All or Nothing
I walk into the facilities office at Bear Hollow Park where a middle-aged man sits behind a desk with his feet propped up leaning as far back into his chair that a person can lean without falling. He wears a short sleeve dull brown button up and matching colored pants. The white print on his left breast says: HOWARD. I hear faint voices followed by a laugh track coming from the smart phone he holds sideways in his hand. He looks up at me, then back at his phone. “Hold on a sec,” he says.
I look around the room. The wood paneled walls set against the faded blue carpet remind me of a basement from an earlier era. The walls are covered with maps of King County, posters that show where each nature trail connects, and multi-colored flyers reminding people of how and why it is important to keep recreational parks clean.
The room becomes quiet, and the man puts his phone down. “You new?”
“Yes,” I say, my hands resting inside the front pocket of my sweatshirt.
“Got your paperwork?”
I reach into my back pocket for the folded piece paper given to me by my probation officer and hand it to Howard. Its details include where I’m to report for community service, the address, the name of my supervisor, and how many hours I’m required to complete. 75. The paperwork also calls us “volunteers” which I find silly since everything else in this process seems to throw a spotlight over our misdeed.
He skims it, signs it, makes a copy, and puts both papers into a thick binder separated by at least ten different colored tabs. He hands me a different binder and tells me to sign in. “Every time you complete hours, make sure you sign in and sign out. You can work up to eight hours a day.”
Howard walks over to a utility closet and pulls out a large cardboard box. He carries it over to his desk and sets it on the floor. It makes a loud thump. “Pick one and put it on.”
I look into the box to find a pile of neon orange mesh vests. As I sort through them, the smell of old sweat and mildew fills the air. I manage to find one with the fewest dirt stains and pull it on over my sweatshirt.
“Remember to wear this at all times.”
“I’ll come give you something to do in a bit.” He tells me to go outside and wait at a picnic table near the facilities shed. Two other people in orange vests are sitting at the table when I join. One has ear buds in and plays on his phone; the other has her head down on the table and turned to one side. The guy on his phone looks up at me as I approach. We give each other an uncomfortable flat smile and head nod of acknowledgement. The girl keeps her head down. I notice the shed is filled with golf carts, leaf blowers, rakes, buckets, two John Deere tractors, coiled hoses, gardening tools, and gloves. I wonder what Howard will have us do.
Thirty minutes pass and all I’ve managed to do is pick the dead skin around each of my cuticles and pop a few pimples on my arms. Howard hasn’t come by to tell us what to do, and I’m wondering how I’ll be able to spend eight hours here if all eight are like this. I’m suddenly envious of the guy with his phone because I specifically left mine in my car. He seems to notice that I’ve been staring.
“What’d you do to be here?” he asks, pulling out an ear bud.
I laugh, and he gives me a blank stare.
“Oh, you’re serious,” I say. It seems taboo, the sort of question you don’t ask, the kind that, in fact, you go out of your way not to. I think of asking him if he wants to know my weight too. “Shoplifting,” I say. “Well, trying to.”
He laughs and squints at me for a moment. “I see it.” He puts his ear bud back in.
I furrow my eyebrows. Something about the way he laughs makes me want to yank the ear bud from his ear. I’d expected him to share why he was here, too. I consider prying but decide I don’t care enough to ask.
“Wake up!” a voice shouts from behind me. I hear the office door slam and turn to see Howard walking toward us. “C’mon, get up. You’re lucky I’m not Frank.” The girl picks her head off the table and a large wishbone-shaped imprint from the folds in her shirt lingers on her cheek. Howard looks at her, shakes his head, and laughs. “Put your phone away, Cody. I mean, really? At least try to hide it.”
Cody listens, but he does it so slowly that it feels like he’s joking with his fun uncle whom he knows he can piss off and push to the edge without actually getting in trouble.
I wonder what my parameters are, and I wonder who Frank is.
Howard walks over to the shed and grabs three buckets with three trash pickers. “You guys are going to pick up trash.”
“Shocker,” Wishbone says. She takes a bucket and a picker from Howard and sets off toward the soccer fields. Cody does the same, but heads toward the trail in between the tennis courts and the clubhouse.
“Where should I go?” I ask Howard.
“Anywhere away from them,” he says. He gets into one of the golf carts and drives toward an open trail.
Picking up trash is about as dull as it sounds. Here is a list of things I’ve so far picked up: cigarette butts, a Cool Ranch Doritos bag, a blue button, a used condom, cigarette butts, a faded parking ticket, plastic silverware, a hair tie, and more cigarette butts. I find it funny that the bigger items are usually the closest to the trash cans. Soon, I stop bending down to get a closer look at what might be trash because I realize I’m probably the only one doing this.
After awhile, I start to pay more attention to what’s around me than I do the actual trash. The kids hanging from the monkey bars and the one sliding down the slide, over and over, the same smile on his face each time as though it is the first. The longleaf pines and water oaks; there’s really nothing special about them, but they’re everywhere, so they’re hard not to look at. I walk around the lake at least three times and stare at the reflection of clouds on the water.
Every so often, I pass a family or a group of people. They look up to perform that obligatory “friendly smile and nod as we pass each other,” notice my orange vest, and I watch as their smile falls. I can see them thinking. Suddenly, I’m not one of them. I’m not a patron of this park.
I come to a girl at a picnic table who’s wearing a pair of rose gold Beats. Three textbooks lay open in front of her. A large coffee cup and a reusable water bottle rest on the table. Her hair is tied into a messy ponytail and though she looks wide awake, the bags under her eyes are deep, sunken, gray against her otherwise tanned face. I think about how badly I want to be her right now. How I’d give anything to be at home, or a park—anywhere really—studying, struggling to remember definitions and theories and equations and formulas. I want to be losing sleep over something as customary as school.
When I loop around near the parking lot, I look over my shoulder to make sure Howard isn’t coming by on a golf cart. I don’t see him or any other man in a brown uniform, so I walk over to my car. I unlock it, grab my ear buds and my phone from inside the console, and hide them in the front pocket of my sweatshirt. My sweatshirt is long enough to cover the front pockets of my jeans. I plug the ear buds into my phone, put the phone in my front pocket, and thread one ear bud up through my shirt and out of my collar. I’m grateful my hair is long and bushy. There’s no way the staff would notice my headphones if they happen to ride by, but I keep one ear free just in case.
I look at my phone and notice that only an hour and a half has passed. It feels like it’s been three. I sign out after four.
After I sign in on my second day, Howard tells me to rake the beach volleyball courts.
“Rake?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Rake the sand?”
I nod and put on a musty, orange vest. “Am I raking it into any sort of pattern?”
“Just raking.” He props his feet up on his desk. “Rakes are in the shed.”
I grab a rake and walk to the beach volleyball pit. I lean down to grab a handful of the off-white sand and let it filter through my fingers. It looks like the kind of sand you might find at a construction site, and it leaves my hand feeling caked and chalky. Parts of the sand pit are deeper, dug into more than others. I picture children building sandcastles, pretending it’s a giant sandbox rather than a volleyball court. I decide that since Howard refuses to be more specific, this is what is meant by “raking sand.” That I’m supposed to move the sand around until it creates a more even surface, like caulking holes on a dry wall.
The pit is at least thirty feet by sixty feet and after twenty minutes of raking in the same corner, I realize I might be here for hours. As I rake, I uncover twigs and leaves, pebbles, and the wayward piece of trash. I’m sure I’m supposed to pick these up or at least toss the leaves outside the court, but I don’t. The spokes in the rake are flimsy and spread so far apart that most of the sand slides through when I drag the rake across.
I remember my pre-calculus teacher in high school—Mr. Fletcher—lecturing the class one day when no one had been participating. He was irritated by our unenthused faces and one classmate’s commentary about the pointlessness of learning about systems and matrices. He dropped his chalk onto the chalk tray and said, “You’re right. It’s not like most of you will use this five, ten years from now.” Everyone sat up a little straighter. He went into a long spiel about how most math at this point is just to flex a muscle, to expand our minds and make us thinkers, all those bullshit phrases about “building character.”
The more I rake and the more the sand doesn’t mold the way I expect it to, the more I think about that day in pre-calc.
Howard relieves me from raking after a couple of hours. He hands me a leaf blower and tells me to go clear the tennis courts. Walking over I notice another person wearing an orange vest, blowing one side of the court clean. It’s the girl who had the wishbone imprint on her cheek. I take the other side of the court and turn on the leaf blower. It’s heavier than it looks, and I have to switch arms every couple minutes. Every now and then I lean it against my thigh. Much like the sandbox, the leaves and the twigs don’t go in the direction I want them to. I have to circle back to spots I just cleared. I look over and see Wishbone moving from one spot to the next without looking back. The foliage she blows lifts off the court, swirls a little in the air, and then settles back down a couple feet away. But still, she keeps moving.
Eventually we meet in the middle. She turns off her leaf blower, and it feels like permission to turn off mine, too. She sits down and wipes the sweat from her face with her forearm.
“Gonna try to work a full day today?” Wishbone asks.
I set the leaf blower down on the court but stay standing. “Honestly, I don’t know that I’m ever going to be able to do that. I thought I could, but…”
“Yeah, four is hard enough.”
“Does anyone ever actually work the full eight?”
“Oh yeah, I used to.”
“Why did you stop?” I ask.
“Because Frank started working.”
“Which one is Frank?”
“If you’re asking, you haven’t met him yet. He’s the one walking around with a giant D on his forehead.”
I stare blankly.
“Not literally, obviously.”
The wind blows across the tennis courts, dragging leaves and stray pieces of bark back onto it. It looks as though we haven’t done anything.
Wishbone continues. “Frank caught me sleeping. That’s why I stopped working eight hours. I used to lie across the woodpiles behind the shed and take naps.”
I laugh, wishing that I’d been sent here at a time when it was a Frank free zone.
“I heard about one guy who lived in an apartment complex close by. Apparently, he used to sign in, walk home, and then just come back at the end of the day.”
“How did he not get caught?”
She shakes her head. “The staff used to care less.”
I can’t help but feel very displaced, very other. Though I also earned my way here, fair and square, I think a deeper part of me is still fighting my punishment, can’t remember how I got here. Though it’s unrealistic I’m still waiting for someone to pull up in their car ask if I’d like a redo.
I make my way back from the other side of the park to the jungle gym where Cody lies face up along the blue slide, playing with the strings of his hoodie, and Wishbone has just finished successfully making her way across the monkey bars.
“I just don’t see the point,” Cody says.
Wishbone walks to the slide to hover over him, pulls a vape pen out of her back pocket, takes a pull, and exhales the smoke in his face.
For a second, I think he might swat at her but he continues lying there with his eyes closed. “Hmm,” he says. “Blueberry?”
“Close. Mixed berries.”
“It’s just like, if you’re going to try, go all the way.”
They both notice me walk up and Cody finishes his thought. “Right, thief?”
My eyebrows raise, and I realize he’s talking to me. I’m not offended, just still adjusting to his brazen nature and lack of filter. I’ve come to enjoy their company over the last couple days. Not necessarily because I like them, but because they’re all I have here. Their aimless, often moot conversations I’m merely an audience to oddly help pass the time.
“Obviously I’m the world’s lousiest thief if I’m stuck here with you two.”
“Ha,” Wishbone deadpans. “She has a sense of humor.”
“If you’re going to try, go all the way with what?” I steer back the conversation.
“With killing yourself,” Cody says.
“Cody here thinks that there’s no point to vaping. That you might as well go all the way and just buy the damn cigarette.”
“That’s not how I said it. I said, ‘If you’re inhaling nicotine, you’ve already accepted your lungs’ eventual fate. Why not just smoke all that other shit too? You’re already dancing with the devil.”
When people smoke I doubt they’re thinking about the day they’ll drop dead. They’re probably thinking about how it makes them feel good. I want to tell him that he sounds like the equivalent of a Dove chocolate wrapper platitude, only negative. But instead of saying any of that, I simply shrug and add, “I don’t know. I don’t smoke.”
“Called it,” Wishbone says and resumes another trek across the monkey bars.
“Whatever. I guess I’m just an all or nothing kind of guy.”
The next day, I walk back to the main office to go to the bathroom and get a drink from the water fountain. Before I open the door, I hear yelling. It sounds like two different voices. When I open the door, Cody and a man I’ve never seen before turn to look at me. He wears a navy blue polo with the King County Parks and Recreation logo.
“Just have to use the restroom,” I say, my eyes focused on the blue carpet. When I walk by the man, I notice his name tag says FRANK. I get to the bathroom and close the door, but it doesn’t muffle any sound.
“I hope your little prank was worth it.” I assume Frank is speaking.
Then there’s silence and I picture Cody giving Frank that same offhand face he gave Howard when he told him to put his phone away. I wash my hands and when I come back out, Frank is leaning over the desk, signing a sheet of paper. His face is red. He pushes so hard on the pen, I can hear the scribble as he drags it across. Cody looks at me, and it almost seems he’s smiling.
When I walk outside, I see Wishbone sitting at the picnic table. She snaps her head to the side, drops something to the ground, and stamps it quickly.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says. I smell smoke in the air.
“Something’s happening,” I say to her.
“In there?” She points to the office.
I nod and sit down. We’re allowed five-minute breaks every so often, and I decide to take mine now. Cody comes out less than a minute later and walks up to the picnic table.
“What happened?” Wishbone asks Cody.
He smirks and points to the ground. “Is that a cigarette?”
“Yeah yeah,” Wishbone says. “I took your advice. Accept my fate and all that shit. Don’t get a boner.” She nods toward the main office. “What happened in there?”
He sweeps the hair out of his face and yawns. “The same as usual.”
“They’re making you start over?” she asks.
I butt in. “Start over as in redo your hours?”
They both nod.
“They can do that?” I ask.
“I don’t know if they can, but they do.”
“Well, what if you talk to your lawyer?” I ask.
Cody laughs. “You think I can afford a lawyer?” He takes his keys from his back pocket, hooks the key ring around his finger, and twirls it.
“I still don’t understand what led to you starting over,” Wishbone says.
“It was actually about you.” He points at me.
“Me?” I raise my eyebrows and point at my chest too, almost as though Cody’s stare has made me want to interrogate myself. But he doesn’t seem mad, pretty even-tempered actually.
“He saw you on your phone. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason that really gets the big guy going.”
“So then why are you the one being asked to leave?”
“I told him that I told you we’re allowed to use them as much as we want.”
I open my mouth to say something else but Cody interjects. “Honestly, it’s just easier at this point if you let me go quietly.” He laughs and continues to twirl his key ring.
“Dude, that was stupid but weirdly noble of you.” Wishbone shakes her head and pulls out a new cigarette from her pocket.
“Just keep your head down and get through your hours, kid,” Cody says though I would bet we’re similar in age. “You don’t belong here,” Cody says.
I look at Wishbone to see if she might be offended as to what he’s implying about herself, but she shakes off the ash from her cigarette and picks at the paint peeling from the table. “What is that now? 300 plus hours?” she asks Cody.
He throws his keys high into the air and catches them. “I stopped counting,” Cody says. “Besides, I’m used to it at this point.”
I look at Wishbone and she holds up four fingers to indicate it’s his fourth time starting over. I wonder for a second if Cody likes it here, if being here is somehow better than where he comes from.
“Well, we’ll miss you,” Wishbone says. She doesn’t look at me when she says “we,” but I can tell that whether I wanted to be or not, I’m a part of this group now.
“Eh, you haven’t seen the last of me,” Cody says, tossing his keys up and down again, and walks toward the parking lot.
When I come in a few days later, I don’t wait for Howard to put down his phone and give me a task. I sign in, grab a vest from the box without looking, and walk over to the shed to get a bucket and a trash picker. I walk toward the trail that takes the longest to loop back around. I wonder if Wishbone will show up today. Maybe today we’ll actually learn each other’s names. I wonder if a new person will show up. When they do, I will no longer be the new girl who doesn’t really talk. Just the girl who doesn’t really talk.
After Cody gets sent away, I should put my phone and my ear buds back in my car, but I don’t. We all got the backlash of Cody’s transgression when signing out the day he was told to leave. Frank took one look at me and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I hope what you saw today came as a lesson.” Later that day when I got into my car, I thought, I’m not going to stop. Almost because he took the fall for me, I want to listen to music more. I want to conceal my ear buds less.
I can’t stop thinking about what Cody said, about my not belonging here. I had felt a divide between us before, so how come Cody acknowledging it aloud suddenly seemed the biggest offense? It’s almost as though he feels he should be punished. It makes me wonder why he’s on probation. I wish I’d asked him. Hopefully I’ll see him again before I’m done with my hours.
About half way through the trail, I come to the point where picking up trash has become mindless, the routine lulling me into a sleepy stupor. I’ve sort of forgotten where I am and I’m half singing, half mumbling to myself. I’m picking up more foliage than I am trash. And then I spot it. It looks like a giant pile of dirt but as I get closer I realize it’s an ant pile about the size of a gas can, certainly larger than I’ve ever seen. It’s covered in a white powder which I assume to be some kind of insecticide. I can see dead ants sprinkled in between the pile and the powder and find that it’s kind of mesmerizing in an incongruent kind of way.
Suddenly, I feel a sharp twinge at my ankle and look down to realize I’ve stepped in a smaller ant pile next it. A cluster of ants scramble along my tennis shoe and a good amount has already made it onto my skin. I quickly slip off my tennis shoe and shake it, brush the stragglers from my ankle. I grab a water bottle from my drawstring bag and pour it over my skin. I was planning to attempt an eight hour day but I sign out soon after.
That night I find myself reading articles about ant bites. I was originally worried because it had been so many at once. My ankle seems fine, just a little itchier than normal and a few red spots have appeared, but it’s not like I’ve never had an ant bite before. I rub a hydrocortisone cream on it and a cool sensation spreads along my ankle. As I read, I come across an article about a particular ant called Colobopsis explodens, also known as the exploding ant. I learn that when it senses danger it contracts its muscles so hard that its skin splits open—killing itself—and coats adversaries in a toxic yellow goo. It is their ultimate act of self-sacrifice to protect the colony. In the ant hierarchy, they’re considered minor workers, or to put it bluntly, the colony’s expendables. The article is accompanied with pictures of the ant in what looks to be precisely before the moment of attack, its red head and thorax low to the ground, its black abdomen stuck straight into the air. Like a feline, soon to pounce. I doubt this is the kind that bit me. I don’t know much about ants. I know there are fire ants and sugar ants, that I probably step on them at least a thousand times a day, but that’s about it.
Cody pops in my head. For some reason, I just know he’ll be one of those people. One of those that sticks, whose memories of and interactions with were menial but even so will remain focal. Something about him was poignant. I scratch my ankle again, knowing that’s the last thing it needs. I don’t know much about ants. From my vantage point, from so high up, they all look the same. But perhaps it’s a bit skewed, my view from above.