Stacey’s elderly Volkswagen needed new brake shoes. William’s shoulders went up at the screech. He smiled at her through the windshield, and glanced at his watch. It was exactly 8 AM. The passenger door swung open. Stacey was sprawled across the middle, her hand planted on the passenger seat.
“Very prompt,” he said, leaning in. For a second he froze. She was the summer cover of a leisure clothing catalogue.
She sat back. “What are you waiting for? Get in!”
Boundary Bay Regional Park is in Tsawwassen, a town southwest of Vancouver and just north of Point Roberts, which is a little square of America hanging off the bottom left corner of Canada like a skin tag. The park itself is a ribbon of old farmland and foreshore along Boundary Bay, and contained one of very few sandy beaches in the Vancouver area. As the tide recedes, a narrow band of algae- and barnacle-covered cobble is revealed. Beyond that, low, silty bars of brown sand lie interspersed with shallow swaths of cold water, a pattern extending out for miles. In the distance are the dark, forested hillsides of White Rock and Crescent Beach, backed by mountains that look to have been torn from paper. Lording over all is snow-crowned Mount Baker, one of the Cascade volcanoes, sibling to Shasta, Ranier, Hood and St. Helens.
Stacey parked in shade near the concession stand and popped the hatchback.
“I have to get my rubber boots. You didn’t bring boots, did you?”
William told her you didn’t need boots. “On children’s programs you need to wear boots to set an example, for liability reasons, but on public programs it’s up to the parents what their kids wear. The first few times I did these walks, I wore gumboots but everyone else was barefoot. No one ever got cut on anything, so I ditched the boots. It makes for a much better experience, especially on a hot, still day.”
“Great,” she said. “Ditch the boots. So what should we take?” She was staring into her messy trunk.
Standing next to her, William scanned the usual eclectic array of interpreter equipment, the ice cream buckets, the box of bug-catchers, the paper, pencils and yarn of colours not found in nature. He chose a pail and a small spade. “We’ll need water too. You have a bottle of water?”
“I do, here.” She waggled a refillable bottle at him.
“You can put it in my backpack,” he said. “You want to keep your hands free.” She stuffed it into the mesh pocket on the side.
“I think that’s it,” he said.
“Wait a minute — sun screen.” She took a pink plastic bottle from the corner of the trunk.
“Lean over. You need some on your neck.”
It smelled like lying on the canoe dock at Camp Ohmeemaw. Nothing was more evocative of the yearnings of youth, of unresolved Camp Ohmeemaw dreams, than the smell of certain sun blocks, or, as they had been known back in Ohmeemaw days, sun tan lotions. The name changed, they smelled the same. He inhaled.
“Would you do me, please, my shoulders and neck?” She turned around. She was wearing pre-faded denim shorts, a pale blue sleeveless top, and a white sun visor over her sun-streaked hair. Her ponytail tickled the back of William’s hand as he spread lotion on her neck. He couldn’t help but think, What is it like to be so damn pretty? She turned to take the bottle, and the little smudge of lotion remaining on William’s index finger he dabbed on her nose.
“Oh yeah?” She squeezed out a glob and plopped it on his. Pretty, and playful.
Once off the parking lot the air changed to the smell of the ocean – salt and sea life and rotting things. The sky and distant water were pale blue, grading to white near the horizon.
They tip-toed through the slightly treacherous band of barnacled cobbles into the cool water. Near their feet they could see clearly the brown bottom . Stacey’s toe nails flashed in stark contrast, today powder blue, matching her shirt. Not far ahead the bottom was obscured by the reflection of the sky. In the distance, through a slight haze, snow-capped Mount Baker seemed to be floating.
“It’s beautiful here,” she said.
“It is.” William loved this place early in the morning, when there were usually but a few small groups of people out on the mud. The crowds and their noise would not arrive for another hour or more.
They waded to the first silty sand bar. It was criss-crossed by snail tracks and pocked with worm holes. “It’s not like a tide pool with starfish and sea anemones and other showy things,” William said, “but there’s a lot of life there if you know what to look for...it’s in the muck.” He jammed the spade down and pried out a smelly mass of black, organic mud. Murky water immediately filled the hole as he reached in. He swirled his hand around and then stopped and probed deeper. He lifted his hand dripping from the water. A yellow-brown, rubbery worm about four inches long with a swollen front end was laced through his fingers. He said, “This stolid citizen of the world of mud is a lugworm. It lives in a u-shaped tube, pumps water and food particles in one opening, and water and poop out the other.” The surface of the mud around them was dotted with their curlicue castings. Day and night, millions of lugworms churned the mudflats through their guts, sucking in diatoms and spewing out fertilizer. “Let’s find something even more repulsive,” William said. “Creatures of the mud are rarely otherwise.”
They found bamboo worms, whose little silt-and-mucous liquorice tubes jutted from the mud like stubble. The worms themselves were red and unsubstantial, not much more than slime slipping around within the tubes.
After a bit of digging, a larger hole revealed a ghost shrimp, a limp, pink, partly translucent crustacean with a body the size of William’s thumb. It quivered weakly in his palm. One claw, the one that blocked the opening to its hole, was much larger than other. William guided it back into its partially excavated home.
“Too bad we wrecked his house,” Stacey said.
“We regret the inconvenience,” said William.
William quizzed Stacey on the various clams, whose empty shells were scattered on the surface. She knew them all, and knew which few of the myriad species were native. Most were from Asia, imported accidentally along with commercial species or emitted with expelled ship bilge during the previous century.
There was no wind. Four or five eagles were circling so high in the cloudless sky that they mused on how they could breathe. The water around their ankles was alternately warm and cool, depending on the colour of the mud, sand, or silt below. They could feel the slow tidal pull beneath the glassy surface.
As tended to happen here, in what seemed like no time they found themselves a mile from shore. Their voices and other sounds had an odd quality, as though damped out as soon as created. Every so often they heard faint hints of other voices coming across the water — a few couples, families with children — all keeping away from each other as if by unspoken agreement.
They were standing in ankle-deep water. Stacey was very close. William said, quietly, “If this is what heaven is like, I would happily behave better in hopes of getting in.” He asked her to hold his backpack so he could fish out his camera.
“You believe in heaven?” she asked. “That’s a surprise.”
His had been a facetious comment, but her question made him pause to think. It made him want to be honest about what he was saying to her. He said, “Until recently I was certain there was no such thing. Now I’m a little confused.”
“So you’ve become open to the possibility.”
“No,” he said. “But there may be a limbo.” William saw his reflection, diagonal in her sunglasses. She had tilted her head, wondering about him.
He took back his pack and looped it over his shoulder. He lifted his camera and stepped away to silhouette her against the glassy water, the cloudless sky, the ghostly volcano. He said, “Strike a pose.”
In profile, she did a yoga position, standing on one foot and extending one arm in superman flight, reaching behind her back to grab her other foot with the other hand.
“Hold that a second.” William waited for the ripples to dissipate. She had impressive balance. Blue-blond against blue.
They went out farther and farther, looking down in calf-deep water, now and then glancing at the volcano, its changing face as the sun climbed. He ran out of things to show her and they gradually stopped speaking. Out on the mudflat the need to speak dribbled away. Here was a world of air, water and mud, with no clear separations among them. There was so much to see, smell, taste and feel. They wandered separately together.
William knew from experience that it was easy not to notice as the tide came sneaking back. It snaked around the ends of the long, silty islands and filled the spaces in between very quickly, so, if not paying attention, a person could easily become marooned, and then submerged.
“We should probably head back now,” he said.
“Already?” She looked at her watch. “Oh wow,” she said. “I’ve completely lost track of time.”
There was yelling farther out. They looked. A mother with three children had just become aware of tidal dynamics. They were on a bar, surrounded by water too deep for the children to wade. “Wait here for a sec,” William said. He ran further inland to a higher bar and dropped his pack and the pail and shovel. He ran back, and then he and Stacey ran out to the family. The mother, who was pale-skinned and freshly sunburned, seeming to have no sense at all of the perils of wandering out into the sea, was happy to see them. She carried her youngest, a toddler. The five year-old eagerly leapt onto Stacey. William approached the older sister, who was plump.
“I’m too heavy for you,” she said, morosely. She was eight years old and already burdened with not being perfect.
“Climb on,” William said. He bent down and bore her weight until they reached the next bar. “Off ya get,” he said. Water in the gap had deepened and the bottoms of his shorts were wet. The mother thanked them. Everyone laughed at having escaped the tide except for the girl William had carried. She didn’t look at him as they walked away. William understood. He knew her terrible secret, how heavy she was.
He gathered up his pack and the shovel and was about to head for the pail, which had rolled to the far side of the sand bar. Stacey was giving him sideways smile, hard to read because of her sunglasses. “What?” William said.
“Are you okay? You look sad.”
William shrugged. “I’m fine.”
When he returned with the pail she was crouched down , looking at something. She was contracted into a mesmerizing bundle of curves, toes, heels, calves, knees, thighs, buttocks, back, shoulders, arms, and peeking out from beneath, breasts. William forgot about the little girl.
They angled back to shore and came across a flat rock flat in the mud, thickly encrusted with barnacles. William asked Stacey to step aside, straddled the rock and heaved.
She squatted to peak underneath. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed.
“What is it?”
“The ugliest fish I’ve ever seen, and it’s glued to the bottom of the rock. It has a huge frog head and almost no body. And there’s maybe a hundred orange eggs stuck everywhere under the rock.”
“Uh-oh,” he said. He eased the rock down as gently as possible. “I hope I didn’t squish anything.”
“What was it?”
“Clingfish. They’re great.”
“It was totally great,” she said, “but you didn’t even look at it.”
“I’ve seen them before,” he answered. “I hope I didn’t hurt her or her eggs.”
They kicked through the shallowing water to the beach. William had a feeling that their mudflat walk had connected them in an unexpectedly sweet, gentle way, and it would now be a natural and proper gesture for him to reach and hold her hand. It had been a while since William had held a young woman’s hand. Almost twenty years on he was no better at this, no more sure of what to do than when he had been in high school. In the real world there were no well-meaning teachers to help you along. Maybe had the age difference not been so great. He kept doing the math, over and over. While he was holding Becky’s hand, Stacey was in Grade 2.
That afternoon he was back at Burnaby Lake, scheduled for two hours with Bob and Scott. It had blossomed into a much hotter than usual mid-summer day. The invasive plants were in peak bloom and the path to the spit and at its tip with its residing Jesus was covered in runny purple duck droppings from birds fat on Himalayan blackberries.
Stacey dropped him off at the Works Yard, where the boys were engaged in a slouching contest. They watched him get out of her car and then lean back in and say something to Stacey. They heard her laugh. They saw her friendly, grabby wave as she drove off. Their previous hypothesis has been corroborated. Will-man was living the life.
He revealed to them the plum of a job they had that afternoon. Their gear consisted of four empty 20 gallon buckets and two shovels. Their mission: horse shit. They were to drive the trails and scoop up horse shit, transport it back to the yard and add it to the compost pile.
“Just be glad there are no cows in the park. Or pigs. Or chickens,” William said to his dispirited sidekicks.
“Those shits are worse?” asked Bob.
“Have you never been to a farm?” Neither had ever been to a farm. William had the depressing suspicion that neither had ever been anywhere except in trouble.
The Gator chugged around the horse trails, stopping frequently.
“This stuff isn’t like real shit,” Scott observed after half a dozen stops. “Like, when things go through a horse, it just gets like munched up, and not converted into real shit.”
“It doesn’t smell like real shit either,” added Bob. “It smells like...something not as bad as shit.”
They were pleasantly surprised that this was turning out to be not as disgusting as anticipated. William’s interpreter’s side was enjoying watching them learn something. Not a very important or useful thing, but something.
As they were approaching the farthest reaches of the horse trails, two riders, a young woman and a teenage boy, came charging up. William had come to a complete stop and switched off the engine off by the time they were upon them.
“There’s a fire on the Freeway Trail!” the horse woman shouted.
William knew that the bark mulch surfaces of the trails occasionally caught fire in dry summer weather, almost always the result of a discarded cigarette. They rarely amounted to more than several square feet of blackened, smouldering trail and were not difficult to extinguish, but always had the potential to grow into a serious wildfire. The right gust of wind, and woof!
“How big a fire?” William asked.
“Not big, but spreading, about a kilometre along!”
There was a little black walkie-talkie in the glove box. It had been rattling around as they bumped along. William wasn’t even sure if it worked, and had not been instructed how to use it, but gave it a try. He clicked it on and pushed the talk button with his thumb. “Come in, Carl Stribling,” William said.
To his amazement, Carl answered immediately. “Stribling,” was all he said.
He now had to say something. He said, “Uh, this is William, on the Gator. I have a report of a fire on the Freeway Trail, a kilometre west of the horse loop trail junction.”
William heard Carl respond, “Garble garble garble garble deal with it.”
“Uh, you were breaking up there a bit. Did you say to deal with it?”
William later found out what Carl actually said was, “Block the trail and let no one go near it. In no way are you to deal with it.”
William and his posse blasted toward the fire at ten miles an hour. The Trans-Canada Highway was off their left shoulders, through the trees sounding like a majestic waterfall, and the sky above was sliced lengthwise by high tension wires. They could see the twisting pillar of smoke ahead, leaning up into the wires, but considerably farther than a kilometre. It was only a few meters beyond the Robert Burnaby Creek trail, which seemed a good thing. There would be a supply of water nearby and they had great big horseshit buckets. Once they got to the junction, however, there was a problem. The culvert repair had not been completed and it wasn’t possible to drive the side trail down to the mouth of the creek.
William stopped the Gator. “You guys run down to the lake and get water. I’ll start digging the thing out.” They each took a bucket and ran off. William could tell they were excited. Here was a chance to do something heroic. They were going to put out a fire and save the park.
It wasn’t a big fire, not more than fifteen feet square. The flames were minimal, but the smoke spiralling upward was thickening. William dug away at the advancing edges, creating miniature firebreaks. When digging became too tiring, he smacked the flames with the flat of the shovel. For a while he was sure he had the upper hand. It seemed a slovenly and unambitious fire.
He stepped backward into the fuel-depleted middle of the burn and straightened his cramping back. The smoke moved sideways, and the bark mulch flared in many places at once. Wind gusts had arrived, a flock of witches.
William pounded the largest burning patch until it was almost out, but its smoke stung his eyes shut. He had to back off. He found himself standing amid a second, smaller fire, but was able to knock it back by jumping on it. The first fire was spreading off the edge of the trail, so he went at it again, ripping away at its fuel to keep it contained. It kept on like that, back and forth, within an increasing perimeter of flames.
After ten minutes or more, William wondered, Where the heck were Bob and Scott? After fifteen minutes, he was exhausted and angry. Where were those lazy boys? Taking a break to smoke a joint down by the lake? Had they forgotten what we were doing? Some heroes. William was digging his heart out, through hard-packed mulch and fibrous salal roots, keeping the fire out of the forest, and no one was helping. This was a lot more arduous than digging for lugworms in the watery mud at Boundary Bay. This fire needed water. Where the hell was it?
He should have held Stacey’s hand on the way back to the beach. Why couldn’t he have just held her hand in some sort of contrived, whoops-I-slipped joking way and then let go and let her decide to hold it or not for real? He should have given her a peck on the cheek when she dropped him off. Will-man living the life? He so clearly wasn’t. “What am I doing?” he asked. This stupid fire. Stupid me. All the things that could have been.
Where the hell were Bob and Scott and the goddamned water?
The smoke was very dense and again was streaming up among the wires. He backed off and leaned against the Gator to gulp clean air. He was tired of wearing this uniform. This employment was all torment in one form or another. Ed-the-Asshole, the bratty kids, the off-leash dog walkers, the general lack of interest in the natural world from the vast majority of people, the crazies who were now the norm at Burnaby Lake and elsewhere, the overarching uselessness of being an interpreter. He didn’t care anymore. He would quit. Alan kept goading him to quit. Maybe he would lend him some money....
“Okay, Alan, you really think I should quit? Okay, I quit,” William said out loud.
The light dimmed, as though shining through a brown glass window.
“Why does Alan think you should quit?” a voice asked.
William looked over his shoulder. Hannah Imamura was sitting in the passenger seat of the Gator, poking through the dross in the glove box, the insurance and registration, the odd nuts and bolts and nails and scraps of flagging tape, and the little walkie-talkie. She was wearing a white sweatshirt with one of Alan’s paintings on it—a snowshoe hare hunkered into a drift, a study in white and gray—and blue jeans.
“I’m glad you’re here,” William said, somewhat testily, “because I have an issue to resolve with you too.”
“Hello William,” she said. She seemed tired, but he wasn’t in the mood to cut anyone any slack.
“Did you tell Alan I slept with you at the conference in New York?”
“No. He came to that conclusion himself.”
“Didn’t you tell him it wasn’t true?”
“I couldn’t, because the truth would have made him angrier.”
“It was that bastard, Kyle Patruczak. Why did you leave the banquet with him?”
She shrugged. “I dunno, I just got tired of being sequestered with the Canadian-University of Guelph gang. That guy was a rascal, like Alan, I thought. I thought we would go for drinks. I thought it would be fun.”
“I see,” William said. She had been more right than she knew. That guy was like Alan—the Camp Ohmeemaw, selfish, fornicating Alan.
“I got back to Toronto and couldn’t help being distant with Alan. He gets jealous very easily. He knew something had happened and suspected I had cheated on him. He found out where I stayed...with you.” She paused. “I had no intention of having sex with anyone. It wasn’t consensual.”
“I know,” William said.
“Alan would have killed him,” she said. “Alan would have hunted him down. It would have destroyed everything.” Then she added, “You, William, were the one he might forgive.”
Smoke blew between them. The Freeway Trail was on fire and cars were roaring past on the highway, 50 metres away.
“Where is he?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” William said.
“You have to go back to get him,” she said.
“Okay,” he said.
She said, “You’ve always been a good friend. I always looked forward to seeing you at the meetings.”
“I feel the same way, about you,” William said.
She smiled sadly and said, “That’s the problem with academia. Once you leave it, you lose contact with everyone.”