by Susan Pierce
Scott Dickey pushed the button, turned around in the front passenger seat of the White Cloud, and watched as the sliding door automatically closed. “Punch it dude. We’re good to go.”
From behind the steering wheel his older sister, Marph, looked firmly at him and said in a cold voice, “Now listen, Scottie: Do not touch anything in this van. Not a button; not a switch; not a lever. Not even a Kleenex. You do, and I’ll pull over and beat the livin’ crap otta ya.”
She saw, in a quick glance at the rearview mirror, the passenger sitting in the back seat recliner turn slightly pink.
“Excuse my language, Auntie Ag, but you have to be firm with them or they walk all over you. The thing is, is that men and boys are born with a genetic malfunction that makes them think they absolutely have to touch every piece of everything that’s electronic. They can’t help themselves. It’s a birth defect kinda thing.”
Agatha Bliss chuckled. She had been looking forward to this outing. First, she knew she would enjoy the company of two young people for the day. Second, she knew it would do her good to get out of the house. Third, and perhaps most importantly, she wanted very much to see an historic likeness of Theodore Judah.
She was quite sure it was he she had seen at Dutch Flat. But she wanted certainty. If there were a way to prove it by means of an historic likeness her mind would be settled. Three excellent reasons for an adventure.
She knew that brothers and sisters tend to tease, but she also knew that, at their ages, good-natured teasing was a form of bonding for the Dickeys. She had decided that, for this outing, she would, as they say, take a chill pill and go with the flow.
“Touuuch. I must touuuch,” Scottie said in a classic zombie voice.
Marph backed the White Cloud up, turned it around, and headed down the driveway. “I can’t believe Sissy said we could take the White Cloud down to Old Sacramento. This, is totally awesome.”
“Totally,” Scott agreed.
“But the thing is, is that this ride is so hi-tech that if you go around touching stuff and screw something up we’ll be totally jacked outta ever getting to do this again—ever.”
“Don’t worry, Marph.” Scott winked back at Auntie Ag. “I’ll try and control myself. But it won’t be easy.”
He stretched out both arms, rolled both eyes up into his head, and droned in his zombie voice, “Sooo shiny. Sooo hi-tech. Must touuuch.”
“Yeah? Well that’s what I’m gonna put on your grave stone: He just haaad to touch it.”
Auntie Ag thought this would be a good time to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Let me see now. It is ten-thirty on a lovely Friday morning. By now, Sissy and Lewis should be making their way to the Napa Depot for their luncheon on The Wine Train, shouldn’t they?”
“Yep.” Scott nodded.
“Anyone want to guess what they’re wearing?” Marph asked.
“Sissy’s easy. He’s probably wearing what he always wears. He’s got on his sunglasses, shorts, a polo shirt, and a pair of Birkenstocks. He’s probably totally comfortable and scoping out the train and everyone on it.”
Scott thought for a minute and then added, “But who knows what Lewis has on.”
“Yeah,” Marph chuckled. “He was totally hemorrhaging over what to wear. Which you really can’t blame him because we have to wear those stupid scrubs to work at the hospital. They’re comfortable and all and if you get something on them it usually washes right off and all but they’re so baggy. I mean, if I was going somewhere special I’d want to dress up.”
“Oh, yeah. You’d wear, like, a low-cut pink tube top, silver skin-tight camel-toe pants, white high heels, and about a ton of bling.”
“Camel-toe pants?” Auntie Ag asked with interest.
“Never mind, Auntie. It’s a crude expression about a certain part of a woman’s anatomy that can be emphasized by really tight slacks that no one but a total degenerate child would even mention in front of a nice old lady such as yourself so shut up, Scottie.”
Auntie Ag raised her eyebrows and hoped anyone looking at her would somehow mistake her amusement for disapproval. “I see,” she said with measured tone. “And what is bling? Is that something crude as well?”
“No, bling is clean,” Scott rushed to redeem at lease a modicum of his social credibility. “Bling is jewelry. You know—rings, necklaces, earrings.”
“Accessories.” Marph feigned sophistication.
Scott nodded. “Yeah. Accessories. You might find this interesting, Auntie. Young people in America don’t think it’s possible to over-accessorize these days. The more bling, the better, is what they think.”
Auntie Ag pondered the question: Where on earth would a young man like Scott Dickey hear the phrase “over-accessorize” and learn to use it properly in a sentence? What fun, she thought. Young people are always so eager and never fail to inject such unexpected little things into the conversation.
She sighed. Thank-you, Lord, for not surrounding me with people my own age. How dreadfully boring it would be. She smiled out the side window and said aloud, “A lovely morning.”
Marph carefully moored the White Cloud at a handicapped parking meter in Old Sacramento. She took the Handicapped card out of the side door pocket and hung it over the rear view mirror.
“Alright Scott,” she said. “We’re at the dock and I lowered the anchor. Now you get to push some buttons. You’re in charge of getting Auntie Ag and Ilean out of the van and onto the sidewalk. I’ll get our sandwiches out of the back.”
In no time the three stood on the raised wooden sidewalk. Agatha Bliss looked around, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She could hear the sea gulls squawking; she could smell the brackish water of the Sacramento River; and she could imagine herself a gold digger, newly arrived from England and thrust into the adventure of California in the 1850’s.
The scene she imagined was exhilarating. She opened her eyes and saw her cane, Ilean, in her right hand and Scott standing near her left.
Marph pushed two hours’ worth of quarters into the meter. She hefted the rucksack over a shoulder and hurried over to them.
Scott whispered, “You got the gold, girl?”
Marph grinned, patting the rucksack. “Right here. Three chicken sandwiches on sourdough with Swiss cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, and a dash of Dijon.”
“Excellent,” he whispered with an absolutely straight face. “Say nothing. Spies and Shanghai’ers are everywhere. Act normal.”
“Gottcha,” she whispered without moving her lips. Yeah, little brothers were pain—but they were also more fun than almost anybody.
The three gold diggers and Ilean strolled down the elevated wooden sidewalk that ran in front of the shops along Second Street. As they ambled along toward L Street, they stopped at windows to view merchants’ displays and discuss the outstanding features of each vendor’s domain. About half way down the block they stopped to sit on one of the wooden benches for a spot of people-watching. People they saw differed in color, clothing, and languages.
When she closed her eyes, Auntie Ag could almost imagine herself people-watching in Oxford. “Marvelous, isn’t it?”
Marph caught Scott’s eye and nodded toward a couple embracing in front of a shop to his left. “See them? I’ve been watching them for ten minutes. Every two and-a-half minutes, he comes up for air. Then he sticks his tongue back down her throat. Whaddya think—newlyweds?”
“Naw. I think he’s just a horney toad.”
Auntie Ag didn’t need an explanation as to the meaning of that term.
Scott asked, “What would you rather be—a gold digger or a dance hall girl?”
“Gold digger!” Marph answered without hesitation.
“It’s a trick question.” Scott grinned. “Dance hall girls were gold diggers.”
They could see the intersection of Second Street and L Street as they walked by the frozen yogurt shop. A bit further down the street was another wooden bench. Scott beckoned toward it and said, “If you want, ladies, we can sit right here and eat our sandwiches. What you want to see, Auntie, is in that little park just on the other side of L Street. I’ll double back to the yogurt shop and get us something to drink. What’s your pleasure?”
“Gees, Scott, walking through Old Town has turned you into a regular gentleman. Really. It’s kind of cool. I’ll take a bottle of water. How ‘bout you, Auntie?”
“Well yes. A bit of cool water would be just the thing. Thank-you, sir. May I contribute some money for the good of the Empire?”
Scott threw up both hands. “I wouldn’t think of it.” He bowed, turned, and loped to the doorway of the yogurt shop. By the time Agatha Bliss and Marph Dickey were settled on the bench with sandwiches in hand, Scott was back.
“Madam.” He handed a bottle of water to Auntie. “Madam,” and handed the other bottle of water to Marph. Then he pulled a bottle of Coke from his pants pocket, unscrewed the top, guzzled an enormous gulp, and let out the biggest belch ever broadcast.
Marph handed him his sandwich. “Scottie. Everybody’s gonna think it’s an earth-quake. At least try to chew your sandwich with your mouth closed, will ya?”
Auntie Ag looked at her water bottle. She was puzzled.
“Sorry, Auntie.” Marph knew her well enough to guess what the problem was. “In America, young people don’t use cups. We just chug straight from the bottle.”
“I see,” she answered doubtfully. Then she added, “Well, then, we shall leave the cups and saucers to the elderly today.”
With that, she unscrewed the top of her bottle and took a healthy swig of cool water. “Quite right. We young people shall leave the cups to the wrinklers for the day.”
Her blue eyes sparkled and the three gold diggers clicked plastic bottles in a lively toast.
Sustained by the sandwiches and refreshed by the beverages, the trio crossed L Street. They stopped in the little park for a look at the Pony Express Rider statue and then began looking in earnest for the object of their outing.
“It’s a statue, right? We’re looking for a statue?”
“That’s the idea, Scottie. We’re after the statue of Theodore Judah.”
“Crazy Judah? How come?”
“Dunno. The thing is, is that’s why we came here. She said she wanted to see a picture of him and I said I didn’t know how to find one but that there’s a statue of him down here so Sissy said you and me could bring her down here in the White Cloud when him and Lewis went on The Wine Train so here we are.”
“Sounds kinda weird. But, you know, good weird. We’re here and we’ll totally find the guy.”
In less than two minutes the three stood at the other end of the little park looking at a stone and brass monument. Carved into the stone were a railroad trestle and a stand of fir trees. Overlaid on the stone was the brass likeness of Theodore Judah.
Over the years, wind and rain had weathered the shiny brass to a stained, dull, greyish-green.
Neither Marph nor Scott had any idea as to what to do next. They simply stood quietly and followed the lead of Agatha Bliss. She stood at a distance for a while and then moved closer to the face. She stood near it and gradually squinted her eyes. Then she opened them and then squinted again. The Dickeys did the same.
Suddenly, Marph blurted out, “Oh, gees, Scottie. Look at how the rain and stuff stained his face. If you squint a little bit it looks like he’s been crying.”
Scott squinted and he saw it. “Holy cra . . . I mean, yeah, dude. It does. Gees. I didn’t know they were allowed to make monuments with the guy looking sad. That’s enough to bum out a whole bus load of little kids down here on a field trip. Man.”
They both looked at Auntie and watched her blue eyes well up with tears.
“Dude,” he whispered to Marph. “What do we do now?”
“Shhhh. Just stand here with her as long as she wants. Something’s going on with her and I don’t know what it is but the thing is, is that you and me can just shut up and stand here with her so she’ll know she’s not alone.”
That’s what the Dickeys did. Gently, Marph wrapped her left arm around Auntie’s waist. On the other side, Scott softly draped his right arm around her shoulders. Together, they stood.
Agatha Bliss was gradually able to compose herself. She didn’t know what she had expected, but the profound sadness of the image was certainly not it. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly a few times and then heaved a deep sigh. She reached into the pocket of her dress in search of her handkerchief.
“Well. That’s it then. He’s not wearing his hat. His hair is thinner and he looks older. And, of course, that dark sadness exudes from him. But it is he . . . ”
Eventually they turned and walked slowly toward the White Cloud.
Marph broke the quiet, “Did you know him very well?”
“Gees, Marph. The guy died a hundred and fifty years ago. She’s not that old.”
Marph tried again. “Well, she said he looked older. Anyways I heard it that way.” She turned to Auntie Ag. “But I don’t get what you’re saying.”
Auntie Ag drew a deep breath. “He was a lovely man, darlings,” and gave them each a pat. “He was young and full of hope. He was strong and enthusiastic and couldn’t think of any reason why he couldn’t do impossible things. His vision was enchanting and he did, indeed, accomplish marvelous things.”
“But he died before the railroad was built, right?” Scott asked.
Marph said, “Oooh . . . I get it, Auntie Ag. He didn’t live long enough to see it finished. Plus he got cheated by his own partners. That’d make anybody sad. Jerks. Do you think he ever forgave them? Or did he die sad.”
“Yeah. Well, I wouldn’t forgive those guys. If they made a T-shirt with that face on it, the caption would say, I brought the railroad to California and all I got was this stinkin’ T-shirt.”
Agatha Bliss laughed. She couldn’t help it. It was difficult to be in low spirits in the company of these two youngsters.
“I shall remember him as a young man of hope and purpose. He was intoxicated by the conviction that anything is possible. He swaggered down the boardwalk as if he had just built this side of the street and was planning, next day, to build the other. He wore a tall hat and a checkered waistcoat and if he couldn’t get through a mountain he would find a way to go around it. That’s how I shall remember him.”
“Yeah, me too. I’m gonna remember him being just like us. Not some totally sad, dead old guy, but young and strong and doing stuff. Look at us: We’re strutting down the sidewalk on a beautiful day and we’re gonna float home on a White Cloud.”
Scott patted Auntie Ag’s shoulder.
“Exactly.” Auntie Ag caught her second breath. “Judah wasn’t crazy. He was young. Like us. And I am quite sure that at lunch he drank cool water straight from the plastic bottle.”
They all laughed.
“He wasn’t Crazy Judah,” Scottie gasped as he tried to catch his breath. “He was just like us. Young and cupless.”
They reached the custom van and Scott gently enthroned Auntie Ag on her back seat recliner while Marph tucked the rucksack into the rear storage compartment. She slipped behind the steering wheel as Scott pulled his door shut.
She looked over at him and, as she turned the key in the ignition, mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
He grinned and winked at her. Then he turned his face to the side window and pretended there wasn’t a lump in his throat.