Andrew Bradshaw Conquers the Fountain of Youth (Part 1)
by Michael C. Lawrence
“The Fountain of Youth is real,” Andrew Bradshaw said to an unsuspecting gray-haired woman garbed in a peach cardigan that smelled of peppermint. She had the misfortune of taking an empty seat next to his at a busy airport terminal.
“And I bet you'll never guess where it is,” Andrew continued, beaming at her like a proud Kindergartener about to reveal a finger painting he’d done at daycare. Except that he was a balding and overweight 45-year-old man.
The woman looked down to her shoes, feigning deafness.
"Steam Town Shopping Center in Ocala, Florida!” he said, snorting and letting out a high-pitched giggle.
“You see,” he continued, “I've been studying the movements of explorers in the New World for decades. Ever since I was a kid. I've been especially fascinated with Ponce De Leon and his fabled quest for the Fountain of Youth.”
The woman began examining her fingernails. They were perfectly prim.
“Now, some scholars don't think he was after the Fountain of Youth at all. They can’t see how an esteemed Governor of Puerto Rico would get caught up in such a fantastical wild goose chase. Posh, I say! What else could he have been after?”
He lifted his hands up in an exaggerated shrug.
“The mosquitoes? The alligators? The mucky mud? ...No, no, no, that fellow was up to something.”
The woman rolled her eyes and exhaled. Her legs were too tired from running around the airport all morning to find a new seat. She was starting to figure that, somehow, actually talking to the man might make him less irritating.
“Gold,” she grunted at him softly with a heavy Southern drawl.
“Excuse me?” Andrew said haughtily, blinking incessantly.
She narrowed her eyes and shot him a wretched leer.
“Gold,” she repeated, that time as a more forceful bark. “That's what all them conquistadors were after. Gold.”
Andrew clutched his stomach and let out a hearty laugh.
“Gold? In Florida? You mean they were expecting to find stray outcrops of gold jutting up willy nilly in between the marshes and creeks? Fat chance of that, lady!”
He removed a cloth map from his breast pocket that he kept on his person at all times for such occasions.
"Look," he said, holding the map up eight inches in front of the woman's nose. She crossed her arms and looked away. Insistently, however, Andrew moved it even closer to her.
"Boy, get yer hand outta my face!" she finally said, trying in vain to bat it away.
"Well, if you would just look at my—”
“Oh for Pete's—” She grabbed Andrew's chubby wrist and adjusted the map to the precise distance she needed to focus on it. “That’s Florida. So what?“
“So what?” Andrew repeated, exasperatedly. “Don't you see all these little lines I drew all over it?”
She took another quick glance and huffed.
"Boy, I can't tell one squiggle from another on that map a' yours," she said.
“Look at where De Leon’s campaign stopped,” he said.
She rolled her eyes.
“This map clearly shows that De Leon went on two—count 'em—two expeditions to Florida. Both times, he camped in the same location in what’s modern day Ocala, Florida. Fifteen days on first expedition, ten days the next. Let me ask you something, if they didn't find anything interesting the first time, why would they return?”
“Maybe one a' them kept gettin' the typhoid,” she said to him maliciously.
“Typhoid?” cried Andrew, laughing loudly. “You crack me up! No, no, no, they were expecting to find something there. But what?” His eyes were bugged out as he grinned like a two-bit comedian at the punchline of a corny joke. “They were expecting to find none other than the…”
“…Fountain of Youth,” the woman interjected. “I know that. Ya already tol' me.”
“Now I bet you're wondering how I came to the conclusion the Fountain of Youth is in the Steam Town Shopping Center.”
She shook her head and shouted a resolute “I’m not,” but Andrew was too busy loudly unzipping his backpack to hear. He pulled out a thick bouquet of flowers—each stem consisting of hundreds of miniature blossoms, deep pink.
“Astilbe,” he said to her, beaming. His tongue was pressed against the back of his teeth.
“What in blazes is an astilbe?” she said, bouncing suspicious eyes back and forth between Andrew and the bouquet.
“These are!” Andrew exclaimed, shaking them violently, causing a few blossoms to drift off the bouquet like snowflakes. His face was now turning red. “These were growing all over the place where Prince De Leon and his men were camped. A number of them even said so in their diaries.”
“So what?” she said, crossing her arms.
“I'll tell you so what,” he exclaimed. “Right before they arrived in present day Ocala, they visited a tribe of Timucua Indians.”
“The chief presented them with two gifts. A bouquet of these flowers and a shovel.”
“A shovel,” she repeated dismissively. “Huh.”
“De Leon misinterpreted the gesture entirely. He thought it was some kind of insult. He thought they were telling them to go dig their own graves, and here are the flowers for the funeral. So, De Leon ended up shooting the chief. Multiple times. Blood and guts were splattered everywhere."
The woman leered at him contemptibly, shaking her head at him for divulging such graphic detail.
“Yeah I know,” he said, trying to mimick her disgusted expression. “A complete and utter overreaction.”
Andrew's woozy smile returned, and he leaped to his feet. He started to shout with such flamboyant volume and passion that passing-by commuters were piling up to gawk at him, thinking he was in the middle of some kind of performance art piece.
“But you see, the chief didn’t die! When Ponce de Leon returned on their second voyage, they were greeted by the same chief who once again presented them with a shovel and a bouquet of these flowers.” He hoisted the bouquet over his head triumphantly, like how Rocky pumped his fist in the air after defeating those concrete steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts.
“Not only did the chief not die, but some of the explorers remarked that he looked more youthful and vibrant than ever before. That is how De Leon knew he was close to the Fountain. But after another 15 days scouting the area, their search came up empty."
Andrew slouched, looking to the floor, defeatedly. Then he raised his head again and had sparkles in his eyes.
“But you see, Ponce De Leon made the gravest of errors. When he imagined the Fountain of Youth, he pictured a facility with Roman columns and hanging gardens. He pictured a swimming pool paved with blocks of stone and thousands of water blossoms bubbling out everywhere. Why, he probably even imagined lounge chairs and a scantly clad women clamoring over themselves to be the first to wave an oversized leaf at him.”
He used his bouquet to mimic that waving motion.
“What he didn't consider was the Fountain of Youth might have been a natural phenomenon, and the Timucua knew exactly where to find it. You see, it is my theory that the Timucua were not telling De Leon to go dig their own graves by presenting them with a shovel. I believe they were telling them to dig where the astilbe blossoms grow! Dig underneath the water table, and watch that magical elixir with restorative properties pour into the void. Wasn't it obvious?”
His eyes spun about their sockets as he laughed uncontrollably. Scattered members of the bewildered crowd began applauding.
The woman grimaced and looked at her watch. “Look, I have a plane to catch, and—”
“You see, this was the Florida marshland,” he continued, “the soil soft and malleable. Creeks and ponds ebbing, waning unpredictably with the passage of time. One decade there was a bubbly pond—a fountain, if you will—but the next it would become solid ground.”
He stomped his foot upon the airport's tinny linoleum tiles.
“You see, it didn't matter what it was but where. If I could only figure out the precise geoposition that Ponce De Leon's men reported seeing that clump of these…” he bopped the bouquet onto the woman's head “…flowers, I would know where I could find the Fountain of Youth today.”
That latest invasion of her personal space prompted the woman to breath heavily. Her eyes were bulging, and nostrils flaring. A tiny, pink blossom had fallen on the tip of her nose, which she blew off with a huff of air from the corner of her mouth. Andrew gave her an intoxicated grin and spun around wistfully on his heel.
“I've painstakingly combed over every single piece of recorded evidence of De Leon's expeditions and determined precisely where you can find the Fountain of Youth today. Smack dab in the middle of a shopping center.” He then crossed his arms and frowned thoughtfully. “Where, rather coincidentally, there happens to be a concrete fountain.”
“And that's where I'm headed to right now,” he continued. “The Steam Town Shopping Center in Ocala, Florida to find the Fountain of Youth!”
He was grinning with a dreamily daze until it was broken by the sound of heavy, angered panting. It was coming from the woman. She had her fingernails pressed harshly into the chair's arms, and her elbows were pointed out. It looked as though she were getting ready to lunge at his throat.
“What do you mean yer going to Ocala now?” she roared. “Yer sittin’ here waiting in an airport when Ocala ain't nothin' but a twenty-five minute drive from here!”
“I know that,” said Andrew, straightening himself out. “My plane landed here twenty minutes ago.”
She went slack jawed.