Tuesday, January 16, 2018

25. Scars

Children were screaming and fleeing from the shallow swimming area, a massive, menacing shadow passing among them. “It’s heading to the canoe dock!” someone yelled.  The young interpreter happened to be walking by.  Eyes turned to him.   As the nature counsellor at that summer camp he was expected to take charge of every errant creature, from moth to moose.  It was an unspoken and immediate consensus: he would catch the snapping turtle and remove it from the swimming area. It was now beneath the canoe dock, from whence it could emerge at any time to menace the swimmers.  Something had to be done.

And more, the young canoeing instructor was urging him on, yelling, “Hurry up, Nature –boy!   Get your killer turtle out from under my dock!”

It was a floating dock, basically a raft, about thirty feet square, made from heavy planks standing on edge with lighter planking laid over top. It was tethered to the shore with its far end floating about four feet above the sandy lake bottom.  Flotation was assisted by blocks of polystyrene wedged into the spaces between the planks, but every third space was vacant. The young interpreter knew this from search and rescue drills.  That there were air pockets evenly spaced beneath the dock was helpful if you were doing something important, like looking for a missing swimmer.  They were also helpful if you were doing something stupid, like trying to catch a large adult snapping turtle.

The young interpreter took a scuba mask from the rescue box, borrowed a waterproof flashlight, and, fully clothed, waded through the swimming area to the dock.

Was he scared?  No. He  knew that snappers don’t snap under water unless they’re after prey.  They only bite defensively when on land.  This was not in fact true, but at the time he be believed it to be.  Plus the young interpreter had an audience lined along the shore, all those shivering kids wrapped in towels, looking expectantly, and the young canoeing instructor on the dock, urging him on.

“Go get ‘im, Jim-from-Wild Kingdom!  Go get Gamera!”

The young interpreter’s plan was to duck beneath the dock, find the turtle with the flashlight, grab it by the tail and haul it out backwards.  It probably wouldn’t even know what was happening.  Then everyone on shore would be able to marvel at the beast, the young interpreter would put it in a canoe, paddle it around the point, and let it go.

The young interpreter adjusted the mask, turned on the flashlight, took a deep breath, and submerged.  It would have been smart to stipulate that everyone stay off the dock.

It was murky. The young interpreter’s half-swimming, half-walking stirred up the bottom.  He hoped the turtle wasn’t too close to shore, where there was very little wiggle room beneath the dock. Eventually he saw it moving along on the bottom, about mid-dock. After popping up into an airspace to take a breath, he went for it.  He grabbed the thick tail, and as he had predicted, the turtle didn’t seem to sense that anything was wrong.  It kept walking, its legs moving mechanically and ineffectually above the sand as the young interpreter squirmed backward to an airspace, and yelled up between the planks, “I got it!” which caused everyone on the shore to run onto the dock in excitement, just as he started moving backward beneath the next two bands of flotation blocks. A thing about those blocks: they could hold up a dock, but were not meant to hold up a dock overrun by a throng.  The dock sank, onto the turtle, and onto the young interpreter.  They were pinned to the bottom.  The turtle was not troubled by this.  It had a strong carapace, so a canoe dock resting on top was perhaps not too big a deal.  More importantly, it was pretty good at holding its breath and could wait this situation out. The young interpreter, on the other hand, had a compressible rib cage and about ten seconds left.

How many times in his life had the young interpreter experienced pure panic?  To this point, very few, but this was certainly one.  A mad rush of adrenaline and flailing of limbs came of it. Somehow he wriggled his way backward, almost to the next airspace. He could get a corner mouth of air. He had dropped the flashlight and was able to pull off the mask and get a little more of his mouth into the airspace.  “Get off the dock!” he gasped.  The dock was sinking lower, as crowds inevitably attract more people, especially in a place where the days are highly structured and invariable, with not a lot happening to break the routine. 

“Off the dock!” he gasped again, and with maybe his final breath, “Get off!”

The young canoeing instructor, to this point a ringleader in the dock-top goings-on, realized that the young interpreter was in trouble.  “Everybody off the dock!” he yelled.  He yelled it again and again and started swinging a paddle over his head.  The dockward stampede reversed and headed back to shore. The weight gone, the dock rose.  The young interpreter could move, and pulled himself fully into the airspace.  He breathed deeply, his heart pounding.  Ridiculously, he was still holding the turtle’s tail.  The turtle remained oblivious to what had been going on.

The young interpreter and turtle emerged into daylight.  The spectators cheered.  The snapper then realized that something was amiss and started swimming frantically, swinging its massive front legs, but the young interpreter held firm and dragged it to shore.  He lifted it by the rear edge of the carapace and in stereotypical snapper behaviour the turtle partially extended its neck and opened its jaws, looking for something to lunge at.  It was a nice moment where everyone could see the creature up close and see that although scary-looking it wasn’t really much of a threat, that it was even a likeable thing.

Later that afternoon the young interpreter let the snapper go in a secluded bay across the lake.  Someone else went back under the dock for the mask and flashlight.  Several years later and probably purely by coincidence, the young canoeing instructor would fall in love with a woman who as a graduate student studied snapping turtles. 


*    *    *

William’s apartment was on the 8th floor of one of a mushroom circle of new concrete towers that had arisen near the Joyce Street Skytrain station in East Vancouver.  Across the street was a Catholic school and modern church that resembled a Mayan pyramid.   Looking across the road, into his windows, was an older building, a Catholic Senior’s Tower, and, down below it and next to the church, was the rectory, a modest, old, two-story house.  Sometimes William would see the priest walking from building to building in his white robe.   He was a jolly grey-haired man who waved to everyone.

His living space was small, consisting of a bathroom, a combined kitchen-living room, and a bedroom off to the side.   He had  discovered upon moving in that the show suite must have been populated by fake furniture about 75 percent the size of real furniture, because he couldn’t fit in his sofa and a large chest of drawers.  He sold them to the mover at a loss, and learned to live without a sofa.  He lined the walls with cheap Ikea shelves for his large – too large – collection of natural history books.  He was probably the only person in Canada with a copy of The Mealybugs of California – hardbound, the size of a big-city Yellow Pages.   He also owned the two-volume set of A Manual of Common Beetles of Eastern North America,  a mint condition Snakes and Lizards of the Malay Peninsula, and countless other shelf-bending texts that were essentially useless in this world.

What else was in the room?  A 14-inch television and VCR on a wobbly stand, and a five-year-old computer on a wooden table that would have been a kitchen table had there been a real kitchen.

Stacey asked, “You live here?  It’s so Spartan.”   She went into the bathroom.   “It’s also so clean.   Are you a clean freak?”  No he wasn’t.   By fortunate coincidence he had simply given the bathroom a thorough cleaning the day before he was electrocuted, not expecting a young woman to be dropping by in a couple of days, or ever.

“You have tons of books,” she observed.   “That makes sense.”

“Would you like anything?”  He opened the fridge.  “I have, uh...beer.”

“I’ll have one, and let’s order some takeout.”

He hadn’t been sure if she would want to stay a while.   Alan’s salacious Camp Ohmeemaw face was smirking.   William asked, “But wouldn’t you rather go out, where there’s a table to sit at?”

“No.  My shoes are off, and I’m not putting them back on again for just anything.”   She wriggled her toes on the carpet.   Nail polish du jour was ultra-sparkly purple.   “I like sitting on the floor anyway.   Plus, you should probably be taking it easy.”

“Probably I should,” he said.

She took charge.  “Get changed.   Put the clothes you’re wearing in a bag and give them to me so I can throw them down the garbage chute.”
               
“I kind of like the shirt.”

“Take it off!”

He went into the bedroom and changed into a t-shirt and shorts.  In the meantime she padded over to the balcony door.   She rolled it open and stepped onto the balcony, which was drenched in the yellow light of a summer evening.   She shouted, “Umm, nice and warm!  Bet you could sunbathe naked out here and no one would know!”  This, despite the facts that there was a taller building across the road and the sides of the balcony were glass.

He had an extensive take-out menu collection.   She ordered Korean food, in Korean.  He was impressed.  She really could speak that language.

Then they had to kill time in his tiny, book-filled apartment.   William turned on the suitably-sized television.   The local news was on, telling the story of a woman in Surrey, not far from Vancouver, who had decided to burn a brush pile in the hydro easement next to her house.   Surprise!  She too was electrocuted by a current that arced down from the overhead wires through the ionized particles in the smoke.  She survived, and was hospitalized.   There was no mention of what mental hoops she had to jump through while under medical care.  Quickly the story jumped to the recent similar case of a GVRD employee who was electrocuted while attempting to extinguish a small brush file under high tension wires at Burnaby Lake Regional Park.

“Oh fuck,” William said.

Stacey patted his hand.  “You’re a trend-setter.”

“At least they didn’t say my name.”

“The GVRD employee, 35-year old William Kendall of Vancouver, has been released from hospital and is expected to make a full recovery,” the voice said.

“Hell,” William said.  He walked out onto the balcony and sat in the unfolded member of a pair of sunburnt plastic lawn chairs

Stacey followed him out, picked up the other chair and wrestled it open.  It hadn’t been sat upon since at least two apartments ago.   She shoved it next to William’s chair and they sat there silently for a few minutes, processing the weirdness of the previous day, until Stacey stretched out her perfectly browned legs to press the soles of her feet against the glass face of the balcony.

“You are...” William said.

“I am...what?

“The sparkliest person in the world.”

The buzzer buzzed.

They ate Korean food cross-legged on the floor.   A beef dish set William’s mouth on fire.   “God, this is hot,” he said.   “You ordered magma.”

She mocked his sensitivity to spicy food.   “This is nothing, truly.”

He got up to tear off a paper towel to dab his forehead, and brought the entire roll when he returned to his plate.

She laughed, and then narrowed her eyes.   “So what’s with that?   That cool scar?”  She pointed her chop sticks above his eye.  The scar was gleaming.

“Lightning.   The second lightning.”   He retold his various adventures with lightning.   Those stories were always crowd pleasers.

Instead of telling him he should buy lottery tickets Stacy said, “Wait.”   She set her plate on the carpet and shifted closer.

“I remember your course, when you would go off topic and tell fieldwork stories about the wild animals you worked with.”

“I would?”

“They were fun,” she said.  “Totally irrelevant, but fun.

“Like about what?”

“Like about being chased by a moose or having your rowboat go over a waterfall.   I remember there was one where you almost got crushed under a dock trying to catch a snapping turtle.”

“I talked about that?”

“You don’t remember it?   Did you just make it up?   Or can’t you remember it, because of, well, what just happened.”

“No.   It happened.   I remember it completely.  I don’t remember telling that story.” 

“The canoeing instructor called you over to catch a snapping turtle under the dock.  You swam under, but then everyone went onto the dock and it sank, and you almost got drowned.”

“Yes, I remember.   I was there.   It happened at Camp Ohmeemaw, where I met Alan.”

Stacey said, “I just realized something.  The canoeing instructor.   It was Alan?   Alan Lennox?”

“It was.”

“When you told the story you never said it was Alan Lennox.”

“When I was lecturing?  If I had mentioned that, it would have been a distraction.   If you mention a famous person in the middle of a story, that becomes the story.”

“So it was him.  He was the one who urged you to go under the dock and you almost got trapped?”

“And then he saved my life.”

She laughed.   “I would love to see you guys at eighteen.  You were a disaster waiting to happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“He almost got you killed.”

“Not on purpose, and then he saved my life.”

“That’s how you see it?”    She studied his face.   “Anyway, that was one of your stories, one of the better ones.   My point is your stories always had a major physical element that one would expect would end with painful results.  That’s what made them funny.   You must have at least gone through a lot of band-aids.  No scars from all those misadventures?”

“Oh,” William said.  They were back to scars.  “You want more scars?”

She nodded.  She breathed on him, hot Korean food-breath.

Now where were all those funny scars?   Hell, find them fast.   Miss Sparkly is into scars.  William looked at his hands.   Here was one, left hand.  “Sea urchin,” he said .  He told her a story of when he was snorkelling in Barbuda and a wave sent him crashing against the rocky shore.   He held out his arms to cushion the impact, resulting in the spine of an Echinometra sea urchin being rammed lengthwise into his thumb.  It hurt like hell and resulted in a stubborn, deep-set infection.    There was a small, circular scar.

She held his thumb under a critical eye.  “This doesn’t impress me,” she said.

“How about this one?”  William showed her his right wrist, a triangular patch of thin, stretched skin where a chunk of flesh had been torn away.   “I was helping a veterinarian friend medicate a six-foot Spectacled Caiman at the Toronto Zoo.   We were inserting a tube down its throat.  We thought it was adequately sedated.   We were wrong.   It almost took my hand off.” 

She examined the wound closely.   “Okay, that’s a pretty good one,” she allowed.

He scanned his hands and arms, searching for more.   William had been bitten and scratched a thousand times.   There had to be more.   How come the flesh wounds healed so completely?

“Anything I can’t see with your clothes on?”   The suggestive wording re-conjured Alan’s face.  He was saying, Show her your back! Tell her it was a water buffalo, most dangerous of all beasts of the savannah! 

He compromised.   “I was once gored in the back – on Anguilla, by a cow.” 

“Is that true?”

“Yes.”

“Is there really a place called Anguilla?”

“Yes . In the Caribbean, one of the Leeward Islands.  Very small, shaped like a Paramecium.”

“Do cows even have horns?”

“On Anguilla they do.”

On her knees she walked around behind his back.   “Lift up your shirt,” she said.   She ran her finger up and down the shallow groove below his left shoulder blade.  “It’s not a very big scar.”

“It wasn’t a very big cow,” he said.   “But it hurt like hell.   I had a collapsed lung and had to drive myself to the hospital.  I almost passed out and crashed the car into the parking lot kiosk.”

“Wow,” she said.  “Was anyone hurt?”

“Only me.”

“You’ve been to a lot of hospitals.”

“Yes, although mostly just for tetanus shots.”

“You’ve had an interesting life,” she said.

“I had...a life,” William said.

“I detect sadness.”         

He closed his eyes and concentrated on her finger slowly going up and down the cow-groove in his back.  William could tell she was switching—index, then middle, then back to index, and back to middle...she was milking that scar.   He was thinking, Oh, thank you stupid cow for trying to kill me.   It seemed an appropriate moment.  He asked her, “Can I tell you something that’s hard to believe?  Harder to believe than I was gored by a cow on Anguilla?”

She said, cautiously, “Okay...” but then she stopped the rubbing has back and his shirt dropped back down.  He had made a tactical error.  Damn.  She scooted around on the carpet to face him.

What William wanted to tell her was what he had been about to tell Tom when she walked into the empty bedroom at Fooj’s house.  It was good she had interrupted.  What would Tom have made of the update?   Real love absolutely will not die!   There was still enough scientist in William  to think it might be more sensible to confide in someone whose scientific credentials he was pretty sure of, someone whom he, for a short time, had had a hand in training, someone definitely not a Froosian, someone hot and tanned and sparkly who smelled amazing.

He said, “I have been able to see and speak with Alan Lennox’s deceased wife, whose name is Hannah.  She’s someone I knew when I was a graduate student, and twice I’ve seen her as a result of being electrocuted.   At Belcarra, and this time.”

She looked baffled.   Who wouldn’t look baffled at a claim like that?   She said, “Are you telling me something real?”

“I think so.   But it gets more complicated.   At the hospital, in Alan’s presence, just before you got there, when I was telling Ice-lady what had happened, I had to pretend that I hadn’t seen her, because I didn’t want Alan to hear.   But she was there when I was electrocuted.   She was sitting in the Gator, and I talked to her as clearly as I’m talking to you.”

“You talked to a dead person.”

“After she talked to me first.”

“What did she say?”

“She asked where Alan was.   She said I had to go back and get him.    Then a few more kind-of disconnected things about when we were grad students.”

“What, you’re saying you saw a ghost?”

“I saw Hannah.  She didn’t seem like a ghost.  What do ghosts seem like?”

Stacey shrugged.   She made a twisty-mouthed face.   She shook her head.   “Have you told anyone else about this? 

“No.”

“You’re not going to tell Alan?” 

“I can’t.   Part of the problem is I can’t know if it’s real.   I don’t want to tell him I can communicate with his dead wife, whom he dearly wants to be reunited with, if it’s just my brain sputtering.   There’s another other part.   He resents that I once slept with Hannah while she was married to him, although actually I didn’t, but he doesn’t believe that, he thinks I did, and he’s jealous I can see her — at least maybe he suspects I can —  and he can’t.  We’re at an impasse about this.”

“Um, yes, that is all kinds of levels of complicated,” she said.   Then she said a mouthful.  “Alan’s wife’s full name was Hannah Imamura.   She was killed by a hot-tub that fell off a truck in False Creek.”

William was dumbfounded.  “How do you know that?”

“It was in the news.  I read the paper.  Well, online.”

“Am I the only person who didn’t know about this?”

“Maybe you were busy reading a book.   Did you know that shortly after she was killed, Alan was in a serious car accident somewhere in Ontario?   He almost died too.”

He stared at her.   She knew more about his friend than he did.

“Google him.   Search for ‘Alan Lennox car accident’.”

It was his turn.  “Did you know that Hannah was Fooj’s cousin?”

“That I didn’t know, but back then I didn’t know Fooj.   Knowing that makes it all the sadder, brings it closer to home.” 

“Sort of,” William said.

She said, “Let’s get back on topic.   You not sleeping with Alan’s wife.”

“Look, William said, “For all I know it’s just brain damage, like any other near-death experience.  Electrical overload followed by ischemia—oxygen deprivation—combined  with the randomness of memory activation that makes dreaming so fascinating.  I think that could explain the Gator encounter because by then I already knew that Hannah was Alan’s dead wife, I was riffing on that—except that it seemed too real.  And how to explain the one at Belcarra, when I didn’t know Hannah was dead and also didn’t know she was Alan’s wife, and I certainly didn’t know that the reason Alan was out here was to find his wife – who is dead.”

Stacey unfolded her legs and lay down on her back.  She threw an arm across her eyes.

William said, “I wish that woman at the hospital didn’t say what she said, that I came back from the dead.   Now I have to lie awake all night, wondering why I’m not dead, or afraid that maybe if I fall too deeply asleep I am dead.   I certainly don’t want to be dead.   I also don’t want Hannah to be dead.”

She asked, “The only dead person you have encountered is Hannah Imamura?   None of your relatives?”

She meant his parents.  “No, just Hannah.”  William should have explained.

She recombined herself into a cross-legged sit and looked at him.   “Are you sure you feel okay?  I mean, you’re saying things that are pretty out there, considering what I know of you, and all this.”  She swept her hand around the room, indicating his impressive scientific library.

“I saw her,” he said.  “She spoke to me.”

Stacey said, “Oh God,” and got up.   He expected she would be out the door seconds later, but instead she went into the bedroom.   William picked up their dishes from the floor and put them in the sink.  He closed the take-out lids and made space in the refrigerator for them.   She remained in his bedroom, being very quiet.   He took a deep breath, and went in.   She was standing on the far side of the bed, refolding the already-folded t-shirts on his shelf.

“Why are you folding my t-shirts?” he asked.                   

“Gap-disease,” she said.  “I fold t-shirts in my sleep.   See how nice they look now?”   They had razor edges.

“Please stop folding my t-shirts.”   William sat on the bed.

“What would you rather I do?”

He asked her, “Is there anything else you wanted to do in my apartment before you put your shoes back on?”

She scanned the little room for the light switch, reached and clicked it off.   Her hand found his shoulder.  She said, “Maybe we should lie down.” 
                               
               
After many days of brilliant, cloudless sunshine, it rained heavily that night, which made the road below noisy with the hiss of tires.   There was light coming through the blinds from the street lights and the orange flood lamps on the Catholic church.   It was never quiet, never dark in his apartment, and no doubt a difficult place to fall asleep if you weren’t used to it.   William kept almost dosing off into fitful dreams, but Stacey would intermittently caress the palm of his left hand.   At first it was pleasurable, but it became like a mosquito. 

He gave up on sleep.  He waited until her breathing slowed and her hand fell away, and then he tiptoed into the other room.

There were still a few cached stories.   Several days after Hannah died, Alan disappeared.  Neither his family nor Hannah’s knew where he had gone.   He turned up in a hospital in Lindsay, Ontario, north of Toronto.  He had fallen asleep at the wheel of his vintage 1972 Plymouth Roadrunner and crashed into the face of a rock cut on highway 35.   Reading that sent a chill down William’s spine.  The car was a write-off, and Alan suffered head, rib and pelvic injuries.   He was, at the time of writing, in a coma.

“He fell off a scaffold,” William muttered to himself.   He went back to bed.   Stacey rolled over.

“You googled Alan, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Was it like I said?”       

“I wonder what else he hasn’t told me.” 

He lay down and they didn’t speak for a while, until Stacey said, “Do you mind if I ask, did they ever find the killers?”

“What?”                              

“Of your parents.”

“Um, no.”  From this William took that Alan had told Stacey that his parents had been murdered, one of his larks that didn’t seem so funny now.

“You poor guy.   It must be hard, not having any closure.  I’m so sorry.”


He said, “Thank you.”  He meant it.   He was thankful to her in many ways.   As for her belief that he was an orphan, here was another instance when he should have come clean.   He was too tired and confused to lay to rest Alan’s complicating lies.  

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