Saturday, November 21, 2009


The interpreter was frantically pedalling a bicycle down a wide trail through the forest. The bike belonged to a larger man, and the interpreter’s feet barely retained contact with the pedals at the bottoms of their orbits. Worse, the gears were confounding. No matter which of the two levers he clicked below either hand-grip the chain seemed to slacken, the pedals spun faster and the bike slowed.

He could hear the siren approaching. He had to get to the road to flag them down, otherwise they might miss the inconspicuous driveway and sail on past.

He dropped the bike in the dip before the ditch and ran at the fire engine, waving.

It didn’t even slow.

“No no no no!” he called. He found his phone and worked through the 911 system, the first and second voice.

“Tell them to turn around! I’m in the middle of the road!”

It takes time and space to turn a speeding fire engine. The ambulance would probably arrive before the truck came back. He was wrong. It took four minutes but the fire engine arrived first, four minutes on top of the bike ride, on top of what had happened before the bike ride. One of them opened a compartment and pulled out a plastic case that the interpreter recognized as a defibrillator.

“Take the bike,” he said to that one. “Turn left at the first corner, the wide trail. He’s with a bunch of people in cycling clothes, about a kilometre along.”

The firefighter took this instruction without question. With the defibrillator beneath his arm off he went to save the man on the man’s bike. He was a young, tall, strong firefighter, suited to the bike. Perhaps he would understand the gears better.

The other firefighters looked to the interpreter as if he had something else for them to do.

He got home after seven. Stacey was at her computer, sweating over the PowerPoint presentation she was to give at the Parks Department Head Office tomorrow. It was her first big report to the managers.

“Hi,” he said. “How’s it going?”

She turned, “Oh, tell me which looks better, the solid blue background or this graded fill.”

“We already decided that solid was better.”

“This is a different graded.”

“Leave it the way it was. You’re going to do great,” he said.

“Are you saying that because you believe it or because you’re tired of helping me with this?”

“Do you want to practise again?”

“Maybe later.”

“Have you eaten?”

“I’m too tense. My stomach is a knot. You go ahead.”

He wasn’t hungry either. Twenty minutes later he told her he was going for a run. She was clicking through her presentation.

He folded a twenty-dollar bill into the key-pocket of his running shorts. His usual route required only a slight detour to get to the spot where it had happened. Fifteen minutes later he was there, standing alone, not knowing what he was looking for. There was no sign of anything unusual. No medical debris, no cycling gear, no trace of a struggle-- nothing disturbing and nothing comforting. He had once seen a Barred Owl at this very spot, a bulb-headed bird with eyes like oil.

He stopped at a Cold Beer and Wine store on the way back to the apartment. Stacey preferred chardonnay. A 2-litre bottle would be about right.

Again, she was at her computer when he came in the door. The remains of a plate of nachos lay on the desk.

“Was that your supper?”

“Okay, I think I’m ready to give it another run-through,” she said.

“After I take a quick shower.”

When he got out, the bottle was open. She had poured herself a glass. “Thanks for this,” she said.

“You needed to relax a bit.”

She ran through her presentation, pausing to sip now and then. “I’ll do great if I can drink during it,” she said.

At the end he said, “That was perfect. You’ll ace this tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I nailed it. Now I think I can sleep.” She took her glass to the kitchen. He followed. As he was about to speak she spun, clasped his face and kissed him. “Bed time,” she said.

He pushed her away, gently. “I can’t. I have to write up my program. Plus I need to eat something. You go to bed. You have an early morning.”

“What‘s wrong? You seem,” she paused, “bothered.”

“Preoccupied,” he said. “Program stuff.”

She went to bed and he sat on the sofa, tapping on his laptop. He had created so many programs over so many years that he didn’t really need a written plan, but it was a requirement of the job. It would be filed along with the thousands of others, the vast majority of which would never be looked at again.

He closed the computer and rubbed his eyes. The wine bottle sweated on the counter.

He turned off the lights and clicked on the television, the volume low. He watched the end of a hockey game that meant nothing to him, and then he watched the 11 o’clock local news on a Seattle station, which felt like spying through a knothole.

It had been a long time since he had watched Letterman, mainstay of his undergraduate years. Dave was thinner and greyer, but as entertaining as ever. Another glass and he was funnier still.

Eventually his sentences stopped making sense.

The interpreter awoke in front of a jerky, flaring television. His mouth was dry, and his head swam when he leaned to find the clicker, which had fallen to the floor.

With the world a glowing blob he swayed toward the kitchen, but missed the gap and met the corner. He knew immediately from the cushioned thud, from the unsettling sensation of parting flesh, from the warm liquid flooding his eye socket and dripping from his lip, that a band aid would not be enough.

He left a note on the kitchen table. I had a slight accident. I think I need some stitches so I went to the hospital. Back soon.

It was almost 3 AM. The university hospital was a ten-minute brisk walk. Were it a Friday or Saturday, he might have competition in Emergency from other drunks. With any luck he would be back in an hour and could reclaim the note as if it had never existed.

Thirty minutes later, as he was sitting in a waiting room on the other side of triage, Stacey walked in, her face searching, anxious, and then relieved.

“Oh. Why did you come?” he asked.

“Duh, because you’re here. What the hell did you do?” She reached to his forehead.

He dodged her hand. “They let you in?”

“Obviously. How did you hurt yourself?”

“You need to sleep. I didn’t want to bother you.”

“Well you sure did. There was blood on your note, and on the floor, and on the wall. It looked like you severed an artery. You couldn’t have freaked me out more if you wanted to.”

“In the dark I walked into the corner, by the kitchen.”

“Because you were drunk. The wine bottle was empty. You drank almost all of it.”

He nodded.

“What for?”

“I dunno. One thing led to another.”

She sat next to him.

“I’m fine. You should go back and sleep.”

“Forget that.”

“Sorry,” he said.

“You’re a goof. You scared me.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

They didn’t say anything for a while.

“I told them I was your wife. That’s how they let me in.”

“I see,” he said. She didn’t know she had struck a nerve. He was eleven years older, too old to be a suitable long-term partner, a husband. She would eventually understand this too.

She asked, “Seriously, why did you drink so much? You never drink that much.”

He leaned onto his knees, held his head, and said, “Today I saw someone die, or at least when I first saw him he was dying, and then when I saw him again, after I failed to help him, he was dead.”


“I couldn’t figure out his damn bicycle,” he said.

Understandably, she said, “I don’t understand.”

He explained. He was walking the trail to plan the spacing of activities for his program. There was shouting ahead. He ran to find six or seven cyclists in their helmets and goggles and skin-tight clothing, but with the bikes scattered on the ground. One was fussing with his phone, which didn’t seem to be working. Then he saw that another was down, a big guy, on his back, his helmet off and to the side, his face grey. Yet another was compressing his chest with the heels of his hands, and another, when the compressions stopped, breathed into him.

The interpreter opened his phone. This was a dicey spot for cell signals. He dialled 911 and got through immediately. “I have the 911 operator,” he said. The cyclists then saw he was there.

The one pushing shouted to someone to take over, and said to the interpreter, “I’m a doctor, give me your phone.” The interpreter handed it to him. The doctor said to the operator, “I’m head of Emergency Medicine at Vancouver Hospital. I’m in Pacific Spirit Park with a patient in full cardiac arrest. I need an advanced life support unit immediately.” There was a pause. “We’re on a trail in the forest...” He looked around for a trail sign.

The interpreter told him to send the ambulance to the park office. It was at a roadway that came out of the forest, partway between the city edge and the university. He would meet it and direct it here. The doctor relayed the instructions, and the interpreter set off running.

The doctor called, “No, wait, take this bike, it’ll be faster!”

He described just missing the fire engine and the long minutes before it returned.

After more delay the ambulance arrived. It took yet more time to convince the paramedics that the trail was wide enough and sturdy enough for vehicles, that they wouldn’t damage their rig.

The interpreter stood on the running board, holding the door frame, pointing the way to the driver.

They found the firefighter kneeling, his face almost bored, holding the paddles as the doctor in bike gear pushed the button. The big man’s torso bounced like on television, but that was all. His heart did not respond, and this was by no means the first time. He was completely grey, his whole exposed body. The doctor kept trying, because this was his friend, but it had been forever. He was most certainly dead.

“Holy crap,” said Stacey.

“He was only about forty years old. Maybe he had young children. I’ve been trying not to imagine that.”

“Okay,” she said. She squeezed his shoulder. “I get it.”

“The haunting thing is that I was riding his bike as he was dying. I know it was his bike because it was lying close to him, and it was too big for me. He was a very big man. I couldn’t figure out the gears. If I could, I would have gone faster and met the fire engine on time. The pedals just kept going round and round. Half the time I was gliding.”

“Okay,” she said.

“You would think that if you tried clicking the opposite things, the opposite result would happen, the chain would be getting tighter and you would then be going faster. It was hell. It was like a cruel joke bicycle. I don’t know what I was doing wrong.”

She leaned close and spoke quietly into his ear. “You know, most times a defibrillator doesn’t help someone who’s been in total arrest for any length of time at all. Even without missing the fire engine there's no guarantee they'd get a pulse back, and even if they did, the best possible medical result could be the guy ending up seriously brain-damaged.”

“But alive.”

“Maybe he was already gone before you got there.”

“I’ve considered that too,” said the interpreter. He pulled the gauze away and examined it. “I’m still bleeding.”

“You need to talk about this to someone. Parks has counsellors for critical incidents. I think this qualifies.”

“The critical incident happened to the guy and his friends.” He kept mining the gauze for blood.

“Yeah, but you know what?”


“You’re allowed to be upset about it, even if it happened to someone else.”

The interpreter said, “Huh? I'm not upset. I'm angry, or frustrated. I’m frustrated by how it turned out.”

“I would say you’re more than that,” she said. “Something harrowing and totally unexpected happened today, and you tried to smother it with alcohol.”

“I didn’t plan to drink that much. I bought the wine for you.”

“I think maybe not.”

He relented. “Maybe not.”

“You should have told me about it.”

“I was going to, after tomorrow, I mean today, after your presentation.”

“You were being helpful.”

“I thought so.”

“But then you hurt yourself and snuck out, and expected me to wake up in the morning and find you with a stitched-up Frankenstein gash on your head as if that were normal? You didn’t think I would want to know what happened?”

“I didn’t think that far ahead. I was...”

“Drunk,” she said.

A young and pretty nurse came into the room, carrying a clipboard.

“Someone is here for stitches,” she said. She pointed her pen at the interpreter’s forehead. “I’m guessing it’s you.”

Stacey stood to go with them.

“No, just the patient,” said the nurse. “You wait in the lobby. It will be quick.” She led him to the middle of three low gurneys separated by curtains on tracks, and told him the doctor would be there soon.

The ceiling lights hurt his eyes. There was no sound. The air seemed dead. He was alone, he thought. He breathed deeply through his nose, in and out once or twice, and then more rapidly four or five times more, and then his chest heaved and the nurse came back, or perhaps had been there all along. She jiggled his wrist and said, “Hey, don’t worry. You’ll be fixed up fine and it won’t hurt a bit. There won’t even be a scar.”

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