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The Foreign Element


Chris Brock’s “The Foreign Element:”won the grand prize for short fiction at the 2016 North Country Writers contest, sponsored by Jefferson Community College.

It was a great day for Lyle Notting when he realized he was within reach of his deep-seated goal and obsession of lugging home a free-standing walk-in cooler.

That fact hit him when he saw the newspaper advertisement for the going-out-of business auction at his neighborhood McDonald’s restaurant in Riverview. Everything had to go, the ad said, and very cheaply.

The dream of owning his very own walk-in cooler was initiated one day while Lyle was enjoying his daily cup of coffee at McDonald’s. Seated near a window, he saw a lone worker pace through the parking lot on his way to the large shiny aluminum box in the back of the restaurant. The golden arches, reflected from the nearby sign, gleamed off the chrome. For Lyle, it was a patriotic scene and he felt his heart warm, although it may have been the McMuffin. But at the door to the cooler, the young man expertly worked a key, lifted a lever, and walked into it.

After some minutes, the young man walked out carrying large bags, presumably frozen fries or burgers. Lyle sipped his coffee and thought of the possibilities. What an addition to his back yard it could be. The walk-in cooler could be a man cave, or be more practical: He could bury the thing in his back yard, with its door facing up, and put whatever he wanted to in it; load it with potatoes, bacon or even salted cod. He heard about survivalists in eastern Quebec doing the salted cod thing. Maybe he could do salted carp if he caught enough in the St. Lawrence. He could quit his job at the cheese factory and sell the stuff at the farmers market.

The possibilities grew the more he thought about it. He'd be prepared for the upcoming apocalypse, or even the next economic downturn. At the least, it would make for an interesting conversation piece. Maybe he could even have himself buried in it someday. Everybody, he reasoned, needed a functional, repurposed walk-in cooler, and he would lead the way for the masses.

Lyle was a frugal man, which attracted him to such auctions like the one at the restaurant. It was getting rid of everything, from the tables to ceiling fixtures. The eatery would be torn down and a new one would be built in its place. Lyle told his wife that the old stuff would go cheaply at the auction. He told her the cooler he was sure to bring home would be a “root cellar” -- hoping the rustic sound of those words would make it seem more attractive.

"As long as you don't have to plug it in, go ahead and do whatever," his wife told him, and he knew that was as much encouragement his walk-in cooler plan was going to get on the home front.

He wasn't prepared for the large crowd on auction day. Some people carried clip-boards and were taking pictures. Others were talking on their phones, sharing prices and dimensions with apparently important people on the other end. Distressingly, many of them were gathered around the walk-in cooler. That was when Lyle first realized that he probably wouldn't be coming home with it. He was out of his league.

He leaned against a wall, discouraged, and sank down as the bidding for the cooler went way past his budgeted amount. He called the transport company and told them he wouldn’t be needing their services.

So, not wanting to go home empty-handed, Lyle settled for something else as the auction came to a close and desperate deals began to fly.

He brought home a restaurant toilet.

His wife was furious.

"But it was only $10," Lyle told her, and pointing to the device, which appeared to be peeking out of his car’s trunk, waiting to see if the coast was clear. "It was a steal. It's even got a new seat."

"I don't care how much it cost," his wife said. "You don't know where it's been."

"I know exactly where it's been. It's been bolted to a McDonald’s floor for the past 15 years."

"That's not what I mean," his wife said. "You don't know who's been using it. It's just gross. I know what shape those restaurant bathrooms can get in. I won't go near it!"

"But it works fine," Lyle said. "And, get this -- it has industrial flushing action!"

'At what point in our lives have we needed industrial flushing action?" his wife asked.

"We have to plan for these things," Lyle said. "We aren't getting any younger!"

"Well, I plan not to let it in the house," his wife said.

Lyle knew his wife's word ruled in the house. So he left the fancy toilet with industrial flushing action in his car's trunk. The next day, he thought of a solution to salvage it. He planned to drive it down to Mel's tavern on Riverview's Main Street. He figured it would be a pleasant surprise for the tavern owner.

Mel was always accepting leftover junk at his establishment. The bar itself was cluttered with various knickknacks, which made it hard at times to find room for drinks. Many customers, distracted while watching TV, had reached for their beers, only to instead grab a curio like a random Chia Pet or a vase of plastic flowers; things they swore were not there moments ago. It was part of the charm at Mel's. You had to watch what you were drinking, in more ways than one.

Lyle got about halfway to Mel's when he noticed the flashing light in back of him. A village policeman wanted him to pull over. Lyle hoped he wasn't running afoul of Riverview's newly enacted technology code that he read about in the Times.

The code was developed after a drawn-out battle between supporters and detractors of windmills, which were being considered for Riverview by a developer in Romania. After years of debate, no one was sure which side had won. But what it did create was a new law that meant any new technology being brought into the village would need to have a permit and then be carefully scrutinized. What "New Technology" meant was left up to the discretion of law enforcement officials and the village board.

Some officials took a more liberal view of new technology than others. As he pulled to the side of the road, Lyle recalled Stanley Wurbick's fancy new sprinkler over on Elm Street. It was confiscated a few weeks ago because of the illegal, and some said of the "immoral" arc of the water spray.

The toilet was hard to miss. It had loosened its grip on Lyle's trunk as if trying to escape and attracted attention as if he was lugging a small water buffalo.

"So, what's with the toilet," the officer asked Lyle, getting right to the point and not even bothering with formalities or asking for his license or registration.

"I bought it for a friend," Lyle said, at once realizing how absurd, but kind of true, the statement was.

"Do you have a receipt?"

"No,” Lyle said. “I bought it used."

The officer put his hands on his hips and glanced back at the toilet. He was quite perceptive. He could tell it was used. But he had a question:

"How do I know you didn't steal it?" he asked.

"I bought it at a going-out-of-business sale," Lyle said, and then added, hoping to impress the officer -- more than his wife was -- with the fact: "It has industrial flushing action!"

If the officer was impressed, he didn't show it. He walked in back of the car and opened the trunk wider for a closer look. Lyle heard things rattling around. It was a good five minutes before the officer returned to Lyle.

"This is one of those Canadian toilets," the officer said. "They've been outlawed for about 10 years. We thought we stopped them from coming across the border. They fetch quite a price on the black market. You didn't notice the Canadian flag on the flapper?"

"I didn't take that good of a look at it, especially the flapper," Lyle said. "I'm just installing it for a friend."

Of course, Mel, at the tavern, was not aware of the gift coming his way. Lyle had hoped to surprise him in return for a case of beer, a block of cheese or something of the sort. So when the officer had someone at the station call Mel’s tavern to ask him about it, Lyle's story could not be confirmed, although Mel did say he would welcome a toilet, or any other spare piece of bathroom hardware, if the police had one handy.

Lyle was handcuffed and put in back of the cruiser. His vehicle was locked and left on the side of the road, but not before he helped the cop put the toilet in the trunk of his cruiser.

Lyle was charged with two infractions: violating the village's windmill/technology ordinance and with promoting foreign elements. He was sentenced to 20 hours of community service for each infraction.

On the night before he was to report for community service doing janitorial work at the town hall, Lyle went down to the St. Lawrence River and, as was his habit, he sat on a bench and watched the river flow. But on this night, he felt the River was carrying a dream away. There was a time when a hard-working man could realize his dream, he thought, without it being hauled away by big-money big shots. Now, those days were gone like the water before him flowing steadily and emptying into the ocean. But he vowed then, that one day he would have his walk-in cooler.

A few weeks later, late at night at the Town Hall, where Mel was mopping floors, he heard a loud whoosh and then a gurgle coming from the men's room. It was his first night on the job. The sound was a distinctive, satisfying one for Lyle. He could have sworn he had heard that sound before at McDonald’s.

He leaned his mop against the wall and walked gingerly into the men's room. He opened the bathroom stall door and satisfyingly, snapped the door latch into place and turned around.

Sure enough, the city had installed his toilet in the stall. A sign in the stall read, “A special gift to Riverview from the good citizens of Canada.”

Lyle felt deeply betrayed. But standing there, he realized the bathroom stall enclosure reminded him of a voting booth. It was then and there that Lyle decided he would run for mayor of Riverview and correct such betrayals.

He grabbed the handle of the toilet firmly. He then flushed, delighting in the potent sound of his platform building up power.

By Chris Brock

This is Chris Brock's  sixth fiction piece for TI Life.  Chris is the features writer and a copy editor at the “Watertown Daily Times”, where he has won several writing awards. Writing humorous short stories is a hobby. He grew up on the St. Lawrence River community of Waddington, N.Y. Besides being honored at the North Country Writer’s Festival, Chris' works have been published in “Grit Magazine.”  He recently was invited to do a reading of his collection of short stories, "Those Carp People and Other Tales of Life Along the St. Lawrence" in Prescott, ON. This amusing book is available on  Click Here to see his other works.

Posted in: Fiction
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Thornley Stoker
Comment by: Thornley Stoker
Left at: 9:33 AM Thursday, December 15, 2016
Dear Chris,
Great story. Love the ending. The irony of government and the two sets of for us and one for them.
Merry Christmas