The interpreter was with a younger, prettier interpreter. They were in the parking lot of a suburban mall in the city at the great river’s mouth. For the previous three hours they had been supervising a shoreline cleanup program, attended by members of the general public. The bed of a one-ton truck had been filled with bags of unsorted trash, old tires and commercial fishing flotsam. A prize find had been a set of bagpipes, perhaps in vengeance hurled from an upstream bridge.
They were heading to a fried chicken place. “Although I don’t as a rule eat this kind of food,” the younger, prettier interpreter said as they wove among vehicles and light standards.
“Me neither,” said the interpreter.
High-pitched screaming erupted a few feet above the lights. Reflexively the interpreter pointed. An adult bald eagle was flapping strongly, but without the grace the species is famous for. This was because the large garter snake dangling from its talons was still fighting. The screaming was not from the eagle, whose expression was grim determination, but rather from two piratical gulls in hot pursuit. The birds and snake passed directly above the interpreters’ heads, then continued on over the townhouse roofs beyond the mall.
“That was amazing,” said the younger, prettier interpreter.
“Want to know what is more amazing?” asked the interpreter. He didn’t wait for her response. “There are at least thirty people in this parking lot.” This was true. There were people leaving their cars on their way to the grocery store and people coming out of the grocery store, carrying bags to their cars. There was an old woman seated on a bench, smoking. There were two young women standing outside the tanning salon, talking. There was a man stuffing old clothes into a charity donation box. There was a young father pushing a tandem stroller. And there were others, coming from the bank, the video store, the liquor store, and so on. The interpreter said, “But you and I were the only ones who saw that. For everyone else, it didn’t happen.”
The younger, prettier interpreter looked around, searching for one who showed signs of having seen the incident, a sight so wild, so extraordinary, so loud, that anyone who had witnessed it should be standing motionless, dumbstruck, staring after the birds. After completing a rotation she said, “Wow. I believe you’re right about that. Nobody else saw it. Right overtop of them, and they didn’t see it.”
“So what do you do?” asked the interpreter. “Sometimes I want to do this:” He made a megaphone with his hands, and yelled, “WOULD YOU PEOPLE PLEASE TRY TO PAY AT LEAST A TINY BIT OF ATTENTION? HAVE SOME FUCKING AWARENESS!”
That the people noticed. The younger, prettier interpreter grabbed the interpreter’s arm and hustled him to the chicken place. She said, “If you’re going to freak out in public, would you mind waiting until we’ve changed out of our uniforms?”
* * *
Stacey and William were staring at the cottage cheese ceiling, engaged in another instalment of the ongoing conversation, Why Alan Thinks Hannah Isn’t Really Dead, this one at William’s instigation, prompted by that afternoon’s impromptu interview with none other than Hannah’s little brother, Dan. Stacey had worked through the initial surprise of his claim of having spoken with a dead woman and was about to dig in her heels. In addition to being bedazzling, she was strictly rational.
William reiterated what he understood of Alan’s thinking, what he had pieced together from his cryptic comments and odd assertions over the past few months: when a hot-tub flies off a flatbed truck and crushes you in a gentrified neighbourhood, you may not be dead, at least not universally dead. William’s not being dead, despite the trail-fire electrocution and climbing number of lightning strikes, in Alan’s mind was powerful corroboration. And that it was William was important, because of the first death, when they were in a high speed head-on collision into a green wood-sided station wagon in a granite rock cut, leaving them twinned in death and buried somewhere in Ontario, but not the Ontario you would find if you flew across the country and landed there right now. They live on, apparently, in a British Columbia that coexists with a different non-dead Alan-and-Will Ontario. Alan seemed to believe that at least one version of Hannah might still be hanging around in BC, waiting for him to arrive, now more than a year late. He just had to get close to death at the right time, or die at the right time but in the ‘real way,’ and he would be with her again and they could resume living together. Dead here, but not everywhere.
Stacey said, “If you believe any of that, unless you are high on pain pills, more than one of you guys is certifiably nuts.”
“That’s a bit judgmental,” William replied.
“Dead is dead, no matter where, when or how. And as for you, you’ve never been physically gone. You were never in rigor mortis. Your body was never broken, then embalmed and buried.”
“Alan might argue it was, that I am a repeat death. There may be dead Williams all over the place. What the neurologist said didn’t help, with Alan present.”
“Where are these other Williams, in parallel time lines? In hyperspace?”
“I actually didn’t pin him down on that.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I generally don’t when it comes to Alan,” William said. “He gets angry.”
“Well you should. It’s craziness. Hannah is dead everywhere and you have never been completely dead anywhere. Her body is buried, in the ground like almost everyone else who has died by whatever means, assuming it wasn’t cremated, in which case there’s just a container of ashes.”
“That’s pretty cold.”
“That’s real.” She added, “He can’t just go invent a scheme of existence that is nothing more than what he wishes might be true. Death isn’t something that can be skirted around by leaping from door to door, from places that are real to those that don’t exist—or vice versa. Even if Alan were merely searching for her ghost, which compared to what you just described seems relatively sane, that in itself would be crazy.”
William pointed out that many people believed that ghosts exist, that people of all cultures believed in ghosts. It was even possible to go online and see ghosts. Ghosty things.
She said, “Scientists don’t believe in ghosts.” She poked him in the side to remind him which team he was supposed to be on. “It’s sad is what it is. That’s all.”
William replied, “But Hannah spoke to me, twice.” He felt it necessary to restate this outlying point.
“She did not.”
Now he found himself sort of tending to agree, maybe. “Okay, probably not. But it’s easier for you to be certain. You didn’t see or hear her. Plus, you haven’t had your nervous system, the part that you use to think with, repeatedly assailed with massive amounts of electricity.’
She pounced on this. “Your point is that you may be brain-damaged, so crazy-talk is okay now?”
“Yes, in this case.” He didn’t know what else to say. She, his former student, was kicking his butt logic-wise. He thought she would declare victory, for certainly she had made her case, but instead she kept going.
“So what exactly does Alan expect you to do?”
“Help him find her.”
“He’s waiting for me to figure that out.”
“And how’s that going?”
“I’ll invite Alan over, fill the tub with water, have both of us jump in, and drop in the hair dryer. Will I see Hannah again, and, more to the point, will Alan get to see her too?”
“Obviously not. Probably the hair dryer will just short out. Tell him you can’t help him.”
“And say he did see her, then what? If, instead of just talking to Hannah, you rush to her and hold onto her, and she holds onto you, when the thing is over, when you regain consciousness, what will you have? Will you be left holding onto nothing? What if she doesn’t disappear?” At this point his forehead began itching like crazy, not on the surface, where the scar shone, but inside, beneath it. This sometimes happened. Usually it was when he was doing his taxes or trying to figure out a tip.
“If the hair dryer doesn’t short out, then you’re dead too. You, and Alan, and Hannah, who is already dead.”
“The Coroner would be hard-pressed to explain three dead people in a tub, one of whom had been interred in Toronto more than a year earlier.”
“No, there would only be two of you, two Darwin Award winners. Please stop rubbing your forehead.”
“I can’t believe this is happening,” William said. He was referring to the present conversation as much as anything.
“On the other hand, maybe you should try it. I want to meet Hannah and tell her she has driven at least two men completely insane. I want to learn her secrets.”
“I believe you’re kidding.”
“Duh. And would you please stop rubbing your head? You’re shaking the bed.”
He had to Strangelove his hand.
She asked, “Can you explain your dog-like loyalty to Alan? Explain it to me? What grand thing has he ever done for you? Why are you even half-seriously considering endangering yourself on his behalf over something that makes no sense?”
It was an insulting though reasonable question. Why this willingness to at any moment follow Alan to the end of the earth, or partake in whatever new lark he had in mind—which potentially amounted to the same thing. William said, “Maybe because he came into my life at its apogee, when everything was wide open, when it seemed that life could not get any better — but then he made it better still, like a never-ending joyride. I can’t forget how wonderful that was.”
Stacey said, “No. It was the girl. That’s why you were so happy back then. Alan was just an add-on. You don’t owe him anything.”
“That part of your life was all about your high school girlfriend, and about being eighteen years old. The first girl you had sex with, the world-changing thrill of that. That’s what you’re remembering, and it was a long time ago.”
“She wasn’t the first girl I had sex with.”
“I mean that you cared about. Sex with a person you were in love with, a sexual relationship.”
“No. You misunderstand. I never had sex with her. Not once.”
“No. Not the whole way.”
He sighed. “We were being responsible? We were young? We were powerless? We were afraid to make our parents angrier or more disappointed in us than they already were? We talked about it, and expected we would, but I remember it was like we were waiting for something, some sign of acceptance, which never came. Her parents intervened before it ever happened. So yay for them. They saved us from teen pregnancy and eternal hellfire. I suppose I should be grateful.” He rolled away from her, onto his side.
After a few seconds of silence she rubbed his back, and said, “I’m sorry. That makes me sad. It’s a sad story. I misjudged you.”
He said, “I shouldn’t have said anything. Then you wouldn’t be sad. You would think of me as a cool teen operator who had a way with the ladies.”
She didn’t laugh. Her hand stopped moving, one finger snugged deep in the cow-dent. She said, “You were a nice boy, weren’t you?
He said, “Yes. I was a very nice boy. Fat lotta good that did me.”
“And then you met Alan Lennox, who was not a nice boy.”
That sent them back to the main topic. William rolled to face her and said, “Whatever he was then, now he’s miserable. He’s a widower, which is a horrible thing to be at a young age, especially when you are just getting used to imagining yourself as a new father. I want him to be happy again. I want him to start painting again and he can’t, because the rug has been pulled out from under his life. Plus I had a liaison with Hannah, and have to pay arrears.”
She sat up. “Did you or didn’t you? What is the story with you and that woman?”
“I didn’t. Really. The crucial point is he thinks I did. Please lie down.”
“If you didn’t, you at least wish you did.”
“Hannah Imamura. When she was killed there were pictures of her in the media, from before the accident. She had a face you couldn’t help but pause to look at. She was gorgeous.”
“That’s not relevant,” he said.
“Or maybe you’re getting a kick out of Alan being steamed about you having slept with his wife. Your boyhood friend, who is kind of a jerk, now a multimillionaire. Aren’t you jealous of him? Allowing him to think you had sex with Hannah would be a very powerful way of one-upping him, whether it happened or not.”
That was perceptive. Shit. It might also have been to some degree true. But he said, “It’s nothing like that.” He told her about New York and the bastard Kyle Patruczak, and what would have happened had Alan known the truth. That left her thinking for a while.
She said, “Okay, I kind of get that.”
“I should have protected her. I should have kept that guy away from her. So that was partly my fault.”
“Why would you have? You didn’t know what was going to happen.”
“I knew he was evil.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Maybe you feel guilt about it though, and because you’ve never worked through it, it’s waiting there in your subconscious? Maybe that’s why you think you see her.”
“You mean I’m imagining her? I’m not. It’s her. She’s external, not internal. She’s not in my imagination.”
“You weren’t so sure before. Now you are?”
“I couldn’t have imagined her so clearly. I saw every detail. Her eyelashes, everything. She has a tiny mole on her left cheek. I saw it. It had to have been her.”
“But why would she be haunting you, not her husband?”
“Because I’ve been here all this time and he hasn’t. Maybe she saw me on the street on the way to his dentist. It’s near the accident site.”
“She has been invisibly following you around since the last time you had your teeth cleaned.”
“You seem to be acknowledging there could at least be a ghost,” William said.
“I’m acknowledging no such thing. But if there is, it isn’t Hannah Imamura.”
“How so?” William sat up.
They stared at each other in the dark amid the smoke trails of misfires, until she said, “Never mind.”
William said, “Please understand. I’ve never before been even the slightest bit unsure of what’s real and what isn’t. I’m just trying to figure out what the hell has been happening, and my inner forehead itches like crazy.” He pleaded, “Lie down?” She did, and William did too. When she moved closer, against him, he told her about his afternoon walk with Dan, which was a fairly lengthy story. He told her that Dan had asked him to help Alan understand that Hannah wasn’t here, when, for reasons already discussed though remaining unresolved at least for William, perhaps she sort of was. William ventured, “Maybe death is just another form of estrangement.”
“No,” Stacey corrected. “Estrangement is just another form of death.” She was reminding him that he had failed to phone his mother again.
They feigned drowsiness, both hoping they hadn’t wrecked bedtime, until William got up and went into the bathroom to stand crookedly under the shower, bumping his forehead in and out of a pulsating ice water stream. That’s what made it stop.
He towelled off and crawled back into bed, shivering.
She touched his face. “You are a complex man,” she said. “And you have the body temperature of a vampire.”