Vacation From Hell Kae at Farmer's Market.

Kae Bender

Copyright 1997 by Kae Bender

The summer plan was a guilt trip well before it degenerated into one of those infamous vacations from hell. While Great Aunt Eustacia's Fourth of July reunion never seemed like a good idea, it was one of those family obligations you can't gracefully avoid. Even as I protested the maternal directive to schedule it into my datebook, I knew my arguments would do no good.

"In her eighty-four years, she's never so much as responded to a Christmas card let alone visited us."

"This may be her last chance," my mother wheedled.

"She only cares about family if they worship her hero, Confederate General Beauregard Conyers."

"Beauregard Conyers was an historic presence who saved what little of our heritage escaped destruction."

"Oh, pul-leese, Mother. She wanted to disown your offspring in perpetuity when you married Yankee scum and moved all the way to Louisville."

"You know she's been ill. It gives a new perspective."

"Chemotherapy side effect, hmm?"

"Be kind, Jody. She's invited us to stay in the Big House with her."

"Probably no one else can stand such proximity."

"Now hush! She's my only living ancestor."

"Lucky you escaped before they contaminated you."

"Jody," Mother warned, "You and your sisters are going for the weekend, and that is final. They've agreed to pack up, babies and all. Your Glorie wants to drive down with me; we can make an excursion of it."

"Gene doesn't want to spend hours in the car," I started, when my chivalrous husband intervened.

"Nonsense, Jo. How bad can a weekend in Georgia be?" he countered. "It's important to your mother, and we don't have any plans."

"Ge-ene!" I cajoled, knowing I was lost but failing to anticipate the escalating trap Mother would artfully weave.

As July approached, she revealed her more substantial role as Great Aunt Eustacia's caretaker for the event.

"That's generous of you, but my system goes into production that week; I can't leave before Wednesday."

"No, I wouldn't expect you all to drive down early."

"Too bad Glorie has to work or I'm sure she'd go with you and Peachy."

"As it happens, Eustacia thought it would be better to clean up without the cat."

At that point I should have anticipated cat duty would be mine, but I muddled in with concern about kennelphobia, "That's an awfully long time to leave Peachy in Purgatory."

"Fortunately, Glorie offered to keep her."

I wheeled a look, but Glorie quickly assured, "In my r-o-o-m, Mom. It's only a week."

"How do you figure all summer is a week?"

"Only till we bring Peachy to Gramma!"

"We bring the cat? In our car?"

"You wouldn't make her go to that awful kennel?" Glorie and her grandmother gasped in unison.

"Don't get hot, Jody," Gene placated. "Glorie'll keep her in the back seat. You won't even have to see her."

"No, but my allergies will know she's there."

"The air-conditioner'll take care of that."

"Easy for you to say," I groused but relented, "Well, I guess it's better than a cat for the summer."

The only part of the plan that went as scheduled was Mother's departure.

We had no more than gotten her airborne than Gene's boss called, "They're having a problem with the Springfield project. You're going to have to drive over with an extra couple cylinders and some revised plans so you can oversee the upgrade."

With the Oldsmobile our only car big enough for Gene's haul, I balked, "We can't take the cat in my Camaro!"

"Use Glorie's Corolla."

I cringed at 8 hours in my teen's 5-speed relic, but the four-door would let us park cat paraphernalia in the back, so once again, I relented.

I should have predicted Glorie would prefer to party with her friends after work rather than cat-sit all week, but she usually managed to change the litter box before it permeated the house totally, and Peachy only threw up in the living room once.

With the end in sight, I was making a last minute packing list at my desk when my phone rang, "We need to reschedule your presentation to tomorrow."

"No, Dennis. I'm off tomorrow."

"Can't be helped. The auditors have to sign off before we can go into production, and they're hung up at corporate all afternoon."

I'd known it was a mistake to leave the meeting till so late, but we'd wanted to correct as many glitches as possible before promising the moon, so now I had no choice. "Morning. I have to leave as early as possible."

"I'll try, but no promises."

It was three before I got out of there, but at least the auditors had given their blessing and I had turned over the conversion to our operations staff. I had a beeper for the weekend, but we'd tested everything twenty times.

I got home expecting to toss bags in the trunk, the cat in the back, and head out, but Glorie's note was propped on the table, "Chelsea got food poisoning last night; had to go in for her. Be home by 4:15, 4:30 latest. Promise."

I pulled out the map to study the route while I waited. I figured we'd be to Nashville in 2 1/2 hours, so we'd miss the rush. The whole trip would take about 8 hours, but we'd get there by midnight, hardly any longer than flying, with the drive at both ends and connecting flights. This wouId work out all right, I assured myself.

Glorie is a good kid. She was home on time with her bag ready, so we were actually on the road, with Peachy leashed to the backseat window knob, before 4:30.

That plan lasted about three blocks. I was driving, and Peachy was rubbing my elbow as she strained her lead to reach Glorie.

"Aw. Mom. She always looks out the front window when she rides with Gramma."

"Fine, if it'll keep her away from my elbow. I can't shift with her in the way."

Peachy perched alertly at the window and made chirpy noises at sundry squirrels and birds and pets as we wound out of the subdivision. It got annoying fast, but Glorie assured me it'd stop once we were cruising on the expressway. Perhaps it would have, but the traffic there was crawling in anticipation of the holiday. We chirped all the way out of town.

Two eventless hours later, we approached Nashville in holiday heavy traffic that slowed exponentially as we approached downtown. As Glorie flipped radio stations trying to find something un-Nashville, she paused, "Commuter scan at 7 pm?" Only then, I remembered Nashville was on Central Time. Their rush hour was typically misnamed, as we chirped through long delays on a short but apparently vital connector through town.

By then it was eight, and I was ravenous. We pulled off for a quick break that was hardly fast and arguably food, but Glorie was driving, a euphemism for her gear-grinding, clutch popping ordeal, as we left the -- no, I can't call it a restaurant. At least we were on the road again, heading south. Definitely south, where the air grew hotter and the humidity escalated to match the temperature.

I was fanning myself with the map when I realized the air conditioner was blowing hot air at us. I checked the switches, thinking we must have inadvertently turned it off, but the buttons were on A/C, and the dial was all the way to cold.

"Oh, Lord. Your AC is on the blink."

"I told Daddy, but he must not have checked it."

"He knew it was broken?"

"Not broken, just inconsistent. It might get cold again."

"How do you figure that?"

"When I first start it up, it works. Except for when I leave work, I don't use it."

"I don't suppose you've run it for more than four hours at a time?"

"Nope. Never."

"Let's turn it off and crack the windows."

Of course that wasn't enough, and pretty soon we were speeding down the highway with air flipping in through wide-open windows. Peachy sniffed delicately at the scents and chirped happily as she climbed across my lap toward the air.

"Off, cat. I'm not your mother." I grabbed for her leash, but Peachy hissed at me when I tried to move her to the backseat. "No, we are not going to have a contest of wills here. I will put you in the trunk if I have to," I threatened.

Glorie immediately gasped, "You can't do that."

I knew she was right, but I was tempted. "I'm hot and sweaty and we're not going to get in till nearly 2am. I'm not going to have a cat molting on me, too."

"Well, here. You drive. I'll cat sit," my catlover insisted.

We had no more than gotten back on the road when traffic slowed to a crawl, then stopped altogether. Peachy paced impatiently on Glorie's lap, pausing to chirp at an occasional bird. The sky was uniformly dark except for an eerie glow up ahead, though there was no town anywhere nearby. I had a bad feeling as we idled for a quarter hour without moving. I turned off the motor and we sat in the dark surrounded by other agitated vacationers.

Pretty soon we were perched outside the car, with Peachy on her leash, still wondering why the interstate was shut down. Thirty minutes later, the rumor reached us that they had called for lifeflight to transport two victims of a wreck. After another twenty minutes, we heard helicopter rotors and caught a glimpse of it landing. While it took less than half an hour before the chopper lifted off again, it was nealy fourty more minutes before there was any activity in the cars ahead of us.

Finally, engines started and after a minimum of idling, we crept forward, crawling the mile past the scene before accelerating to interstate speed.

I nosed the needle higher, trying to keep up with the fast lane, making up for our delay. Maybe we'd get there before dawn. Glorie snoozed next to me, and Peachy was getting restless with nothing to chirp at. She sneaked over to my side and tried to walk across me to my window.

"Nothing doing cat," I elbowed her back to Glorie's side. Grudgingly Peachy paced between there and the backseat, and I was able to motivate toward Georgia unimpeded -- until the drops started to hit the windshield.

At first, I thought the little wet explosions were rain, but when I turned on the wipers, the droplets only smeared. At least no downpour would force the windows shut. I pressed the washer button, and nothing happened but more smear. For a while, I peered through insect guts. The night dragged ahead of me and my eyelids drooped, further blurring the smears. I tried the usual tricks with cola and snacks, but I had no energy left to clear my vision; my speed had dropped to 50. I pulled off at the next lighted gas station.

"Eeeuuw, gross. What is that?"

"Bugs. I've stared through them as long as I can. I need to nap."

"Gee, Mom, I'm still tired."

"Well, drive as long as you can. We've got to be getting close." I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes as Glorie left rubber exiting the station.

"She was perfectly content on my lap."

"No way. Besides, you just didn't notice her wanderings. You stay back there and let me rest," I commanded as if Peachy would capitulate. To block her access, I propped a cracker box between the seats.

With no choice, she stayed in the backseat but howled pitifully. It was obvious I had had my minute of rest. I sat up and pulled out the map. "Where are we?"

"Just crossed into Georgia," Glorie proudly announced. "Can you drive some more?"

"You should have turned in early last night," I eprimanded, then relented, "Less than an hour to go. Maybe I can drive that."

Of course I couldn't. After only twenty minutes, my eyelids drooped again. Glorie snored sweetly at my side, and I knew it was hopeless. I couldn't wait for a rest area and pulled off at the next exit, where we slept in a deserted parking lot with the roar of semis rumbling in the background until dawn urged me back on the road.

I was groggy and cranky and stiff by the time we left the interstate for the home stretch.

"Get out the directions. You're going to have to navigate," I urged Glorie as I waited at the stop sign.

"Go west at the exit," Glorie read.

So help me, the rising sun had completely disappeared, and east looked identically western to me. "Watch for a road sign," I commanded crossly. "I can't tell whether we're heading there or home."

After winding miles, we were, predictably, heading wrong. When I swung around and retraced our route, the westerly turn we were to have taken was just inches from the exit. I would have complained but my navigator was equally exasperated. Fortunately, we did better the rest of the 37 miles to the "Big House."

My sisters' vans were in the driveway, and as we entered the foyer, I could hear the babies competing for the Lung Capacity title. My mother greeted us with a frown, "I thought you'd be here last night. We've got 58 relatives arriving in just hours. You need to put on an apron and help in the kitchen."

"Hello, Mother. I hope you had a pleasant trip, too. Would you like to refresh before a light repast while we catch up?"

If this start was any indication, this was going to be one hell of a day.

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