Still wrapped in thought at my strange turn of events, I turned onto I-95, heading south towards Baltimore. As I began to accelerate down the on-ramp, George Washington cleared his throat besides me. I glanced at him and was surprised to see something close to fear showing through his calm features, or maybe disturbance is a better word, because the president's commanding face seemed almost incapable of expressing fear. His hands, white-knuckled, tightly clenched the sides of his seat. I raised an eyebrow at him, and noticing that I was watching him, the president made a weak attempt at regaining his composure. He quickly released his hold on the chair and fell instead to straightening his vest, then, clearing his throat again, said, “Your carriage moves remarkably fast, lad.”
I smiled, and Washington continued, “My throat is suddenly dry; may I?” He gestured towards the bottle of root beer lying between us.
My smile disappeared. In the strange events of the past few minutes, I had naturally forgotten about the snacks I had planned to consume on my ordinary travel home. Now that they were brought back to my attention, though, I was not sure that I was ready to share anything with these strange men. I figured sharing one root beer wouldn’t hurt, though, so I gave the go ahead. I would only be in the company of these men for a fraction of an hour, anyway. Or so I thought.
After politely thanking me, George Washington picked up my A&W Root Beer. He looked the bottle over for a minute, then pulled at the cap. Surprise showed on his face when this first pull failed, and he tried again. My smile returned as I watched him. He tugged at it several times, but finally he said to me, “The cork seems to be stuck. Do you have a mechanism I could extricate it with?” This was the closest to grumbling that I ever heard from George Washington.
“Twist it,” I offered, trying hard to keep from laughing.
The president followed my advice and finally got the “cork” off. He took a sip from the soda but coughed and nearly spit it back out. “Very“—he hesitated—“interesting.” He passed the drink back to Benjamin Rush. “Taste this, doctor. It bubbles in my throat as if it were alive.”
I don’t know what it was, but it seemed as though there was a catch in George Washington’s voice when he addressed Benjamin Rush. It seemed to me that there had been a tension between the two men from the start of my brief time with them. I wondered at this and at first had credited it to the strangeness of the world they had been thrust into, but now I guessed that there was perhaps something more. They were by no means hostile towards each other, but nevertheless, they seemed to hold themselves at a distance.
Benjamin Rush set down his medical book and took the root beer, calmly raising it to his lips, but he too choked on his first mouthful. He then turned the plastic bottle over in his hands as he studied it. “root beer,” he said at last from where he sat behind me. “Is this beer made out of some kind of herbal root?”
The doctor shrugged and passed it to Benjamin Franklin, who eagerly took the bottle. “I hope that is not your primary drink here in America now, for I doubt not that the health benefits are much better in the beer of our taverns than that drink.” Without another word, Dr. Rush turned back to his book.
Benjamin Franklin took a sip and was able to hold it down. In fact, he tipped the bottle back and drained about half of the contents. His friendly gray eyes twinkled as he handed the drink back to the front, and he said, “Ethan, I hope you have not been offended by the mean comments of my comrades towards your drink. I find it to be very refreshing.” The rotund man let out a contented sigh, which was cut short by a burp.
I laughed. “No, I was not offended.” I returned Benjamin Franklin’s smile, and it was then, I think, that I realized it: like it or not, I was gaining a sort of fondness for these three men.
Our conversations still failed to last all that long, though, for I didn’t know what to say to the men, and the three founding fathers couldn’t really get a good grasp on any of the aspects of my life to use as a springboard for a conversation. So scarce was our interaction, that I even turned the radio on, but before I could find a station, I had turned it off because of the rapid stream of questions that again started pouring from Mr. Franklin. As I listened to one of the corpulent inventor’s long and detailed questions, Benjamin Rush caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and smiled wryly at me as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. Tearing two strips from the kerchief, he stuffed the strips in his ears and resumed his reading.
I was thankful for the rush-hour traffic I got snarled in as we came in sight of Baltimore, for I almost regretted having to leave the men so soon. I also was fighting an inner battle, for I knew that reaching the car-dealership meant that a pretty embarrassing confrontation was soon forthcoming. Though the men were sincere in their intent to buy a “carriage” to transport them back to their home city, I knew that it was very unlikely that they could buy a car. Even if they had sufficient funds (which I knew they did not), they probably did not have a driver’s license or any of the other necessary requirements. Unless they really were not who they said they were, which I found more and more unlikely, the three men were powerless to buy a car. I had known this from the start, but it hadn’t particularly troubled me. My plan had been to escort the three to the car dealership and leave them there with a smile and a hearty farewell, effectively dumping them.
This plan bothered me now.
We arrived at the dealership, and the three men thanked me heartily as they climbed out of my car. Through all of this I remained silent, the battle within me reaching a feverish pitch.
Benjamin Rush went around the back of the car and made as if to help the other Benjamin out of the car, but the inventor held up his hand. “Never mind me,” he said. “Give me a second.” The portly founding father rocked back and forth several times, gaining enough momentum to heft himself from the seat of my car. He managed to stand upright and flashed the doctor a smug smile.
“Gabby old gentleman,” Dr. Rush said under his breath, not looking all that pleased with Benjamin Franklin’s charade.
George Washington bent down and shook my hand before he closed the passenger’s door to my car. “Thank you, Ethan, for your service to me and my companions.” He handed me several silver coins. “Here, take these as payment for your most gracious help. I am glad to have met you, for you proved yourself a trustworthy companion. Our Lord’s blessing be upon you.” He stepped back and closed the door.
The sound of the door closing and the president’s last words rang in my ears, and I looked down at the coins in my hands. Like everything else about the men, they were odd. I felt sure they were not from this century—and they were real. As I looked at the Spanish dollar coins, a primary money of the early Americans, something finally clicked inside me. The coins were real, and the men were real! They had done nothing to discount who they claimed they were, quite the opposite.
I almost frantically opened my car door and stood up, calling after the founding fathers, “Wait!”
The three of them had walked some twenty feet away from me and were looking around at the many cars displayed before them. Already a salesperson was heading towards them, like a shark bearing down on its unsuspecting prey, as the men stood with hands in their pockets, looking very out of place. They turned towards me, and President Washington said, “Are you all right, lad?”
I motioned for them to come back. “I need to ask you something.”
“Certainly.” George Washington and his two companions walked back to my car, standing in a half circle around me.
“Friends—if you don’t mind me calling you such,” I said, as surprised with myself for calling them “friends” as they must have been. “I need to ask this: are you really who you say you are? Please tell me the truth.”
Benjamin Franklin, with a bemused look on his face, was the first to respond. “Yes, did you think we were playacting?”
George Washington shook his head and spoke levelly, “Ethan, I do not blame you for not crediting it as possible that we were actual at first. Indeed, if I had been in your place, I would have scoffed at the very idea that someone from a different age could stand before me, but here we are. We are who we claim to be. But a short time ago these two gentlemen and I were in Philadelphia in the year 1789, my first as president over these United States.”
“I am sorry I doubted you.” I meant it. Glancing away from George Washington, I saw that the salesman was striding towards our group with a broad smile on his face, a smile that kept the shark metaphor intact as I imagined a Great White opening its jaws to receive its prey. “Please get back in my car.” I quickly returned to my seat inside the car, and my three friends did the same.
The salesman, now nearly running, reached my car as my engine coughed to life. He tapped on my window, almost wildly gesturing for me to roll it down. I did, and a sale’s pitch poured from his mouth like a well-oiled machine starting to life. I almost felt sorry for the clearly desperate man, crushing his hopes of a needed commission in such a way. But not sorry enough to cut off his sale’s pitch.
“I’m sorry,” I said, beginning to roll my window back up. “There’s been a misunderstanding; I was just letting these old gentlemen stretch their legs. Poor fellows, they were pretty cramped after two centuries of residing in a casket. Goodbye.”
Now my shark looked more like a fish out of water, his mouth opening and closing as if he was unaccustomed to the air. “Sir?” he managed at last, but by that time I had my window rolled up and was driving past him.
“You would not have been able to purchase a car with any of your money. You see,” I said, holding up a ten dollar bill, “this is what our currency looks like now.” We were parked on a side street in Baltimore a few minutes after leaving sharky behind.
“Is that the likeness of the gentleman Alexander Hamilton?” George Washington asked, looking closely at the face on the bill.
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
George Washington looked up at me sharply, surprise showing on his face. “You seem to know about me and my two comrades, but you don’t seem to know of Mr. Hamilton?”
I shuffled my feet. “Well, I probably heard of him in school, but after taking my history test, I just kind of forgot about him I guess.”
George frowned as he handed the bill to Benjamin Rush. “You would do well to learn of him, Ethan. He was a great man.”
“So how much does a carriage cost in America now?” Benjamin Rush asked as he studied the bill, reverting the conversation back to it. “Could not a handful of these ten dollar notes buy a sufficient carriage?”
I stared at the doctor, then laughed. “No, you can barely buy a used car for three thousand dollars.”
All three of the gentleman stared back at me now. “Three thousand dollars,” Benjamin Rush replied in an almost awestruck tone. “Surely no one can buy such lavishly priced things.”
“No.” George Washington shook his head. “It must be the dollar; it has depreciated very much like the continentals of our age.” Concern showed now on the president’s face. “Ethan, what is the state of the economy in America today?”
I thought for a while, not sure how to answer this question. My parents had talked, of course, of the collapses of our economy in the past few years, and I had heard the grumblings of my older relatives at the prices of this and that and of how they used to be able to buy things at a fraction of the price, but this really hadn’t personally bothered me. To me it was just the way things were, as I had not lived long enough to know anything different. “I . . . I guess I don’t really know,” I said. “My parents talk of things like the ‘fiscal cliff’ or our ‘national debt’, of how our nation is headed for hard times, but I don’t really know much about that.”
George Washington looked at me gravely. “Son, if America is headed for rough times, it is not something to be taken lightly.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say in reply, but thankfully Benjamin Franklin spoke up, “Mr. President, if I may, let us turn to other things. We must come up with some accommodating plan or another to get us back to our abodes or to somewhere useful. The township of Baltimore has grown to remarkable proportions, but nevertheless, it is still useless to us.”
“I can take you wherever you would like,” I said evenly.
George Washington’s grave appearance dissipated as his calm composure again took over. “Ethan, we thank you for your services and friendship, but we cannot require anything more from you.”
“No, it is okay. I want to help you.” I was surprised at the almost earnest tone of my voice.
“If our young friend truly wishes to bear us for a while longer, I propose we head either to Philadelphia or to the land where the president of our beloved nation now resides,” Benjamin Franklin proposed. “I am sure that at the remarkable speed of our friend’s carriage, we could reach either place before many hours have passed, possibly even before nightfall.” With these last words, Benjamin Franklin looked at the sun, which was still a good distance from the western horizon.
Benjamin Rush and the president agreed to this plan. “But let us let Ethan decide as to which of the two destinations he would like to transport us to,” George Washington added.
“Well, Washington D.C. is about an hour closer than Philadelphia, so taking you there would be more convenient,” I offered.
George Washington nodded. “So be it. Bear us there.”