Monday, June 1, 2009

The Donation

This installment follows from the previous entry, The Interview.

The interpreter was on counter duty in the dim, windowless, nature house. It was a warm spring Saturday, which made the interpreter wonder why people kept coming in, interrupting his research. The visitors seemed particularly captivated by the empty, former lamprey tank with its misleading bubbler. This one source of motion tended to delay their inevitable exit as they finished a circuit of the room: the stuffed bird cabinet, the forest diorama, the broken animal sound game, the feely box, the nests display, the beaver lodge model, the empty lamprey tank. As soon as one group finally left, another entered, as if someone outside were orchestrating this, to keep the interpreter from making much progress. The interpreter was tempted to lock the door. Certainly he could unplug the bubbler.

Using the front counter computer, he was trying to find out all he could about dog-sized salamanders of the family Cryptobranchidae. He had found one decent image of a skull from an Asian species. The interview bone matched; it was the left side of the skull of one of these beasts. If the bone had been found in British Columbia, this was very significant. A second tantalizing piece of information: there were recorded sightings of giant salamanders in BC, ignored by science but cherished by those identifying themselves as cryptozoologists—fans of the possibilities of Nessie, Sasquatch, Ogopogo, and many others. It had been, in fact, one of these people who, in this very nature house, first alerted the interpreter to the legend of the Black Alligators of British Columbia.

“What do you know of the Black Alligators?” a skinny, bearded man had asked him.

“What?” the interpreter replied.

After this interaction the interpreter read about them. There were web pages documenting sightings going back a century. They existed in aboriginal lore. The best guesses of best-informed cryptozoologists placed them as cryptobranchid salamanders, but at least twice the size of the already startlingly large Asian species. The interpreter committed the descriptions of the sightings to memory. These came flooding back at the previous week’s job interview when he had been presented with the mystery bone. He knew what it was, and that if it had been found in British Columbia, it meant they were real. Finding a live one would cause a minor zoological earthquake. What if he were the one to find it? For that, he would be able to forgive the cow.

But so far Stacey’s attempts at finding out the source of the bone had not gotten very far. A couple of days after the interview, Stacey casually sat down across from park planner Ed Daddle in the lunch room and asked, “So this bone you guys were betting over, what is it?”

Ed sniffed, sizing her up. “If anyone knew, there wouldn’t have been a bet.”

“Well where did it come from?” she asked.

“Why do you care?”

“Because you kind of made a mockery of the interview with it,” she said.

“I wish my girlfriend had had awesome hair like yours,” said Ed.

Later on, she would describe this exchange to the interpreter.

“I want to kill him,” he said.

“That’s very sweet,”said Stacey, “but I handled it better.”


She told Ed she wished her boyfriend had a receding hairline like his, because youthful men could be tiring.

The interpreter asked, “Does Ed have a receding hairline?”

"That's his question now too," she said.

A red-faced middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap staggered into the nature house hauling a large cardboard box with the bottom reinforced by many strips of packing tape. It landed on the counter with a weighty thud.

“Hello,” said the interpreter. He waved his hand at the cloud of dust.

“Hi. I’m here to make a donation,” said the man.


“These are from the estate of my aunt. She left them to me. I used them a lot when I was a kid, for all my school projects, when we lived next door, but got no use for them now. It would be a shame if they were just thrown away.”

The interpreter stood to look. The spines said Canadian Schoolbook Encyclopaedia. They were old, but not old enough to be of antiquarian interest. They were thin, and cheaply bound, from the early 1970s or so.

“Maybe you could sell them on eBay,” said the interpreter.

“Oh I tried. No takers.”

“Well, how about giving them away on Craigslist?”

“For nothing?”

“At least they might get some use that way.”

“I was thinking I could donate them somewhere, at least get a tax receipt.”

“I don’t think we do that here. This is not a non-profit; it’s governmental. Besides, about the last thing this place needs is a stack of outdated books no one will ever look at. When we want to find information we do what everyone does. We google.”

The man had come prepared for this argument: “What would you do if the power went out?”

“Close the nature house and go home.”

“Or, you could take the encyclopaedias outside, into the sunlight.”

“True,” said the interpreter, “but then what? We can get deeper, broader, much more current information from the internet. We can cut and paste and print what we need.”

“You should know that Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies,” said the man.

“Here, look,” said the interpreter. “I am presently looking for information on species of salamanders of the family Cryptobranchidae. I type in Cryptobranchidae, and boom, endless links, and lots of images too.” He turned the monitor toward the man.

“God, what are those things? Are they real?” The images showed seemingly eye-less, flat-headed, rubber-handed amphibians being subdued by human arms a fraction their size.

“Giant salamanders from Japan and China,” said the interpreter.

“Okay, well, alright, let’s see what old reliable low-tech has to say about those things. What’s the name again? CR-something...” He pulled the fourth volume from the box.

“Cryptobranchidae. If there at all, it’s probably under ‘amphibian’,” said the interpreter.

The man opened the volume randomly, and several one hundred dollar bills fluttered down onto the counter.

The two men stood, frozen, staring at the money. These were bills from the late 1980s, the Birds of Canada series. On one side was a long dead Prime Minister few could name. On the other was a lone Canada Goose, flying low over a choppy lake, with additional geese in a disciplined V above and behind.

“I’ll admit, Wikipedia doesn’t do that,” said the interpreter.

The man jammed the book back into its gap, and fell onto the money. He swept it into himself in a shameless flurry of greed. He squeezed the bills into a pile, which he folded in half and stuffed into his pants. Without saying anything, he pulled from the box a second volume, somewhere in the Ps. He backed away from the counter and opened it, pages downward. He shook it back and forth, causing the pages to fan. Again, hundred dollar bills fluttered out and fell to the floor. He dropped the book and fell on the money.

The interpreter reached to another random volume, to play along.

“No you don’t! Deal’s off!” The man lunged at the heavy box and pulled it away. As he lurched backward toward the door, he shouted, crazy-eyed, “You’ll never know how much money you just lost. That’s what you get for looking a gift horse in the mouth!”

“I’m pretty sure that saying doesn’t apply in this situation,” said the interpreter.

“Hah!” said the man, and with a final backward bump, shoved his way out into daylight.

“Seeya,” said the interpreter. It wasn’t often that an annoyance bribed itself back out the door.

Once certain the man was gone, the interpreter lifted his foot. “Hello,” he said to the hundred dollar bill, which had fallen in the first cascade. The phone rang. It was Stacey.

“It was found on a beach near Ken Beam’s cabin, which is on the Pitt River, just south of Wigeon Slough.”

"How did you find that out?”

“I asked Ken, and he told me. He’s not as much of an ass as Ed.”

“I will buy you dinner,” said the interpreter. “And not just any dinner.”




swamp4me said...

I guess, technically, the guy was littering, so all the interpreter did was clean up after an inconsiderate visitor who, down here, could have been fined for littering anyway...

The interpreter makes me want to build a feely box -- perhaps I should go take an aspirin and lie down until the urge passes.

Aunt Debbi/kurts mom said...

I will never again throw out another ratty, moldy book donated to the library without checking between the pages. I know, fiction, but still.

Linda Navroth said...

Well written, with just enought enough caustic wit and suspense. I can't wait for the next installment...

Tim said...

I skipped breakfast this morning to start and arrive at this point in the Interpreter Series. May this journey not end.

Hugh said...

More's on the way, Tim, and thank you very much.

(And always remember, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.)