It didn’t take William long to come up with a new life rule: If you ever need to be invisible within a crowd, do not stick a big white flag of medical gauze on your ear. He was enduring one of an endless series of public transit humiliations that magnified the unpleasantness and inconvenience of not being able to drive. There were so many things better not to have to rely on public transit for. Taking an angry cat in a box to the vet would be one. William had done that. Sitting with a big white flag of medical gauze on your ear would be another. Everyone who rode the Skytrain with William had a good long stare at his gauze. What could William do about it? Nothing. So he shut his eyes and thought of Hannah Imamura.
He wondered where he had been when Hannah was killed. It had been early April, a year ago. Fooj was away, so William was likely not doing programs. It was probably during the week when William was cleaning out the old fish tanks at the Burnaby Lake Nature House and taking down the old costume boxes in the store room to find out if any of them had not been chewed into nest balls by mice and rats.
He wondered if he had been to his dentist that week. He wondered this because his dentist’s office was on Broadway, a five-minute walk from where the accident happened. He conjured a daydream in which he was leaving his dentist’s office and saw a flatbed truck rolling by, carrying two inverted hot-tubs. He might have noticed that there was something mechanically wrong with the truck, maybe something dangling from a rear wheel that would suggest the truck would not be able to stop if it were to turn down a steep road such as Willow Street. He started running alongside the truck, waving to catch the driver’s attention, to no avail. The truck turned downhill on Willow, and suddenly was out of control. Running faster than he had run in years, William rounded the corner, sprinted down two blocks, crossed the road, cut the corner, and snatched Hannah and the little girl from the jaws of death as the trailer leapt the curb and the hot-tub crashed into the front of one of the condominiums on 7th Avenue.
And once they caught their breaths, Hannah would have said, “William! What are you doing here? I haven’t seen you in four years, since that conference, in New York...” and then there might have been an uncomfortable moment, because during that conference their sharing of a New York hotel suite had ended badly.
But Hannah would still be alive, and William wouldn’t be sitting on public transit with gauze on his ear and an anguished expression on his face.
The Skytrain stopped at Main Street and William opened his eyes. He witnessed something he had seen several times before at this station, which is on the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Two squads of old Chinese people got on. Both had a choreographer, a busy woman who burst through the doors first to find seats for all, to decide who should sit where, with lots of pointing and yelling. There was tense confusion as the two squads competed and the empty seat situation changed by the second. Eventually all were seated, but the unexpected commotion left everyone on the train a little jangled.
One of the squad leaders plunked down across from William and had a good long look at his bandages.
“Please stop staring at me,” he said.
After the banquet, the wine and cheese, and seeing Hannah walking away, across Columbus Avenue with Kyle Patruczak, William and his fellow Canadians went to a bar and spent several hours and what remained of their American money. The others took the subway back to the dorm at NYU and William walked to the Exelsior Hotel and up to his suite. He opened the door quietly, hoping that maybe Hannah had changed her mind, abandoned Kyle, and was now sleeping on the sofa. He walked through the main room and turned on the bathroom light to cast just enough light to see. She wasn’t there.
Disappointed, William went into the dark bedroom and took of his shoes and his jeans. He tossed his wallet on the bed stand.
He heard a sound, a “Hmm?” Someone in the bed moved and the light flicked on. Hannah was wrapped tightly in the bedclothes and staring at William wide-eyed and frightened. “What do you want? What are you doing in here? Get out, get out!” she yelled at him. William grabbed his jeans and shoes and fled. He spent a very uncomfortable night on the sofa in the outer room, thinking he should try to speak with her. He was under the impression Hannah had thought he was about to climb into bed with her. He wanted to tell her it was a misunderstanding—he hadn’t even known she was in the room. Her reaction had been so angry that he didn’t dare open the bedroom door.
He finally dozed off early in the morning, and near dawn was awakened by the outer door clicking shut as she sneaked out. He should have gone after her, to talk, to catch her before the elevator took her, but he was too tired.
William found Alan leaning over the side of the stone bridge at the west end of Lost Lagoon, watching the beaver eating a pizza slice.
“Maybe we should trap him before his diet kills him,” William said. “I would never have guessed they eat pepperoni.”
Without looking up Alan said, “Oh good, you’re alive. Guess what I just saw in the woods.”
“A barred owl. How do you feel?”
“A little more damaged than before, but just a little.”
They had some talking to do, William figured, but he didn’t know how to start. They went for a walk along a paved path to the Second Beach Pool and then continued north along the western sea wall. Fir and hemlock and cedar towered above. Alan nudged William. Crows were harassing a juvenile eagle perched high in a bone-white snag. The big brown bird sulked, and then, tired of the tirade, took wing and headed to the North Shore, pursued by his black harassers.
“I know how that feels,” said Alan. “There have been so many times in the last year when I just wanted to be left alone. I understand why people want to know about my paintings and how I do them, but why do they pester me about my personal life, about the ugly things?”
“You have to talk to me about Hannah,” William said to him. “I’m so very sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“You figured it out,” he said.
“No, Tom told me.”
“You really didn’t know.”
William shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t imagine it. You and her.”
Alan said, “I could say the same of you.”
An icyness clonked down between them. They walked in silence until coming to bend where the beach extended out a hundred yards. William said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
The tide was low. Alan grabbed his sleeve and dragged him down off the sea wall, out onto the beach, to a log.
“Just listen, okay?”
“Sure,” William said.
Alan said, “It was in Toronto, Yorkville, seven years ago. Hannah walked into the gallery where I was about to have a major show and was hanging the pictures. She was with a friend, Sally, and Sally had worked with the gallery manager, Martha, at another gallery, and Martha had invited Sally in to see my paintings before the opening and Sally had asked Hannah, who was her former housemate when she was an undergraduate at U of T, to come along.
“I hadn’t really been paying attention to what was going on with regard to the picture hanging. Supposedly I was there to pronounce last word on this or that decision, which picture should hang next to which other, but I rarely found anything out of place. I trusted the judgment of the gallery director. This was her profession, had nothing to do with me.
“Hannah and Sally paused in front of a large oil painting of a snapping turtle. I was doing a lot of turtles in those days. Sally moved on to the next, but Hannah stood there with her face clenched, the way she does when something’s wrong.
“I walked up. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Alan Lennox.’
“She spun around, and said, ‘Oh, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Hannah Imamura. Your paintings are fantastic.’
“I asked her, ‘I’m curious. Why are you spending so long at this one?’
“She said, ‘I think this is a really interesting painting, and I hope you don’t mind, but there’s something not quite accurate about the turtle’s head. His beak is too long.’
“I was surprised, because how the hell would anyone have an opinion on that? So I said, ‘Why do you say that?’
“She said, “I study snapping turtles." She had just started her doctorate.
“I asked her what she was talking about. I asked her what was wrong with the beak.
“She said, ‘It should stop here.’ She poked the painting with her fingernail and it left a mark. ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.’
“I had the painting withdrawn and asked if she would have dinner with me. We ate in the Swiss Chalet on Bloor Street, downstairs, where you get a whiff of toilet disinfectant every time the bathroom door opens. During dinner I told her I had a friend I had lost touch with. He was a reptile-freak who had a pet tortoise named Olive. I told her that I had sketches of Olive somewhere. She asked me the name of my friend. I said your name, and she said, ‘Small world’.”
William straightened abruptly, as if slapped. “She knew you knew me? That we were friends?”
“It would seem so.”
“Why didn’t she tell me? Why didn’t she tell me she was married to my old camp mate?”
“Why would she?”
“Because people do that.”
“Not her. She preferred to keep her worlds apart. She preferred to keep our worlds—hers and mine—apart. She was a compartmentalist.”
“Is that a real thing?”
“To her it is. Anyway, you were an anomaly of a sort. You were part of both of our worlds, but not at the same time. That made you acceptable. It also made you a link.”
"Was that good, or bad?"
"Both!" he yelled.
William was taken aback by Alan's unexpected outburst. He said, almost a mumble, “I don’t understand any of this.”
Alan continued, “The day before we all went to that cannery was the anniversary of the accident. I sat on a bench across the street from where it happened, in the rain, and stared, and tried not to see it, holding flowers, wondering what to do with them, wondering which of the endless row of fancy town homes had ordered that fucking hot-tub. In the history of the world, nobody has ever truly needed a hot-tub.
“Several times an elderly lady in the condo on the southeast corner opened and closed her blinds. She was looking at me, and I was expecting a police cruiser to drift along at any minute. But instead of calling the police, the woman put on a raincoat and rain bonnet and came out. She said, ‘Hello, I know why you're here, I think. I have to tell you I was thinking about her too.’ It happened on her birthday, she explained, ‘...when that poor young lady was killed.’ She invited me inside for coffee.
“One of my paintings was on the living-room wall, Two Otters, a signed, limited edition print. There was my signature, my hand-writing. It had arrived in Vancouver years ahead of me. The old lady caught me looking at the painting, hurried over to her bookcase and produced the first coffee table book of my work, printed a decade ago. ‘He’s very good,’ she said, of me, to me. She didn’t recognize me. She said, ‘My daughter gave me that print for Christmas four years ago. It’s a limited edition. He has another book too, newer paintings, but I haven't bought it yet.’ I gave her the flowers and asked her to put them in her window overlooking the corner.”
Alan then asked, “Why did you keep saying her name after the lightning struck you?”
Here was a dilemma. First of all, William wasn’t sure what he had experienced. He couldn’t accept, or even understand Tom’s pretty assertion that real love will not die. Were it true, he had no sense of what it would mean in practical terms. Tom’s explanations for things existential were seductive, but for William had little staying power once away from him, out on his own, subject to his own gloomy thoughts and evidence-based disposition. His first go at an explanation for the Hannah-vision would have been massive electrical neural stimulation, causing the random superimposition of old memories on top of new ones — or something. Secondly, how would Alan proceed, believing William had encountered his wife thanks to an errant lightning bolt? Would he, as Tom had half-joked, line himself up for a strike — if that were even feasible? William wanted to give him solace, but hadn’t enough of a clue regarding what had happened, or hadn’t happened, to provide any.
“I don’t know,” William said. “I don’t know what was in my head after the lightning. I’m sorry Alan, I can’t tell you anything to make you feel better.”
“It isn’t finished,” he said. “You more than anyone understand how that feels, when what you were together is left unfinished, how heavy it sits inside you, eats at you.” He stamped his foot into the sand. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. He rubbed his eyes and said, “She’s still here. Help me find her. You owe me that.”
William didn’t think he owed Alan that, or anything, but didn’t argue, because he had an inkling of what Alan was implying. He also didn’t say he would help him find her. He wasn’t going to agree to something impossible.
William asked, “Why did you say your wife’s name was Hiroe?”
“It is her name. It’s her middle name.”
“Did she ever use it?”
“Did you know her middle name was Hiroe?”
“No. How would I know that? I don’t think she even put her middle initial on her papers.”
“That’s right, she doesn’t. I was trying to keep things quiet, about really why I’m here, until I knew who knew what. Now that we know who knows what, we can plan.”
Alan said, "Let’s go." William followed him back to the seawall. A portly figure was shuffling their way.
William said, “Look, it’s Uncle Milty.” There was Milt Harvey, more disheveled than before. In addition to the cervical collar, his arm was in a sling and his hand was bandaged, as was his left eyebrow. He was wearing as much gauze as William .
“Hey Milt,” said Alan.
Milt stopped like a large ship, a gradual slowing followed by a sideways drift. “Hello Alan,” he said, with a tight smile. He squinted at William . Suddenly he looked past them both, and straightened. A middle-aged woman in a bulky sweater was approaching.
“Hello,” Milt said to the woman.
She glanced at him, and hurried on.
“Eye contact!” he said, and he turned to watch her walking toward Siwash Rock. “For two years I’ve been seeing her, and saying hello. This is the first time she looked at me.”
“You’re wearing her down,” said Alan.
“I’m wearing her down,” said Milt.
Alan said, “You must continue to wear her down.”
“I shall,” said Milt. His pockets were bulging and his breathing was labored. He said, “I’ll see you later.” He winked at Alan, tapped his watch, and started off after the woman, but only went about twenty feet before settling on a bench.
“Milt can dream,” Alan said.
William asked what this secret was, this thing with Milt. “The wink?”
Alan said, “No secret. The beaver.”
“You’re going to save the beaver?”
“Absolutely we are,” he said. They were now headed back to Lost Lagoon, where, William guessed, the beaver was ingesting other items not part of its natural diet. Alan said, “Something else, about what I was saying before.” He means about Hannah, William thought.
“I never forgot you writing your long, long letters to Becky Pang, night after night, even though it was clear that your love was doomed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, it was important.”
William replied, “Looking back, I would characterize all that as pointless. It was utterly futile.”
“No!” Alan said. “Your negativity is really annoying. Your letters weren’t pointless! What you were doing wasn’t futile! It was quixotic, which is different. Quixotic is beautiful, and important. It inspires.”
William didn’t see why Alan would defend his callow love letters, quixotic or not. He said, “She was my first real girlfriend, but we were kids. I wrote to her all the time because, at that age, I thought she was the whole world. At that age I didn’t understand you could break up with one girl and then find another to make you equally happy.”
At Camp Ohmeemaw, William learned that Alan had a way of looking at you from the corner of his eye when he was about to hurt you.
“I look forward to meeting your wife,” he said.
The day they went to the cannery, Alan had implied that William had slept with someone else’s wife at a conference, which was true. It had been with someone William had known as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, one of his former TAs who was only a year or two older than he. They hit it off when William was in her class. He would visit her during office hours just to chat, or complain, or whatever. A couple of times they went to dinner, to cheap places just off campus, but nothing happened beyond that. After finishing her master’s degree she started a doctorate at a college in Arizona, and not long after that married her supervisor. Years later they both attended the same conference in California. One evening when the former TA’s husband was off at a committee meeting they bumped into each other in the campus cantina, started reminiscing about U of T, and one thing led to another. William realized partway through Alan’s story of Hannah that Alan believed he had slept with his wife. No, he hadn’t. It was that bastard Kyle Patruczak, the one who almost killed William with an ice flow. More to the point, Kyle didn’t sleep with her. He raped her. William didn’t bother bringing it up though, because he wasn’t sure Alan would believe him, or how it would change Alan’s turmoil, or his own.
William had not long before googled Kyle Patruczak. Kyle had become an associate professor of biology at one of the campuses of the University of Hawaii, at Hilo, on the big island. William was dismayed at how far you could go with a bomb calorimeter and a mushroom cloud of ambition. William wondered if Kyle Patruczak knew about Hannah. He wondered if he even remembered her – the bastard.
At the lagoon, Alan asked William where to set the beaver traps and what to bait them with. William was now part of the scheme too. He wasn’t surprised. They did a slow walk around the lagoon. It had to be somewhere accessible from shore, but also hidden from human eyes.
William told him, “You’ll have to come by my place to pick up the traps. They’re in my storage locker at the apartment.”
“Actually, they’re in my car,” said Alan. “I’ll pay for the damage to your locker.”
“You bastard,” said William, but he laughed.