By Carter Schwonke
Ranger Denise needed me out front. She said the school kids weren't out for summer yet and my shift would be quiet. In desperation, I pointed to gray whale data I'd been logging and reminded her how I'm not great with people. "Go," she said, "hosting is no big deal." And that was the end of it. I dragged myself to the Moon Bay State Park visitor's center to play host.
First, I opened the glass doors and checked the set-up procedures manual. Spring air refreshed the small space as I took dustcovers off a topographic map and stopped briefly to admire a postcard of a shark with terrifying jaws photographed at an unnatural angle. Next, I rolled the information kiosk out to the sidewalk. Oliver, another ranger volunteer, built that kiosk. Whenever it rained, he showed up to recheck the varnish. "Good year for wildflowers," I'd heard him say. "Gonna see some beauties.”
Finally, I counted cash in the register and positioned myself on a stool behind the counter hoping I'd spend my shift alone with feathers and bones. But a middle-aged woman in a corduroy skirt walked in and bee-lined for the wildflower exhibit. Unlike most people who flipped through the cardboard panels and gave up quickly on Latin names, she fixated on our Lathyrus littoralis panel.
“Good morning,” I said. “Are you familiar with the silky beach pea?”
No answer, so I scooted my stool closer to the window, where I enjoyed the distant hush of foam drying on sand. But not for long—an Asian woman rushed in to join us.
“Yes, come in. I’m Judy.”
“My name Daisy.”
As soon as she approached, my alarms went off. I saw the lousy repair job she'd done on her cheap sunglasses, taped in two places.
“Birds are pecking RV windows,” Daisy said.
From my window, I saw her dilapidated RV with handicapped plates and an American flag screwed to its side. Sitting in the passenger seat was a dog the size of a horse. I knew about rotten living conditions, and I imagined things weren't great behind those ratty, brown curtains.
“Your RV windows?” I asked.
“Yes, by bed.”
“I see. Are there insects around the window or a light source reflecting off the glass to attract them?”
“No.” She ran fingers through matted gray hair. “My husband's Viet Nam vet. He make me ask you. ‘What those birds doing?’ he yell."
My job was to act as naturalist-host, not confidante to the campers. I wanted to say we all have problems and that I'd barely gotten out of bed, but I told her about the laws of nature instead—they were all I knew to be true. "Birds are concerned with sex or food, so they’re pecking because they see a mate in their reflection or they sense a food source nearby, real or otherwise. There's no other reason.”
Daisy moved to the topographic map, and I watched her trace contours and position herself in the world. She was so intent, I thought she’d climb its mountains and swim its seas back to her home far across the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Silky Beach Pea Lady hadn't budged. I wanted her gone. I wanted them both gone because their combined distress was too much for such a small space. I dragged myself from behind the counter to convince her to go see the damn flower for herself.
“My name is Judy,” I said, pulling buttons beneath a display of the seasons. She watched silently as weather popped up—sun, fog, rain.
“Me and him," Daisy interrupted. "We live in van for months." She lowered her sunglasses and glanced at the RV. "Lucky I take good care of him 'cuz he crazy, not birds."
The vet honked and his dog slobbered on the window, but Daisy stayed. She needed me to say or do something so I handed her a water bottle. We sold them at room temperature for a buck, and I made a mental note to put my own money in the register later. Daisy looked startled, like she'd cared for her handicapped vet so long she'd forgotten how thirsty she was. Eventually she unscrewed the cap, closed her eyes, and enjoyed a long drink.
“You're sure about birds?” she asked, hinting at a smile.
“Sex or food. They aren’t wishing you a happy birthday.”
“Spring is foggy here?” Silky Beach Pea Lady asked.
I turned from Daisy, surprised by Silky Beach Pea Lady's British accent.
“I don’t remember this much fog last year," she said. "I spent more time at the hospital, I reckon, before his Alzheimer’s. We have new specialists this year and complications.”
I struggled to think of something pleasant yet firmly disinterested to say. Too late—she'd marched out the door, leaving Daisy and me with a new commotion to worry about. A tight-butted, athletic type attempted to wedge his surfboard through the glass doors.
“Leave it outside," I said. "It'll be fine, just lean it against the kiosk."
“Yeah, cool,” he said. “Wow. Gulls rule here.”
“Yes, they do.”
“Like, what's the shark situation?”
“Try Kelly Point," I said. “It's safest.” Then I blushed because surfers routinely change into wetsuits at the side of the road. And though I'd seen them naked a million times, it still had an effect.
"What about Surfer's Beach?" he asked.
“Look, it's the Pacific Ocean, and I'm in no mood to swim out there and rescue you. Try Kelly Point."
Surfer Boy grabbed a "Welcome Campers" pamphlet he'd never read and turned his excellent steel buns to the door. Daisy followed him out. Finally, the madness was over, and I enjoyed a moment of serenity by the sea.
I ate carrots I'd brought in a plastic bag and thumbed through a Peterson Field Guide to Birds. Other rangers ate cupcakes and brownies all day and they begged me to join in. "Splurge, Judy,” they encouraged. "Don’t be so hard on yourself. How much broccoli can a person eat?” But I stuck to my rules.
Silky Beach Pea Lady returned with downcast eyes and a thread hanging from her bedraggled hem. She looked like she needed cheering up, but that wasn't my department. So, as I approached her, I damned Ranger Denise to hell under my breath for subjecting me to a shift of needy people.
“My husband sees five doctors at Memorial Hospital,” she said. “He's developed fluid retention.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m a music teacher in London, but I’m staying in that RV car park." She pointed south. "I have ideas for St. Sebastian's fall festival. You see, I'm a music composer and I have an original piece ready.”
I nodded. I knew visitors from around the world lived temporarily in our RV park, swerving between lives, cruising until they found the right campground.
“Simon, my husband, is a green grocer. One day, fine and fit, the next day his face was numb. God bless him. His heart is gone and his mind isn't far behind. Yesterday, the doctors said as much, without saying it—you know how they do. I asked, ‘Where does that leave me?’ And they said, ‘Long term care.’”
Great, I thought. Now what? Silky Beach Pea Lady had gone well past the refreshing-water-bottle stage, so I launched into a full-blown, visitor center, right-out-of-the-training manual version of the plight of the snowy plover. Gather ‘round.
“The western snowy plover once numbered in the thousands, but it is estimated that only twelve hundred survive along the California coast today. Due to human development, invasion of European beach grass and predation by ravens, foxes, dogs and cats, the plover has been listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act as a threatened species.”
She stared at tiny plovers in a glass case. Lost to me again, maybe she wondered how nature could be so unforgiving. Probably her thoughts were with Simon or with the St. Sebastian's fall festival. Then again, since I rarely spent time with people, I worried she'd caught a whiff of my personal problems. They were nobody's business, but paranoia is hard to hide. “Sell her a tee shirt,” Ranger Denise would have advised, but that didn’t seem right. So I returned to my stool, shaken by her emotional state.
To center myself, I went back three months, in my mind. Back to March, to the Sierra Mountains, when it was still too early to hike. Snow blocked the trail, and new shoots of skunk cabbage were stuck in the mud. I went to forget, but nothing was soothing: water gushed hard and fast around rocks. I felt responsible for those ceaseless torrents, I felt responsible for the whole planet.
From my stool, I watched a gull eat a French fry in the parking lot and reminded myself we're all a million years old—we’re made of exploded stars. But every trail leads back to the beginning and I wondered how life might have been different if my single mother hadn't been a drunk in a red wig.
She was mean-tempered and never there for me. I hated her. No, I loved her, that’s why I’d hiked the Sierras alone for weeks after she died and lost my computer programmer job. Ranger volunteering? It was an excuse to get out of bed and to help save the planet. But there I was in the visitor center watching a teen, with a pile of makeup on her face, chattering through the door.
“Ooh, they’re so cute,” she said to her cell phone friend, tipping her glittered fingernails to review the postcards. Clearly, she was calculating whether she had enough money to send bobcat cards to each of her speed-dial friends.
As for me, I'd led the life of a bum on food stamps at her age. Another glamorous afternoon shielding my brother from Mom's drunken diatribes.
After she inspected her change purse, Glitter Nails left. I watched her swing her hips across the parking lot and I doubted I'd ever grow out my butch haircut, wear a short dress, go to parties, or meet a nice guy. I had no girlie future, no future at all. I was a sad, guilt-ridden, failed caretaker. Nail polish was at the bottom of my list.
"What are those white birds in the parking lot?” Silky Beach Pea Lady asked.
“You mean the western gulls?”
“Yes. Please, Judy, tell me everything you know about them.”
I gestured for her to step outside for a closer look. “Gulls are a large, widespread group of birds," I said. "And despite their presence here at the beach, many species nest inland.”
My words seemed to circle her head, looking for a place to go in. Her skirt clung to her knees, and she swiped gray hairs sweeping across her mouth. I knew the great personal cost of caring for others. But what right did she have to drag in state park personnel? It was high time she dealt with her Simon stuff alone.
“You know that toilet in the woods?” she asked.
“The port o’ pot by the bridge?”
“A man sat in it a few hours ago,” she said. "Not moving." Her glacial blue eyes stung.
“God, how awful," I said, running back inside, scrambling for my clipboard to see if the park bulletin made mention of a dead man in the port o’ pot by the bridge. But Ranger Denise certainly would have told me.
“I didn't tell anyone. I’m telling you, Judy.”
“I don’t know.”
“My replacement won’t be here for another two hours,” I said. “I’ll call a ranger. Probably a kid, passed out drunk. It happened last week by the picnic tables. I'm sure he's gone by now."
She grabbed my hand. “Let's be sure.”
My chest tightened. Despite my best efforts not to engage, she'd studied and targeted me. She was a bee and I was a sumptuous blossom. Or I was an animal about to take on her worms in a host-parasite reaction. Where was my rational mind?
Then I remembered the visitor center emergency manual. Of course, maybe there was a chapter on port o’ pot protocol. No, I'd always found that manual vague, so I rummaged in a drawer for the “Be Back in Fifteen Minutes” laminated sign instead, locked up, and followed her past barbeque pits and beyond to the bridge trail. At least I knew how to deal with drunks.
I sucked in the spray of high tide as we jogged. The blue box finally appeared before us in a patch of cypress trees. To get there, we'd blown well past the fifteen minutes posted on my sign, so I assumed I’d be the first ranger-volunteer ever fired. Just as well, I'd turn in my maroon hat when we got back.
We reached for the port o’ pot door and yanked.
“It’s stuck,” I said. “Pull harder.”
Instead, she kicked, and the door sprang open. We were face to face with a plastic seat in the up position. The floor was swamp green, and nobody was sitting, lying, or standing. We stared without breathing. A kid had probably been there. I didn’t think she was crazy, just upset with her entire life.
“Paranoia,” Silky Beach Pea Lady said. “I’m a bloody fool. My emotions run the gamut these days, you see. But thanks for coming. I saw you help Daisy, a great comfort you were, so I thought...”
You thought what? I wondered. I'm hosting a comfort center?
“You see, I've known Simon would die," she continued, voice quivering. “Can you understand that lingering is something else altogether? I’ll die a lonely nursemaid. You understand, Judy, I know you do.”
Thirty miles offshore sat the Farallon Islands. If I’d looked, I'd have seen parents pushing their spring fledglings forward. The young gulls and murres would have tumbled from those cliffs into the ocean and been swallowed by white water. Those scared chicks didn’t know they’d pop up like corks in the thundering surf and be fine.
As my defenses teetered and guilt thundered, I wondered frantically about my own cork. "I could've died a lonely nursemaid too," I said, not meaning to. "But I don't talk about it.”
“I see. You’re not the tragic type, then. You soldier on.”
Silky Beach Pea Lady had that right; I was like the wounded vet in the shabby van, stuck in a lost war.
“Well, I am the tragic type, Judy. And I’ve dragged you in.”
"Believe me, I'm not the helpful person you think I am. Far from it.”
“Judy, for heaven's sake, didn’t you hear me? I want Simon dead.”
“But you would never—”
“Never what?” She put her hand on my arm. No skunk cabbage or raging waters had found where I needed touching, but she did in one try. “You’re shaking,” she said.
"I miss her," I said, trying and failing to turn towards the visitor's center. "My mother. She was old and sick.”
“Now, come on, Judy.”
“I warned her, ‘No more vodka. You’ll trip and fall.' Then I left for maybe fifteen minutes. When I got back, she was crumpled on the floor. Her white silk robe we'd saved up for was covered in blood and broken glass."
“And you’re responsible? For heaven’s sake, Judy! You poor dear, my goodness, you did your best."
“No, l didn't. When I checked my mother's pulse, it was very weak—help couldn't get there in time. Ten minutes passed and twenty. I was wrong. I’d made a fatal error. Medics could have saved her.”
“Look at me,” Silky Beach Pea Lady said. “Come on now, look at me. I felt so hopeless in this country, so utterly wretched. Well, I lured you here.”
"I should have reported the whole truth," I said, reluctantly turning towards her.
"Can't you see?”
No, I couldn’t see: what was her point? Call the asylum! Call the jail! Book me a cell!
“Consider our crimes reported,” she said. "To each other."
“Nice try," I said. "Don't criminals get locked up in England?" My raised voice startled me—the sound of guilt was even uglier than I'd imagined. Damn her! She'd forced a confession and I shouted in despair. "We have laws."
Silky Beach Pea Lady turned and calmly shielded her eyes from the fog’s gray glare to watch pelicans cut across waves. As their bellies almost touched, I wondered if all caregivers eventually spill their guts.
When you care, you get weak, and if you get weak, you get eaten. It's a law. But even as I stood in front of a sun-bleached port o' pot, on the verge of a crying jag, resenting my brother for walking out on us, I realized it was a little more complicated. My entire ordering system, much like my emotional state, was confused, and badly in need of adjustments. After so many months of silence, I barely recognized myself. Was I half-alive more than half-dead?
"Who are you?" I asked, unsure to whom I'd directed the question.
“Iris," she said. "And thank you, I’m rather better able to manage Simon now, I think."
"’Thank you’?" I said. "That's it? Like nothing happened?"
"We agreed. It's hard, complicated work."
"Yeah, but it's not like we had choices."
"Choices? We always have choices, Judy, and I'll follow your lead."
By then, she'd buzzed down the path far ahead of me, searching for a patch of heart-leaved keckiella or baby blue eyes to dive into. So I returned to my stool where relief came in small spurts. My guilt had such hearty roots—untangling would take time. But at least I wasn't a murderer, like those sharks lurking in the postcard rack.
Visitors straggled in, but they left when they couldn't get my attention. I was in too much shock over how little I knew to answer any questions. So I tidied brochures, packed my stuff, put a buck in the register for Daisy's water, and waited for Ranger Denise to relieve me. When she breezed in, my plan was to fly through the door, well before she got her big fat chance to remind me that hosting was no big deal.
Carter Schwonke is a graduate of Syracuse University and University College London. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Blueline, Pif Magazine, Snake Nation, Stirring, Calliope, Evening Street Review, and Underground Voices 2013 print anthology.