Saturday, December 24, 2011


The interpreter was laid off at beginning of December, as usual.  By Christmas he would be receiving a second automatically generated pay slip informing him he had earned nothing during the previous two weeks.   Season’s Greetings!

Not all of the interpreters were laid off.   Two or three were kept on for promotional reasons, mall displays and school outreach, but these typically were the younger, more engaging ones.   An unspoken truth was that they were the cute ones.   Stacey had been one of those, prior to being promoted to Park Planning.

Despite being canned, at least temporarily, perhaps permanently—there was no guarantee a laid-off interpreter would be rehired in the spring despite the continuation of empty pay slips—the interpreter and the others were invited to the Parks Department Christmas party, where they would be expected to show up all cheery and pretend to be part of the team.  Presence provided no guarantee of rehiring, but absence would ensure an abrupt termination of the empty pay slips. 

The party was at Head Office, fourteen floors up in an office tower in one of the suburbs.   Stacey dragged him along, and he endured, speaking as cheerfully as possible to those he ought to have spoken to and refraining from clustering with the other laid off interpreters in sullen clumps in the corners.  He would have drank, but there was no booze, although the bigwigs seemed well lubricated and kept ducking out to relubricate .  Following Stacey’s advice he stayed an hour and a half, bade hearty yet regretful farewells to his supervisor and a few others, and departed before the stupid Santa stuff that Stacey as a rising star the bigwigs wanted to drunkenly flirt with would be unable to escape, and went to hide in her car in the area office parking garage, scrunched low in case one of the bigwigs wobbled past prematurely.

It was cold.  He should have thought ahead, brought a blanket.  He should have brought two.  Wintertime parking garages were always inexplicably colder than the world outside. He opened the glove box, hoping for a diversion.  Stacey was a woman who left few careless clues.  He liked that about her, except that it meant that in addition to being cold, her car was also boring.

He reached to stick his key into the ignition and twisted it to wake up the dashboard.  He fiddled with the radio to find CBC.   The current events program As it Happens was on, a story about a flock of sheep  in Wales that had adopted seal pup washed inland by a storm, and would charge at anyone who tried to approach the seal.  The most interesting part of the story was the lilty accent of the Welsh person.  My ancestors talked like that? he wondered.  The sheep were obdurately stupid and wanted to claim the seal as their own, as it lay starving. “Stupid sheep,” he said. He turned off the radio, fearing running  down the car’s battery, and under the thin light of the garage’s fluorescent bulbs perused the car’s owner’s manual, which was physically as difficult to flip through as one of Stacey’s fashion  magazines.  He worked at it for a while, then gave up.  It contained nothing the least bit interesting or even comprehensible.  He contemplated doing Stacey a favour by tossing it out the window.

He fished his phone from his pocket and asked it to ring.  It was the phone Stacey had given him for his birthday.  Over the months since, he had become accustomed to receiving the occasional accidental phone call from someone in rural Mississippi.  He was puzzled at first, but after a while he figured out that the area code was the issue.  The screen on his phone told him they were dialling from area code 601.  He googled his own phone number, but with area code 601.  Shazzam. They were meaning to phone a department store in Jackson, Mississippi, but were reaching his breast pocket in wherever he happened to be.   He didn’t want the callers to run up their phone bills, so would quickly tell them that they had accidentally phoned Canada, would wish them a nice day, and would disconnect.  He felt bad about maybe seeming brusque with them, because they seemed nice.  They spoke slowly with gentle voices and were invariably apologetic for their mistake.  He half-wished one of them would phone now, a person to speak with, if only for a few seconds.  He had no inkling of the deluge to come.

The instant he stuffed the manual back into the glove box the locks popped.  The door swung open and Stacey dropped into the driver’s seat. 

“You behaved better than I expected,” she said. “You almost pulled it off, as if you were actually enjoying yourself, but I could tell you were faking it.”

He said.  “I’ve been waiting so long I’ve become hypothermic.  I was nearing the legendary point where you just give up and blissfully drift away.”

“Don’t let me stop you.”

As they exited the garage, he asked, “Have you been changing your oil on a regular basis?  If you haven’t, you may be in for a massive bill to have your engine de-sludged.”

A week later he had sunk into a classic pre-Christmas interpreter’s funk.   He was on the balcony, leaning against the railing, searching for perched eagles, surveying the forest and its fingers that wove into the university.  Low fog hugged the ground in the gaps, including the ugly tennis courts.  Stacey was bustling around, getting ready for work.  She yanked open the sliding door.  “Get in here,” she said.  

He stepped inside, and was lectured.   "You're depressed.  You need to leave the apartment, get out.  Out-out, not just out on the balcony.   I’d rather listen to you complain endlessly about intertidal programs with Surrey school groups than have to deal with your increasing listlessness.  You have SAD.  You need to go outside, walk around.  Every day you have to put your shoes on, go outside and get some natural light.”

He reacted.  “Get some what?  Where do we live?  This is a Kingdom of Gloom.”  

“Yesterday was somewhat sunny.”   

“I must have blinked.”

“Look.  You need to interact with other people.  Go birding.  Isn’t it about time for the Christmas Bird Count?” 

“Like I want to interact with birders.  That’s like agreeing to ride on a float in a demented hobbiests’ parade.”

She stared, hard.  “You are a birder. You are a god-damned birder.”  She rarely swore.  She was angry.

“No.  I’m a biologist who knows birds okay.  There’s a big difference.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I’m crappy on subadult gulls and fall shorebirds.  And hopeless on pelagics!”

“Well do something else then.  Get back to running, or get a membership at the pool.   You have to cheer up one way or another.  And as a favour to me, stay off the balcony until you do.”

The Mississippi deluge came the day after that, shortly after Stacey left for work and he was debating with himself whether or not to fry the last two slices of bacon in the package.  Was it worth dirtying a pan for two pieces?  His phone rang on the coffee table and he dropped the bacon back into the deli drawer and closed the fridge.  He picked up his phone.  Nice.  Another fumble-fingered Mississippian. “Hello,” he said, in a friendly way. 

“Are you the Canadian fellow?” a woman asked.

“Uh, yes, I’m a Canadian,” he said.  “You’ve phoned a home in Canada.  This is Area Code 604.”

“That was my intention,” she said.  “I’m calling to say hello to you, and to wish you a very nice day, and a Merry Christmas.”  She had a soft voice, and spoke in the slow way they all did.

He stood in the kitchen, puzzled.

“Hello?” she said.

“Yes, hi,” he replied.  “Um, I hope you have a very nice day too.  And Merry Christmas.”

“That’s all.  I don’t want to bother you,” she said.  “God bless you, and your beautiful country too.”

“The same to you,” he said.  And then she was gone.  He scowled at his reflection on the face of the phone.   It scowled back, so he placed it onto the table.  That’s when it rang again.  Again, Mississippi.

“Uh, hello?”

“Hello, Canadian friend,” said another woman.  This one had a smokier  voice.

“Hello person from Mississippi,” he said.  He didn’t know what else to say.

“You don’t know me, but I heard about you, and I wanted to take a minute or two to call and say hello, and wish you the blessings of the season.”

“Well, thanks,” he said. “I wish you good wishes too.”  He was famously inept at salutations and other basically meaningless pleasantries.

The woman said, “This is a hard time to be alone, and I make it my practice, regardless of town or county, or country, to reach out to others to let them know that they are truly not alone, that someone cares.”

“That’s very kind of you,” he said.

“Not at all.  God bless you.”  And then she too was gone.  He held the phone at arm’s length.  It was at least three minutes before it rang again.

After the initial friendly exchange of greetings, a little smoother this time, he got a bit more out of this one.  He said, “I feel very lucky today, because you are the third kind person from Mississippi to phone and wish me well.”  He told her, “I get the occasional misdialled call from your state because my number is similar to a department store down there, but that is the extent of my interactions with people from Mississippi."   He hastened to add, “Not that I mind.  Your call and the other two have certainly made my day, and it’s not even 9AM yet.”

“Oh,” she said.  “I didn’t think about the time difference. You’re on California time.”

“That’s not a problem.  I’m just puzzled to know why I’m receiving this... attention.”

“Well that’s because of Jo Nell Cobb’s column,” she said.  “It’s in today’s Barton News-Outlook.”

“The Barton News-Outlook?”  He reached for a pen to jot this down.

“Uh-huh.  She wrote a story about you.  You and your fellow Canadians are dear to us here, because of your help after the tornado.”

“The tornado?”

“May 5th, this past year,” she said.  “We’re a small town, and the larger towns got all the response from FEMA and from the Red Cross.  And then, about a week later, the Canadians showed up.”

“I remember the tornados,” he said.  “There was a record number of them, all in one night.”  Among his other science-related interests, he was a weather geek.  “I saw it on the news, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember hearing about your town.  It’s called Barton?”

“Barton, yes.  You didn’t hear about us because we’re too small to matter, except to those Canadians who came and helped us clean up and get a start on the rebuilding.” 

“What did they do?”

There was a pause.  “Well, it wasn’t that they could do a lot that we couldn’t do ourselves.  We can fix stuff fine, given a little time. It was that they came without anyone asking.  That’s why it mattered.”

“Were they from our armed forces?”

“Who’s that?"

“Were they soldiers?”   

“They were Mounties,” she said, “and they had accents just like yours.”

“We never heard about that up here,” he said.

“Well you should know.  You should be proud of them.”

“Thank you for telling me about this.”

“Uh-hmm.   Now, I want to tell you to cheer up. I’m sure you will find new work soon, once the economy gets better.  It’s a hard time for many.”

“Yes,” he said. 

After she hung up he did something he had not done since Stacey had given him the phone.  He turned it off.  He went online and quickly found the latest version of the Barton News-Outlook.   Even extremely small-market papers had their own websites.   It had a search box.  He found Jo Nell Cobb’s latest column.   Her mugshot was at the top.  She had big hair and big glasses and a big smile.  The picture didn’t look recent.  He figured she could be anything between 50 and 80 years old. Jo Nell wrote,

The idea for this column came to me this morning, a few days after I had a telephone conversation with a person I don’t know.  I don’t know his name, what he looks like, or how old he is—although I don’t think he is either young or elderly, somewhere in between.  I don’t know exactly what he does for a living, although I know he is an educator of some sort, and that he has recently lost his job, just before Christmas, and we all know someone who has been in a similar situation, and how trying that can be. The reason I was speaking to him was because I dialled the wrong number.

He  knew I had called the wrong number, pointing out that I had dialled area code 604 instead of 601, and he wished me a nice day and was about to hang up,  but those of you who know me know how I love to gab, and a stranger on the phone is as good a chance as any.  So I said, “I don’t want to bother you, but what’s the hurry, hon?”  That set him back in his tracks a bit.  He said, “No, it’s not a bother, but it will be a pretty big phone bill if we keep talking.  You’ve phoned Vancouver, Canada.” So I told  him I was happy with that, seeing as how much we love Canadians down here.  We talked a little more, a minute or two, and I learned that our stranger at the end of the phone is not only out of work, he’s also separated from his family who live at the other end of his country, and to put it plainly, he’s lonely.  I was the one to end the call, didn’t string it out too long, which would seem to be an imposition.  Besides he is probably too polite to tell me if there was a reason he really had to hang up, even if his house was on fire or something.  We know how those folks are, since our tragedy last spring when we got to meet other strangers from Canada who came to help us.  Those ones are no longer strangers.  We know their names and even the names of their spouses and their children.   

I thought that now maybe it’s our turn to be a helpful stranger, in a small way.  Help a lonely Canadian who has lost his job at this stressful time of year. If you’re in the mood to spread a little Christmas cheer to one of our northern friends, do as I did and mis-dial Schnell’s in Jackson.  Change the 1 to a 4, and there you go.

“Oh God,” he said.  He remembered the phone call.

After he told her that she had phoned Canada, she had made a little gasp, and surprised him by saying, “In this county, we love Canadians,” but she didn’t say why.  She instead asked if she could take a bit of his time to chat a little more, a friendly chat between neighbours.

He had happily said, “No, I don’t mind talking.”   He had always wanted to.  He added, “I’m kind of lonely anyway.”  He meant on an hour to hour basis.  It wasn’t a chronic condition.

Then she asked, “Why are you lonely, Hon?”

It was the “Hons” that got to him, southern charm against which he had no learned defence.  He told her he had just gotten laid off from his job as an environmental educator.  She asked him if he had family around to make Christmas more cheery.  He should have said he did, but again told the truth, that his family was more than 2000 miles way.  She must have been taking notes.  She was clearly a pro.

He searched through the archives of several online versions of southern newspapers to read about the tornados, and learned more of the devastation and loss of life in central Mississippi on May 5th.  He dug deeper through the archives of Jo Nell’s paper to find out about the Canadians who went to help.  It turned out they weren’t  Mounties, but close enough.

Having forgotten about the bacon, he dressed to go outside, turned his phone back on and slipped it into his pocket.  It rang before the elevator reached the lobby.

He was in a good mood when Stacey got home.

She asked, "Did you go out?”

He pointed at a poinsettia on the kitchen table.   “To add some Christmas cheer,” he said.  “Since the strata tyrants won’t allow us to have a tree.”

His phone rang in the living room.  “Who could that be?”  He scampered to get it.  As he picked it up, he heard her close the bathroom door.  She was in there a while, enough time for two more Mississippians.  She turned the water on.

He was wrapping up the latest call when she came from the bathroom in a robe, with wet hair and a showerful of thoughts.  She opened her mouth to speak, but had to wait.  He was saying, slowly and warmly, 

“Thank you.  You have a Merry Christmas too.”  He hung up, placed the phone on the coffee table, smiling to himself.

“Who was that?”

He looked up.  “Someone named Sam from Mississippi.”

“Mississippi? You know someone in Mississippi?”

“Not really.”

“You were very pleasant to Sam.  Was it a boy-Sam or a girl-Sam?”

“Girl,” he said. 

“You often get calls from women in Mississippi?  What do you do on the Internet?”

“No no.”  He waved his hand.  “Ever since you gave me this phone, I’ve been getting occasional misdials meant for a store with the same number, but Area Code 601.  However, since this morning I’ve been getting a slew of intentional calls from a town called Barton, wishing me a Merry Christmas, because of a newspaper story about me down there.  It’s mostly women, but a few men too.”

 “Have you been drinking?  You shouldn’t drink when you’re depressed.  It makes it worse.”

“Come, sit,” he said.  He patted the adjacent cushion.  He told her the story.  He showed her a printout of Jo Nell’s column.  He told her more about Barton, what he had learned from reading the Barton News-Outlook website and talking to the town’s citizens.  He said, “Much of it was obliterated by an F4 tornado in May.  Six people were killed, including two children.”

She frowned, because this was terrible information, but she didn’t fully seem to believe him.

“They have a lot of churches there.  Or they did.  In a town of 2700, they had seventeen churches.   Now they have eight.  That must be hard.  They’re very churchy people.”

“Churchy?  You mean religious.”

“Well aren’t they?”

“Do you realize that if you actually went there and met them, you would find that you have almost nothing in common with them, at any level?”

“That’s not the point,” he said.  “Or perhaps that’s exactly the point.”

He said of the Mississippians, “The way they speak is slow and elegant.”  He searched for a word... “It's courtly...and gracious.   They are a voice of calm in a hyper, hostile world.  During the first few accidental calls I always wanted to talk longer because they were mistaken strangers from far away, and I wanted to make sure they understood their mistake, and I really enjoyed  the way they talked, but I didn’t want to run up their phone bills for no good reason. Now they’re phoning on purpose to speak to me because they think I’m lonely, and they want to help Canadians.  I’m their designated hard-luck Canuck.” 

“This is weird.  It’s happened because you spend too much time home alone.  Like I said.”

“No, it’s innocent.  It’s payback.  After the tornado disaster, several groups of firefighters from Ontario, from St. Catharines and Welland, went down there on their own funds and helped clean up the streets and repair some of the houses.   The people assumed they were Mounties, which they associate with the entire country.  Out of a sense of gratitude and fairness they are aching to pay Canada back.  If you’re Canadian and want a free lunch, go down to Barton.”

“How many have phoned?”

“Fourteen and counting.”

“They should be phoning the Ontario guys who helped them.”

“No doubt they do.  They’re branching out.”

She sighed.  “I suppose this is a nice, Christmassy story.  As long as it doesn’t get out of hand.”  She shifted, and reached into the pocket of her robe.  “And now here’s this.”  She placed a short white plastic wand on the coffee table, next to his phone.

He leaned close, but didn’t touch it.  It looked to be a mysterious woman-thing.

She said, “I quadruple-checked using three other brands.  All gave the same result.”

He didn’t get it.

“It means we’re ahead of schedule.” 

“What schedule?”

“I’ve had a schedule in mind.  This is pushing things ahead by at least a year.”

He hadn’t known anything about a schedule.

“It means you're finally done as an interpreter.  You have to find different work, a job that lasts all year long, preferably that has a pension plan.  And we should sell our condo, buy a house, with a yard, which means we’ll have to move out into the valley because you have to be a millionaire to buy a house in this city.”

He dared pick up the portentous wand and he squinted at it.  There were two tiny recessed windows.  One had a blue line through it.  There was a blue cross in the other.  He couldn’t read the words on the narrow stem.  Recently he had started needing reading glasses for text smaller than ten-point. He extended his arm and strained.  The wand’s meaning eluded him.

The phone rang.  He glanced at it. Big bright numbers, Area Code 601.  “It’s Mississippi calling.  You answer.  They’re nice people. You’ll see.”  

“No way.  Then they’ll know you aren’t really lonely.  Think of the disappointment.”

The meaning hit him like a bolt of lighting the instant Stacey slid her finger across the face of the phone.  He was starting to say, “Oh f...” as she lifted the phone to his ear and with her other hand pried the wand away.  She calmly placed it on the coffee table.  Catching himself he said, “Uh, hello?  Oh hi.  Yes, hi.  Pretty good, how are you?”  There was a long pause. “Oh wow.  Oh really. How many of you?  Really, wow, okay, yup, ready all right.”  He looked to Stacey, apprehensively.

She raised her eyebrows.

He held the phone away.  “It’s Jo Nell, the one who wrote the story.  She’s at her church carol service.  Her church choir is going to sing a song for me.  She says it’s a Canadian song.”  He pressed the speaker icon and gently placed the phone on the table, back beside the wand.  Then, slowly, clumsily, almost guiltily, he reached to put his arm around her.  She settled against him.

The singing started.  It wasn’t a Christmas carol.  It was Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah, a powerful song easily sung, performed often, perhaps too often, and too often overwrought, usually as a solo, never before this way, by a southern church choir thousands of miles away, a chorus of nice, sweet strangers, tornado survivors, their blended voices emanating from a smart phone on a coffee table next to a pregnancy test wand.

He didn’t question how it had happened, for there was really no mystery in that.  He didn’t wonder when it had happened, which time, because that didn’t make a difference.  He also didn’t try to decide whose fault it was that it had happened, because if fault was involved, it belonged to them equally.

After the second verse he said, softly, distractedly, “I’ve never understood what this song is about.   Is it celebratory, or is it angry?  Isn’t it kind of dark and sexual for a church?”

She said, “They can really sing.”

The volume increased.  The folks in Barton were raising the bar, and the roof.  There seemed to be more verses than he remembered.  Maybe you were allowed to add your own he thought as he stared at the phone and at the plastic wand beside it that was now practically glowing positive.   Yes, it was time to start running again, or join the pool, and find a new job, make himself as strong and long-lived and useful as possible.  He watched his free hand, which seemed to have obtained a mind of its own, as it floated in an arc, wafted over to Stacey and settled on her belly.

She said, placing her hand on his during what was to become the song's final verse, “Something life-changing and unexpected happened to them and they’re working together, dealing with it.”

He looked at her. 

“That's what the song is about. They phoned the wrong number but they picked the right song.”

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sarah said...

gasp. lovely. merry christmas.

PSYL said...

Excellent story. Funny and touching at the same time.

Have a merry X'mas.

Lea's Menagerie said...

Great story!
Merry Christmas!
Mississippi, USA

Katie (Nature ID) said...

This is a great story! Merry Christmas, Hugh.

pattib said...

thank you

Hugh said...

Sarah, Thank you, and Merry Christmas!

PSYL, Thank you, and it's good to hear you're home for the holidays. I hope your studies are going well in Ontario. Merry Christmas.

Lea,(from Mississippi!), thank you, and Merry Christmas.

Katie, Thank you, and thanks also for the Twitter shout-out! I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.

Patti, Thank you too. Merry Christmas.

swamp4me said...

Beautiful story. I hope you have a terrific new year!

Hugh said...

Thanks Swampy, and same to you!

Tim said...

I'm always late commenting on the interpreter stories, since i want an uninterrupted block of time to enjoy them, but i hope you and yours had a great Christmas.
On the topic of smartphones, I recently found a setting on Blogger to enable a blog format for mobile devices-having that enabled would make it easier for us mobile users to comment.

Hugh said...

Hi Tim, and belated Merry Christmas. I changed a setting that I think is supposed to facilitate reading the blog using mobile devices. I hope it worked.

Tim said...

The setting worked, thanks Hugh!