The following Monday, William reported to Carl Stribling, the Park Operator, at his trailer. It was against the fence on the far side of the works yard, a quarter acre of dirt that smelled of gasoline and topsoil. Carl was gruff but friendly, barrel-shaped and a few years from retirement. Before working for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, he drove long-haul trucks all over the province. He had seen wildlife and places a non-driver could only dream of.
“So you’re the naughty boy on the news,” he said with a hearty laugh. He handed William a mug that didn’t look to have been washed since it first entered the trailer. “Instant,” he said.
“I am,” William replied to his first comment.
“I’ve got just the job for you. Thanks for getting in trouble – this frees up one of my guys to do some real work.” The implication was that William would be performing a task essentially useless.
“My pleasure,” he said.
“C’mon.” They went outside, which allowed William to abandon the mug. They walked to a small green all-terrain vehicle made largely of plastic. It had six spongy wheels, two yellow vinyl seats, and a box on the back. It had no doors or wind screen. It was a strange hybrid of golf cart and pickup truck. There were three or four decals on the dashboard and box depicting various ways the occupants of this contraption could be decapitated, crushed, or otherwise maimed. They warned especially of the hazards of carrying additional passengers.
“Gator,” Carl said. On the side of the box was a crazed cartoon alligator running bipedally. “Grab the map, there.” He was referring to a rolled sheet of paper protruding from the glove box, a rectangular hole that had no cover. The map, once unrolled, showed the east end of the park, where horse trails covered inches-thick in bark mulch looped among water-filled ditches. The ditches drained into the Brunette River, but only when the culverts at the ends were not blocked with mud and sticks, the handiwork of the park’s healthy beaver population. At Burnaby Lake there was never-ending conflict over hydrology between beavers and the Operations staff.
“Here, here, and here,” are three of their dams. Carl tapped red-inked lines on the map with his thick finger.
“I’m to take them out?”
“Any way you can. And carry away their wood, otherwise they’ll put it right back again. Bring the wood back here and stack it in that far corner.” He pointed. “We’ll chip it later.”
Carl supplied William with work gloves, shovels, hammers and nails, an axe, a Swede saw, a stack of 2-by-4s and a bale of heavy-gauge hardware cloth, all of which were loaded into the back of the Gator. The 2-by-4s and hardware cloth were to be used to build wire barriers around nearby alder and cottonwood, which the beavers felled preferentially. William was to have a crew consisting of two petty criminals who were half-way through their court-mandated community service hours. The usual Operations staff detested working this detail. William was their gift from God. Carl took the Gator key from his shirt pocket and dropped it into his hand. William neglected to mention that he hadn’t driven a vehicle since being struck by lightning while standing in the bald spot west of the Washington Monument.
Two lanky young men shambled into the yard. They had a broken-spiritedness made sadder by their youth.
Carl said, “Here they are.” He introduced them. “This here’s Bob-and-Scott,” he said, as if their names were one word, “and this here’s William.”
They lifted their eyes and grunted hello. Bob had a hollow chest, prominent Adam’s apple, and a backwards baseball hat. Scott had arms that exceeded the length of his sleeves, red hair, and a backwards baseball hat. They were both at least two inches taller than William, or would have been had they stood up straight.
Carl said, “I’ll leave you to it then. Have them back here by 3:00.”
So there they were in the middle of a quarter acre of dirt, three perps and a Gator.
Bob asked, “How did you earn this loser job?”
“I beat up a guy and threw him in the mud,” William said, which earned him instant cred. “How ‘bout you?”
“We got drunk and stole some shopping carts.”
“What did you do with them?”
“Nothin’. Threw them in a ditch.”
William said, “Oh, so you’re the guys.” They stared at him.
William pointed out the immediate problem — that the Gator could only carry two, that no one was allowed to ride in the box. He gestured at the colorful warning stickers threatening certain violent death. In response they both climbed into the box, ending the discussion. William dropped onto the driver’s seat and turned the key. On the road again, under the puny might of a two-stroke engine.
The top speed of Gator, which lacked a speedometer, seemed to be about 20 miles per hour. William shut his right eye to keep the trail from diverging into two, and aimed for the middle. The machine bumped along merrily. He expected that before long, both Bob and Scott would wish they had taken the passenger seat, but neither gave in. William smiled. They had grit, sort of.
As he carefully steered through the alder forest toward the beaver works, William mused how seventeen years ago, getting drunk and stealing shopping carts might have been something he and Alan would have done, but only had there been a second part to the plan. The carts would have had to have ended up somewhere more humorous than a ditch, and with a joke attached that only they understood, and maybe not fully. They would have given the carts names and a mission, to go somewhere no shopping cart had ever gone before. They would have determined which one was faster, and cheered for the underdog with the wobbly wheel as they rampaged down the front steps of a bank or library at 2 am. Alan would have been the energy, filling the carts with pilfered watermelons, pushing them full speed, intending to smash them into a phalanx of newspaper boxes, but William would have turned them aside to send them gently up the front walk of an unsuspecting homeowner and fashioned a sign, saying, “Please Do Not Spit Seeds.” Then they would have agreed, having laughed the laugh of joyful destructive creativity—but without the final destruction—that the art was complete.
It occurred to William that for a brief interlude during Alan’s formative years, he had been his Hannah, the one who told him when the thing was done. When Alan met his real Hannah he could stop philandering, because he had everything he needed in one physical body. He had come to Vancouver to find Hannah, but so far had only attained a tired substitute, a previous Hannah, one sadly lacking.
By the end of that summer seventeen years ago they had come to refer to their evening outings into town as “Voyages in the Sailboat of Fun.” Alan had been the wind; William was the rudder. Although the outings usually involved road trips in Alan’s car, they considered it (the fun) a boat, not a land vehicle, because once it got going, it had no brakes. But now, it seemed, Alan was low on wind, and William had turned onto the rocks.
Surely neither Bob nor Scott could be the wind. They both seemed too inert for that — and without much ability to steer either. How appropriate they had stolen shopping carts.
William once borrowed his mother’s Chevrolet Citation to drive to Niagara Falls with Becky Pang. William loved that drive, close to two hours around the western end of Lake Ontario. Once past the industrial ugliness of Hamilton, the view opened up, the lake sparkling off to the left and the rugged limestone escarpment rising high on the right, as prominent as Edinburgh Castle, as endless as the Great Wall.
It was mid-spring. The orchards of the peninsula were in blossom, the tulips of Niagara-on-the-Lake in full show. They pretended to be newlyweds, holding hands as they strolled among the seedy motels, tacky souvenir shops, and quirky museums of the city of Niagara Falls, and then along the stone-and-iron railing leading to the jagged lip where the river’s green changed to turquoise and to white and thundered down. They stood there a long time, arms around each other, not talking, feeling the sound pummeling their chests.
That was long ago. Now William wasn’t cruising along the Queen Elizabeth Way with Becky Pang beside. He was chugging along a bark mulch trail through a swampy forest with Bob and Scott behind. The sets of circumstances didn’t compare well. William wondered, if ever again struck by lightning would he finally be free of the memory of driving to Niagara Falls with Becky? Experience suggested not. The memories eliminated were phone numbers, PIN numbers, his SIN number, and computer passwords. Lightning did its best to exclude its targets from the information age. It also erased the magnetic strips on bank and credit cards. Lightning hated technology.
The beaver dams were really plugs, where beavers had jammed mud and branches into corrugated metal culverts beneath the horse trails that had been laid through an alder swamp without much forethought. William was the only one with gumboots, so stood in the muck, hauling out the logs and passing them up to the boys, who stacked them in the Gator. When the box was full, William drove back to the yard with Bob, leaving Scott to wrap hardware cloth around the base of a thick-trunked tree that had been partially gnawed through.
Ed Daddle slipped into the Yard as they were piling the wood against the fence. He walked up. “Just checking how you’re enjoying your new assignment,” he said to William. The thing on his nose had shriveled and was crusty.
William said, “Good fun. Got a soaker though.” With one hand on the Gator box for balance, he pulled off his boot. He held it upright momentarily and had a little argument in his head. Should I dump the muddy water into the cuffs of his khakis? (Ed had forsaken flamenco pants for casual khakis.) No, I shouldn’t. Yes, I should. No, I shouldn’t. Yes, I should, it’d be funny. All right, go ahead.
Ed had remarkably poor reflexes.
He swore at William at length. Among the things he called him were “idiot, moron, fucking idiot,” and “fucking moron.” He then told William the only reason he was not unemployed was because of his “fucking fag friend.” William might have popped his ear for that one, but was having difficulty pulling his boot back on. Fortunately Carl came tromping up and said in his gravelly voice, “Something wrong, Ed? What are you doing in the Works Yard, Ed? Why don’t you go back to your little office and stop bothering people?” Ed slunk away.
Bob remained silent, watching the show.
Carl said, “That guy’s a total shit. Big-time karma is gonna catch up with him some day.”
As they drove back to Scott and the beaver works, Bob asked, “Was that the guy you threw in the mud, the guy with the thing on his nose?”
The whole reason for removing the beaver dams was to maintain the riding trails of the park. William thus should not have been surprised to meet equestrians along the trail. But the Gator had a noisy engine, and William couldn’t hear the horses approaching around the bend. He stomped on the brakes. Bob, who had been slouching with arms crossed, almost went over the hood. There was no colourful sticker to warn him of that. Had there been, he would have ignored it anyway.
The first horse was chestnut with a white splash on its face that continued onto its nose, where it turned to pink. It reared and danced in a circle. The rider, a young teenage girl, miraculously managed not to fall off. The second horse, which was darker brown with a black mane, merely danced in a circle. Its rider was a woman, perhaps the girl’s mother. They were both wearing the black suede riding helmets, black jodhpurs and long sleek boots of money and privilege.
“Sorry,” William said. He didn’t know what else to say.
The woman had plenty to say. Among the things she called William were “foolhardy idiot, reckless moron,” and “twerp.” William had never been called a twerp before. She referred to Bob and William collectively as “louts.” That wasn’t quite so bad, not as bad as “twerp.” All the while she was berating William — and there is no better place from which to berate than atop a large horse — William was keenly aware that her shiny black boots were precisely at face-kicking level. Otherwise, he had shut down. He had learned that when you are not allowed to fight back, you go to a safer place, become an emotional armadillo. Once she ran out of insulting epithets, she and her horse went snorting off, followed by the girl and precious pony.
What released William from his trance, during which he had been steadfastly holding the steering wheel in the ten-and-two position, was the voice of Bob. He said, “From now on I hate horse people. Horse people suck.”
That evening at home, William would look up the word “twerp.” It meant “an insignificant or despicable person.”
Scott had been industrious while William and Bob were gone. Not only had he armored the big alder, he had constructed a sturdy slatted box out of two-by-fours that could be placed in front of the culvert opening, making it more difficult for the beavers to block the water flow completely, and easier for park workers to clear the debris.
“You could patent that thing,” William told him.
“I do wood-working with my dad,” he said, “when I get to visit him.”
They arrived back at the yard just before three o’clock with a last load of muddy, beaver-chewed logs. When William turned off the Gator, he could hear an electronic rendition of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. It was getting louder. An ice cream truck appeared at the gate of the yard, and the music kept playing. The driver was dark-skinned and bearded, and stayed in his seat. Alan had been inside. He walked around the front of the truck and waved, but as he approached was briefly distracted, and stopped to look toward the front of the office. Ed Daddle had come out, apparently to complain about the truck. Vendors were not allowed in the park. Alan pretended not to be able to hear Ed over the music, and laughed at him.
William was chatting with Carl and Bob and Scott. The boys were waiting for their ride. They were telling Carl of what they had done and seen. Scott described his beaver-proofing invention, and Carl seemed genuinely intrigued. Bob spoke of the horse people, but in a way that made them seem outrageous and silly. Sent to the park as a punishment, the boys had ended up having a good afternoon.
Their ride showed up, a faded Oldsmobile driven by a tired woman.
“See ya next time,” said Bob.
“Thanks,” said Scott.
Carl put his hands on his hips and grinned at William. He asked, “What did you do to those boys? They’re totally different people from a few hours ago. Maybe you should consider a career in corrections.”
“Naw, he’s just good with kids,” said Alan.
Carl then looked at Alan, perhaps for the first time. “You’re Alan Lennox,” he said.
“I am.” Alan knew who not to mess with.
“You’re a hell of a painter,” said Carl. He held out his hand.