Sunday, July 22, 2012

A real piece of road work

“We’re doomed,” my wife, Kara, said as a pulse of brake lights started at the horizon and streaked down the highway toward us.  In a moment, our own brake lights illuminated, and our hopes dimmed.  Our worst nightmare was coming true: a traffic jam with a toddler and an infant in the backseat.  Oh, and a dog, our loyal and much-loved afterthought.

“No, no, no, this can’t happen,” I said.  Children on road trips are like sharks.  They must maintain forward momentum.  Also, they might eat you.

As soon as the speedometer hit zero, Zack, our three-month-old, began voicing his displeasure with quiet, distressed grunts.  Evan, our three-year-old, recognized the warning signs and cupped his hands over his ears.

“Zack gonna start cryin’,” he said.

“ROAD WORK AHEAD,” the orange sign said, so I assumed (as foolish as it now seems) that someone up ahead would be working on the road.

“Evan, there’ll be some big construction trucks up here,” I said, trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and also lying.

“Trucks?” Evan asked, straining against his shoulder straps to look through the windshield.

“Well, not yet, but they’ll be coming up soon,” Kara lied.  Meanwhile, Zack started mixing in some little squawks, like an opera singer saying, “Mi mi mi.”

I really wanted to see some big trucks, bulldozers and stream rollers to help smooth Evan out, since he was still angry at us for not inviting him to our wedding.

That weekend, Grandma had been showing him the album on her coffee table, full of pictures where Kara looked radiant (just like she still does, and I’d say that even if she wasn’t the first person to read this column) and I still had the ability to clench my bald spot shut.

“That was a great party,” Grandma said.  Then she flipped the page to the wedding-cake-cutting, and Evan became incensed.

“Why can’t I have cake, too?” he asked.

“Because you were born five years after the cake was eaten, buddy,” Kara said.

“But I wanted to go to the party!” he screeched.

“We would have loved to have you there.  But Grandma would have been mad if you’d happened before the party did,” I said.

“I wanted the cake yesterday,” he pouted.

Comprehending temporal relationships is not Evan’s strong suit.  Yesterday happened yesterday.  So did his first birthday, and that time we saw a moose last summer.  The War of 1812?  Yesterday.      

So we idled down the turnpike, hoping to brighten Evan’s day with some heavy machinery, admiring each cone that occupied the perfectly good lane to our right.  Every time the car stopped, Zack screeched.

After a couple of miles, it became clear that the “road work” was actually just an excuse for the    Department of Transportation to display its beautiful collection of cones.

You could picture a highway commissioner sitting in a swivel chair inside one of those roadside buildings that’s shaped like an enormous breast, stroking the cat on his lap and saying, “What’s the point of owning seven million cones if you’re just going to keep them in storage?  Put them out for everyone to see!  Throw a few blinky barrels in the mix, too.  What the heck.”

As we neared the end of the cone display and could see the jam breaking up, it became clear that nothing resembling construction was happening on that sunny weekday afternoon.  Fortunately, Zack’s screaming began to die down as we sped up.

“Sorry, Evan, there won’t be any trucks.  They just put down a bunch of cones and went home,” I said.

“Why?  Why would they put down buncha cones and go home?  Why?” he asked.

“That’s a fantastic question,” I said.

“There should be trucks if there’s cones,” he replied.  When he grows up, he’ll get my vote for highway commissioner.

You can share a cone with Mike Todd at

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