Liese watches the car pull up to the tollbooth; notices its
Ohio plates. Someone coming home,
then. She shoves her cigarette though
the gaping mouth of the empty can of pop; hears it sizzle out. She puts a flat hand out the window and waits
for the ticket.
“Err…We have a bit of a problem.”
She looks up.
Problems are rare in the tollbooth.
“I’m out of cash.”
The driver reddens. Liese glances
around the car. Three kids in the
backseat. Wife in the front. Balled up fast food bags are wedged into the
dashboard and at the feet of the children.
“We went to the beach,” the father says.
She nods and looks out across the horizon. The leaves of the oak trees, withered and
dry, curl up around the edges. It’s the
worst drought since 1985, the year of her birth. The corn bakes in the field, the sun sucking
the water from the kernels the way her mother used to suck the marrow from the
bones of the Sunday roasted chicken. The
stubble in the field is long and uneven.
“My son used the transponder as a bridge.”
“Over the moat.” The
boy yells from the backseat. “Only it
fell in the water.”
“It worked getting on the turnpike. But…” The
father lowers his eyes. “It doesn’t work
anymore. The damn gate’s not going up.”
“Don’t say damn, Daddy.”
The boy clutches a bag of saltwater taffy in his left
hand. A line of pink drool extends from
his mouth and down his fat chin.
“Credit card?” Liese
raises her eyebrows.
The father shakes his head and rubs at his wrinkled forehead. “Over the limit.”
“I’ll call my manager.”
Liese picks up the phone and pretends to dial. She knows she’s just supposed to hand the man
a form and make him fill it out; make him promise to send the money in. But something speaks to her about this family
before her, the family she was supposed to have. She decides to detain them for a moment.
Quickly, silently, she assigns each of them a name. Frank.
Karen. The kids: Frankie, the boy
who ruined the transponder. Sofie. Olivia.
Frank turns to his wife. “Do you
have any idea how much we spent on
this damn vacation?”
Liese listens to the dial tone, nods at pretend voices.
“You can’t take it with you,” Karen says.
“I never said anything about taking it with me. But it would be nice to…”
His wife lifts a hand.
The argument is weary of itself.
“Over four thousand dollars.”
Karen takes out a notebook and begins writing. “I’m making my grocery list. What do you want for dinner tomorrow?”
“Oh, God.” Frank pats
his stomach. “I can’t think about food.”
Liese smiles. Says
“OK,” into the receiver and hangs up.
She’s familiar with the endings of things: The looks of weariness. Peeling skin and fresh bumper stickers. The suitcases packed less carefully for the trip
home. At the endings, there’s always a
sharpness, an edginess in the father’s voice as he eases his way back to his
business suits and his workaday routine.
Liese hands a form on a clipboard out the window to Frank.
Behind him, a car honks. “You want me to take your trash?”
Frank smiles and squints at her nametag. “That’s quite nice of you, Liese. Is that a German name?”
Karen begins grabbing up various bags and passes them to
Frank. Before putting the bags in the
Liese rummages through them for food for the poodle that lies at her
feet: hamburgers and cold French fries, white like thick night crawlers flooded
from their underground homes lying bloated at the side of the road.
Her hands grasp a nugget. She holds it out to the dog’s snout. When he gripts it with this delicate teeth, she
lets go and wipes her hand on her pants.
Karen lights a cigarette, shakes out the match. “Lord, the laundry I’ve got to do tomorrow.”
Frank begins scrawling on the form. “What time does the
“I forgot to check.”
Karen takes a deep drag on her cigarette. The tip glows and the ash lengthens. “The kids are so jazzed up on sugar, it’s
going to take until September to get it out of their systems. Then all the parties at school will begin
again.” She sighs and consults her
iPhone. “You have a dentist appointment
“Oh, hell. Can you
reschedule?” Frank hands the paper back
through the window and sighs deeply. “It’s going to be a relief to get back to
normal. Away from the tight confines of
cars and hotel rooms. Tell me again why
we go on vacation?”
“To have fun, dear.
To relax. To spend time with the
He shakes his head. “Despite
your best intentions, vacations never go according to plan.”
Liese checks the form.
Sees that Frank’s name is actually Bill.
“Could I have your drivers’ license, please?”
Frank frowns and roots around in his back pocket.
Karen leans forward, perhaps wanting to smooth away Frank’s
anger. “What’s it like working here?”
Liese sighs. They
always want to know that. Truth is, she wants
to be a writer. She likes picking out little
details like tiny purple flowers gathered upon the hillside, assembled there,
as if some momentous change were about to take place. “Boring.”
Nothing ever changes here. It’s always
the same, day in, day out.
“Why don’t you try to find something else?” Frank’s voice was cheery. Encouraging.
The fathers are always trying to improve her life. Her own mother, too. Her mother wants her to finish her master’s
Get a job teaching somewhere. Her mother doesn’t understand. Liese shrugs and jots down the license number
on the form. She’s as full of good
intentions as the families headed to the beach.
Someday, she was going to write a book.
Someday, perhaps when his kids were grown and gone, Frank would have a
Once a week, the maintenance workers come by to mow and weed
and water the plants potted in concrete planters. They used to knock at her glass window; wave;
dance suggestively; make lewd comments.
She ignored them. Eventually they
began to leave her alone – turning their attentions instead to Miss Mabel, the
wealthy octogenarian and the recent divorcée who just last week changed her
name to Tandi and tattooed a bracelet around her wrist.
The maintenance workers call her a lesbian now.
Liese thinks about the last time she and Griffin had seen
each other, just before he returned to the war.
Looking back, she saw there was a finality in their parting. They held back when they spoke, as if each
somehow, subconsciously knew they would never see the other again but yet were
afraid to speak the words aloud for fear of birthing them into truth. They danced around certain topics, grasping
onto the safety of uncontroversial things.
She yearned to say more. She
suspected he did as well. Instead they
sat mainly in silence, he on the hood of his car, she in the front seat, each
of them casting about for something to say.
She hands back the license.
“Have a good day.”
And as they drive off, she can hear Karen say, “Not much ambition
there. That’s what happens when you
don’t go to college, kids.”
She looks at the picture of Griffin, taped to the wall. “Ohio,” she says, taking up a Sharpie and
putting a tally mark on her chart. “That
makes forty-eight today.” She feels the
walls of the tollbooth tighten around her like a noose. She wishes for a transponder that she can
change into a bridge across the moat of the loneliness that surrounds her. She turns up the clip on fan; feels Griffin’s
eyes boring into her.
“Your momma misses you, Griffin. Cries every single night.” It’s been three years. But still every night,
Liese looks for her
fiancé to drive through the tollbooth and bring her a cigarette the way he used
She hears a rumble of thunder. There’s a flash of lightning. The leaves flip upside down revealing a
lighter shade beneath like a child’s skirt surprised by the wind. Another car drives up. The driver slaps the ticket into her
hand. “Big storm coming your way.”
Liese hands him his change.
“Take care of yourself, hear?”
And suddenly, it begins to rain. She emerges from her booth and dances in the
thunder, perhaps even hoping for a bit of lightning to strike at her feet and
set her in motion.
She watches the road stretch off in the distance, her life a
mere mirage of the plans she’d made.
For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Michael gave me this prompt: How can I go forward when I don't know which way I'm facing? -John Lennon.
I gave FlamingNyx
this prompt: Take someone whom you admire - fiction or real. Now, write a story detailing the 'badness' of that person.
Labels: Fiction, Scriptic