Friday, January 19, 2018

22. Angry Ponies

The interpreter was half a kilometer from shore in knee-deep water in the pouring rain.  The family had fled, splashed back to the beach, for which he was grateful.  It had been a low tide mud walk, a free, public program.  The interpreter would lead anyone who showed up out onto the mudflats and through the swaths of shallow water that dissected them, revealing the amazing living world of marine mud.  These programs could be fun, or trying, depending on who showed up. 

It was an unseasonably cool day with a biting off-shore wind and intermittent rain.  There was a good chance this would be a no-show.  The interpreter loved no-shows.  Money for nothing.

But, as usual, no such luck.  He winced as the classic family unit approached.  Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother.

They were tall, pale-skinned people.  The father had deep-set eyes and a sonorous voice that the interpreter attributed to his nose, which had the arching lines of a diving whale.  “We are here for the low tide mud walk,” he droned.  The son was about nine, the daughter seven.

The program had not gone well even before the cloudburst.  The family wouldn’t believe him that the shed exoskeleton of a crab was not a living thing, and the daughter screamed and hid behind her mother.  She continued screaming until the interpreter tossed it into a pool, where it sank.  After that, the interpreter showed the family several cryptically patterned baby flounders, none of which they could see, even when the interpreter reached into the water and touched the fish, causing them to explode from the bottom and dart away.  Then, on a pan of sand next to a small tide pool, the interpreter crouched down to draw the family’s attention to a mud snail shell that housed a tiny hermit crab.  You could tell by its scratchy tracks that it wasn’t just another snail.  The son said, “Hey, you got the same phone as me,” and yanked the interpreter’s cell phone from the mesh side-pocket of his backpack.  The phone snagged on the elasticized lip and vaulted into the pool with a soundless splash.

The interpreter lunged, snatched up the phone, opened it, and looked at the screen.  It was blank.  He shook it, wiped it on his shirt and tried turning it on, but got nothing.  “My phone is wrecked,” he said.

The mother was defensive.  “You can dry it out in an oven.  Set it on bake for half an hour.  This happened to my neighbour.  Her toddler dropped her phone into the toilet.”

“Was it a saltwater toilet?” asked the interpreter.

“No.  Why should that matter?” asked the mother.

“Don’t worry, the government pays for these phones,” said the father to the son.  “We pay for them with our taxes.”

“Actually, no, this is my personal phone,” said the interpreter.

After an uncomfortable silence during which the interpreter opened and closed his phone, trying unsuccessfully to will it back to life, the mother said, “It will dry out and be fine.  Put it in the oven at about 350 for 30 minutes, you’ll see.”

The interpreter looked up at the western sky.  “Heavier rain is coming.  Perhaps we shouldn’t go very much farther.”  He didn’t want to be with these people at all and hoped they would agree to a curtailment of the program.

“The advertisement said rain or shine,” said the father.  “We’re not afraid of a little liquid sunshine, are we?”  He jiggled his son’s shoulder.

They followed the interpreter across the mud, a great distance out into the bay.  It was as if he were trying to escape them, which he was.  They caught up to him on a muddy stretch dotted with little Dairy Queen curlicues of mud.  Their persistence made him sigh.

“What are these things?” the mother asked about the curlicues.

“Lugworm casts,” said the interpreter.  “What lugworms cast up after they suck in mud, which is how they feed.  They live in U-shaped burrows and suck everything in at one end and poop these things out at the other.”  He gestured at the acres of lugworm casts that surrounded them.  Once you saw one, you found yourself in a world of them.

“Eww, it’s poop?” said the children.

“Mostly it’s just mud.  They pass it through their guts and draw out the nutrients.”

“They’re called lugworms?” asked the father.  “What do they look like?”

The interpreter dropped to his knees and with his hands dug deep into the mud, throwing scoops of muck left and right, scaring the family back.  He held it up, a yellow-brown, segmented, eyeless, limbless thing the length of a toothbrush, fatter at one end, with paired, spiky, red gills along the fatter part, which ended in a ragged, spongy mouth.  “This,” he stood up, “is a lugworm.  You are standing on the kingdom of the lugworm.”

“Gross,” said the son.

“Not to another lugworm,” said the interpreter . He held it out in turn to the son, the daughter, the mother, the father. None would take it or even touch it.  The interpreter said, “Fine,” and placed it back into the murky crater he had made.  He rinsed his hands.

“What’s God’s plan for lugworms?” the daughter asked the father.

“Ask him,” said the father.  He meant the interpreter.

“What’s God’s plan for lugworms?” the daughter asked the interpreter, who was experiencing a sense of hopelessness, which was not a novelty.

The father came up with more neutral phrasing, “What is the purpose of lugworms?”

“The purpose of lugworms?”
“Why would God create such,” the mother swirled her hand around at the mud, “things?”

“I don’t know,” said the interpreter.

“You‘ve never wondered about this?”  The father stared down his humpback nose.

The interpreter had never wondered about this.  He had given up on Sunday School in Grade 2.  But he was a professional, so sought a middle ground, something edging toward their world view.  He asked, “You mean, what roles do they play in mudflat ecology?”

They stared at him uncomprehendingly.

“Well, they’re consumers.  They draw plankton and small interstitial fauna down into the muck, along with a lot of silt, and then they deposit the silt back on the surface, releasing more broken-down nutrients for surface-feeding microbes and plants to access.  And they’re a protein source for wading birds, crabs, fish, and other predators.  They’re sort of like the earthworms of the intertidal mud.”

“Earthworms are disgusting,” said the daughter.

The mother asked, “Why would they be created so…ugly?  And with all the spools of excretions, so exposed, where we can see them?”  She looked as though she wanted to climb onto a table.

Then came a curtain of rain, racing at them.  The sky also had had enough.

The interpreter yelled after them as they fled, “The purpose of lugworms is to make more lugworms! That is the entire, singular purpose of lugworms!  Same as the purpose of seagulls is to make more seagulls !  And it’s the same purpose for rats; make more of ‘em!  Same for scorpions!  And emus!  And botflies and bacteria and viruses!  And even you!”

As he plodded back to shore the interpreter opened his phone and held it high into the cleansing rain, daring lightning to strike.  When he reached the beach he opened his pack and tossed the phone inside.  Amazingly, it rang.  He fished it out.  “Hello?” he said.

There was only static.

“Hellooooo,” he said, to more static.  He asked, “If this is God, what is your plan for lugworms?”

“It’s just me,” said a younger, prettier interpreter.  “I have no plan for lugworms.”



 *    *    *

The Jesus of the East was finally hitting the headlines.  Although having first been treated by the media as a humorous sidebar, and then later on as an on-going humorous sidebar, the undaunted perseverance of the Jesus of the East gang, despite the ongoing absence of a Jesus of the West, was starting to eat away at the natural doubt in people.  The masses were now pouring down to the lake to see what there was to see.  Few people get to see a real Jesus, so the prospect of even a pre-teen, non-English-speaking Jesus seemed worth a trip.  Many of the hopeful pretended to be nature-lovers who just happened to be dropping by, but it was apparent that most had come to view the Jesus, just in case.  Upon whom would he bestow his golden hat?  Before Jesus, the park might have averaged two hundred visitors per day.  Anno Domine, the numbers ballooned up over a thousand.

An additional layer of weirdness was added by Jesus of the West wannabees, those men (the Jesus of the West was known to be a man) who for some reason thought that they might be the One.  Two even donned Jesus-wear, a costume remembered from elementary school Christmas pageants — bathrobe and sandals.  First came the green bathrobe, followed a few days later by a brown bathrobe.  Both Jesu-wanabees had long-hair and beards, which had to have been in place already.  They must have spent years waiting in the wings for a Jesus-call.  The green one carried a staff, Charlton Heston after leading the Jews from Egypt, a somewhat confused motif.  The brown one walked around, hands up in silent beseechment to his heavenly Father.  Both slowly migrated back and forth between the base of the spit and the Nature House, while young Jesus of the East, his mother, Odd Job, other monks, and the golden hat remained out at the tip, ignoring them completely.  Strangely, the green one and the brown one never acknowledged each other or the onlookers who stared at them in wonder and confusion.  

Now and then, causing a bit of a stir, young Jesus of the East would leave the tip of the spit and come to the Nature House to use the washroom.  When this happened, the would-be Jesuses of the West would materialize from the bushes and walk back and forth more briskly.  Sadly, despite their enthusiastic attempts to be noticed, they were ignored by the Jesus of the East.

The interpreters referred to them as Green Reject Jesus and Brown Reject Jesus, eventually abbreviated to Green and Brown.

At times the circus was more annoying than amusing.  The Jesus of the East people were not as meek and humble as one might expect, especially Jesus’s mom, who shooed away anyone who dared sit at her son’s preferred picnic table.  She did it to William again, a few days after the first time.  He was reading a book, not paying attention, and suddenly a shadow fell across the pages.

“Go!” she said. “Go!”  She had learned a potent English word.  So he went, but not before getting in a few digs.  He said to her, “Your novelty religion is nothing compared to what I’m dealing with.  How many times has your bully-boy been struck by lightning?”

She whooshed him away, Auntie Yvonne.

“Your son should be put on Ritalin.  You should all be put on something.”

She whooshed him away.                                                                          

“Why don’t you all go eat something toxic?”

She whooshed him away.

Alan and William passed through the throngs and away from the Nature House, heading along the lakeside trail to Central Area Office where Alan’s car was parked.  They found Milt on a bench overlooking the stretch of the Brunette River, just above the Cariboo dam.  He had a bag of jumbo marshmallows on his lap and powdered icing sugar ringed his mouth.  As they approached, he popped another one in.

“Hi Milt,” said Alan.

Because of the neck brace Milt didn’t turn his head, but did make a muffled noise of greeting and recognition. 

Alan sat beside him. 

Milt lamented, “I can’t see her.  In most places I can’t even find the water.”

It was true.  The shores of Burnaby Lake were heavily overgrown and there were only a handful of places around its 11 kilometre periphery where one could access or even see the water.  And much of the water’s surface was so thickly populated with water lilies that there could have been a thousand beavers swimming in there, invisible to the terrestrial world surrounding them.

Alan said, “Come on Big Guy.  You accomplished what you wanted to do.  You saved her.”         

Milt’s glasses were clouded.  “Who will look after her?  What if the other beavers are disrespectful to her?”  He looked utterly despondent.  His pants were still spotted with beaver shit. 

Alan gently patted his shoulder.  He looked to William as if to say, “Now what do we do?”

We?  William shrugged.  Milt was Alan’s kook now.

“I’ll drive you home.  We can come back tomorrow,” Alan said to Milt.  Milt nodded.

William walked behind as Alan and Milt crossed the dam.  Milt stopped mid-span to look up the Lake.  She was in there somewhere, safe from Bill Barnes and his Vancouver Parks Department thugs.

As they started walking again, Milt pointed over his shoulder at William.  He said to Alan, “I think that guy’s following us.”

Stacey was at the office.  Her car was next to Alan’s.  Alan helped stuff Milt and his leaking bags of bird seed into his Mazda.  A filthy beaver trap took up the most of the back seat, leaving very little room for William.  “Do you want to try to squeeze in...or I could come back for you?” Alan asked.

“I’ll drive William home,” Stacey volunteered.  She had come out of the office, carrying a cardboard box full of laminated calendar pictures of mammals and birds.

“I was actually thinking of visiting Fooj,” William said to both of them.

“I’ll go with him to visit Fooj, and then drive him home,” Stacey said to Alan as if they were discussing what to do with a child.  She handed William the box as she fumbled for her car keys.  She then crawled inside the car to open the passenger door, which provided an ogler’s happy look at her ass.

Over the roof of the Mazda, Alan gave William his Camp Ohmeemaw naughty face, the wide-eyed leer he would give as he was exiting the Ohmeemaw Nature House with one of the female counsellors, a not so subtle indication that they were about to boink, and he pointed at Stacey, at her ass in particular.

“No way,” William said.

“Way,” he mouthed.                                                                     
                                                                               
When they finally found Fooj’s hospital room, he was sleeping.  Monique was there in a bedside chair, glum but practical.  “‘Is surgery got postponed.  ‘E’s going to ‘ave surgery in da morning.”

Stacey placed a hand on her arm.  “If there’s anything we can do, let us know.”  William noted the “we.”

Fooj was blissfully asleep, dreaming Demerol dreams.

As they walked toward the elevator William asked Stacey, “In your opinion, is not Fooj the best-looking man in the world, even when he’s unconscious and drooling?”

They reached the door and she pushed the button.  She asked, “Do you have a special place in your head where weird thoughts are constantly milling about?”

“Like very angry ponies?” William asked.  The elevator door opened.  They went inside.

Stacey started giggling.

“What?” William said.

“Very angry ponies?”  She was laughing louder.  “There’s no such thing as very angry ponies.”  The elevator stopped and the door creaked open.   An elderly European couple shuffled in.  They spoke loudly in a lesser-known language.

“I think they’re from Latvia,” William whispered, “which is the land of very angry ponies.  They have one on their flag.” 

Stacey let loose a church-snort.  They burst into the lobby laughing. 
                 
They parked in a Safeway parking lot because there was a nice Chinese restaurant across Kingsway that lacked its own parking lot. 

There were crabs looking resigned to their fate in a tank just inside the front door.  They had red rubber bands around their chelipeds, which seemed unfair.  A woman in an emerald cheongsam directed them to a table near the window.  Stacey politely declined when forks were offered.

She said, “I guess it’s because we’re the only blond people here.”

“It’s not you, it’s me,” he said.

She said, “Who knows what people think?  Everyone always thinks the least of everyone else.  It’s a default way of thinking.  I know it’s like showing off, but I like going to Korean restaurants and talking to the servers in Korean.  I like seeing their expressions.”

“How long were you over there?”

“Just a year, but all I did when I wasn’t teaching English was try to learn Korean.  It seemed fair, to understand what my students were dealing with.  I was lonely and wanted to make the most of it.”

“That doesn’t sound like it was much fun,” he said.

Stacey smiled.  She said she liked Korea a lot, because the students were friendly and dedicated.  Then she frowned.  “But I could only take so much of the dirty side of it.  Stay out of bars in Seoul,” she said.  “The worst were the western men primed for Asian sex, who, when turned down, would suddenly redirect their crudeness on a white woman, someone who could understand their language.  There were also the horny Koreans.   I got so tired of being stared at by the men, pawed by drunks.  Asia has its share of useless-twit, dirty-minded Ed Daddles.”

William watched her expressions.  She was walking through bad memories.  When she looked up, he asked, “How long did it take you to peg Ed Daddle as a,”...he had to think of the order... “dirty-minded, useless-twit?”

“I think when he phoned and informed me that I had forgotten to send a picture with my application, that made me suspicious.  At the interview, which was arranged in a very eager way on what would have been the day he received my picture, his spiky jelled hair and strangely trimmed goatee were warning signs.  Then, when Tom left the interview room to get something, leaving me alone with Ed, and Ed told me that with my baby blue eyes I would look great in a GVRD shirt, ‘Size about what – 4?’ I felt sick.”

“I’m sorry,” said William.

“For what?”

“I’m not sure.  For asking.”

“I almost didn’t take the job, but what choice was there?”  Stacey’s other job was working at the Gap.  She described it as mind-numbing.  She desperately needed to reduce her Gap-hours and get out of the mall or go mad.  She asked William a good question.  “How did you ever get hired?”

William told her he was hired by Tom before Ed arrived.  That’s also when Fooj was hired.  William thought Ed was okay with having Fooj around though, seeing as he was a babe-magnet.   Ed, in his twisted way, expected to pick up the rebounds.

A young woman in simple black pants and white shirt came to take their orders.  Both hurriedly picked from the menu. 

The interruption jolted the conversation.  Stacey asked William why he had been so disrespectful to her and Tracy, right from the start.  His weak excuse was that it might have been related to his long-time troubles with Ed Daddle, at least a bit.  Apart from his general objectionableness, Ed hired for the wrong reasons and therefore was guilty of dumbing down natural history.  He hired attractive Froosians instead of heron-like professionals.  Even weaker, William admitted that he thought that their rhyming names and similar looks contributed to his thinking of them as Ed’s new matching bookends.

She wasn’t impressed.  “Because of how I look,” she said, which, William realized was exactly how Ed evaluated her.  She scowled.  “You didn’t try to be my friend.  You dismissed me.  I was pretty shocked by that.  I expected you would’ve known better.” 

He was ashamed.  And the last comment confused him. 

“I’m totally ticked you thought I was a Froosian.”

“I never saw your résumé,” William said.

She seemed to be gently fuming.  He thought she was about to turn into Caroline Li, throw a cup of tea in his face and storm out.  William resolved not to go to restaurants with female coworkers anymore.

But Stacey was more restrained.  She sat back, took a deep breath, and said, “Driving here, did my car seem familiar to you in any way?”

William said, “Yes and no.  I’ve been in ten-year-old VW Golfs before.  They’re almost standard-issue for interpreters.  They’re reliable family-car cast-offs.  As long as you remember to keep the oil topped up they can run forever.”

She said, “Yes, but here’s the important point.  You have been in precisely that very same VW Golf before, on a very rainy day in October almost three years ago. You were the instructor of ZOO423, and you were leading a tour of Burns Bog.”

ZOO423.  Wildlife Ecology.  His eyes popped.  He remembered her!  Her name leapt from a plastic-sheathed report.  “Your project species was the Pacific Lamprey!”  

“You wrote on my report...”

He remembered that too.  “I would never have thought someone could convince me that there was beauty in a lamprey,” (much as Hannah Imamura had convinced the scientific community that there was beauty in a snapping turtle).  Why had he forgotten her car?  Worse, why had he forgotten Stacey?  

Had he had forgotten her car because on that field trip William sat in the back, thus had had a different view of things?  And, almost three years ago, she was overshadowed by her boyfriend, an amiable long-limbed lunk named Greg, who was very bright, and prone to amusing anecdotes and wisecracks.  Greg sat in the front seat of the Golf and dominated the conversation.  Did this explain his forgetting Stacey?  It shouldn’t have.  How the hell could William have forgotten this woman, the one that everyone in the restaurant was surreptitiously glancing at, the one whose lips had pressed against his, the one who had forced air from her lungs into his?  He wondered, What the hell is wrong with me?  Yes, she had been a student then, but she had been an adult student.  She had not since then undergone an ugly duckling-to-swan conversion.  She looked the same as she had almost three years ago.  Had he not noticed how pretty she was back then?  Had it taken Alan’s snide commentary to make him see how pretty she was now?  When, what year, or after which event, had his heart stopped beating?

“I remember now,” he said.  “I don’t know why I didn’t know who you were right away.”

“Because I was out of context?”  She was giving him an out.

He didn’t take it.  Instead, he asked,  “What became of Greg?  I enjoyed teaching him.”

“Him you remember.”

“Yes.  I don’t know why.  He was smart.  He was funny.”

She frowned and shrugged.  “We broke up.  He went away to graduate school in Massachusetts.  The only way I could work there would be if we were married.  I wasn’t ready to get married.  I also wasn’t willing to have a long-distance relationship that would last several years.  So we ended it.  Then I went to Korea, which really ended it.”

“William asked, “How long had you been together?”

“Through undergrad, four years.”  That was quite a long time in the life of a young adult, and three years longer than William had been with Becky Pang, or anyone.  William asked where she lived.   She lived in the south-central Vancouver neighbourhood of Marpole with her mother.  Her parents were divorced.  Her father had remarried and lived in Abbottsford, not far from Aldergrove Lake Regional Park. 

William asked, “Does his wife own a Portuguese water dog?”

“What?”

William waved his chopsticks in a never-mind.

“So what about you?” she asked.  “Do you have a partner?  When I was in your class I sometimes wondered what your story was.”

Now this was strange.  “You did? Why?”

“I like to imagine people’s stories.  You would be with someone with a biology background, but not in ecology like you, something more practical, like most people.  I imagined you were starting a family.  My guess was you were a dad of two little fair-haired pre-schoolers and your wife was some kind of medical professional.”

“That’s pretty precise,” William said, “but not very accurate.”  It hurt him.  She had just told him a painful truth, what his life should have been, what William had fallen short of.  “You’re breaking his heart,” he said.  He meant it as a jolly quip but the truth tripped his voice and she understood.   She changed the subject.

“Are you sorry you thought I was one of Ed’s Froosians?”

“Profoundly,” he said.

“You can make it up to me.”  She asked if the following day William would help her plan a Boundary Bay program, a low tide mud walk coming up on the weekend at the shallow, tidal bay that straddles the BC-Washington border.  “But only if you promise to be the nice guy who taught me at UBC, not the jerk who gets struck by lightning.  I don’t ever want to be near lightning again.  I’ve never been more scared in my life.”

“Okay,” he said, although that could be a problem.  It was not something he had a lot of control over, and judging by today’s little flirtation with ionization, the lightning thing — whatever it was — had not gone away.  Lightning had become his personal, potentially lethal form of anger management.

Nevertheless he promised to be the former and thanked her for her pleasant company.  After they had finished dining William said he could walk home from the restaurant.  His apartment was only a few blocks away, and William didn’t want her to have to turn around in heavy traffic to head back toward her home in Marpole.

“No, I’ll drive you,” she insisted, with a touch of irritation in her voice.  “I need to know exactly where you live so I know where to pick you up tomorrow.”

The lewd Alan face appeared.  It was hinting that this was a ploy, that she really wanted to go to his home, to go into his home, to maybe stay a while in his home.  William tried to ignore it.  It was wrong anyway.  Stacey drove up to the front entrance.   William got out and said thank you.  She stayed in her car.  She asked, “What time should I pick you up?”

“How about eight?”

She said, “Seeya then,” and accelerated away.  Poof.  The inside of his head was disappointment and relief, confused ponies milling about.       

Next                         
                                                                       

                                                                                    

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