The Tour Guide
George sat on the front porch of his small but comfortable Guerneville cabin, slowly rocking in his high-backed chair. He had done everything he could to maintain the property. He had painted the German siding of the old cabin a creamy beige color and finished the blocky wooden shutters and trim in a forest green. These days there didn’t seem too much to keep his mind occupied.
It had been seven years since he had seen his grandchildren and today they were arriving from Boston. This would be a rare opportunity to assert himself. He was aware that his memory was failing but he had carefully planned out the list of things he wanted to show them and rehearsed it. If he said the list in order, just as he had learned it he was sure he could show them a great time. He reviewed his speech and the route they would take. He just hoped they would arrive soon before he forgot something.
A yellow taxi pulled up the slight hill and slowed, the tires slid a bit in the gravel then came to a stop in front of the cabin. A tall blonde haired boy and a much shorter and younger girl got out of the back seat. The boy paid the driver and the taxi drove away, leaving the grandchildren standing in the dust facing him. George stood and walked down the two steps to greet them. “This can’t be little Davy?” he said. He reached out and grasped the boy by the shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. “Yep, it’s me, Grandpa. I’m seventeen now.” David made a point of firmly shaking hands.
“I can’t believe it, you look just like your father when he was younger. And who is this young lady. Terrie?” The last time we met you were just learning to walk!”
“Hi Grandpa,” she said and gave him a hug.
“How old are you now?”
“I’m ten,” she smiled.
“Well, bring your bags in, can I help you?”
“No thanks, we’ve got it,” said David.
They entered the doorway and looked around at the pictures of their grandfather when he was in his forties and their father when he was a teenager. There was a picture of their grandmother. David wondered what she had been like. “Your room is right here, Terrie. Davy, yours is right across the hall.” They carried their suitcases in and looked around. After they washed their faces and changed clothes George called them out to the porch for ice-cold lemonade. They sat on the bench while George creaked back and forth in his rocking chair.
Terrie looked up from her lemonade, which she held in both hands, and checked Grandpa out. He had white hair, a button down linen shirt, which had once been white but had turned slightly yellowish with age. He wore neatly creased steel-gray trousers, gray suspenders with brass adjustment clips, and despite the warm day, he kept his long sleeves unrolled and even wore gold cufflinks. The final detail, which she found strange but cute, was his small red bow tie.
“How was your plane trip here?” asked George.
“It was good, Grandpa. We sat by a window with a view of one of the wings and Terrie really liked that we could see the flaps moving,” said David.
“You’re brave to travel all the way out here at your age, Terrie, were you scared?”
“A little bit, but it was exciting,” she replied. David gazed out at the white gravel driveway that made a loop at the top. Beyond it were tall trees secluding Grandpa’s property entirely from the road below. It was quiet here and David wondered how Grandpa spent his time without Grandma.
George dared not make too much conversation for fear of getting distracted.
“Come on, kids, I’ve got a lot I want to show you. Just leave those glasses on the table, I’ll get them later.”
George hustled them out to his old truck. He didn’t drive it much anymore, but he knew it well. David saw the faded green brute of a truck with the big black grill; the flaring fenders so high above the tires and the heavy-gage bumper jutting out like a brooding lip.
“Wow, what kind of truck is that, Grandpa?”
“This is my 1957 Dodge Power Wagon. They used them for everything in World War Two; they were called M-37s back then. I used mine mostly to pull stumps when I bought this place.
George helped Terrie step up onto the running board, David got in after her and George walked around to the driver’s side. They smelled rust and dry rotted canvas when they sat on the bench seat. George adjusted his bifocals and buckled up.
“Are you sure you’re okay to drive, Grandpa?” asked David.
“Of course, are you kidding me I’ve been driving for seventy years.”
“Is this truck safe?” asked Terrie.
“Oh ho, ho, nothing is going to damage this old beaut.” George pulled the choke, pumped the accelerator and turned the key. A tremendous backfire erupted from the tailpipe as the truck lurched forward and the tires spun, pressing everyone back in their seats. They pulled out onto Highway 116, leaving a patch of rubber on the road as George let the clutch release and first gear caught. David smiled broadly and sat up as tall as he could to look down at the double yellow lines of the road ahead—they flowed smoothly then seemed to disappear under the hood. It was a beautiful day and the cool breeze blowing in through the windows felt good. Terrie grabbed David’s arm and glanced up at him with her eyes wide open.
“It’s okay,” he reassured her and patted her leg and smiled.
“We don’t need to do anything too radical, Grandpa, but maybe we could just see the Pacific Ocean.”
“I’ve got a whole itinerary planned out, Davy. We’ll see the ocean, alright. I want to show you a place called the Russian River. He shifted to second gear as the old truck picked up speed and rocked back and forth on its suspension around the tight curve. George recited the information verbatim from the brochures he had picked up at the Chamber of Commerce. “It gets its name from Russians who used to hunt seal and sea otters for their valuable pelts.” George looked over at David and Terrie, beaming.
“Grandpa, look out!” screamed Terrie. George snapped his head forward and saw that he was halfway into the oncoming car’s lane. He whipped the wheel to the right and they almost drove off the road as the bald tires washed out and barely made it back into the right lane. As he stabilized the truck and the road straightened out he shifted to fourth. The Power Wagon stopped rumbling at this speed and seemed to float along.
“Does he know what he’s doing?” Terrie whispered to David.
“Sorry about that, kids. Anyway, Davy…” David wanted to say something about Grandpa’s driving but didn’t out of respect. But at least he wanted him to get his name right. “Call me David, Grandpa.”
“Oh, alright. You mentioned the Pacific Ocean? I hope you’re not planning on swimming there because that water is way too cold.”
“You’re kidding,” said Terrie, “I always thought California was warm—you know, all those surfers and everything.”
“Oh no, that water is fed by the arctic. Any surfers out there are wearing wet suits.”
“Grandpa, look out!” yelled David. Three cars had slowed down and sat idling at the Armstrong Woods Road stoplight. George was going over forty miles per hour, only twenty feet away from the stopped cars. He stabbed the clutch to the floor and shoved the clutch into second with a grinding protest from the transmission. The tires chirped as he slammed on the brake pedal, which brought the truck to a sliding halt. George had to turn the wheel slightly to the right to avoid tapping the rear bumper of the car ahead of him and they stopped six inches from a collision.
He was sweating slightly as he shifted to neutral and waited for the light to change. Terrie looked worried. David couldn’t contain himself any longer. “This is really interesting, Grandpa, but we want to get there in one piece.” George ignored the comment. He had things under control as long as he didn’t lose track of his speech. The tour was going well. Now where was he…oh yes, redwoods.
“But what I really want to do is show you kids Armstrong Woods. It’s a beautiful 805-acre grove of redwood trees. They’re the tallest living things on the planet and some of these trees live to be five hundred to a thousand years old.”
“That sounds great, Grandpa,” said David who was bracing his hand against the dashboard.
As the traffic picked up George eased the clutch into first gear.
“Do you know there is one tree, called the Parson Jones Tree measuring more than three hundred ten feet in height?”
“Wow, that’s cool, Grandpa,” said Terrie, but her eyebrows were knitted as she spoke.
He ground second gear as highway 116 turned into River Road. There was a slight incline as the traffic began to spread out so George accelerated. Now at forty m.p.h. the Power Wagon took on that floating feeling again.
“You know, some of the best grapes in the world are grown right around here,” he said looking over at his son’s children.
David was becoming unnerved. “Please, keep your eyes on the road, Grandpa.”
Mustn’t let the boy throw me off. Grapes, grapes, oh yes. “The reason is that when the sun goes down the temperature plummets which shocks the grapes giving them their unique flavor. Those are the grapes they make pinot noir from. Have you ever heard of pinot noir?”
“Grandpa look out!” the kids both screamed. The road had curved sharply and George didn’t think he could correct in time. A car in front of them went out of sight around the bend as they headed off the road across a bumpy field. They were only on the field for a couple of seconds but time seemed to move in slow motion as the coins in the console flew up and hit the ceiling then seemed to be everywhere at once as they spun and reflected sunlight into everyone’s faces.
As the truck bounced around on the grass Terrie gripped her seat belt and pressed her feet against the floorboard. David’s only thought was that his grandfather’s good intentions would be an idiotic way to end his short life on Earth. George gripped the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. Terrie looked up at her grandfather. She took in his tense expression and looked beyond at the scenery that seemed to dance around crazily in the window openings. The tires vaulted up over a grassy rise and suddenly they were on pavement again.
A car coming out of the drive ahead had to swerve almost off into the field to avoid hitting them. There was a sign up ahead—they had ended up in a restaurant parking lot. George glanced nervously at the kids as he pulled into a parking space. “Ah, here we are, I thought you kids could use some lunch.”
© Wray Cotterill, 2008