*** continuing the serialization of the novel Tollbooth***
click here to start at the beginning
It was getting too dangerous for my porn collection: there was too much of it inside too small of a space. Sarah was a chick Sherlock Holmes. Her psychic abilities frightened me. It wouldn’t be too long before she stumbled upon my stash and I wound up sleeping in Rommel’s dog house beside his stinky ass. I had to act quick getting all of my Gena porn out of the little downstairs bathroom before it was too late.
I swung around the block, happy with my decision to play hooky from the booth. I deserved the day off. The driveway was empty, I pulled the Subaru in quick, almost clipping the seashell mailbox, skidding up right in front of my unusable garage.
The kid who mowed our lawn was walking down the street. As I stepped out of the car, he started asking, “Hey, Jim, grass looks crazy high . . . ”
“Set it on fire,” I said.
“The lawn. The house. The world.”
I walked to my porch, he said, brightly, “Will do!”
As I opened up the front door, Sarah was sitting at the kitchen table with all of the lights in the house off, just staring at me. She knew. I threw my car keys in the wooden cat organizer she’d glued together by the coffee pot.
“Can I help you?” I said.
“No,” she said. “I don’t need any help.”
“Can you help me then? Where the hell is your car?”
“Took it in for brakes and oil and . . . I told you this. What do you need?” she drummed her fingers on the table. They sounded out my slow death march. She’d bitten the nails down to the cuticle. “Why are you home?” She looked at the clock directly above my head.
Once her hands had been well manicured. Bright colored nails, french tips. They were the hands of a thug now. She’d break my jaw most likely.
“I dunno,” I said. “Every time I come home, you’re just sitting there in that chair, and it’s not because you’re pregnant, it’s because you’re miserable.”
“Miserable, who me?” she said faking shock.
I flipped the light on in the kitchen, “This place is drab! We need some sunshine!”
“It’s raining out.”
“More the reason!”
“Really, why are you home? Did you get fired?” she asked with some slight fear. I waited, let that fear brew in her, then grinned, shook my head; no you silly former cheerleader.
“I figured that maybe I could take my wife to breakfast, treat her to some eggs,” I said. “If I can’t talk her into an abortion, maybe at least some eggs and bacon.”
“Treat me? Sure. I could go for breakfast.”
So, I took her to breakfast. I made sure that it was an extra extra delicious breakfast, not even diner breakfast, but restaurant breakfast. We smiled at each other, feeling a slight tinge of the old love we had in our salad days, in our heydays. It was a place that overlooked the river, the waiter came to our table on light feet, obviously taken away by our deep, apparent love.
We ordered the deluxe mega lumberjack specials, with fresh squeezed orange juice. There is nothing that Sarah loves in the world as much as an orange. “Let’s move to Florida,” she often said. Fresh coffee! I demanded silverware that the sun could gleam off of even though there was no sun on that day.
She brought a fork of egg to her lips, bit. I raised a coffee mug in near tribute. So what? So what that my life was over and the hunger in her was a direct reflection of that? Look at this new hunger, eating for two. That little belly was stretching, and after the baby came, it would still be that big. After that, surely she’d be eating whole plates all by herself, but so what? So what.
She was not the girl who I had met in high school. She was a cheerleader then. I remembered ever so clearly the way that she used to cheer for my life.
When we finished the meal, the waiter brought us our check. I was so happy, realizing that I didn’t really need this other young fantasy of mine, Gena. I didn’t need to turn away from my wife. It might have been the coffee, all of the caffeine, and the fat of the meal, God knows, but as I sat there watching her, I thought: baby, snookems, sweet thang, I’m a real fuck up and I love you.
And shit and shit and shit! So what if you are a fucking stupid siren who sang a fake song to get me to crash my ship onto your rock? There have never been two people so perfectly screwed up for each other. We’re just going through a dull patch. I’ll get out of the tollbooth. We’ll train the kid as a getaway driver. We’ll start knocking over jewelry stores wearing werewolf masks, armed with AK-47s. It’ll be perfect.
The bill came.
I placed the credit card down. The waiter took it lovingly, dancing like an elf all the way to the rear of the restaurant, whistling some elf song.
I signed the check and left him a handsome tip.
I looked at my wife. I was about to reach for her hand, to tell her something sincere, that I’d been a real asshole and that I did still love her, that I was sorry for the distance that had come between us. But love is a two way street.
“Hey can I ask you something?” she said.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Well, thanks for the breakfast and all. It was good. All respect due for that delicious breakfast.”
“But . . . “
She held up her finger, saying in sign language, one minute, hang on jackass. She revealed a picture, a very nice picture, of a black model with a large pink dildo in her ass and the face of an angelic white beauty—copy slut Gena.
“I found this in your pants pocket. I was doing your laundry. What the fuck is this?”
“Is this what you want?” she hissed.
“That? Oh no!”
“In her ass!” she said, too loud.
“I’m sorry,” I defended, “but it’s all a mistake anyway.”
“And that face looks familiar . . .”
“I think it’s that Russian model, Frenza Larnalotzvia, but I can’t be sure.”
“Oh no, Dr. Frankenstein, you can be sure. You made this thing. What was her name?”
“I found that.” I was hoping she hadn’t found anymore of the mock ups. “I found it at work, in the break room. That José . . . ughh, I hate that guy. I guess I grabbed it without thinking. It was stupid, immature.”
“The guy who draws dicks on your certificate?”
“That’s him,” I said, “So stupid.”
“Well, it’s stupid . . . yeah it’s stupid.”
I got up. She was still sitting. “Come on, I don’t want to do this right here in the restaurant. If we go to the car, you can at least scream at me. It will make you feel better.”
She was silent all the way to the car, silent when I turned the ignition, silent when I put it in gear, silent past the river, silent around the bend up by where the highway meets the bridge, silent past those old abandoned parking lots.
But then, as my luck was destined to fail, she became no longer silent.
“It would have made me feel a whole lot better if you just appreciated what I was going through for you,” Sarah ranted, rightfully.
“I do appreciate it. Aside from the whole part where I wish it never happened, yeah I do appreciate it.”
“You have something wrong with your brain. You are not supposed to tell your VERY PREGNANT wife that you wished she wasn’t carrying YOUR KID! AND YOU DO IT ALL THE FUCKING TIME!!”
“I’m crazy, I’m sorry. But I’m trying to be honest.”
“Honest? You’re unreal. You lie and tell me that you aren’t into porn, that this isn’t yours, and I am supposed to be stupid and just say, No, it’s totally OK for my husband to whack off to somebody else when he won’t touch me.”
“Calm down. It must be that José character at work. He seems like a real sleaze.”
“Whatever is right,” I said.
“I think we need a little more honesty in our relationship.”
“I think we need a little more trust in our relationship.”
I pulled the car into the driveway, shut it off, got out, began walking to the front door. She was still sitting in the car. I began to unlock the front door, opened it. I turned to her, I expected to see her crying. Instead, there was a look of surprise on her face.
“Jimmy! Jimmy!” Sarah said.
“I think my water just broke!”
My life flashed before my eyes.
The car door opened. “No, I was just screwing with you, you moron,” she said it with warmth, the way two people could do only if they cared deep down. “I’m seven months. You’ve got a ways.”
“Oh shit.” I grabbed her arm, and we walked in as a giant hand would loop the curve of a tea cup handle.
“Sorry I got fat, but your fat cock did it to me,” my bride said.
“I apologize for my fat cock.”
“Am I too ugly now?”
“Well, will you lay down with me?”
“Now?” Lay down was code.
“Yeah. I need it,” she said. “Bad.”
“Holy shit, so do I.”
We went upstairs, kissing madly on the stairs, knocking the photos off the wall of us at the prom; us on vacation at Niagara falls; us floating on orange pool rafts in Miami the previous summer.
We collapsed on the bed, I knocked the air out of her and she shrieked with laughter, “watch my belly, you klutz!”
“Shhhh,” I slipped my tongue in her mouth and she ran her nails down my back. We rolled on our sides, eagerly tearing our clothes off. It’d been too long. Far too long.
“Touch me here,” she said. Her breath smelled like fresh mint. She rolled on top of me and we did it slow—with extremely synched rhythm, as only two people who’ve known each other for as long as we had could. Cries of wonder and happiness and grunts of release left our lungs and we couldn’t do anything to stop them. A drop of sweat fell from her brow, landing in my eye. I didn’t care.
My eyes rolled back in my head, her breasts swung over me. I was floating through the astral plane bathed in immortal vibrating pink light.
After—our breath hot and frantic, we rolled to the side, I clutched her from behind.
“That was like the old days.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“I loved the old days.”
Larry wanted to see me in his office, which was fine by me. Usually a trip to Larry’s office meant some Girl Scout cookies that his daughter was selling, news on some adjustments to the booths, some state money that was coming in—something like that.
When I opened the door, Larry was sitting at his desk, reading a magazine: swimsuit girls kissing deep in tropical water. I sat down, put my feet up on the edge of his desk. He didn’t care.
“How you living, kid?”
“Not as good as you.”
“Debatable,” he said, cracking his bubblegum. “Look, I need to talk to you about something very important.” His eyes narrowed, taking on a newfound sinister look. “We’ve known each other for . . . what, how long have we worked together?”
“This whole time you’ve been in that same booth and things’ve gone very smoothly.”
“But now . . . “
He nodded, “But now, somebody has been blowing through your toll lane, late at night on José’s watch.”
“I’ve been notified by the State that the only way to correct the problem is to terminate the individual.”
“No, the motorist,” he said, drumming his fingers on the desk. With his free hand, like a magic trick, he pulled a silver gleaming gun out of the top drawer. He slid it to me across his desk. “You ever shoot a gun?”
“I fired a gun once,” I confessed, “But it was a turkey hunting gun. I shot up a mannequin.”
“You could kill a thousand turkeys with this. You’re the best we’ve got.”
I wanted to stand up and back out of the office, but something made me reach for the gun. It seemed to hum with power in my hand—I recalled all the dreams of cowboys and Indians as a small boy in the field behind my house, where Ted and I would shoot the neighborhood kids in the blueberry bushes with sticks. We didn’t have rifles and high grain to do the thing right, so we improvised.
It felt good to hold the true glow of death in my hands. The grip was wonderful and so was the smell of the gun oil. I knew I could shoot a terrorist from one hundred and ninety yards, the hostage wrapped up in his arms. I would get that terrorist right in the center of his skull. Laser dot aiming device? I didn’t need that shit! I was American.
“It’ll be a lime green Honda Civic. The tailpipe will make it sound like a lawnmower. After your shift is over, come in the break room and take a dinner break. I’ll watch the booth personally, José won’t be coming in tonight. He has the evening off. When you’re done eating, come and relieve me in the booth, understood?”
“Perfectly,” I said, sliding the gun in my pocket.
“The car comes every night between ten after ten and twenty after ten. It’s been on a clockwork schedule every night of the workweek for the last seven months.
I nodded. So this was to be the new way.
I waited in the booth. It was the same routine at night, but much slower. I looked up at the wall, I hadn’t bothered to hang a new certificate up there. It didn’t matter anymore. The clock of life ticked down like torture. The gun sat on the little ledge. Every motorist who came to the window could have seen it if they really wanted to, if they stretched, but none of them were real people, they were all just ghosts of the highway—disassociated, in a trance between the streams of opposing headlights that danced over the median. The moon hung sweat-less and cold over the pines, still with humid air.
Those people must have felt like that moon as they sped along, the glass of their vehicle making an entirely new universe as they crossed through the space between blinks of millenniums in their God carriages. Their vehicles set themselves apart from the atmosphere of the sphere where they were said to live and rumored to have lives. Their stereos blocked out useless Earthly noise. Their seat belts cuddled them into immortality.
In an eggshell, in a bubble, in a sarcophagus on wheels, driving into a vortex, shifting through a new dimension, ripping a hole in the fabric of the galaxy without even blinking. That’d be nice.
The guy in the tollbooth breaks that fantasy, stops them like sheep, says, “You are not the moon, you’re not the reflection of the moon on the ocean, you’re not even a little wave in the water, you’re just an asshole citizen. Heed all regulations. Slow down. Face this toll or face death.”
Then, from afar, I heard the distant sound of a lawnmower.
There was me, the sheriff, and there was him, the outlaw Indian who’d been scalping all of the ladies of misplaced wagon trains. The vehicle soared towards me, I leaned out of the booth ever so slightly, aiming the gun into the oncoming headlights. I squeezed the trigger, the silver pistol recoiled. I laughed wildly, squeezed again, this time a wilder shot. A headlight burst.
I kept shooting as the green Civic came within the last fifty feet of the tollbooth. When the car passed I spun, squeezing off the final ten rounds at its tail lights. The tires flattened, the back window exploded. Swerving, the driver screamed as chocolate syrup blood sprayed from a hole in his neck. On his radio somebody was singing a very poppy hit song. He was dying to the rhythm of that song.
I watched unbelieving as the car went off the side of the parkway, into the darkness of the pines. I tossed the gun in the shadow of the booth, I counted to fifty in my head, then a hundred and fifty, my heart racing. What then?
Out the window I saw a dim light where the single headlight was reflecting off a pine tree. No one had seen anything. Still, I waited for police sirens. Headlights appeared on the highway. I gasped.
It was a young guy, with an older woman, both looked annoyed, “Dude, how much is the toll?”
He handed me a ten dollar bill, “I’m giving you a ten.”
“I see that.”
“Well don’t try to be all smart and just give me change of a dollar.”
I wondered if there were any rounds left in the gun. But, nervous, I gave him back the correct change.
“Dude,” he said, “can I have a receipt?”
I handed him the receipt.
Up the highway, I saw a road department truck parked beside the car crashed in the woods. Two men were setting up flashing lights and road flares. I sat perfectly still, gulping. A few other men come out of the woods, carrying a large trash bag. It appeared to be industrial strength.
Another series of motorists zoomed through the exact change lane. The road crew loaded the bag into the back of one of the trucks, which left in slow official maneuvers up the highway. A quarter mile up was the service road entrance where the salt and the sand and the plow equipment and the road crew headquarters were located.
A few minutes later a tow truck came, hauling the vehicle out of the woods.
The flashers and road cones remained for perhaps twenty minutes and then those workers slowly packed it all away. In the center of this strange night, they were just trying to kill time until the time clock said that they were again free men. I saw a kid in a reflective vest yawning and stretching. It was somewhere close to three am.
At my next designated break I went into Larry’s office, he was still reading the sexy chick magazine.
“Good work,” he said.
He smiled, “That asshole really had that coming.”
I put the silver gun on his desk.
He smiled again, “You aren’t done, there’s one more person to take care of, who’s been dodging the toll.”
“Sarah,” he said flatly.
He tossed me a fresh ammo clip from his filing cabinet. I caught it; there was no sense in denying Larry.
“Go home, get some sleep, kill your wife.”
I nodded, walked down the hall to the vending machine, got a PayDay, munched on it as I drove my car out of the parking lot and to where Sarah waited. As I pulled into my driveway finishing the candy bar, I sighed, thinking that I would be sad when my wife was just a memory.
I stepped into the dark house. Sarah snored upstairs, she usually didn’t snore. Since she’d become pregnant she’d started. I imagined that the baby was a snorer, that it was all its evil gremlin doing.
Gun in hand, I crept up the stairs, straightening some of the framed photos as I passed. Bedside, I aimed the gun in the darkness, preparing to fire at Sarah, but couldn’t.