Ted wrote this piece of fiction to the prompt “Not on the Team.” Listen to Ryan read this piece aloud on episode 50 of Take Note.
“Reports from the team aren’t good,” said Peterson with an elbow on his ancient grindstone, still gleaming from the effort of the day’s first demonstration of frontier blade-sharpening. He wiped his broad brow with a burlap rag produced from a front pocket of his breeches. “Graham has about had his fill of you, and I trust Graham. Graham is passionate about the mission of this state park. He feels you’re holding him back.”
“I’m sorry,” said Anabel. “I’m under some serious pressure, here, what with Smokey’s birthday year and the visitor satisfaction survey going out. To say nothing of the ongoing risk of forest fire.”
“Alright, alright,” said Peterson. “Just...well. The best we can do is the best we can do, for the park, for our patrons, and for Smokey the Bear and his legacy. We are a team, here. Let us help you shoulder the load.”
“Thanks for understanding, Master P,” said Anabel. Peterson struck the grindstone with a pair of pincers to create a decisive clang, and they started the walk to the Visitor’s Center.
“Kiddo,” said Peterson as they passed the interpretive barn, “you should know that you are one of the sharpest junior rangers I’ve ever had on my team. Your facility with ranger lore, park history, and Smokey trivia is off the charts. I would -- Christ, it must be a hundred degrees out here already.” He paused and turned to Anabel, squinting into the sun. “Its’ just that I’d hate to see you horse this up. No offense, Gertrude,” he nodded reverently to the nag chewing hay from the shade of the barn.
When Anabel entered the junior ranger break room, Graham was in full Smokey the Bear get-up but for the iconic head, which he held in his hands.
“Hello, Smokey,” she said to the head.
Graham ignored her and bounced from foot to foot like a boxer waiting for the fight to start. Anabel followed close behind when he sprung through the break room door and jitterbugged into the sunlight and the children waiting for something to happen out in front of the Visitor’s Center. Smokey power-flexed and rubbed the little one’s heads. He dabbed, he Dougied, he did the running man. Graham aspired to a career in mascotry and it showed.
After a few hijinx, Anabel stepped up. “Good morning, young people,” she began. “Gather close, but not too close, Smokey the Bear hasn’t had his breakfast yet. Alright, which one of your Einsteins can tell me the leading cause of forest fire?”
“Ebola!” “Forest Fires!” “People!”
“Who said it?” said Anabel, pointing at the general vicinity of the shout. You there? Well, you get it. People. When the cleansing, hungry flames rage in our forests and lap at the edges of our cities, laying indiscriminate waste to fauna and flora alike, you can bet that old homo sapiens had a hand in it. Heck, it could have been someone you know. Maybe it was your uncle!” A little girl on the front row jumped. Smokey looked at her over his shoulder.
“Smokey the Bear has roamed the earth for 75 years atoning for the sing of humankind,” she went on. “He shouts his message wherever he goes. Yet it falls on deaf ears as we continue to ravage our home planet. But ignore his warnings, by all means. Enjoy your s’mores.”
Anabel reported to the state park bright and early the next morning for a birthday party. Smokey was in position near the picnic tables, but when she approached he was on his heels and unsteady.
“Hey-oh,” said Anabel and nudged him in the tummy with her elbow. He emitted a grunt. “Jesus,” she said, “have it your way. Let’s get this shit show on the road.”
She convened the party-goers and handed out plastic ranger badges to their grasping little hands. “Smokey is a Grizzly bear, one of the deadliest woodland creatures on the continent. Since 1900, bears have cut short the lives of 158 poor souls...that we know about. And it’s not a pretty way to go, I assure you. Look at those jaws.” She gestured toward Smokey, who shrugged and went into a lame jumping jack routine.
The heat of the day set in and the party lost its center after the cupcakes came and went. In an open field outside the shade of the pine trees, a father and son tossed a frisbee. Smokey sauntered over and mimed a “toss me in.” The boy whipped it at his torso and the bear swiped at it blindly.
“He doesn’t look it, but he’s as nimble as a jungle cat when provoked,” said Anabel. When Smokey bent toward the frisbee he groaned deeply.
“Christ, have a rough one last night, buddy?” Anabel muttered as she bent to pick up the frisbee herself. When she arose, Smokey had removed his great head. Peterson’s sweaty forehead gleamed in the sunshine from out of the pelt and khaki. Sawdust still clung to his cheekbones from his morning lathe session.
“You’re fired, buddy,” he said.
“Fired. Fires. Forest fires...oh fuck it,” said Anabel. She took her junior ranger issue hat in hand and threw it like a frisbee into the boy’s arms, and the little fellow couldn’t have been happier.