The next day the light on William’s machine was flashing when he got out of the shower. It was Tom, though without any of his usual humor, a simple request that William phone him as soon as possible. No supernatural Bat Signal. That didn’t bode well.
The woman and camera man at the lake asking the strange question about Jesus had been from the local CBC station, although they had not identified themselves as such. William supposed it wouldn’t have made a difference if they had. He still would have bumped intrusive cameraman into the mud without thinking twice about what he was doing. Why a way-out freakish story about a mysterious messiah saving the world from nuclear obliteration elicited a violent reaction was intrinsically interesting, and the CBC was cashing in, repeatedly showing William in his robin’s egg blue shirt strong-arming a cameraman into the mud, surrounded by honking geese. It was so alluring that it reached national coverage. People in St. John’s and Iqaluit could sit in front of their televisions and watch William toss a cameraman into the mud every hour or so.
More information was included in the report. The Jesus of the East was an 11-year-old boy from Taiwan. His sect had determined that the world was about to be destroyed by coincidental catastrophic failure of all nuclear power stations everywhere. Deadly radiation would sweep the planet, except for Vancouver, British Columbia, and its surrounding cities. The only way to ward off this apocalypse was for the Jesus of the East to meet with and pray with his western counterpart. The only problem was that no one, not even the Jesus of the West himself, knew who he was. All that was known was that he was male, Caucasian, and living somewhere in Canada. Then the report ended with an upshot of William’s angry face and an unexpected view of the sky as the camera man landed in the mud.
Tom told William that on top of his PR disaster, Caroline refused to work with him anymore. It was hard enough to schedule William in because of the driving, but he had not anticipated this particular interpersonal conflict.
“I got mad at her because it turns out she’s a hidden xenophobe racist,” William said. He gave an abbreviated recap of the story William told Caroline and her response. “She’s too ignorant to know how vicious she is.”
He heard Tom sigh. It was the exasperation of a man who had little time for a straight white male experiencing discrimination. He then told William that Ed Daddle wanted him fired. Tom had to call in several favors, going over Ed’s head
“Sorry,” William said. “Thank you,” he said.
“You owe me,” said Tom.
“I already owed you,” said William.
“The bad news is that you have to go in and speak to him. Right now,” said Tom.
“I have to speak to Ed?”
“Will you be there?”
“No. That wasn’t part of the deal. Just pretend to listen to him and say as little as possible. Don’t insult him or call him a name he has to look up in a dictionary. Please don’t laugh in his face.”
William phoned Alan on his cell phone. There were gulls squawking in the background. William asked if Alan could give him a ride to Burnaby Lake and said that he was in trouble.
“Excellent news,” Alan said. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”
Half an hour after that, Alan dropped William off at Central Area Office. “Have a nice meeting,” he said. A young woman, young, five foot three, pretty and perky, stepped out as William opened the door.
Colleen the administrative assistant grinned.
“Ed is mad at me,” William said.
“He is indeed,” she said, “and thank you.” Colleen detested Ed. She was not young, perky and five foot three. Ed treated her like dirt.
“Can you give me any pointers?”
“He has a thing on his nose. He tried to hide it with pancake makeup, but it didn’t work.”
William gave her a thumbs-up.
Ed’s hair was freshly frosted. The soul patch was gone. He did indeed have a thing on his nose, right at the tip. It glistened, a colour unlike the rest of his face. It looked like a globule of acorn squash. William stared at it with fierce focus, creating two globules of acorn squash he could make shimmy up and down against each other with subtle movements of his head.
Ed launched right in. “Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said. “You’re no longer working with the public. I’ve made arrangements for you to work in the yard with Carl Stribling.”
“Operations?” This wasn’t terribly bad news, unless it was washroom detail. Even the lowliest in Operations got paid a lot more than interpreters.
Ed said, smirking, “But as far as Payroll is concerned, you’re still a Park Interpreter.” William briefly glanced away from the nose thing to the bright orange tree-puller still in the corner of Ed’s office. Its square shaft would make a tell-tale dent.
A bird-sized shadow flew across the closed venetian blinds, followed by a loud “crack!” Ed ignored it or was too focused on ruining William’s day to have noticed. William focused back on the nose thing.
Ed told him that he could show up to work with Carl the following Monday.
Another shadow flew across the blinds, followed by an even louder impact. Someone was throwing rocks at Ed’s basketball hoop. Ed had set up a free-standing hoop in the parking lot in front of the lunch room window. After making sure the girls were at lunch, he would don shorts and a tank top and get sweaty shooting hoops. One theory was that Ed had misunderstood something he read about pheromones.
Ed made it clear. “You can thank your friend Tom that you have a job at all. In my opinion, you are not GVRD material.” In other words, he wanted William gone. He had already hired his replacement. William had opened the door for her on his way in. William out, she in. For Ed, life was getting better and better. William got up to leave.
Ed held up his hand. “Hang on, there,” he said. The thumb of his other hand was casually snagged in a belt loop. “One more thing. I hear you were canoeing with Stacey.”
“Yes. She asked me to show her the program.” William wondered who had told Ed about that and why it would matter.
“Who sanctioned it?”
“You are not to consort with the female interpreters,” he said. This was a ludicrous comment, but William didn’t argue it. He turned it back on Ed.
“Neither are you,” he said. “You could easily find yourself the target of a sexual-harassment charge. It wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Kelly. She was a good interpreter. Thanks to you, she drives one of those little Granville Island Ferries these days.”
Ed said nothing.
William added, leaning close, “That thing on your nose looks like a Scleroderma citranum. You should get it checked before it sporulates..”
He pushed the red dictionary across his desk. Sorry Tom, he thought.
William was out the door. As any non-Froosian interpreter would have known, a Scleroderma citranum was a kind of mushroom known as the poison pigskin puffball. It grew on poor, hard soils in woods.
Alan was waiting in the parking lot, gathering up more river-washed rocks from the landscaping. The backboard of the basketball hoop bore a dimpled smiley face, minus the left eye.
“Are you fired?” he asked.
“Slightly worse,” William said.
“Don’t worry.” He handed William a rock the size of a russet potato. “Finish it,” he said.
William looked at the backboard, and then behind at the office. The Venetian blinds in Ed Daddle’s room were splayed by a pair of fingers. He handed the rock back to Alan.
“You go ahead.”
Alan bashed the backboard and laughed loudly. William expected Ed to come bounding out with his face red, but he was afraid of Alan.
As they peeled from the parking lot Alan honked obnoxiously. This was part of Alan that William remembered well, the unspecial part.
When William told Alan more about Ed Daddle, about his meddling, his self-importance, his bullying of subordinates and obsequiousness toward superiors, Alan said, “We’ve met him before, in 1989. Back then his name was Ian Puslinch. Old Pus-bag.” He was referring to the program director at Camp Ohmeemaw
Alan was correct, based on what William had told him. Take away his hopeless ogling of young women, Ed Daddle was very much like Ian Puslinch. However, while Ed’s facial hair and coiffure was constantly changing, Ian was clean-shaven and maintained a ponytail, a strategy adopted by many prematurely balding men in the late 1980s. Part way through that summer, Big Ernie Sinclair, the camp’s beloved, oversized director, returned to Toronto to be with his ailing mother. In Ernie’s absence, Ian assumed power. A residential summer camp is an odd sociological phenomenon, an artificial assemblage, part of the larger world but in many ways removed from it. For weeks on end the only people encountered are other counselors, staff, and the campers. The median age is twelve years old. If all goes well, a tightly-nit, mutually respectful community develops, creating a safe, happy and healthy environment that will provide a lifetime of joyful memories. On the other hand, because it is such a limited sample of humanity with a median age of twelve, one or a few bad apples, especially among the thin ranks of the older members, can have devastating influence. Morale can plummet very quickly and conflicts can become intractable and nasty. As long as the counselors, the seventeens-to-twenties, are happy the camp stays happy for it’s on their youthful shoulders that the sense of community and fun rests. Ian, like Ed, was too socially stunted and humorless to understand this. He was constantly criticizing and tut-tutting. He was fifteen years older than most of the counselors and unable to relate to them in a genuinely friendly way.
With Big Ernie gone for less than a day, Ian decided to make his mark. He marched around with a clipboard, noting which counselor was late for which duty, which ones weren’t wearing the official white t-shirt on Sunday, which ones were commingling with counselors of the opposite sex during daylight hours, and which ones were guilty of other real or imagined infractions. Then, with no authorization whatsoever from Big Ernie, he began levying fines, five dollars a pop. When the first wave of fine slips materialized in the counselors' mailboxes, the camp almost fell apart. Furious clusters of counselors banded together and ranted and schemed, forgetting all but the most basic needs of the most important people there — the campers. That evening, when Ian entered the dining hall, he was hit by dozens of deadly looks, which set him back on his heels, briefly. He puffed up his chest and proceeded to his self-designated place of importance. He sat in Big Ernie’s chair at the head table. It was probably the ballsyest thing he ever did.
There was a gasp. No one sat in Big Ernie’s chair.
The most heavily fined counselor was Alan. If there was something to be late for, he was. He didn’t own an official white t-shirt, and was an unrestrained daytime commingler. How did Alan cope with Ian? Mostly he ignored him, at least to his face. If Ian spoke directly to Alan, Alan would stare at him blankly or turn and walk away. Then he started the squeak-toy campaign.
Within the intermediate boys group, thirty-five or so twelve- to thirteen-year-olds, there was a boy named John who was mildly autistic. He was able to function normally in most respects, but was emotionally detached and rarely spoke. He was placed in a cabin with others hand-picked for being among the more mature of the age group, and he did well. The other boys were protective of him and, William believed, enjoyed his company. John collected things such as acorns or granite pebbles that contained a lot of the pink mineral, feldspar. He treasured these things and also some belongings he had brought from home, including a plastic Tyrannosaurus rex, which was also a squeak-toy. Alan was the counselor in charge of the cabin next door, which contained boys more generally unruly and rambunctious. Alan did little to control his mob. His counseling philosophy was along the lines of sit back and watch in amused amazement their latest feat of derring-do. The more rules they broke, the more impressed he was.
Once King of the World, Ian Puslinch decided to carry out a grand camp inspection. With his clipboard and a white glove he marched from cabin to cabin, checking floors for dirt, overhead beams for dust, beds for tautness, and shoes and boots for alignment. He found much at fault with Alan’s cabin. As Alan’s campers stood at ragged attention, he read from his clipboard a lengthy list of shortcomings. At the end of the list, with an asterisk, was Alan, the greatest shortcoming of all. He was in a hammock slung between two trees behind the cabin, reading a book.
Ian moved on to John’s cabin and inspected his heart out as the boys stood at strict attention on the front steps. He found very little wrong until he looked beneath John’s bed. There he found two plastic bags. One was filled with acorns, the other with pink granite pebbles. He dragged them out and held them high before emptying them on the ground in front of John and the others. He was about to make a pronouncement, but John yelled, “Noooo!” and ran back in the cabin. His counselor followed, only to be bumped back off the steps by the swinging door as John came hurtling back out. Ian tried to speak, but wasn’t able to, at least not audibly. Every time he opened his mouth, John’s Tyrannosaurus rex let loose a slew of squeaks. Instead of snatching the dinosaur away, Ian kept trying to reason with John, but John was fighting fiercely for what mattered to him. He wouldn’t give in. Ian decided to cut his losses and moved on, shaking his head. The counselor and the other boys, including some from Alan’s cabin, helped John gather up his acorns and pebbles.
Alan phoned his sister, Anna, who worked in a department store in Toronto. A few days later a large box was delivered. Alan armed the intermediate boys with twenty plastic dinosaurs of various species. From then on, Ian’s passing was advertised by frantic dinosaurian squeaking. He confiscated several. He demanded other staff do the same, but received no cooperation. Another box addressed to Alan arrived, containing a hundred more squeak toys of all sorts. There were sea creatures, dragons, kangaroos, baby dolls, and dozens of yellow bathtub ducks, which Alan distributed throughout all age groups, ensuring Ian was rarely able to escape a squeak-toy serenade. In the dining hall, when Ian would rise to speak, all eyes would turn to Alan. Alan would casually make the squeak sign, and Ian would have to sit down again. Alan would make the cut sign. Someone else would make the announcements.
Alan and John and the squeak toys had salvaged the morale of the camp. This was one memory of Alan that stuck with William. In Tom’s words, he was special, sort of. But he was also sort of obnoxious. In addition, once he identified an enemy, he didn’t let go.
On evenings when Alan was alone and bored he would come up with other means of tormenting Ian. He was not beyond minor vandalism. One night he and William painted yellow bathtub ducks on the hubcaps of Ian’s car. A few nights after that, Alan burst in as William was writing to Becky.
“I have to go now, Alan wants me for something. I love you,” William wrote.
“Grab one of those coat hangers,” he said. William unhitched a wire hanger from the tangle on the back of the door and they hustled off in the black of night to the staff parking lot, which was in the woods far away from cabins. Alan’s Road Runner was parked behind Ian’s Chevette, whose hubcaps had been scrubbed almost clean of traces of duck. Hitched to the Road Runner was an open trailer with battered plywood sides. Painted on the plywood were the words “Free Corn.” It was filled to the top with freshly picked ears.
“I saw it by the side of the road,” Alan explained. “I knew putting a trailer hitch on the car would come in handy sooner or later.”
“I don’t think whoever put it there intended for you to take the trailer,” William said.
Alan laughed. “I’ll take it back,” he said. “Now hand me that hanger would you?” He untwisted the hook and pulled the wire straight. In a flurry of scraping and digging he worked it down into Ian’s car door and very quickly the lock popped. He opened the driver door, and then reached inside to pop open the back. “Load her up,” he said.
Working frantically and wordlessly they piled corn by the armful into the Chevette, packing it as hard as they could. This was the sort of activity Alan excelled at – a mission of dubious legitimacy to dubious ends. They inserted two ears beneath the windshield wipers. Alan stood back admiring his piece, and then stepped forward to remove one ear from inside. He stuffed it in the exhaust.
“That’s it,” he said.
“Lights,” William said. A pair of flashlight beams was breaking through the trees. They dove into the Road Runner. Alan backed up too fast, crashing the trailer into a tree. He spun the wheels in the gravel,catching traction as the flashlight beams emerged clear and straight from the forest. Looking back, William couldn’t see who was holding them. It didn’t matter — they had escaped.