Have you ever been to the park and seen all the trash lying about? Did it make you irate? If I was Ruler of the World, we would have a story that went something like this:
Tall and lanky, the image of the boy tunneled down the scope, casting a perfect reflection on Peter’s right eye. Background flora faded. Yellow birch trees, buckeyes, and sugar maples blended into smudges of green, brown and grey. Peter adjusted the sight, until the mildots were perfectly aligned on the boy’s breast pocket. The circle of the scope chopped off the top of the boy’s head from eyebrow to crown. Peter’s trigger finger lay outside the rim of the guard.
Clad in faded blue jeans, a red flannel shirt, and a dark blue baseball cap with a big red A, the boy crouched down on his knees and wedged the fishing rod between a stack of rocks. The young fisherman pulled an aluminum soda can out of his empty creel and chugged on it. Still crouching, the boy backed-pedaled, craw-dad fashion, until his butt reached a small boulder with just enough flat space to accommodate his skinny rear-end.
A gust of wind pushed the fishing-bob south and the rod wiggled slowly and surely out of its impromptu prop. The boy tried to grab it, but he was too slow. Rod and reel skidded over the dirt. He jerked it up and attempted to brush the dirt off. His pimpled cheeks puffed out, and his lips puckered into a perfect O, as he gave the reel a couple of hard blows. Deciding he had done enough, the teenager gave up on cleaning his reel. Slowly spinning the reel, until the bob was at the tip of the pole, he drew back and cast again. The hook jetted out over the water, followed by the red and white cork. There was a soft plunk. Almost immediately the boy pulled up on the pole. Impatient and inexperienced, the teenager’s hand moved to the reel again. One turn, two turns. The reel jammed.
Peter braced the rifle with his left hand and moved the barrel two centimeters to the left. He inhaled and then slowly exhaled.
The boy whipped out a pair of leather gloves from his back pocket and slid them over his hands while bracing the rod against his chest. He pulled the rod up and over his head. Snagging the line, the boy tugged, hand over hand, until the bob cleared the water.
Peter relaxed and took his eye away from the scope. He stared down the mountain, past the east shore, across the blue-grey lake and over to the western border where the boy stood, angrily jerking his empty hook home. A wad of green slime coated the hook.
“Good boy. Cheap gear,” Peter whispered. At least, the boy wasn’t going to cut the line and let the hook and bob float away. It was never a good idea to get dirt on a reel, and the cheaper the fishing gear; the more likely it was to jam.
The boy fiddled with the tangled fishing line and the jammed reel for fifteen minutes, before the sounds of curse words drifted over the lake. Peter smiled and watched as Flannel Shirt began picking up his gear in outraged defeat. Flannel Shirt pulled the baseball cap off, scratched his stock of coarse black hair and put the hat back on. He looked around, one last time, to make sure he had everything.
Peter looked, too. He braced the rifle and tilted his head to look down the scope again. A blue bait cup—no doubt, still filled with fat worms—lay on top of a rock. The boy began to walk away. One step, two steps, three. Peter had authorization to shoot at ten paces. Four steps, five steps, six. Peter fired.
The bait cup jumped, spraying dirt and worms over the rock, as the sound of bullet echoed over the lake. The boy hit the ground and curled into a fetal position. Peter waited for ten seconds, but the boy did not move. He fired another round, this time much closer to the boy’s feet. Clumps of dirt exploded into the air and rained back down on the boy. Again there was the delayed echo of the gunshot pushing the air around the lake.
Inspired by his dirt shower, the boy crawled over to the bait cup and began stuffing bits of shattered blue plastic into the pockets of his red shirt. Peter smiled, turned around and slid down the boulder. His back rested against the rock, as he rubbed his eyes.
Outside the Blue Ridge Sniper Café, Peter stood in the parking lot, scraping most of the mud off his boots. Resting his hand against the new memorial and stomping his feet on the tarmac, he read the plaque. He always read the plaque, but, for one reason or another, he never finished reading it—never got all the way to the end:
President Hubbard’s Third New Deal for relief, recovery and reform
Established June 14, 2014
America’s Greatest Beautification Efforts–
A shadow passed over his head, and Peter looked up to see a Bald Eagle silently gliding through the air. Transfixed, he tracked the eagle until it was a fuzzy dot on the horizon. Flying toward the mountains, the eagle sailed toward some unscheduled destination, not too far from Peter’s camp. He thought about the fish that he left drying in the sun and wondered if they would still be there when he got back. He had hung the salted and glittering fish in a dead maple tree. The fish dangled twenty feet up and about a mile and a half away from his camp. Sufficient precautions for poaching bears, but it would not stop the eagle.
Peter shrugged. He would not begrudge the eagle a few fish; he just hoped the bird would leave him enough for dinner.
The smell of cafeteria spaghetti and fried ham assailed his nostrils as he pushed through the double paned doors of the restaurant/headquarters for the Blue Ridge Snipers. Overpowering and unpleasant, the smell made him grunt. After being outside all day, his nose told him that the pasta was over cooked and the ham was lacquered with grease, rancid grease. Thoughts of eating lunch in the café vanished, but he would still refill his canteen, grab a handful of salt packets and tank down a whole pot of coffee, before he headed out again. Hot coffee would be a delicious treat after three days of pine needle tea.
In the far left corner a group of men, clad in light, brown ranger uniforms, dominated the tables next to the plate glass window. Mark Boyd lifted up his hand and motioned Peter over to the table. Beyond them, the mountain range, monstrously beautiful and misty green, made the men seem small and painfully ugly, like toads on the edge of the river bank, left homeless and forlorn after the rainy season.
It was kind of funny, when he thought about it. Him—and this posse of ugly toads—kept the park beautiful, and not at a distance either, but close up. No soda bottles littering the trail, no plastic bags clinging to the tree branches, no flat tires nursing mosquitoes, and no miscellaneous crap bobbing down the river. Not anymore, not since the government put them on the payroll as deputies of President Hubbard’s Anti-Litter Army and Park Reclamation Program—a ridiculously long name for a very simple idea.
Peter grunted again and forced his legs toward the group and his supervisor. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered over the deputized toads. Strategically placed between them was a large, glass ashtray, brimming with burnt paper and yellow butts. Coffee cups, spoons and water glasses orbited the centerpiece.
“Hey man,” Boyd said. “I haven’t seen you in three days. Have you been camping out?”
“Yeah Boyd,” Peter said. He did not offer any further information, since he did not want any surprise visits at his camp site, especially not from any of these guys. Teaming-up was not mandatory; Peter would have never taken the job if that had been a prerequisite.
“You look like a grizzly bear.” Boyd sniffed the air. “And you smell like one, too.”
“I do?” Peter’s hand rubbed his chin and found more hair than he would have imagined. Coming down the mountain and into the post always jolted him. Being around people and suddenly realizing how uncivilized and randy he had become in manner, thought, and appearance always startled him, even when he prepared himself for the unpleasant, psychological revelation. He wanted to believe that he was a man who could navigate the human world as well as he could moved through the piney woods, but that was just a delusion—a delusion, he had to face every time he wandered into the station.
“Have you killed anybody yet?” Bob Crane asked and blew a grey cloud at him. He didn’t look anything at all like the actor, Bob Crane; he looked more like…well, like Rambo, with less hair.
Peter smiled. “Nah.”
“Pussy,” Crane said, and the men around the table chuckled.
“You’ve been shooting,” Boyd said. His fingers tapped the ammo belt around Peter’s waist. “Target practice or warning shots?’
“A little of both, I guess.”
“You’ve missed your chance for some real action,” Crane said. “The word is out.”
“What do you mean?” Peter asked.
“Crane is right, Peter my boy,” Boyd said. “People have stopped littering the park. We’ve got new directives—from the President, no less—to move into the city. After the summer season is over, anyway.”
“I don’t think I’d like the city, Boyd.” Peter’s words came out in a hitch, and he tapped the flint-shaped National Park Ranger badge pinned to his chest. “They won’t move our whole team into the city, will they? Someone has to stay here. Someone has to keep the park clean. People will go back to littering if we leave.” Peter looked out the window at the lush mountain range. Twenty paces away something large moved behind a tangle of purple rhododendron, probably a deer.
Everyone at the table brought their cigarettes up to their lips and inhaled. The cloud receded, just a little. A moment of silence passed as everyone exhaled and replenished the smoke curling above the table. Their heads pivoted between Peter and Boyd.
“I mean, I think I would be the best man to stay behind. I ain’t so good in the city,” Peter said.
“No shit,” Crane said and cackled. Crane’s laughter, which always came too often and too loud, was escorted by a tide of phlegm. He paused briefly to bring out a filthy handkerchief and unceremoniously harked in it. Throat cleared, and personal hygiene aside, he resumed his rumbling chuckle. The laughter of the other men faded away. Unwashed and scruffy, given little to social propriety, and known to hee-haw at ordinary flatulence, the scruffy rangers were still offended by this gunk-chunking.
“For Christ’s sake,” Skinny George said and snarled at Crane. “You got’a switch to them filter cigarettes, like I told ya.”
“Sorry Peter. Its Presidential orders,” Boyd said, rubbing his red and bulbous nose—a souvenir from too many nights spent in an alcoholic blur. But drink or no drink, Boyd was still Peter’s boss and lead man on the team, or, as Boyd liked to call his position: LEM. (Local Experienced Man.) “We’re moving out in the Fall. We done such a good job in the park that the government wants us to clean up the city as good as we cleaned up the park. Taxpayers want it. Hell, the damn President wants it. It’ll be beautiful. Imagine! Gatlinburg City all sparkling clean.”
“Yeah Peter,” Crane said. “You’re going to have to take a bath and put on a new uniform. We all will.” Crane lifted his coffee cup and threw his pinky finger out. He wiggled his shoulders. “We’re going to have to get all city-fied. We’re going to get up-close and personal with the townies. And you won’t get to take that fancy Remington 700 Sniper Rifle with you, either. All that concrete in town makes for too many ricochets. We’re all going to get tasers guns and dart guns. Can’t accidentally hit no innocent by-standers. That would make for bad publicity. We got to keep the newspapers out of our business.”
“Don’t look so sad, Peter,” Boyd said. “Maybe we’ll even get you a real girl, instead of those grizzle bears that you like so well.”
“Are we ever going to come back to the park?” Peter asked. “People will go back to littering if we leave.”
“I suspect we will come back. Sort of on a rotation bases. Park, city, park, city. Maybe, we’ll even go covert like some real spies or something, hey?” Boyd said. “The main thing is we got to make this transition nice and smooth. We got to handle it real delicate like. Dealing with townies in town is going to be different than dealing with tourist from town. Do you guys get what I’m saying?” Boyd looked around the table and the men nodded, as if they understood him completely, although Peter was a little fuzzy on the details. “We’ll have to talk to the people. Educate them a little. Maybe pass out some fliers, and then slap them around when they throw the fliers down on the ground. You know, stuff like that.”
The men laughed and Peter made a half-hearted attempt to join them.
“Tasing and darting the townies is going to be fun,” Crane said and slapped Peter on the back. “I’m going to give double taps to anyone with those damn, pink flamingoes in their yard. If they think them plastic birds are so pretty, they can dig them up and take them in the house.”
Skinny George—who seldom spoke, but unlike Peter, did seem to enjoy the company of the other men—piped in. “I’m going after folks with them junk cars in the yard. Ain’t nobody going to tell me a car with four flat tires ain’t a hunk-a-junk.”
“Me,” Boyd said, driving his thumb into his chest and shaking his head up and down. “My specialty will be going after them city slickers that can’t spit far enough to get their gum into the trash bins. Don’t you hate it when you get gum into the ridges on your boot? You got’a scrape that shit out with a knife.”
Everyone, including Peter, had to agree.
“I don’t know, Boyd. The city is going to be a lot more complicated. I still think we ought to leave the pigs in the sty. If you know, what I mean?”
Boyd folded his arms and leaned over the table. “Tell you what, my boy. You’re my favorite sniper, so I’m going to give you the zone down by the river.”
Peter considered the offer, but made no reply.
“Just think about all that trash floating down the river toward your precious little park. Don’t you want to stop it before it gets here?” Boyd asked.
“Yeah,” Peter said. “Yeah, I want to stop it. Okay. I’m in.”
Post Script: This story was rejected by ‘On The Premises.’ Oh, well. Too controversial for them, I guess.