Tuesday, April 14, 2009

American Pipit

This is part three (of five) of The Interpreter Lightning Series. Part 1. Part 2.

The interpreter scrunched into his shoes and walked out of the high-ceilinged room with the machine, into the waiting room. “Thanks,” he said to the Filipino woman with the clipboard. “That was interesting.” She blinked at him.

Stacey was waiting in the lobby of the hospital wing. She jumped to her feet, which caused her hair to swing. Sparkly.

The glass doors whooshed open and they walked into the parking lot. The breeze smelled like dryer sheets. “This is the first warm day since forever,” said the interpreter.

“How was it?” Stacey asked. She took keys from her pocket and aimed them at her car. The door locks jumped up as if caught napping.

Once buckled in, the interpreter said, “I’m quite enjoying this Ativan. It makes your feelings warm and melty. If they put it in Tic Tacs, I would definitely buy Tic Tacs.”

The yellow arm guarding the parking lot rose to allow them to proceed. Stacey turned left, and said, “No, I meant what was the MRI like?”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, it’s not great. It’s like being slid into the overhead luggage bin of a 737. It’s white and plastic and the air is dead. There’s a series of clicks like the noise the chain makes on a roller coaster as you are heading for the peak, and then the fun starts, a random series of rattles and beeps like a pinball machine, and you’re jiggling around like you’ve been kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car that is fleeing the police along a rough country road. Every so often a disembodied voice scolds you, saying, ‘Stop moving!’”

“You couldn’t stop moving?”

“You have no choice. It moves you.”

They drove in silence toward the inlet. The interpreter watched out the window. The trees were waking up, but not too quickly the way they did in the east: one day you could spot all the warblers and vireos, the next you had better know their calls, because the scrim had dropped.

Stacey asked, “How about we go to the marina. Fish 'n Chips?”

The Fish 'n Chips stand was next to the parking lot, which was at the edge of a large mowed field. Beyond the field was a forested mountainside. It was a lonely day at the marina despite the pleasant weather.

“I’ll pay,” he said.

“You haven’t worked for a month.”

“Okay, you can pay this time,” he said.

They sat at a picnic table with circles cut out of its top to hold the paper cones of deep-fried fish. A school bus rolled into the parking lot and parked at the far end. Apart from the driver it was empty.

The interpreter said, “In the old days, whenever I flew alone, I would ask for a window seat. As the plane descended into a city I would see how long it took to spot a school bus.”

She laughed. “You have a thing for school buses?”

“Not anymore,” he said. “Interpreters hate school buses.”

The bus driver got out and walked across the field toward the public rest rooms. This sent a cloud of small, shrill birds circling only to land again where it had been.

“Oh, American Pipits,” said the interpreter.

Stacey said, almost reflexively, “Latin name?” There had been a long-standing game where younger interpreters would challenge the interpreter to provide the Latin names of birds, invertebrates, vascular plants, mosses, anything. He was unbeatable. It was his great skill, useless in any practical way but impressive nonetheless.

The interpreter held a piece of halibut for a long time, staring out to where the birds had settled. He turned and put the fish back into its cone. “I don’t know.”

“But you know the Latin name of everything.”

“It’s... gone, that one.”

“You really don’t know.”

“Some of them have become hard to find. But it’s just the birds I think, especially the oddballs.”

Stacey pondered this as she ate, watching him as he watched the birds. She said, “They didn’t need a multi-million dollar machine to know that something is wrong with you. What they needed was to know you.”

He turned to look at her. Her hair was blowing. He could make the sparkles go away by clenching his eyelids for a few seconds.

They drove back to the nature house at the park. He couldn’t find his keys. Stacey said, “Forget about that. I need to talk with you, let’s go for a walk.”

They walked to the sawdust piles, a place in between the trails where the ground was thrown up into a series of small hills, which, if you scraped away the accumulated needles dropped by the dwarfed, sickly hemlocks that populated them, were revealed to be the remains of heaps of sawdust produced by a long-gone mill that had once consumed this forest, leaving behind only these, and beneath, cedar stumps as broad as banquet tables.

He flopped down onto a bank between two trees. “This is the best spot,” he said. “Sometimes I sit here and watch the garter snakes come out to sun.”

She sat down a few feet away, and asked, “So when do you think you’ll be able to get back to doing programs? It’s been almost a month. I have to tell you it was strongly suggested by a manager at head office whom I won’t name that you be replaced. The lightning strike, although unfortunate, was not work-related.”

“True. It was umbrella-related,” he said.

“We all know that.”

“Managers know I exist?”

Stacey said, “I've been going to bat for you, you know, to have you kept on until you work through this. You’re sinking, and I feel helpless about it.”

He said, “Yeah, well, I’ve been sinking for a while now. Even before the lightning I spent most of my time being pissed off at people who visit the parks, or come into the nature house.”

“All of us are like that,” she said, “to some degree.”

“Not as much as me.”

“You need a Plan B, and fast,” she said.

“Being an interpreter was my Plan B,” he said. “Actually, D or E.”

“What was Plan A? Perhaps this is the time to get back to it.”

“I don’t want to talk about it. It didn’t work out, and was long ago.”

“I would appreciate it if you told me what it was, as a friend, as someone who has been going to bat for you.”


“Maybe there’s something similar available, something we could check into at head office. We could find another place for you, even invent a position.”

“I doubt it,” he said.

What was Plan A?” She was exasperated. “What do you want to do with your life? You’re very close to being terminated. You are auxiliary. The union won’t protect you.”

“I’ll tell you later, okay? I don’t want to ruin what’s left of the Ativan.”

“My butt is getting wet,” said Stacey. She stood up and swatted the seat of her pants. Her face was framed in her hair, but it was only her hair he saw.

He clenched his eyes, lay still for a few seconds, and then discovered she was gone. She was headed down the path.

“Wait!” he called.

She switched from walking to jogging.

Sometimes at the last second, a drowning person has the awareness to reach for the life ring. He ran.


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PSYL said...

Another great story. I wonder what's his Plan A? Researcher? Wildlife photographer? Ecotour guide? Field Technician?

Hope he reveals it in the next part.

swamp4me said...

You are such a tease...you know we have to know what happens next. Maybe I should get me some of that Ativan to ease the pain of waiting for the next installment ;)

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

You are certainly keeping me on pins and needles with this memoir. Hurry with the next instalment will you?

Eskarina said...

This one made me sad. :(
I see interpreters like this at the Nature House. They have tremendous knowledge and love of nature, and have been beaten down by buraucracy and some rather inconsiderate members of the public.
I really hope the interpreter can succeed at his plan A!

kompoStella said...

i read this swing of interpreter stories closely, with great pleasure. in this installment, i particularly enjoyed the way the door locks opened and the running for the life ring.
here's to all of us waiting for the next part - cheers!