Thursday, February 1, 2018

9. Shattered

The former canoeing instructor was in the basement of an apartment building in the concrete room that contained the tenants’ storage lockers.  He was there illegally, and intended to commit a crime.  He waited until the woman he had followed through the door finished her business and departed, and then began walking up and down the rows of lockers, peering between the slats.

He found the interpreter’s locker relatively quickly, and had little trouble prying the lock from the door.  The two large, metal cage-traps he sought were beneath several cardboard boxes.  When he lifted the top box, the bottom fell open and documents slid to the floor.  Among them was a black and white 8 by 10 photograph.  “I remember this picture,” he said, and he tucked it into his jacket.

*   *   *

William’s first lightning strike occurred when he was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.  It was a group-strike, a collection of strangers suddenly swapping ions at unimaginable velocities in the middle of King’s College Circle in the heart of the campus.  BAM!  About 20 young bodies sprawled on the ground, seemingly randomly selected from the earnest dozens rushing this way or that from one class to another across the big round field.  The common denominator?  Umbrellas.  All the umbrella-toters paid for their defiance to the rain.  

Nevertheless the University of Toronto umbrella-toters all survived, suitably chastised, although many an umbrella never left that field.  Beyond damage to personal dignity, no one was even slightly hurt as far as William could tell.  He would remember that the strangest thing about Strike Number One was the reaction of those not struck.  They didn’t stop to help the fallen, nor did they speak to them or acknowledge their plight.  They stepped around and over, casting the odd, embarrassed glance, as if the twenty had all simultaneously tripped over a sidewalk irregularity.  They didn’t want to call attention to clumsiness of the stricken by stopping and asking if they were okay.  The stricken straggled off their various ways, a little more dazed and confused than the average undergraduate, and wetter than they had been a few minutes before. 

Over the years William would reflect on that experience.  He read about lightning.  What few people realized about lightning was that the downward bolt was preceded by a weaker, upward flow of electrons – out of a chimney, tree, radio tower, or a head.  The result was the downward strike, around which the air boiled and exploded.  William, as a lightning veteran, had sometimes said that when it happens to you, it feels like the end of the world, and for many it is.  He had said, “Here’s how you know you are about to be zapped: all the hairs on your neck and your arms and legs and so on stand straight up as if they are screaming in terror.  Then BAM.  There is no time at all to react.  Sparks bounce off everything and your next breath, if you have one, pulls in the acrid, garlicky smell of ozone, the smell of a child’s electric train set.”  

That William was a Multiple Lightning Strike Survivor was to most people an interesting fact.  William suspected it was more than that, but had no idea how much more it could be.  

He eventually came to conclusion that umbrellas had not been the common denominator for those who shared Strike One.  That was incorrect.  The common denominator had been William.  The umbrellas added noise to William’s signal and drew away some of the charge, all of which was meant for him.  Those people might have saved his life.  One question he could not answer about Strike One that nagged at him this: What was I thinking? What was I thinking, just before it happened?                                      
Two weeks after the day at the Fraser River Cannery, William was up late, working on the report for the survey on Sumas Mountain.  He had dearly wanted to find a Pacific water shrew, and although had used every bit of inspiration at his disposal in trying to guess the shrewiest places, and despite the added input of Alan’s enthusiastic suggestions, had come up empty.  William had, however, avoided being bitten by a Townsend’s vole, which was a small victory.

He considered survey reports even more tedious to write than to read.  It always felt as if he was re-writing the lab reports he had written in high school and university, that he had yet to graduate, that he was stuck in a pupal form that might never emerge into something more liberated.  He got up to the Literature Cited and didn’t have the stamina to spend the rest of the night fact-checking his citations and double-checking the dates and spellings, and so closed the word processor and went online. 

He checked the weather.  The forecast for tomorrow was clear skies.  Good.  Tomorrow was a day of intertidal mudflat ecology programs at Belcarra Regional Park.  Any time you were dealing with mud, sunshine improves, rain worsens.  Just to be sure, William consulted the Seattle regional radar loop.  Scarcely a blip, and well south of the border.

Then he ran through the various newsgroups in which he was a member, BC Birds, BC Herps, Toronto News…and then he wondered if there was a newsgroup about Alan.  There were newsgroups about thousands of individual celebrities, from globally famous to those who were fervently followed by a only small subset of humanity, the niche celebrities.  Alan would have been one of those.  He typed in Alan’s name and there it was, a newsgroup called  Fortunately it was public too; he needn’t enroll to read it.  He pulled up the available posts.  There were 95.  Most contributions fell within a thread called "Alan is missing."  William read until his eyes became dry.  There was a nutty discussion over whether or not Alan was dead.  Apparently he had left his studio wide open when he left Toronto.  The Toronto police had been notified, but since no relative or close friend had reported Alan missing there was no investigation.  One writer, named Red Fox Pup, predicted that Alan had committed suicide.  Red Fox Pup received a lot of flak from other posters, who didn’t appreciate the unsupported speculation.  There was mention of Hannah and about how Alan hadn’t painted at all since she died.  There was a hint of how she had died—one writer mentioned Hannah’s “hot tub accident.”  William interpreted that as meaning she had drowned in a hot tub.  He wasn’t sure how to think of that.  How does that happen unless you’re dead-drunk or on drugs or just really unlucky?  Was she in a hot-tub alone?  Who does that?  And if not, with whom?  These were questions that must have tormented Alan.  There was discussion of a television program that had profiled Alan’s work and of how Hannah had been presented as a key part of his success.  Apparently she became adept at telling Alan when a painting was done and that it was time to move on to another. Before Hannah had been with him, he produced maybe twenty paintings a year.  With Hannah, he was churning out fifty or sixty.  William was tempted to write that Alan was alive and well and living in Vancouver, but then saw a post from someone named White Lynx, which was a the title of one of Alan’s most famous paintings.  White Lynx reported that Alan was alive and well and could be seen near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.   

Without really intending to, William found himself spying on Alan.  He felt more of the shame he had felt at the cannery, knowing that Alan’s wife was dead but not admitting he knew, and the additional shame in not having gently confronted him about his claim that Hiroe, if she was in fact also Hannah, was coming.  William was helping him live his painful lie — for what?  Loyalty, cravenness, resentment, or did he just not care?  William wanted to drink some wine.  There was none in his apartment.  He went out, jogging down Kingsway to a Beer and Wine Store he knew would still be open.  As he approached the doorway, a grimy Fagin in a worn ambulance attendant’s coat he must have found somewhere was feeding salvaged beer cans into a return machine.  He grinned as William stepped into the light.  His hand shot up and William feinted away, thinking Fagin was trying to poke him in the eye.  But his finger hung a few inches shy of his face, pointing at the shiny scar on his forehead. He said, “The Lord has chosen you!” 

“Thank you,” William said, relieved the man wasn’t a physical threat, but annoyed by his kooky proclamation. “He loves you too.”

The man pocketed his coins and laughed merrily as he pushed past William into the store. “There’s no love here.  There is no love!  There’s only fortified spirits!”  William watched through the window, following the top of the man’s head through the rows of bottles to the sherry section.  William waited outside until he could see him paying for his bottle.  He hurried in the other door as Fagin grandly left the shop.

The next morning Alan picked William up at his apartment.  Although Fooj was in town and could have driven him, Alan said he had decided to come along that day because he wanted to explore the seashore.  William fell into the front seat, and sighed.

“Late night?” Alan asked.   

“Insomnia,” William replied.  “I go through spells of it now and then.”

“Booze and pills,” said Alan.  “I can maybe get you something.”

“Thank you,” said William.

He had stayed up past midnight, checking and rechecking the Alan newsgroup, annoyed that nothing new was being added.  It seemed that most of the contributors were easterners, now sound asleep.  Without thinking he rapidly drank most of the bottle of wine, pouring lemonade-sized servings into a lemonade-sized glass.  When he finally went to bed he fell asleep quickly, but after a flurry of unsettling dreams awoke with a headache and an anxious feeling he couldn’t shake.  He got up, poured the last centimeter of the wine down the sink, as if that would help, went back to bed, tossed and turned for several hours and, finally fell into a deep sleep, only to be jolted awake twenty minutes later by his alarm clock’s brutalizing buzzer. 

Alan’s car radio was set to a 70s-80s rock station, which played the music they loved listening to in Alan’s Road Runner, playing cassettes on a boom-box in the back seat.  The Rolling Stones song, Shattered, a notable old favorite, came on.  William remembered 18-year-old old Alan singing merrily along, his head jerking left and right, his hands slapping the wheel,

You got rats on the west side
Bed bugs uptown
What a mess, this town’s in tatters
I’ve been shattered

William asked, did Alan ever think how these songs provided a connection back to when they were young and so full of expectations, hopes and dreams, and hearing them now, although in some ways was like meeting old friends was in other ways a torment?

Alan squinted sideways.  He said, “These songs are not torments.  Old friends is exactly what they are.  Lighten up, Eeyore.” 

Shadoobie, shattered, shattered

They didn’t talk much more apart from William’s monosyllabic navigational instructions, which Alan was becoming adept at interpreting.

Belcarra Regional Park, which runs along the east side of Indian Arm, far up the inlet from Vancouver, was one of William’s favorite parks.  The land rose abruptly from the rocky mudflat, a berm of uncountable fragments of shattered mollusk shells.  Few visitors understood that it was a food midden, the remains of millions of clam shells from hundreds of years of seafood consumption by the Salish people who until relatively recently lived in that place. Not long after their de facto eviction, a dance hall was constructed for the white folks to enjoy, noisily, drunkenly and cluelessly jitterbugging atop another people’s food and habitation.  The dance hall was removed in the 1970s, but not before leaving a midden of its own, the rubble of a million broken liquor bottles that still ground away out near the low tide line.

There was a long pier that reached out into the arm.  Korean men in folding lawn chairs fished for crabs from the floating dock at its end.  The interpreters would set up a plastic wading pool filled with seawater and the Korean men helpfully dropped in crabs too small to be legally kept, and the large orange sun stars that stole their crab-bait, for the interpreters to show to school children.

Above the beach was a football-field lawn speckled with tiny white daisies, which was used as a gathering place for programs.  It was patrolled by Canada Geese who worked continuously to convert the grass to licorice-cigar droppings, and who kept a watchful eye for the orange buses.  They flap-ran in terror when the doors opened and the youngsters erupted.

That day’s buses disgorged Grade ones, sixty of them.  William then had to morph from hungover Eeyore into happy Mr. Nature.  Alan had taken out his camera, ready to photograph intertidal oddities.  He said this park might provide ideas for settings for river otters or mink, maybe even a wolf.  This from a man who, according to the contributors to, was no longer painting.  Was he going to start painting again?  Was he lying?  God, the shrieking children. The geese were honking.  William’s head hurt.

He turned around. Stacey and Tracy were there smiling and asked if he wanted to be an Octopus or an Orca. 

“I would rather be neither,” he said.  He knew what they were up to.  They had come up with a Froosian means of compensating for the fact that they knew little more about a mudflat, or natural history in general, than the average high school student.  They were going to pull a Froos, the Seaside Module.

In recent years the books and instructional videos of an American named Erika Froos had become very popular.  They pitched the idea that anyone anywhere could teach children about nature.  They capitalized on the realization that almost everyone cares about the environment in some sort of abstract way, but few people understand the complexities of ecology well enough to provide a meaningful message.   Erika Froos invented a System that allowed people to think they had become environmental educators, when actually they had become children’s entertainers.  Her slogan was, “Let’s take something complicated and make it fun!”  Her System relied heavily on puppets (sold separately) and songs in the public domain but with words reworked to fit different themes that were called Modules.  There was a Forest Module, featuring, “I Went into the Forest, to see what I could See,” sung to the melody of “Oh Susannah!,” a Seashore Module, which included, “The Dolphin, She Lives in the Ocean,” sung to the melody of “My Bonnie,” a Lake Module, with “Polly Woggy Doodle all the day,” and so on.

Among the many weaknesses of the System was that the Modules were rarely locally appropriate.  A seashore in the southern U.S. is not the same as a seashore in British Columbia, and there are many kinds of forests and deserts and lakes and so on, but it was these apparent disparities, the Froosians declared, that demonstrated the strength of the System. The songs were generic enough to be applied everywhere.  You didn’t even have to be outside to use them!  In truth, they applied nowhere.  William had also heard Erika Froos say on national television that it didn’t matter if the animals in her modules were not the ones that lived in your locale – what mattered was that there were songs about them!

The world of Nature Interpretation became polarized between those newcomers who lapped up the Modules and those with solid, hard-won credentials who tried their darnedest to discredit them.  Nature Interpretation was already an undervalued occupation.  Erika Froos was making it inane.  Every experienced interpreter knew that you needed to include a mix of elements in a program, and any element that made a program more entertaining — including songs — was helpful, but underneath there had to be substance, some real information.  There is only so much dumbing down any activity can take before it becomes completely dumb.

Tom Carlisle was appalled by the Froos fad and would immediately discard résumés that made any mention of it.  The GVRD had a reputation for hiring very good naturalists, and Tom had done his best to maintain that trend.  Then along came Ed Daddle.

“I told you he wouldn’t go along,” said Stacey.  “He’s totally never going to go along.” 

Undaunted, Tracy said, “William, we’ve come up with a great intro for the program.  Before we split into groups, we’ll sing the Seaside Module song and accompany it with a role-playing improv skit.  We’ll each be a sea creature.  We made costumes.  I’m a starfish, and Stacey’s a seal, and you and Fooj can be the octopus and the orca.”  William stared at the costumes.  They had spent God knows how much time creating body suits from chicken wire and papier maché.  Had they spent half as much time reading about the mudflat, they could have become half-decent naturalists.

“You go right ahead,” William said.  “I’ll sit this one out.”  He would not have gone along in any case, and certainly not with Alan watching.

He spoke from behind.  “You could be a crab.”

After the children had settled among the goose droppings, the other interpreters did their song and improvised a skit.  The geese sulked at the far end of the field and William leaned against a picnic table, waiting for his allotment of 15 children.  Fooj picked octopus, the ugly choice, casting against type.  He did an admirable job of manipulating the extra four arms the girls had affixed to his body. The empty orca head gaped upward and forlorn next to a garbage can at the edge of the parking lot.

Alan accompanied William’s group down to the mud.  The trick with programs for young children on rock-strewn mudflats was to tell them the important points — everything here is alive, this is their home, don’t step on the barnacles, don’t run because you might fall and hurt yourself — before one of them flipped a rock and spied the inevitable tiny shore crab.  That child would instantly yell, “I see a crab!”  That would be the end.  The group would vaporize in all directions, flipping every rock small enough to flip, the ecological equivalent of a hoard of Mongols riding into a village and burning all the huts, as the interpreter struggled to rein them in and tried, usually failing, to teach them something about not destroying mudflats and their creatures. William was always relieved to abandon the mudflat for the pier, where it was easier to contain the children and harder for them to do harm. 

In his group that day there was a little girl named Sarah with dark air and enormous brown eyes.  She had spina bifida and had been pushed down the concrete ramp to the mudflat in her wheelchair.  Her attendant, a small, heavy woman, gamely carried her from the chair and out among the rocks.  She crouched with Sarah on her lap and with one hand flipped rocks for her.  Other children also ran to her to show her crabs, clam shells and other items.

William became busy with two boys who were having an altercation.  The larger one was crying.

“What’s wrong?” William asked.

“Kenny called me a doorknob,” he sobbed.

“It’s because he was standing on the barnacles!  He’s still standing on the barnacles!”

William lifted the crying boy from his rock perch with its crushed and smudged barnacles and plunked him onto the mud. The child looked in amazement at his shoes, as though astounded he wasn’t sinking. “Kenny’s right, you shouldn’t stand on the barnacles,” William told him.  “But he’s wrong.  You’re not a doorknob.”  Kenny was walking away.

“Kenny,” William said.


“You should apologize now, to...”


“To Bryson.”

“Sorry Bryson,” said Kenny.

“That’s okay,” said Bryson.  They walked off together toward the pier as if nothing had happened.

Alan had enjoyed the tiny drama from a short distance away.  He said, “Truth is that Bryson is a doorknob, and you’re very good at this.  You’re still good with little kids.  You were easily the most popular counsellor at Camp Ohmeemaw, at least for the younger ages.”

“I was?” 

“Kids love you,” he said.  “You’re much better at this than you are catching Pacific water shrews.”

“You’re killing me,” William said. 

Alan laughed as he walked away toward Sarah and her attendant while William ran to round up his fifteen at the base of the pier.

They walked around the pilings, examining the zonation of the dense mussel mats and the ubiquitous barnacles, and William showed the children how to gently touch the stranded purple sea stars hunched in embarrassed clusters.  They went up top to spy down on lemon sea slugs and anemones, and tromped down the metal gangway to the Korean men and the pool of crabs.  William showed the children how to measure a crab, and let it pinch his thumb for their great amusement.  He lifted a huge droopy sun star from the wading pool and they counted its arms — 15.  A seal kept surfacing and blood-red jellyfish the size of Chips Ahoys bobbed along next to the dock.  The children were enthralled.  It was good. 

As they headed back up the ramp, William looked around for Alan, expecting him to appear at his shoulder with some editorial comment.  He heard him speaking, below. He leaned over the rail as his fifteen ran ahead to the goose field.  Alan was with Sarah and her attendant under the pier, where the water would be 10 feet deep at high tide.  They were next to a clump of purple starfish that was clinging to the bottom of a diagonal crosspiece.  Alan was holding Sarah against his chest, saying, "Go ahead, see what they feel like, touch them.  They can’t hurt you."  She wouldn’t.  He coaxed her, “C’mon sweetie, just touch them.  They’re scared because the tide is out and they’re worried it won’t come back in.  The air hurts their skin. They don’t have eyes, and can’t see the water coming back up.  Touch them and tell them the tide will be back soon, that everything will be okay.”

"They also don’t have ears," she said.  "Even if I tell them, they won’t understand."

"They’ll understand if you touch them as you say it," Alan said.  "Please, sweetie, touch them."

She spun her head and locked eyes with Alan.  He smiled at her.  It wasn’t a beguiling smile.  It was a sad smile, a rare face for Alan – Alan reaching to the moon.

Finally her tiny soft hand lit on the echinoderms, and immediately shrank back as she shrieked with delight in having felt the slimy alien thing.            

"How did it feel?" Alan was asking her. "Was it good?"  He had encouraged her to feel something she would remember forever.

She threw herself against him, saying, "No no no!" but laughing crazily, her arms around his neck.  Her attendant reached to take her from Alan and William had the impression, for at least a few seconds, that they were fighting over her, Alan holding on as if the tide was in and the child was his breathing apparatus.

After the buses departed William went back to the pier to empty out the wading pool.  The crab fishers were gone, but had left a huge sun star splayed on the dock, drying and dying in the bare sun.  It was a sopping, slimy 15-legged mass, blind, lost and helpless, its stomach ballooning yellow from its mouth in five-part symmetry.  William pried the beast from the planking, trying not to tear its sucker-tipped tube feet, and dropped it back into the ocean.  His hands itched weakly from echinoderm slime as it sank, seeming to grow larger rather than diminish as it fell impossibly slowly.  It just got darker and darker until it was gone.

He found Alan in the middle of the field, for some reason photographing the geese.  Before William caught up with him he saw Stacey and Tracy making an angry beeline in his direction.  Stacey was carrying the octopus arms.   Tracy had the starfish outfit and the orca’s head.

“Alan!” William called, to no avail.  He was hoping for a quick escape.

Tracy started, “We know you think we’re stupid, but why once in a while can’t you humor us and go along with what we’re doing?”

Stacey said, “We were up very late finishing the costumes.  We put a lot of work into it.”

“Go away,” William said.

Tracy said, “We’re not going away!  This is an issue and we have to deal with it!”  They chased him across the goose field.  William was hoping Alan would clue in and run ahead to his car, but he didn’t.  He stood and watched.

“William, would you stop for a second!” Stacey’s hand clamped onto his wrist.

William shook it off angrily and turned to face his tormentors.  He said, “Look. You do your silly little puppet shows and songs and dances and all your other idiotic pre-programmed Froosy excuses for education, and I’ll continue to actually show kids real plants and animals and explain to them what the hell they’re looking at.  I don’t do Nature for Dummies, Nature for Idiots.  I don’t believe that children should be treated as if they’re simpletons.  Ed the ass Daddle hired you two because you’re cute.  Couldn’t he find a cute one that wasn’t also a goddamned Froosian?”                             
“Excuse me?  That’s offensive,” said Tracy.

Okay, look,” William said.  They were due for a serious mocking.  He would show them how idiotic a Froosian Module was.  “Gimme that thing.”  He snatched the orca head from Tracy and put it on.  He backed away and started running in circles, chanting in a high-pitched voice, “Orc! Orc! Orc! I’m an Orca!  Whoo!  He was looking at the sky because that’s all he could see through the orca’s mouth.  There was a design flaw in the costume; the eye holes were not useful to anyone lacking stalked eyes.  “Salmon yum yum yum!  William the Whaley eat you up!  Yummy yummy yummy!”   He flapped his arms like flukes and flexed his trunk to mimic graceful killer whale undulations.  He sang an improvised song, because songs were the core component of the Froosian philosophy.  It was to the tune of I’m a little tea pot.

“I’m a little orca,
“Round and stout,
“Watch me shoot a dead fish,
“Outa ma’ spout!”

He flapped in more circles and made generic whale ‘AroOOoooo’ sounds until he became dizzy.  He stopped and took off the head. “Enlightening, huh?” he said.

Stacey and Tracy looked, at best, bemused by the demonstration.  William had been hoping for shocked or angered.

Alan was laughing. “Put the head back on,” he called.  “I want to get a picture of William the Whaley.”

As William Orca-ed his way back to Alan and the girls, he paraphrased their Dear Leader in his best Orcan falsetto: “Let’s take something important and make it a fucking joke!”

And that, mercifully, was when he was cut off.



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