Lyle Hednut, known to America as Uncle Chubby, has been the top draw in television comedy for three seasons straight. He is three hundred pounds of good humor and wholesome charm, beloved by children and adults alike until the day the police find him enjoying the show at the wrong kind of movie theater in Times Square. The arrest destroys his image, but his sitcom is too popular for the network to shut down. About to start production on the fourth season, he decides to tell his side of the story, and hires Stewart Hoag—failed novelist and ghostwriter for the disgraced—to do the writing. Hoagy quickly sees that Uncle Chubby’s cheer is no more than an act. The comedy icon is thin-skinned, irrational, and prone to rage. With a man like that in charge of a TV show, it won’t be long before comedy violence turns into the real thing.
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The Man Who Cancelled Himself
A Stewart Hoag Mystery
By David Handler
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1995 David Handler
All rights reserved.
Lyle Hudnut's beach house may have been the ugliest house I'd ever seen. It was certainly the ugliest house in all of East Hampton. And, trust me, there are a lot of ugly houses in East Hampton. His sat perched atop a choice dune at the end of choice Windmill Lane, right next to the choicest of country clubs, the Maidstone, where Lyle Hudnut was not a member. They wouldn't have his sort. Even before all of the trouble.
My cabbie pulled up at the end of the gravel drive and gaped at the place. So did Lulu, my basset hound, who had her back paws planted firmly in my groin and her large, wet, black nose stuck out the open window. I did some heavy gaping myself. Couldn't help it. It was so huge. It was so hideous. It was so ... I don't know what you'd call it. Me, I'd call it postmodern blech. Once, maybe forty years back, it had been a modest Nantucket-style beach cottage. Too modest. So, some time during the Stylish Seventies, its then owner had erected a second, much grander house right across the driveway, this one an upended two-story Bauhaus shoe box of white cedar with Palladian windows and a network of queerly angled balconies and sun porches and catwalks with curved pipe railings like you'd see on an ocean liner. Especially if you suffered from migraine headaches. And then Lyle Hudnut got his big, fat hands on it. It was he who had just finished building the third house, this one shoehorned in between the other two so as to misconnect them all into a single, monstrous unit. The new centerpiece, an homage to the Catalonian Modernisme school of Antoni Gaudi, was a surrealistic two-story structure of undulating milk chocolate stucco that gave the appearance of melting there in the hot August sun, like one of Dali's clocks. Looked positively edible, if you like milk chocolate. I prefer bittersweet.
And then there were the awful grounds. Not so much the plants but the utterly lifelike, utterly kitschy bronze statues all over the damned place. Of a man trying to peek over the fence. Of a gardener crouched before the rose bushes, pruner in hand. Of an Irish setter, male, in the act of peeing on a birch tree. This one Lulu snarfled at with great disapproval. She has pretty strong taste in art.
My cabbie, a sour runt in his fifties, shook his head. "Christ, you'd think with all their money they'd have some taste, y'know?"
"You wouldn't say that if you knew a lot of people who have a lot of money."
"What kind of guy lives here, anyway?"
"I'll let you know when I figure that out."
I paid him and let Lulu out. She made right for the setter, nose quivering. The cab pulled away and left us there. It was quiet, except for the sound of the surf roiling on the beach, and of Lulu mouth-breathing. She doesn't do well in the summer heat, being covered with hair. There was a bit of a breeze, which there hadn't been in the city. Also a hint of fish in the air, though that may have been Lulu's breath.
The front door was a slab of whitewashed wood smack dab in the center of the milk chocolate house. A pair of bronze Halloween trick-or-treaters were there ahead of me. A little girl dressed as a witch, a boy as a ghost. His finger was poised to ring the doorbell. I beat him to it. Though it wasn't a bell at all. It played a little tune, the familiar, insipid nursery ditty that was the theme song to The Uncle Chubby Show.
A steamy young blonde in a leopard-patterned string bikini answered it. She was at least five feet ten standing there in her bare feet, and there was nothing delicate or frail about her. She was meaty and big-boned, with a wild, tousled mane of sun-and-bottle-bleached hair, and a pair of hooters so outrageously immense as to defy nature, not to mention gravity. They jutted straight forward through the doorway—no droop, no sag, no way. It was as if she had some kind of double-wishbone suspension hidden there in the top of her bathing suit, though I seriously doubted that. Her string bikini offered no more support than a length of waxed dental floss. She was about twenty-seven and deeply tanned. She smelled of suntan oil and sweat. She wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, but then I'm sure it took people—particularly men—a long time to get to her face. It was a rather blank face. Her blue eyes were set far apart and one of them, the left, drifted slightly, giving her a semi-zonked appearance. She had a fat little pug nose and too much chin and a mouth wide enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. Other than the bikini she wore a pair of long, heavy, studded necklaces of silver that looked like a collision between Paloma Picasso and Johnny Rotten. They plunged down into the valley to be found between her twin peaks, cleavage so deep and vast a yodeler would get an echo down there. I stared. I tried not to, but I stared.
"I made them with my own two hands," she informed me..
"The necklaces. They're of my own design."
Now I was trying not to giggle. Because she owned the squeakiest, ootsie-fooeyest widdle baby-doll voice you can imagine. She sounded like Minnie Mouse on helium. It was so unlikely I half believed she was putting me on. She wasn't. She was most serious.
Proprietary as well. She stood planted ripely there in the doorway with her hands on her bare, greased flanks, checking us out. First Lulu, who was wearing the pith helmet I'd had made for her that summer to keep the sun off of her head. It did the job fine, plus she was all set if we ever got invited on a lion hunt. Then me. I had on the double-breasted suit of cream-colored silk and linen I'd just had made for me in Milan. With it I wore a raspberry broadcloth shirt and yellow polka-dot bow tie from Turnbull & Asser, calfskin braces, and the brown-and-white ventilated spectator balmorals from Maxwell's. On my head was the straw trilby.
"I'm here to see Lyle Hudnut."
She tossed her blond tresses at me. "And you are ...?"
"Hopelessly depressed. But don't let it bother you. I've learned to live with it."
She nodded at me with recognition. "Oh, sure," she squeaked. "You must be the writer."
"Is it that obvious?"
"I'm Katrina Tingle," she said, sticking out her right hand. It was strong, and it lingered in mine a second longer than it needed to. On her left she wore a diamond engagement ring with a stone big as a chunk of rock candy. "I'm Lyle's fiancée, Mr. Hoag. And manager."
"Make it Hoagy."
"As in Carmichael?"
"As in the cheese steak."
"Lyle doesn't eat cheese or steak anymore," she advised me in her Kewpie-doll voice.
"Don't feel sorry for him," she huffed. "He doesn't want pity. All he's asking for is a little understanding."
"I'm afraid understanding is in much shorter supply than pity."
"People, don't know him," she argued with great conviction. "How sensitive and sweet he is. He's just a great, big teddy bear. Believe me, his bark is worse than his bite."
"He bites?" I asked, exchanging a worried look with Lulu.
Katrina frowned at me. "I didn't realize there'd be a dog."
"Nor did I. I assumed she was with you."
"She doesn't have deer ticks, does she?"
Lulu snuffled at this indignantly. I told her to let me handle it. "If she does," I replied, "she hasn't said anything to me about them."
"The reason I ask is that Lyle is deathly afraid of getting Lyme disease. She'll have to keep her distance."
"Not to worry. She never sticks her nose where it's not wanted." I tugged at my ear. "Unlike me."
Katrina bristled. "You're copping an attitude with me, aren't you?"
"I don't mean to," I assured her. "It's this handicap of mine. I'm one of the socially challenged. But I'm getting help. In fact, my doctors think I'm making excellent progress."
Now she took a couple of deep, angry breaths in and out, her hooters heaving. They almost rammed me off of the porch and onto the lawn. "Guys," she squealed defiantly. "They meet me and they think, hey, here's some bimbonic airhead—just because of the size of my zoomers and because of how I happen to sound." Angry, she sounded less like Minnie Mouse and more like Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks. "Well, I just let them go ahead and think that. Right up until the moment when they find themselves flat on their back with my foot on their face."
"Careful, I excite easily these days."
"I love Lyle and I love my life!"
"And I'm not here to take either of them away from you."
"Then why are you here?"
"I'm beginning to wonder that myself."
She stuck her jaw out at me. "Look, I'm speaking to you as his manager now, okay? Lyle's a man with no sense of personal control. He has to be carefully watched, twenty-four hours a day. If this collaboration is going to work out, then you and I had better see eye to eye. Because you're not working for him. You're working for me. Understand?"
"I'm not working for anyone. Not until I decide for myself if I want the job. If I do, I work for the celebrity—not his manager, not his fiancée, not anybody else. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with the size of your zoomers. It has to do with trust. If he thinks I'm going behind his back to somebody else, then I'll lose his trust. The project will fall apart. And I'll have wasted his time and, more importantly, my own." I smiled. "Understand?"
One of my better speeches. I know Lulu was impressed. Even the trick-or-treaters appeared awed.
Katrina panicked. "Oh, shit," she gasped. Abruptly, she bent over at the waist, her blond hair nearly touching the welcome mat. She shook her head violently, her fingers massaging her scalp. I couldn't tell if she was in the process of fainting or searching for head lice. Just as abruptly, she straightened up and tossed her hair back, thwacking the side of the house with it. "I've insulted you, haven't I?"
"I don't insult. I'm the writer, remember?"
"You must hate me. You must hate, hate, hate me."
"I don't hate, hate, hate you."
"Gee, I'm so fucking sorry." She laid her hand on my arm. "I really am. See, I'm used to dealing with the network people, the Uncle Chubby people. I have to be the blond bitch with them, or they diss me. You're obviously not like them. I can be me with you." Her hand was still on my arm. She was playing puddy cat now. "You're totally, totally right. You're working for Lyle, not me. It's his project. I'm just here to help. As a friend. And if I'm somebody's friend, there's nothing I won't do for them." She edged a little closer to me, so that her breasts were saying hello to my shirt. Her hand was getting heavy on my arm. "Sure you're not mad at me?" she purred, eyes gleaming at me invitingly. Quite some performance really. Fear will do that to people. And she was clearly afraid. Of what? I wondered.
"I'm not mad at you," I said to Katrina Tingle.
"Oh, good, good, good," she squeaked happily. She was just a big, fun little girl now, all sunshine and lollipops and colored balloons. Me, I wouldn't be turning my back on her. But then I've learned to be careful around a celebrity's loved ones, especially when there's a lot of money at stake. And there was.
"Pinky's doing his laps in the pool," she informed me. "Let's go say hello, okay?"
She took unusually short, mincing steps for such a big woman, almost as if she were balancing on a rubber ball. I followed her wiggles and jiggles and curves along the brick path to the backyard. There was a great deal of Chemlawn, part of it set aside for croquet, where an elderly bronze couple in sun visors was in the process of playing. He was cheating.
"Whew," Katrina complained, crinkling her nose. "Another whale must have washed up on the beach."
"No, that's just Lulu." She was ambling along beside us, panting. "She has rather unusual eating habits."
The house was even uglier from the back, if that's possible. Here the milk chocolate stucco was studded with starbursts of brightly colored bits of broken mosaic tile.
"We finally finished it in May," Katrina confided shyly. "It ended up costing us over four times what we thought it would—nearly ten million dollars. We had to import the whole crew from Barcelona to do the stucco work. Red tape like you wouldn't believe. But it was worth it."
"And who was your architect?" I asked, so I'd remember never to hire him.
"I was," she replied, sneaking a peek at me. "Surprised?"
"Every once in a while."
"I had to let the first two architects go," she explained. "They just didn't have the same vision I had. The two original wings, they wanted to be joined. They cried out to be joined. But the architects, they were just so ..."
"Hard of hearing?"
"Traditional. I had to battle with them constantly. The second one finally told me, hey, I ought to just design it myself. So I did." She stood there admiring it. "It's not a house for everyone."
"It certainly isn't."
"It's very cerebral."
"It certainly is."
There was a Nantucket-style pool house out back, a blue-stone patio, a redwood picnic table with benches, a built-in brick barbecue pit where Lyle could no longer grill steaks. The lawn gave way to reeds and tall grasses, which separated the property from the beach. The water sparkled in the sun. In the distance there were sailboats. It was all rather nice, considering the rest of the place.
"I haven't gotten around to redesigning the backyard yet," she said, which explained it. "All we did was the lap pool so Lyle could do his workouts."
Lyle Hudnut was no threat to Matt Biondi in the water. He thrashed and snorted and bellowed like a gut-shot hippo, displacing huge quantities of water in the process. But then Lyle Hudnut did nothing in a small or quiet way. Not that anyone in the United States thought of him as Lyle Hudnut. He was Chubby Chance—Uncle Chubby—the immense, gross, unruly sitcom ne'er-do-well who had held forth on network television's No. 1 rated prime-time show for three straight seasons. Uncle Chubby was every little kid's favorite adult, every slob's favorite role model, and every parent's favorite babysitter. Picture a funnier, hipper, and much cruder Mister Rogers and you had Uncle Chubby. Uncle Chubby was television's biggest star. Emphasis on the wordwas. Because Lyle Hudnut was in deep, deep doo-doo. Had been since the spring, when a routine vice squad roundup at a sleazy porn movie house in Times Square had snared him, pickle firmly in hand. His arrest for indecent exposure and public masturbation had sent shock waves through the television industry. Outraged parents' groups had immediately demanded that Uncle Chubby be jerked off the air, as it were. The network, horrified, had complied. An equally horrified show business community had rushed to Lyle's defense. His attorney had sued the network. And the controversy had raged for much of the summer, consuming the tabloids and talk radio lines with a passion rivaled only by Mia's split with the Woodman. Disgraced and humiliated, Lyle Hudnut had twice tried to kill himself. But he had survived. And so had his show. The network, not so anxious to lose its ratings leader, was bringing him back for the fall season, angry protestors notwithstanding. And a publishing house was paying him $3 million to tell America what he was doing in the Deuce Theater that afternoon. And how he survived his ordeal. I was there to help him tell it.
When he saw me there, he finished his lap and pulled himself up out of the narrow pool, bringing a hundred gallons or so of water with him. He stood before me, panting and wheezing, wheezing and panting. Lyle Hudnut was a huge man, two or three inches over six feet—about my height—only he had to weigh close to three hundred pounds, most of it pink, hairless blubber. Rolls of fat spilled obscenely over the waistband of his baggy white trunks like scoops of ice cream melting from a triple-decker cone. Each of his mammoth thighs was as big around as I was. His fat feet looked like twin piglets. I was ready for them to sit up and oink at me. Actually, standing there, he looked like some giant freak infant out of a fifties horror movie—The Baby Who Ate Bakersfield. For some reason the small screen has often embraced volcanic comics of immense size and appetites, performers noted for their wildness almost as much as their humor. Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, and John Belushi come to mind. These days, there was Lyle Hudnut, Belushi's protégé and friend. He was about forty. Had a big round head with short, curly red hair, a bulb nose, jumbo jug ears, and somewhere between seven and nine chins. He looked a lot like Mr. Potato Head, though he had a much livelier personality. His blue eyes twinkled with mischief, his grin was impish and playful. Early on, many critics wrote that he reminded them of Fatty Arbuckle. The comparison had proven to be eerily prophetic.
Excerpted from The Man Who Cancelled Himself by David Handler. Copyright © 1995 David Handler. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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