This is a fictionalized account of an actual event - the secrets stored in the visitor Center of Anza Borrego State Park. Thanks to Mario's friend and former colleague, Mike Kania, who told me the story that inspired this one. Hopefully those in State Parks will appreciate the humor and see that I remember the sacrifices that all of you made to make our State Parks the treasures that they are.
|Wildflowers in the Anza Borrego Desert|
From Font’s Point, the desert stretched forever, jagged badlands that finally relaxed into the valley that poured forth the spring wildflowers. From Jeff Dimitri’s vantage, they were a quilt outstretched, beckoning him to come and lay down in the middle of them. It was out of the question to take a break, he knew. He wasn’t likely to lie down in the middle of the wildflowers anyway, which camouflaged every breed of grasshopper and snake the desert held. Anza Borrego used to be a fertile valley; he knew that once it was an oasis a very long time ago. The inland desert was once a tropical paradise, the Salton Sea was once a beautiful lake, and Jeff was once a man that his father was proud of.
He sighed deeply and surveyed the badlands. He sympathized with its terrible terrain, cut away recklessly by wicked agents of change. The dry earth was spectacular; people came from all over the world to see it and proclaimed it beautiful. Yet under the persistent sun, it was scorched relentlessly, creating a virtual wasteland. Somewhere across the valley lived the reclusive Bighorn Sheep that the desert was named after, but he’d never seen any. The wildflowers were the only sign of life the park had in a long time - a very long time.
Jeff’s radio crackled and the dispatcher called to him. “R242, Borrego One.” Jeff touched the button on his shoulder mike and responded.
“They’re asking for you at the visitor center,” a scratchy voice said. He had just hired the new park aid, Cassie, a kid from town that weighed only slightly less than he did. She ate M&M’s at her desk even though she needed to be on a diet of celery and water; she also had a habit of biting off her dirty fingernails and spitting them on the floor. In the desert it was hard to find good help that lasted, but Cassie was sharp as a tack and could type eighty words per minute. Out here, that was enough to be a rock star.
“Be right there,” he said. He took a deep breath and climbed into the Jeep, which smelled of cracking vinyl and dry spores. On the way out there, he thought of Dianne. She was just a skinny park aid when he met her; a fawn barely standing, with brown eyes that bored into his soul. The thought of her made him smile; a mist of arousal surrounded him. He had been newly divorced when he met her and had sworn off romance; he hadn’t expected her to be there. She was so perfect, a beautiful girl that needed him so perfectly. How could he fail as a husband when she trusted everything he said and felt? Then again, what guarantee did he have to succeed?
The Jeep churned up a trail of dust that followed him. His ticket book was left open next to him, reminding him of the ruckus they had in town last week. He almost got to be part of the action, but the local PD called him off. The only excitement Jeff had seen for a long time was the construction of the new visitor center, which was nearly finished. It would have been completed long ago if the contractor didn’t need him to okay every little detail. On the drive there, he passed another Jeep and the driver waved to him. It was David Dunn, the singing sensation that recorded his music at the park; the one who cheerfully shared every little “discovery” about insects and birds with the park staff, like they didn’t know. Jeff loved the interpretive side of his job, but he was a peace officer through and through. He secretly wished that some kind of mayhem would break out in one of the sparsely populated campsites just so he could take some scrote off to jail. That would be fun.
Upon arriving at the center, he saw Cassie, round and short, pointing at the Visitor center and shrugging her shoulders. He waved at her and veered into the parking lot, where the contractor was waiting on the porch, holding two squares of tile. Jeff sighed and exited the vehicle, adjusting his belt so he could feel the handle of his gun. Just in case.
“Howdy Ranger Jeff!” Paul, the contractor greeted him the same way every time he saw him. It was so irritating.
“Paul, what can I do for you?”
“Well, I’m afraid we have a tile issue,” Paul said, sighing. He took off his cap, revealing a sweaty bald head that was covered in freckles. “The original bid was for the 4 inch square tiles in the bathrooms and entryway, but now I’m running short.”
“Really?” Jeff stifled a yawn. “When did you realize you were running short?”
“I swear I just found out now,” the contractor’s face twisted as he wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I hired these guys for an hourly wage and I told them…” he leaned closer to Jeff and whispered. “I told them in damn English is the problem, if you know what I mean! I told them in damn English to get it done fast and they each worked on different bathrooms at once, instead of together. Do you know what I mean?”
Jeff had no hidden admiration for Paul and the disparaging remarks gave him even less. Still, he looked for a solution. He walked into the visitor center, a beautiful and otherwise polished structure; the unfinished entryway was definitely the wrench in the works. The crew was already a week behind schedule and if they waited for matching tiles it would mean at least a week’s delay.
“When is the roof supposed to be poured?” Jeff asked him, referring to the cement cap that would protect the structure from the searing sun.
“Tuesday night,” Paul said, his voice echoing against the back wall. “At midnight. They can’t pour it in the day.”
“Oh, yeah. Of course not.” The Parks Superintendent invited the whole town of Borrego Springs for the "topping off" event. It would be disastrous if they showed up for the cement roof pouring event with an unfinished entryway, it would be his fault. He’d never hear the end of it. A bead of sweat dripped from the nape of his neck and trickled down his back; the gun belt halted it before it went any further. Jeff’s head swirled with thoughts. The roof was being poured at midnight because it was too hot in the daytime; the cement had set evenly and not be scorched before it seasoned. He remembered Tina, his ex-wife, who said she’d never follow him to the desert; their dog would die under the desert sun. Their relationship was pretty much over by then anyway, and it didn’t matter which job he took. A move to the desert or the beach or even the inland redwoods would mean it was time to move away from each other. He looked at the raw wood underneath his feet.
“Why not use the flooring you used in the rest of the Visitor Center?” Jeff pointed toward the hardwoods that stretched across the floor. As soon as he said it, he realized it was a mistake.
“Well, that’s the problem. Hardwoods are a whole dollar more per square foot,” Paul took out a tape measure and ceremoniously measured the entrance in Jeff’s presence. After scratching his chin, the contractor announced sadly: “It’ll be at least four hundred more dollars than my bid price.”
Jeff smiled slightly. “Your bid can’t be altered once it’s accepted, Paul.”
Paul smiled, shyly and lobbed a reply. “I can’t afford to eat this, Jeff.”
“Then maybe you should have learned Spanish.” An icy silence hung in the air between them; the men regarded each other, staring until one flinched. In a moment the contractor sighed loudly.
“I have enough flooring left over from another job I did in town,” he said. “It won’t be an exact match, but it will look as if we planned it if we frame it in tile.”
“How much of a delay will that mean?”
“It’ll be done tomorrow,” Paul said, careful not make eye contact with Jeff. “If I can get through to these guys.”
“Maybe I can help,” Jeff said. “My park aid speaks Spanish. She’d probably love the excitement of translating for you.”
Paul shook his head and looked at him, defeated. “I’ll take any help I can get at this point.”
Before he went home for lunch, Jeff informed Cassie she would now be the point person between him and the contracting team. She had been eating a package of Reece’s Pieces at her desk, but she nodded at him, blurry from her sugar coma.
“I’m going home for lunch,” he said. She handed him a message without speaking. It was from the Park Superintendent, probably calling about the progress on the visitor center. He decided to call him back before he left. The Superintendent picked up after two rings.
“Hi, this is Jeff Dimitri returning your call…”
“Oh, is this the movie star?” Jeff couldn’t help but smile. He had been cast as an extra in a movie once; where the whole day was spent sitting on a horse as the crew filmed on Santa Cruz State Beach; he was kind of famous for it. “Can I come over and get your autograph?”
“Maybe. If you ask me Tuesday night I might be in a better mood. Everything will be ready then.”
“Yeah? You’re on schedule? That’s great news!”
“We’ve had a few roadblocks, but nothing we can’t handle….”
“Will Tina be there? I haven’t seen her in ages!”
“No,” Jeff shifted nervously on his feet and looked over at Cassie; she didn’t seem interested in the conversation. “Tina and I split up five years ago…”
“Oh, sorry! I forgot. I think you told me…”
“No, it’s alright…” Jeff didn’t know what to say. There was still a sense that it wasn’t alright.
“I’m remarried now,” Jeff’s voice took an upswing. “Her name is Dianne. We have a baby girl…”
“Oh, man! Congratulations!”
“Yeah, thanks,” Jeff turned toward the window and looked out toward the residence area. He was sure he had told the Superintendent when he got married, two years ago; he might have invited him to the wedding.
“So I’ll see you on Tuesday. What time is everything going to get started?”
“Well, you invited the town for the event, remember?” Jeff smiled. “The cement is scheduled to be poured at midnight.”
“Oh, yeah. Right! Okay, I’ll be there around ten. Will I meet your new wife there?”
Jeff sighed. Dianne said she might come if she could get her cousin to spend the night and be with the baby. “Maybe.”
“I won’t call her Tina, I promise.”
Jeff laughed. “Good idea.”
The lunch at home turned into a make-out session and Jeff had to peel Dianne off of him before things got out of hand.
“Babe, I gotta get back...” he whispered smiling.
She took a step back and made a face, her hands clasped in front of her. “The baby’s asleep. We have to take advantage of these times.” Her voice was soft and urgent at the same time; Jeff regarded her carefully. She was still his small fawn; still had large eyes framed with long lashes. Her breasts and hips were larger from having the baby, but it suited her; she was now a softer version of her former self.
“Alright…” he said, unbuckling his belt. She embraced him again and Jeff acquiesced. Not much could happen while he was away at lunch; he was determined not to let this opportunity pass.
Tuesday night was controlled chaos; townsfolk came to their beloved park to see the new center and admire its fresh appearance. No interior exhibits or walls had been done, but the entryway had been completed and Jeff was pleased. At ten o’clock he went off shift and accepted a Budweiser tall neck that one of the townspeople offered him. Everyone seemed to be enjoying some kind of adult beverage; the wine selection had been placed on a folding table next to some plastic see-through cups.
“Where is your little wife?” The Superintendent asked, approaching him with a bottle in his hand. “I’m dying to meet this new lady in your life.”
“Yeah,” Jeff smiled. “We’ve been married for two years now. She’s at home with the baby. She just might show up.”
“Why not? Bring that baby out here to see the cement poured!”
“No, she’s trying to get the babysitter to stay overnight…”
“Yeah, yeah… We got some turnout for this, didn’t we?”
Jeff looked around. There were fifty people milling around, most of them in cut-off shorts and loose fitting madras shirts. The lights of the new center highlighted the crowd, all happy and a bit boisterous. Gnats flew around in the light above them. Most of the townfolk had been drinking; only the construction team seemed to be stone-cold sober.
Jeff had seen the form on the roof set in place the day before. It had wooden sides and rebar criss-crosses ready to receive the cement. A make-shift crane had been set up at the rear of the center, where a few mixers had been spinning sand, water and cement mix for a few minutes. As the people drank wine and beer, the oversized tuckers arrived, carrying the pre-mixed cement. The noise increased and people watched as the workers climbed the ladders and took their place on the roof. Each of them seemed to be holding a rake or a flattening device. One of them walked over to the crane and turned on a flood-light.
“Look at this…” Jeff whispered to no one in particular. A woman standing next to him held an empty bottle of beer. She looked up at him and nudged him in the side with it.
“Where’s the time capsule?” she asked, her eyes glazed and reddened.
“What?” Jeff tried not to scowl, but the woman was a little too close to him.
“We should have a time capsule up there!”
“Oh yeah…” Jeff looked up at the workers, and wondered if it was too late.
“Let’s all write a dirty little secret on a piece of paper and put it in these bottles and….” The woman staggered forward. “THROW them up there!” She made a quick tossing motion with her bottle, but Jeff lunged forward to stop her.
“No, no, no!!”
He heard laughing behind him. It was a couple of guys that seemed intoxicated themselves. They nodded, agreeing with the woman’s sentiment.
“A time capsule is a must have, man,” one of them said. Jeff looked over to the Superintendent, who had been watching.
“We can’t throw them,” the Superintendent said, quietly. “Why don’t we place them inside the form as the cement is poured?”
Jeff looked up at the process. The tuckers had been dumping concrete into the form for awhile. A man holding what looked to be a vacuum was walking over the rebar, dipping the end of his machine into the cement.
Jeff walked quickly into the office and got some paper, pencils and a few pens. On an impulse, he picked up the day’s newspaper and tucked it into his arm. By the time he got back to the center, the mood of the gathering had changed. Everyone was seriously considering what to place in their bottles; they received paper and pencils and started writing. Jeff tore off the front page of the paper (whose headline and pictures detailed the hostage crisis in Iran) and rolled it up so that it fit inside of an empty bottle.
People began taking turns, climbing the ladders to carefully place their “capsules” of beer bottles with paper confessions inside the form. The process was remarkably orderly; the construction workers took the bottles and sank them into place, even in the middle of the form where people couldn’t reach. The constant flow of mud covered over them.
For a moment, Jeff considered his own secret. He had lost his father, a man who was one of the first State Park Rangers to be a sworn officer. He died a year ago, openly disapproving of Jeff. According to his father, Jeff had failed as a man by leaving his wife. His father always thought that Tina was sacrificed to Jeff's career, which might have been half-true. They were estranged until the end, when cancer had made his father’s face old and sad. Jeff tried to explain to him over and over again that he was a different man now: he had a new wife, Dianne, and a baby on the way. He was a changed man; a new person with renewed hope in love. His father didn't buy it; he was cold to Jeff- even at the moment of death.
Jeff took a paper and pen. Without much thought, he began a letter to his father:
Dear Pop,I wish you hadn't died. If you were alive now you would see my new baby, Cheyenne. She looks like you, Pop, even Mom says so. I’m sorry you think I’m a failure, but I’m not. I try to be the best man that I can be and you taught me that, Pop. Don’t you know how much I loved you? Don’t you see how your approval mattered to me?
Things are different now. I’m pretty happy in my job and I have a great wife. She tries to understand me and she supports my career moves. You know how hard this job can be on a marriage, Pop. Don’t you remember?
Anyway. I’m trying. I’m doing the best that I can. You know what makes me mad? You’d like Dianne and you never gave her a chance. She had nothing to do with my divorce, but you never gave her…Anyway. I love you,Jeff.
He tore the letter away from the rest of the pad of paper and rolled it tightly. He looked up at the roof, tears stinging his eyes. Maybe he shouldn't have had that third beer.
Ascending the ladder, the noise of the tuckers became louder. A mustached man accepted his bottle and buried it in the wet expanse of the center. Jeff watched it be pushed down and wondered if it would ever be discovered. He could see watches gleaming on the surface of the cement; bubbles were popping from the newly buried capsules that people had set down.
Descending the ladder, two men applauded him. “Good for you, Ranger!” “What was your secret?” He couldn't help but smile.
“That’s for me to know and some historian to dig up later,” he said. Before he could engage them further, he looked up to see Dianne shaking hands with the Superintendent. They smiled at each other and Dianne’s small face seemed lit up with excitement.
Jeff walked over to them; his wife looked up, smiling broadly. “Hey, honey! What did you write? What was your secret?”
Jeff put his arms around her and she fell into him. It was as if he had no other home but her; she was the beginning of his life and the end. Before he could answer she whispered in his ear:
“You know I won’t be satisfied until you tell me everything!”
He released her and smiled.
“My secret is... that I’m happy here. Can you believe that? Who the hell can be happy in this deserted wasteland?”
The Superintendent laughed. “You’re happy now because this thing is finished.” He pointed to the visitor center, which was lit up on all sides. The three of them looked up at the roof, lit up and active. Workers raked the mud evenly and dipped electric poles periodically. In between, they batted away gnats that flew around them. The roof now held pieces of the community, tucked neatly inside the frame. From where he stood, Jeff could smell that the mud was already drying.