by J L Higgs
As I drove away from the Amtrak station, I called out, “Have a wonderful vacation.” Loaded down with suitcases, backpacks, and our two kids, my wife looked anything but amused. After dropping off the car at my employer’s, I’d return to the station. Highway down, a quick subway ride back, 45 minutes round trip.
The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky when I hit the four-lane highway. A perfect start to our vacation. Then, rounding a curve in the roadway, I suddenly encountered a wall of red tail lights.
After traffic had been at a standstill for 15 minutes, people began getting out of their cars. That’s when I learned there’d been a multi-car accident up ahead and decided to call my wife. I opened the center console, reached for my cell phone, and … no phone. As we’d left home that morning I’d shoved it in my backpack. F#!%!
At least 20 minutes passed before the emergency vehicles arrived and began wending their way through the backup. My window to drop off the car and return to the Amtrak station was definitely shrinking. I looked at the people in the car next to me. Would they be willing to babysit my car for a week? What if I offered to give them the car for free?
Forced to merge into a single lane, traffic finally began trickling past the accident and I made it to my employers. Now all that remained was checking in with security and returning via the subway.
“What? There’s no mention of my prearrangement? I…”
“Sure, color, make, model, year, plate number … no problem.”
What’s with the piece of cardboard and the black magic marker?
“Oh, hang this on my rearview mirror? Gotcha.”
Christ, you mean I could have just scribbled a bunch of numbers on a piece of cardboard and hung it on my mirror?
OK, parking handled, next, the subway. Up the steps, through the… what the? The door’s locked! Entrance closed on weekends? Use other entrance? F#!%! That’s at the other end of the building. Crap, the signal lights on the inbound side of the track are red. It’s my train!
Down the steps, I sprinted and through the station’s parking lot like my hair was on fire. At the far end of the building, I took the steps two at a time, burst through the entrance door, and charged on to the platform. The train’s doors were closing, so I jumped.
When I got back to the Amtrak station, I searched its lobby for my family. They were waiting for me near the ticket windows.
“Very funny,” said my wife as I approached them. “I called your phone. And it rang. Right here in your backpack.”
I then told her about the accident, but her expression remained pure skepticism. Fortunately, a train station employee passing by overheard my story and confirmed it. Thank God for that guy!
Onboard the train, the kids plastered their faces against the windows, determined not to miss a thing on their first long-distance train trip. That night, my son and I spent a relatively quiet night in coach despite the distant sound of the train’s horn. But unaccustomed to sleeping sitting upright, we only took brief naps.
The following morning, we went to retrieve my wife and daughter from the sleeper we’d booked for them. When they opened the door to their teeny room, they both looked disheveled and discombobulated. My wife told us that shortly after bedding down for the night, the train’s rollicking motion had bounced our daughter out of the fold-down bunk above the main bed. Thus, they’d attempted to sleep together, my wife’s knees folded sharply, and her feet on the sleeper toilet’s lid. But sleeping had been impossible. Theirs was the first car after the locomotive. For the entire night, they’d been kept awake by the train’s horn blowing at every railroad crossing.
We all arrived at the resort hotel sleep-deprived and settled on a quick dinner, then bed. At some point during the night I thought I heard my wife say, “Someone’s at the door,”
Rolling out of bed, I made my way to the door with the grace of a zombie, opened it, and there stood a young woman.
“We forgot to give you your welcome basket when you checked in,” she said, flashing a smile brighter than the wall lantern outside our door.
Barely able to nod, I accepted the belated gift.
“Have a wonderful vacation,” she said, her 1000-watt smile still blazing as I closed the door.
Basket in hand, I staggered back across the pitch black room and placed it on a dresser.
“Who was it?’ whispered my wife.
“Welcome wagon,” I replied, collapsing back into bed.
After breakfast the next morning, we headed back to the room to retrieve our backpacks, snacks and water bottles to begin our day. I inserted my key card into the door lock and… Nothing. I reinserted it. Nada. Convinced the fault lay in my ineptitude, my wife took the key card from me and inserted it. No click or green admittance light. We were locked out.
I volunteered to go to the resort’s check-in desk for help and as I departed my son said, “Well, at least it’s not raining.”
I’d only made it about a quarter of the way when the skies suddenly opened up. Caught in a downpour, I abandoned my quest and ran back to rejoin my family. Drenched, clothes clinging to my skin, I stood there as we huddled together, trying to decide what to do. That’s when my wife spotted a housekeeper. We explained our predicament to her and she led us to the maid’s supply closet and placed a call from its phone.
Minutes later a maintenance worker arrived. After observing our futile attempt to unlock the door, he removed the lock’s outer casing, replaced a pair of double-A batteries and told us to “give it a try.” Sure enough, problem solved. As he left, he wished us a “wonderful vacation.”
The next day the sky was overcast, so we took the resort’s shuttle bus to its arcade. Though the kids could have stayed there forever, my wife and I reached our arcade games limitwithin a few hours.
Strolling back to the shuttle bus stop under darkening skies, my wife doled out the ponchos she’d packed. Thanks to her foresight, we were well protected when the rain began and forced us to run the remaining distance to the shuttle stop’s shelter building.
From the shelter, we watched as the roadway flooded in a matter of minutes. Then, as the storm gathered strength, thunder and lightning began.
“Unbelievable,” I said as a man with three children joined us in the shelter.
“Yeah,” he replied, above the sound of rain hammering the shelter’s roof while lightning flashed all around us. “We were at Safari when yesterday’s storm came through. One of the giraffe’s got struck by lightning. Killed on the spot.”
Great, I thought. Anyone for blackened, smoked giraffe?
Tears appeared in the eyes of his little girl and my daughter, the animal lover’s lower lip was quivering. The boys? His two and mine frowned and shrugged as if to say, what can you do?
Right then a thunderclap exploded directly overhead, causing us all to jump. A lightning bolt immediately followed. As my wife tightened her grip on my forearm and gestured upward with her head and eyes I looked up. The shelter’s roof was made of tin. Perfect.
When the shuttle bus arrived we all scrambled aboard. Having dodged the threat of getting fried a la giraffe, we were happy to be safe and relatively dry.
“How many stops until we’re back?” asked my son.
“Ours is the third one,” answered my wife as the bus pulled up to the first one.
The people waiting in the parking lot’s shelter building quickly boarded and took seats. Then the shuttle headed toward the lot’s exit. After we’d gone about 30 feet we stopped.
“Look at all the people,” said my daughter.
Looking out the shuttle’s window, I saw a horde of people heading towards us. As they reached the parking lot, many were getting in their cars, starting them up, and pulling out, clogging the exit lane. Because of the storm, the resort had just closed its water park.
Creeping along, it took an hour for us to finally exit the parking lot and continue on to the next stop. There, everything went off without incident. We then resumed our trip until we stopped for a red traffic light. Shortly after stopping, the light turned green and the shuttle driver pressed down on the bus’ accelerator. The shuttle then shuddered and died.
“Uh-oh,” said my son.
“Well, at least we’re not in the intersection,” I said, seeing the look of exasperation on my wife’s face.
Finally, on the driver’s fourth attempt, the bus came back to life.
“Should we cross our fingers?” asked my daughter.
“Toes probably wouldn’t hurt as well,” responded my wife.
The following morning, with no trains or shuttles on the day’s agenda, we went to pick up the car I’d rented for the rest of our vacation. I walked right up to the young woman at the reservation counter, gave her my name, and she promptly typed it into her computer.
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing under that name for today.”
Armed with preparedness that would put a boy scout to shame, I whipped out my confirmation email and handed it to her.
“Here it is,” she said after typing in the confirmation number. “That reservation is for a week from today.”
Was I on Candid Camera? Or Punk’d? We needed a car now, not next week when we’d be back home.
Despite the mix-up, the young woman assured me she’d be able to provide us with a car. After making a phone call, she handed me a set of car keys, smiled, and spoke those inimitable words … you know, “Have a wonderful vacation.”
The days that immediately followed were uneventful. We swam, enjoyed the amusements and entertainments the resort offered, and watched their nightly fireworks display.
As the end of our vacation approached, the kids lobbied to go to the resort’s newest attraction. Inside its theater-style building, we strapped ourselves into a model car attached to mechanical arms covered with thick black hoses arrayed like octopus tentacles. The theater lights dimmed leaving us in darkness, a film began playing and the cars took flight twisting, turning, and tipping in the air.
About 5 minutes later, a loud pop sounded, the film abruptly stopped and the theater lights snapped on. At that point, one of the ride’s attendants told us there’d been a malfunction but that the ride would restart momentarily. 10 minutes passed and then another attendant confessed the restart attempts had been unsuccessful and they had requested help.
Undaunted by the mishap and with us as a captive audience suspended high above the ground, the ride’s attendants then came up with an ingenious idea – playing a trivia game. With unparalleled excitement, they began taking turns shouting out questions about television shows. Correct answers received cheers and applause as they jumped up and down with an enthusiasm that would leave competitive cheerleaders envious. It was beyond riveting! A ride and a game. Talk about getting more for your money!
After 20 minutes of thrilling trivia, a loud hiss like that from an air hose filled the room and the cars slowly descended. With the cars back on the floor, the attendants told us the ride would restart shortly.
“No way,” said my wife and I looking at each other. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”
Joining the stampede to the exits, we passed a group of smiling resort employees. They … oh hell, you know what they said.
On the morning of our departure, the kids were sad our vacation was ending. Me? I told my wife that if one more person told me to have a wonderful f#$*ing vacation; I was going to punch them.
Suitcases in hand, we arrived at the train station and gave our tickets to the man on duty. He eyed our bags and frowned.
“They ain’t gonna fit,” he said.
“Excuse me,” I replied.
“The bags. They ain’t gonna fit.”
“How can they not fit?,” I asked. “We brought them here on the train.” To my wife, I whispered, “What’s he think? We tweaked our noses and they just magically appeared here?”
“I’m telling you. They ain’t gonna fit. Y’all try ‘em in that there thing,” he said, pointing. “If they can’t fit in there, they ain’t gonna fit.”
With his hawkish eyes on me, I placed each bag in “that there thing” one at a time. Sure enough, every bag fit, though mine was a bit snug.
“They all fit,” I said, smiling. Asshole. Too bad HE didn’t wish us a wonderful vacation.
Now, being experienced long-distance train travelers, we knew what to expect – light dozing overnight. But fortunately, this train’s teeny sleeper was a sensible distance from the locomotive.
Things went smoothly that first day, so after lunch the next day we remained in the dining car playing UNO. With only a few travel hours remaining, the train pulled into a station. Passengers boarded and exited, and then we continued on our way. Minutes later, the train began slowing down until it came to a halt. The conductor announced that we’d lost power. A few minutes after that we were once again underway. But then, just when we appeared to almost be up to full speed, the train again slowed until it stopped.
O Over the public address system, the conductor announced that the engine was stone cold dead. Abandoning UNO, we went directly to War, playing card after card slapping against the dining room tabletop. Broken down, we remained idle until another train reached us and could push us the rest of the way.
Back at the station where our vacation adventure had begun, we retrieved our bags and boarded the subway to go pick up our car.
Above the clatter and squeals of the train wheels scraping along the rails my daughter said to me, “Dad?”
“Yes, hon,” I replied.
“Where are we going on vacation next year?”
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 50 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Contrary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Dime Show Review, Remington Review, The River, and Fiction on the Web. He resides outside of Boston.