Saturday, March 14, 2009


The interpreter was walking downhill from the train station on his way to the park. Up the road from the nature house, across the creek, there was a large warehouse used as a soundstage by a television production company. The show being produced at the time was a new incarnation of the Addams Family. It was not uncommon to see Uncle Fester standing outside a side exit of the building, smoking.

Smoking Uncle Fester was wearing a long black cloak with a high, fuzzy, folded collar, and grey makeup on his face and entire shaved head. As the interpreter passed the soundstage, Uncle Fester saw him, and waved. The interpreter waved back, and quickened his pace. He had no time for Fester.

Fester had first visited the nature house incognito--a chubby, middle-aged, bald-headed guy who was also a birder—a pushy, boring birder, the sort that seemed to need to tell others about--- beat them over the head with—recent hot sightings, regardless of the other’s desire for involvement in the conversation. An interpreter on desk duty in a nature house was a sitting duck.

After a while, perhaps due to some rearrangement in shooting times, Fester, whose real name would never be known to the interpreter, started visiting the nature house in full Addams Family get-up. He would materialize suddenly, grey-skinned and bug-eyed, and with little or no salutation launch into a rapid-fire list, a recitation of species and localities, to which the interpreter would make non-committal responses. The interpreter had long ago learned that with this type of birder, if you asked a follow-up question or gave a response hinting at a comparable sighting of the same hot species, the interaction could become numbingly protracted, and sometimes pointlessly combative.

The interpreter stuck his key in the nature house door, looked down, and swore. At his feet was a small terrarium. A note taped on its screened top said, “Please look after my lizard for me. His name is FREDWARD. He eats crickets. You can buy them at the pet store.” The interpreter bent low to inspect the lizard. There wasn’t one. The terrarium contained a few inches of sand and a plastic tree and nothing else. The lizard had been stolen, or had escaped, or had been eaten by a raccoon who carefully replaced the lid. Good. Whatever Fredward had been, it was now something the interpreter would not have to be responsible for.

He carried the terrarium inside and, without removing the attached note, set it next to the uninhabited lamprey aquarium with the non-functioning pump. A zoo of non-existent creatures. Then he sat down in the dead air and began waiting for the end of his shift.

How would be spend the next six hours?

Folding brochures. A stack of photocopies had been left on the desk by the supervisor.

Visitors came and went, two or three at a time. Most adopted the air of someone walking into a shop, almost instantly realizing it was not the kind of shop they expected or wanted to be in, yet pretended to browse for the sake of preserving the dignity of the person behind the counter.

About an hour and 75 brochures later, the interpreter noticed that the palm tree in Fredward’s terrarium had toppled. This seemed to make sense. There was no life at all in this place. Even a plastic plant would die.

A father with a son, about five, came in. They paused at Fredward’s terrarium. The father tapped on the glass. “Oh, look,” he said. “There he is.”

The child squealed.The interpreter stopped folding.

“He?” he asked. “What are you looking at?”

“The...” the father read the note. “Fred Ward,” he said, laughing. “Oh, he’s gone back down.”

The interpreter got up and walked around the desk. The terrarium contained a few inches of sand and a toppled plastic palm tree. The interpreter crouched to look closer.

“See what happens when you tap,” said the father.

The interpreter tapped on the glass. Immediately, a shiny wedge with a gleaming eye popped up. The eye blinked, and then the wedge was sucked back into the sand.

The child squealed again.

“It’s a Scincus!” exclaimed the interpreter.

“What’s that?” asked the father.

“A kind of lizard from northern Africa that lives under the sand. I‘ve never seen a live one before.” He removed the lid and carefully fanned down through the sand until his fingers felt the smooth back of the skink. He lifted the shovel-nosed creature out of the tank for the father and child – and himself– to see. It was lemon-yellow, with broad black bands across its polished back. The legs were stout, with sharp, straight claws. The tail was thick at the base, and tapered quickly to a point. After they had all stroked the creature, the interpreter placed it back in the terrarium. In a flurry it was gone, buried.

“I had no idea you could get one for a pet in Canada,” said the interpreter. “I didn’t actually know there was anything alive in this tank. It was here when I arrived this morning, abandoned at the door.”

“Whoever brought it must have been a fan of Tremors,” said the father.

“What’s that?”

“Classic movie,” said the father. “Early ‘90s or thereabouts. About scary underground creatures in a desert town that pop up and eat people. The heroic character is played by Fred Ward. He gives a miraculous performance. Hence the name, I guess.”

The interpreter didn’t understand why the sand fish would be named after the human character. “Tremors?"

“Rent it," said the father. "You won't be disappointed. It’s not a typical monster movie.”

That’s when Uncle Fester walked in.

“Daddy....” said the child, ducking behind his parent. The father sidled out, keeping his body between Fester and his son. Fester spun on his heel to eyeball them out the door. Then he turned to the interpreter.

“Hi,” said the interpreter. “Do you get a kick out of doing that?”

“What?” asked Fester. He frowned at the interpreter. He lacked the nutty joie de vivre of the Jackie Coogan Fester.

“So how’re things?” asked the interpreter, resigned to whatever was to follow.

“I got a Pygmy Owl,” said Fester. “At the golf course, Burnaby Mountain.”

“Nice,” said the interpreter.

“And a Clark’s Grebe.”

“No kidding,” said the interpreter.

“Albion Ferry. Maple Ridge side, right at the dock.”

“Good one,” said the interpreter. Fester was on a roll. The interpreter wondered if it would be impolite to resume folding pamphlets.

“Band-tailed Pigeons, big flock. Q-E Park, near the conservatory.”

“Yeah? Wow,” said the interpreter, who was now backed up against his desk. Fester had a large body and a small personal space threshold. Plus, he looked like Uncle Fester.

On it went: Red-naped sapsucker at Tynehead Park, dark-phase Gyrfalcon at Boundary Bay....

“Say,” interrupted the interpreter. “Have you ever seen a Scincus?”

“Huh?” said Fester.

Aside from a needing a ploy to derail Uncle F, the interpreter assumed that a keen birder would also have at least a passing interest in unusual reptiles.

“Watch this.” The interpreter reached into the sand and scooped out the lizard.

Fester stepped backward. “Gah,” he said. “Yuck.”

“No, look,” said the interpreter, holding it forward. He believed that if you explained what something was, apprehension would melt away. This was the essence of interpretation. Besides, how could an Uncle Fester be afraid of a lizard? The interpreter said, “It’s a skink, sometimes called a sand-fish.”

“Yah, get it away. I hate those things.”

At this instant, a weak signal fired within the reptile’s simple brain, causing it to writhe with the mechanical vigour of an animal evolved to swim through the ground. It shot from the interpreter’s hands and landed on the slope of Uncle Fester’s chest. It scooted up to his fuzzy folded collar.

“Gaaah!” Fester yelled and batted at it. The lizard spun like a Frisbee onto the interpreter’s desk, skidded off and slapped onto the floor behind.

The interpreter ran around to the lizard, which had disappeared, then turned to speak to Fester, who had also disappeared. The interpreter stuck his head out the front door.

Uncle fester was chugging up the road, peeling off his cloak and shaking it, ridding it of skink cooties. His white undershirt was wet with sweat, and stained from the back of his neck downward in a zombie-grey skunk-smudge.

“Bye,” said the interpreter.

Amanda, a younger, prettier interpreter, came into the nature house to find the interpreter carefully pulling apart a flimsy false wall in the exhibits room. He had wedged a pry bar between an indoor-outdoor carpet-covered quarter-inch sheet of plywood and its two-by-four frame. The nails were pulling out one at a time with long, painful squawks. The front popped off at one end.

“Why are you doing that?” she asked.

“There’s a dangerous subterranean beast hiding back in here,” he said, without looking at her. “It got Uncle Fester.”

“Seriously, what are you doing? You’re wrecking the place.”

In the space between the false wall and the true wall of the building, amid a constellation of dried mouse droppings, was the skink. It lay flatly and placidly on the floor. The interpreter reached in and pinned it, then carefully lifted it from the narrow space. “Here,” he said, turning to her. He wasn’t sure how she would react. Amanda wasn’t big on cold-blooded animals.

“Oh my God,” she said. “What is that? Some kind of lizard?”

“It’s called a sand fish.”

She leaned closer. “It’s actually kind of pretty, whatever it is.” She touched its back.

“His name is Fred Ward,” said the interpreter, “and he’s miraculous.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Ho-ho,” said the interpreter.

Postscript/Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction, as are all the interpreter stories. Some, but not all of the events described in these stories were inspired by real experiences, as memory allows. Certainly none of the characters is meant to represent a real person. Regarding the present story, and in response to a comment that suggested a real actor's name: No, aside from the well-known physical appearance of the Charles Addams character, Uncle Fester, the Fester in this story is entirely imagined.


KaHolly said...


swamp4me said...

Oh, I loved that movie! Tremors and Slither are two of my all time favorites. Maybe I shouldn't tell you that...

Hugh said...

Thanks, KaHolly.

Swampy, Yes, it's a great film. (And pretty much a day at the office for you!)

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

We need one of those skinks at the library. The library attracts serious blow hards.

Hugh said...

Aunt D, You gotta get a nice big male Broad-headed Skink (native to TX). They're feisty and bite hard, like vice-grips with legs.

cedrorum said...

Oh, I've had my share of uncle festers in the nature center. Great story. Whatever happened to Fred Ward?