Wednesday, March 2, 2011


The interpreter was shivering beneath the roof of a picnic shelter with his eyes closed. He was sitting on the top of a table with his boots on the bench. He was wearing cheap nylon rain pants and an old Gore-tex jacket that had long ago forgotten how to repel water.  He also wore his ranger hat, the one he had been forbidden by a manager to wear in the rain. It wasn’t a rain hat.  The Parks Department could not afford to replace rain-damaged ranger hats.  The interpreter didn’t care what the manager or anyone else from the Parks Department said about hat-wearing.  They would have to pry his hat from his cold, dead head.  

He was also shivering because he had a fever.  One of the truths of working with children was the constant exposure to virulent viruses.  One of the truths of being an interpreter was the non-existence of sick-pay. 

Seated with him were two other interpreters, Monique, who was young and French-Canadian, and Caroline, who was the only active interpreter older than the interpreter.  She had immigrated from Hong Kong as a teenager, became an interpreter as a summer job during her college years, married young, had two children, and became a stay at home mom.  Then her marriage fell apart and her husband moved back to Asia, leaving her to support two young children.  She worked part-time at a provincial liquor store and returned to interpretation to make ends meet.  It was Caroline who asked the interpreter, “Are you asleep?”

“No.  I'm in Mexico,” he said.

“I hate to tell you, you are not,” said Monique.  “You are in a regional park in British Columbia, a soaking wet island at the mouth of the Fraser River, waiting for a class of Grade 5 students to arrive for a program about frogs.”

“No.  I'm in a boulder-strewn arroyo, about halfway down the Baja peninsula.  The sky is cloudless, the sun merciless. There is no shade.  It is 110 degrees and my canteen is empty.  I have found my way back to the Bronco, which contains the collapsible plastic water tank, but I can’t remember under which of several thousand identical potato-sized red-brown rocks my professor has hidden the car keys. I have overturned at least a hundred such rocks, and am getting dizzy.  I don’t know where my professor or the other graduate students are.  I have yelled myself hoarse, but they are out of earshot. I may have to smash the rear window of the Bronco.  I think I’m about to pass out.”

“In that case, I recommend you go ahead and smash the window,” said Monique.

Caroline said, “It would be hard to find a replacement window for a Bronco.  You would have to go to a junk yard.”

The interpreter opened his eyes.  Monique and Caroline were staring at him.  He said, “I was trying to remember what it's like to be desperately hot, to help forget how it feels to be so frigging cold.”  He looked at his watch.  “They’re 12 minutes late.  Maybe they won’t come.   Maybe they had the sense not to come to a program in pouring rain.”

“They always come,” said Caroline, “Rain or shine.”

The interpreter said, “One time they didn’t.  One time I said a prayer for them not to come, and they didn’t.  I got paid for two hours of doing nothing.  It was like working at Head Office.”

Monique said, “Ha! You? Pray? You’re an atheist.”

“There are no atheists when grade-fives are approaching.”

“Please, say your prayer,” said Caroline.

He re-closed his eyes.

Almost immediately Monique jabbed his arm.  “Trop tard.  Ils arrivent.”

The mini-vans and SUVs coiled into the parking lot.

“Hell,” said the interpreter.  He descended from the table and the three walked through rain to meet the group.  Students sprang from the vehicles and jostled each other.
"Where’s this school from?" the interpreter asked Caroline.

"Surrey," she said, grimly.

“Which part of Surrey?”

“You don’t want to know.”
He asked, “Why for once couldn’t we get Yorkies or Crofties?”   These were well-known nicknames for students from a pair of posh private schools in Vancouver.  The students from those schools were reputed to be angelic.

The teacher emerged from one of the SUVs.  She had an expensive purple rain suit and short red hair. "Hi, I’m Valerie Styviklstic," or something, she said.  “Sorry we’re a bit late.  We took a wrong exit off the freeway.”  The interpreters pretended to be happy to meet her.  Monique asked her to divide her class into three groups, which could be a good stalling tactic if the teacher was disorganized.  Most were, but Valerie wasn’t.  The children even had nametags, which they are expected to have, but often didn’t.  Nametag creation was another classic stall.

The interpreter, Monique and Caroline maneuvered to avoid a group that included both a Colton and a Cody.  Those were danger names.  A decade earlier, the names to avoid had mostly been Js, Jason and Jordan in particular.  Every experienced interpreter knew about danger names. Monique ended up with the group, but then outflanked the interpreter by whispering in his ear, “Tu es le plus aimable, plus intelligent homme que je connais. Je te remercie beaucoup d'avoir pris le groupe avec les démons. Je vais te marier si tu les prens."


She had spoken quickly.  She knew the interpreter liked it when she spoke French to him.  She also knew that after a couple of moderately long sentences his translating ability went sideways. Colton and Cody were stomping in a puddle, sending sheets of muddy water at the girls in Caroline’s group, who screamed and frantically gripped at each other, but didn’t run away.  Valerie Something was heading to her Starbucks in her SUV.  The girls were shrieking as she drew in her legs and slammed the door.

The words finally computed.   The interpreter turned to ask Monique, who was sidling away, “Did you just offer to marry me?  You know I live with someone, right?”

"She said, “You don’t say.  Too bad,” and with that, quickly took charge of the interpreter’s group, leaving him with Colton and Cody.      
It was an awful program, with time moving more slowly than the incoming tide, which was battling the brown, springtime flow of the mighty Fraser.  The interpreter gamely led his charges through the prescribed activities: a description of metamorphosis, utilizing cheap plastic toys, a frog-fly-heron wink-murder game—meant to fun things up—and, of course, a frog hunt, which would no doubt be a pointless charade.  Any ectotherm would be rendered unconscious at the current ambient temperature, a hair above freezing.  He became bogged down in simple tasks, his fingers fumbling, his hands cramping—the repeated opening and closing the backpack to extract and return props, the creation of ersatz rain-ponchos from garbage bags, the manipulation of the tape recorder to play frog calls.  Keeping the tape recorder dry was probably the most difficult thing.  As he led the children around the island, all becoming wetter and colder, the interpreter became more and more infuriated at Colton and Cody, who wouldn’t stop punching and tripping each other, or other children, especially a silly girl named Karina who seemed to welcome their attentions while pretending to protest. 

Then, during the frog hunt, something totally unexpected happened.  A frog.  It was a tiny Pacific Chorus Frog, hunched half-way up the thigh-high, moss-green leaf of a skunk cabbage, reaching from the muck-filled ditch at the base of the dyke.

"Where is it?" Most couldn’t spot it, but as a group the children were engaged for the first time that day.

"Stay here, I’ll catch it," said the interpreter.  He knew what would happen if one of them tried.  But then Colton saw the frog, and jumped down the slope.  "No!" the interpreter yelled.  Colton stopped just short of the foul-smelling mud that grows skunk cabbages so well.  Then Cody was beside him.  They were both reaching, pushing each other...... "Get back up here!" the interpreter yelled, but words were useless on this pair.  He freed himself from his backpack and leapt, landing solidly behind them, but then he froze.  They were slipping on the wet grass at the brink of bottomless ooze.  One started to go and grabbed the sleeve of the other, who turned with terrified eyes and reached for the interpreter, who raised his arms above his head.  In slow motion he watched them slide into the muck and sink up to their waists, to the delight of the other students on the dyke above.  He could easily have prevented them from falling in, but had chosen not to.  Worse, once they were floundering, he found himself fighting an urge to gently step on their heads. 

The frog was gone.

Another student found a branch and handed it down to the interpreter.  He used it to haul the boys out.  Briefly they were angry and embarrassed, but soon were back to their previous antics – although now soiled, and in danger of soiling Karina and the others, who ran away screaming.  The program had descended into mayhem.  The interpreter plodded after the group through a wooded section of the park, slowed by the heavy pack bumping on his back.  The clamminess inside his jacket and rain pants was making him nauseous.  He eventually found them paused on the trail, surrounding a man who was accompanied by a very large but skittish-looking Bernese mountain dog, which they were endeavoring to group-pat. 

“Don’t crowd him,” the man was saying.  “He spooks easy.”

“Onward!” said the interpreter.  The children turned in surprise, apparently having convinced themselves they had lost him.

There was relatively little discord during the remainder of the trek back to the parking lot.  Monique and Caroline were already there, their groups disbanded and piling into vehicles.  They were speaking with the teacher, Valerie, who didn’t seem surprised at all at the sullied state of Colton and Cody.  Or it didn’t matter to her.  They weren’t riding in her car.

The interpreter narrowed his eyes.  She knew they were demons but hadn’t warned them.  He was hypothermic and soaked to the skin and this woman with her spotless rain suit and hot coffee lacked the sense or consideration to place the troublesome boys into separate groups, or accompany the group in which she had placed them together.   The interpreter walked to Valerie and pointed at the boys.  “When there are pains in the ass like those two, responsible teachers go along on the walk to keep them in line.” 

Valerie said, “Teachers need a break now and then too, you know.”  She smiled at Monique and Caroline, and climbed into her SUV. 

Caroline scowled at the interpreter, “It’s not a good idea to scold the teacher.”

The interpreter rubbed his forehead.   “I feel like hell,” he said.  “I need a drink.”  The teacher’s SUV was slowly backing toward him.  He stepped backward and his heel hit something hard.  A rock, potato-sized and red-brown.  He desperately wanted that water, and would smash the window to get at it.  He reached, and paused.  There they were. He had finally found the keys.  He opened the rear door of the Bronco and filled his canteen.  He found a level patch of ground and sat cross-legged and drank long of the sun-heated water.  It tasted like plastic.  Warm, sweet plastic. The cold washed away.

He opened his eyes.  Monique and Caroline were crouched down, staring at him.  He was at the edge of the parking lot, his back against a wooden post. The SUVs and minivans were gone. 

“You’re okay?” Monique asked.  She jiggled his wrist.

He said, “I think so.”

Caroline asked, “Do you know where you are?”

He looked around.  He took off his sodden, misshapen, ranger hat and held it at arm’s length.  “Yes,” he said, “but I honestly don’t know why.”  He put his hat back on.

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PSYL said...

Another great story. I grew up with the generation of Jason and Jordan (and Keith and Kevin), so I know exactly what terrors they are.

Amazing that Google Translate actually translated a complete sentence for me (French to English).

swamp4me said...

You've started my day with a good laugh. I'll be thinking of your interpreter when I am leading programs for 200 fourth graders on Monday and Tuesday next week...hopefully there will be no Coltons or Codys, but I'm not counting on it.

Eskarina said...

"fighting an urge to gently step on their heads"
I laughed out loud at that one!
Having accompanied five boys on a field trip to the aquarium I know that feeling exactly!

swamp4me said...

Hahahaha...I had a kid named Colton in one of the groups I had today -- and a Cody in another group. The teachers must have thought I was crazy when I started laughing for no apparent reason.

Hugh said...

Swampy, that's funny. Who knew they were everywhere? (At least they were in separate groups.) Did they manage to fall into the swamp?

pattib said...

I'm with Eskarina--loved the line about stepping on their heads!