Wednesday, January 31, 2018

10. Who is Hannah?

Hannah Imamura was a graduate student from the University of Guelph.  She wore a short dark skirt and black stockings and no doubt nice shoes that William was unable to picture to the closing banquet of the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  It was the year before William finished his PhD and moved to Washington D.C., what now seemed a million years and miles ago.  Hannah and her friends from Guelph were seated with William and assorted other Canadians — Zack and Mary and Lloyd and José and others whose names William regretted he had forgotten — at a large, round table in the Oceans Gallery, which was a dark cavern with an upper-level catwalk and a life-sized model of a blue whale dipping down from the ceiling.  They were almost beneath the mighty head with its relatively tiny yet emotive eyes, a small and friendly collection of Canadian grad students and professors within a much larger, mostly friendly, mostly American group of professional ichthyologists and herpetologists.  They all met once a year in a seemingly randomly assigned North American city.  That year at the banquet, as luck would have it, Hannah Imamura sat next to William.  The banquet was a rare treat for impoverished students, with waiters pouring wine, a choice of entrée, and linen tablecloths and napkins.

Hannah and William had been together a lot at that conference, partly because they knew each other from several previous conferences, and partly because, due to a clerical error involving the overbooking of the dorms at NYU, Hannah was sharing William’s hotel room.  William had chosen to avoid the dorms, spend more money and book a room, which, due to another clerical error, became a suite at the Excelsior Hotel directly across 81st Street from the Museum.  William bumped into Hannah at the conference registration desk.  He heard her voice, distinctive when upset, before he saw her.  Her room had been given to a professor from Pennsylvania.  There was a sofa in William’s suite, which he immediately offered.  Actually, William offered the bed, but she insisted on the sofa.  Arm in arm they crossed 81st, William happy as a very happy clam.  William had pretend-dibs on the perennially unavailable Hannah I., and relished the thought of sticking out his tongue at the Guelphians and the other Canadians. 
Hannah was always popular at the meetings.  In those years most ichthyologists and herpetologists were male.  She was a very pretty female.  William believed her ethnicity played a role too, as it seemed to for Fooj, a rare-type attraction but without cultural differences that throw up barriers.  Plus she was nice.  She was friendly and had a fun sense of humour.  When she presented her papers on snapping turtle behavior she did so almost effortlessly and every audience member would believe that she was absolutely correct, held thrall by the weird juxtaposition of lovely, slender-armed Hannah and ugly, bull-necked snapping turtles.  William believed that everyone was totally in love with her.
If someone were to ask William to clear his mind and then think of Hannah Imamura anew, to let his thoughts flow, this is what he would have recalled:

Her mouth would pop open as if in surprise when she saw you, and would break into a smile. Her eyes would become big too.  She had terrific, big, dark eyes. Even when you were halfway behind her you could see the moist corner of one or other eye above her cheek bone.  Her voice got scratchy when she got agitated.  Sometimes she walked with her hands in her pockets and her shoulders hunched.  She was slightly pigeon-toed. When sitting at a table, she often placed her elbows on it and cradled her head.   She would draw her legs up and put her feet on her chair.  She listened to you and always said the right thing, or what seemed like the right thing.  You could never get enough of that and, because she was beautiful, she was like heroin. 

She almost never told you anything about herself.  Her male colleagues from Guelph would ruefully point out her unavailability; they one by one had been disappointed.  She was firm in her position: she would not ever become involved with another herpetologist, or ichthyologist, or biologist of any kind.  Why not?  Only she knew the answer to that.

This past year she had, apparently, finalized the issue by marrying a non-scientist.  That was the collected wisdom.  Some months earlier she had gone on a sudden three-week trip to Europe, which smacked of a honeymoon, with a non-scientist, and then, when she returned, changed her place of residence from Guelph to Toronto, to live with someone—her new husband, clearly.  Had he been a scientist, they would have known.  Theirs was a small, incestuous world.

Who was the incredibly lucky man?  Hannah wouldn’t say.  She wouldn’t even admit to the marriage.

William whispered to one of the Guelphians, “She’s not wearing a wedding ring.”

“See that little diamond butterfly pin near her collar?”

William had noticed it.  She wore it every day.

William joined the conspiracy of disappointed silence, and didn’t ask recently-wed Hannah about her husband.  He imagined the guy a Caucasian, tall, ruggedly handsome, and wealthy.  Why he tormented himself with an imagined person, taller and better-looking than himself, and with more money than he would ever possess, he didn’t know.  William had no sane, external voice to question the accuracy his imaginings and was fine with tormenting himself with them as they were.  

He recalled a conversation at a previous conference, when, a little drunk and feeling nostalgic for Becky Pang, he had asked Hannah, Should she ever decide to marry a Caucasian man, would her parents interfere for racial reasons?  She laughed, and said, “Heck no.  They’re totally Canadian.  Their generation had to deal with that problem.  Our generation marries who we want.” 

At the annual meetings the male Canadians waged quiet and pointless war against each other, with Hannah the dream-prize.  Here, at this year’s meeting, she wasn’t really married, was she?  They pushed each other aside to sit next to her.  They found out what sessions she was attending and attended them with her.  We all want you but none of us can have you so we’ll just do our best to keep you with us but away from each other, and definitely as far as possible from the Americans.  Sharing is nice, but only to a point.  Excuse us for imagining that you have no control over all this or no say in with whom you should associate.  Forgive us: we are ichthyologists and herpetologists.

All was going nicely at the closing banquet until a lanky smarm-ball named Kyle Patruczak appeared at the Canadian banquet table shortly before the speeches began.  He squirmed his ass up onto the table, practically plopping his right cheek onto William’s bread dish, in order to swarm their lovely Hannah.  Why now?  This was hurtful.  Kyle was a PhD candidate from State University of New York at Stony Brook and the bane of modern herpetology as far as William was concerned.  His science stank and so did he.  He had strange, thick hair shellacked backwards like a bike helmet, and a jutting jaw.

One of the Canadians, Lloyd, once said of him, “If you were given a series of ten passport photographs and ten names and were asked to match the faces to the names and one of the names was "Rance van Sledge, IV," you would almost certainly match Kyle’s face to that name.”                      

William had met Kyle before, several times at conferences where he was a first-rate schmoozer.  He held himself above the rest of his cohort and managed to worm his way onto a lot of committees from which he could pronounce edicts to the lowly.  Kyle was Departmental Chair material, everybody saw.  He was already widely loathed.  William had also run into him 18 months earlier at a research facility in a state park in upstate New York where Kyle was to do disgusting things to frogs. 

It was late March.  There was a heavy, melt-soaked snow pack in the forest.  The air was warm and sweaty, with stale fog trapped in the vales.  The ice sheets on the beaver ponds, laden with slush and stretching animal tracks, were shrinking away from the shores, their edges translucent, and then, where the cold water touched, transparent.

William was collecting mole salamanders as they migrated to the ponds to breed.  Mole salamanders were little rubber toys daubed or spritzed with yellow or powder-blue latex paint, depending on the species.  They had protruding black eyes and they gulped air when they breathed.  William was taking infinitesimal blood samples from their anaesthetized toes and letting them go again.

Even though William had never liked Kyle, and William barely existed as far as Kyle was concerned, at the state park William helped Kyle catch frogs and Kyle helped William collect salamanders, which at night would form breeding swarms in the beaver ponds beneath the shrinking ice sheets.  Kyle wanted to drive the roads, collecting whatever hapless amphibian gleamed like a tiny, dull-witted goblin in his headlights.            

To collect the salamanders they wore chest waders and miner’s head lamps.  They carefully stepped along the edges of the ice sheets, using D-nets on long aluminum poles to reach beneath and scoop up the breeding swarms.  Each pond was like a frigid soup bowl with a single enormous frozen cracker floating on top.  William and Kyle also were in the bowl, in the narrow gap around the cracker’s edge, William on one side, Kyle on the other.  At one point William saw a large cluster of salamanders under the ice, just a little out of reach.  He used the net handle like a prybar to shift the ice ever so slightly, just enough to be able to scoop them.  In the dark, with their head lamps directed down into the murky water, it was easy to lose track of each other’s position.  Suddenly the ice came rocketing back, pinning William against the bank.  “Kyle!  Stop pushing!” he yelled.  Eventually he did, but not before William fell, his waders swallowing ice water.  William believed Kyle had done that on purpose, at the very least as a cruel joke. For all William knew Kyle was trying to kill him.  Why?  To remove one other possible competitor for some job he might wish to apply for sometime somewhere.

Kyle’s research also was a cruel joke.  He would collect and kill female frogs, cut them open and remove their eggs.  Next he would dump the mothers and their eggs separately into a device called a bomb calorimeter.  Anything inside would be immolated and the energy released would be measured.  In this way Kyle could ask and answer questions about relative amounts of reproductive effort within species, among species, whatever took his fancy.  He reduced beautiful resurgent springtime life to Calories and competition.  In retrospect, William realized he should have recognized at that state park that Kyle Patruczak was evil.  Back then William had been young and naive and unable to smell evil, even when he was helping it catch frogs in the headlights of its car.

By the end of the second speech Kyle was gone, and so was Hannah.  There was her chair pushed away from the table, and William’s bread dish shoved half an ass-width toward the center.  The Guelphians and William exchanged alarmed glances but remained in their seats until the speeches were done, thinking, Hannah, oh no Hannah, you can’t be doing this Hannah, you can’t ruin everything for us now, Hannah, and especially not with that man.
After the banquet the Canadians minus Hannah discovered a wine and cheese party unrelated to the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists going on in another gallery.  They felt a group-need to crash it.  An hour or two later, staggering out onto 79th Street, William noticed that his day pack was extremely heavy.  A fumbling unzip revealed an enormous block of cheddar that one of his drunken colleagues had kindly pilfered and given to him.  William lifted it free of the pack and yet another drunken colleague, a massive one, snatched it and plopped it into the wire carrying-basket of a bicycle chained to a scrawny tree.  He then smushed it down using all his strength so that at least half was extruded out below the basket in long, noodly shards.  The rest remained inside, solid, like a cube of churt. William leaned to remove it, thinking this dairy-product nightmare was not a nice thing for an innocent cyclist to have to contend with, but a voice spoke from behind.  It was a bum, but he sounded exactly like Sir John Gieldgud, and he said, "No, Leave it there.  It is a gift from God."

The Canadians laughed uproariously until someone saw something terrible.  Down the block Hannah Imamura and Kyle Patruczak were walking arm in arm, crossing Columbus Avenue, heading away.
When William was struck by lightning at Belcarra Park while wearing a papier maché orca head, he was knocked unconscious.  This mercifully spared him the excruciating pain of being severely burned on his right arm, shoulder and ear.  Fooj came running and immediately dumped water from his and everyone else’s water bottle on him, and set about rescuing him.  Because it would take forever for an ambulance to find its way into the depths of Belcarra Park, William was loaded into Alan’s car and driven at breakneck speed to Eagle Ridge Hospital.

A few weeks earlier William had filled out a GVRD employee medical information form.  He asked Tom Carlisle if he would mind using his name as Next-of-Kin.

“Please do,” he said.

“What should I put for ‘Relationship’?” William asked.

Tom said, “Glinda.”

Tom’s voice was the first thing William would remember hearing.  He was sitting in the room, saying, “Wake up, William, wake up William, wake up William...”  The words finally made sense, and William woke up.


“I know this feeling.  It happened again, didn’t it?” he said.

“You should buy lottery tickets,” someone said, as a doctor and nurse came in and bustled about and took his blood pressure and fiddled with the IV that William had just noticed was jabbing the back of his hand.  One asked him questions about what day it was and what his name was, who the Prime Minister was, and other easy to answer questions.  Finally one of them, the one who made the lottery ticket quip, asked, “And who is Hannah Imamura?”

William had to think about that.  He didn’t know the answer.  He was disappointed in himself, feeling he had let everyone down, the doctor, the nurse, and Tom.  William was also disappointed because he still had double vision.  On TV, when someone is afflicted with amnesia or struck dumb or rendered otherwise addle-brained by a blow to the head, a second blow instantly reverses the affliction.  William had hoped that if ever again struck by lightning, normal eyesight would be restored.  No such luck!



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