The next day Caroline called in sick with a sore shoulder. William doubted she was sick. Tom wanted to cancel the canoeing program, but William begged him no, he needed the money. Stacey and Tracy were scheduled to be at Deas Island for a birding program – singing the fish-murdering song, perhaps – and were not available. This wasn't because of a scheduling conflict; their program was 10AM till noon. It was because had they returned to Burnaby Lake to participate in a canoeing program, their work hours would have exceeded what was allowed within the pay period of an auxiliary union member. There was no overtime for interpreters.
At William’s suggestion, and completely inappropriately, Tom approved Alan as second canoeist. He agreed to let Alan be the sweep, though it would have cost him his job, and maybe more, had there been an accident without a second Parks employee in a canoe. The program was scheduled for 7PM, which gave William time to take Alan on a quick pre-program paddle.
They hadn't seen much of each other in the weeks since the Belcarra Park lightning adventure. However, William had been keeping tabs on Alan thanks to the invasive electronic strangeness that was alt.art.alan lennox. Some participants of that world wrote as though they knew Alan, although there was no indication any had actually met him. White Lynx, having the advantage of apparently being unemployed and living in the same neighborhood as Alan, assumed a leadership role. He started the threads to which others replied, all of whom had adopted names from Alan's paintings:
White Lynx: "Alan was at Lost Lagoon again today with the hefty birdwatcher."
River Fox: "That's strange because Alan isn’t into birds."
Beaver 9: "No, he likes birds, but doesn't paint them because there are too
many bird artists already."
White Lynx: "There is something odd about the hefty birder. I think he's a
special needs case."
River Fox: "Alan isn’t known for his tolerance of idiots. He's so cool that way."
White Lynx: "I didn't say Hefty Birder was an idiot. (Although technically, perhaps he is.)"
Beaver 9: "Let's keep on topic, gang. Start a Hefty Birder group if you want."
Mother Bear Asleep: "Can we please talk about his paintings?"
White Lynx: "Alan was reading a book in the coffee shop on Denman. He was looking a little haggard."
River Fox: "Did you catch what he was reading? He should be reading something about grief and recovery."
Beaver 9: "My cousin in Van's wife is grief counselor. White Lynx - send me your email and I'll give you her office address. You could go get a business card and leave it on the counter in the coffee shop where Alan usually sits."
Mother Bear Asleep: "WL - I want to go out to Vancouver and follow you around as you follow Alan around. Isn't stalking illegal in BC?'
At least it was nice they were concerned about him
William wondered, who was White Lynx, and how much time did this person have on his or her hands that he or she could stalk Alan, and to what end? One thing that struck William when he first moved to Vancouver and for a while lived in the densely populated West End was how many unemployed people there seemed to be in that city, walking around the streets and hanging out in the many Starbucks when the time of day would suggest they should be at work somewhere. Evidently White Lynx was one of those people. Was Alan aware of this person? William didn't think Alan was particularly savvy about the internet, and hobby-based newsgroups were an increasingly obscure backwater. What would he say if he learned his daily activities were being webcast by a fan, and William was keeping tabs? Would he be happy with William for spying on him online?
Of course not, but it's not as if William had many options. Not being able to drive, it was hard to spy on his own. White Lynx was his proxy-spy. Why did William care enough to spy? One, Alan was hurt and of questionable mental health, and William didn’t like the idea of him meandering around a strange city left to himself and his desperate and depressed thoughts. Two, his unpredictability had the potential to be dangerous, and/or entertaining as hell. William didn’t want to be caught by surprise. Three, William was haunted by the lightning-vision of Hannah. It had opened a crack, allowed him occasional bareheaded moments, not wearing his moldy old scientist hat. There was perverse pleasure in that.
Alan arrived at Burnaby Lake for the pre-program paddle, and yes, Will noted, he looked a little haggard. He hadn't had a haircut since his arrival in Vancouver in March and he looked tired.
"I come to show this stupid province how to canoe," he said.
They walked behind the Nature House to the canoes, which were stacked on a trailer that had flat tires.
"And where are the canoes?" he asked. "These are not canoes." He hit one with the side of a closed fist. It went “bong.” They were aluminum canoes.
Alan was a canoe-snob. To him, a canoe was a canvas-covered cedar-strip, a wooden masterpiece manufactured by the Chestnut Canoe Company. Nothing else counted. Camp Ohmeemaw had owned fifty or more Chestnuts, and they were beautiful, organic things. They grew in the rain and shrank in the sun. They were layers of tissue, ribs overlying planking overlain by canvas. They smelled of the forests of their birth. They were also very expensive and somewhat fragile, and would have lasted about a week in the hands of novice paddlers partaking in GVRD nature programs. The GVRD had found itself half a dozen metal monsters, which gradually became multi-dented and flat-bottomed from abuse. They moved like barges as you clanked your way along. To William that was their worst aspect, how the shaft of the paddle clanked against the gunwale, as opposed to the subdued clunk of paddle on cedar.
Speaking of paddles, when William opened the door to the dark, spider-ridden paddle shed, Alan rejected the first William offered. It too was aluminum, with a plastic blade and grip. He displayed his disdain by jettisoning it over his shoulder into the salmonberry bushes. He rummaged around in the dark and discovered a beaten up wooden paddle as William retrieved the first from the thorns.
They each canoe-headed an aluminum canoe down to the end of the spit. Here was an advantage to the old cedar-strips. Aluminums were usually lighter and their weight didn't change from day to day. A wooden canoe was heavier to start with and if swamped could absorb fifteen pounds of water.
They eased through the lily pad mass into the open water at the head of the Brunette River. Alan the former canoeing instructor commenced a series of bow sweeps and stern sweeps, sending his canoe into grand celebratory arcs. He was a foal that had been cooped up in a barn.
William drew up beside.
"It's not a canoe," Alan said, “but it's canoe-like, to a point."
They paddled abreast from lake into river, from weed-choked stillness into lazy current. The modest concrete dam that maintained this lake was still far ahead, out of sight. Almost immediately they came to beaver lodge one, which was ancient, mud-packed, and with purple loosestrife exploding from between the logs.
"So how many beavers are there in this lake?" Alan asked.
"One-fifty, maybe two hundred. Too many," William said.
"How can you have too many beavers?" Alan asked. "With beavers, the more the merrier."
"You're not thinking of letting the Lost Lagoon animal here."
"I think I am thinking that," said Alan. "We have to take it somewhere, and this is close enough for Milt to come visit." Then he told William that the Vancouver Parks people had tried to shoot the beaver with a crossbow.
"You're kidding," William said.
"Fortunately Baba was on duty. He intervened. The Vancouver Parks Board is now short one crossbow."
“Who the heck is Baba?” William asked.
“Baba is Milt's Tonto, his Kato,” said Alan. “Watch this!" He broke away, paddling hard, heading for a gap between two deadheads. About ten yards out he drew in his paddle and lay down, as if in a coffin. The canoe sailed through with scarcely an inch of clearance on either side. Then, unexpectedly, it veered to the right and went crashing out of sight against the bank beneath overhanging elderberry shrubs.
"You okay?" William called.
As he struggled free, hacking at the branches, Alan shouted, "That wouldn't have happened in a real canoe! It's like paddling a dumpster!"
The program started at 7 PM. As an introduction, once everyone was fitted with a paddle and life jacket, they went around a circle. Everyone said his or her name and told one thing they hoped to experience during the program. William had done maybe 25 such programs, and the usual responses included seeing beavers, trying something new, seeing the lake from the water.
Alan, standing to William’s left, went first. He said, "I'm Jimmy. I'm Jimmy the Canoe Instructor. I expect to have a rollicking good time paddling on Burnaby Lake." He was being a buffoon for William’s benefit.
“Has anyone ever told you you're a dead ringer for Alan Lennox, the artist?” a man asked.
“I’ve been told I resemble him somewhat,” said Alan, completely straight-faced. “But in fact he's somewhat taller than me, and,” he added ruefully, “being totally objective, I would have to admit he's better-looking.”
Among the group were two families that had come together. One was local, from Burnaby. The other was visiting from Toronto. Each had a twelve-year-old son. The Burnaby family had also brought along a home-stay student from Germany, a muscular young man with a U.S. Marine Corps haircut. His name was Holgar.
William was last to introduce himself. Looking down, he realized he had forgotten to wear his name tag. “My name is William Kendall,” he said, digging it from his shirt pocket and pinning it on.
The mom from Toronto said, “Ah, that's why you look so familiar. I went to high school with you. I didn't really know you, but was friends with Becky Pang.” She just threw that out there into the middle of the expectant faces, which now turned to William. Then she added, “Did you hear she now has two kids?”
William was reeling. It was depressing enough simply to be recognized by someone from his home town while earning a living wearing a shirt that made him look like a Cub Scout leader. Worse was to be publicly disemboweled by the stark statement that his Becky was the mother of yet another child by another man. Toronto mom didn't realize she had rammed a serrated blade into his body, puncturing the last glimmering particle of hope, or optimism, or faith, or whatever it was inside William that was keeping him going from day to day. William was thinking, as he mentally fell face-first to the earth, This country was nowhere near big enough. It was far too easy for people from Toronto to get here.
He was rescued by a simple physical failure. The plastic blade on someone's aluminum paddle fell off. William ran to the paddle shed to get a replacement.
“Doesn't happen with wooden paddles!” taunted Jimmy the Canoe Instructor.
William was standing in the small, dark shed, holding the broken paddle, staring at the far pile of life jackets, the ones black with mildew and deemed unacceptable for public use that should have been discarded long ago but for some reason remained here a dirty secret. The shed darkened further when Alan arrived at the doorway.
“What’s the delay?” he asked.
When William didn’t answer he stepped in, snatched the broken paddle still in William’s hand and threw it onto the life jackets. From a rack he selected a replacement. As he stepped back past William he patted his shoulder and said, "Keep going. We have to keep going.”
William paid little attention as Jimmy the Canoe Instructor gave the participants a ten-minute lesson on how to paddle a canoe. William believed that a ten-minute lesson on how to paddle a canoe, no matter who gave it, inevitably had the same success rate as would a 10-minute lesson on how to fly a helicopter.
There were five canoes with two or three people in each. William’s partner was Holgar. He told William he had been on the rowing team at his high school in Dusseldorf.
“You know, Holgar, a canoe is a lot different from a rowing shell,” William said.
“Ve'll see,” he said.
It wasn't William’s best presentation. By rote he led them from lodge to lodge, here and there, back and forth. Sure, there were beavers. There were plenty of beavers. Beavers were slapping their tails on the water all over the place. Alan was in the background, helpfully herding the wayward out of the weeds. William wasted enough time talking about bank-burrowing beavers as opposed to lodge-building beavers that the remainder of the proscribed time would easily be filled by paddling against the current back to the starting point.
The problem was Holgar. He wanted to paddle as fast as humanly possible, to create a killer wake on the slothsome river. "Holgar, they have to wait for everyone else!" William said, or yelled, probably fifty times. Holgar wanted to race, even though there was no one to race against. As soon as they departed the dam, he was in sprint mode. In no time they were 200 meters from home, far ahead of the others. “Stop, wait, HALT!” William shouted at Holgar.
He grudgingly complied, laying his paddle across the gunwales. Then he said, to William’s complete surprise, “Zo, I am guezzink zat zis Becky girl vas your girlfriend, und she choze anuzzer man over you. I could zee from your face zat you were beaten by anuzzer man.”
“What?” William said.
“I neffer let annuzer man beat me. Zat is vy I haf neffer lozt a race.”
William explained, against his best judgment, “The person that woman was talking about was a girl I knew in high school, years ago, when I was younger than you are now. The reason she stopped being my girlfriend was because she was from a Chinese family, and they wouldn’t permit her to be my girlfriend. They had already picked a Chinese boy for her.”
“Huh? Chineze? Haaaaa. Very nice, Chineze girls,” he said. “Canada is a great country, with many nice Chineze girls. Zey ride on za buses. Zey’re too zexy, yah? Many nice Chineze girls. Many nice girls from everywhere, und za Red Indians too. I like zis country.”
“Yes it’s a fabulous country,” William said. “Just not big enough.”
Holgar was a bulldog. He said, “Zo, you lozt za Chineze girl because zere vas a challenge, und you could not meet za challenge. You failed to meet za challenge, and so you lozt. I alvays attack a challenge! Zat is vy I alvays vin!” Then to demonstrate he started paddling like a flywheel.
“Holgar, stop paddling!” William shouted. Holgar was an idiotic bulldog. He kept going. William placed his paddle back against the gunwale and pried outward. Being in the stern of the canoe, he had all the power. The seat is almost at the rear apex, which means the paddle blade is near the mid-line of the boat. The bow-seat is broad and set a quarter-way down the boat. The bowman’s paddle is far from the midline and has little role in steering. The sternsman can instantly turn his paddle into a rudder. William let him drive the boat into a mound of rotting irises.
“Now vat?” he yelled. “ Vat are you doing?”
“Waiting,” William said.
“I never vait!” he said. “You vait, you lose!”
When Alan and the other canoes caught up, William waved him to take the lead. “We’re the sweep, now, Holgar,” William said. We have to be last. We have to lose.
Holgar raised his arms in exasperation. “Your fault, not mine.”
“I accept the blame,” William said.
Apart from Holgar, the participants seemed satisfied with the program and thanked William and Alan more than was deserved as they were gathering up the paddles and life jackets and pulling the canoes from the lake.
“That went okay, I suppose,” William said to Alan as the last of them trickled away up the spit.
“And what could this be?” Alan asked. A woman and man were threading through the departing participants with nowhere to go but where they were standing. The woman was holding a microphone and the man was carrying a large video camera. It was a news team. William had an almost allergic response to being filmed and would go to great lengths to avoid it. He wasn’t proud of who he was or what he did. He ran back to the farthest canoe, intending to throw it over his head and stay beneath it as long as necessary. The woman called to Alan, “Who’s the captain here?” Someone had tied the canoe to the dock with a knot that would have withstood hurricane storm surges.
Alan said, “The guy in the shirt.” The woman with the microphone was in William’s face before he had a chance even to get started on the knot. The long lens of the camera wasn’t far behind. William stood up to wave them off.
The reporter said, “The earth is soon to be destroyed by a series of nuclear accidents, except for this small area of southern BC. The Jesus of the East is coming here to Burnaby Lake at the end of this month and will await the arrival of the Jesus of the West. Together, the two shall pray for the Salvation of Man. What do you think of that?"
“What are you talking about?” William said. He lunged to clamp his hand over the lens. “Stop filming me.” The camera man, a short, very young man, pulled away to try to keep shooting William, but William clamped harder onto the lens until the cameraman had pivoted sideways and was fighting him with his shoulder. He broke free and almost swung the camera back at William again. William instinctively hip-checked him into the lakeside hard-hack shrubs. It was a purely defensive thing to do. Where would the footage be broadcast? Who were these people? His self-esteem could not risk his present self being broadcast to people who knew him before everything went wrong.
The camera man was lying on his back in the goose-spotted muck. He seemed confused as to where he was, that his little one-eyed cathode world had landed him staring skyward in such a wet, smelly place. He didn't say a word and seemed no more alive than his camera. The reporter rushed to revive him as William ran away, unfastening his name-tag and jamming it into his pocket.
Alan hustled up beside, paddles splayed beneath his arm. “Nice job. You've turned into quite the bully,” he said.
“And you can fuck off,” William said back.
“When did you start swearing? You never used to swear,” Alan said.
William paused, turned, glared at him and said, “Lightning fucks you up! I already told you that!”