The interpreter swung his canoe around to face the five canoes of the participants in the River Exploration program. He was about to point out evidence of beaver activity on the nearby muddy bank, when he saw an osprey hovering mid-river, 150 yards out, about to drop on a salmon. “Look, an osprey, about to dive!” he called.
The participants mostly continued talking to each other, but a few looked to the interpreter with their faces scrunched in confusion.
“An osprey!” he called out again. He gestured wildly at the bird, which had ceased its hovering flap and was now in a spiralling dive.
“A what?” asked a woman in the nearest canoe.
“An osprey. It’s a spectacular bird of prey that dives for fish! Look!”
A few were interested. They glanced over their shoulders. Others continued their private conversations. The osprey emerged from the river with a glistening fish writhing in its talons. It headed for the far side.
“What were you looking at?” someone in another canoe asked.
“An osprey,” said the interpreter.
“What’s an osprey?” he was asked.
“A bird of prey that eats fish,” he said. Their faces were blank.
The interpreter asked, “What’s on the back of a ten-dollar bill?”
“Mountains?” someone offered.
“The Queen,” someone said.
The interpreter checked his thin wallet and found he had a ten-dollar bill. He passed it to a woman in the nearest canoe. “Oh, it’s a bird,” the woman said. “It’s called an osprey. It’s holding a fish in its feet.” The bill got passed around until they all had a look.
“Oh,” they all said, and they looked out into the river, where the bird had been.
“Whoops,” said a man. “Somebody snag the money. It fell in the water.”
Somebody smacked it with a paddle, and it sank.
* * *
After a very wet, very gray March came an even wetter and grayer first two weeks of April, and then, unexpectedly, the water stopped. Puddles sank into the ground and plants began to thrive. Late spring was unusually dry, and this pleasant pattern continued into early summer. The water level at Burnaby Lake was very low, and lowering further each day as more of it slipped over the Cariboo Dam.
The school year was over and there was a span of about two weeks in which there were no programs. It usually took parents that long to appreciate fully the burden of having their children at home all day and then they would start to seek out things for them to do. By early July, Tom Carlisle’s phone would be ringing and registrations would be rolling in. Monique, Stacey and Tracy would be assigned the bulk of the programs, which were mostly at Burnaby Lake. This was fine with William because the day-programs tended to be designed for very young children. During the summer his most frequent assignments were evening or early morning canoeing on the lake for adults and older children.
Fooj and Monique were to marry in mid-August. They were planning an outdoor ceremony at Deas Island Regional Park, with the reception at the Rowing Pavilion on the south side of Burnaby Lake, across from and west of the Nature House. William had said he would be honored to be best man, but that was because William liked Fooj and Monique, and at the time it had been months away. Now that the middle of August was rapidly approaching, William had to worry about renting a tuxedo and making a speech. His honest feeling was that he didn’t think they should have a best man who didn’t believe in love and was a three-time loser to lightning. Don’t hitch your Pinto to my wagon, Fooj, William should have said, but William was stymied by the moment, months ago. He had thought he would go his entire life without renting a tuxedo. He had never liked weddings, for too many reasons to mention.
Fooj was away again and a week of evening canoeing programs was coming up. Two interpreters were needed to guide six canoes down the Brunette River to the dam and back, stopping at a handful of beaver lodges to explain beaver ecology, and, along the way, point out the large, aquatic rodents nosing through the sluggish current. Once encountered, very reliably and quite dramatically, the beavers would slap their tails on the water to warn each other of approaching canoes. The beavers panicked easily and were not good at distinguishing between dangerous predators and people canoeing badly. The only other available interpreter certified for canoeing was Caroline Li, but the day before the first program she confessed she could use a review.
William and Caroline met at the Nature House to gather material for a run-through of the program. Stacey and Tracy were there and asked if they could come along. William thought this a good idea, because Caroline needed practice sterning a canoe. William had been on good terms with Stacey and Tracy since he had graciously given each a thank you card and a small, expensive-looking teddy bear. They had not again discussed interpretive philosophies and methods.
Stacey decided she would go his canoe, and Tracy would go with Caroline. They gathered paddles and lifejackets as William carried the canoes to the wooden platform at the end of the spit where canoes were launched when the water was low. After helping Caroline and Tracy into the first canoe, and giving it a helpful shove, he swung the second canoe parallel to the dock and lay a paddle across the middle to hold it in place.
Stacey extended a hand, and William helped her step in.
“Keep your center of gravity low,” he said. “Keep your butt down.”
“Got it,” she said. She ran her hands along the gunwales as she stepped to the bow. Once seated, she smiled at William over her shoulder. He handed her a paddle and then climbed in behind and pushed off.
Then what? There was no limitless horizon, no vast blue expanse. They were in a swimming pool patch of open water surrounded by acres and acres of European pond lilies. These were too easy to paddle into, and murder to escape. The flowers were pretty and had a sweet licorice smell, but that was about all the good that can be said about them. Apart from the rowing lanes on the far side of the lake, the only open water was the out-flowing river. The first challenge for novice canoeists was to reach that water by navigating a narrow channel through the lilies, scarcely wider than the canoe, trying not to lose one’s paddle to the heavy leaves and entangling stems. Once through that obstacle, if you paddled your heart out and knew how to steer, you could probably reach the dam inside five minutes. Somehow the interpreter was expected to stretch those few hundred yards of water into a two-hour program. There were delaying tactics, some even while still ashore. There was an everybody- get-to-know-everybody-else activity up at the Nature House, which usually took fifteen minutes, and then the distribution of correctly-sized paddles and life jackets, another ten minutes, and then the parade down to the boats, five minutes, and then a brief lesson in canoeing–which participants generally ignored, 5 minutes –and then sending them off to get stuck in the lily pads. Once rounded up and all together on the river, there was usually the right amount of time remaining to get to the dam and back, stopping several times to talk about beavers, their lodges, their food, and whatever else popped into the interpreter’s head.
Stacey and William sailed through the lily channel and paddled to the first lodge, not far along the river, and waited for Caroline and Tracy to catch up. They were having trouble, stuck nose-in on the far bank. Tracy was clearly not as good a paddler as Stacey.
“Maybe you should have gone with Caroline,” William said, meaning she needed the help.
“Nah,” said Stacey. She looked over her shoulder at him. She was smiling.
“Nah,” William said.
Eventually the vegetation released Caroline and Tracy. They were able to pick their way through the lily pad channel to bump their canoe into William and Stacey’s at the first lodge.
William said, “Lodge One. Typically, here’s where we talk about the construction of a beaver lodge. Pluck out a chewed stick and pass it around, indicating gnaw-marks. Open the prop box and show a beaver skull. Show the long curved lower incisors, white on the inner surface and bright orange enamel on the outer surface. Slowly pull the tooth from its socket. It keeps coming and coming and coming, until you have half a bracelet of orange enamel in your fingers. It’s pretty spectacular. Big wow-factor.”
Tracy said, “And then we could do the song about animal homes.”
Stacey turned in her seat to look at William. “Tune is ‘Home on the Range’.”
He raised his hands in surrender.
They back-paddled away from lodge one and turned downstream. Two minutes of weak paddling brought them to the next lodge.
William said, “Lodge Two. Here’s where we show an example of bank excavation, how beavers minimize their time on land, where they are slow and easily attacked, by bringing the water to the food source. They dig extensive canals that radiate into the shore like the canals of a Floridian lakeside development.”
Tracy said, “Here we could do the beaver work song.”
Stacey said, “Which is sung to ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” She looked at William, as if goading him to say something.
He pulled the brim of his ranger hat over his eyes.
A slightly longer, winding paddle brought them to a third lodge, a hundred meters shy of the dam. William said, “Lodge Three. Here’s where we show the stumps of large alders that have been felled, and water lily flower buds that have been nibbled by beavers. We talk about the other trees, the ancient, ramrod-straight hemlocks and spruce that give the narrow river a tunnel-like feel.”
Tracy said, “I can’t quite think of an appropriate song for that.”
Stacey said, “There doesn’t have to be a damn song for every damn dam!”
Caroline said, “They’re not dams. They’re lodges.”
“Okay,” said Tracy. “We could try maybe a puppet thingie.”
“How about not?” said Stacey. Caroline and William exchanged glances. Friction seemed to have developed between Ed’s pretty book-end interpreters.
“Time to go back,” William said. He waited for Caroline to make a long, uncertain turnaround and followed at a distance. “Stop paddling,” William said to Stacey. A great blue heron was splay-legged on a log, trying to swallow a brown bullhead. The large, prickly fish refused to go down, so the heron flipped it to the tip of its bill and started slapping it against the log. The fish squirmed and the heron battered it some more. Thick, purple blood squirted from the fish’s eyes and spattered across the water. With another artful flip the heron gulped it down, but only halfway. The swallowed fish was still alive and writhing within the long, curved neck of the heron, which sprang off the log and flew upriver, over the heads of Caroline and Tracy.
“I can’t quite think of an appropriate song for that,” said Stacey.
“There’s no fish-murdering song?” William asked.
“But we could probably come up with a puppet-thingy,” she said. She lifted her legs and swiveled on the seat to face William, smiling naughtily.
She suddenly looked fabulously attractive. William felt a twinge. It had been a while since he’d felt one of that particular sort. It then occurred to him that Ed Daddle, a man his age, lusted shamelessly over this young woman . Maybe, not quite so shamelessly, he could too. He imagined Alan Lennox giving a thumbs-up.
“Do you mind if I stop paddling?” she asked.
“Nope,” William said.
She removed her life jacket and wriggled off the seat, and then sat on the bottom of the canoe, leaning the life jacket against the seat as a backrest. Next, she worked her shoes off with her toes, and peeled off her socks. “I hate sock-tan,” she explained. Her toenails were painted a shocking orange. Whether through forethought or fortune, they matched her life jacket. “Take your time,” she said. I want to enjoy the ride. She twiddled her orange-tipped toes. She was twiddling them at William, he dared believe. She had planned this. For whatever reason, she had set out to bedazzle him with her toe nails.
“In that case maybe I’ll stop paddling too,” William said. There was silence, as if both were thinking what the point of no one paddling anymore would be.
She grinned and asked, “Dr. Kendall, are you flirting with me?” She lifted a foot and rotated her ankle in an accusatory, alluring, way.
Holy shit. He was flirting with her.
Canadian writer Pierre Burton has been credited with saying, “A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe.” William thought of those words, and wondered, if they were true, was a flirtatious comment in a canoe a first step toward asserting one’s Canadianness? He dug the paddle blade deep, thrusting his hand into the cold water, and gave a good pull.
“You should know something,” she said, as they glided along. “I’m not a Froosian.”
“No?” William said.
“No. I’m a Conservation Biology Major, which I thought you might remember.” William tried to recall the introduction at the orientation. In typical fashion, the interpreters had not introduced themselves, but had used the standard interpretative game in which they paired off with someone they didn’t know, found out three things about them, one of which was supposed to be an interesting detail, and then introduced the other person to the rest of the group. Monique had introduced Stacey. William couldn’t remember if Monique spoke about her education. He could only remember the interesting detail: Stacey was almost fluent in Korean. It was funny, because she looked as though she might be almost fluent in Norwegian, Danish or Swedish, a language from that part of the world. William’s interesting detail was that he had been hit by lightning twice. It was always an impressive detail, which he could now update: three times.
Stacey said, “I know a lot about natural history and I want to know more . I have no intention of being a children’s birthday party entertainer.”
“I understand,” William said.
She leaned back. Her sunhat dipped down over her eyes and she crossed her arms over her chest, as though napping. In a rapid mental run-through of what might have happened next in a more spontaneous, crazier world, William came to understand that the challenge of making love in a canoe lay not in the inherent tippiness of the craft. It was the center thwart, the crosspiece that ran from left to right gunwale, the member that kept the sides bowed outward and maintained the canoe’s breadth. How do you make love when there’s a plank across your ass? William understood then why it was called a thwart, and what it meant to be thwarted.
When they arrived at the dock, Caroline was sitting on the edge, holding the canoe with her legs. Tracy had taken the paddles and life jackets and was gone.
“Why isn’t Stacey paddling?” she asked. “No wonder you took forever.” She was annoyed.
Stacey re-shod herself and gathered up their paddles and life jackets. She asked, “Do you want me to come back and help you carry the canoes?”
William said, “No thanks, we got them.”
“See you,” she said. “Thanks for showing us the program.”
Also on the dock, looking out over the lake, was a pair of teenagers, an Asian girl and a Caucasian boy. They had their arms around each other and were aglow with the giddiness of young love. Caroline was scowling at them.
As they were carrying the first canoe away, William asked her, “Is something wrong?”
Indeed there was. In fact the world was coming to an end, a complete disaster. Caroline’s fourteen-year-old daughter Angela had been caught holding hands with a boy. “She was with a Caucasian boy!” The vehemence of her explanation surprised William. He had worked with Caroline many times and race had never come up in any context. She had lived in Canada for almost two decades and her children were born in Vancouver. William wouldn’t have guessed she would suddenly turn into an Old World xenophobe, into Becky Pang’s Auntie Yvonne.
“I’m a Caucasian boy,” William reminded her.
“You’re a Caucasian man,” she said, missing his point.
Or, William wondered, had he missed her point? Maybe she thought him at his advanced age harmless, no threat to the integrity of a Chinese family.
He said, “Fooj is an Asian boy and Monique is a Caucasian girl. Is that wrong?”
“Fooj is a Japanese. They like to fit in.”
“Chinese are Chinese!”
William couldn’t argue with so taut a tautology.
They carried the first canoe back to the nature house, William at the bow, Caroline astern. Tracy the Froosian and Stacey the Bedazzler had departed. William went back to retrieve the second canoe by himself. Carrying a canoe solo, the Mr. Canoehead method with the centre thwart across his shoulders like a yoke, was faster than toting it one-handed with a partner.
Caroline drove William to the Metrotown Mall in Burnaby, two Skytrain stops from his apartment. He asked her to let him buy her a drink. He wanted to tell her a story.
She looked at her watch. “Sure, why not?” she said. “Sometimes I like your stories.”
He doubted she would like this one too much, but wanted to give it a shot. It was a story of a Caucasian boy and a Chinese girl, as she would differentiate them, intended to let her know that Caucasian boys weren’t really all that dangerous. He hoped maybe she would lighten up on Angela and her friend. He started by telling her about Becky Pang and her sisters.
Becky was the oldest. Next came Jennie, two years younger, and two years beyond, little Cindy. Their legal names were not Rebecca, Jennifer and Cynthia. They were Becky, Jennie, and Cindy.
Becky was willowy and intellectual, with glasses and slender wrists. She was the stereotypical plain girl who instantly became elegantly pretty when she took off her glasses and teased out her hair.
Jennie was the sexy one. She had a blinding smile and a shining mane of hair. She wore very tight jeans that bound a body becoming increasingly voluptuous. By fifteen, she was already a subject of much interest and lewd conjecture at school.
Cindy was short for her age and had scoliosis. Starting at age twelve she wore a brace that pressed against her hips, shoulders and head in hopes of realigning her twisting spine. She was sweet and determined.
Both of Becky’s parents worked long hours and were never home before nine or ten. William would go to her house with his guitar. Becky had recently purchased a guitar, and William was teaching her how to play. One of the songs he taught her, which was later to haunt him, was Time in a Bottle. William tried to teach Cindy too, although it was difficult for her to hold a guitar given her small size and the oppressive brace that encompassed her. William rarely saw Jennie apart from a quick breeze through and disapproving look. She didn’t like William and he don’t know if it had to do with him personally, or her life-long rivalry with Becky, who the family considered the smart one. Becky and Jennie were always at each other, which distressed William. There were times when they would be in the basement arguing, and William would be left alone in the living room with Cindy, placing her fingers on the frets of Becky’s guitar, holding the bottom of the guitar in place against the abominable body brace, teaching her scales and chords.
One time Cindy took a picture of Becky and William, together playing their guitars. William had copies made, 8 by 10, and would place one in front of himself as he wrote love letters from Camp Ohmeemaw.
Early on, after their friendship had changed to something romantic, Becky told William of an older boy, Tony Lo, whom her parents expected her to marry. Tony was studying commerce at Queen’s University in eastern Ontario. When he came home on long weekends, Becky would come to William’s house and hide, and her parents would be furious. William’s parents would be puzzled that their son was in the basement with a Chinese girl, but not puzzled enough to do anything about it.
If William were at Becky’s house when her parents arrived home, he would be bum-rushed out the side door, and, after the front porch light was extinguished, be left to walk home alone with his growing apprehensions. It was clear there wouldn’t be a happy resolution to the differences in world views, but William had no choice but to pretend otherwise, to ride it out to the bitter end, because he loved Becky Pang more than anyone on earth.
His parents were perplexed by his relationship with Becky, as they were with almost anything William liked to do, as they were with his existence in general. He was born late in their lives. William didn’t think they intended to have him, and having done so, seemed to hope he could do most of the child rearing on his own.
Becky tried very hard to talk with William’s mother. Although shy, she always initiated the conversations. She tried to get to know his mother and demonstrate that she wanted to be part of her family. Whenever his mother responded to Becky she always added, “dear” at the end of the sentence, as if reminding herself she should at least pretend to like Chinese people. William would tell her to stop thinking of Becky and his other Asian friends — for they lived in a neighborhood with an increasing number of recent immigrants from Hong Kong or Taiwan — as Chinese people, to just think of them as people. But still, after Becky left, his mother would say, “Chinese people are always so polite,” which seemed a hint that their politeness was a means of disguising their true selves. Or, perhaps implying that they were always up to something, trying to one-up regular Canadians, she would say, “The Chinese kids always look as if their mothers’ iron their jeans.”
Although disheartened at her lack of headway with William’s mother, Becky burst out laughing at that one, “Because it’s true!” she said.
His father never said a thing about Becky. That was too bad, because he was a pharmacist, and Becky was about to go into Pharmacy at The University of Western Ontario. They would have had a lot to talk about, had he ever even looked at her. William couldn’t get why his father wouldn’t even look at her.
After Becky told William it was over, William lay around the house, broken hearted, feeling the worst pain of his life. His parents didn’t ask what was wrong. They pretended nothing was wrong. They never acknowledged his suffering.
Caroline interjected, “They knew you picked the wrong girl and they wanted you to find someone more suitable, someone in your culture.”
This abrupt assessment irked William. He said, “I had known Becky Pang since third grade. We played in the same school band. We were on the same high school cross-country team. We were on the same side in the American History class debate: Who Won the War of 1812, the Americans or the British?”
And then the capper: On a warm evening in late spring, a few weeks before William left for Camp Ohmeemaw and met Alan, he and Becky were walking through the neighborhood, holding hands, in the streets farthest from Becky’s home. The soft new leaves on the maples were rustling and there were cats on the verandas of the houses. They passed a house where an elderly man was trimming a privet hedge with a pair of old-fashioned clippers. William recognized him from long before, from childhood. “Hello, Dr. Ball,” William said. To his surprise, so did Becky.
Dr. Ball turned stiffly and looked at them with the clipper blades paused open. He smiled, the kind smile that made going to the doctor not scary, even when William knew he was going to get a needle. “Hello William, hello Becky,” he said. “Wasn’t this a very nice day?”
“Yes,” they said.
As they walked away, William asked Becky how she knew Dr. Ball.
“He was my pediatrician. In fact, he delivered me.”
William squeezed her hand.
“What?” she asked.
“Me too. He delivered me too.”
They stopped and looked back at him. He hadn’t moved, was still standing there with the clipper blades open, watching them with his kind smile. They waved. As they turned away, Becky Pang kissed William on the cheek.
He asked Caroline, “How could two people who had been in the same school band, and who had been on the same cross-country team, and who had been delivered by the same doctor in the same hospital, not be of the same culture?”
As for his parents, William didn’t really know what role Becky’s ethnic background had in their lack of concern over his heartache. In his view, they simply flat-out didn’t care. Perhaps her race made it easier to rationalize not caring.
Caroline asked William what Tony Lo did for a living.
“He entered into his family’s import business, or something,” William said, which made Caroline nod in agreement. William found her reaction odd, because her husband, who had deserted her and her children, had owned an import business. The only things Caroline knew of Tony Lo were the traits he shared with her own deadbeat husband, yet still she saw him in a better light than William, her colleague.
“I’m sorry I told you about this.” William said. All hopes in convincing Caroline to ease up on Angela were gone, and worse, she was placing a stamp of approval on the most painful experience of his life. He had always considered Caroline, although not a close friend, at least a pleasant person, a sympathetic comrade with comparable views and values.
“That’s a sad story for you,” she said. “I understand why it hurt you, but the mother was right. You and Becky never considered her parents’ feelings. Besides, your Becky is happier now than she would’ve been if she married you. You couldn’t support her, or her children, and you’re not Chinese.”
Her cold practicality hurt worse than the hateful racism. William couldn’t recall anyone ever so summarily making him feel more worthless.
In response, William said to Caroline maybe the meanest thing he had ever said to anyone. She had pulled the plug on a deep well of unresolved anger. He said, “I predict your daughter will abandon you, the way your husband did, and rightly so.” Her hurt expression only very fleetingly felt good. Almost immediately William felt terrible. He had been cruel.
She threw her drink in his face and ran out, leaving William the object of judgment of others in the bar. He wiped his face with his napkin, a chastised cad.