*** continuing the serialization of Tollbooth***
click here to start at the beginning
Sarah was pregnant and driving through town. She still suffered from the occasional nightmare about my old car. The white noise machine I’d bought was no help.
I was happy she’d surrendered and slid back into the driver’s seat after so many years of absence, for convenience sake. She didn’t like the thought of being on a bicycle with our baby inside her. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that more in utero babies are killed by lightning strikes than by bicycles.
Ahead, traffic was frozen on main-street.
There’d been a horrible wreck by Dinosaur Liquor.
I got a phone call at work. She’d pulled into a plaza, ringing me up from the pay phone outside Fried Paradise. “Oh good, you’re still alive,” she said with relief.
“Yeah, still kicking,” I said.
“I see an ambulance on route 9. Traffic’s gridlocked. I got worried. But you’re fine. You’re fine.” Love is relief. Love is doubt. Love is a car crash that can’t kill you. Love is kissing a wound that will not close so that you both survive the night. “OK, I’ll talk to you later then,” she said.
“Wait,” I said, “Don’t go. Tell me a story.”
“A story?” she said. I could hear her light through the telephone line, “Well, let me think of one . . . ”
“How about that story about the girl who loved oranges?”
“Oh, well that’s an easy one,” she said. “There was once a little girl from New Jersey who was very sad because her daddy was gone. He’d flown the coop—”
“ . . . go on.”
“She would sometimes get letters from him from different parts of the country. Tiny letters. Gifts too. She remembered the first time that she got a package in the mail from the daddy.”
“What was it?”
“It was a wooden box, little—3 by 3.”
“What was in it?”
“Citrus,” she said. “He sent her oranges and it was the first time she’d ever seen one before and she thought it was a ball. She asked her mom to play catch with her and the balls that her daddy had sent her. But her mom just cried and cried.” She sighed, “The next day, she peeled one of the oranges for her and the girl ate it her playhouse, hiding. It was the best thing that the girl had ever eaten. Sweet citrus.”
“I meant the story about when I took you to the orange grove on vacation in Florida,” I said.
“Well, there’s many stories from the girl who loves oranges about oranges,” Sarah said. I sighed. “For instance, the next time my daddy sent me a box of oranges, I was three years older. I’d told him in a letter how much I liked the first box. The second box of oranges were dry and bitter. Nothing like the first. There were worms in the second orange I tried to eat. After that, they sat on the table, unloved—until the fruit became green and fuzzy white with mold beginning to rot in the heat. Then we threw them out. That was the last time I ever had contact with him.”
“Shhhhit,” I said.
“When I see an ambulance, I like to hear from you.”
It was nice to know that people wanted you alive.
“I’m OK,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere. Me equals strong as ox. Or cock-a-roach. Same thing, maybe.”
“Good,” she said. I heard sirens scream by in the background. “I need you, warts and all.” The line went dead before she could say she loved me. We’d been through many wars together. We’d been blown apart by land mines. We’d been machine gunned down out of the sky in Apache helicopters. We’d ducked under barbed wire and crawled through the mud and filth and hate. We sometimes forgot to say I love you. But, wars will do that to you.
I went in the break room and took all of José’s food out of the refrigerator. All of it. I walked it around back, shook it out into the weeds for the raccoons and deer to eat.
When the rain let up an hour later, at least half of the town had heard about Kimmy Simmons.
She’d just finished cutting the mayor’s daughter’s hair in Jake Annopolis’s International Hairport next to Food Universe. Kimmy had brushed the girl off, took the modest tip, realized that she had a soda in her car and decided to walk out and get it.
She dropped her car keys in a little puddle trying to get in her car. As she bent down to pick them up, a car rounded the corner by the gas station, hit the curb in front of the antique store. Kimmy heard this far off, was putting the key in the lock when the driver came into collision with the telephone pole. She turned towards the sound, one headlight still lit was aimed at her, she was between her own vehicle and the open door when the car hit her.
A Volkswagen Golf, not quite a Diesel Rabbit like Sarah’s nightmares. It was sky blue. It had a bike rack. When it struck the telephone pole the bike rack was damaged, when the car struck Kimmy Simmons’ Cavalier, pinning her, a bike flew backwards off of the roof of the car, it hit a red Oldsmobile, splintering the windshield.
Kimmy Simmons lost her leg.
Sarah nearly went back into the Mayweather. The details were so surreal and close to her nightmares.
Kimmy Simmons got a prosthetic leg, but still cuts hair in the strip mall even though she got a settlement too big to imagine. The driver was drunk, of course.
How could somebody that beautiful and that good get struck down over a bottle of Diet Coke and still come out of it smiling, cutting hair, wanting nothing but to be near all of the friends who she was guaranteed to see everyday because they all had hair and it never stopped growing.
Often, I looked at Sarah’s little orange bottles of pills. Lithium for a time. Then Prozac. Paxil after that.
Alone, I studied the small plastic containers in our empty house. Safe, except for the dripping faucet that I didn’t know how to fix. I shook the bottles, enjoying the sound of a baby rattle without the trouble. It calmed me.
I wondered if those little suckers would help me. Newspapers stuffed into wet sneakers sucking up the water. A shot of whiskey in a cup of lukewarm coffee. Soap flakes in the garden to keep aphids away from the roses. Miracle cures. We had no roses.
Would medicine improve me? Would it solve my complex problems within my standard issue wrinkle free, stain free, set it and forget it life? Would my worry vanish like lemmings toppling off a cliff into the thrashing waves some four billion feet below the surf breaking on sharp dark obsidian?
At times, my life and my thoughts got so heavy, I snuck away and thought that I’d have to eat a handful of Sarah’s pills just to keep from sinking completely and unmercifully into the swamp of my skull.
But I never did.
In a way, her pills were part of the reality of our love. I was afraid to get help, to see a therapist. I thought it would be like giving up.
I’d sometimes open the lid of her pills and look in for a long time. But that was as far as it went. If I went and got help, I feared that I’d lose her, because I’d lose myself.
Our lives were games of chess. We didn’t know how to play chess.