Wednesday, January 10, 2018

31. Embers

William’s quietly throbbing hangover became a marching band when he turned on the morning newscast.  Top story: the venerable Burnaby Lake Nature House had been seriously damaged in a fire.  The charred body of a man had been found inside.  The footage showed firefighters inspecting the damage.  One bent over and picked up something half-melted, roughly the dimensions of a large pizza.  It looked to be made of 24 carat gold.

His first reaction was to panic, to phone Alan, yelling that Milt died in the fire.

Alan was very calm.  “No, he didn’t,” he said.  “Milt’s not dead.”

William thought Alan was adding Milt to his list of dead people who weren’t dead, the criterion for inclusion being that Alan didn’t want that person dead.  “We shouldn’t have left him there.  I shouldn’t have let them in.  Shit shit shit...shit,” William said. 

“Milt’s not dead,” said Alan. 

His confidence surprised, even shocked, William.  “You saw the news?  Didn’t you see the hat?”

“Yes, unfortunately he forgot his hat.  I hope he wasn’t too attached to it.  The point is, a couple of days ago I rented him an apartment near the Lougheed Mall so he could be closer to the lake.  I talked to him last night after I got home.  He was safely ensconced in his new digs and had no clue about the fire.  He and Baba only stayed long enough for Baba to toss one butt.  Then Baba drove him to his new place.”

William thought for a minute.  “So who’s the charred body?”

Alan said, “Remember that old guy with the ladder who was climbing around in the roof?”

“Leonard?”                                                                                                        

“Yeah, him.  And maybe he’s been dead up in there for about...two weeks?” 

William thought this through.  “Hence the smell,” he said.

“Hence that,” said Alan.  There was a pause as he let this much more favourable, albeit still gruesome, explanation sink in.  Then he asked, “What are you doing today?  How ‘bout we go for a ride somewhere, go rustle up a bigfoot?”

William told him he would go to his place and they could drive to the North Shore mountains.  During his five months in Vancouver, Alan had yet to set foot on a real mountain, the kind with ski runs and summer snow.  William had found that, when troubled, it felt good to go up a real mountain and sit on a rock, put yourself above the world, above your troubles.  William wasn’t sure it would work for Alan, but it was worth a try.  It was always nice to go up into the mountains for whatever reason.

Tom phoned before William left his apartment.  Alan had guessed correctly.  The burned body was old Leonard, although the identification had not been publicly released, pending notification of next of kin.  Everyone had assumed Leonard had taken his camper and gone on a trip to Kelowna, in the province’s interior, where his brother lived.  But two days before the fire, Leonard’s empty truck had been found almost fully submerged in an irrigation ditch next to a cranberry field in Richmond.  Once the truck was hauled out, it was discovered that a window had been broken and the ignition popped.  It had obviously been stolen, but Leonard had not reported it, which was a worrying puzzle, especially since his whereabouts were not known either.  Now, sadly, the mystery was solved.

“Poor Leonard,” said William.  “He died in a crumbling whorehouse, crawling with carpenter ants.”

“That sounds like a country song,” said Tom.

William and Alan weren’t linked to the fire.  Tom was satisfied with William’s story: they were drunk, Alan was depressed, they went out in the parking lot to shoot Ed Daddle, then decided to go for a drive, and then decided Alan was too drunk, so parked on the other side and went for a paddle.  It wasn’t necessary to enter the Nature House to get the canoes.

Moreover, Tom didn’t care that the Nature House was partly burned and now condemned.  For years he had been pushing for its demolition — it had been on the verge of collapse anyway.  He had already designed his dream-nature house to replace it, inspired by classic railway stations of the turn of the previous century.  The ramps would make for accessibility, and the platform would be a gathering place with interpretive signage.  Downstairs would be the gallery and lecture theatre, upstairs the interpreters’ offices.  The decor: Raffles Hotel, circa 1925 — bright, exotic, and optimistic.

There was another plus.  The melted hat sent the Jesus of the East gang home to Taiwan.  They believed that Milt had perished.  Their spokesman said, in a halting voice, “We... have failed.  The Jesus of the West has been taken from us by the forces of evil.  We did not expect the forces of evil to be so strong in this place.  May God have mercy on us all.”  William thought the language was a little over the top.  The forces of evil had been armed with BB guns and a cricket bat.

As he sat on the Skytrain into Vancouver, William replayed Stacey’s visit from the night before.  Non-drivers recognize the value of public transit as a place of reflection. 

His sense of foreboding increased when she stepped through the door carrying an empty cardboard box.  She placed it on the floor inside the bathroom.  Her long-term but recently ex-boyfriend, Greg, had called.  He was miserable without her and was dropping out of his studies in Boston.  He wanted to return to her.  She wanted that too.

“How do you feel?” she asked, genuinely concerned.

“Empty,” William said.  “Just kind of empty.”                                                  

“I’m really sorry,” she said.  “I really do care about you, you know.”

He said, “It’s okay.  You made me very happy.  You made me feel miraculously happy.”

“I didn’t expect it,” she said.

“Me neither,” he answered.  He was crestfallen, but not heartbroken.  He hadn’t been built back up enough to be re-broken.  They were sitting at opposite ends of his bed.  William watched her fidget with her keys.  She had something else on her mind.  She was almost pouting.  “What is it?” he asked.

She said, “If I were ever about to enter into a serious long-term relationship with you, I would need you to truthfully answer one question.”

“We would never enter into a serious long-term relationship with each other.  I’m too old for you,” he said, not particularly wanting to hear the question.

“I know, but please, would you answer anyway?”

“Ask away,” he said.

She said, “You keep part of you secret, part of your thoughts.  It’s like you’re the owner of a club and only a few, select people are let in.  So far I’ve not been one of them.  Do you think you would ever be able to let me in?”  Smarty-pants Stacey had cut to the chase.  Other relationships had taken months or years to confront this intractable topic, which those other times had resulted in nasty recriminations and long-term turmoil.  Thanks to good old Greg for intervening before they got to a stage that only could have come to a more damaging conclusion.

“It isn’t a club,” he said, “It’s more like a field.  A hot, unmowed field in Scarborough Ontario, with kingbirds flying overhead.”

“I don’t quite know what that means,” she said.  Suddenly she was vulnerable and injured, as though it were not she who had just dumped him.  His response had been too quick, too clever.  “That girl is in there, the Chinese one,” she said with absolute certainty.

Alan was right.  One way or another, William was always writing that name on the bathroom mirror.  Stacey’s expression made him scoot over to embrace her.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t know.  I just can’t let go.  It makes no sense.” 

She gently pushed him away.   “See a counsellor?” she suggested, not unkindly.  He had heard that one before.   He shifted back to his end of the bed.  She studied his face.  “So you’re not too hurt by this, I mean by me going back to Greg?”

“I am hurt, a bit,” he said, “but it’s okay.  We had...it was nice.  How about you?”

“Same.”   She then went into the bathroom and loaded up the box with her bottles of nail polish, shampoo and the other things that she really didn’t need to make herself prettier.

As William trudged along Nelson Street on the way to Alan’s, his cell phone buzzed.  He wouldn’t be getting any teaching slots at UBC this year.  His graduate school friend had moved up the administrative ladder and his replacement had hired someone else to teach his courses.  In olden times you would receive such deflating information on your answering machine in the privacy of your home.  Now, the worst possible news was delivered to you as you walked down a crowded street, where all the world could see your face as you died inside.

Alan opened his door, looked at William and said, “You look amazingly glum, even by your standards.”

William told him about Greg coming back to Stacey.

“That’s a good story,” said Alan.  “He really loves that girl.”  The implication was that if you really loved someone, you would give up a career for her.  You would sacrifice anything to get her back.  There was no mystery who this was aimed at.
                 
William’s phone rang again.  He recognized the office number.  “What?” he said.

Ed Daddle was on a rampage.  He had never phoned William’s cell number before.  “You’re in some way responsible for this!”

At first William thought he meant the BB-riddled cut-out of himself that Tom and Ross had cheerily deposited in his parking space after the reception, but he meant the fire.  That would be something Ed would be upset about.  “Hello Edward,” he said.  “How are you?”

“Tell me what you know about this!  I bet you had something to do with this!”

“What?” William said.

“You were involved with that fat idiot Jesus!  Explain to me how he got into the Nature House and burned it down!”

“I’m sorry, I can barely understand you Ed, calm down.  Oh no, my cell battery is about to run...” William folded his phone shut and turned it off.  He said to Alan, “This isn’t getting better.  I’m pretty sure I’m fired now.”

“That would be my best gift to you, getting you fired from that shitty place.”

“That’s easy for you to say.  You’ll never need to worry about rent and food...”

He cut him off.  “You’ll never need to worry about rent and food either.  Really.  Think about it.  I’m more concerned about some of the others.”  

“Who?”

“Well, Milt.  I have to make sure he has enough money for bird seed and marshmallows.”  Then he asked, “When is Fooj coming back?”  Fooj and Monique were honeymooning in Costa Rica.  Fooj had always wanted to visit the cloud forests.

“In two weeks,” William said.

“Fine,” said Alan.  “I have a proposition for him.  For you too, although it probably wouldn’t be in your best interest to partake, for geographic reasons.”  He refused to elaborate. 

Greater Vancouver looks north to a trio of mountains.  When not obscured by fog or drizzle, they are a navigational aid.  To figure out which way is which, look for the mountains.  Eventually anyone who spends any time in Vancouver goes over one of the bridges and up one of the winding roads, up, up, up.  There are certain vantage points where it is possible to look down on the urban sprawl below and simultaneously see all the places you know, the places where things went well for you, the places where things went sideways.  You can see them all at once.  Good, bad, good, bad—life’s mosaic all there, spread out below like a twinkling blanket.  Or, on foggy days, you can drive above the sea-level gloom and be in brilliant sunshine while all your successes and failures are invisible, buried beneath a cloudy down comforter.  Every so often a plane sinks into it or leaps out. 

William and Alan took the drive up Cypress Mountain, the westernmost of the three peaks, and stopped at a grand switch-back lookout where there’s parking lot next to a stone wall.  Alan sat with his legs over the wall and surveyed the view.  William stood behind, leaning on his elbows.  A flock of band-tailed pigeons was frolicking in the tree tops below.

Alan had a wistful look on his face as he slowly shifted his gaze.  The view was working its magic, William hoped.  What was Alan thinking as he absorbed the vista below?  That his daily thoughts were becoming polluted with characters and circumstances people Hannah knew nothing about?  That his dreams were now filling with new things, with the people and places here?  Was he realizing that being here wasn’t working, that it was time to give up, to return to Toronto to start grieving?  For a second or two William thought he was about to break down, to let go. 

He turned to William and said, “You should never have come to this place.”

“Me?”

Alan gestured at the hundreds of square miles spread out in front of them. “Nowhere here is your home.  You’ve made the same mistake that so many make, so many from eastern Canada who move to Vancouver for the wrong reasons — not to go to something, but to get away from something, from cold winter weather, from stagnation, from heartbreak.  Almost all of them end up worse off.  Many, like you, flounder miserably for years.  They come out here thinking life will be better, more beautiful, more exciting, more meaningful.  It isn’t.  People should stay with the people who know who they are.  That’s where they belong.”

“Are you talking about me, or you?”

Alan said, “Why are you here?  You’re doing all this searching, but you’re not really looking for shrews or salamanders or Salish suckers.  You’re looking to replace what you’ve lost, and you’ll never find it here.  You’re at the wrong end of the second largest country on earth and getting colder.  Why don’t you do something crazy?  Leave this place and go back to Ontario and find Becky Pang while you still can.  You never know when a hot tub might fall on her.”  

So he was sort of talking about himself, but mostly as a benchmark.  It was mostly about William.  Alan preferred being interrogator to respondent.  He preferred to drive, to stern the canoe.  Instead of just ignoring him, though, William rattled off one of the many reasons he had armed himself with to convince himself, or anyone, why there was no point in every again contacting Becky Pang.  He said, “And what about her present life?  Her husband, her kids?”  

Alan said, “Things change over time.  She got married very young, too young.  Maybe she’d like a change.  She no doubt needs one.  You would fit in well with her kids.  You could teach them about voles and beavers and the rest of it.”

“It’s that simple.”

“No, it isn’t.  But nothing’s simple.  If life were simple, we wouldn’t be halfway up a fucking mountain, would we?  We would be wherever we were supposed to be, which certainly isn’t here.”

The band-tailed pigeons took off in a clapping of wings, circled up over their heads and then swooped back down the mountainside and out of sight within the trees.

William said, “Stacey’s a nice girl.  Even though I knew it was a fluke, it still hurts.”

“A very nice girl,” he said.  “It wasn’t meant to last, though.  You were having a grand old Camp Ohmeemaw fling, what you missed out on seventeen years ago on the nights you were writing those letters.”

“I can remember writing those letters like it was yesterday.”

“That proves it.  You can’t, you won’t, ever forget her.  Go back home and find her or you’ll never have even the slimmest chance of happiness.” 

This hurt, because William believed it to be true. 

William asked, “How did my parents die, according to you?”

Alan was facing away.  “Forget that,” he said.

“No, tell me.  It doesn’t matter anyway, does it?”

“It’s quite grisly,” he said.

“What did you tell her?”

Alan said, quickly and uncomfortably, “They were robbed and beaten to death on a golf course in Florida by Cuban refugees.  Beaten with their own golf clubs.”  He looked at William.  “That it was their own clubs was a clever detail, I thought.”

“Uh huh.”

“I was only thinking of you.”

What a lie to tell that girl.  How was he the friend of a man who believed that when your life was dysfunctional and unfocussed, getting laid at any cost was an antidote?   

Alan said, “Here’s how I look at it.  Your problem all along has been that you needed to be a bit more like me.”

This was either amusing or insulting.  “And what’s your problem?”

“The opposite.  I needed to be a bit more like you.”

“So on average we’re both well- balanced and happy?”

“In theory, yes, the perfect J-stroke, but in reality we’re both hopelessly flawed , like Ed Daddle, like Milt, like Baba, and all the rest.”

“Like Kyle Patruczak.”

“Who?”

William hesitated.  “Some guy I used to know.”

They drove further up Cypress Mountain to the ski resort, which was deserted.  The snow had melted to far uphill from the parking lot.  The ski runs were a mess of long grass and tree stumps and the lifts looked sad, like abandoned equipment from an outmoded economy.  They hiked higher, beyond a little cold-water lake filled with arrow-shaped lily pads, onto a trail that led to a lookout facing west over Howe Sound.  It ended at the top of a 400-foot precipice.

“I’ll stop here,” William told Alan.  “I don’t like heights.”  They were in a small, grassy clearing uphill from the trailhead.
                               
“I’ll be right back,” Alan said, taking the lens cap off his camera as he disappeared into the forest.

William found it encouraging that he wanted to do a bit of exploring and take pictures.  That implied some interest in the future.  Perhaps part of him was moving on, even if he didn’t know it yet.  Coming up here may have turned out to have unexpected payoffs.  William sat on a fallen tree beneath a granite outcrop and foraged in his pack for a chocolate bar.  He wondered what had compelled him to mention Kyle Patruczak.  The name had fallen with a thud, as though Alan recognized it.  Perhaps it had been the way he said it, like an answer.  Alan was suspicious, always.  Now he was trying to figure out why he had dropped that name.  It must have had to do with their mostly undiscussed shared history, which was to say Hannah.  William had unsettled him by throwing something into the air that he didn’t understand, and it made him angry.  He was kicking himself for saying that name.  He had chickened out, almost.  He had let Hannah down, almost.

Alan came out of the trees and was returning up the slope.  He paused and snapped a picture of William as he was polishing off his chocolate bar.  He then slowly lowered his camera and squinted.  He looked confused, and then, instantly, savage.  He had interpreted something, either about Kyle, or William, or Kyle and William — something that drove him over the edge.  He dropped the camera, which clattered down between two rocks.  Then he swore, “You motherfucker!  You goddam motherfucker!” and he threw rocks.  He threw a fusillade of rocks. The first hit William hard on the shoulder, but Alan’s fury affected his aim and subsequent missiles smacked the rock face above him.   So this was how he was finally going to exact his revenge?  Shooting him in the head with a BB gun had been a warm-up.

As he charged, more rocks cracked against the granite above and instinctively William curled into a ball and covered his head.  Up close and having run out of rocks, Alan pounced on William and dragged him away from the outcrop, to pummel him, or to drag him back down the trail and over the precipice.  William used their combined momentum to haul Alan to the ground with the intent of rolling him over and pinning him.  It seemed to make sense that if someone insane is attacking you, you should do your best to remain on top.  But they kept on rolling, tumbling downhill together until stopped by the stump of a tree that had been sawed through by a burly lumberjack a hundred years ago.

Alan shouted, “What the fuck are you doing?  Why are you fighting me?”

“Are you trying to kill me?  You think you have the right to kill me?”

“Wait!” Alan said, “I’m saving your life, you prick!  Where’s my camera?”  They disengaged and Alan hunted around among rocks in the grass, several times glancing up at the outcrop.  William followed him slowly, his shoulder throbbing from the rock and his right ankle twisted.  Alan found the camera, which luckily still worked.  He switched it to the viewing setting.  “Look – at the top,” he said.  He handed it to William with bleeding fingers, and then turned to look up again at the rock outcrop, at the top of it.  

The smeary digital screen showed William sitting, enjoying the last fragments of the chocolate bar.  There was something with a face at the top of the frame.  William zoomed in and clicked up to it, and half a postage stamp’s worth of image made his heart stop.   According to Alan’s picture, about eight feet above his head as William was enjoying his snack, at the top of the outcrop, a cougar — male, judging by its fearsome size — was poised, readying to pounce.

Alan said, “I guess you forgot to sense that one.  Get your knife out and let’s get off this fucking mountain.  God I hate mountains.” 

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