The Highlight of the Trip
The only person who ever told me things straight, told me things like they really were without a thick coating of bullshit was Theodore Roosevelt. Oh, and by the way, he hates being called Teddy. And I mean hates it. The first time I met him and called him that, he damned near killed me. He prefers Theo, like that character on the Cosby Show. In fact, Roosevelt loves the Cosby Show.
It all seems like a crazy blur now but I met him last summer when I was forced to go on a stupid trip with my family. It was a trip I desperately tried to get out of but after giving my parents all the excuses I could think of — I was old enough to stay home by myself, I would get violently car sick, etc. — I found myself in the back of the minivan with my annoying little sister, Cheryl, as we left Illinois.
After an incredibly boring Iowa and a mind-numbing tour of what seemed like 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, we headed to South Dakota for the “highlight” of the trip: that stupid rock with the giant president heads. Mom, Dad, and Cheryl kept talking about it, how they couldn’t wait to see it, about how many pictures they were going to take. I didn’t see what the big deal was.
Sadly my iPod had stopped working somewhere outside of Rapid City and I heard them all cheer when they saw the sign on the highway. After driving up a long, winding road and stopping at a booth to pay the entrance fee, we finally pulled into a crowded parking lot. Cheryl bolted out of the car and Mom and Dad quickly joined her. For a second I thought maybe they’d forgotten about me, that I’d be able to stay in the car while they got their fill of the rock. But of course I was wrong.
“C’mon, Chris,” Dad said without turning around in his familiar I’m-not- trying-to-be-a-dick-although-I-do-sound-like-one tone of voice and I got out and started slowly following them.
They walked around for a while, took pictures of the rock, looked at crap in the gift shop, and I thought that was it, now we could go. That’s when I heard a shrill, incredibly annoying voice say:
“Alright, everyone. The sing-a-long starts in five minutes.”
I turned around to see a short, kind of fat woman wearing the same outfit that park ranger in the Yogi Bear cartoons wore, complete with the hat. She smiled and waddled off.
I knew, without even looking at them, that my parents and sister would be at that sing-a-long and sure enough they started following the woman. Mercifully they didn’t make me go and I wandered around, desperate to find something, anything, that was remotely cool.
Just as I started heading back to the gift shop to stare at that hot cashier’s ass again, I noticed what looked like kind of a trail that went into the woods. It was a little overgrown and I had to duck to avoid some skinny branches but I followed it to a small clearing. I sat down next to a log and looked around. The faint sounds of Cumbaya drifted through the trees and I groaned.
After a few minutes, I started digging through my jacket pockets trying to find some gum I thought I had. I was just checking the last pocket — the secret inside one — when I felt it.
I thought I was imagining it at first, I mean for the past three days I had wished I had some, kicked myself for forgetting to bring any. I closed my eyes and slowly pulled it out. When I opened them, I gazed at the tightly rolled joint in my hand and grinned. I didn’t remember putting it there but that wasn’t new; lately there was a lot of stuff I didn’t remember doing.
I pulled out my lighter and lit it and took a long hit; the sweet smoke quickly filled my lungs. Suddenly, things didn’t seem so bad; maybe I could deal with my family for the remainder of the trip.
I took another hit and looked up. Through a break in the trees I had a good view of Roosevelt on that stupid mountain. I nodded at him. All of a sudden there was a rustling behind me. I quickly lowered the joint and turned around. And there he was.
“No need to hide that, son,” he said in a deep voice, emerging from a thicket of bushes.
I glanced back at the mountain and then back at the man. He was big and had the same shaggy mustache, the same glasses. It was Teddy fuckin’ Roosevelt.
“You’re, you’re,” I stammered and gestured to the mountain. “You’re Teddy Roosevelt.”
He nodded. “That’s right, but call me Theodore or better yet, Theo. And if you ever call me Teddy again, I’ll kill you. And if you don’t believe me, ask all those dead Cubans.”
I swallowed hard. “Oh, uh sorry, Ted- uh, Theo.”
He smiled and sat down on the log. “So, young fella, what brings you to Mt. Rushmore?”
I instantly felt relaxed again and the fact that Theodore Roosevelt was there talking to me just seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.
“My parents,” I said. “Stupid family trip.”
He nodded and I could tell he understood, understood everything.
“Yes, the families certainly love coming here to stare up at that rock. I never quite understood it myself.”
I turned to face him.
“You too? I mean, c’mon, it’s a stupid rock!”
His expression changed again. “Well, it’s not a stupid rock; there are a lot of great men up there. I mean, I’m one of them.”
He laughed a big, hearty laugh, and I smiled.
“Yes, families can be a lot of work. I had six kids myself. I don’t think I have to tell you what a nightmare it was traveling with all of them.”
“Even the baby, Ruth, was no picnic. You know they named that candy bar after her.”
He grinned and I burst out laughing. This guy was fucking funny! Wait, that didn’t sound right. Oddly, something from ninth grade history suddenly popped into my head.
“But wasn’t Ruth Grover Cleveland’s daught-“
“Let me tell you something, Chris,” he said, leaning forward. “Family’s important but you know what else is important?”
I shook my head and looked down at the joint; it was nearly gone. Had I smoked that much already? No wonder I felt so good.
“Fish?” I asked after a moment, stifling a laugh.
“That’s right, Swedish fish. Maybe the most important thing there is. Let me tell you why.”
As Theo talked about gummy fish, he reached into his right pants pocket and pulled out a large blunt. My squinty eyes widened as much as they could when I saw it. He handed it to me and for some reason I wasn’t surprised it was already lit. I took a long drag and leaned my head back on the log.
“And do you know who’s the most scared of fish? The government, that’s who. They’re scared, and of course they have every reason to be. Think about it, where does the Swedish fish come from?”
“That’s right. And in the history of the world, who’s never really fought in any wars, never been involved in any major skirmishes? Who’s been stockpiling soldiers, weapons, sheep, and the like?”
“Sweden! And the fish are just the tip of the iceberg.”
I nodded; it all made perfect sense.
I don’t know how long I was there with him but it seemed like hours. We talked about everything; well, Theo did most of the talking, I just listened. In addition to telling me more about fish, he told me truths, scary truths about the world.
“And of course in a few years things will have drastically changed.”
“Global warming?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “Gnomes.”
“Gnomes. You know, those ceramic gnomes people have in their yards?”
Suddenly I was terrified. What did he know? Were these gnomes going to come to life and terrorize the planet? I instantly envisioned tiny, bearded, rosy-cheeked creatures biting and clawing, ripping flesh with their sharp little-
“It’s nothing too terrible, Chris,” Theo said, reading my face. “But I mean the price of those gnomes have been going down so dramatically it’s only a matter of time before everyone has them.”
It was true; I even remembered Dad talking about getting a gnome.
Aside from Theo acting out a few of his favorite episodes from 80’s sitcoms (including a hilarious Cosby Show and a heartbreaking Mork and Mindy), I really don’t remember too much about the rest of our conversation.
Just as I finished the blunt, I heard Cheryl calling for me. I shakily stood up and brushed some dirt off my pants.
“Well, Theo, I guess I gotta go.”
When I turned around, he was gone.
“There you are, Chris!” Cheryl had found me. “C’mon, we’re going.”
“Wait, Cheryl, did you see somebody?”
She turned around and looked at me funny. “Who?”
“Um, a guy, kind of big, mustache, glasses?”
She giggled. “Uh, yeah, right there.” She pointed up to the mountain and then, with another giggle, quickly ran back down the path.
I gazed up at the huge Roosevelt head. One of the big eyes winked and I smiled.
I found my parents with Cheryl and we all started walking back to the parking lot.
“So, Chris,” Dad said as we got to the car. “How’d you like Mt. Rushmore?”
As usual, there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. So far after everything we had seen on the trip — haystacks in Iowa, another stupid lake in Minnesota — Dad had asked me how I liked it. I normally just rolled my eyes and didn’t answer. But this time I looked at him and grinned.
The look on his face was priceless.
“Chris!” Mom said.
I ignored her and climbed into the far back seat. I stretched my legs out and closed my eyes.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED