Along the Highway

By Maria McDowell

They had been in the small examination room for over an hour and in the waiting room for an hour before that. It was their own fault for leaving them alone for so long. Months of marathon pacing can bend even the sanest human mind. They had started out by playing tic-tac-toe on the paper covering the exam table. Then they inflated a dozen or so latex exam gloves and drew faces on them. They planned to fill them with water and drop them out the third floor window, but it was sealed. She wondered if the window was permanently shut because the boredom had overcome others who had successfully launched the fluid missiles. Or, did everyone enter this room in solemn resignation, waiting terminally, reading the Sportsman magazine or National Geographic.

She made an extraordinarily good inflated-latex-glove guy and placed him on the exam table. Denny wrote, "He's dead, Jim" above his head. She laughed so hard she almost peed in her pants, so she excused herself and went in search of the ladies room.

By the time she got back, Denny had begun making paper airplanes and was throwing them at the nurse's station directly across from the door to their room. He said they were search and rescue planes. The nurses began to look annoyed. They didn't care.

Denny's appointment had been for 10 a.m. It was now almost 1 p.m.; even hospital food was beginning to appeal to her. They had just started going through the cabinets when the doctor walked in.

"I heard you two have been having some fun."

She considered telling him how much fun waiting for him for three hours really was, but he was about to put a corkscrew into her husband's hip and she didn't want to tick him off.

"We got a little bored," she said, grabbing the latex patient off the table and throwing him into the red-lined rash can.

"Sandy was going to examine me herself if you didn't show up soon." Denny leered at her with a wicked grin on his face. She kicked him right in the shoe. The doctor who, as far as they'd ever been able to tell, had no sense of humor, mumbled something unintelligible and told Denny to hop up on the exam table.

The standard poking and breathing ensued along with personal questions about things most people hadn't shared with anyone since they'd learned to go to the bathroom by themselves.

"Ok, lower your pants mid-hip and lie on your stomach." The nurse came in with a tray that held the corkscrew thing and various sterile packages. Sandy watched the procedure as they pushed and twisted it into his hip. He groaned in pain and she tried to concentrate on praying for him, instead of the nausea crawling up her throat. There was no way she was going to leave Denny alone to face this, she had more painkillers when her tooth was filled.

When the marrow had been retrieved they removed the offending tool and put a Band-Aid over the puncture. She steadied Denny while he dressed.

"We'll call you in a few days with the results," the nurse said, handing them a yellow sheet of paper. Denny leaned heavily against the counter and turned the flimsy, yellow sheet into an exquisite flying machine. It flew a respectable distance before Sandy finished signing the payment check.

"Do you want to pick Maria up before we get lunch, or do you want to have peace and quiet while we eat?" Denny's question was accompanied by the familiar grin he shared with their three-year-old daughter Maria.

She pretended to actually consider the question as she slid behind the driver's seat. "I think I'll take the peace and quiet, and slap me if I start cutting up your food or wiping your chin with my napkin."

After they ordered their burger combos and retreated into the most private booth they could find, they talked between bites about the rest of the day and what color to paint the living room. Denny wolfed down his burger and then helped himself to the rest of Sandy's fries. It felt good to see him eat so much. Apparently, his appetite was returning along with the baby-fine hair that shadowed his head. Denny said he wanted to knock out the prep work on the living room that afternoon. His perseverance always amazed Sandy. It was one of the things she admired most about him.

As they were leaving she watched an old couple, holding hands, walk to the register. She gazed after them, envying their years together.

They had barely turned into the drive at home when they saw their only child carrying out their only cat, chokehold style, across the yard. Sandy dashed out to rescue Pudge, who had survived her college days only to possibly die from the relentless affection of a pre-schooler.

"Maria, put Pudge down!"

Gray fur flew past her legs and her grinning brown-eyed baby threw herself at Sandy as she reached down to pick her up. Denny sauntered up and tweaked her nose.

"How's my pumpkin pooh?"

Maria took her thumb out of her mouth long enough to kiss him. "Pug was bad, he have to go in time-out." Maria knew a lot about time-out!

Sharon, their neighbor, walked over to them carrying her son Blake. They watched one another's children often and Sandy had relied on her heavily in the last few months.

"Hi, how did it go; are the good guys winning?"

"We won't know for a few days," she said over Maria's head. "They like to keep us in suspense, makes life more interesting that way. How was my tiny terror?"

Sharon grinned. "Let's just say the cat deserves a medal. He must have used up most of his nine lives by now.

Denny grabbed Maria and threw her over his shoulder. "Come on, punkin', let's go open a can of tuna and see if we can't persuade Pudge to accept our peace offering…again."

Sandy stayed behind a few minutes to thank Sharon for her help and to get her ideas on what color to paint the living room. She suggested that a combination of colors splattered all over the wall would effectively hide future fingerprints and Maria-art, but Sandy couldn't see how to tie that in with the loveseats.

Sharon's face became serious and she knew what was coming. She was always blunt. "You look like hell, Sandy. You're still having nightmares, aren't you?"

"That's the trade-off for not losing it during the day," she said. "You know how, after you have a baby, you keep getting up to check them to see if they're still breathing? I listen for his breathing at night, just to know." Sandy waved at her as she turned away and crossed the yard for home.

Denny had pulled all the furniture away from the wall by the time she walked in and was standing in the corner behind the coffee table looking at something.

"Hey, Sand, come over and look at this."

They stood there staring at what looked like a small pile of sawdust. She'd heard of this somewhere. "Please Lord, let me be wrong."

She reached behind Denny and took the screwdriver he'd been using to remove outlet covers and poked at the baseboard; it crumbled. She twisted it deeper into the wall and pulled it out. The tiny invaders emerged: a fearless, devouring swarm.

The exterminator looked more like the Dunkin Donut man. His blue shirt said his name was Joe; his eyes smiled even before his mouth did. When he introduced himself, Sandy shook his chubby hand and immediately wanted to "adopt" him. He had the kind of voice you could listen to for hours and Maria could always use another storyteller.

"Let's take a look-see at where you saw the little critters." Joe followed Sandy into the living room and knelt down, with surprising agility, to examine her excavations. "Uh huh, I better take a look-see at the rest of the house, Ma'am."

Joe explored the rooms and crevices of the house for a couple of hours. He eventually took to the attic. She could hear the thump, thump of his work shoes as he made his way through the maze of Christmas decorations and plastic boxes they had filled with parts of their lives, stored in case they wanted to relive them later.

When he finally found his way down again, his face was flushed and his eyes weren't smiling anymore. In the doorway of the kitchen he pulled off his hat and brushed his sleeve across the beads of sweat on his forehead.

He sat in the kitchen with Sandy over a glass of ice tea and told her about the termites. Serious, he said, but not hopeless.

Maria offered him a bite of her PB&J. He thanked her nicely anyway…his eyes smiled. She stood up in her chair and kissed him on his shiny pink head, adorned only with a sparse, white halo. "There, now your hair will grow back." She left him a jam kiss in the center of his halo. "The doctors make your hair go away, then you get kisses and it comes back. I growed my Daddy more hair." She bounced out of her chair, knocking over her sipper-cup. Milk gently puddled onto the floor where Pudge gratefully accepted the one blessing small children offer family pets. Later, when Maria was napping and therefore safe, Pudge would lick her sticky face and hands before quietly curling up next to her to sleep. It was the only time he sought her out.

Sandy didn't realize she was staring at the doorway Maria had exited through until she felt Joe patting her on the back of the hand.

"Is it serious?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "But not hopeless." It was a promise she wanted to believe.

It rained for two days. Denny would go to work while Maria tortured Pudge between episodes of "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers." Sandy scrubbed the kitchen and dusted everything twice. She watched the telephone carefully. The nurse was going to call and tell her the end of the story. She was supposed to say happily ever after. Sandy built a house out of Lincoln Logs with Maria in order to give the fur ball a break. The house was wide and sturdy and had no termites.

Once a lady called trying to sell something and Sandy asked her for her home phone number so she could call her later to sell her Girl Scout cookies. The lady hung up, but she didn't mind since Maria wouldn't have any cookies to sell for several years.

Later, the phone rang while she was in the bathroom; she got to it on the forth ring. She was kicking herself for choosing that time to go pee when she realized what the man on the other end was saying-"Had she given any thought about the future and how much easier it would be for her loved ones if she had pre-arrangements for her financial needs?" She placed the phone down with deliberate care. Pain was liquid on her face.

"I hope you get fat," Sandy said to the phone. "I hope your wife uses up all your credit cards to their limit and then divorces you for someone slimmer…and younger!" She sat there creating futures for the disembodied voice until Maria came over and plopped in her lap with Green Eggs and Ham.

When the call finally came much later in the day, it was Denny who picked up the phone. After a brief conversation, he hung up the phone and pulled Sandy into his arms. He propped his chin on her head and sighed.

"They say we have options. They say we need to come back in and talk. They say soon."

They stayed that way until Maria, feeling left out, pushed her way between them.

"I want a story."

"I want a story, please," Sandy corrected her.

"Daddy, Mommy and me want a story," she said.

They all climbed in their bed and read not one, but three stories.

Saturday morning Joe came over to eat breakfast with them and discuss the termites. He was on his second stack of pancakes when Pudge came in a started swatting at his shoelaces. Joe reached down to scratch Pudge's neck and he reciprocated by licking Joe's syrupy fingers. With the formalities out of the way, Pudge leapt gracefully onto his lap and began purring. It was official; Joe was adopted.

"What I think we're going to have to do is tent the whole house." He patted Pudge comfortingly. "It's more expensive, but we got a better chance of getting rid of the whole mess of them! This here's a nice place you've been fixing up. Now, I worked it out with the company to get most of the stuff we need discounted, and a few of the boys owes me favors from way back. It means you'd have to move out for a few days, a week at the most. I'll go with whatever you decide. Either way, you're going to have to replace some of the wood here and there." He looked at Denny. "I'll help you with that."

"No thanks, I'll take care of it."

Joe looked injured.

"Look, Joe, you can't take everyone's problem on. We'll go ahead with the tent but I'm not going to take advantage of your generosity," Denny said.

Joe looked serious for a moment before answering. "I think I'm the one with the advantage here. Free food and more attention than I have seen since my wife passed on." He stroked the sleeping cat in his lap. "I'd build you a house for that."

The waiting room at the oncologist's office was more patient friendly than the one at the hospital had been. The magazine selection was a lot better and a sign at the check-in window read, "Complimentary Coffee and Sodas." They sipped their colas and Sandy perused the magazines with the pretty pictures of flowers and sweet pastries. One magazine with a rose-covered Victorian house caught her eye. The caption read, "Are termites eating away your future?" The article inside painted a grim scenario for southern homeowners battling the recurring invasions with limited weapons. Sandy let the magazine fall to the floor. They were wrong! "…and I'm damn well going to gas their little winged…" It suddenly occurred to her that she had an audience.

Denny grinned at her and then glanced around the room of mostly elderly patients who were looking at me like she was Maria's age. "She talks in her sleep too," he offered. "I woke up with her kicking me one night, she'd dreamed I lost her cat." Several of the room's occupants, relieved to have a break in the monotony, offered stories of their own.

A gray figure with a brightly printed scarf around her head made her way over to Sandy and sat down. She was a widow and knew exactly how Sandy felt about her cat, she said. "Husbands do well enough," she said, patting her arm, "but a cat was the most loving, patient creature on God's good earth. Sandy agreed with her on that and told her stories about Pudge and Maria until the nurse called Denny's name.

They listened to the doctor for a long time. It reminded her of the first time her mother had told her about sex. She spent an hour trying not to tell her anything.

Eventually they were able to ascertain that the only thing the weeks of chemo had gotten rid of was his hair. The new plan was a bone marrow transplant, which had a good chance of curing him if he survived it. Sandy wanted to ask what was behind door number three.

They stood in front of their house the next morning, watching them shroud it in sheets of thick plastic. Denny had taken the day off and had been the one to realize Pudge was missing. Denny disappeared under the heavy vinyl only to emerge fifteen minutes later empty-handed. All work stopped while they organized a massive search for the missing feline. It finally occurred to her to ask Maria if she had seen him. "Pug's with Dolly," she said.

After Pudge was rescued from the toy box, the rest of the day was uneventful. They watched the allied forces bombard the enemy until it started to rain. Joe, in charge of the assault, sent them packing for the night. He said they could visit the house tomorrow, and promised it would still be there.

They stayed at a nearby hotel and read Dr. Seuss books in bed, with cookies. Denny asked her if she remembered the last time they stayed in a hotel room. She smiled over Maria's head and said yes. Sometime during the night Pudge crawled out from under the bed and joined them. It felt like home.

A month later Denny gave her a card on the way to the hospital. He had signed them up for dancing lessons. "I want to dance at our daughter's wedding," he said, then smiled. "And last time we danced you stepped all over my feet."

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