Monday, January 1, 2007

Visitor Centered

It was a windy and cloudy morning in the depths of Zenith Canyon. The field behind the visitor’s center teemed with cliff swallows careening around in the wet billowy luxuriousness of damp sodden air. The usually dry rocks rubbed their muzzles into the smoke-like fog. A wet and soggy postcard sent by the Pacific to a distant desert cousin.

On the back patio of the visitor’s center stood Fanny Buckner, seasonal naturalist, giving a nature talk to a group of tourists. A small group of Israelis, two snowbirds from Alberta and a nouveau riche Chinese family from Pasadena sat staring back at Fanny in a sort of blank trance. Gradually, as she continued her presentation, the redwood benches would creak, ever so slightly, as members of the audience, one by one, began to leave for more interesting diversions. “I thoughta she was gwan talk aboutta Blyce A Kenyon”, the disgruntled patriarch of the Chinese group said to his mother-in-law as they piled back into their Lexus.

Fanny, who had her ranger hat covered in the requisite clear nylon cover (aka: a hat condom) for inclement weather, could feel her momentum plummeting when a large party of Malaysians from three tour buses disgorged onto the patio. The leader shouted, “take yewra pickchares and use the bathroom now! We leave here ina ten minute.” The sounds and smells of a distant alien culture spilled out madly across the pavement of the patio. Video cameras whirred like hummingbirds and Olympus and Nikon cameras snapped steadily at massive sandstone. “This might be a good time to abort this particular mission”, Fanny thought to herself as the swell of people began posing in a multitude of groupings all around her.

Lee Dungone, a retired salesman who was a park volunteer and worked the information desk, had built up her program in his announcement of it over the public address system. He had ladled it on so thick that it had sounded more like an inducement from a carnival barker than the respectful and conservative tones that Ted Sanders deemed appropriate for national park program announcements. But it was Saturday and Sanders was off, so his pious whims were deliberately ignored, much to the delight of the entire staff.

Fanny was in no mood to take her program or what remained of her time in this job seriously, now that she was going to work at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for a permanent job. It was much more important to start figuring out how she was going to pay for all the gasoline she was going to need to commute to her new office in an unheated trailer on the edge of the Bottomless Basin Wilderness Area. Why did Lee have to be such a knucklehead? Her anger began to mute into annoyance. Lee had correctly suspected that Fanny enjoyed his pitiless banter and extravagant program announcements. She was easy enough to see through.

Lee, a happy healthy gregarious man, who had been a very successful businessman, was here working the desk to get out of the house and to ogle at younger women. Volunteering his time at the desk was a hilarious diversion from his usual pursuits of golf and horse handicapping. Between the government and the tourists it was a non-stop romp. His doctor had told him that laughter would keep him healthy, which definitely made this job Lee’s health spa.

Fanny’s patio talk was titled “The Full Benefits of Geologic Time”. It dealt with the correlation between geologic time and getting a permanent job in the government. Thematically she used her seasonal career as the basis of the geologic time line and then adding her personal frustration and disappointment, along with a splash of natural history, to flesh it out. A misanthrope at heart she didn't really care what the public thought about it. Almost laughing out loud at the absurdity of it actually meaning anything purposeful she was startled back into reality by the sound of Lee’s loud chortling through the open door of the visitor’s center.

Staring through the tall picture glass of the building, towards the desk where he was stationed, she spied Lee ogling a buxom fortyish blonde from Las Vegas who was leaning over the information counter somewhat suggestively. Fanny heard him say, “that’s right doll we’ve got some stone cold monoliths here in Zenith Park and I’d say that there’s quite a nice pair sitting right here on the front of my desk!”

At this he and the blonde collapsed into paroxysms of doubled over horse laughter. Visitors nearby started to laugh only because it so infectiously cascaded over them from the loudspeaker of his mouth. Lee was wide with thick white hair and his garrulousness would have been more fittingly employed tending a bar in south Boston or Belfast than here among befuddled tourists looking for a tip on clean restrooms and free camping.

On the back patio, unfortunately, some consciousness still lingered among the dwindling masses. “Miss I have a question”, aimed an elderly man in light blue coveralls.

“Yes sir, what is it?”

“I was wondering what God’s got to do with it.”

“With what?” Fanny replied somewhat off guard.

“Your talk.”

“Sir, I don’t know much about God.”, she smiled.

“Well you was talking about all them millions a years it takes to get a government job, well like you said, at least a permanent one; I can’t see no reason why God didn’t take less time creating the earth than one of them job registers you was talking about?”

“I don’t think I ever mentioned a definite time line for register creation because no one knows for sure how they are supposed to be formed. Many theories abound about the true nature of federal job registers but it is mostly shrouded in mystery. I think we know a lot more about comets. Yeah, definitely more.”

The old man sat perplexed and focused, thoroughly engrossed in contemplative thought at this reply.

What remained of the group turned towards the door at the appearance of Lee and the woman from Las Vegas as they both spilled out onto the patio.

“Hey Fanny, this nice lady missed your talk. Can you answer some of her questions? I'm getting a little busy at the desk.”

“Uh, sure Lee.”

“Thanks sweetie pie.”

Before Fanny could stick her tongue out at Lee the Las Vegas bunny began to ask where she could buy some good Indian jewelry. “You know, some high quality turquoise made by real Indians.”

The wife of the man in light blue coveralls said, “Well we found some real nice stuff at the rest stop, I think it was mile marker 47 on Interstate 15. There was a bunch of squaws selling some right nice stuff. We found some good deals right in front of the ladies room. Right Abner?”

“Yup, we did Betty.”

As the three traveling strangers began talking amongst themselves Fanny felt that it was probably time to leave the patio area and head indoors to slug Lee in the arm. She looked at her watch and couldn’t believe it was only 10:40 AM. She wondered why she felt so exhausted?
Approaching the desk she tried to motion to Lee that she wanted to talk to him, but he abruptly handed her the phone. He said the call was for uniformed personnel only and that it was the Park Dispatch Office on the line.

They wanted to inform the park staff working the information desk to know what to tell the many visitors who would soon be asking about all of the police cars and military equipment that was currently surrounding the park on the south and west boundary.

She was told unofficially (i.e. the skinny) that the Nevada State Prison Tamarisk Removal Crew had made an escape attempt in Peach Pits Wash and had possibly taken a park employee hostage. The main highway was being closed at Virginal and a command post was being set up at the park nature center.

Official line of the park: Tell visitor’s there’s a skinhead wedding in the canyon and extra security was on hand to deal with any eventuality. Also, “please don’t call us about anything! We’re very busy!”

Hanging up the phone Fanny pondered who the hostage might be. Lee asked if anything was wrong.

“No Lee. It’s just about some people. That’s all.”

“Oh yeah kiddo, you’re right. It might have been about something real important like…whoa baby! Check out that double-breasted mattress thrasher that just walked in! Hoooo-doggee, I wish Barney were here to get both eyeballs full of that!”

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