Friday, January 12, 2018

29. The Rehearsal

William was facing a common dilemma in conservation biology: the problem with searching for things that are inherently difficult to find is that, should you fail to find them, you cannot conclude they’re not there.  As scientists are wont to say, absence of evidence is not proof of absence.  William felt he owed Marilyn Woo another search of the streams of Vedder Mountain for Coastal Giant Salamanders.  It was mid-August and the thimbleberries and salmonberries would be long gone, and, deprived of this food source, huffy, hungry bears would have moved on too.  William was feeling energetic.  The burns on his hip had almost fully healed and no longer rubbed painfully against his waistband.  It was time to climb a mountain, so he called Alan.               

They were driving east out of Vancouver toward Chilliwack.  The last of the incomparable corn waved tiredly in the fields.  It was another in a stretch of hot summer days.  A high pressure system squatting over the south coast of the province was sending storm clouds north.  Long-range weather forecasts predicted little change before the end of the month.  Alan seemed in a good mood.  He had a fresh haircut and looked to William a little less haggard.  It had been a while since William had noticed him limping.

After a spell of driving in silence, William asked, “So what’s the story with Milt?”  He hadn’t seen the hefty birder since the day of the hat transfer.

Alan said he had convinced Milt to lie low for a while, that there was a good chance “the orientals” were still after him.

“Maybe they just want their hat back,” William said.  “It’s probably pretty pricey, and I doubt they can pick up another one on short notice.”

Alan insisted that Milt shouldn’t have to give back the hat.  He liked wearing it tied on with purple nylon netting.  “He’s quite totally insane,” said Alan.  “Plus he is the Jesus of the West.  It’s his hat to do what he likes with.”

The conversation wound around to William describing that morning’s conversation with his mother.  After a week or so of gentle but relentless prodding by Stacey, whose cosmetics were rapidly eating up the scarce counter and cabinet space in his apartment, William phoned.  He sat on his bed, and through the half-open door watched Stacey in the kitchenette.  She was wearing a white t-shirt and extremely short, lime-green shorts.  She was making omelettes.  William wondered what his mother would have thought of that scene, of the delightful yellow-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned young woman now sharing his life.

His mother asked what sort of event he had been involved with.  She seemed to think he had been an eager participant in a religious festival.  Perhaps his being electrocuted had been portrayed in the Toronto-based national media as a piece of performance art in support of theological insanity—business as usual on the wacky west coast.  William told her that no, he hadn’t been involved in a religious festival, that he had nothing to do with it.  He told her that the festival, such as it was, was over, and he was going back to the mountains to hunt for salamanders and try not to be eaten by a bear.  She accepted that without question because it was ridiculous.  

His mother asked why there were so many Chinese people in the news story about the religious festival.  He told her that Vancouver and surrounding cities were full of Chinese people, who were bound to be in any news story about anything.   She told him there were now a lot of Chinese people in Toronto too.

He told her there had been a lot of Chinese people in Toronto for a long time.  He reminded her that there had been many among the children he grew up with.  By this point he was pacing back and forth.  He hung up and sat back down on the bed.  

Stacey stood beside him.  She tickled her fingers through his hair.  “You’re still angry,” she said. 

He said he wasn’t angry.

“But you are bitter,” she said.

“She called you bitter?” Alan repeated, as they drove along.

“She did.”

“Stacey-girl has you pegged, in no time at all.  Incisive, as well as triple-jointed.”

A familiar song was on the radio—a rhythmic galloping strum combined with pure singing guitar notes, gradually building to Bono’s voice,

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
Only to be with you
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

William reached to change the station.  Alan brushed his hand away.  “No, this is our new theme song,” he said.  Not far behind was a silver Dodge Caravan.  William had so far kept his word to Dan and had not blown his cover, because he wasn’t sure what that would accomplish in terms of helping Alan.  He had decided to keep Dan as a sort of ace in the hole and had tipped him off to their day’s plans.

Alan asked how the toast for Fooj was going.

“Not well,” William said.  “I’m starting to panic about it.”

“What’ve you got so far?”

“Well, the obvious funny thing about him is he’s the best looking human on earth, but has no clue how to deal with it.  He’d prefer to look like an old boot.”

“Yes.  That’s good,” said Alan.  “That’s something to play with.”

“Who was your best man?”

“Sammy, my business partner.  He runs the gallery where I sell most of my original pieces, and does the marketing deals.”

“How was his speech?”

“Funny, I suppose.  I forget.  It’s not the exactly what you say that matters so much as letting Fooj know that he’s a terrific human, that you’re happy as hell for him, and that he and his bride are the luckiest people on earth.”

William asked Alan about his wedding. 

Alan and Hannah were married in a civil ceremony at Old City Hall in Toronto. “Very small,” he said.  “They only allow about a dozen people to attend.”

William asked who was there.

“My parents, her parents, Sammy, my sister, Anna, and Danny.”

“Who’s Danny?” William asked, disingenuously.

“Her little bro.”

“I never knew she had a brother.  What’s he like?”

“Very sharp guy.  He worships his sister and vice versa.  I was terrified he wouldn’t like me.”

“You get along with him?”

Alan’s gaze was fixed on the road ahead.  Half a mile later, he said, “I would do anything for Dan.”   Half a mile back, at the point William had posed the question, the silver Dodge Caravan remained, keeping pace.

“When were you married?”                                                      

“August 30, five years ago.”

Uh-oh. That day, not far ahead, was bound to be dark.  William made a note to make sure to be available as much as possible that day, in case of...he wasn’t sure in what it would be in case of.  He wondered where he had been five years ago, August 30.  It would have been at the start of the last year of his dissertation work, when he was preparing for his post-doc—his expedition to Anguilla where he would be gored by a cow, and his return, injured and depleted, to his new home base in Washington DC ,where lightning would find him a second time.  As Alan’s married life was starting, William’s career was coming to an end.

They had to slow down on the rough, two-lane road than ran parallel to the arching whale back of Vedder Mountain, which angled gradually toward the swath cut through the forest that marked the U.S.-Canada border. The stream they were looking for emerged as a seep halfway up the slope in a dense stand of second-growth Douglas fir and was invisible from the road.  William was cradling the GPS against the dashboard.  It said they were getting close.  He hadn’t warned Dan they would suddenly be slowing, and within half a minute he was very close behind them.  Alan was scowling at the rear-view mirror.  William noticed and looked in his side mirror.  He saw Dan do a U-turn.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“Some numb-nuts driver,” said Alan.                    

They parked at the locked gate of a fenced property devoid of man-made structures.  The stream had to be in there somewhere.  The sign on the gate said, “No Trespassing,” which meant little to them.  William had long ago learned that it was impossible to be a biologist in developed countries if you paid attention to No Trespassing signs.  Alan simply didn’t care about such signs, and probably never had.

They squeezed through a gap in the fence and headed for the hillside.  The coordinates on the GPS indicated that, within 10 metres error, they were on top of the target.  Alan was skipping through mats of creeping buttercup down a slope to the base of the mountain.  Then he disappeared.  “Found it!” he yelled from a hole.  The stream trickled down the mountainside and had chewed out a shallow depression at the bottom.  Alan was ankle-deep in cold water.

They scrambled up, following the weak summer flow to find the seep.  As they climbed, the canopy to the right opened up, indicating a clearing in the forest, a recent — possibly illegal — clear cut not shown on the year-old aerial photos William had studied.  They found the seep at the base of a granite face.  They would work downward from here.  There was a fair amount of coarse woody debris around and they started turning logs, each working a different side of the stream. After they had descended 30 metres, finding nothing but worms and other invertebrates, Alan asked, if William could drive, would he be out here doing this all by himself on a regular basis? 

William said he would if he could keep getting the contracts.  He said he sometimes did work alone—got dropped off and picked-up at an arranged time. 

Alan said he thought it was a difficult way to make a living, and a bit dangerous too.

William asked, “Are you thinking about the bear?  That was a fluke.  Ninety-nine percent of the time they flee as soon as they hear you.”  His thought was that the previous encounter had been very atypical, especially with the two of them laughing and making so much noise.  That bear had found a particularly lush berry patch and wasn’t about to move from it.  William was always careful with bears, and there were a lot around, but he didn’t consider them more of a threat than, say, a large dog of the guarding or fighting breeds.  Big dogs were way more dangerous than bears.  Dogs were hell.

“What if you fall?  What if a tree falls on you?” Alan asked.

“I have a cell phone and GPS.  As long as I’m conscious I can call for help.  I let someone know where I’m going and when I expect to be back.  I don’t take silly risks.”      

“What about cougars?”

“What about them?”

“They’re scary.  Cats are scary, no matter how big or small they are.  There are cougars here, aren’t there?”

William would grant him that one.  He said, “Yes, they’re here, and they’re scary.  They’re very smart, stealthy and fast.  They blind-side you and bite you on the neck and face with terrific force, while ripping at your body cavity with their hind feet to disembowel you.  Even if you get away, you’ll likely lose an ear or an eye plus a good part of your scalp.  Chances are you’ll probably bleed to death before you find help.  If you’re lucky enough to survive, you’ll require extensive reconstructive surgery.”

Alan was taken aback.  He blinked twice and then said, “Gather ‘round kiddies, Uncle William is going to tell us about being attacked by a cougar, but this time he’s not going to pull any punches.”

William shrugged.  “You almost never see them.  It’s weird if they even come into contact with people.  They’re ghosts.”

“So they might as well not even exist.  They’re like every other animal you keep looking for, but bigger and more dangerous.”

“No.  They definitely exist.  Every year a few people have run-ins with them.  It rarely goes well for either side.  The conservation officers and their dogs hunt them down.”

“But you, personally, never meet them when you’re looking for the grubby little things.”

William shrugged.  “I’ve never seen one, but I’ve been tracked by them.” 

“How would you know that?”

“One way is to return the way you came and find their paw prints superimposed on your boot prints, which has happened to me twice.”


“Yes.  Another way is when for no apparent reason you are suddenly scared shitless and your arm hairs stand straight up, much like when you’re about to be hit by lightning.”

Alan scoffed.  “That’s not very scientific, doctor,” he said.  “You’re saying you can sense them.  Your spidey sense is tingling.”

William stood straight to address him.  “Absolutely.  We evolved on the African savannah in the presence of big predators and wouldn’t have survived without a way of detecting them.” 

“That’s bullshit.”

“Not bullshit.  If you ever get that feeling, you should stop what you’re doing and take out your knife and grab a sturdy stick.  Stand up tall and yell, ‘Who the fuck is following me?’  Be angry and threatening.  Swear a lot.  Throw rocks at trees.  They’ll leave you alone.”

Alan said, “I don’t generally carry a knife.  Do you?”

“I do.”  Sheathed in the side pocket of his pack was the hunting knife his parents gave him when he was a child.  William had never used its blade for anything more than sharpening sticks, but now that he thought about it, its presence at arm’s length had been a tremendous source of courage over the years.  

They continued to work down the slope, a series of rough and crumbling steps.  At each level there was a pool and an accumulation of dead wood.  It was classic giant salamander habitat and William was feeling lucky.  Then, at about the halfway point, Alan lifted a sheet of loose bark at the base of a large big-leaf maple tree, five feet from a pool.  He said, “William, I’m about to pee my pants.”                 

William slogged across the water to him.  Alan said, “I can’t believe it.  We’ve finally found something we were looking for.”  William leaned forward to pick up the animal, a child’s rubber toy but not in the bright, primary colours of childhood.  It was mottled grey and brown with a broad, bug-eyed head — a salamander grotesquely large, a Polish sausage with legs.  He held the glistening, protean creature in his hands and it scarcely moved apart from the occasional flicker of its throat skin.

Alan stepped back to take a picture.  “Hang on,” he said, looking down at his pant cuff.  “I’m snagged on a wire.”  Uphill there was a snapping sound, followed by the rumble of something heavy rolling.  Out of sight, through the underbrush, the thing hurtled past and smashed into the trunk of a Douglas fir slightly downslope.  Cones came raining down.

William said, “What the hell was that?”  He placed the salamander into an empty ice cream bucket and wedged it beside a rock.  They stepped over the wire and pushed through a dense wall of thimbleberry.  A log, three feet long and two feet thick and bristling with metal spikes, was embedded in the thick, corky bark of the tree.  But more startling was what lay beyond — the clearing.  It was an acre or more of mature Cannabis plants bearing well-developed flower heads.  They had blundered into a grow-op, plants growing from black plastic tubs dug into the clear-cut hillside. Blue plastic piping ran from tub to tub, connecting all to a gravity-feed water source somewhere uphill.  This was a big deal.  This was organized crime.  William felt the hairs go up. 

“Poppies, millions of poppies....” Alan said in a Wicked Witch of the West voice as he stepped up to the nearest of the plants.

William’s phone rang.  It was Dan.  Three RCMP cars had pulled up behind Alan’s car.  One was a K-9 unit.

“Uh, okay.  Thanks,” William said.

Alan asked, “Who was that?”

“A book I wanted to borrow from the library is now available,” William quickly invented.  Then he said, “We’re in a really bad place, Alan.  The rolling thing that almost killed you, that would be a booby trap.”

“And it missed, by a good three feet,” said Alan.  “Famous BC bud!”  He was rolling a flower head between his palms and inhaling deeply.  “And ready to harvest!  Now we’ve really found something we were looking for, and we weren’t even looking for it!”

William’s phone rang again.  Dan said, “Now, believe it or not, two unmarked police cars and two SUVs have arrived.  The SUVs have Washington State plates and the guys inside are wearing DEA jackets.  They’re shooting me dirty looks.  I’m bugging out.”

“Uh, okay.  Thanks,” William said again.  William said to Alan, “We have to get out of here, now, and don’t take any pot with us or we’re screwed.”        

“Who’s phoning?”

William told him it was Marilyn at the Ministry.  “She just found out there would be police here today to raid the grow-op.  She said they should stay clear.”

Alan said, “Marilyn needs to work on her timing.”

A helicopter blasted by, low overhead.  It had the blue, red and yellow flashing of the RCMP.                  
Alan said, “We’ll take the salamander with us.  He can vouch for us.”  He snapped a few pictures and William released the amphibian next to the tree where Alan had found it.  William doubted the police would buy the salamander story.  The ridiculous explanations only work if they already know you’re a nutty naturalist.  A first look at them now would suggest they were here to tend the grow-op.

William thought of going up over the mountain, a modest peak by BC standards.  They probably had enough of a head start to get away that way, but it would then take forever to get back to the car, if it wasn’t towed away.  And if the cops did catch up they would seem inextricably guilty.  They had to go down the way they came and hope the police were heading up the other side of the marijuana.

The dog met them before they had gone 50 yards.

The back seat of the Crown Victoria was plastic and there were brackets fastened to the front seat to prevent the opening of the back doors from the inside.  At least they had been spared the indignity of hand cuffs.  Detained, but not under arrest.  William was thrilled that neither had been bitten and relieved he hadn’t been holding his knife when the German shepherd came bounding up, its giant fangs flashing, its barks so huge he could see half way down its throat.  The knife would have been an invitation to have his arm shredded, or to be tasered or shot when the jump-suited K-9 cop finally caught up.

Alan said with enthusiasm, “Remember the first time we were in the back of a police car?”

“Yes,” William said.

“Ontario Provincial Police,” said Alan.

“Yes, I remember.  The arresting officer was Constable Jarvis.” 

On an evening off from Camp Ohmeemaw, Alan got them into a fight with some townies at a baseball game.  A teenaged couple was making out below the bleachers and Alan dumped a grape Slurpee on them to see what would happen.

“Relax,” said Alan.  “The Mounties are gonna let us go.  They’re just playing tough to impress the Americans.”

William reminded him that they were due at Deas Island Regional Park, 50 km east, at 5 pm for the wedding rehearsal.

“Then let us use our incarceration productively,” said Alan.  “I’ll tell you what to say in your speech.”

Alan gave his version.  “Fooj is the handsomest man in the world, but would rather look like an old boot.  Many would wish to hug Fooj, but Fooj would rather hug trees.  The sound you heard today when Fooj said the words, ‘I do,’ the sound that sounded like gulls keening in the sky, was, in fact, gulls keening in the sky.   But they were merely quoting from the broken hearts of the many who have dreamed of fornicating with Fooj, of Foojicating.

“Fooj has found a woman, Monique, a woman with a charming and often unintelligible accent.  He loves her dearly.  He met her in a nature house that used to be a whore house.  Irony?  Coincidence?  I leave that to you.  Anyway, so great and impulsive were their feelings, one to another, that soon among us there will be a little Fooj, a Foojlet, a Foojito, une petite Foojoise.   And they will all live together in a pretty house next to a bubbling brook, and there will be eagles in the trees, and deer will come to their garden and eat all their plants.

“And so, in conclusion, I say to you all, my name is William Kendall and I have a confession.  I confess that I am unbelievably happy that my old friend, Alan Lennox, has reappeared into my listless and counterproductive life.  I’m grateful to him because he has made me famous, got me laid by a woman way too hot for me, introduced me to friendly RCMP officers, and has gotten me fired from my loser job of teaching nature to little pricks.”

They were finally released when Marilyn returned a call to verify their purpose on the mountain.   Alan had also shown the cops the pictures in his camera of the salamander, which they found intriguing.  One of the Mounties was a young woman who knew who Alan was, and who William believed was a little in awe.  The old Alan would have used this to his advantage.  The present Alan didn’t even notice.

The rehearsal was unusual.  They were in the middle of Deas Island, in a mowed meadow that the following day would have sprouted rows of white chairs.  Fooj was next to William in sweats and on crutches.  His older brother Brian was with them, a shorter, rounder version of Fooj.  Alan was off to the side, lying on the ground with eyes closed, his head cradled in his hands.  Monique was some distance back in the imaginary nave of this sacred place with her dad, who was a thin but tough-looking old guy.  The priest was young, and pleased with how unconventional it all was.

The sky was bright and clear.  The slant of the late summer sun cast half the meadow in shadow.  Tomorrow the wedding would be in cloudless sunshine, a dazzling afternoon.  It would be a day so very different from the miserable day at that same park back in April, the day of mud-caked Jason and Jordan, when Monique had told William of the pregnancy, the upcoming wedding, and his role in it.  Back then William had had feelings of guarded optimism, that, despite being a hater of weddings, he would be able to rise to the occasion and fulfil the required duties.  Now he had less than a day to write a speech about Fooj.  

Fooj is the handsomest man in the world, but wishes he looked like an old boot.......

William approached him.  He was with his brother, leaning on his crutches, looking relaxed and happy.  “We’re supposed to get you drunk now,” William said, “and strip you to your underwear and tie you to a chair in the elevator of a large apartment building and push the buttons to all the floors.  Resistance is futile.”

Fooj said, “Okay.”                          

As the rehearsal party gathered in the parking lot to say good bye, Monique’s mother kissed Fooj on the cheek, and Monique kissed Fooj’s mother.  Fooj’s father hugged Monique’s mother, who, like Monique, had a gentle face.  Monique’s father kissed Fooj’s mother on the cheek.  William wondered, how the hell could such different people be so fond of each other?

The next day William was there again, in a tuxedo, uncomfortable in both attire and role, trying to pay attention to the service and not lose track of the ring in his pocket.  Monique in her wedding finery looked almost as pretty as she did when she was in Gore-tex and her hair was soaking wet and her fingers were pink and numb and she was helping a child tie her raincoat hood in the pouring rain.  And even encumbered with a Steller’s Jay- blue fibreglass cast, Fooj was James Bond.

The observers were an interesting mix that revealed the heterogeneity of Fooj and Monique’s lives.  The largest contingent was other interpreters, mostly from years gone-by, followed by tree planters of all colours and ages and wardrobe concepts.  Tom and his partner Ross were there, suave in matching silk suits.

Not many of Monique’s relatives had come because of the distance from home, but in addition to her parents was her sister Sylvie, who was Maid of Honour, and her brother Michel, who was an usher.  Three friends from home also came along: Yvette, Odette, and Suzanne.       

Fooj’s parents and paternal grandmother were there, as were a number of aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Many of the cousins of Fooj’s generation had spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends.  Every couple was bi-racial, including one with an African husband and another with a South Asian wife.  A few children had resulted from those unions and were brown-haired and bright-eyed and invariably beautiful.  One could only anticipate that Fooj and Monique’s progeny would be dazzling.

Monique’s coworkers and her boss from her second job at a pet groomery were there, as were three people from Fooj’s modeling life — Charmaine, his agent, and two beautiful people named Carlos and Lula, who, if shrunk to three inches tall, would have been the most expensive wedding cake decoration in the world.  One person who wasn’t there: Stacey. 

When the priest said, “I pronounce you husband and wife,” eagles trilled and a container ship passing the island blasted its horn in a long, booming note.  Fooj and Monique walked down the aisle through the white chairs and William stood at the front with Monique’s sister and the priest.  To a wedding-hater, weddings were as painful from the front as from the back.  He wondered how Alan felt.  He was standing at the back, watching, smiling. 


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