Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Birthday party.

The interpreter was standing at a podium in a large, packed auditorium. The house lights were down. Projected behind him, twenty feet wide, was the massive, flattened, mud-brown head of the world’s largest living amphibian, a giant salamander nicknamed the BC Behemoth, a spectacular species new to science. It had been first collected and described by the interpreter.

All other sessions at the conference might as well have shut down; apart from the chairs and speakers, no one attended. Everyone free had crammed into the interpreter’s talk, billed as “This Century’s Coelacanth.” Everyone wanted to see the images, and hear the account of the discovery of this animal.

After he finished, a talk that included pictures of the gelatinous creature filling the bottom of a canoe, a young woman at the front of the boat gazing on, transfixed (Stacey), the house lights came up to applause, and hands raised for questions.

“Yes,” said the interpreter, acknowledging America’s foremost, venerable amphibian specialist, seated front and centre.

“I want to know about the birthday parties,” said the woman who had walked up to the counter in the nature house.

The interpreter didn’t understand the question. The amphibian specialist scowled, then dissolved.

“Hello?” said the woman, waving a brochure in front of his face.

“What?” The interpreter jumped, as though jostled awake.

“Ah, it says here you provide birthday parties. What are they about, and how much is it?”

“Oh,” said the interpreter. “Those.”

He hated that the brochure still advertised birthday parties. He had wanted to gather and burn all copies of it, sabotage whatever computer contained the relevant files, to remove the possibility that someone would walk up to the counter, interrupt his reverie, and ask about one.

Birthday parties and interpretive programs were a terribly bad fit, most interpreters agreed. Children attending were in party mode, charged up, unable to muster the attention required to appreciate nature at any level. No matter to what degree dumbed down, an interpretive nature program, if remaining at all recognizable as such, was no substitute for an hour and a half of bowling.

Unfortunately, interpreters had no say in what went into the programming brochures. People in Head Office decided that—or had, years ago. The number one rule about programming brochures seemed to be that what was already in them stayed there. Programming brochures were as immutable as scripture.


In his long career, the interpreter had presided over only one birthday party, and it had ended in death and destruction. He had tried, but failed, to erase it from his memory.

It had been for a boy, Jared, aged eight, and seven of his buddies. The parents had chosen the bat theme—it would be an evening program, starting at sunset.

The mother was crafty. She brought along a home-made piñata, a black, football-shaped object with googly eyes and paper wings. “It’s supposed to be a bat,” she said. This to the interpreter symbolized the wrongness of the situation—they would be ending a program about bats by beating one to smithereens.

After the parents had driven away, the interpreter led the boys down a trail into the darkening woods. Ahead was a clearing where bat-themed games, weakly related to concepts of predator-prey relationships and echolocation, would be played. Along the trail, the interpreter had positioned black, plastic, life-sized silhouettes of various animals for the boys to spot. It was here he learned that things were not going to go smoothly. There was a tall boy, named Alex. He had a pair of henchmen, whose names are now lost. These three were not happy merely to spot the animal silhouettes. They attacked them. They hauled them from the bushes and stomped on them, shouting “Yiii!”

“Why are you doing that?” asked the interpreter.

“’Cause it’s fun!” said Alex.

At the clearing they played bat-moth, a version of the game, Marco Polo, which after a few rounds degenerated into mad tackling and punching among Alex and the henchmen. The interpreter pulled them apart, and drew everyone’s attention to a cardboard box stashed ahead of time behind a tree. From it he took strange items, which he used to dress the birthday boy as a bat of sorts. He gave him a fake-fur vest to indicate a bat’s mammalian status. He gave him giant foam rubber hands to explain the anatomy of bat wings. He put a parabolic dish on the boy’s head to represent a bat’s ability to echolocate. He gave him large plastic glasses, to emphasize that bats are not blind, but which had the unintended, almost opposite effect of making them seem visually impaired. Dressed in this undignified way, the boy was set upon by the others, spurred on by the same instinct that causes certain children to punch amusement park mascots in the gut.

“And these guys are your friends?” the interpreter asked, helping the child to his feet.

To calm things down, he led the group on a meandering search for bat habitat--possible sites for day roosts, and places where bats would hunt. This was, unavoidably, entirely academic, for it was late autumn, and bats had long since left for their winter hibernacula. The troublesome Alex and his companions continued roughhousing, and the interpreter yelled at them to behave. This had a dampening effect on the general mood, and the interpreter sensed he had crossed a birthday party line. In an attempt to win the boys back, he held a flashlight beneath his chin in classic scary fashion, and spoke like Bela Lugosi, “It’s time to go back to the nature house...”

Alex snatched the light, and tried his hand at saying something scary. This led to a battle for the light among the boys, with interpreter yelling, “Stop that! Gimme that light! Hey!” and so on.

And then it started to rain—to pour. They ran back to the nature house, to the doomed bat-shaped piñata.

The interpreter lifted it by the length of twine that emerged from its back. It hung horizontal and remarkably true; it was a well-balanced bat. The interpreter dragged a stepladder into the middle of the exhibit room and tied the piñata to the midpoint of a lighting track. The track was supported by chains that passed through a false ceiling and fastened to rafters above.

This was neither the first, nor the heaviest item to have been hung from that track. There had been a large hornet’s nest, which remained for most of a summer. There had been a taxidermied loon, which, up close, most people acknowledge is a surprisingly large bird. There had been a disco ball someone found in the creek.

The piñata weighed a lot less than those items, a couple of pounds at most. It was, after all, nothing but papier-mâché and candy and crepe paper, with a bit of coat hanger wire to stiffen the wings.

Jared, the birthday boy, went first. Blindfolded, he gamely swung a broom handle his mother had brought along. He hit the bat a few times without damaging it significantly. Another boy had a go. He bent one of the wings, to make the bat look as though banking left. The next boy managed to puncture the body, which miraculously healed itself, and nothing fell out. And so it continued, the odd contact inflicting minor damage, until it was Alex’s turn. He had been leaning on a length of hockey stick that was used to block the track of the nature house’s sliding door. It was the security stick. Alex, blindfold loosely tied, held this weapon, which surpassed the broom handle in mass and reach.

“Wait a minute,” said the interpreter. “Use this...”

Alex swung the hockey stick, mashing the piñata mid-body. It didn’t fall, at first, but one of the ceiling tiles did, hitting the interpreter on the shoulder. And then, as the piñata swung back, there was a popping sound in the roof, and one end of the lighting track detached from the ceiling, trailing part of its chain.

“Wooo!” the boys yelled. The interpreter lunged for Alex, who dodged him.

The track swung, bringing down another tile, and just missed the front of the 100 gallon aquarium that housed the latest lamprey. The bat swept along the floor. Alex, blindfold now around his neck, swung at the moving target and missed, but whacked with full force the front pane of the aquarium. A crack raced from the point of impact to lower left and upper right corners.

“Oh god,” said the interpreter. He rushed to place his hands against the glass, as if that would be useful.

“Oops,” said Alex.

No one moved. The tank held, as three evenly-spaced beads of water formed on the outside.

“Okay...” said the interpreter, wondering how to proceed from here.

The boys took this as a signal to carry on. They kicked the piñata, which was still attached to the dangling track. Miniature chocolate bars, hard candies, and small plastic dollar-store animals exploded across the floor.

That’s when the glass failed, sending 100 gallons of fishy water, filthy, aquarium gravel, and a lamprey eel across the room in a wave half a foot deep. The damaged piñata and its contents were carried away.

“Get out get out get out!” the interpreter yelled.

The boys ran for the door.

The interpreter searched unsuccessfully through the soupy debris for the eel. It would be found several days later, a desiccated loop beneath the feely-box stand.

The parents returned to find their children with soiled shoes, sodden pant-legs, and no candy in hand. The birthday boy’s mother demanded her money back. The interpreter told his supervisor he would rather be fired than ever again lead a birthday party.



To the woman who had walked up to the counter, the interpreter said, “If you fill out this form, I’ll fax it to my supervisor. She’ll get back to you within a week.” He handed her a sheet of paper and a pen.

She read the form. “So many choices,” she said.

“I recommend against the bat program.”

“Not so good?”

He shook his head.

She finished filling out the form and passed it to him. “Thank you,” she said. She turned to leave. She turned back. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”

“That’s okay,” said the interpreter. “I was just a bit surprised. Most people who come in here completely ignore me.” This was meant as a joke.

The woman’s forehead creased. “That’s so sad. Maybe you could ask for a transfer, or something.”

“I’m working on it, thank you,” said the interpreter.

She came back to shake his hand. Apparently he seemed in need of physical contact. “Well, thank you again for your help,” she said.

He watched her leave. It didn’t really matter that she had interrupted him. Dreams were impossible to reconstitute, fantasies weren’t.

The interpreter was standing at a podium in a large, packed auditorium. The house lights were down. Projected behind him, twenty feet wide, was the massive, flattened, mud-brown head of the world’s largest living amphibian, a giant salamander nicknamed the BC Behemoth, a spectacular species new to science. It had been first collected and described by the interpreter...


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5 comments:

spinyurchin said...

"“Oh god,” said the interpreter. He rushed to place his hands against the glass, as if that would be useful.

“Oops,” said Alex.

No one moved. The tank held, as three evenly-spaced beads of water formed on the outside.

“Okay...” said the interpreter, wondering how to proceed from here."

Haha. Love that bit. (What was I thinking enjoying summery days while I could be holed up reading your nutty stories? My priorities are all wrong.)

Karen said...

Sorry about the eel, and your traumatic experience (if it's a true story). What is it with boys that age in a group? Scary.

Hugh said...

Thanks, spiny. They've not been described as nutty before, but I like that.

Karen, thanks. They're all true to some degree. But it isn't always Lord of the Flies. Only sometimes.

Seabrooke said...

Another great installment. What is it about young boys? Seems like it could be a spin-off of some of my babysitting misadventures from my teenage years...

Marvin said...

Enjoyed. :-)