrs. Strang from the doorway. "You got a farming background?"
"No, I just don't think I've ever seen a cabbage quite that size."
"Too bad. I always appreciate good gardening advice, and my tomatoes could use some help." She crossed the room, glanced at the rows of plants and shook her head. Then she sat down at the table, a little fireplug of a woman with tiny, dark eyes and bristly hair that was just a shade too red for human. She crossed her stubby arms. "I like to know who I'm opening my home to," she said. "You won't mind me asking a few questions."
Mostardi sat on the edge of the bed, extending his right leg slightly so that the frayed cuff rode up and exposed the bottom of the steel brace. "Fire away," he said.
The interrogation lasted less than three minutes. She asked most of the questions he had thought an experienced boarding house owner might ask, and he told her the plausible falsehoods he had carefully rehearsed.
"That's fine," she said, letting her arms unfold. "There's just a couple of forms you can fill in after you get yourself settled." She stood and moved to the door with a rolling, muscular gait that reminded Mostardi of the prize-winning bulldog bitch that belonged to his neighbor on the quiet, leafy street in the up-market Shaughnessy district, where he really lived.
He clumped downstairs five minutes later and found her in the big, old fashioned kitchen. The house was three stories, wood framed, dating from the twenties, and probably purpose-built to be a boarding house. It was one of a row of four similar piles of post-and-siding on East Eleventh Avenue out near the rim of Vancouver, in an area that had never been anything but blue collar.
She gave him a standard form provided by the Ministry of Social Services which authorized the government to send the rent portion of his monthly disability money straight to Mrs. Strang. He signed it and she handed him another.
"If you don't have a bank account," she said, "you'll have to cash your check at the Money Mart. Which means they'll hold back five per cent. Or you can sign this and authorize me to cash it for you, and I'll do it for free."
This is her insurance that she'll get her board money too, he thought, preventing it from becoming confused and disoriented in some place where they serve alcohol, and never making it home at all. Out loud, he said, "That's very good of you," and signed the paper.
"This is the last one," she said. "Tells me who to notify in case of emergency."
"There's nobody," Mostardi lied.
She put the completed forms in the top drawer of an old sideboard, then picked up a tray loaded with a pitcher and glasses. "Would you like some lemonade?" she said, assembling a smile. "Homemade."
Mostardi liked his beverages poured from bottles with labels he had to blow the dust off. "Maybe later," he said, getting up. "I like to walk most afternoons. Keeps the leg from paining me come evening."
"I serve supper at six," she said. "No later."
"I'll be here."
Walking the two blocks east to Commercial Drive, he realized he'd never been on foot in such a neighborhood before. He was glad when he reached the Saab in the parking lot behind the low-rise medical-dental building. Before he got in, Mostardi unclipped the brace and laid it on the passenger seat.
Fifteen minutes later, he was in his half-glassed office on the periphery of the Vancouver News Herald newsroom, his fingers skittering over the keyboard. So far, it was just notes, but he couldn't resist writing up what he knew would be the lead para.
They live better than the kings of old, the exposé would begin. They can flick a switch for light and heat, get hot water from a tap and free books from the library. They have a warm place in which to sit and do what the mighty Charlemagne had to accomplish over the edge of a drafty battlement.
Mostardi knew the liberals and left-wingers in the news room called him "Mean Mr. Mustard" behind his back. He didn't care. Right was right, and it was his calling to sweep away the cobwebs of pap and pop psychology, to lay bare some home truths about human nature.
"It's not as easy as you think," said the paper's chief bleeding heart, an editorial writer who wore her hair just a little longer than shaved and favored black sweaters and tights. "You try living on a disability allowance."
I will, said Mostardi, but only to himself. And I expect to enjoy it.
In truth, he knew that nobody on the public dole was living as well he was. He had a tasteful house, a wine cellar that would be truly worth crowing about in another three or four years, money in the bank and an investment portfolio that would comfortably see him through to the grave. His wife had moved on to a man with lower standards, leaving him more than content.
"But if life has dealt you low cards, you can still live a decent existence," he would say. "Beethoven is on the radio for free. Dickens will tell you the same tale whether you picked him up for a dollar in the secondhand store or paid ten thousand at a rare book auction."
"Things always look simple to the simple minded," said the editorial writer. "The rich and the poor live on different planets. For the rich it's a pleasure garden; for the poor it's a jungle."
Mostardi had given her one of the sniffs that he'd decided to establish as his trademark.
A bottle of single malt scotch had secured the aid of the paper's senior crime beat reporter. The columnist was vouched for to a little man who had an office in the back room of a printer's shop in suburban Burnaby. For less than the scotch had cost, Mostardi was fitted out with a complete set of suitably tattered identification, including a note on a physician's letterhead that said he suffered from a disability with a long Latin name, and was permanently unemployable.
It cost him more scotch -- but this was taken by the glass in the comfortable bar of the Meridien Hotel on Burrard Street -- to have his lawyer assure him that his imposture would not be a criminal act, so long as he made full restitution of any moneys received from the government.
"Most people don't know," said the counselor, a plump, soft looking man with a mind that could cut glass, "that you can open bank accounts under false names, tell outrageous lies about your accomplishments and grant yourself a string of phony degrees -- so long as you're not doing it for fraudulent gain." The lawyer noticed that his glass had become empty, and rattled its half-melted ice to summon a fresh supply from the waiter. "Just make sure you keep meticulous records and repay every penny before you publish."
Mostardi swore the crime reporter and his lawyer to secrecy, and prepared his plans. The next Monday, he asked for and received a three-week leave of absence. On Tuesday morning, he got in line at the welfare office on East Hastings Street, inching forward to the glass booth with a grilled hole in it, behind which stood a semi-somnolent clerk. By early afternoon, working from a list of addresses provided by the Ministry of Social Services, he had located Mrs. Strang's boarding house and been found acceptable.
After making his notes at the office, Mostardi drove home and parked the Saab in the garage, fed the goldfish and asked the bulldog fancier to keep an eye on the place.
"Going away?" asked the neighbor.
"For a while."
Mostardi took a cab to Commercial and East Broadway, put his brace back on and walked the two blocks to the boarding house, arriving a little after five.
Mrs. Strang stuck her head and shoulders out of the kitchen as he came through the front door. She was wearing an apron smeared with flour, and white flecks were caught in the fine hairs that covered her forearms. "Supper in a little while," she said. "How about some of that lemonade, now?"
"No, thank you," Mostardi said. "Lemons are too acidy for my stomach."
She stared at him as if he was a puzzle she was working out.
The house was very quiet. He could hear the rush of traffic a block away on East Twelfth. "Is anybody else around?" he asked. "I'd like to meet some of the other boarders."
"You'll be joining them directly," she said. "Do you drink coffee? Tea? I have some ice tea."
Offering beverages seems to be important to her, he thought, but I guess a decent wine's out of the question. "Ice tea would be fine, thank you," he said.
She smiled then, a quick flash of uneven teeth. "Why don't you sit in the parlor and I'll fetch you a glass," she said.
The room had an unlived-in feel, the mismatched armchairs and couch slumped around the 1960s vintage console tv like depressed old men. The curtains were drawn against the late afternoon sun. Mostardi turned the set on and sat in the chair that looked the least unhappy.
It took all of thirty seconds for the picture to resolve itself. Before the image cleared, a refined female voice said something about "the miniature monsters that stalk and rend each other unnoticed beneath our feet." Then the screen showed a trapdoor spider popping out of its hidey hole to drag a cricket down to doom.
Mrs. Strang came in with what looked to be the same pitcher and glasses from which she had offered him lemonade. She poured two glasses and handed him one, then sat on the couch. "I put in plenty of sugar to sweeten it up for you," she said.
Mostardi wondered if, by the time he wrote his article, he would have any palate left. But he smiled, lifted the glass to her and drained half of it in three big gulps.
"Interesting aftertaste," he said. "It reminds me of..." but before he could finish, the glass slid from his hand. His face took on an expression it had never worn before, while his body straightened wherever it had been bent -- he was no longer a man sitting in the chair, but had become a rigid man-shaped object leaning against it. His heels juddered a brief tattoo on the carpet, then the room was still.
Mrs. Strang got up, poured her untouched glass of tea back into the pitcher and collected Mostardi's glass. Miraculously, it had landed on its base and had not tipped over, so there would be no mess to clean up this time.
A week after his leave of absence expired, people started to wonder about Mostardi's whereabouts, but it was almost a month more before it could be said that anybody was actually worried. It was still longer before the crime reporter and the lawyer were convinced they ought to break their oaths of confidentiality, and even then the investigation almost hit a dead end because the little forger in Burnaby couldn't remember which false name he'd put on the papers.
It was still nothing more than a missing person case, so it was almost Labor Day before a police constable, checking out a list of disability claimants culled from Ministry files, climbed Mrs. Strang's front steps and asked her about the man whose twice-monthly checks she'd been cashing since June.
Mrs. Strang said she believed he was out walking, for the benefit of his bad leg, but would be back real soon. She asked the policeman to step inside for a glass of cold lemonade, the day being unusually warm. A few minutes later, she left the house carrying a suitcase and a metal strongbox. She scuttled down to the street, put the luggage into the trunk of her car and drove away.
She regretted leaving her garden unharvested, especially now that Mr. Mostardi was bringing her tomatoes to perfection.
This story originally appeared in Storyteller.