Stopping in Durham had not been as good of a choice as they’d hoped. It was nearly midnight before Gene pulled into the hotel and they’d had to leave just as the sun was rising in order to make it to Asheville in time to do their Pigeon River scenic float. The Hilton had been expensive, they had left before Sunday’s complementary breakfast started and the pool wasn’t open at six in the morning so even if they’d could afford the time to go for a dip they would have been stymied. “I wish we’d traveled another hour to Greensboro last night,” Gene said groggily, sipping on the coffee that had substituted for the hotel’s breakfast feast. “Another hour of sleep this morning.would have been nice.”
“Zero sum game, though,” Maggie replied with a yawn. “We could have left the amusement park earlier yesterday but since we didn’t all we would have accomplished was to go to bed an hour later so we could get up an hour later.”
“Says the woman who slept most of the way from Richmond to Durham,” he answered grumpily.
“Hey, don’t blame me, big boy. I offered to drive last night and this morning. You’re the one who said no.”
“Maybe when we stop for gas. At least the kids went back to sleep.”
“Yeah. Must be nice to be able to sleep anywhere. Last night wasn’t good.”
“‘Must be nice’?” he snorted. “You were out like a light as soon as we hit 85.”
“Well that train that was rumbling around kept me awake at least half the night.”
“Train? What train? I didn’t hear any train. If nothing else at least the hotel was quiet.”
“No kidding, Colombo. The train was inside the room and I couldn’t even go sleep on the couch.”
“Oh, you’re a funny lady,” he answered, glancing over at her with a sneer. “You could have slept in the bathtub,” he added as he pushed a cassette tape out of the car’s player and handed it to his wife. “Hand me the Dracula tape would you?”
Maggie took the tape and reached down on the Taurus’ floor for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Before leaving Maryland she’d stopped at the White Oak library and picked up book tapes. Some of the tapes, including Where the Red Fern Grows and three or four L. Frank Baum Land of Oz books were for the kids, while others, like Dracula and a Dick Francis novel, were selected with adult ears in mind. “What’s the matter? Tired of Where the Red Fern Grows“? she asked as she slid the tape in.
“No, I just figured John and Nicole would want to hear it; not that John doesn’t just about have the thing memorized by now. Thank God they’re old enough so we don’t have to listen to crappy kids books anymore. There were days when I wanted to shoot the radio every time it played bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bah!”
“Yeah, well, those read along books must have worked, because that boy is a reading machine,” she answered, immediately catching the reference to the short musical sequence that chimed whenever it was time for emerging readers to turn a page.
“It’s funny. If you’d asked me before we had kids who’d be more likely to be a bookworm a boy or a girl I’d have said a girl,” he answered, muting the car’s rear speakers by twirling the stereo’s dial.
“Oh, give her a chance. She’s reading above grade level.”
“John was reading My Little Tree House books and other short chapter books by the time he was out of kindergarten; seems like Nicole would run around outside all day every day till she dropped if we’d let her.”
“Kids are kids, right? No two the same.”
An advantage to leaving early in the morning while driving east to west was that the sun was in the rear-view mirror rather than Gene’s eyes as he sped along I 40 toward Asheville. Maggie put a pillow against her window and closed her eyes. Gene drove along, content to be with his family as he listened to Dracula unfold. After another half hour or so he flipped the tape over and wondered if he’d have to wake his wife up to get tape number two. He kept the story tape playing as he neared the I 40 and I 77 exchange, figuring that the light, early Sunday morning traffic would be easy to negotiate. Side two of tape one ended just before he came to the next exit which was for US 21. Dracula on hold, his stomach growling and bladder full he flipped his turn signal on just before he hit the off ramp. He slowed some but not as much as he should. The exit was oddly engineered and the only reason he had selected it was because there were road signs indicating that gas and food were nearby, though the towering McDonald’s sign he hoped to see from the interstate wasn’t visible.
Gene took the sweeping turn faster than he should have and the Taurus shuddered a bit as he pushed gently on the brake, scrubbing speed faster and later than he normally did. Maggie sat up, wiped a small line of drool from the right side of her chin and with a tinge of terror in her voice asked, “What’s the matter!?”
“Nothing. Just pulling over to get some gas. You ready to drive?”
“Yeah. Sure. Can we get something to eat?” she asked as Gene came to a stop at the end of the ramp and turned on his left turn signal.
“Sure. Sign says there’s a McDonald’s restaurant up here. We can get breakfast there,” her husband answered.
“Where?” Maggie asked. “I don’t see a sign.”
“Road sign, honey, not Golden Arches. Looks like half a mile to the left.”
“Oh, Gene. Really? How many times do I have to tell you that if you can’t see the gas station from the highway that you shouldn’t stop?”
“You know, if you want to drive the whole way that’s fine, but otherwise how about if I do things my way and you do them yours? Okay? Besides, I kinda’ gotta get rid of this morning’s coffee.”
“‘You do it your way and I’ll do it mine. Get the funky rhythm and we’ll both look fine!'” Nicole sang from the back seat. “I have to go to the bathroom, Daddy,” she added.
“Me, too. We’re headed to McDonald’s right after we get some gas.”
“I have to go nowww.”
“Right. Like I said, we’re going to McDonald’s and then we’ll get gas.”
“That’s not what you said!” she giggled.
“It’s not? Well that’s what I meant. Hey, John! Time to wake up, buddy.”
John opened his eyes but didn’t say anything. “John? We’re going to stop for breakfast in a minute, sweetie. Time to get up,” Maggie said, reaching over and tickling her son’s feet.
“Hmm,” was the inarticulate response that he made.
“Come on, buddy. Wake up,” Gene insisted. “We’ll get some food, fill up the car and head to Asheville. We’re going to go boating this afternoon, remember?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Okay.”
“Such enthusiasm. Come on, it’ll be fun. And I want to find out what happens to Billy and Old Ann and Little Dan.”
“It’s Old Dan and Little Ann!” Nicole shrieks.
“Oh! Right, right! My mistake. Okay, get your shoes on,” he added smiling and winking at Maggie.
“Yep. Shoes,” Maggie agreed. “There’s McDonald’s,” she said as she reached over and stroked her husband’s arm. He smiled and winked again hoping that their vacation would allow them to again come together again as a couple as well as a family.