Wednesday, January 3, 2018

38. Vancouver

The woman got up, leaving her husband under a mountain of covers.   She didn’t know what time he had come to bed, only that it had been after midnight.   She walked into the living room with its floor to ceiling panoramic view of the peaks of the North Shore, which now in late summer were almost devoid of snow.  She stepped up to the large canvas he had been working on for almost two weeks.    It was a cougar, crouched near the top of a granite rock face, posed as though about to pounce.  On a gentle slope below a deer was browsing among bearberry and dry, wispy grass.  Biting her bottom lip, the woman studied the painting for a long time.   She nodded almost imperceptibly and then walked over to the small desk that fit so tidily into the niche outside the kitchen door.   She chose a felt pen and on the top sheet of a post-it pad inked a thick green check mark.  She stuck the post-it on the bottom corner of the easel and then turned on the television for the morning news.  It was a commercial break and so she went into the kitchen to plug in the kettle.   The newscast returned before the kettle started to roar.  She walked past the easel to the sofa and sat.

The top story was of a rare death by lightning strike.   A lone canoeist, an employee of the Greater Vancouver Regional District Parks Department, had been struck late the previous evening while paddling in the Brunette River, which drains Burnaby Lake.  Footage showed wet-suited divers in a zodiac and police officers on shore coiling ropes.  They were tidying up after retrieving the body from the sluice gate of the Cariboo Dam, a small, concrete construction responsible for managing the level of the lake.   Footage cut to a covered body on a stretcher being carried up a grassy hillside.

The RCMP spokesperson was a young woman with a faint French-Canadian accent.  Her police hat looked too large for her head.  She said, “What we know so far is that at about 10 PM last night a park employee was canoeing in the Brunette River a few hundred meters upstream from the Cariboo Dam and was caught in a short, intense thunder storm.  We have one witness who claims to have seen lightning strike the canoe and the canoe immediately flip over.  Early this morning our members recovered a body at the Cariboo Dam.   The victim has been identified as 35-year-old William David Kendall of Vancouver, who was a nature interpreter in the Parks Department. 

The woman half-stifled a cry.

“The actual cause of death will remain unknown until an autopsy is completed in the upcoming days.”

“God no,” she said.  

Her husband, now awake, had heard her.   He entered to see the zipper-bagged body being loaded into a coroner’s truck.  He spoke from behind the sofa.  “Who died?”

The woman looked at him.  “Do you know William Kendall’s middle name?  Is it David?”

“I believe it is.”  He remembered initials on a steamer trunk.  WDK.

“Oh God,” she said.

“No way.”   He came around to sit beside her.

A pale, soft-spoken man was speaking.  A subtitle identified him as ‘Tom Carlisle, Parks Program Coordinator.’   He said, “This is a very hard day for us, for our park and for the naturalist community.  William Kendall was a much loved and gifted and special person.  He was one of our best interpreters and a teacher to us all.  We have lost a cherished family member.”    He lowered his head and walked out of the frame, answering no questions, leaving behind a young woman whose blond hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She was wearing a robin’s egg blue shirt with badges on the shoulders. 

The husband asked, “Could he have been out here?”

“I dunno,” she said.  This was not true.  The woman had known for more than a year that he was here.  In an instance of randomness compounded, William Kendall had come out of thin air and saved her from serious injury or worse.  She had been walking in Vancouver’s False Creek neighbourhood, accompanying her friend Helen who ran a pre-school, and several of Helen’s pre-school charges.  She was holding hands with a little girl named Alexa, walking east along the north sidewalk of 7th Avenue near Willow Street. 

There was a pummelling of engine brakes as a semi truck pulling a flatbed trailer came hurtling down the steep slope of Willow, out of control.  The driver turned the wheel hard left, which bounced the tractor over the southwest corner of the intersection and caused the trailer to swing widely and begin to tip.  There was a snapping sound and a huge object made of wood and plastic and copper was launched into the air, directly at the woman and the little girl.  The woman crouched, poised to push the child to safety, but was grabbed from behind, and along with the child was yanked head-over- heels out of the path of the crashing hot tub.  A man rolled to a stop beside them.

Physical injury was limited to skinned knees and elbows and other minor road rash.  It would have been much worse.   The hot tub sailed onto the sidewalk, hit hard like a planet, its sides splintering, and skidded screaming and broken-backed across the concrete before flying down a series of steps.   Most of it ended up halfway through the plate-glass double doors of a condominium.  The driver of the truck sat stunned in his seat, having seen in his mind’s eye what would have happened.

For a few seconds they stared at each other uncomprehendingly amid the cries and destruction, not understanding how they had escaped almost unscathed, but more significantly not understanding how, of all people, it was the other, here, in Vancouver.

An awkward and hurried conversation followed.  Neither had forgotten the uncomfortable way their shared accommodation at a New York hotel several years earlier had ended. William suggested they get together for coffee sometime—to  reconnect, to talk about things.

The woman said she couldn’t.  She was very grateful to him for what he had just done, but could never meet him like that. 

He was plainly hurt by this.   “Okay, well, bye,” he said.  “I’m glad you’re okay, nice to see you again, take care.”   He limped away, up Willow Street to Broadway.

In her police statement the woman pretended not to know the name of the fast-acting man who had saved her and the child and then abruptly departed the scene.

The husband asked, “Wasn’t he supposed to be a professor somewhere?”

“Lots of us were,” she said.

“Did I ever tell you that he and I were almost killed in a head-on when we were at camp together?  That was,” he paused to do the math, “17 years ago.”

“Yes, you told me.”

The blond-haired young woman was answering a question about what Mr. Kendall might have been doing in a canoe at that time of night.   Her eyes were red.  “I don’t know.  Listening for bats or something.  He liked doing things like that, but there was no reason to go out in a canoe, he could just stand on the shore and do it, except that he really enjoyed canoeing.”

The end of the piece showed a still image of the victim seated on a bench next to the same young woman.  Both were wearing the robin’s egg blue shirt.  They were laughing.  He was definitely the William Kendall they had known.

The husband said, “He was a good canoeist, old-school.  For an old-schooler, there’s way worse ways to go than in a canoe.”  

“I can’t believe this has happened.  I wish I never turned on the TV.”

The husband got up and plucked the post-it from the easel.  “You really think so?  Great, I was pretty sure I was getting close.”  He went into the kitchen.

She raised her voice.  “So you can stop hating him now.”

The husband poked his head out.   “I have never hated him.  He was like a brother.  I only hated what he did.”

“You could at least now try to forgive him.”

He narrowed his eyes at her.   “To what end?”  He disappeared.   “Your kettle’s boiled,” he called.

She didn’t reply.  She clicked off the television and went back to bed, to make the news, her husband, the world go away.   No.  After running through it all she kicked off the covers.

The husband was on the sofa with a plate half off his lap, a piece of toast untouched.  He was aiming the TV clicker at nothing. 

She put her hand on his shoulder.

“I never had another friend even half as close,” he said.

She sat with him.  She said, “You need to know—it  wasn’t him in New York.  It wasn’t him.  It was a person the very opposite of him, but I couldn’t tell you back then.”   She explained why.  He listened without interrupting.  She told him she had known he was here, the whole truth about the frightening incident with the hot tub.  She told him she was sorry for not telling him sooner, about all of it.  She told him she wanted him to love his friend again.

For a while he sat motionless, staring at the mountains.  Eventually he leaned to place the plate and clicker on the floor.  He took the woman’s hand.  “Seventeen years ago,” the husband said, “William Kendall had a pet tortoise named Olive.”

“Yes,” said the woman.

“I’ve told you before.”

“You did, on the day I met you.”   She squeezed his fingers.  “Tell me again.”

The child in the second bedroom had awakened.  She was crying.   The woman went to gather her, and carried her back to the husband.   “Tell the story of Olive to your child.”

They talked about William for a while, and then the husband said, “We have to go to that lake, wherever it is.”

“It’s in Burnaby.  It’s like driving to Scarborough.”

Two hours later they were standing on the dam, overlooking the flat stretch of water where it had happened.   The canoe, upside-down, was  on the shore, pegged off with yellow police tape.  The woman was carrying the sleeping child in a harness against her chest.  The husband was leaning on the rail, looking upstream, full of questions.  He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the unimaginable.   He asked, “William, oh William, what the hell were you doing?”   


Thank you for reading this story. I hope you enjoyed it.  
If you did, you may also enjoy Tea Kettle Island.

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