Monday, January 8, 2018

33. Love and Lightning

William opened the web browser and clicked the bookmark for the University of Washington’s regional weather radar.  The high pressure system had finally shifted east and broken bands of angry orange cells were descending on the Lower Mainland from the northwest.  Several appeared to be right in line for Burnaby, and as close as William could tell would be heading across the western end of the lake.

William called Alan to the computer and tapped the screen.  “I’m willing to give this a try if you are.”

He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“She was wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt with your snowshoe hare painting on it.”

Alan sat down and stared at him.  “Really?”

“She asked where you were.  She said I had to go back and get you.”

His face was a combination of sadness and disappointment.  He said, “You should have told me.” 

William tried to explain.  “You wanted to believe it too badly, and it made no sense, and I had no way of controlling it, or understanding it, or testing if it was true, or what the hell to do about it.  I didn’t want to make things worse for you.”

“Worse?  How could things possibly be worse?”  Alan asked, “Did anyone tell you what she was wearing when it happened?”

“No,” said William.

“Well, that’s what she was wearing.” 

The pendulum swung back the other way, imbedding itself in a wall.  

Alan twirled his hand at the computer screen.  “So what’s this?”

William pointed.  “The orange blobs are thunder cells.  In an aluminum canoe we could paddle into one and see what happens.”

Alan’s leg jiggled as he thought about this.  He said, “I like it.  It’s a win-win for me, but you understand, your previous experiences notwithstanding, paddling a canoe into a thunderstorm is a classic stupid-way-to-die.  You could easily die.  No upside for you.”

William said nothing.  Perhaps he would die, perhaps not.  Where he was on that ledger sheet had become a jumble, but the emptiness of his life had not.  There wasn’t a lot to lose.

“It would be much less of a risk for you to phone that number.” 

“I’ll phone her tomorrow, if I don’t die,” William said, easily.



William wanted to make sure Alan understood what he understood, which was to say not a lot.   He said, “I doubt there’s any way Hannah can come back.  Her physical body in this reality is gone.   I’m hoping that you, your spirit or whatever we are that isn’t our material body, might go where she is, where I was before she sent me back, if you die right.”  William wasn’t sure he even half-believed what he was saying.  What he knew, had known, believed or disbelieved, had become a shifting thing depending on whom he was with and how recently he had been electrocuted.  Again, and more, some scientist.  His most basic desire, superseding logic, common sense, and a firm footing in adulthood, was for everyone to be happy.  He hoped that that was what he was doing, jumping onboard Alan’s late-night crazy train, off to unfuck the fucked-up.

The hair-dryer plan, upgraded:  Being side by side in an aluminum boat, soaked to the skin, they would experience a strike together and Alan would at least have a chance to see her, talk to her, grab onto her if she weren’t merely a figment of William’s electrified neurology.  William repeated: “I’m hoping that you, your spirit or whatever we are that isn’t our material body, might go where she is, where I was before she sent me back, if you die right.”               

Alan said with remarkable calmness, as if William had just described to him the simplicity of repairing a small dent in drywall, “I believe I can do that.  Let’s go.”

A shining moment.  They were agreeing to paddle a canoe into the abyss.  Perhaps Alan was right about the crux of their brief, shared past.  If you are 18 years old and inexplicably escape a fatal head-on crash—or don’t—you are set to override similar or greater improbabilities later in life.

William said, “Wait.  I want to be wearing a ranger hat.  Ed Daddle forbids us to wear our ranger hats in the rain.”

“Details,” said Alan.

William unlocked a canoe from the rack and Alan took it down.  He carried it to the lake while William ran to the shed and gathered paddles and life jackets.  They met at the end of the spit.  The canoe was in the water, bumping anxiously against the wood, jostled by waves penetrating the lily pad mat. 

Alan said, “Aluminum paddles?  I’m not going to die with an obscenity in my hands.”

William replied, “It’s not a paddle.  It’s a key.  Keys have to be made of metal.”

After a thoughtful pause, Alan nodded and said, “I get it,” and snatched one.  Then he asked, “But why the life jackets?  Are you trying to be humorous?”

William said, “We might not die from the lightning.  We may just end up stunned.”

“In that case we will happily drown.”  Alan stepped into the stern of the canoe.  William didn’t question this crazy declaration, just as he had never questioned Alan’s crazy declarations when they were eighteen years old and about to do stupid things.  He threw aside his life jacket, stepped into the bow, and pushed off with what might have been his final step on dry land—the launching of a canoe.        

William said, “We need open water .  The rowing lanes are our best chance.”  There was lightning to the northwest, but a lag of almost a minute before the thunder.  The storm was still several miles off.  He turned to look at Alan, and said, “Wait....another thing I never told you...I’m sorry about New York.  I didn’t know she was your wife.” 

Alan was quick in his reply.  “You knew she was someone’s wife.  You shouldn’t have knowingly fucked someone else’s wife.”  That he said “fucked” instead of using a softer term showed that his anger had not abated, and William was not to be forgiven.

William could have argued that perhaps it had been her idea (as if) or, in the least, that fucking—to  use his word—was usually a shared decision.  But it was difficult and pointless to argue against something that hadn’t happened when you were actively pretending it had.  The fact was what had happened had been the idea of a bastard named Kyle Patruczak, who for many years immolated pregnant frogs in a bomb calorimeter and was rewarded with a job for life in Hawaii.

Also, for all William knew, Hannah might have been hovering around this crazy canoe, feeling uncomfortable about this issue.  He said no more about it.  Lightning struck up the lake.

“Let’s go,” Alan said, impatiently. 

They had to dig deep to plow through the lily pads into the rowing lane.  The mat seemed more dense and treacherous than on the night of the wedding reception.  The long, elastic stems kept snagging their paddles and breaking their rhythm.  Perhaps paddling through lily pads was a thing best done drunk.  Finally, in open water, William lay his paddle across his lap.

“What now?” Alan asked.

“We wait.  Wait to see where the lightning is, then paddle like hell in that direction.”  There was a flash due north, a cell that would miss them.  “Not that way,” William said.  “The storm cells are moving more west to east.” 

So they sat.  It was becoming dark.  After early August, the minutes of sunlight melt away quickly north of the 49th parallel, and darkness comes rushing like a bear.  When it rains, darkness wastes no time at all.  They had about 20 minutes to sunset, and 30 to blackness.  William needed to ask about something that had occurred on the night of the wedding.  He turned and said, “When you shot me in the back of the head, was that on purpose?”

“Absolutely.  You were moving back and forth so much when you were wrestling with Odd Job, that when I hit him in the head, I was actually aiming at you.”  He laughed.  “Which makes it all the more hilarious that I shot a monk!” 

“You really shot me on purpose?  You shot me on purpose?  Do you have a clue how much that hurt?”

“Oooh, are you angry?”

“You really are out of your mind,” William said, and yes, he was angry.  “Maybe we should call this off.”

Alan splashed water at him with his paddle.  “Oh William, of course I didn’t shoot you on purpose.  I was drunk, and it was dark, and it was complete chaos.  I just kept shooting.  The back of your head was unfortunate collateral damage.”

“Is that true?” 

Alan raised his hand.  “Word of honour.”

William asked, “Do you really know what she was wearing when the hot-tub fell on her?”  He now had his doubts.

“Oh yeah,” Alan said.  “I think so.”

“You think so?”                               

“William, never mind that.  It’ll all even out,” he said.  Rain hit the water around them with a sizzling sound.  The wind picked up, gusting from the west.

“A good sign,” William said to himself, trying to keep focused on their chummy, suicidal adventure, but now with misgivings.  Two more strikes were north and somewhat east.  It seemed he had misinterpreted the radar, that any lightning hitting the lake would be at the eastern end, at the start of the Brunette River.  “Other way,” William said, and did strong bow-sweeps to get them turning.  With the wind at their backs the passage through the lilies was easier, and soon they were into the river’s pull.  The rain was falling harder, heavy drops that left bubbles the size of marbles on the water’s surface, which floated a few inches before being hit by other drops and replaced by new bubbles.  Lighting struck a tall spruce on the north shore, not a hundred yards away.  The shock wave almost dumped them.

“Shit!  Whoever’s responsible for those things, don’t waste them!” Alan yelled.  “We’re the target!  Hit us!  Hit him!”  He waved his paddle at the sky, and pointed at William.  They were drifting past the spruce, whose leader was burning.

William stopped paddling.  They were closing on the dam and would soon run out of open water.  “Let’s just drift!” he called.

“Check your bank account tomorrow!” Alan shouted.


He laughed.  “If you don’t die.”

“What have you done?”

“Cab fare,” he said.  “Look, there’s Milt!”  Alan pointed to shore.  Milt was a large shadow in a clearing at one of the few view-points.  He was gesturing.

“What’s he doing?” William asked.

“The Jesus of the West is blessing us!”

There was another strike on the south side of the river, just ahead.  Falling rain vaporized in a hiss-bang.  Ozone pulsed into their sinuses.  They paddled pell-mell toward the dam, Alan keeping them mid-river to make them a bulls-eye.  “Stop!” he shouted.

The canoe shifted as he clambered over the centre thwart.  He grabbed William’s shoulders and pulled him backward, off the seat.  “Stand up!” he commanded.  He pulled the plastic grip off his paddle as if it were a champagne cork.  “Hold this up, Sparky!”  He grabbed William around the waist as William stood, an unsteady Goddess of Democracy.  Alan’s spread knees, braced against the gunwales, kept them from dumping.

Nothing happened.  For three or four minutes nothing happened, and they were running out of river, nearing the dam, and William wasn’t enjoying being hugged.

“Alan,” he said. 

Alan let go and stepped back to the stern.  “Damn it,” he muttered.

William sat reversed on the bow seat, facing him.  “C’mon, let’s try again,” he said, task-driven, even when the task was crazy.

“Give me your paddle, you keep holding that one up.”  Alan stabbed William’s paddle into the water and wheeled them back upriver.  They had gone about a hundred yards when a deafening strike hit behind them, close to the dam, very close to where they had been.

“God dammit!” Alan yelled.  “That was for us!” and he turned them again, to head back.

The rain had eased and the wind was dying. 

“Are you sure you’re trying?” he asked, as though he didn’t believe William was.

“I am absolutely trying,” William said.  “I dearly hope to be blasted to shit by a lightning bolt for the whateverth time.”

“Well, it’s not working.”

There was another strike, this time half a mile distant.  The storm had blown through, was headed away.  William’s arms were tired, so he lowered the paddle.  He looked at Alan.  The paddle was across his lap, and his head was down.  He looked defeated, briefly — but he wasn’t done yet.

“William?” he asked.


“You’re a fake,” he said.  “You’re a crummy fake.”

“I am not,” William said.  “There’s no instructional manual for this kind of insanity.  Sometimes you get blown up, sometimes you don’t.  It’s just,” he waved at the sky, “electricity and randomness.”  But his heart was sinking.  The attempt to find Hannah in a canoe-based lightning strike had been a bad idea.  He had given Alan hope, briefly, had let him believe the unbelievable, but the end result, of course, was his deepened disappointment.

Alan wasn’t about to let go.  It wasn’t in his character to let go when betrayed.  He said, “You lying asshole.  You’re as much a human lightning rod as you are a guy who truly loved Becky Pang, by which I mean you never truly loved her.”

“I’ve been trying,” William said.  “It’s a thunderstorm.  There are no guidebooks on thunderstorms.”

“Becky Pang, Becky Pang, precious Becky fucking Pang.”

Oh, please, William thought to himself.  “Stop talking about Becky,” he said.  “Just stop, okay?”  He remembered Tom’s words about Alan: ‘He would seem to have a lot of anger.  William, unfortunately, was the one now stuck in a canoe with him, in the bow, the weaker position.  Alan was in the stern, the position of control.

Alan said, “Hah.  Your love was never doomed.  “Your love never existed!  All this time you’ve just been using her as a sad excuse for your loveless, empty life.  You never truly loved her, or anyone.”

William was stung somewhat by the harshness of that.  “That’s not fair, Alan,” he said.  “I suffered a lot because of her.  I still do.  I still love her.”

He scoffed, “No, you don’t. You would’ve phoned her.  You would’ve known she had another child, and that she got divorced.  You would’ve stayed part of her life no matter what, waiting, offering to help when she needed it.  You abandoned her.  You failed her.  You’re a fake and a liar and you probably used your Becky Pang sob story to make Hannah feel sorry for you, so you could fuck her.  You lied to Hannah, you prick.”  He dropped from the seat to his knees, and leaning across the thwart used his paddle to jab William in the sternum, which hurt.

William raised the paddle now missing its grip, and considered retaliating.

“C’mon,” Alan said.  He tried another jab, but William parried.  They glared at each other, paddles held like axes, but didn’t move.  There’s only so much violent motion a canoe will tolerate.

“You really think you love her?” he asked.  “Let’s test this.”

“No, let’s stop talking about her, and let’s start paddling.”  They were only 75 metres from the dam and drifting closer.                                

Alan started taunting, “Boo hoo hoo, Becky Pang married someone else, boo hoo hoo.”

“Sure,” William said.

“Boo hoo hoo, Becky Pang has beautiful children, and you have none, boo hoo hoo.”

“Shut up, Alan,” William said.

“Boo hoo hoo, all these wasted years, someone else was sharing a bed with Becky Pang, fathering her children, living a life with her, while you were all alone in your little apartments, boo hoo hoo.”

William switched into interpreter mode, the role of civil servant enduring the insults of abusive taxpayers, of nasty women on horseback.

“Boo hoo hoo, you stopped existing in Becky Pang’s world a long time ago, boo hoo hoo.”

William waited.

“She’s forgotten you completely, as if she never met you, BOO HOO HOO—and she’s much the happier because of it!”               

“Are you finished?” William asked.

He changed tactics.  “Give me back her phone number.  You’re never going to phone it, and it rightly belongs to me.” 

“I said I’ll phone her,” William said.

“I know you better than that.  You won’t.  So give it back.  It cost fifteen hundred dollars to find out that number.  I bribed three people.  Give it back.”  He came at William again, and lunged at his jacket.

“Back off,” William said, the line the GVRD taught him to say when physically confronted by an angry park visitor.  The line was always accompanied by a backward step.  William wasn’t able to detach the two actions, and instinctively shifted back.  He toppled off the seat and landed on his back in the canoe’s bow, a tight, triangular space that confined him like a metal hand.

Seeing his advantage, Alan fell forward, and, placing one hand on the gunwale for balance, started pawing at William’s jacket for the pocket with his cell phone, where he’d seen him tuck the card. “Give it!” he said.  Their weight, concentrated unevenly in the front of the canoe, raised the stern and they commenced a leisurely maple-key spin down the river.  William could hear the water rushing through the sluiceway not far ahead.

He was tightly wedged.  Alan was leaning on his legs, which remained curled over the seat.  He couldn’t free a shoulder to cuff his ear.  He could do nothing but weakly fend off Alan’s attempts at the phone, which were relentless.  William was about to give up, let him take it, until Alan said, laughing, “I changed my mind.  I’m going back to Toronto, and when I do, I think I’ll call her up.   I’m going to call Becky.  I’m sure she’ll like me.  She’s a single, working mom, with, believe me, no man in her life, and I’m famous, with serious money, and—as you recall—I get every one I want.”
He started listing them, the ones William had known about—“Susan Quinn, Sarah Miles, Fortuna Vasquez, Belinda Wilson, Mary McDougall, Nicki Cole....”  He was leaning low, into William’s face, his hand now still, pressing on his chest.

“Stop!” William gasped.  “She’ll know what a bastard you are!  You won’t get her back.”

Gripping his jacket-front, Alan lifted William, and then slammed him down.  “I’ll never tell her I was with you, out here, but I’ll sure be thinking of you, and laughing, as I’m fucking her, as I add Becky so-fucking-special-Pang to my list.”

That’s what did it.  Alan the fornicator, with his Becky.  As he spoke, Alan had eased up a bit, as if repositioning to gain more leverage, and in doing so briefly freed William’s legs.  William braced his arms against the sides of the canoe, arched his back and kneed Alan hard, in the abdomen.  He heard his breath shoot out.  Alan fell backward and sideways, against the right-hand gunwale, which almost overturned them, but then launched himself forward, briefly spread-eagling across the thwart to steady the boat.  William was up off the bow seat to get him, to grab him by the throat and fall overboard together — to drown him, to drown them both.  But Alan was fast and stood up, challenging, his paddle raised.  William snatched up the other and they closed, slowly and unsteadily, tiny step at a time.  Alan swung and William blocked.  Their paddles clanged together, and held.  With shafts crossed, they pushed, standing either side of the thwart.

“Fake,” Alan said.

“Bastard!” William yelled.


William’s foot slipped on the wet flooring and he lurched left.  Alan’s paddle slid on his, and  mashed his knuckles.  William’s paddle fell, and clanked over the side as he stumbled.  Alan came at him again, but the thwart tripped him.  As he collapsed onto William, his hand slid up inside his jacket to the phone, next to his heart.  William shifted sideways.  They pushed and pulled and rolled, trying to twist each other out of the canoe, into the river.  That’s when the canoe glowed blinding white and sparks ricocheted around them.

Hannah’s voice was scratchy, the way it gets when she’s agitated.  She said, “Alan, William, stop fighting!”  Her slender arms were between them.  She pushed William flat to the floor as though he were nothing, and yanked Alan to his feet.  They danced a happy dance in the middle of the canoe, which could have only one result.  They were laughing like mad as the canoe dumped, amid sparks and bubbles and deafening church music.  Underwater glowed green.  William saw their legs intertwined, dancing on, and then, bubbles, millions of tiny bubbles.

They were foam, rising to the surface.  They simply fizzled away.  Some of those tiny bubbles rose to the surface and joined the sky.  Others flowed over the dam and down the Brunette River to the mighty Fraser River and the Ocean, and at various points along the way also parted water for sky.  Some were absorbed by the microscopic life of the lake and the rivers, who would be consumed by larger forms, who in turn would be consumed.  Some, having burst, were inhaled by bats, flying invisibly above. Alan and Hannah were completely gone, and therefore were everywhere.

It bears repeating: Canadians are people who know how to make love in a canoe.


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