“Why do you bother with these sculps of yours?” Steinke asked as he turned onto the road leading to the Mount Rushmore parking lots.
“Why do I bother?” Pêche repeated. She turned between the two men and glanced into the back of the pick-up at the box that contained her sculps—what she called the carvings she created from the monument’s wasted granite.
“Sculps ain’t even a word, is it?” her husband Ernie asked.
“Your bride’s just got to be different.” Steinke gave Pêche a playful nudge.
“Well, I suppose I could call them statuettes. Or figurines.” Pêche countered with a less than playful elbow to Steinke’s ribs. “What do you think of when you hear statuette or figurine?”
“My mother had little porcelain things from Germany that I wasn’t allowed near,” Steinke said.
“Mine had ballerinas that I wanted nothin’ to do with,” Ernie chimed in.
“Exactly! These are iron and granite. If you break ’em there’s more iron and granite where that came from. These are sculps.” Pêche considered the subject closed. It took a second to recall what the original subject was. “Oh, and why do I bother with them?” Pêche pointed absently toward Mount Rushmore and the two Presidents chiseled into it. “Why do you bother carving this mountain?”
“I carve for payday,” Steinke said and Ernie had a good chuckle.
“Okay, why does Gutzon Borglum carve this mountain?” she asked, referring to the great sculptor and Rushmore creator.
“Him? For a bigger payday than us. And fame and a place in history.” Steinke pulled into the worker’s lot but parked as close to the tourists’ lot as possible.
“History, that’s it,” Pêche began as they piled out of the truck. “Maybe I’ll get a small place in history and maybe I’ll learn a little something while I’m at it.”
“Yea, she’s dang near as smart as me about Presidents,” Ernie stated proudly.
“So that’s what you’re shootin’ for,” Steinke laughed, “to be almost as smart as Einstein Ernie?”
“Eh…” she muttered as the two men walked off, Steinke laughing and Ernie giving him a punch in the shoulder. Pêche grabbed for the box and immediately noticed the dust mask. “Damn you!” she screamed. “Asthma and granite dust don’t mix!”
“I forgot it! I swear, I would’ve gone back for it!” Ernie hollered. “I don’t want me to die any more than you do,” he added feebly as she chased him down and shoved the mask in his face.
“Sure…” Pêche began, struggling for a reproach. “You don’t wanna end up like President Harding, do you?” she finally blurted.
“Huh? What happened to him?” Ernie asked cautiously.
“His wife poisoned him for not wearing his mask!” Pêche knew how silly that came out and pointed a finger at her husband for emphasis.
“His mask? Why would he—”
“Hey, don’t badmouth Harding,” Steinke interrupted as they reached the tram platform to take them up the mountain. “He threw poker parties in the White House and snuck out to watch burlesque shows. Anyway, I thought she poisoned him over that Teapot Dome scandal.”
“She didn’t poison nobody,” Ernie scoffed. “Did she?”
“She should’ve poisoned him for cheating on her…twice!” Pêche pulled on both bills of her makeshift hard hat and turned to leave.
“There’s no proof to any of that,” Steinke called out.
Pêche spun back around. “Listen here!” she began, again with the pointing finger. “My mother was a newspaperwoman back then and…the stories she told!”
Ernie and Steinke threw their hands up in surrender and Pêche stormed off.
“What got into her?” Steinke asked as the tram made its way slowly toward them.
“Me not wearing my mask or men cheating on their wives, I don’t know which pisses her off more.”
“She knows you’d never cheat, doesn’t she?” Steinke asked, yelling over the noise of the tram. “She’d kill ya, you know.”
“Of course I know!” Ernie’s voice cracked. “And I wouldn’t cheat, even if she wouldn’t kill me.”
Pêche set the wooden plank across the two nail kegs resting on a small ledge just off the tourists’ parking area. She spread a piece of black felt over the plank. The ledge might have been three feet high and the nail kegs stood about a foot and a half tall, so tourists wouldn’t have to bend too far down to see the sculps she had lined up for possible sale. She arranged her Washington and Jefferson faces in piles on the felt, thinking how she could carve those guys in her sleep by now. Pêche adjusted her hard hat—two baseball caps, one turned backwards, covered in tar and topped with its rainbow paint job—and was ready for business.
She set out a few Teddy Roosevelt faces and some Abe Lincolns; she could afford to do them as she envisioned, since their likenesses had yet to appear on the mountain.
“Hey, Mrs. Borglum!” shouted a worker. Pêche assumed this was somehow a gibe at her miniature Rushmore collection.
“Nice hard hat!” yelled another. “Scared some flowers gonna fall on ya?”
Pêche didn’t so much as turn to look. Initially, they had mocked her name. Sure, it was different. And anything different around Mount Rushmore seemed to be a cause for alarm. She glanced up at the mountain and wondered what could be more different than carving mammoth faces into rock. She knew the women were jealous because Ernie was the best looking boy in town and Pêche had stolen him away. And the laughter anytime the townspeople caught her hauling around her prospecting gear was probably just jealousy, too. They might not know how much gold she found, but they knew she found some.
Pêche set out her Jefferson and the Slave Girl series. They were priced too high to garner anything but curiosity—and a certain amount of umbrage. Gravel crunched as an automobile pulled into the lot. This area provided a profile view of Washington and a straight-on look at Jefferson. It was also the best free vantage point, for those who didn’t want to pay the guide a quarter to walk up the side of the mountain. These weren’t the most likely people to buy her artwork, but some days it just seemed like the right place to be.
A man and a woman got out of the car; the man immediately lifted a camera to his eye and the woman headed straight for Pêche. The woman paused before the sculp selection, picked up a Jefferson, held it up in comparison with the Jefferson in the distance and nodded her approval. Setting it back down, she pointed to a thin, iron stick figure with a small, granite head and asked: “Who’s this little fellow?”
“James Madison,” Pêche replied while digging through a bag. “He was only five-foot-four and weighed less that a hundred pounds.” As if on cue, a wind gust blew Madison clean over.
“Sturdy,” the woman said, righting the sculp.
“And he and Dolley are a set.” Pêche finally found the other piece and stood Dolley next to James—her thin, wrought iron arm draped over her much shorter husband’s shoulder.
“They’re adorable,” the woman laughed and took a skittish glance at the man.
“They say she was nearly five-foot-eight,” Pêche added, exaggerating only slightly. Sensing she’d have to make a quick sale, she embellished some more: “Did you know that Dolley rushed back into the White House to save George Washington’s portrait while the British were burning the capital city back during the War of 1812?”
“My, my…” The woman looked again over her shoulder.
“Only four dollars for them both.” Pêche nudged the pair closer to the woman.
With another glance back, the woman whispered: “Don’t tell my husband,” and slipped the money to Pêche, while slipping the President and the First Lady into her purse.
“Well, if you don’t want to buy anything,” Pêche began loudly, “maybe your husband would.”
The woman winked and scurried back to her husband, who was scoffing and shaking his head and the wind carried the phrase “funny hat” further than he probably wanted it to. Pêche laughed and kept the money concealed in her fist until the couple had driven off.
Sitting at her work bench, Pêche already had the faces nearly finished for another set of Madisons when Steinke’s truck pulled up. Ernie had told her the War of 1812 story—he wasn’t as dumb as everyone made him out to be—and it had gotten Pêche to do a little studying on her own. That Dolley Madison story would likely be good for a few more sales. A little knowledge could be a profitable thing. She had also learned that Dolley played First Lady for the widowed Jefferson, when James Madison was Secretary of State. Pêche declined to tell that one for fear of starting again the rumors of Dolley and Jefferson being romantically linked. Pêche didn’t believe that one for a second.
She heard Steinke’s laugh and turned to face them. “I made nearly ten bucks today!” she shouted. Ernie waved and went into the house.
“What’re you workin’ on?” Steinke asked.
“Just some Madisons.” Pêche turned and raised her latest sculp for Steinke to see. “And I finished this up just today.”
“That’s gotta be President Harding,” Steinke said without hesitation.
“You recognize him?!”
“I wouldn’t know Harding from Eve,” Steinke laughed. “But between our conversation this morning and the skull and cross-bones on that bottle, it seemed like a logical guess.” The sculp had Harding—Pêche thought she had nailed his likeness—filling a goblet from a bottle with the poison warning prominently displayed.
“There’s a book with Harding’s picture in it on the kitchen table,” Pêche said, pointing in that direction. “Take a look and tell me this isn’t perfect.”
Steinke poked around the workbench instead. “What else you got that I haven’t seen?”
“Here you go.” Pêche pointed to a near-finished sculp on a shelf. “I call it: ‘First Misstep'”. The latest in her Jefferson and the Slave Girl series, it depicted Jefferson coaxing a toddler to walk.
“You’ll never let ol’ Tom rest, will ya?” Steinke muttered, barely glancing at the sculp. “Let me ask you something: You’ve got a whole series devoted to Jefferson’s transgressions, but I’ve never heard you once mention FDR’s fling. Why does he get a free pass?”
Pêche wiped the dust from her hands. “That’s a fair question. You see, I don’t think he and Eleanor are really in love. Or ever were. She has her own ideas—the racial stuff and the lynching thing—which, I guess FDR can’t go near, politics being what they are. He has the depression and that Hitler guy. They’re two very separate people who just happen to be married—without love. And I think he found love with that Lucy Mercer and I bet they stay in love.”
“So your disdain for Jefferson has nothing to do with the fact that he messed around with a Negro woman—and a slave, for that matter?”
“I hope not.”
Steinke shrugged. “Anything else new?”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Pêche laughed and reached under the bench, pulling out her newest favorite: Taft, stuck in a bathtub. “Direct from his first bath in the White House,” Pêche announced. “William Howard Taft.”
Steinke laughed and called over Ernie, who had just come out the back door. “Great detail,” Steinke remarked. “The curl of the mustache, the flab hanging over the tub, the claw feet—”
“Taft had claw feet?” Ernie asked, pushing between them and peering into the tub.
In her laughter Pêche picked up the Jefferson and toddler sculp, wondered if anyone would truly appreciate the time and intricate work involved in putting those little shackles around the slave baby’s tiny wrists and ankles. “And you ask why I bother with these sculps?” she said, mostly to herself.
Will Tinkham has published short fiction most recently in The Fieldstone Review, D-Day 68th Anniversary Anthology (mgversion2>datura press), Skive Magazine: Americana, mgv2_69: Fifty Stars & A Maple Leaf, Wilderness House Literary Review, A Small Good Magazine, and Talkin’ Blues (2010 B.J. Rolfzen Award). “Sculps” is an excerpt from an as-yet-unpublished novel. He can be found at: willtinkham.blogspot.com.