Wednesday, February 7, 2018

3. The Artist Returns

The interpreter was walking along a trail in the woods, noting the unfurling leaf-clusters of the Indian plum, the lime-green shanks of skunk cabbage thrusting up from the mud, the new, soft tips fringing the boughs of spruce and fir, and other fresh spring growth, when he came across a woman cutting the flower-bearing branches of a lakeside willow and stuffing them into a plastic bag.

“I’m sorry,” said the interpreter.  “This is a park.  It is illegal to harvest plants in a park.”

“Harvest?” said the woman.  The word confused her.

“Cut, pick, remove,” clarified the interpreter.  “You are not allowed to remove plants or plant parts from a park.”

The woman said, “But these are not plants.  See?  They’re made of wood.”  She showed him the cut end of a branch.  “They’re pussy willows.”

The interpreter said, “A woody plant is still a plant.  Anything with flowers is a plant.”

The woman stared into her bag, then held it open for the interpreter to see.  “There’s no flowers in here,” she said.

The interpreter ran his finger along one of the protruding branches, touching the series of furry willow flower heads. “What do you think these are?” he asked.

“They’re pussy willows,” she said.  “They’re not flowers.”

“Well, whatever they are, you are not allowed to take them,” said the interpreter.

At this, the woman became indignant and said, “I certainly can. Whose tax dollars do you think paid for them?”

The interpreter continued along the trail. He said to himself, “I need to find another job.” 

*   *   *
One early April day, William was told by an old-timer that the Burnaby Lake Nature House used to be a whore house.  Those were his words.  The old-timer’s name was Leonard and he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt buttoned tight at the neck and cuffs, what he always wore, no matter the season or weather.  He came into the Nature House’s office section as William was sitting at his desk, leaned over and confided, “Ya know, this place used to be a whore house.”

“Really!” William said, as though pleased by the news.  There was a certain class of older men, those who for decades had worked with their hands, who possessed a wealth of practical knowledge William would forever lack, with whom William could not carry on a comfortable conversation. His responses typically were abrupt, falsely jovial, and off-target.

“Ya didn’t know that?”

“Um, no.  Hah-ha,”

“We all knew about it, back in the day.”  Leonard nodded happily and adjusted the beak of his cap.   

William could not imagine a sadder whore house.  The Burnaby Lake Nature House, before it was destroyed by fire, was a stinking old bungalow built in the 1930s with a spare room added on later, and then a spare room added onto that, and another, until it was a ramshackle arrangement of varying floor levels, roof-lines and construction materials.  William could only guess that the office section, where he and Fooj planned their programs, was the entertainment centre, the screwing area.  The cramped Nature House exhibit hall was in another section, a later addition, what would have been the garage or carport.

Leonard was a retired carpenter who volunteered at the Nature House, repairing the various parts that were collapsing or moldering or seizing up.  On this day, Leonard’s plan was to examine the roof beams and trusses.  The building had taken on a decidedly sway-backed profile as though very tired, and having served the community faithfully for decades, now simply wanted to lie down.  He dragged a heavy wooden ladder into the middle of the room, danced it open, and slowly climbed to the ceiling.  The trap door wouldn’t open. Leonard rapped it with the side of a closed fist, which accomplished nothing.

“William, would you mind handing up a hammer?” he asked.  William hurried to yank a hammer from Leonard’s tool belt, which was lying on the floor near the far wall. He handed it up. Leonard smacked the trap door with it.  It went right through. 

As Leonard pried away piece after piece of the door, William went back to work, preparing props for a program about forest birds.  It was a month into the spring season and days away from the flurry of spring-break programs that the Regional District annually provided for the citizens of Greater Vancouver. 

Fooj was on a two-week trip to Toronto and New York, where his pectoral muscles would bulge from the armholes of designer underwear tops.  His repertoire had recently expanded to include indoor clothing and swimwear.  William had seen him on TV in a fashion segment of a newscast.  As were all the models, he was stone-faced, which made it seem his personality had been vacuumed away.  William believed he was truly mortified by what he was doing.  He wondered what happened backstage, and what Fooj thought of the sickly-looking young women with their protruding collar bones and jutting pelvic crests.

Fooj’s girlfriend, Monique Simard, also an interpreter, remained in town, taking up some of the slack, including driving William from park to park, although for her this was inconvenient; she lived nowhere near William or the Skytrain line.  She was happy to drive him though, she claimed, because she liked company.  She was missing Fooj terribly and, William expected, also wondered how he was coping among the glamorous people.

“Don’t you worry about him,” William told her.  “Many women look at Fooj, but you’re the only one he ever looked back at.”

“There’s other things besides women,” she said.  “There’s drugs.  There’s crazy people.  There’s walking across la rue and being hit par un autobus.”

“He won’t get hit par un autobus,” William said.  “He’s always in control of what is happening.  He’ll be back here soon.”

“William, tu es trés gentil,” she said.  She spoke French to him in simple little snippets, which many years after the fact made high school French worthwhile.                            

Leonard had disappeared into the ceiling, leaving great chunks of rotted plywood scattered about the floor and on top of the desks, computers and the fax machine.  William could hear him bumping around up there, coughing occasionally.  He half-expected him to come crashing through at any instant, and wondered if he shouldn’t do something about that. 

“Are you okay up there?” William called.

“What?” he replied.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine, all fine.”  

William went back to what he was doing, which was cutting silhouettes of birds out of construction paper, as much as possible all the same generic bird, a "B-is-for-Bird" bird, but of as many different colours as were available.  This activity was in preparation for an activity in which children were expected to learn the value of cryptic coloration. He personally didn’t believe that children were so dense that they couldn’t figure out cryptic coloration for themselves, but this was part of a program that some interpreter long gone had devised, and William was not inspired to think of anything better to do.

Adult: “Which bird would be harder to find in the forest — a brown bird, or a shocking pink bird?”

Child: “There are no shocking pink birds!”

Adult: “Suppose that there were.”

Child: “Can we do something else?”

Not a surprise, it was raining.  A minor surprise, it had suddenly begun raining much harder than usual, thundering down on the Nature House.  Something was about to change, the weather was saying.  William looked up and out the window.  The eaves troughs of the old building were filled with dead leaves and squirrel droppings, causing the exuberant rainfall to run off the roof in torn sheets that seemed to wrap around the planet.  It was impressive, like looking out from the tunnels behind Niagara Falls.  William noticed that the hummingbird feeder hanging from the eaves, just inside the cascade, was empty, its glass mildewed.  Now here was something useful to do.  He dropped the scissors and construction paper.  He could never remember the recipe for hummingbird syrup.  Was it one part sugar to three parts water, or one to four?  In previous years he would have had to dig through files. This time he googled.  One to four.  William went to the kitchen, probably the least-changed room since whore house days.

The lid of the sugar canister was dotted with deer mouse feces.  Everything inside the kitchen was dotted with deer mouse feces, which was a reason William rarely went in there, and why the Nature House was often referred to as the Hotel Hanta. As the kettle began to roar, William thought he heard the front door close. Leonard was still bumping around overhead, so he went to see who had come in.  No one was there, although someone had entered briefly, as evidenced by wet shoe prints that had come to his desk, but then had turned and gone back out again.  William rushed to open the right-hand drawer, fearing for his binoculars. They were still there, and his heart eased. He went to the window, but saw no one. The only vehicle in the lot was Leonard’s old pickup.  He went back to the kitchen and poured one cup of sugar and four cups of boiled water into a battered aluminum saucepan, and stirred with a wooden spoon.  What conversations had these utensils overheard?

Waiting for the nectar to cool, William returned to his desk and tried cutting several sheets of construction paper stacked one atop the other to speed up the bird-manufacturing process. The sheets shifted and only the top bird looked convincingly bird-like.

And then the door opened again, silently, but betrayed by a rush of cold, wet air.  Before William could swivel his chair an arm reached around and a rain-spotted sheet of paper was draped ceremoniously over the birds, an elaborate drawing of a sway-backed bungalow with a large front window.  Inside, as if it were night and the figure was illuminated by a reading lamp, was a figure, William, hunched over, doing who-knows-what?  It was the second portrait ever made of him.  Alan Lennox was back, this time leaning on Fooj’s desk four feet away.  Suddenly he was 35, with grey in his hair and a grin on his face.  The last time William had seen him they were 18.

“God,” William said.

Alan exclaimed, “This is so cool!” and he grabbed William’s head and wrestled him to the floor.

William struggled ineffectually, his instinctive reaction to being grabbed, or hugged, or touched, even in an affectionate way.  Alan was here?  William said the first thing that popped into his head: “This used to be a whorehouse, you know.”

“What?” Alan let go and stood up, leaving William lying flat on dirty linoleum, staring at ancient yellow stains with creeping brown edges on the ceiling.

“It was a whorehouse, apparently.  I was recently informed by an expert in local history.” William sat up. Alan reached to pull him to his feet.

William didn’t know how to react to this.  He didn’t like people from his past life finding out what he was up to now. He wasn’t proud of it. Still, Alan had been a very close friend, once, and now he was famous. He said the only thing that was easy to say.  He asked, “Why are you here?”

“Surprised to see your old buddy?”

William leaned against his desk.  “Very. It’s been....”

“Seventeen years,” Alan said, smiling and nodding.

“Seventeen years,” William said.  “Wow.”  Then William had the sense to say something gracious. He couldn’t ignore Alan’s success.  He said, “You’ve done really well.  Congratulations. I mean, look around you.”  Four or five of Alan’s paintings, ripped from an expired calendar, were taped to the wall, spaced around the room in a typical interpreter’s sense of decor.

He shrugged, smiling, not bothering to look at them.

William asked again, “Why are you here?”

“Fooj asked me to look after you.”

“You?  How do you know Fooj?”

“Martin Fujiwara is my little cousin,” he said, “by marriage.”

“No kidding.”                                                                                                

“I married his cousin, Hiroe.”

“No kidding.”

“No, no kidding.”

“Fooj has a cousin named Hiroe?”  This seemed odd.  Fooj was a sansei, a third generation Japanese Canadian.  William had known a number of sanseis.  None had a Japanese first name.

“Sure.  Why, is that difficult?”

“Is she from Japan?”

“No, Toronto, same as you and me.”

“And her name is Hiroe?”

Alan looked at his shoes.  “Yup,” he said.
Leonard came down from the ceiling covered in cobwebs and rot.  He didn’t react to seeing famous wildlife artist Alan Lennox standing in the room.

“What’s the verdict?” William asked.           

“Carpenter ants,” he said.

“Is it bad?”

“Carpenter ants is never good.”  He gathered up his tools and clumped out the door. “Night, William,” he called.

Alan watched and waited for the door to close.  He turned and asked, “Why are you still doing this kind of work?” He had always been one to get to the point. “Years ago I heard you went to the states to become a scientist.”

“I became a scientist. I went to the states,” William said. “I had an accident during a field season and wasn’t able to continue publishing, and then my visa expired, so I came back.  No science jobs here.”

Alan said, “But why here?  Instead of returning to Ontario, you came to this Godforsaken place. It might as well be another country.  What are you doing, so far from your home?”

William answered, “This is my home now.  You don’t have to live and die in the province you were born, you know.”

Alan looked up at the ceiling a long time, as if trying to decipher the stains, and then said, “I don’t think that’s true. Let me show you. Are you done here?”

William quickly shifted the portrait to completely cover the embarrassing bird cut-outs. “All done,” he said.

“Do you have dinner plans?”

William almost never did, back then.  


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