Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Jesus of the West is a story inspired by a real event, a strange, mid-summer gathering at Burnaby Lake Regional Park in Burnaby, British Columbia, some years ago.  A personage identified as "The Jesus of the East" arrived at the park and daily, over a few weeks, along with an entourage, kept vigil on a wooden platform meant for canoe-launching at the end of the boardwalk that runs along the Piper Avenue Spit, which is a mud and gravel land-form coughed out into Burnaby Lake by small but determined Eagle Creek.  

Why was He there?  To prevent pan-global nuclear catastrophe.  

The Jesus of the East was associated with a Chinese-speaking religious group rumored to come from either Texas or Taiwan or both. To the surprise of many, He, the Jesus, was a pre-teen boy, or at least looked like one. He could have walked off any playground in Greater Vancouver and no one would have suspected. 

It was revealed that Jesus, his family, and various others had come to the lake to await the arrival of the "Jesus of the West," whose exact identity was unknown, but who was believed by the Jesus of the Easters to be a Caucasian man living in or near Vancouver.  Their goal was to have the two Jesuses get together and tag-pray to avert what otherwise was to occur the following year.

It was a weird story that received enough media coverage to make it weirder.  Park attendance doubled and then quadrupled as crowds of the curious and a number of wannabe Western Jesuses flocked to the lake.  People really want to see a Jesus.

How did it end?   Everyone simply left.  If the Jesus of the West ever showed up, it was kept quiet. A pan-global nuclear catastrophe did not occur the following year, so perhaps everything went according to plan.   

The  Central Area Parks Interpretive Staff, headquartered at the Burnaby Lake Nature House, had a front row seat to all of it.

*   *   *

The Jesus of the West is a story that surrounds and includes those weeks.  In this parallel version of events, the mundane and at times soul-destroying world of nature interpretation becomes entangled with the Supernatural, which leads, naturally, to unpredictable events: a dead woman carries on a conversation in a park maintenance vehicle; a 
nature house mysteriously burns down; long-separated lovers are reunited; a beaver is smuggled in an ice cream truck.   

It's a story about indelible connections formed in early adulthood, about saving what matters, and about the power of canoeing.   It starts here.

Note:  This is fiction.  No character is meant to portray any real person.

Friday, February 9, 2018

0. Toronto

Two married couples, each consisting of a husband and wife, are seated on opposite sofas in a dimly-lit living room.  They are about to watch Two Hands: The Story of Alan and Hannah, which, only three months after its release, has become the most watched documentary ever made by a Canadian.  One of the couples is dressed alike, both husband and wife wearing a white t-shirt with two red, right-handed handprints printed on the front.  They are promotional shirts created to go along with the film.  The other couple is dressed in normal casual clothes.

The only person in the room to have already seen the film is the husband in the promotional t-shirt.  He is also the only one of the four who is featured in it.  He knows what is about to be shown, and feels some trepidation over what the others are about to learn.  This film, which he helped bring into existence—perhaps against his better judgement—reveals aspects of his life that otherwise would have remained unspoken, at least to certain people.   As many are, he was a different person to different people, and until this film had been able to control what was known of himself to whom.  Now his contradictions would be waved to the world, his different selves side by side–summer camp versus school-year, education and work as a scientist versus pursuit of the supernatural, bouts of blind rage versus bland normalcy, drunkenness versus sobriety—his  various sides, not suitable for all to know, lain out for all to see.  Whatever the result of this viewing, he feels that it will be an answer to, or a culmination of what had started during a summer more than half his life ago, a punctuation mark at the end of seventeen years wandering in the wilderness, literally and figuratively.   He glances at the two women on the two sofas, the nearest, his wife, the other, his wife’s sister.  One is, in a way, a cause of all that happened, the other, in another way, a result.  What will they say when the lights come back on? 

They are both watching him, as is the sister’s husband.  He hesitates, hoping for the power to go out, as if that will solve things.  He realizes that’s the way he has always dealt with confounding problems, hoping for the power to go out.  The power fails to fail.  He sighs, turns out the lights, aims the clicker, and closes his eyes.

The start is a cymbal crash and a thunderous organ chord, all stops pulled, as the screen blares white and then contracts through murky greens and purples that gradually resolve into a dark and cloudy image—the vulnerable shell of an overturned canoe floating in a river.  As the organ fades the image clears and someone off camera is shouting names. Abruptly the scene turns to daylight and the canoe, still overturned, is alone on a grassy bank.  A voiceover commences as the camera pans left. 

My name is Daniel Imamura.  I am the creator of this film.   I’m one of those shown in this Global TV news footage of a cluster of people standing on the Cariboo Dam in Burnaby, British Columbia.  I’m the fellow on the far left.  The fair-haired man next to me is William Kendall, whom you will get to know during the course of this film.  Beside him is my cousin, Martin Fujiwara, the television actor, and the woman next to him is Monique Simard, his wife.  We are watching an RCMP Recovery Dive Team as it searches for the body of Alan Lennox, the renowned wildlife artist, who was also my brother- in-law, the husband of my late sister, Hannah.  Alan disappeared on the small stretch of river immediately upstream from the dam approximately eleven hours before this scene was filmed, when his canoe overturned.  His body, as is now well known, was never found.  Right there—you see William turn and touch my arm.  He is saying to me, ``He’s not here.  This river is too small to hide a person this long, especially Alan.”  You can tell from my expression and body language that I’m not convinced.  He had to be there, somewhere, in that dark, brown water.

Three people witnessed the accident.  I was one.  I was standing on the north bank of the river a hundred metres upstream from the dam and had my camera running. It was I who filmed the lightning flash.  A man named Milt Harvey also saw the canoe go over.  He was also about one hundred metres upstream but on the south bank.  The third witness was William Kendall, who was in the canoe and went into the water with Alan.  None of us saw Alan resurface.  William was being somewhat glib, and coy, when he said so easily, “This river is too small to hide a person this long.”  He had known all along that Alan was not there and that the police divers would find no trace of him.

The image freezes and changes from colour to black and white as the voiceover continues.
I began this film almost a year before Alan Lennox disappeared.  It started as a very personal project.  It was my way of dealing with my sister’s death.  I intended to chronicle the stages of grief and, hopefully, recovery of her famous husband, my brother-in-law, who was also my close friend.  I expected that Alan would eventually climb up from his sorrow and start to paint again, and I hoped that his progression, from devastation to creativity reborn, would inspire and lift me too.

But as in any personal story, there was no way of predicting how things would turn out, and Alan’s apparent death, at first glance, seemed to have heaped tragedy upon tragedy.
This could not be farther from the truth.  You will see that Alan accomplished exactly what I had hoped to document, but, as always, he did it in his own brilliant, crazy way—making it up as he went along, and, well, by cheating.   

Next there is a headshot of  Daniel Imamura, the film’s creator. He is sitting in an editing studio and he says:

Everything I present here is true to the best of my knowledge and understanding.  If you watch the entire film, you will understand why I felt it necessary to say this, staring into my own lens.


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.


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.”


Thursday, February 8, 2018

2. Fooj’s Second Job

At 35 years of age, old for a professional hockey player yet young for almost anything else, except, perhaps, nature interpreter, William Kendall was a nature interpreter.  He lived in small but clean apartment in East Vancouver, British Columbia.  He was unmarried and had no children, which, apparently, were shortcomings, at least in the opinions of many who were not hesitant to share them.  Now and then his spouseless, childless status was remarked upon by those who knew him fairly well.  He didn’t understand their need to point out the obvious.  Did they remind short people they were short, fat people they were fat, bald people they were bald? Of course not.  Mirrors did that, so the flaw had to be spoken, to remind him.  Other times his familial status was mentioned by people who scarcely knew him, which also annoyed him. “You have no kids yet…?” Voices and faces on radio and television, completely oblivious to his existence, also seemed programmed to remind him of the apparent emptiness or lack of completion of his humanhood, which almost inevitably occurred whenever the topic of interest in any way related to families and their issues.  He would change the channel or turn the device off, maybe mentally heave it off the balcony.

Sometimes there was no external prodding.  Out of the blue, all by himself, he would think about his unattached existence and what he should have wrapped himself in by now.  There was no escaping this lapse.  At 35 he should be a married father and not being one, had failed.  He had come up short and had no clue how to remedy his shortcomings.  He would try to soothe himself with vague reassurances, or were they amorphous hopes: something, someone, would come along eventually, somehow.  Or maybe the power would go out and everything would be moot. He would hope for that too.

He wasn’t completely unaccomplished.  Before the age of 30 he had obtained a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto, studying the breeding dynamics of terrestrial salamanders in eastern North American.  He had followed that up with a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Museum of Natural History, the flagship museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC.  Looking back, he believed that it was in Washington where he was suddenly thrown off track.  He could identify the exact millisecond when it happened.

He believed that had things not gone wrong back then, a scant three years ago, he easily could have been at least an assistant professor by now.  He might even have been on the verge of obtaining tenure.  But these things did not happen, nor did anything close.  He had been shown the door, and three years later inhabited an unplanned reality, a world of the small but clean apartment, of crummy, part-time employment.  What had been meant to be a distinguished career was replaced by a series of dignity-bruising jobs.  The reachable goals of a decade earlier were rapidly receding in life’s rearview mirror.  No, wrong, he was the one in the mirror, standing beside the road, clutching a sheaf of useless papers, getting smaller and smaller. Life turned a corner and he was gone.

Returning to Canada, he had carried on, doing his best to cobble a living that made at least partial use of his education.  He lucked into teaching a series of sessional courses at the University of British Columbia.  One of his graduate student friends from the University of Toronto, also without an academic placement, had at least obtained an administrative position at UBC.  He did his best to have William awarded one or two courses per term.  Three months each, several hundred hours work—lecturing, lab instruction, marking—paid eight thousand dollars.  It worked out to almost minimum wage and provided zero job security.

William started a business as an environmental consultant and wildlife biologist. Through the university he made a contact in the Ministry of the Environment named Marilyn Woo, who offered him small biological surveys of wilderness fringes at the outskirts of the growing cities of the Lower Mainland.   He was to look for and report on the presence of endangered species, a nominal prerequisite prior to a permit being issued to okay the plowing under of the fringes in preparation for the construction of big box malls or subdivisions.  He liked the field work, but between transportation and equipment costs never made a cent.  He lost money doing this work.  Being outside, in contact with the natural world, using his hands as well as his brain, kept him sane though.  It propped his spirit.

His third job, a Hail Mary, was a retreat to his past.  He became a Park Interpreter, a naturalist—a nature interpreter—for the Greater Vancouver Regional District.  It was seasonal employment, from March to October, and involved the creation and presentation of natural history programs to residents of the Greater Vancouver Region, preschoolers to seniors, in any of the 22 regional parks. He had learned of this opportunity from a posting on an undergraduate notice board at UBC.

He had been hired by the Head Park Interpreter, whose name was Tom Carlisle. He sailed through the interview until the not unexpected question, “You have a PhD. Don’t you think you’re a little overqualified for this position?  Most interpreters are undergraduate students.”

He must have wilted visibly.  Tom Carlisle smiled at him. “We could use someone with a little more experience I suppose.  You could help with training the newbies.”

He thought he lost the job though, when he admitted to not being able to drive.

“Really?” said Tom.  “Is there some medical reason you can’t drive?  I couldn’t discriminate against you for that.  That would be illegal.”

He told Tom about the lightning strike and the resulting injury.

“You’ve been struck by lightning?”

“Twice, actually,” William said, “but the first one didn’t do any damage. It was more of a surface phenomenon.”

The second lightning strike had penetrated his cranium and left William with chronic double vision and poor depth perception.  The part of his brain that pieced together the slightly different images from left and right eyes had been fried to a crisp in a fraction of a second.  Afterward William could not drive or play tennis proficiently.  He didn’t care about tennis, but not driving excluded him from a lot of things.  He was philosophical about it.  Most people struck as he had been would have been dead before they hit the ground. He was one of the lucky ones.

Tom sat back and smiled at him.  “Twice-struck? What’s that about?”

“I think it’s about being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said William.  “I hoped that by moving out here to the coast it wouldn’t happen again. Lightning is more a feature of eastern weather patterns.”

Tom smiled again. “Maybe it’s not the weather.”

William didn’t know how to respond to that.  Tom Carlisle was slightly odd.  He seemed a nice person though.  If only he would hire him. 

He did.  He said, “We can probably work around the driving.  You can do programs in the parks close to transit, or I can pair you with other interpreters for the farther parks.  Most programs require at least two. You have the knowledge base, and weird as it seems these days, we are supposed to be hiring males.”

“Why?” William asked.

“To balance out the male-female pay ratio, is my guess,” Tom said. “We need more low-paid males.  You can work with Fooj.”


“Did you see that handsome young Asian man who walked out of this room just before you came in?”

William had.  The handsome young Asian man had smiled at him and said hello.  He had been extremely handsome, startling even.  “That was Fooj?”

“That was Fooj.  Interested?”

Despite the push for males, apart from William and Fooj all the interpreters hired that year were young women.  There were always more female applicants for reasons that were layered and complicated.  Working with children, which was most of the work, wasn’t manly. Interpreters were auxiliary union members who paid hefty dues but received no protection or guarantee of hours.  There were no extended medical or dental benefits and the salary was below that paid to workers who mowed grass.  For whatever cultural, financial or other reasons, few men gave such an arrangement a second look. They would rather mow grass.

Fooj’s real name was Martin Fujiwara.  Before becoming an interpreter his summer employment had been as a tree planter.  He was feeling worn down by that exhausting, far-flung work and wanted to try something new, but still something to do with the environment. He had a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, which is what had led him to underemployment as a tree planter.

William and Fooj lived a single Skytrain stop apart, and because, as Tom had mentioned, most programs required more than one interpreter, William was given enough work to survive.  He paid Fooj for his share of the gas and vehicle upkeep and off they would go, scrunched into Fooj’s vintage Ford Pinto with racing flames painted on its blue hull — but emanating from the back instead of washing over the hood — and bunt their way through traffic from one park to another to present programs to one group or another.  Sometimes they would go to two, even three parks, each in a different city, in a single day.  Fooj got them where they needed to go, and William told Fooj more than what he needed to know.  William had a gift of knowing almost everything about everything alive, or so Fooj and the others came to believe.   Any tree, animal, bug, scum growing on the surface of a puddle in warm weather — William could tell you what it was, its common and Latin names, its life history, and whether or not it was native to southern British Columbia.  William was an encyclopedia of biological trivia, which was of little use in most fields but slightly helpful in nature interpretation.

It turned out that in addition to being the first male interpreters hired in a while, William and Fooj would also be the last. The year after they started, hiring responsibility was taken away from Tom Carlisle by a person named Ed Daddle, himself a recent hire as Assistant Area Manager, whatever that was. Ed wasted no time establishing himself as a meddling micro-manager, intent on making himself as unpopular as possible as quickly as possible. 

Ed Daddle didn’t care about gender-related pay scale ratios.  He had his own criteria for who was and wasn’t worth hiring when it came to the interpretive staff.  The fact that the great majority of applicants were young women was not a problem at all.  It was a boon to Ed, who, like William, was 35, unmarried and childless.  Unlike William, he was aggressively on the hunt for a woman, perhaps for marriage, certainly for sex.  Previously, all interpreters had been assigned office space in the tired old Burnaby Lake Nature House at the far end of the park.  William, Fooj, and two other long-time interpreters remained stationed there, but Ed decided that from now on, all newly hired interpreters should be assigned workspace in the park’s Central Office, where all administrative staff, including Ed, were situated.  He arranged to have the mostly-empty multi-purpose room directly across the hall from his office converted into interpreters’ office space. This in place, he would decide which young women would be seated at the desks in that room. His door would always be open. It would maximize his chances.

Over the next two years Ed hired a succession of attractive young women, all seemingly exactly the same height, 5-ft-3. A few were competent naturalists, but because of laws of probability, not many.  Most quit after a single season, some sooner, tired of unwanted and improper attention from across the hall. It was easier to quit a low-paying, part-time job than deal with the hassle of filing a complaint with a disinterested union.

William was quick to sense that Ed Daddle disliked him.  Ed was snide and dismissive in their brief interactions, as if speaking civilly to a person much further down the pay scale was difficult or ridiculous.  At some point Ed discovered that William had a PhD and from then on took perverse delight in reminding him that most people didn’t spend all those years in college and end up leading nature walks for children.  

William asked Tom Carlisle why Ed was unpleasant to him.

“Because he’s an unpleasant person,” said Tom.  “It’s nothing personal. He’s rude to everyone he believes he outranks, and sucks up to everyone he believes outranks him.”

“He’s not rude to the female interpreters,” William said.

“No, he isn’t. To them he’s worse.”

“Is he rude to you?”

“What do you think?”

“How did he get hired here?”

“Seconded,” said Tom. “No one wants him. They’d rather promote him and make him go away than keep him around.  He’s going to obnoxious his way to the top of the corporate ladder.  We just have to tolerate him until its some other department’s turn.”

“He can’t be fired?”

“You know the line about nuclear war and cockroaches?”

At the start of his third year as an interpreter, William feared what little job security he had was about to dissipate. He would likely be laid off, because of Fooj’s new second job.  Like William, all interpreters had at least one other job, usually something mind-numbing in a service industry or retail. Fooj the former tree-planter had also been Fooj the part-time house painter, which since becoming an interpreter had been his second job.  He painted all winter long and was able to dove-tail that work with interpretation during summer months.  His world, and William’s, would change when a much more lucrative opportunity appeared.

In what was likely a first among Park Interpreters, Fooj signed on with a modeling agency, and became a fashion model.  Miraculously, or incredibly, he very quickly became a favourite of that industry, specifically the subset of it dealing with outdoors wear.  His first shoots were for the catalogues of outdoorsy, sportswear companies.  Those companies had suddenly realized that a not insignificant percentage of North Americans interested in exploring the great outdoors—who also possessed the means to purchased high-end outdoor gear—were not Caucasian.  Word went out, and modeling agencies actively sought young, attractive non-whites. Fooj was a plum waiting to be picked.

Some of his assignments were local, but with increasing frequency he was flown to the east coast to look rugged and handsome among the rocks and trees over there.  He would pose in parkas, goose-down vests, rain-gear, or sometimes with kayaks or tents, either solo, or with other almost-as-attractive outdoorsy-looking people.  The difference between Fooj and the others was that Fooj really was an outdoorsman.  His agent had discovered him the previous October, on a canoeing program at Widgeon Slough Park Reserve. William bore uncomfortable witness.  

Widgeon Slough Park Reserve was a former country estate northeast of Vancouver, a beautiful acreage surrounded by mountain peaks, where old wooden buildings and other abandoned structures were in the process of disintegrating into the wet greenness of the coastal temperate rainforest. The wide and slow Pitt River flowed past as it prepared to join the mighty Fraser. William and Fooj had many times presented canoeing programs at Widgeon Slough, a sheltered, weedy side channel of the river.  It was not a place one would expect to encounter an aggressive modeling agent. 

She was a tall woman with arched eyebrows and more makeup than was needed for an afternoon of paddling through a marsh.  After the program finished, and as other participants were happily climbing into their vehicles, she practically crawled on her hands and knees through gravel to get Fooj to accept her business card.  She first tried being coy and flirtatious, which didn’t work on Fooj, and then acted like a border collie trying to force that one free-thinking sheep into a pen, which also didn’t work.               

William had noticed she had some serious kind of Fooj-hots right from the start, and watched askance as he was sorting through life jackets, trying to find a small one with a large opening for a slightly-built boy with an oversized head.  The modeling agent briefly turned her attention away from Fooj and leaned into William’s ear.  She gushed, “What’s the name of your (gorgeous) partner?” This, as Fooj walked sideways with a canoe across his thighs onto the rickety dock in a way that made his arms and chest seem larger.

William, talking to her hair as her gaze followed Fooj walking back to get another canoe: “Martin, but he goes by ‘Fooj’.”

Her, giggling: “Fooj? (What a beautiful, God-like name!) What, is that short for something?”

William: “Fujiwara.  His name is Martin Fujiwara.”

Her, agape, as Fooj gracefully helped a teenaged girl into the canoe, holding her hand until she was settled: “What is he, a Japanese? (*They* don’t make them *that* fabulous, do they?)”

William: “His grand-parents were.  He’s from Abbotsford.”

Her: “He knows a lot about canoeing.  (Imagine, a *canoeing* God!)”

William: “Yes.” 

She wasn’t the only one smitten.  The teenager was agog too.  William supposed that so were several others.  Fooj didn’t notice, or pretended not to.  He had learned to do this.  William had learned to pretend not to notice too.  Fooj was by then a dear friend, seven years his junior, in some ways a younger brother, but William had long ago become tired of being the older, plainer side-kick.   He understood that it wasn’t Fooj’s fault.  He was, William believed, the best-looking person he had ever known or ever would know.  Fooj was an Asian matinee idol, but better looking.  William doubted anyone could create an idealized man, Asian or otherwise, that would not pale in comparison.  When Fooj walked into a school, or store, or mall, or down a street, every head turned—female, male, young, old, sexual orientation notwithstanding. He was almost hilariously handsome.  He was also tall for a genetic Japanese, a shade under six feet.  He spoke with a measured calm in a strong tenor voice, and had an easy, perfect smile.  He had never had a cavity.  One could get lost watching the movements of the muscles in his forearm as he scratched his head through his perfect hair. 

In a GVRD Parks uniform William was sometimes mistaken for a security guard or a bus driver.  Wearing the same uniform, Fooj was sometimes mistaken for a police officer or a ship’s captain.       

Fooj finally accepted the agent’s card after the program, during which six canoes had paddled north up the slough to sluggish Widgeon Creek, and then back down through the marsh.  The agent, whose name was Charmaine, had been in the bow of William’s boat.  Fooj, with the teenager, was taking the lead.  William was the sweep, but Charmaine’s frantic paddling made it difficult to remain behind the others, who were mostly novice canoeists and prone to becoming mired in wild rice and smartweed.   

Everyone else had packed up and driven off.  William was tying the last canoe to the trailer, watching, slightly amused at first, but ultimately becoming annoyed.  He wanted to go home. “Fooj, take her stupid card!” he finally yelled.  “You can throw it out the window on the way back.”   But would Fooj throw things out windows?  Would Fooj ever conceive of littering?  Of course, no.   Did Fooj need money?  Of course, yes.  He was an interpreter.

If Fooj, his driver, was to be frequently away on photoshoots, how could William keep working? It had been too good to last, even if it hadn’t been very good.  Nothing William did in this province was working out.   Still, he would rather wither and die here than return to the place he was born.


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.