I just got a new shipment of my novel Tollbooth from the publisher, Piscataway House. If anyone would like to snag one from me, I sign them and mail them out with some zines and poems and stuff. Thank you for reading.
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Shipping to USA only
*** continuing the serialization of Tollbooth***
click here to start at the beginning
Sarah had vivid nightmares about car crashes. She would often wake me—hysterical. A reoccurring object of her night terrors was my old car, a diesel Volkswagen Rabbit, that I’d named Diesel Cottontail as a teenager.
Usually in Sarah’s nightmares, Diesel Cottontail would strike into her while she was walking or riding her sea green bicycle. She would lose a limb, pinned between other cars, telephone poles, brick walls.
For the most part, it was Sarah’s leg that was lost. It’d vanish in a swarm of black bees.
Waking, she would grip onto her leg underneath the sheets as she thrashed in terror. I’d stroke the sweaty hair from her brow and comfort her the best I could, as she wept, saying, “that car . . . that car . . . that car.”
When she was calmer, I’d bring her a glass of ice cold water, she’d fish a tablet out of her top drawer beside the bed, take it down with a gulp.
“Everything’s alright now,” I used to say. “That was a long time. That car is gone, and is never coming back.”
Dolly, Sarah’s mom, was dead. She visited me from time to time, just to make me squirm. That’s when I knew I was doing bad. She’d come dressed in the clothes she’d wore on the day she died and harassed me venomously.
“You’re a real piece of work,” she said, materializing in the booth at my shoulder. “Utter scum,” she hocked ectoplasm at my feet.
Dolly grew up in Long Island, lived through hardships there, moved to New Jersey with Sarah in her womb. She’d raised my Sarah alone while working as an ER nurse. Dolly had done the best she could. It was my fault she was dead.
The first time she appeared to me from beyond the grave, it was in an Atlantic City bathroom mirror on the night of my bachelor party. I was washing my hands in the sink, they smelled like the insides of a stripper.
She’d materialized in the bathroom mirror, flips of jet black hair and her horn rimmed glasses, “Look at you! Pathetic!” Dolly snarled, “Pathetic!”
Then she vanished. Just a brief little insult, then gone.
Behind me in the tollbooth, Dolly whispered, “Jim, I’m not gonna make this easy for you.”
I turned to look at her, all that was there was on the silver wall was my certificate with more dicks drawn on it.
Sarah killed her mother and she did it with my car. Diesel Cottontail. I was out of town, on a school trip. Dolly, who wasn’t much of a driver herself, was teaching Sarah how to drive. I’d been real cool with the idea. Excited even. Sarah the driver! I remember sitting on the yellow bus as we pushed west, hoping she’d get a real badass car with a big back seat, so we could screw with more comfort.
Their driver’s lesson, hadn’t gone so well. I still have the article from the paper. She was trying to learn how to parallel park, her mom was behind the car giving her signals. she ran her over, inadvertently crushing her underneath the Volks.
I could understand why Sarah hated cars, it was just a shame that she had to hate the one car that I ever loved.
Dolly’s coffin was lowered slowly into the wet earth, each pallbearer gripping onto a satin sash while one of the nameless cousins played Danny Boy on the fiddle with wobbly uneven strokes.
I wasn’t there, funerals weren’t my thing. My father in his copper urn on the mantel was all the ceremonial death I ever needed from this life. It was a shame though that the contents of that urn hadn’t been able to teach me what was right and wrong.
I had no concept of what giving respect was, either. Blame the ashes. My mother didn’t have the capacity to explain anything. She’d shut down after my dad’s death.
When Sarah’s mother died, she’d done the opposite, becoming vivid and dislodged. Frantic.
Sarah was seventeen at the cemetery, crying into her teenage hands, avoiding eye contact with her mother’s casket. Black dress. Trembling knees. I was in the opposite of a suit, at home parked outside the garage, spray painting my Volkswagen. The wind kept whistling, the blue paint catching the breeze and blowing back at me. Ted skidding up on his BMX, said, “You look like a smurf.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You still have that car?” he asked, surprised, “it was used in a murder . . . don’t the cops confiscate it for evidence?”
“Go away, man,” I said. “I’m not in the mood to joke around.”
“I wasn’t joking . . .”
There were tears forming in my eyes. One welled up and rolled down my cheek. Ted watched the tear roll and shake on my jawline as the breeze blew. When the tear fell, it screamed down to the earth and made a sound like a bomb going off when it struck the blue tarp I’d covered the driveway with.
I recall him flinching, jumping almost.
“It’s gonna be alright,” he said.
I went into the house. Sat on the couch. Staining the cushions blue.
I talked to Sarah on the telephone the night that she tried to kill herself. She was in the guest room at her aunt’s house. Two days had passed since the funeral. I tried my hardest to make her laugh. It wasn’t easy. We talked about going to see a movie. There was a dog barking outside her door. She said she hated the dog more than anything in the world. She said that she missed me. She wanted to hold me. I suggested we go see Weekend At Bernie’s II. She was deathly silent. “Really, Weekend At Bernie’s II?” she asked in disgust.
“Sure, sure, whatever. Anything. I just want to see you.”
“The feeling is more than mutual.”
She said goodbye. Then, she went into the bathroom, turned on the sink. She turned on the shower. She ate every single pill in her aunt’s medicine cabinet, laid down in the bathtub with the shower raining down her. She contemplated drinking Drano, like Kurt Vonnegut’s mother had done. She’d just read Slaughter House Five because it was on the banned books list. She closed her eyes.
One of the nameless cousins found her.
She was doing time in the Mayweather Home. I went to visit her there: seventh floor. At first she was in a ward where you weren’t allowed to sit. She laid in the bed staring up at the florescent lights. As visiting hours allowed, I stood next to the bed. They’d let me come for two and a half hours. I’d stand the whole time, leaning against the wall next to her bed, she would say nothing. Not even when I said, “Supposedly, there are secret passages underneath this place. Al Capone used them to get away from the G men. Did you know that?”
That went on for three days.
The fourth day, she said, “go away.”
So I went away.
I fell in love with her when she was there in that home. She was brought down to my level. I don’t think it’s possible to love someone who is high above you or far below you. You might be drawn to them, you might feel affection or admiration of some kind, but not real love.
When I came to see Sarah again, she’d been moved into her own room. I wasn’t allowed to be anywhere near it except during visiting hours, it was OK for me to sit with her. We sat in the communal area and played checkers. We watched a VHS of Romeo and Juliet because “I have a book report and I don’t think I can bring myself to read anything,” she said.
She didn’t know that Juliet drank poison at the end. I said, “I’m bored, can we shut this off?” somewhere around the middle.
“I wanna see what happens . . .”
“They get away.”
“Oh, alright,” she said.
The next time I came, we went down to the basketball court. We didn’t play. We sat Indian style on the green grass and watched some of the other patients dribble around the court awkwardly, tossing the ball up at the rim, ricocheting off wildly into the pine trees.
She looked at me, “I want to stay with you. I don’t wanna go back to my aunt’s house. She doesn’t want me there anyway.”
“Of course,” I said, holding her hand on the cool grass. “You can move in,” I said.
It was my mother’s house, but she didn’t care. We were gonna graduate high school in two months.
Across the lawn was my blue car. The murder car—Diesel Cottontail.
“Is that your car?”
“Yeah,” I said.
She was very quiet.
“I painted it,” I said.
“I see that.”
“It’s not orange anymore.”
Sarah let go of my hand.