The interpreter was at the far end of the boardwalk, on the wooden platform where they launched the canoes, counting waterfowl and writing the results in a notebook. The tally so far:
Green-winged Teal 2
American Pintail 5
American Widgeon 4
Wood Duck 6
He was counting Canada Geese. Most were standing on a gravel bar, sleeping or preening; a few were swimming back and forth in front of or behind the bar, making an exact count slightly challenging. One, two, three, four…
A voice asked, “What kind of duck is that little one, next to the beer can?” The interpreter turned. A tall woman about his age with sharp facial features and a wide stance was next to a boy seven or eight years old.
The interpreter looked. “It’s a Green-winged Teal.”
“Is it a baby?” asked the woman.
“No,” said the interpreter. “It’s an adult. They’re a very small species of duck.” The woman and boy were silent, so the interpreter returned to the geese. One, two, three, four…
“What’s that one there?” asked the boy. He was pointing at a slender duck with a crested head and a white, Cleopatra-style eye-ring.
“A Wood Duck, a female,” said the interpreter. “The male is the colourful one swimming behind it.”
“Wow,” said the boy. “It’s beautiful.” The he asked, “Do you know the names of all the birds?”
“Most of them. I think I know all the ones found here,” said the interpreter.
“Cool!” said the boy.
After waiting for more questions, which did not come, the interpreter started again, One, two, three, four…
“You are actually counting ducks?” asked the woman.
“Once a week,” said that interpreter.
“Why would you do that?”
“To keep track of things, compare data from year to year, find out which ones are losing ground, which ones are increasing.”
“Cool,” said the boy.
The interpreter looked at him. “You want to help?”
“See that funny black one there, the one with the white beak? That’s an American Coot. See how many you can count and let me know. Watch carefully, they move in and out of the cattails.”
“We don’t really have time,” said the woman.
“Fine, hurry up,” said the woman.
One, two, three, four…
“Seven!” said the boy.
“Thank you,” said the interpreter, who suspected there were really only four or five coots, that the boy had counted at least one bird more than once, but he made sure the boy saw him write down, American Coot 7.
The boy asked, “Are you married?”
The boy turned to his mother. “Think how great it would be if I had a new dad who could tell us every night at dinnertime what birds he saw that day, and all the animals we could talk about and learn about…”
“Um,” said the interpreter.
“Time to go, Matt, let’s go,” said the woman, and she hustled the boy away, up the boardwalk.
“Seeya,” said the interpreter.
The woman stopped, leaned to say something to her son, and then came marching back. The interpreter was at 37 when she interrupted.
“He gets this interest in animals from his father.”
“What? Oh, I see,” said the interpreter.
“So it would never work. Being constantly reminded of my ex is the last thing I want from a man, so don’t even think about it, okay?”
“It?” asked the interpreter.
The woman made a back-and-forth motion with her hands, implying some sort of relationship between the interpreter and herself.
Eww, thought the interpreter. “Okay,” said the interpreter.
“And would you mind, if you see us here again, please, like, try to avoid us?”
“Why?” asked the interpreter.
“Listen, not to be rude, because you’re probably not a bad person or anything, but I just don’t find you attractive. I have never dated a man less than six foot two. You’re not even five ten.”
“Not even,” agreed the interpreter.
“So, sorry,” said the woman. She rolled her eyes and heaved a great sigh, and then spun around. Her arms swung wide as she closed on her son. The interpreter looked past the mother to the boy’s expectant face. He foresaw deep and endless disappointment. He turned again to the geese, every one now motionless on the gravel bar. The interpreter was tired of counting. He wrote in his notebook,
Canada Goose 60
“Or so,” he said to himself.
* * *
The drive to Stanley Park was insane. Baba’s ice cream truck had only the driver’s seat. Alan and William sat on overturned milk crates in the back, between the freezer and soda machine. They had to hold on to the appliances to keep from skidding across the alarmingly filthy floor. The sour milk reek instantly made William feel car sick. At the very back, wedged side-by-side, were his two traps, meant for the beaver. What made the ride truly insane was that all the while, even when on the trans-Canada highway at 70 mph, Baba kept playing the ice cream truck music, The Entertainer, by Scott Joplin
“Why didn’t you meet me in your car?” William yelled over the racket.
“I thought you should experience this!” Alan yelled back gleefully. William wondered if he might be on something. Certainly Baba was on something, gripping the wheel white-knuckled and almost yanking himself off the seat as he swerved from lane to lane. His hands came off the wheel only to light another cigarette. The floor around his seat was inches deep in butts, which added an earthy undertone to the sickening miasma. William noticed he had rubber bands around the ankles of his pants.
They had to shout to converse. “Why doesn’t he turn off the music!?!”
“It doesn’t turn off!”
“There’s no switch!?!”
“Well there is, but when you switch it, it turns into Turkey in the Straw!”
“There’s no off!?!”
“Just Turkey in the Straw! “
William timed a cycle of the song, a particularly penetrating version. It lasted 52 seconds. In the time it took to drive to Stanley Park they endured the song 43 times.
Lost Lagoon is about 650 yards long, running west to east, and about 360 yards across at its widest point. They surveyed its west end, around the small, overgrown islands near the footbridge, which was where, according to Milt, the beaver spent most of its time. Baba didn’t accompany them on the reconnaissance mission. He remained in his truck, parked near the Park Board Office. Milt said he never left the truck in daytime. “He’s afraid of the squirrels.” Milt explained, “Once a squirrel ran up inside his pant leg and did some damage. So he only comes out at night, when they’re sleeping.”
“When does he sell ice cream?” William asked.
Milt looked at William as though he hadn’t understood the question.
William identified two spots where the traps could be set without having to wade into the pond, yet would be hidden from human eyes by the dense patches of dogwood and salmonberry along the bank. He tied strips of pink flagging tape on nearby shrubs.
Alan and William bade Milt good bye and walked to Alan’s apartment to wait until dark.
Still cringing from his television exposure, William asked Alan how he felt about his adventures with the media. William asked Alan about an incident about six years earlier, when he was already well-known. He got into a fight at a gallery during the opening for one of his shows. The fight ended with Alan slamming the face of a prominent Toronto lawyer into a painting of a badger hunkered next to a weathered fence post. The lawyer’s glasses damaged the painting, and the lawyer was cut on the face. Worse, the event was being covered by a television station, which caught on tape the violent conclusion. This station was known for starting its newscasts with a fast-moving montage of spectacular shots, accompanied by the music from the first Rocky movie. At the end, the rich authoritative voice would declare that this station covered the news, “Everywhere!” Alan slamming the lawyer into the badger painting became part of the opening montage, seen by tens of thousands of people every night.
“That guy’s name was Kent Diamond,” said Alan. “We settled out of court. Plus I let him have the painting.”
“Why were you fighting with him? Were you drunk?”
“Of course I was drunk. Art show openings are only tolerable if you’re drunk. I hate those things. So I was in a predictably bad mood, and lawyer-boy walks past Hannah and accidently-on purpose lets his hand brush her butt. Or at least I thought he did.” Alan paused, and looked at William. The reason was not lost. He continued, “He denied it. Turns out he’s an okay guy, for a lawyer I mean. Since then I’ve even hired him myself.” He opened his fridge and took out two beers.
William asked Alan if he ever got tired of seeing himself in a drunken rage at the start of every news cast.
“Heck no. I thought it was hilarious. The value of my paintings went up about twenty percent. Being perceived as a loose cannon is good for an artist.” He opened the beers and handed one to William.
“What about when you’re not being an artist, when you want to live your life in private?”
“Yeah, well, then it sucks.”
“I don’t want to be notorious, or famous, not in the least,” William said.
“Too late,” said Alan. “Besides, this will pass. Maybe it’ll be just enough to get you out of your rut. Another thing: I think you should start dating again — the blond one. She’s extremely cute. She’s single, unattached, I checked. I know you worry about such formalities, usually. Plus you’ve already had a first kiss, sort of, so there should be no awkwardness.”
Were he not so confused about being married to a dead person, William would have suggested he himself have a go at Stacey, since in his eyes she was obviously a prize. But apparently Alan was no longer a man on an endless hunt for sex. He was more faithful to someone no longer alive than he had ever been to the warm bodies he associated with at Camp Ohmeemaw. William said, “You’re thinking like you. Not like me. You’re thinking like old times. You’ve chosen Stacey because she’s physically very reminiscent of Mandy Sinclair. She’s Mandy Sinclair, but ten years older.”
“Ah, Mandy,” said Alan fondly. “Yes, I agree. There’s somewhat of a resemblance.”
Mandy Sinclair was the daughter of Big Ernie Sinclair, owner and director of Camp Ohmeemaw. Seventeen years earlier she was fifteen. She worked in the camp kitchen as a server. At a particular time of day, between afternoon activities and supper, Alan and William would sit on the stoop of the cabin they shared for the second session of camp, chatting with campers and other counselors – whoever was wandering past. Alan sometimes sketched people, cartoony little portraits of the sort that are hawked at fairs or shopping malls. By the end of summer he had probably sketched everyone at the camp. Some of those drawings no doubt still existed. William wondered how much they would be worth now.
Mandy would go past on her way to the dining hall in her cut-offs and tank top, plastic gimp bracelet around one ankle. “Hi William, hiya Alan,” she would say.
Alan would always leer at Mandy as she passed, and William would always, reflexively and loudly, say, “No!”
Alan would say, “Mandy, Mandy, Mandy. Very, very, saucy. Notice how you only get a ‘Hi,’ and she gives me a ‘Hiya!’?”
William would say, “Fifteen years old, boss’s daughter.”
Alan would say, “Very, very, saucy.”
One evening Alan asked William, “Is this a Becky Pang night?” He meant, was it a letter-writing night. William told him it was, which also meant that Alan could have someone in their cabin and William wouldn’t be busting in on them unexpectedly, as long as she was gone by midnight. “Who is it tonight?” William asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
Alan raised his eyebrows suggestively.
“Not Mandy,” William said. “No way Mandy.”
“Enjoy your letter. Give my best to Becky,” he said.
William wrote to Becky about the past days’ events, about how many days until they would be together again, about the weather, about the moon, which is something he always wrote about because it was something they could both see at the same time, and about Alan. Alan had become a regular feature in the letters, but William refrained from describing his activities with the female counselors because he wanted Becky to like him. He imagined they would all become friends back in Toronto, and forever. In later life he would understand that it’s almost always the case that you will be disappointed when you are hoping rather than thinking.
At half past midnight William returned to their cabin. He was about to touch the door knob, when he heard female whispering inside. Oh shit, she’s still in there, William thought. William backed down off the step, into the towering bulk of Mandy’s dad, Big Ernie Sinclair.
“William, you’re up very late. Don’t you think you should be going to bed?” said Ernie.
“Ah, I was about to go and make some tape recordings of barred owls. It’s their mating season.” By this age William had already learned that once people had you pegged you as a naturalist, you could use that knowledge to your advantage. They would believe any nonsense you told them about what you had just done, were in the midst of doing, or were about to do – if you tossed out a naturalist story. The more ridiculous the explanation, the more likely they were to believe it. A few nights earlier, William had been caught red-handed stealing paint from the camp paint shed by the camp security guard, a dull but kindly fellow named Charles. William had endured many lengthy conversations with Charles, mostly about amphibians. He was inexplicably keen on amphibians. William told Charles he was carrying out a survey of wood bugs. There happened to be a dead wood bug on the floor, beneath the can of paint William had lifted and intended to run off with. William gently cradled the tiny husk of a creature in his palm. “We have to make sure that the wrong ones aren’t going into structures. It could be a serious health hazard, especially for asthmatics,” William said. They scrutinized the wood bug.
Charles asked, “Is it one of the dangerous ones?”
“Do you have asthma?”
“No. But there must be some among the children that do.” Charles was so earnest that it hurt to lie to him.
“At first I thought so, but no, this is one of the harmless species,” William replied.
“Terrific,” Charles said. “Thank God we have you here. Don’t let me interrupt. Keep up the good work.”
Later that night Alan and William painted yellow bathtub ducks on Ian Puslinch’s hubcaps.
Big Ernie demanded, “Where’s your friend? Where’s Alan Lennox? I’m looking for Mandy. Is she in there?”
“No, no,” William answered. “She’s not there. Alan’s in there, but he’s asleep.”
“I heard that earlier tonight he was with Mandy. She damn well better not be in there with him.”
“Oh no! She’s not in there. I was just in there and she’s definitely not in there. I can maybe help you look for her?”
Big Ernie stared down at William and said, “You go to bed. If you keep burning the candle at both ends you’re gonna crash, and I need you healthy. Forget about the fucking owls for tonight, okay?”
“Okay,” William said.
Big Ernie waited while William nervously opened the cabin door. Inside, Alan was softly faux-snoring. Ernie swept the room with his flashlight, revealing a single form in Alan’s bed.
“She’s not here,” William stage-whispered to Ernie, although he believed she was. He could smell perfume. “Good night!” He closed the door.
She wasn’t there. After Ernie was safely gone, Fortuna, the camp chef’s Bolivian assistant, tripped out from behind their stacked steamer trunks, giggling and snorting. “I’m going now. Good night, Honeys,” she said, and she stumbled out the door.
William clicked on a flashlight to prepare for bed. He lit a mosquito pic and opened the window to let in some air. “Did you hear me talking with Ernie?” he asked.
Alan said, “He actually thought Mandy was here with me?”
“So did I.”
“Mandy? Are you crazy? She’s only fifteen!”
“I misjudged you.”
“You certainly did. But I appreciate how you played that. I heard all of it. If she really had been in here, you would have got yourself canned. That was a somewhat noble thing you did.”
William didn’t feel the same way. Although what he believed was a lie when he said it turned out not to be entirely untrue, an intended lie is morally the same as a lie, whether about wood bugs or someone’s daughter. “Maybe you should only have sex with people you’re in love with,” he said. “You’ll live longer that way.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Alan said. “I don’t have a Becky Pang. I just have a lot of shit to deal with. This is how I deal with it.”
“Tell me,” said William.
Alan was at loggerheads with his father, who wanted him to go into business. Alan didn’t want to go to university, especially if it was meant as a stepping stone to a career involving money, corporations, and the big bank buildings downtown. Alan didn’t know what he wanted to do, but it definitely wasn’t in the direction his father was pushing him. He described his father as a bully, an extortionist, who was using economic pressure to force Alan down a path he detested.
“So I just screw around. I do everything he would never do. My mother is the only woman he ever slept with, that he admits to. So I sleep around and don’t particularly try to cover my tracks, mostly just to piss him off.”
“What, you tell him about it?”
“Not exactly. Word gets around.”
“You know what collateral damage means, right? I mean, the girls?”
Alan sighed. “It’s complicated. I can’t explain everything going on in my head, but it boils down to dealing with my father. I can’t stand my dad.”
William said, “You can draw. You can draw better than anyone. You could go to art school, learn to paint, turn your sketches into paintings.”
“My dad would love that. By the way, I already know how to paint, somewhat.”
“Then do it. Give it a try. Go all the way with it, to spite him, if that’s your goal. Becky’s best friend is enrolled at the Ontario College of Art. I’ll find out how she got in. Stop giving away your drawings. You’ve got to build up a portfolio. Ten years from now you’ll be a famous artist, making more money than your father ever has, or ever will.”
William took off his clothes and wriggled into his sleeping bag, which smelled like Fortuna’s perfume. William was used to his bed smelling like Alan’s girlfriends. He turned off his flashlight. Once he stopped shifting around, Alan asked, “What do you think you’ll you be, ten years from now?”
What a question. Not many 18-year-olds have a reasonable answer for that. Eventually William said, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is who’ll be there with me.”
“Oh,” said Alan, which was followed by a silence that spoke volumes.
They then went back and forth imitating Fortuna, saying, “Good night, Honeys,” and laughing like mad.
Alan’s apartment buzzer buzzed. “That would be Milt,” he said, and pushed the button on intercom panel. They waited for a while. “He generally takes ten or fifteen minutes to find the apartment.” Alan then asked, as though having followed William’s thoughts, so who did ol’ Becky marry, anyway?”
William asked why wanted to know that.
“Just curious,” he said. “I was thinking her married name couldn’t possibly be as charming as her maiden name. Just like if she had married you instead of whomever and she changed her name to Becky Kendall. Doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?”
“Lo,” William muttered. “A guy named ‘Lo’.”
“What a shame,” he said. Then he asked, “Is that L-o, or L-o-w?”
They heard knocking a few doors down the hall. Alan opened his door. “Milt, over here.”
William heard him puffing closer. He appeared, dressed in camouflage pants, a blue Kevlar vest, and a SWAT team helmet.
“God,” William said.
“I bought him the hat,” said Alan. “For Milt, It’s Halloween 365 days a year.”
“Necessary precautions,” said Milt. “I fear I have made them rather cross.”
“Who?” William said.
“Bill Barnes, Vancouver Parks,” said Milt. “The one who would destroy her.”
“The beaver,” said Alan.
“Satan walks among us,” said Milt. He gave a rambling description of Satan, from which William understood that Bill Barnes was some level of park operator at Stanley Park, perhaps on par with Carl Stribling at Burnaby Lake. It was his job for life, a product of nepotism decades back. His father had performed a similar role and was the ultimate cause for the current situation. It was Barnes senior who had planted the willows along the north side of Lost Lagoon. He would proudly announce to anyone, especially son Bill, that he had planted them, “With my own two hands.” Bill Barnes took it as an attack on his family that a large, wayward rodent had set incisors into the bark of those trees and had managed to fell and eat one of them. The beaver had to be removed — and fast.
If Bill’s intentions were an irresistible force, they met an immovable object in Milt, who saw the beaver as a thing of beauty in a mostly ugly world. Thus the conflict began, Bill Barnes and his staff as would-be exterminators, the omnipresent and slightly deranged Milt as defender. Milt fulfilled his role with gusto and dedication. He knew that he had to win the battle every day. Bill Barnes only had to win it once.
“Did you ever try to talk to the guy, to maybe have him put hardware cloth around the trees?” William asked innocently.
“I do not deal with the devil!”
After a silence, but for Milt’s angry breathing, William said, “Of course not.”
Alan asked, “Are all parks run by niggling little tinpot megalomaniacs?”
They met Baba at his truck. He had moved his rig to the end of Nelson Street, on the verge of the park, about five minutes brisk downhill walk to Lost Lagoon. He could be spotted at a distance, thanks to the ember of his ever-present cigarette. There was a half moon and broken cloud cover, just enough light that they would be able to set the traps without betraying their location with flashlights.
From the back of the truck they took the two cages, each about four feet long and two feet square. Baba dragged out a large bag sewn from fake fur and filled with dime-store rubber balls. “A decoy,” Milt said. They would throw it in the water and drag it parallel to the shore to draw fire.
“You’ll see,” said Milt.
“You’ve tried this before?” William asked.
“Bang bang bang!” erupted Baba.
“Have they tried this before?” William asked Alan.
Milt and Baba were to provide a diversion while Alan and William set the traps at the places William had marked. William wasn’t sure how much of the story about Bill Barnes was true and how much was Milt’s compromised noggin. He didn’t believe there would be men with firearms shooting at them or at the beaver, or at anything.
The pond edge had an abrupt drop-off and by accident William slipped in up to his knees while trying to place the first trap beneath entangling branches. However, in a way that became advantageous, because wading made setting the trap that much easier. He moved along, picking his way through the overhanging foliage.
“Bang!” The report came from the other side of the lagoon.
“Fuck,” said Alan.
“No way that was a gun,” said William.
They froze, crouched low. “Meet me at the second spot,” William hissed. Alan moved quickly on shore while William struggled through the muck and branches, trying to make as little sound as possible. He fell twice and ended up completely soaked from the waist down, but eventually reached the marked spot. Alan had pushed the cage forward between two dense clumps of dogwood, and William pulled it further, to the water’s edge, anchored it with a stout stick, and opened the door. From the bait bag looped through his belt he took out the goodies: cantaloupe cubes and jumbo marshmallows.
“Bang!” The shot seemed to be about midway along the north side.
They heard Milt cursing, about the same distance along south side, “You bloody evil man!” It seemed the decoy beaver was working. William carefully positioned the bait and eased away from the trap, and then picked his way to a clear spot on the bank. Alan pulled him out.
Again, “Bang!” And another, “Bang!””
They ran uphill, through the forest and Rhododendron garden, to the ice cream truck.
After a few nervous minutes they saw the glow of Baba’s cigarette, and then he and Milt emerged from the darkness into the circle of light beneath a lamp post. Baba was dragging Milt. Milt was dragging the decoy, or what was left of it.