Saturday, June 2, 2012

First Chance to See (Part 2 of 2)

(Part 1)

The interpreter found interesting the reactions of the students to Derek Coulter, a biological rock star, sitting down at the table.  He wasn’t as easy to ignore as an unknown former something-or-other claiming discovery of a non-existent monster.  Derek Coulter was famous. Children loved him, animal hobbyists bought box-sets of his show, and weirdest of all, college kids watched the program religiously, loving the found humour in the ambushes of ignorant politicos, man on the street interviews with people with unexpected opinions, and immersion in the lives of oddball humans from all over the planet who lived closely with exotic, often dangerous animals.  The show worked because it was real, and current, with a serious pro-environment message, yet it didn’t take itself seriously.  Derek had been quoted as attributing the success of the show to a simple rule.  “We keep it funny, and we never talk about money.”  He maintained that people were sick to death of television programs that talked about money and yearned for the days when every source of information—every news report, sports report, entertainment report, and goddamn commercial—wasn’t about money.  People liked his assertion, whether it was accurate or relevant or not, because they also hated hearing about money because they had no hope of having as much as the other television shows implied they ought to have.   

Stacey said that people liked Derek because it was clear that despite all the goofing around, he deeply loved animals, no matter what they were.   Seeing a grown man so plainly enamored of living things, even small, unattractive things, was endearing.  

Whatever he was, or said, or did, Derek in the flesh was a conundrum to graduate students of biology, those who in their most cherished dreams would become professors in that field.  He possessed a level of fame that professional biologists were supposed to spurn.  He was widely known and admired, and thus envied, which also meant that he was resented.  It was easy to dismiss him as a pariah, a charlatan.  Here in the pub he was a guy rubbing elbows.  What to say?

Derek, having also been a graduate student, recognized and understood the unease, and took the lead.  “So, cool talk, huh? Imagine seeing that creature.  Imagine holding it in your arms.  It’s like grabbing the biggest bullfrog in the world, and having it grab you back.”

“A clearer photo would have been helpful,” said Mark.

“How could such an animal escape detection so long?  It would have to have a huge range, wouldn’t it?” asked Ingrid.

“Maybe it does,” said Derek.

“Someone would have caught it on a fishing line, or in a seine,” said another. “Many people would have.”

“Maybe they do,” said Ivan.  “But they keep it a secret.  Maybe giant salamander is delicious.”  He turned the conversation to the interpreter, where it belonged.  “What made you go after the great white whale?  Was it a dream?”

The interpreter didn’t have an answer with drama to suit the question.  “Basically it was the bone,” he said.

A student asked him, “Why didn’t you contact Dr. Elliott or another prof about the bone before you started looking for a giant salamander?”

He answered, “Because I’m on the outside now.  There’s almost zero connection with the inside once you leave.  They don’t return your calls.”

Another asked, “Why did you leave?”

He smiled at her.  “I didn’t want to.”

Their faces showed concern, confusion, worry.  It could happen to them too.

“Drink up,” he said.  They all took a sip of beer they hadn’t paid for.  He asked them, “Show of hands.  How many of you believe I found a giant cryptobranchid salamander here in the Lower Mainland, and that it chomped me on the hand?”

After a collective, silent contemplation of suds, Ingrid the dark-haired one spoke.  She said, “I believe that you believe you saw one.  And that you believe it chomped you.”

“Well that’s just dumb,” said Derek, loudly, from the other end of the table.  “Clear as day he and his canoe-gal found the thing.  And if I understood Point One of his talk, he’s practically offering anyone who wants in joint authorship on a paper that will flag your name for years to come.  Spectacular new species, likely a new genus.”  He turned to the interpreter.  “Is that correct?  They can share authorship?”

The interpreter nodded.  “Sure.”

“Flag your name as a quack,” muttered Mark. 

Derek leaned forward to speak to the young man, to them all, really.  He said, “You know, the odds are that none of you will ever be offered a tenure-stream position, or even be interviewed for one.  They no longer exist.  That reality fell off the planet a generation ago, before I was your age.  If you want to make a living doing something even remotely related to this field, enough of a living that you can one day afford to have a spouse, and children, and a house, all those desirable things that most normal people have, you can’t afford to brush off new opportunities.  You may never find a giant salamander, but the hunt will be an experience that might lead you somewhere.  You need to get out, away from your computers and fume hoods.  Recognize a gift when it smacks you in the face.  Go get muddy with this guy.” 

Mark didn’t flinch.  He said, “Thanks for the advice, but speaking for myself, cryptozoology’s not my thing, and no offense, but I have no interest ever in joining a circus.”  He said to the interpreter, “Good luck with Ogopogo.”  Then he pushed back his chair and walked out.

The interpreter watched Derek, who was surveying the other students.  His expression was benign.

“We should really get going,” Ingrid said, tugging Leo’s arm. “Thanks for the beer.”

‘Yeah, thanks,” said Leo.  “Good luck with your search.”

After a series of increasingly awkward exits, all the students were gone, leaving the interpreter across the table from Derek and Ivan.

“Well done,” said Ivan.

“It’s the ‘cruel-to-be-kind’ speech,” said Derek.  “Someone gave it to me once.  I didn’t listen either.  I don’t suppose anyone that age ever does.”

“Look at this.”  The interpreter pointed at two of the abandoned beer glasses, still half full.  “That never used to happen.”

“They have no drink ethic,” said Ivan.

Derek signalled to the server.

As they awaited a fresh pitcher, Ivan observed that the interpreter and Derek looked a lot like each other.

Derek said, “You think all Caucasians look alike.”

Ivan persisted.  “Same hair, same...” He traced an outline in the air in front of the interpreter...”general shape.  You could be brothers.”

The interpreter said, “My girlfriend has actually mentioned that you remind her of me.  Or was it the other way around?    She calls you her TV boyfriend.  She loves your show.”

“There you go,” said Ivan.  “Case made.”

Derek moved a pitcher and some glasses, and blotted a wet ring with a napkin.  He extracted a manila folder from a shoulder bag and placed it on the table, and said, “It’s time to get to the point.”  He and Ivan exchanged glances, and then they looked at the interpreter.
Ivan said, “We want to do the giant salamander hunt, and film it, and broadcast it, no matter if the creature is found or not.”

The interpreter sat back.  He cleared his throat.  He said, “You want me to show you where it is?  I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Lots of people watch your show. Lots of animal fanatics watch it.  It may lead to a frenzy among the herp fanciers.  They could do a lot of damage.”

Derek said, “We talked about that.  We have a strategy.  We only reveal its locality to bona fide conservation biologists.  All the filming would be close-up, no background shots.  No idea of location or season.  We only tell the audience what it needs to know for a good story.  At the same time we dump a load of data in the laps of qualified individuals, and get manuscripts written for the usual American herp journals.  By the time those are published, the provincial protections will be in place, or at least on paper, which is about as good as it ever gets anyway.  We do science and pop-science simultaneously, in complete control of the information flow.  Someone else will eventually find the thing, right?  Better us than them.”

“As the kid said, a fisherman will catch it,” said Ivan.  “If they don’t want to eat it, they take it to a newspaper.  Someone else gets the glory, and the same frenzy happens anyway.”

Derek said, “In the meantime, there’s a lot of other threatened species to talk about, some of which we’d come across in the hunt, Dicamptodon, for example.  What are some others?”

The interpreter rattled off several. “Oregon Spotted Frog, Red-legged Frog, Pacific Water Shrew, Salish, Mountain Beaver, yeah, there’s a fair number of listed species in the same general habitat.”

Ivan said, “To enhance the conservation mandate of the show we want to do a regular bit on Canadian endangered wildlife, and southern BC has the fauna and the climate to allow year round filming.”

The interpreter asked, “And you want me to help you with it?”

Ivan said to Derek, “He doesn’t get it.”  He said to the interpreter, slowly, “We want you to be it.  You are the Wildlife Expert.” 

Derek said, “We really dug your kind of rambling off-hand delivery.  The dry humour.  It fits perfectly with our vibe.  You’ve seen our show, right?”

“I have no choice.  My girlfriend hogs the remote.”

“Smart lady,” said Ivan.

It hadn’t fully sunk in that he was negotiating a part in a television show seen continent-wide.  He was mulling over something else, his talk.  He said, “I was rambling? I guess I was.  I’m out of practice.”

Ivan said, “Yes.  You are.  To a group of biologists you referred to male genitals as ‘boy-bits’.  But don’t worry.  It was funny.”

The interpreter held his head.  “Why was I even talking about that?”

Derek asked, “Have you done any television?”

“Not much,” said the interpreter.  He told them about the monthly ‘Ask an Expert’ ornithology segments he used to do on the weekend news, that he sat there with the anchor person and answered phone calls, and helped people identify Cedar Waxwings or Northern Flickers, or told them how to attract hummingbirds, the same ten or twelve questions over and over.  That he would wrap up by listing upcoming programs in the parks.  He did about 20 or 30 of those, seven minutes each.

“You’re on a news show?” Ivan asked.  “Is there tape?”

“Well, that’s over.  It ended when I quit as an interpreter,” said the interpreter, “But yeah, there must be tape.”

“And you have an academic background,” said Derek.  “You know your stuff.” He opened the folder and spun it around.  He slid it across to the interpreter.  A thin document was inside.  His name was at the top.

The interpreter said, “This is...old.”  It was a copy of his CV from years earlier. “Where did you get this?”

“Crawdad,” said Ivan.

“Crawdad?  My Crawdad?”

“If your crawdad is Crawdad Atkins, then yes,” said Derek.  Crawdad Atkins was the interpreter’s academic father.  He had been his PhD supervisor.

“He’s on our advisory board,” said Ivan.  “He speaks highly of you.”

Derek asked, “Did you not send Crawdad a recent email, telling him of this afternoon’s event?”

He had.  Over the years the interpreter had tried to keep Crawdad abreast of the few potentially positive developments in his mostly moribund career.  He believed he had failed in the eyes of his ever-supportive mentor.   He had also wanted an opinion on giving this talk; might it not be a mistake?  Crawdad hadn’t replied.

“That’s why you’re here?”

“Why we’re here in this crappy pub, yes.  But we were coming out here anyway, more or less because of what Kevin Elliott was going on about.”

Ivan reached to take the CV.  He read aloud the title of the interpreter’s thesis: “’Perturbations in the breeding cycles of salamanders of the genus Ambystoma in vernal ponds in a changing Precambrian Shield ecosystem.’  That is very impressive.  Salamanders are your fate.”  He pushed the CV back into the middle of the table.

The interpreter took it and flipped to the final page, which was mostly blank.  He held it up.   He said, “It doesn’t include my short-lived postdoc.  I tried to get away from salamanders, and started a project on marine beach ecology, which ended abruptly when I got gored in the back by a cow.”

Ivan asked, “You got gored by a cow?”


“On a beach?”

“Well, sort of.”

“A beach-cow?  When is there ever a cow on a beach?   How could such a thing happen?”

“Ivan,” Derek said, “It could happen. Cows are unpredictable.  In many countries they wander around unsupervised.”

The interpreter said, “Derek, I should tell you that I once googled you, partly because my girlfriend makes no secret of having a thing for you, and partly because your name sounded familiar. I found out you were a former lizard guy.  Then I remembered you.   A long time ago I attended some of the same conferences as you, when you were still a student from California.  I’ve even seen you give a presentation, in Austin. You were a few years ahead of me, finishing your degree about the time I was starting mine.” 

Derek nodded.  “That career path lasted roughly one more year. Its demise had nothing to do with a cow.   I went to Bermuda for the lizards and was injured during a hurricane. I got a fractured skull.  I spent a week in a foreign hospital with a drain in my head.  That was the end of that.”

The interpreter said, “I got gored in the back on Anguilla and spent a week in a foreign hospital with a tube in my chest. That was the end of that.”

They looked at each other, laughed, clinked glasses, and drank.

Ivan said, “There have never been two more peas in a pod.”
They talked further, fleshing out specifics of the show, and the interpreter’s role in it.  At some drunken point Derek asked, “So the pregnant salamander huntress, the young woman in the canoe.  Is that your girlfriend?”

“Yup.  Her name is Stacey.”

“When is the baby due?”

“In the early fall, around September 12.  We went for a second-trimester ultrasound this morning.  The baby looks like a real human now, not an embryo.  It’s a little girl.  A tiny little girl with tiny perfect little hands and feet...” He stopped talking. Derek was grinning at him. 

“You had a dreamy look on your face.”

The interpreter refused to be embarrassed.   He said, “I’ve been trying to come up with decent girl names.  There are a lot of ridiculous names these days.”

“Yes.  Naming girls is difficult!” Ivan declared.  “Boys are easy.  You name them after your father.”

Derek laughed.  “No you don’t.”

The interpreter asked the two men if they had children.  Ivan had three sons.

“All named after his father,” said Derek.

“True,” said Ivan.  “But they also have different English first names to tell them apart.”

“The English names are of no other consequence,” said Derek, who had two children, a son, 8 years old, named Michael, and a daughter, 5 years old, named Lizzie.

“Please tell me that’s not short for ‘lizard’,” said the interpreter.

“No, Elizabeth.  That was my mother’s name.”
“Ha!” said Ivan.

“It’s not the same thing.”

The interpreter’s mother’s name was Barbara.



Derek and Ivan took a cab back into Vancouver and the interpreter left on foot, taking a moonlit bike path through the forest.  Branches whipped around in the gusting wind, keeping him alert, hurrying him home.  He stumbled into the apartment and down the hall to the bedroom. Stacey was awake, propped up in bed, balancing one of the many hefty pregnancy books atop the baby.  She closed it and placed it on his pillow.  She asked, “Why are you so late?  I called you.”

He patted his pockets and found his phone.  It showed four missed calls.  He said, “I’m sorry.  The place was noisy.”
You were at a pub all this time?”

“There was a lot to talk about.”

“Like what?” She narrowed her eyes.  “How much did you have to drink?”

“Lots.  Too much.  I’m pretty drunk.  I got offered a job.”


“A job.  The work-thing objective.”

“Really?  At the university?”

He shook his head, sagged onto the bed, and flopped onto his back.  “No.  The academics all think I’m nuts.  They think the salamander is a myth and that I mutilated my own hand for effect.” 

“Oh no.”

“Fortunately there were others at the talk.”   He pried a wadded bar napkin from the pocket of his jacket.  “This is from your TV boyfriend.  Open it up.”

She reached for it, hesitantly.  She flattened it against her knee and tried to read the blobby letters inked onto it. “Stacey, please let him...”  She flipped it over. “Let him what?”


He dug deeper in his pocket for another.  She read, “join our show.”

And then a third: “Sincerely, Derek Coulter.”  The interpreter’s breathing was slowing, signalling he was done with this day.  She prodded him with her foot.  “You met Derek Coulter?”

For a few seconds he stopped breathing entirely.  Then he inhaled deeply.  He said, “Yeah.  Him, and his executive producer.  They want me on their show, on a regular basis, as a wilderness correspondent.”

“Really?  What does that entail?”

“I’m not exactly sure.  A mixture of being outside in rain gear, and goofing around with a green screen.  Most of it would be done here in a studio in Burnaby.  Not much travel required.”

“Does it pay?”

He opened his eyes.  The ceiling was a universe of small, seething bumps.  He said, “God, I hope so. I forgot to ask.” 

“You goof.” She balled up the napkins and threw them at him.   They bounced off his chest in three directions.

He rolled from the bed to find them.  This seemed important for some reason.

“Give them back,” she said.  “I want to keep the one he signed.”

He handed them to her and took off his jacket.  He turned out the light and pushed the pregnancy book out of the way to lie down beside her.

“Get changed before you pass out,” she said, but it was too late.  He started snoring.

That night he had a dream in which he decided upon the perfect name for their daughter.  At some point he woke up, thirsty.  He drank some water and changed out of his day clothes, repeating to himself the perfect name.  He contemplated writing it down.  No, he would remember.  He went back to bed.  When he awoke many hours later, he had no idea what it was.



Tim said...

The two worlds have collided! This may take some getting used to. All along, I thought the two characters were alter-egos of each other.

That's a funny URL that this part II has.

Hugh said...

Tim, Yes, I decided to let them get to know each other. There are a couple of non-too subtle winks at their similarity. You are probably one of the few who would notice (because not a lot have read the other story).

I think the 2nd URL is weird because I predated it to fall beneath Part 1 when scrolling down. I should have just posted them in reverse order.

Neil Kelley said...

The notion any self-respecting graduate student abandoning a free beer half-drunk is staggering and seems almost libelous. Perhaps that is just because I consort mostly with geologists and worse (better) vertebrate paleontologists?

Then again, I suppose the existence of successful television show that was "real, and current, with a serious pro-environment message, yet it didn’t take itself seriously" is a red flag that we are dealing with some magical realism here.

Which is good because maybe we will get more spectral visitors.

Love this new story. Would like to learn the trajectory that carried Derek from Tea Kettle survivor to pop science celebrity.

Hugh said...

Neil, Yes, the undrunk beer requires quite the suspension of disbelief. I’ve always liked magic realism. As for the television show, I envision it as a mash-up of The Daily Show and Zaboomafoo, with a dash of Pee Wee’s playhouse. Derek’s arc is back-story for the novel I’m working on (working title: The Snake Club). When last seen, he had agreed to move to Toronto. He tried without success to start an ecotourism business there, comparable to the one back in CA. He takes his son, now about 6 years old, to a presentation by a reptile fanciers’ club at the Royal Ontario Museum. There he meets Ivan Tsang, whose son is a member of the club. Ivan and Derek’s sons became pals. Ivan suggests that Derek give a talk to the club, which he does, and it goes well. Ivan, who is a television impresario, floats the idea of an animal program to Derek, and it goes from there...

Julia said...

Love your interpreter stories. As an interpreter myself, they all hit close to home.

Hugh said...

Thanks, Julia. Keep on interpreting!