Thursday, January 11, 2018

30. Smoke on the Water

The interpreter was walking up the long hill on his way to the grocery store.  Nearing an intersection, he heard what sounded like a gunshot.  This was followed by a liquid splat, something viscid landing on pavement.  On the far side of the four-lane street a white pick-up truck had backed up, then pulled out from its parking spot, leaving behind a crumpled plastic container.  The interpreter understood what had happened.  For some reason, a plastic bottle of motor oil had been lying on the road near the far curb.  When the truck backed up, it compressed the bottle, causing it to rupture violently and send a sheet of oil onto the curb lane.

As the interpreter reached the corner, the light turned yellow.  On the far side, a Filipino couple in their forties was hurrying to catch the bus that was approaching the stop on the interpreter’s side of the road.  The woman saw the light, and stopped, but the man thought they could make it.  He took his wife’s arm and pulled her into the intersection.  They hit the oil.  The woman’s feet shot out and she landed on her back. One of her shoes flew off and skittered to the middle of the road, ending up on the yellow line.  The light changed from yellow to red.  The man looked at his wife, at the shoe, at his wife…

The woman struggled up and hopped on one foot back to the curb.  Her husband followed.  Traffic, which had been waiting, started flowing through the intersection.  The bus the couple had intended to catch glided on through.

In a lull in the traffic the husband ran to the middle of the street to retrieve his wife’s shoe . He darted back through moving vehicles and handed it to his wife, who was standing on one foot, gripping the top of a parking meter.  She snatched the shoe from her husband and swung it at him, smacking him on the shoulder.  She unleashed a verbal barrage in a rapid-fire Tagalog.  After a few seconds the husband said a few words.  They looked at each other, and laughed.

The light went yellow, and then red, and the traffic stopped.  The woman dropped her shoe and gracefully slid her foot inside.  She took her husband’s arm and they crossed the street as the interpreter crossed in the opposite direction.  He studied their faces as they passed, and saw two people completely happy with each other, which caused him to feel wistful.

“I loved someone that much,” he said.

Approaching the far curb, the interpreter turned for a last look at the couple.  He had forgotten about the oil.  As he fell, he twisted and reached in desperation to the parking meter.  Clutching it, he sank to the sidewalk.

A woman carrying shopping bags looked down her nose. “You’re drunk!” she said.

 *    *    *

The reception was at the Rowing Pavilion, on the south shore of Burnaby Lake, across from and west of the Nature House.  The banquet hall was a square room with a teepee ceiling.  One wall, facing the lake, was a row of tall windows that made the space seem large and bright.  William was reminded of the dining hall at Camp Ohmeemaw.  Round tables were covered with cheery tie-dyed cotton tablecloths in yellow and green, and standing vases of yellow and white flowers framed the windows and the head table.  Fooj had hired a bluegrass band to play afterward.  Their banjo and guitar cases lay in a corner near the buffet.
In the lull before the meal, Alan set up a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Ed Daddle in the parking lot.   It was created from a picture Alan took of Ed hustling into Central Area Office, in a pose uncannily like the iconic freeze frame from the famous grainy sasquatch film.  Ed’s face was confusion and suspicion.  They took turns posing with it, until Alan taped a paper bull’s-eye on Ed’s ass.  From the trunk of his car he produced a couple of BB guns.

“Where did you find BB guns?” William asked.

Alan said, “Vancouver is full of BB guns.”

Alan rounded up the children and helped them shoot Ed in the ass.  Then someone saw Fooj’s ancient granny beckoning in her wheelchair.  Fooj’s brother wheeled her over the bumpy gravel, as Alan pumped the gun.  She held it like a pro, and shot Ed in the ass twice, and then once right between the eyes.  She handed the gun back to Alan — who looked truly surprised — and smiled proudly.           

It was ten minutes until the banquet was to start, and Stacey hadn’t arrived.  William had phoned and left a message for her after the ceremony, but she hadn’t called back.  He couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong.  He feared she had reconsidered wanting to be part of the bigness and strangeness of his life, basically everything having to do with Alan and Hannah and lightning, or perhaps it was his bitterness and lack of forgiveness that changed her mind.  She had identified and evaluated his fatal flaws and made a wise decision.

He was at the head table, thus not conspicuously stood up, but kept glancing at the empty seat where she would have sat, which ended up being next to Alan.  It made Alan look like the one abandoned by his date, which made everything worse.

William endured the clinking of the glasses.  There were the introductions and the thank yous.  There was food.  There was wine.  There was a lot of wine.

Eventually his name crackled from the PA system.  Brother Brian, the emcee, was announcing that the Best Man had a few words to say about the groom.

Well then.  William wobbled to his feet.  From across the room, Alan gave a sympathetically drunken thumbs-up.

William straightened his index cards against the podium, cleared his throat and said:

It has been my great misfortune to have known Fooj for about four years.  It is hell being the wing man for the handsomest man on earth.  For four years, Martin and I have been travelling around the region teaching about nature, mostly to elementary school students.  I have seen the backs of the heads of more young elementary school teachers than any other man alive.  I have seen elementary school teachers throw their wedding rings into ditches.  The teacher’s union has a set of counsellors whose sole occupation is to help its members deal with the anguish of having encountered the completely unattainable Fooj. 

(Decent laugh.)

Fooj was completely oblivious to the attention women paid him, until one seemingly unremarkable, horribly rainy day, a year and a half ago.   It was the first day of the season, in March, when we were all to meet to prepare for that year’s interpretive programs.  A bunch of us were sitting in the Nature House, across the lake from where we are now, with rain pounding on the roof, waiting for Fooj to arrive.  There was me, Monique, Caroline Li, Tom Carlisle, Kelly James, Minh Nguyen, and some jerk whose name escapes me. 

By the way, there’s a life-sized cut-out of Ed Daddle in the parking lot.  There are BB guns available for anyone who has not already had a chance to shoot Ed in the ass.  It turns out Oba-chan Fujiwara is a crack shot.

(Big laugh.)
Oba-chan raised her fists in victory,

(Bigger laugh.)

It was Monique’s first day on the job, and Ed was leering at her, mooning in a typically obvious and futile fashion.  Monique and Caroline were carrying on a quiet, not quite connecting conversation, leaning over the empty space where Fooj was soon to sit.

Fooj had flown back from Boston the night before after a shoot for rain-gear and sweaters and other northeastern fashions on a windswept beach with other hunky fellows and scrawny windswept women.  He is not one to recover quickly from time changes.  He has a teenager’s need of sleep.  But there he was, lurching happily through the door, ready for another year of teaching nature to people who are afraid of dirt.                      

"Fooj!" I said, "How was Cape Cod?"

"Hey Willy," he said.  He squeezed my shoulder and breezed past, saying, "You know."

"Sure," I said.

Then there was a flash of something that we were all too mortal to observe.   

Martin headed straight to Monique and took her soft hand in his and said, “Hello.  My name is Martin Fujiwara.  Please call me Fooj.”  William imitated Fooj’s rich and virile voice.

“Monique said, looking up, “My name is Monique.  Please call me ‘dat.”  William imitated her as best he could, trying not to sound too silly.

(Mild chuckle only.)  Okay.

Then there was silence.

William waited.  Suspense was building.

“Finally, Tom, our leader, spoke.  He said, "My God.  It actually has a sound.  I have just heard love at first sight!"  It goes ‘PING’"

William glanced at Tom and Ross.  They too were to some degree drunk.  Tom gave him a flirty wave.

“Tom was absolutely right.  I now know for sure such a thing exists.  Fooj walked in the door and saw Monique, and Monique lifted her eyes and saw Fooj, and then there was a PING.        

Brain-dead Ed made a dimwitted grunt.

"There was no ‘PING’!" said Caroline, who is easily confused by life’s subtleties.

But I swear here, in front of you all.  There was.  There really was.  We experienced something that has never been recorded or photographed.  We saw Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon form at the very same instant.  We saw, and heard, love at first sight.”

He sensed the audience was wowed by his vivid imagery.  Then his cell phone vibrated against his ribs.  Stacey?  No way could he answer.  His speech shifted gears.        

“Most interpreters have second jobs, of necessity.  In the first year I knew him, Fooj painted houses.  He seemed happy enough doing that.  He always had blue or white or red spots in his hair, but he didn’t care about that.  Then, suddenly, he had a job offered to him that required very little of his skills or knowledge.  He wouldn’t have to teach anyone anything.  There would be no more paint in the hair.  He’d been living hand to mouth for years, despite holding a winning lottery ticket all his life.  He was finally told how to cash it in.  All it required was that he pretend to be someone else for a while, and forget about doing what he was born to do.

Oh, it was painful watching him trying to make that decision, and painful to see him live with it, once made.  He was ashamed because he’d agreed to earn a handsome living by doing little more than being handsome.  Then, after meeting Monique, he was depressed because he would often be away from her.  One day I decided to try to cheer him up, to make him feel as good about himself as he should.  We went drinking.”

(Moderate laugh.)

I tried to encourage him to think about short term pain, but long term gain.  I tried to convince him that he had a huge legacy already, in the vast amount of knowledge and environmental awareness he had already given to the world, and now, with more money coming, he would have the ability to create a greater legacy.  He could make documentary films, he could fund new interpretive programs, he could buy land and keep it natural.

I knew he had worked several summers as a tree planter during his university years.  I asked him for a ballpark figure of the number of trees he had planted.  He said without even blinking, “About 500 thousand.”     

(Impressed murmurs.)

What a legacy: all the knowledge he has imparted over the years, and more concretely, half a million trees.

Fooj is the conscience of our group, the one who reminds us why we work in this park and the other parks.  We often talk about why we do it, and we gripe – about the lack of respect and meagre pay and the huge responsibility placed upon us.  Here are fifteen children.  Take them off into the forest and look after them – and teach them something too.  Fooj tends not to engage in the gripe-fests.  He’s philosophical and generous.  His attitude is that we should do the best we can, because someone has to do this work and we have accepted the positions.  Those who underpay and undervalue us may someday learn what they’re doing is wrong, and treat us better, but in the meantime we have to keep doing the best we can.  Maybe he has the same attitude toward modelling.  Maybe he feels it’s undervalued, but soon, too, fashion models — and TV actors — will earn what they deserve.”  William looked at Fooj.  Fooj shook his head and laughed

William paused.

I’ve learned a lot from this man.

William paused again.

And yesterday afternoon I learned something new from him, from his family, and from Monique’s family.  I learned how to end this toast. 

I had no idea how to end it until the wedding rehearsal yesterday, when I saw the Fujiwara family and the Simard family together.  They already seemed a single, happy group of people, completely accepting of and caring for each other.  Here were two families embodying such enormous differences, differences in history, and geography, and culture, and language.  Canada’s famous two solitudes, with a third tossed on top.

What should have happened between these two families, what, sadly, often happens, is this: ‘You’re different. You’re not part of the plan.  That’s wrong.  We can’t love you.  We fear you.  Hell, we HATE you.  Get your kid away from our kid!’

(Shock and astonishment.)

But, in this case, something obviously went terribly, beautifully wrong.  It went something like this, after the initial love at first sight event I interpreted for you a minute ago:  ‘You’re different.  Wait a sec, um, no, Oh My God you’re not different.  We love you!  We love your child!’

(Resumption of smiles.)

Fooj and Monique screwed up everything in reverse for everyone else, and everyone else crazily went along with it.

William would afterward swear that at that moment the faces in that room beamed pure love, that it was an unexpectedly beautiful moment, like when you are leading a group and suddenly a quartet of baby owls pops out of a tree hole and forms a fuzzy lineup on a branch in front of you…until he looked again to the back of the room, to the empty seat next to Alan.  No, it wasn’t for Hannah.  It also wasn’t for Stacey.  It was the empty seat beside him at every wedding William had ever attended.  It was why William hated weddings.  It was why William drank five or six glasses of wine before he stood up to speak.

The seconds ticked past as William reached into the void to stick his cold finger into the warm ear of the one who wasn’t there.  No contact, nothing.  One eye closed, William studied that hanging finger.  A hundred people were studying it.  What the hell was it doing there, floating around aimlessly in a banquet hall?  William looked down the index cards he had so painstakingly hand-printed in hungover early-morning hours.  They slipped from the lectern and despite his attempt to pin them against the stand with his body, formed a bedsheet escape-line to the floor.  The room was silent, expectant, becoming anxious.  It had been going so well.

Umm, William said.

At the back of the room a canoe paddle reached toward the ceiling and started waving side to side.  William could barely hear Alan’s raspy whisper.

“We have to keep going.”

William nodded.  Yes.

You have to keep paddling.

(Understandable confusion.)

Er, going.  Just keep on going.  

He reverted to script.  The last index card had remained in place:

And now, a man who has planted half a million trees, with his lovely Monique has planted a single seed, a beautiful child, soon to be born.

William raised his glass.  His cellphone vibrated again.

To dear Martin and Monique, congratulations on finding each other and enriching the world for us all by doing so.  May you sit at tables in banquet halls, who knows where, many times, grey-haired and content, watching someone who is not yet born propose a toast to the unending happiness of your many beautiful grandchildren.

Unending happiness.  Beaucoups d’ann√©es de joie.  Suenagaku oshia waseni.  

(Glasses clinked.)
As William returned to his seat he pulled his phone from the pocket of his tuxedo.  Whoever had called had hung up.  He looked at the screen, a number he didn’t recognize. The history showed it had been the same caller each time.  It didn’t take long to ring again.  William excused himself from the table and stepped outside onto the dock.  There was a solid band of crimson above the horizon.

“Hello?” he said.

“William!”  It was a young man’s voice.  “It’s Dan!”

“Oh, hi,” William said.

“The Taiwanese have kidnapped Milt!  They’ve got him in a motel near Metrotown Mall.  It’s called the Linda Vista Inn.”

“What?  How do you know?”

“I arranged to meet him for an interview at Stanley Park.  As I got there, they were pushing him into a van!”

William asked, “Where’s Baba?” 

“He followed me here.  He’s just pulling into the parking lot.” 

William could hear Turkey in the Straw getting louder.

“What should we do?” he asked.

The sensible response would have been to tell him to call the police.  William told him to stay put, that he and Alan were on the way.  He ran back inside. 

Alan was red-eyed and his jacket sleeves were bunched up.  “You almost made me cry, you prick.”

“I got an urgent call,” William said.



“You speak Urdu?  Baba only speaks Urdu.”

“We have to go, Alan.  The Taiwanese have kidnapped Milt.”

Had he been sober, he would have questioned this.  But Alan drunk was one who sprung to action.   He said, “Fuck, let’s go.”  On his way past the gifts table he grabbed the BB guns and boxes of ammo. 

William looked back across the room at Fooj, who had a quizzical expression.  “Be right back!” he called.

Out in the parking lot Alan said, “You have to drive.  I’m too drunk.”

“No.  I’m too drunk too,” William said.  “Plus I can’t drive.”

“Fine.  I’ll drive then,” he said.  They fell into his car and blasted out onto the road.  Once they got on the highway and up to speed, Alan seemed to brighten.  He turned to William and laughed, “Just like old times.  Here we are drunk and racing around in the dark after God knows what.  Our Sailboat of Fun sails again!”

“Next exit!” William yelled, just in time.  Thankfully, on Kingsway, they had to slow down.  “Careful, watch the lights,” William said.

“I’m driving,” Alan said.

They survived to pull up at the motel, one of the few remaining old-style bungalow types.  A jostling, shouting mass of Chinese was in front of one of the doors.  Large in the middle was glassy-eyed Milt in his golden hat with purple net scarf.  He looked a variant of one of Alan’s paintings, a confused bison harried by wolves.  He was being prodded by Odd Job.  Baba was trying ineffectually to fight his way to him, thrusting at the mob with a cricket bat.  The side door of one of the green Dodge Caravans was open, where Milt was meant to be deposited.          

Alan asked, “Is that a cricket bat?”

“What’s our plan?” William asked.

Alan reached into the back seat for the BB guns.  One fell into William’s lap.  “Open fire!” he shouted.  And he did, from behind the opened door of his car.  One by one the Taiwanese screamed and clutched their buttocks as Alan peppered them – male and female – with brass BBs.  This gave Baba the leeway he needed to bash his way to Milt.  William ran with his gun into the chaos, but didn’t shoot anyone.  He hadn’t even paused to pump it.  Back to back, Baba and William moved in on Milt, while cries of pain rang out around them as Alan kept notching up hits.  William got into a tussle with Odd Job, which gave Baba the opportunity to grab Milt and start hauling him away.  Odd Job briefly had William by the throat in a classic death grip, but a tiny brass sphere smacked him dead-centre in the forehead, sending him to the ground, cursing.  A second later William was staggered by a sharp hornet sting in the back of his head.  He screamed and spun around, swinging his gun by the barrel, and, still screaming, marched forward, scaring everyone from his path.  He plowed into Milt’s back and kept pushing toward the ice cream truck, which, all this time, had been playing Turkey in the Straw.  Baba pulled Milt in and William slammed the door.

“I’ve got you covered — run!” Alan yelled.  William jumped into the passenger seat of the car as Alan fired off a couple more choice shots.  They escaped, the ice cream truck, and the Sailboat of Fun. 

The Taiwanese poured into their green Dodge Caravans but then confounded each other, all trying to turn around in the narrow parking lot at the same time.  William was looking in the side mirror as the first of the convoy was about to exit the driveway.  He saw a silver Dodge Caravan pull sideways across, blocking the way.  They could still hear the honking three blocks distant.

They could also hear Turkey in the Straw.  Baba was half a block in front.  “Where the heck is he going?” William asked.  He felt the back of his head.  There was blood on his hand.  There was blood trickling down the back of his head onto the collar of his rented tuxedo.  He said, “Alan, I think you shot me in the back of the head.  There’s a BB stuck in my head.”

“Is it in your brain?” he asked.

“No.  But it’s embedded in the back of my head.  You shot the fat monk too, in the forehead.”

Alan roared, “I shot a fat monk in the forehead with a BB gun!  That’s hilarious!”

It became clear that Baba was heading back to Burnaby Lake Regional Park, to what end they didn’t know.  He turned down Piper Avenue and the music switched to the less panic-stricken The Entertainer.  He stopped in front of the Nature House.  Alan continued past the end of the parking lot and crashed the Mazda into a spectacular hummock of blackberry canes. 

“I guess I really shouldn’t have been driving,” he said.

“We have to get back to the reception,” William said.

Alan said, “You get some paddles, and open up the Nature House.  Milt can hide out in there in case the loonies return.”  William thought his use of ‘loonie’ was a little subjective, coming from a man who had just gleefully shot a large number of people with a BB gun.

As they entered the Nature House, William heard Milt say, “It’s stinky in here.”  Baba lit a new cigarette, and for once William didn’t mind that smell.

“Keep the doors locked and the lights off,” said Alan.  “If the Chinese come, hide in the roof.”  He gestured at Leonard’s ladder lying flat against the wall.

For no particular reason William picked up an electronic device resembling a small, black transistor radio that someone had left on top of a filing cabinet.  It was a bat detector.  He put it in his pocket. 

They paddled across Burnaby Lake in tuxedos to arrive in style at the rowing club.  The bluegrass band was warming up, and pleasantly drunk people were on the deck to meet them.  “Where have you been, Willie-boy?” Tom said, leaning unsteadily against a railing.

“Just out for a paddle,” William said. 

“Staying out of trouble?”

“Of course.”
William drank some more and danced a bit and somewhere along the line Fooj’s mother tweezed the BB from his head with a pair of silver sugar cube tongs.  He danced some more until his blood alcohol level dropped to the “Stop dancing—remember, you hate dancing” level, and he went out onto the dock among the other revellers, where floodlights were drawing moths and other insects.  He reached into his pocket for the bat detector.  When he clicked it on, the air exploded in an electronic fantasia of trills and clicks in crazy syncopation.  Everyone stopped talking. 

“What the heck is that?” someone asked.

“Bats,” William said.  They were standing within a sea of circling bats, but couldn’t see them at all.  After a while William turned the detector off.  “You would never know they’re here,” he said.  He wondered how often they were in the presence of bats without a clue.  He clicked the detector on again and the silence ripped back into an unremitting, chaotic series of chirps.  He then thought it might be a good thing that people cannot normally hear bats.  No one would ever be able to sleep.  He turned it off and put it back in his pocket.

It was time for the happy couple to leave.  Monique threw the bouquet.  It went off course and landed next to Fooj’s grandmother’s wheelchair.  She reached and picked it up.  Everyone cheered.  It had been a good night for Obachan.

William and Alan got back in the canoe.  A lake fog had formed under the open sky.  “Turn on that bat thing again,” said Alan as they eased away from the Rowing Pavilion.  “I like knowing there are things around we cannot see.” 

They didn’t talk during the paddle across, just listened to the strafing calls of the bats and the heavy clunks of their paddles.  At first the fog was hovering low on the lake, the level of the gunwales, allowing a view of the moonlit trees on the far shore, like etchings in pewter.  They were aiming for the gap in the treeline, where the path led from the spit to the Nature House, but then the fog rose higher and they had to guess the way.  Eventually, off to the left, a swelling glow turned the fog orange. 
“Oh, the Nature House is on fire,” Alan said, almost casually,

“Baba’s cigarette,” William replied.  They started paddling hard in perfect synchrony, as though they had trained for this.  When a canoe is paddled correctly and briskly it is a very efficient vessel.  It slices through the water in fierce, bouncing bursts, reacting to the powerful backward and downward thrusts of the paddle blades.  Once it really gets going, the paddlers can become exhilarated by the aggressive movement of the craft and paddle harder still, until their arm, shoulder and back muscles start cramping.  They reached an impressive speed in the rowing lane and slowed only slightly as Alan ruddered to angle them into the lily pad mass.  There they churned onward, more slowly but steadily.  The glow became flames as the fog thinned, and then there was an explosion of fire and sparks as part of the roof fell in.  Fire trucks were arriving as they beached the canoe in the mud of the spit.  They ran past the burning house, through the scrambling firefighters rolling out their hoses, to the parking lot.

“Thank God,” William said.  The ice cream truck was gone.  “They got out in time.”

“Well, at least Baba did,” said Alan.  They exchanged worried glances.  The firefighters had broken the door and were already inside.  Flames were turning to smoke and steam.

“He wouldn’t have gone without Milt,” William said.

“Of course not,” said Alan.  “Loopy old Milt is safely away.”  They walked in silence back to the canoe, until Alan began humming an old song.  He started singing the words.  “Some stupid with a flare gun, burned the place to the ground.”

They slid the canoe back onto the trailer and skirted around the fire scene to Alan’s car, embedded in the blackberries.  Very cautiously Alan backed out and drove them home.

“I’m really tired,” William said, just before Alan dropped him off. 

“It was a nice speech,” said Alan.

“Thanks for the assist.”

“I got your back.”
William’s tuxedo was stained with mud and blood and smelled of a burned-out nature house.  He doubted the rental people would want it back.  He zipped it into its bag, and tossed the bag out on the balcony.  There was a quiet knock on the door.

It was Stacey.   

“Come in!” William exclaimed.

“I can’t stay long,” she replied.  She looked downcast.  “We have to talk.”

William knew: rarely does any good come of a conversation that starts with those words.     


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