Thursday, September 22, 2016

About the Jesus of the West

The Jesus of the West is a story inspired by a strange gathering at Burnaby Lake Regional Park, in Burnaby, British Columbia, almost twenty years ago.  In mid-summer, a person promoted as "The Jesus of the East" arrived at the park, and daily, over a few weeks, held a vigil on the wooden platform at the end of the Piper Avenue Spit, which is near the Burnaby Lake Nature House. 

The Jesus of the East was a human-bodied deity 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. 

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 J of the Easters to be a Caucasian man living in or near Vancouver.  The ultimate goal was to have the two Jesuses get together and tag-pray to prevent the nuclear annihilation of the world 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?   They simply left.  If the Jesus of the West ever showed up, it was kept quiet. A pan-global nuclear disaster did not happen the following year, so perhaps it all worked out.   The Parks Department Central Area 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.  A beaver is kidnapped.  A nature house is burned down.  Separated lovers are reunited.   It's a story about love, about death, about canoeing.  
It starts here.

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


(Start at Part 1)

The woman got up, leaving her husband under a mountain of covers.   She didn’t know what time he had come to bed, only that it had been after midnight.   She walked into the living room with its floor to ceiling panoramic view of the peaks of the North Shore, which now in late summer were almost devoid of snow.  She stepped up to the large canvas he had been working on for almost two weeks.    It was a cougar, crouched near the top of a granite rock face, posed as though about to pounce.  On a gentle slope below a deer was browsing among bearberry and dry, wispy grass.  Biting her bottom lip, the woman studied the painting for a long time.   She nodded almost imperceptibly, and then walked over to the small desk that fit so tidily into the niche outside the kitchen door.   She chose a felt pen, and on the top sheet of a post-it pad inked a thick green check mark.  She stuck the post-it on the bottom corner of the easel, and then turned on the television for the morning news.  It was a commercial break, and so she went into the kitchen to plug in the kettle.   The newscast returned before the kettle started to roar.  She walked past the easel to the sofa, and sat.

The top story was of a rare death by lightning strike.   A lone canoeist, an employee of the Greater Vancouver Regional District Parks Department, had been struck late the previous evening while paddling in the Brunette River, which drains Burnaby Lake.  Footage showed wet-suited divers in a zodiac, and police officers on shore coiling ropes.  They were tidying up after retrieving the body from the sluice gate of the Cariboo Dam, a small, concrete construction responsible for managing the level of the lake.   Footage cut to a covered body on a stretcher being carried up a grassy hillside.

The RCMP spokesperson was a young woman with a faint French-Canadian accent.  Her police hat looked too large for her head.  She said, “What we know so far is that at about 10 PM last night a park employee was canoeing in the Brunette River a few hundred meters upstream from the Cariboo Dam, and was caught in a short, intense thunder storm.  We have one witness who claims to have seen lightning strike the canoe, and the canoe immediately flip over.  Early this morning our members recovered a body at the Cariboo Dam.   The victim has been identified as 35-year-old William David Kendall of Vancouver, who was a nature interpreter in the Parks Department. 

The woman half-stifled a cry.

“The actual cause of death will remain unknown until an autopsy is completed in the upcoming days.”

“God, no,” she said.  

Her husband, now awake, had heard her.   He entered to see the zipper-bagged body being loaded into a coroner’s truck.  He spoke from behind the sofa.  “Who died?”

The woman looked at him.  “Do you know William Kendall’s middle name?  Is it David?”

“I believe it is.”  He remembered initials on a steamer trunk.  WDK.

“Oh God,” she said.

“No way.”   He came around to sit beside her.

A pale, soft-spoken man was speaking.  A subtitle identified him as ‘Tom Carlisle, Parks Program Coordinator.’   He said, “This is a very hard day for us, for our park and for the naturalist community.  William Kendall was a much loved and gifted and special person.  He was one of our best interpreters, and a teacher to us all.  We have lost a cherished family member.”    He lowered his head and walked out of the frame, answering no questions, leaving behind a young woman whose blond hair was tied back in a ponytail.  She was wearing a robin’s egg blue shirt with badges on the shoulders. 

The husband asked, “Could he have been out here?”

“I dunno,” she said.  This was not true.  The woman had known for more than a year that he was here.  In an instance of randomness compounded, William Kendall had come out of thin air and saved her from serious injury, or worse.  She had been walking in Vancouver’s False Creek neighbourhood, accompanying her friend Helen who ran a pre-school, and several of Helen’s pre-school charges.  She was holding hands with a little girl named Alexa, walking east along the north sidewalk of 7th Avenue near Willow Street. 

There was a pummelling of engine brakes as a semi truck pulling a flatbed trailer came hurtling down the steep slope of Willow, out of control.  The driver turned the wheel hard left, which bounced the tractor over the southwest corner of the intersection and caused the trailer to swing widely and begin to tip.  There was a snapping sound and a huge object made of wood and plastic and copper was launched into the air, directly at the woman and the little girl.  The woman crouched, poised to push the child to safety, but was grabbed from behind, and along with the child was yanked head-over- heels out of the path of the crashing hot tub.  A man rolled to a stop beside them.

Physical injury was limited to skinned knees and elbows and other minor road rash.  It would have been much worse.   The hot tub sailed onto the sidewalk, hit hard like a planet, its sides splintering, and skidded screaming and broken-backed across the concrete before flying down a series of steps.   Most of it ended up halfway through the plate-glass double doors of a condominium.  The driver of the truck sat stunned in his seat, having seen in his mind’s eye what would have happened.

For a few seconds they stared at each other uncomprehendingly amid the cries and destruction, not understanding how they had escaped almost unscathed, but more significantly not understanding how, of all people, it was the other, here, in Vancouver.

An awkward and hurried conversation followed.  Neither had forgotten the uncomfortable way their shared accommodation at a New York hotel several years earlier had ended.  William suggested they get together for coffee sometime—to  reconnect, to talk about things.

The woman said she couldn’t.  She was very grateful to him for what he had just done, but could never meet him like that. 

He was plainly hurt by this.   “Okay, well, bye,” he said.  “I’m glad you’re okay, nice to see you again, take care.”   He limped away, up Willow Street to Broadway.

In her police statement, the woman pretended not to know the name of the fast-acting man who had saved her and the child and then abruptly departed the scene.

The husband asked, “Wasn’t he supposed to be a professor somewhere?”

“Lots of us were,” she said.

“Did I ever tell you that he and I were almost killed in a head-on when we were at camp together?  That was,” he paused to do the math, “17 years ago.”

“Yes, you told me.”

The blond-haired young woman was answering a question about what Mr. Kendall might have been doing in a canoe at that time of night.   Her eyes were red.  “I don’t know.   Listening for bats or something.  He liked doing things like that, but there was no reason to go out in a canoe, he could just stand on the shore and do it, except that he really enjoyed canoeing.”

The end of the piece showed a still image of the victim seated on a bench next to the same young woman.  Both were wearing the robin’s egg blue shirt.  They were laughing.  He was definitely the William Kendall they had known.

The husband said, “He was a good canoeist, old-school.  For an old-schooler, there’s way worse ways to go than in a canoe.”  

 “I can’t believe this has happened.  I wish I never turned on the TV.”

The husband got up and plucked the post-it from the easel.  “You really think so?  Great, I was pretty sure I was getting close.”  He went into the kitchen.

She raised her voice.  “So you can stop hating him now.”

The husband poked his head out.   “I have never hated him.  He was like a brother.  I only hated what he did.”

“You could at least now try to forgive him.”

 He narrowed his eyes at her.   “To what end?”  He disappeared.   “Your kettle’s boiled,” he called.

She didn’t reply.  She clicked off the television and went back to bed, to make the news, her husband, the world go away.   

No.  After running through it all she kicked off the covers.

The husband was on the sofa with a plate half off his lap, a piece of toast untouched.  He was aiming the TV clicker at nothing. 

She put her hand on his shoulder.

“I never had another friend even half as close,” he said.

She sat with him.  She said, “You need to know—it  wasn’t him in New York.  It wasn’t him.  It was a person the very opposite of him, but I couldn’t tell you back then.”   She explained why.  He listened without interrupting.  She told him she had known he was here, the whole truth about the frightening incident with the hot tub.  She told him she was sorry for not telling him sooner, about all of it.  She told him she wanted him to love his friend again.

For a while he sat motionless, staring at the mountains.  Eventually he leaned to place the plate and clicker on the floor.  He took the woman’s hand.  “Seventeen years ago,” the husband said, “William Kendall had a pet tortoise named Olive.”

“Yes,” said the woman.

“I’ve told you before.”

“You did, on the day I met you.”   She squeezed his fingers.  “Tell me again.”

The child in the second bedroom had awakened.  She was crying.   The woman went to gather her, and carried her back to the husband.   “Tell the story of Olive to your child.”

They talked about William for a while, and then the husband said, “We have to go to that lake, wherever it is.”

“It’s in Burnaby.  It’s like driving to Scarborough.”

Two hours later they were standing on the dam, overlooking the flat stretch of water where it had happened.   The canoe, upside-down, was  on the shore, pegged off with yellow police tape. 

The woman was carrying the sleeping child in a harness against her chest.  The husband was leaning on the rail, looking upstream, full of questions.  After a few minutes he closed his eyes and tried to imagine the unimaginable.   He asked, “William, oh William, what the hell were you doing?”   


Part 36. Two Hands

Apart from the awkwardness involving anything to do with William’s parents, who kept calling Cindy “Becky,” which baffled William—they actually remembered her?—it felt good being back in Toronto.  The day he had returned was hot, muggy, and smoggy.   The cab ride from the airport to his parents’ house in Scarborough took more than an hour, most spent creeping through poisonous air on the 401.   He said to the driver, “Look how big this road is!   Twelve lanes!  Now this is a highway!”   Everything seemed bigger than in BC, except for the trees, which were smaller, but in their familiar eastern way more lush and inviting.

Winter came.   One day William stood on the curb in a howling wind, waiting for the light at Bay and Charles Street, surrounded by condominium towers that blocked out the sky.   His nose was running, his fingers were numb.   He looked at a bundled-up woman beside him and gave her a frozen-faced smile, because sure this hurt, but they were in it together, two strangers, feeling what life in Canada ought to feel like.   She probably thought he was deranged.   Later, William found himself holding the overhead bar in a jam-packed suburb-bound subway car stalled halfway between Eglinton and Lawrence Avenues.  They were stuck for twenty-five minutes, overheating in their heavy winter clothes.  His thoughts?  Yes, this is unpleasant, but it’s familiar.   It’s part of who I was, and who I am.  For better or worse, this is my home.

His old friend Alan went to Vancouver to find his wife, to fix the hole in his life, and as one of several side projects sent him home.   William hoped that wherever Alan was, he was happy as hell.  He sometimes thought, Maybe we’ll sometime, in a long time, ride together again in our Sailboat of Fun.  That’s what Tom Carlisle said would happen.  He and Ross visited William and Cindy in their new home on the last leg of their “merry jaunt around the planet.”  They brought gifts, a prayer wheel from Nepal and a thirty-foot extension cord.   “That’s for the vacuum cleaner,” said Ross, “so it doesn’t come unplugged.”

Fooj and Monique had a baby girl on Remembrance Day.  They named her Madeline Kiyumi.  They sent photos. 

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” said Cindy.

Fooj had been disappointed when William told him he wouldn’t be able to become the Director of Education of the Kazuo Fujiwara Biological Centre, but he understood.   William agreed to serve on the Board of Directors, fulfilling most of his duties by internet and teleconferencing.

The first six episodes of Smoke Jumpers got sky-high ratings and the series was given the go-ahead for a full season.  Fooj instantly became an international sex-god, so asked to have his character killed.  The producers countered by tripling his salary.  He phoned in the middle of the night to ask what to do.

“I dunno.  Maybe ask your grammaw,” William said. 

Judging by the results, Obachan said to go for the money.
He tried hard not to make the same mistake twice, and did his best not to lose touch with the world out west.  He made the most of email, writing Fooj weekly and Stacey almost daily.  The latter would tail off though.  Stacey and Greg became engaged, and would marry next summer.  She had folded her final t-shirt at The Gap and accepted a permanent job in the head office of the GVRD.  He learned from her that Ed Daddle no longer worked at Central Area Office. 

Stacey: He was seconded to Solid Waste Management.  Not many young women to ogle there. Maybe he’s given up.

William: Maybe he found somebody.

Stacey: How are your parents?

William could not believe that the story of Ed Daddle would end in Solid Waste Management.  He would probably second his way up to running the whole show one day, with the authority to oversee the hiring of hundreds upon hundreds of cute, perky, young women.  He would still never get laid though.  He would die from terminal frustration, curled beneath his executive desk, clutching his tree-puller, his executive closet filled with unused raincoats and ranger hats.

He had no way of knowing what became of Baba the sciurophobe ice cream truck driver, or Milt, putative Jesus of the West, although he understood that Alan left enough money in trust to keep him going for years.  Since the world had not been destroyed by widespread nuclear calamity, he felt sure they had not been wrong in rescuing Milt from the Jesus of the Easters, although the method had been nothing to be proud of.  He imagined Milt wandering the shores of Burnaby Lake with his bags of bird seed and jumbo marshmallows, sharing peculiar secrets and unhealthy snacks with his beloved rogue beaver.

Their house was only a five minute drive from Becky and Geoff’s.  Geoff turned out to be a quiet, thoughtful fellow who liked to kid you for your foibles, but laughed hardest when you kidded him for his.  Becky Pang had claimed that Geoff was a sweet man.  When Cindy and William first moved into their house, there was a fair amount of renovation to do.  Geoff appeared, sans Becky, but with his tool belt, his truck, and a wealth of experience in household repair.  Over several weekends he helped install a new tub and toilet, sand and refinish the downstairs hardwood, change the ceiling light fixtures, and build an interlocking brick patio.  So yes, he was a sweet man.  Had Geoff and William met under any circumstances, William believed they would have become friends. 

Although he and Geoff had never spoken of William’s long-ago relationship with Becky, everyone knew the story.  This led to some awkwardness during early get-togethers.  Geoff and Becky observed a no-touching rule, always sitting a chaste two or three inches apart.  Seated on the opposite sofa, Cindy and William followed suit.  One day William asked Cindy if she could speak to Becky—to tell her it was okay now.                                                             

“Why don’t you tell her?” she asked.

“It seems more of a sister-sister discussion.”

She gave him a look that told him he could forget about ever lying to her, and then picked up the phone and speed-dialled Becky.  She said, “Hi! William wants you guys to screw on our sofa next time you’re here.” 

Becky and Geoff came over to watch the television premiere of Dan Imamura’s film, “Two Hands: the story of Alan and Hannah.”  They watched with the room lights out, which had been at William’s insistence.  He didn’t want to see the others’ reactions.  He cringed at parts where he was speaking, because he hated seeing or hearing recordings of himself.  At other parts he had to avert his eyes — there was way too much of him in that film.  There he was in a tuxedo, battling Odd Job.  There he was, running, screaming through a crowd, swinging a BB gun.  There he was, wrestling with a speed freak in the parking lot.  There he was, hip-checking a cameraman into the mud.  There he was with Alan, being placed in the back of an RCMP Crown Victoria.

There was a low-light shot of Alan and William fighting in the canoe, ending in a blinding flash that turned the screen into a luminous purple blob, which lit up the darkened room.  Daniel Imamura was narrating, describing the fight, and did not give an explanation as to what it was about. “William doesn’t remember,” he said.  “The lightning erased his short-term memory of the event.”  William glanced across at Becky, who was cuddled against her new husband.  His arm was draped around her.  He could tell from the gleam of her eyes that she was looking back at him.  In the months since his return, her thirty-five-year-old face had become indistinguishable from her eighteen-year-old face.  It was the same face, which William had never stopped loving.  It was the face that when he was hopelessly pinned in the bow of a canoe had given him the strength to kick Alan Lennox in the gut and rip a hole in the existential cheesecloth.  Becky Pang was what the fight was about.

He had never been a shirt-off kind of guy, but had allowed Dan to photograph his torso.  In fact, a schematic of his torso was also the logo of the film, a white male torso with a large red right hand over the heart, and a smaller red right hand lower down, on the right-hand side.  (It was very easy to convert to a promotional t-shirt, which both Cindy and William were wearing as they watched.)  William understood that in a way he would be wearing that t-shirt the rest of his life.  The burns on his skin remained visible as pigment deposits.  A dumbfounded physician told him they would likely diminish over time, but would never fully disappear.

The film ended with a fade-out of an overturned canoe pinned against the Cariboo Dam, and Daniel calling Alan’s name in the background.  The viewer was left wondering what had really happened, how there could be no body, and what the second handprint on William’s torso really meant.  Dan had intended the ending to be ambiguous, open to interpretation, to encourage re-examination of beliefs of life and love and death. 

*   *   *

Cindy clicks on a lamp and she, Becky and Geoff stare at William as if he has some explaining to do.

He says, “I though t the music was great.  Outstanding musicianship.”

Cindy kicks him.

“What?” he says.

Becky says to Cindy, “Did you know all this?”

“Not all,” she says.  “Did you?”

Becky shakes her head.

Geoff says, “You realize half the world will want a piece of you.  You’re like a human Ouija board, except you actually work.”

William says, “They’ll never find me.  They’ll be looking over there, but I’m back here.”  He excuses himself and goes into the kitchen.  Cindy had bought a cake and William needs to create counter space to lay out plates.  He also needs to avoid a group interrogation.

He thinks of Geoff’s comment, and that the truth was it wouldn’t matter if they, those wanting to reach their deceased loved ones, found him or not.  It wasn’t him.  It was Alan.  It had all been Alan.  None of it would have happened without him, Alan the Artist.  Alan, who knew how to use a pencil and a paintbrush, a canoe and a muscle car.  And his guile and his heart, and his camp-mate, a run-of-the-mill human lightning rod, a tool he had kept in his back pocket for seventeen years, not really knowing what it was or how to use it until he needed it.  If there is, or was, a Jesus of the West, whatever the hell that could possibly be, it was Alan.

“Will-Will?”  Becky comes in silently in soft blue socks as he is carefully placing wine glasses in the dishwasher.  He lifts his eyes.

She says, “I have something to show you.”  She is holding a piece of paper against her chest. 

He slides the rack in slowly and closes the dishwasher door.

She says, “One night, a couple of years ago when I couldn’t sleep, I turned on the computer.  I was thinking about the trip we took in high school, to Washington, and I did an image search for the Lincoln Memorial.  After about a hundred pages of thumbnails, this popped up.”  She hands him an inkjet-printed picture.  It’s not an image from only a couple of years ago.  The softness of detail and Day-Glo clothing of the young, rebellious-looking couple posing in front of the big chair suggest a scan of an old picture, circa 1989.  The people are possibly European, slouching drunkenly together, perhaps mocking America’s worship of the great man.  Who they are or what they are doing doesn’t matter. What matters is who is standing behind them, to the left, almost out of the frame — two deliriously happy high school students from Toronto, holding hands.

“Oh, look at us,” he says.  “This was almost exactly half our lives ago.”                                

“It was too young to start.  We never would have made it, because it’s almost impossible for two people to deal with all the choices and changes that happen when you’re in your twenties and stay together.  If I had to marry someone at nineteen, I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

“You’re glad you married someone else?” he asks, but he knows what she means. 

“I’m happy I didn’t marry you,” she says, “because now you’re not my ex.”  She reaches and cups her hand behind his neck.  His forehead plonks against hers.  All he sees are her eyes.  All she sees are his.  She speaks softly, almost a whisper, “The most important thing is that from here to the end, we’ll always know where to find each other.”

“Yes,” he says, because it is the simplest response, but he cannot be sure there will ever be an end, or that this will ever feel finished.  She releases him and they look at each other uncertainly, as they did as teenagers, as they did before Gettysburg, before anything, before everything.  She steps away, out of the kitchen, back to her husband.  He looks at the picture once more, at how they had been, and folds it in half.  Out of the corner of his eye he catches his reflection in the window.  He turns to face the glass, to look through himself. It is easy to imagine that outside, perched on the fence, is a wild-eyed artist scribbling madly in the dark.

Part 35. Toronto

(Start at Part 1)

Alan’s spies were correct: Becky Pang lived on Empress Avenue in North York.  They were also correct about her marital status: she had divorced Tony Lo two years earlier.  One crucial detail of her life that was overlooked, however, was that although no longer married, she also was not single.  She was engaged to a man she had known for several years, a former co-worker in the pharmacy of North York General Hospital.  He was a kind, good-humoured fellow with the white-as-can-be name of Geoff Taylor.  A Caucasian boy!  The rules had changed.

So her phone call to his apartment in Vancouver the morning after Alan disappeared, the last day of August, was to say the least a letdown to William— to have her suddenly back in his ear, but otherwise forever out of his life.  William was reminded again that the world he had left behind continued to change in his absence, which made it all the easier never to return.

Becky could tell he was disappointed and tried to cheer him up.  “I’ve dreamt about you so many times over the years, and always wondered where you were, and what you were doing.  Then, this summer, I kept seeing you on the news, leading an exciting life out in BC.  I was happy for you, doing all that outdoors stuff you love.”  

William had considered his livelihood in BC an embarrassment.  From afar, through the TV, it appeared glamorous.  It was a matter of perspective.

“It’s like hearing you’re marrying Tony Lo all over again.”

She replied, “Except this time I want to marry the guy.”

That took his breath away.  Oh, right. 

Never mind, he told himself.  You’re not the same person anymore and you couldn’t have made her happy.  You’re an incurable grump, a lightning-struck loser.  Accept that and move on.

He almost didn’t go back to Toronto.  He told Becky he didn’t have much reason to go there.  She said, “No-no, Will-Will, you can’t only half-reappear after all this time.”

He told her he didn’t want to meet her fiancĂ©.

“You don’t have to,” she said.  “You have to come and see me.  You never even hugged me good bye. ” 

He thought, True, but I ate the piece of grass you were chewing on.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-September he went to her house.  It was a small, brick, post-WWII house with an A-frame upper floor.  There was a car-port with a minivan inside.  He was carrying flowers.  He didn’t know what else to bring.  What do you bring to a final meeting with someone you haven’t seen in seventeen years?  He rang the bell, but there was no answer.  He could see himself in the glass of the storm door.  He didn’t look eighteen anymore, and didn’t look happy.  He saw her first in reflection, carrying a green plastic watering can.  He turned around.

“Here you are,” she said, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, the hug he had been aching for forever, but compromised by the empty watering can bouncing against his shoulder blades and the flowers clutched against his chest.  She didn’t look eighteen anymore either.  Her long, long hair was now shoulder length, and her willowy body was not quite as willowy, but her voice, her movements, her smile, were the same magic.  

They went inside to the kitchen, where she found a vase.  The television was on in the living room.  She stuck her head in and said, “Melissa, come here, I want you to meet somebody.”  She then called, “Ben! Come down here!”  Melissa, aged four, her hair in pigtails, peeked into the kitchen.  Roly-poly and bespectacled Ben, aged ten, came bouncing down the stairs.  He eyed William suspiciously.  “This is my old friend,” Becky said.  “Say hello to Uncle William.”

“Just ‘William,’” he said. 

“Hello,” said Ben, who then was drawn into the living room by the television.

Melissa had already gone back to her cartoons without saying a word.

Becky led him outside.  They sat on a wooden bench beneath an ancient, twisted crab apple tree and tried to summarize for each other the years spent apart.

She went first.  She told him about being married, about being married to a boring man, a bullying man, a cheating man, about an unsympathetic family, except for sister Cindy.  About raising children alone on a single income, about meeting a sweet man who made her happy again.

His turn.  He told her about not being married, about living alone, or living with someone he wanted to love but couldn’t.  About travelling to beautiful places, but alone.  About being struck by lightning.  About being struck by lightning again, and again.  About Alan Lennox and Hannah, about Dan and his film, about maybe becoming Education Director of the Kazuo Fujiwara Biological Centre.  About not being sure if that was what he wanted.

He took a deep breath and said, “There were so many times when I was lost, either lost out in the wilderness, literally, or simply feeling deeply lost at where my life had taken me since knowing you, and I would sit and hold my head, and whisper your name, hoping that your voice would answer, and it would talk to me, help me figure out what to do.”

“Did it help?”

“No.  You were pretty quiet.  Maybe you weren’t paying attention.”

She laughed, and nudged him.  “You shouldn’t have whispered.  You should have yelled—or even phoned.  I wanted you to call me.”

“I couldn’t, not after I learned you were married, and then you had your children.”

“You still could have called.  Being a mother doesn’t change you in that way.”

She moved her left hand from her lap to the space on the bench between them.  She saw him looking at it.  “It’s the same hand,” she said.

Before he could touch it, Melissa burst out the door and wriggled in between them.  He marvelled at the top of the little girl’s head, the straightness and sheen of her hair.  He felt he didn’t belong, and told Becky he should get going.

In the kitchen he stopped and turned to her.  He said, “Please stop marrying other people.  It’s killing me.”

She said, “Stop living so far away and maybe next time will be your turn.”

“When’s the wedding?” he asked.

She looked him straight in the eye.  “A week today.”

He wished he hadn’t asked.  The hurt kept on hurting.

Then the front door creaked open.  That sound was followed by a pair of hollow clops, a woman’s shoes dropping to the floor.  Into the kitchen walked Becky’s youngest sister.  The last William had seen her, she was an undersized fourteen year-old wearing a monstrous scoliosis brace, struggling to hold Becky’s guitar.  She was still short, noticeably shorter than Becky, but straight-backed and pretty. 

“Cindy,” he said. 

“Good timing Cin,’” said Becky.  “I need to buy some eggs.  Please don’t leave yet, William, I’ll be right back.”  She plucked up her keys from a table in the hall, poked through the shoe pile, and blew out the door.           

“You look pretty much the same,” said Cindy, “but not as skinny.”

The time it took Becky to buy eggs suggested an egg shortage in the Greater Toronto Area.  While she was out, William learned that Cindy was a music teacher for the Toronto Board of Education.  She described herself as a wandering minstrel, travelling from school to school, teaching everything from grade three recorder to grade eight band.  He learned that while an undergraduate at U of T she had eloped with another music student, causing her parents to disown her because, in her words, “He was one of you guys.”  Four years later her husband died and they re-owned her.  She said her marriage had been a mistake, that she had made a bad choice for a husband and that her marriage probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway because his lifestyle had spun out of control.  He was a club musician and got into drugs, which was what killed him.  Nevertheless it was a terrible thing being a widow at twenty-six with zero sympathy from her parents.  She now lived with her friend, Sharon, another teacher.  Cindy was thirty-one and unmarried.  Her parents were worried she had become a lesbian.

“You’ve had a hard time,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

She cocked her head to change the subject.  “How are you?  I saw you on the news, about Alan Lennox.”

“All right, I guess,” he said.  “It was a strange end to a strange summer.”  Becky could fill her in later if she really wanted to know.  He asked how her parents felt about Becky marrying “one of us guys.”                                                                                                          

“They’re okay with it.  They’ve got their black-haired grandchildren, two from Becky, two more from Jennie with a third on the way.  My sisters have done their duty.  I’m the big disappointment.”                                                                                                                                           

The natural urge was to ask how anyone could think of her as a disappointment, but she wasn’t fishing for compliments.  William said, “You’re bitter.”

She laughed.  “Yes, I am.”

“Me too,” William said.  “Very bitter, and for way longer than you.”

“You seem proud of that.”

He told her, “Here’s the thing about bitterness.  After a while it becomes a physical part of you.  It gets laid down in your bones — even in the dentine of your teeth.  It becomes as much a part of you as your sense of humour, your blood type or your Social Insurance Number.  Part of the reason I came back here was to deal with the bitterness that caused me to move away, including the issues I have with my parents.”

“How’s that going?”

“It’s a battle.  One voice tells me I should let it go, make the most of the rest of the time we have together.  I’ve been receiving coaching on such an approach.  I haven’t given up yet, but it’s hard.”

“There’s another voice?”

“The angry, familiar one.  Don’t relinquish your bitterness for them.  It would be like paying someone for robbing you.”

“So you’ll stay bitter?”                                                                                                                 

“Probably.  You probably should too.  Never let go of your bitterness.  Bitterness is natural.  It’s empowering, and sustaining.”

“And healthy,” she said.

“Yes, very healthy.”

They stopped laughing when Becky opened the door.  She gave a puzzled smile as she carried her hard-won eggs to the kitchen.

Overhead, Ben shouted, “Melissa, leave my stuff alone!”

Cindy got up.  She said, “I’ll check on them,” and she hurried up the stairs.

When Becky came into the room, William said, “I really should get going now.”  She didn’t ask why, which was good because it meant he didn’t have to tell her that he felt he was the one haunting now, the one watching a living person’s life.

His intention had been to stay in Toronto a week — the maximum tolerable at his parents’ house — and then return to dedicate himself fully to the Fooj Centre.  His plans changed, though, when Dan Imamura called.  His mother answered the phone.  “It’s one of your oriental friends,” she said.
Dan’s documentary had become thematically complicated because of what happened at the dam.   He asked if William could stick around for a while and let him interview him a few times more.  He wanted to include segments about his electrically-induced encounters with his sister.  William said okay.  He would do almost anything for Danny.

During one interview, Dan asked, “Why were you and Alan fighting in the canoe?”

“Something he said.”

“Do you remember what it was?”

“No,” said William.  That was private.

“Was it the lightning?”

“What do you mean?”

“Erased that memory?”

“That would explain it,” said William.

Flush with Alan’s money, he rented an apartment on St. George Street in Toronto, north of Bloor, across from the bank-like Christian Science Church.  Even with long-distance coaching from Stacey he couldn’t be comfortable around his parents.  He would have rotted to death from the inside-out had he stayed one day longer in his old home, in his old room — as though nothing had changed in seventeen years apart from everyone becoming a lot older.

One day when William was at Dan’s workspace, not doing anything in particular, Dan wondered out loud where he could find musicians to record a soundtrack.  He wanted original music.  There was a string quartet he had used before, and he liked the texture of strings, but found their new agent unreasonably demanding, their fee now too high.

“I may know someone,” William said.  He called Becky’s number to leave a message, asking for Cindy’s number.  He was surprised when Becky answered.  “I expected you’d be on your honeymoon,” he said.

“No, I don’t like being away from my kids.  Where are you?” 

“Still here.”  William told her Dan was looking for musicians.  He wondered if Cindy might be interested.   He thought the line had gone dead.  “Hello?” he said.    

“I’m here,” said Becky.  “So, you’re working on that film too, right?”

“I am.”

“It sounds like a good idea.”

“You think she’d be interested?”

“Sure she is,” Becky said.

The following week, for four consecutive days, Cindy came to his apartment after work, toting her guitar.  They went out for dinner, twice to the Swiss Chalet on Bloor Street, and then they took the subway over to the Danforth, to a recording studio.

Cindy played background music, piano or acoustic guitar, for the “surveillance scenes,” when Dan had filmed Alan and/or William without their knowledge.  Dan picked music Alan and William had listened to as 18-year-olds, transcribed for single instrument and played at a slower tempo.  He wanted the soundtrack spare and haunting.

There was a lounge at the studio with an old couch against one wall.  William was sitting on it, playing Cindy’s guitar as she was in another room creating a mournful piano version of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.   William was trying to remember the chord sequence for Cat’s in the Cradle, a song he used to play for Becky and Cindy, but kept getting stuck at the descending series on the fifth line of the verse.

She appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame, watching as William continued fumbling.  Finally she lost patience, came over, clamped her hand on the neck of the guitar and said, “Give me that.”  She sat next to him and played it straight through on the first go.  She then leaned over the body of the guitar and asked, “So, now that we’re almost done with this project, what are your plans?”

William rambled on again about the Fooj Centre, a topic he had covered at length in previous conversations.

She shook her head.  Her hair was parted in the middle and the tips danced on the strings.  She looked up and said, “When you were dating Becky, in the last century, my favourite times were when she went down to the basement to argue with Jennie.”

“Why?” William asked.  He had found those times very unsettling.

Cindy started playing scales without looking at her hands.  G major.  C major.  D major.  She had flawless fingering.  She moved on to chords.   “When our parents were out, I would ask Becky if you were coming over,” she said, strumming a series of majors, “because I loved it when you did.”   She switched to minors.  “I was a scrawny little girl with a bent little body.  I doubted I would ever have a boyfriend, because even if I grew straight, everyone who knew me would always think of me as the girl in that brace, and that there was something wrong with me.  No one would ever want me.”  More major chords.  “You were patient and funny, and held the guitar for me, and showed me chords, some of which you’ve obviously forgotten.”  Back to minors.  “I was almost as heartbroken as Becky when you stopped coming over, because you and Becky together were like my dream come true, and when it didn’t come true after all, I believed there was no other possibility than that my life would always be crap.”  She deadened the strings.

Then she rocked his world.  She asked, “Remember this?”  She played Time in a Bottle.  Her voice was low and sad, like Becky’s, but with a heart-wrenching timbre William had never heard in Becky. 

But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do
Once you find them
I’ve looked around enough to know
That you’re the one I want to go
Through time with

She ended with an arpeggio and three ringing harmonic notes.  When she raised her eyes, William stuck his cold finger in her warm ear.  Without missing a beat, she stuck hers in his.

Dan walked in, about to say something.  He looked, closed his mouth, and walked back out.

William asked if she would consider living on an island in beautiful British Columbia for a while.

“Nope,” she said.  “Your apartment is nice.  Let’s give it six months there, then either call it quits or buy a house, depending.”  She was even blunter than Becky, whose bluntness had always amused him.  They bought a house after three weeks.

The last night they stayed in Williams’s apartment they talked, side by side in bed.  Cindy said, “Tomorrow I want you to come with me and talk to my parents.”

He reflexively shifted away from her, saying, “I don’t think I want to do that.”

“Well, I want you to.  I need you to.”


She told him a story of her parents that Becky had never told him.  She told him of their arrival in Canada as young newlyweds with next to nothing, and of the series of humiliating, low-paying jobs they did—that she knew of—and described the run-down apartment near Chinatown where they lived.  And then, unplanned, came Becky, an added burden, making it harder to get ahead.  She talked of how they worked as hard as they could, sacrificing for their growing family, which included her mother’s parents, who had come to live with them, and how they had depended on their closest friends from Hong Kong who had migrated with them for rent money when things were short, Uncle Nelson and Auntie Ha.  They were the parents of Tony Lo.

“And then they finally saved enough and had stable enough jobs to move us out to the suburbs, where there were safe schools where their daughters could get good educations and hopefully, eventually, become well-paid professionals, and what happens?”

He waited.  She was quiet.  He asked, “What year was this?”

She poked him.  “The year of you.  You happened.  Yellow-haired, blue-eyed guitar-guy in a denim jacket.  That person was not part of the plan.  What was their eldest daughter doing with him?  What was he doing with her?”

“Mostly we were just walking around the neighbourhood, hiding from them.  We were holding hands.”

“Think what they were imagining.”

“They had nothing to worry about.  We weren’t doing that.  We never did.”

“I know.  Becky told me.”

“So why did they have to ruin everything?  Why didn’t they just talk to me?”

“Simple.  The language barrier.  Their English was weak, and you wouldn’t respect them, white man.”

“I would so.  And I was barely a man.  I was a boy.”

“A smart boy.  You were the smart boy at school.  They knew that much about you.  You would talk circles around them.  They were terrified of you.”

“I was terrified of them.  I still am.  They probably still hate me.”

"There was never any hate.  Unless you hated them."

"No, I didn't."

"So come and talk with them.   It’s different now.”


“Time.  They feel safe now.  Things mostly worked out as they had hoped.  They became emotionally invested in Canada.  It became their home.  Dad flies a maple leaf flag on Canada Day.” 

“Do they understand what they did hurt me a lot, Becky too?”

“They weren’t trying to do that.  They were doing what they thought was right.  They were protecting their family.”

“They hurt you and your husband.”

“They were trying to protect me, but it got very emotional and ugly.”

He didn't respond for a few seconds.  Then he said, “They were being good parents.”

She also waited several seconds to speak, and then said, “I can’t tell if you’re finishing my thought, or if that’s what you mean.”

He rubbed his forehead, and asked, “Will Auntie Yvonne be there too?”

She laughed. “God, I hope not.”

“I don’t like her at all.”

“Nobody does.”