Friday, February 9, 2018

1. The Artist


Seventeen years earlier, June 1989, in the summer between high school and university, William Kendall was an eighteen-year-old counsellor at Camp Ohmeemaw, a residential summer camp in central Ontario.  He had been hired to teach natural history and maintain the camp’s small, one-room nature house.  He filled it with terrariums and aquariums and books and microscopes, most of which he brought from his home in Toronto.  About every other evening, after the bugler played taps, he would go to that nature house and write a long letter to a girl he was in love with.  It would sometimes take several hours and he wouldn’t finish until long after midnight.  The tanks with snakes and turtles had overhead lamps to provide heat, which also cast a soft, intimate light, ideal for the writing of love letters.

One night, about a week into pre-camp, the door flew open and a long-haired intruder with wide, darting eyes stumbled into the room.   He was another counsellor.  William had seen him at various orientation meetings, but hadn’t spoken with him.  Mr. Longhair had seemed an outsider, never taking part in activities more than absolutely necessary, and at the meetings was usually seated next to a pretty female counsellor, but rarely the same one twice. 

“I have to show you something,” he said, breathlessly.

“What?”         

As William turned in his chair, Longhair strode the length of the room, saying, “I need a pencil, HB, and a piece of paper.”  He opened a cupboard and spied William’s watercolour sketch pad.  “Perfect!” he said.  He took a pencil from a jar on a shelf near the door, examined the tip and said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing, whatever the hell it is you’re doing.”   He leapt from the building without closing the wooden door, and the outer screen door bounced against the springed rubber grabbers, which failed to close.  William got up to look into the darkness, but there was no sign of Longhair.  The air was fresh, and there were stars over the lake.  The only sound was water lapping against the seawall. 

“Fuck,” said William.  He wanted his watercolour pad back. He had planned on rekindling a long abandoned hobby over the summer.  He adjusted the grabbers and pulled the screen door shut.  From the middle of the room he looked at the large picture window, at the reflection of himself against a backdrop of illuminated terrariums.  He returned to his letter to describe what had just happened.  Then he wrote more of the day’s minutiae.  He could fill sheet after sheet writing about nothing, because that’s what was done in unwired days when far away from the first real love of one’s life. 

As he was about to write, “I love you,” the door again flew open.  Longhair had returned.  “Here’s what you look like,” he said.  “You think it’s easy drawing in the dark? Well, it isn’t.”  William could smell marijuana on his clothes.  Longhair held out the watercolour pad.  He had used a lot of lead.  The pencil in his hand had been sharpened at least once with a pen-knife.  He ripped off the top sheet and ceremoniously draped it across William’s letter. The edges were blackened out, and toward the middle of the drawing the black graded through grays to a dimly illuminated rectangle.  In the centre of the rectangle was a solitary black graphite figure, bent over, writing.  William.  The first portrait ever made of him.

“Oh, hang on,” said Longhair.  He took back the drawing and finding a small, open space, signed in small block letters, “ALAN LENNOX.” Then he gave it back.

“It’s fantastic,” William said, honestly.

Alan Lennox smiled and nodded, looking around. “So what is this place anyway?”  Then he spied a tortoise.  “Well, hellooo,” he said.  He reached over the lip of the terrarium and with two hands lifted the weighty creature.   Air whistled from its nostrils as it drew in its head in alarm.

“Careful,” William said, scrambling to his feet.  “They’re afraid of heights.”  He took the tortoise from Alan Lennox and placed it on the wooden floor.  Alan sat down cross-legged and watched intently as the tortoise peered cautiously from between its thick, flipper-like front legs.

“How cool!” said Alan.   He jumped up and went from tank to tank, squinting into the hide-boxes. “That’s a boa, right? And this one’s a corn snake, and what, a kingsnake?  These aren’t native species. Where did these come from?  Why are these things here?”

William the nature counsellor was surprised that Alan the artist had correctly identified the reptiles.  Yes, they were all exotic species.  “I brought them here,” he said.  “They’re sort of a menagerie, I guess.”  The tortoise rose onto its stumps and started clomping across the floor, hoping to hide beneath a table, but before it had travelled far Alan sat back down in front of it, picked it up and set it down again, facing the opposite direction.  The animal seemed puzzled and blinked its black, syrupy eyes.

“Unexpected 180,” Alan laughed.

William returned the tortoise it to its home, under its heat lamp.  It ground its feet in the sand, and fell asleep.

When William turned, Alan was behind him, holding his letter.  “I guessed as much,” he said.  “Who’s Becky?”

William snatched it from him.  “I’m about to lock up now,” he said, pointing to the door.

“Okay, no need to get all bent,” said Alan.  He leaned against the tortoise’s home.  “What’s his name?” he asked. 

“Her name is Olive,” William said.

“Olive,” he said, and ran his fingertip along  a zigzag suture between the scutes of  her carapace. “Olive the Tortoise.”  Then he said, “And what’s your name?”

“William,” William said.  “William Kendall.”

Alan nodded.  “I always see you through the window, sitting in this dark little building.  I thought you were all alone, but you really aren’t, are you?”

“No.  Good night, Alan,” William said.

“Good night, William and Olive,” he said. “See ya around.”

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