Project Description

The Toll

By Craig Pittman

 

Joy sighed as she cranked her aging yellow Nissan. The sun was setting, blazing the western sky with a brilliant mix of orange, red and purple. Normally sunset was her favorite time of day, but right now she didn’t have time to sit on her lanai and enjoy it. Her supervisor had asked her to fill in on the night shift for Nita, who had called in sick for the past two nights. Joy suspected Nita wasn’t really sick but had snagged a new boyfriend. She figured Nita wanted to spend her nights getting better acquainted with Mr. Wonderful instead of standing in a toll booth at the end of the Skyway Bridge, collecting money and breathing carbon monoxide fumes. So now Joy had to do that instead.

Joy preferred the afternoon shift. The people who passed through her toll booth were usually headed some place interesting, and they were in a good mood. Once a driver who passed through her booth on an afternoon shift tried to give her a $20 tip. Plus, she could see the kiteboarders working the winds on the approach to the bridge, and the enormous cruise ships coming from the Port of Tampa looking like a great white whale heading out to sea. They were so big she sometimes wondered how they would ever fit beneath the bridge, but somehow they always did.

But the folks you saw on the morning shift were usually in a bad mood. They were mostly on their way to a day of working on the other, poorer side of the bridge, or heading home after a night of working some dead-end job.

The only thing worse was the night shift. The two or three times she had worked the night shift before had convinced her that that was when the weirdos came out of hiding: the six kids with crazy eyes and green hair packed in a compact full of funky smoke, that one old dude with a ponytail and a ton of tattoos, driving a hearse with a wild painting of a howling wolf on the side panel; the dented white panel van that looked like a rolling cage, driven by a guy who kept up a running monologue about how many gators he planned to catch for his backyard zoo. She couldn’t tell if he was talking to her or to himself, but she still told him, “Happy hunting, sir.”

Joy took it slow as her car rumbled over the old bricks in her street. She knew the Nissan was due for some major repairs, but she couldn’t afford them just yet. She was thinking about that when suddenly she had to slam on her brakes. One of her neighbor’s cats dashed out in front of her, inches from her bumper. The Nissan stopped so short that Joy nearly banged her head on the steering wheel.

She turned around and gave the cat an evil look. It was sitting up on a fence post, twitching its whiskers at her, its fur a gleaming black from nose to tail. Joy shook her head, remembering how her mother, ever the superstitious one, had always warned her not to let a black cat cross her path. If it did, she was supposed to retrace her steps and start over, taking a different route. She didn’t have time for that foolishness now. She had to get to work.

Fifteen minutes later, she pulled into the employee parking area on the north end of the Skyway amid a softening twilight, the stars just starting to pop into view as the sky grew darker. She parked as close as she could to one of the glowing sodium lights casting its pink glow over the lot. When she slid out of her car, the humidity hit her in the face like a wet towel. She pulled on her official polyester Florida Department of Transportation tropical shirt, the one with pictures of palm trees and the names of different locations along Florida’s toll roads, but left it unbuttoned over her pink cotton T-shirt. She gathered up her purse, her lunch bag and her thermos of tea, and headed toward the brightly lit toll booths.

The first few hours were dull, the minutes moving as slowly as the pelicans that were always circling above the nearby fishing pier.  She stood in her booth in a something like a daze as the cars and trucks flowed by heading south across Tampa Bay. As the drivers handed her their money, she put it in the register and thanked them and meanwhile her mind was a couple million miles away. She noticed the moon had finally cleared the horizon, scattering its light across the rippling waves. It was gibbous, a word she used to enjoy teaching her students, telling them it meant the moon looked like a deflating basketball.

She wondered whether the moon would look different from the deck of a ship docking in the Yucatan. Two of her friends from church had been bugging her about joining them on a cruise. She was thinking about it now, about how pleasant it would be, to climb aboard one of those cruise ships instead of just watching it from her toll booth. She could lie in a chaise lounge on deck, soak up the sun, drink something in a glass with an umbrella, enjoy a tropical breeze, and not have to stand here for eight hours inhaling poison for pocket change.

The traffic hit a lull, with no cars picking her lane for twenty minutes or so, letting her drift further into her cruise ship reverie. The few cars that did pass by veered around her booth to head for the SunPass lane. More and more drivers these days were using the SunPass system, which let them zoom by an automated collection sensor instead of stopping to pay an actual human. Sometimes she fretted about whether the robots would replace her, forcing her to find some other way to supplement her meager teacher’s pension. She wondered if she could afford a cruise or if she should spend the money fixing her car. She couldn’t do both and still pay her mortgage. She reached down under her register for a sip from her thermos but set it down when she heard a vehicle approaching.

It was just after 11. An old Chevy station wagon rolled up to her booth, moving slowly, and as she raised her eyes something about it looking odd to her. When she realized what she was seeing, her hand leaped to her mouth, her eyes going wide as she stifled the scream that was rising in her throat.

The car eased out of the darkness and into the lights around the toll booth, and as it rolled forward, she could see a big dent in the grille, and above that a pair of legs sticking out over the hood. One foot was bare, while the other one had a dirty blue flip flop hanging from the toes. Time slowed down so she could see details. She saw that the toenails on each foot hadn’t been clipped in quite a while. They were long and yellowed. She saw the legs were sliding back and forth across the hood, the knees unable to get a purchase, the feet getting twisted. The legs were encased in on a pair of blood-soaked blue jeans, threadbare, with a hole in one knee, no belt. Then she saw the torso clothed in a shredded, bloody T-shirt, the shirt a light purple, something on the back about Key West Time. She saw a pair of wounded arms and scratched-up hands that were pushing feebly at the cracked windshield. Once the car braked, she could see that a man’s head inside the car. He had thick dark hair and a beard. He had apparently crashed through the glass, shattering it, and now blood was running down the sides of his face and his beard looked sticky with it. She could see him turning his head slowly. His eyes were glassy, and he was moving his mouth but she couldn’t hear any words because the windows were up.

The driver of the car had on glasses that reflected back the bright lights overhead, so she couldn’t see any expression in his eyes. But he was old, she could see that right away, his shoulders stooped, gnarled hands grasping the wheel at 10 and 2. White hair sprouted from the sides of his head, and deep lines bracketed his mouth. He had turkey wattles under a weak chin, and he had on a mismatched batch of clothes – more layers than most people would wear on a muggy night in Florida.

He rolled his window down and she could hear the air conditioning blasting away inside the car. She could also hear the man trapped in the windshield. He was moaning and muttering some words. She could make out only one of those: “Help.” The driver ignored him. Instead, he stared at her for a minute, but apparently not aware that anything was wrong. Then he spoke up, a slight accent curving his words in an odd way.

“Good evening,” he said. “I am trying to get to my son’s house. He lives in Atlanta. I can’t remember going over this bridge before. Is it new?”

She stared at him. She couldn’t help it, the scream in her throat had turned into a whimper, but that’s all she could manage. She couldn’t say a word. As she watched, the man stuck in the windshield slowed down his struggling and stopped moving at all. His head drooped. His arms went slack and his legs rested on the hood as if he had gone to sleep.

At that point, she remembered the panic button under her register and pushed it and pushed it and pushed it until her supervisor came running over, saw what was going on and grabbed the walkie talkie from his belt to request a state trooper, pronto. Then he staggered over to the side of the road and threw up.

Joy saw the driver trying to shift gears on his car. She knew he was about to try to drive on. She had to do something. She had to say something.

“Sir,” she said. “Sir!” He turned to her again. “Sir, you’re going the wrong way. You’re going south. Atlanta is to the north.”

The man stopped fiddling with the gear shift.

“Are you sure?” he asked. He tilted his head, reminding her of an owl she’d seen once at the Tampa zoo. “I took the same route as I always do. Is this a new bridge?”

“This is the Sunshine Skyway,” she told him, stalling. “It’s the second one. The first one got hit by a barge in 1980 and a big chunk of it fell in, so they built this one in 1987. What’s left of the old one is now a fishing pier. It’s over there.” She paused, watching him absorb this information but not quite grasp what she was saying, so she added, “The Skyway is a toll bridge, sir. You have to pay to go across it.”

“Oh,” he said, paying no attention to the dead man still dripping blood on his dash board. “How much is it?”

“One hundred dollars,” Joy said, babbling now. She could see a state trooper car speeding toward the booth, its lights flashing. She didn’t want the driver to try to leave, so she was just talking nonsense. “Fifty dollars to get on the bridge and another fifty to get off of it on the other end. Unless it’s a holiday, and then it’s double.”

“Oh my,” the elderly man said. “I don’t think I have that much on me. Would you take a check?”

“The trooper will talk to you about that,” she said, pointing at the man in the tan uniform and Smokey the Bear hat who had just pulled up, jumping out to run up to her booth. “He can answer all your questions.”

“Oh good,” the man said. “Maybe he can help me get to Atlanta. I need to be there by tomorrow, but I think I may have hit something.”

That’s when Joy passed out, banging her head on the register as she went down.

When she woke up ten minutes later, two paramedics had her sitting on the ground, leaning against the outside of the booth. One was a man, the other a woman, working together to clean out her wound and cover it with tape and gauze. The man was trying to smile at her but she could tell by his eyes that he was freaked out by what had happened. The woman was the no-nonsense type, getting the job done. They went down a list, asking her about symptoms of a concussion. She told them she had a splitting headache and all the police and ambulance lights flashing in her face didn’t help.

“Can’t do much about that, ma’am,” the female paramedic said. “Sorry.” But then the woman gave her some extra-strength ibuprofen, and the man got her a Coca-Cola from the vending machine over by the toll office. He had trouble pulling the tab to open it. His hands were shaking.

She glanced over to the station wagon. The man in the windshield was still stuck there. Two more paramedics were leaning inside the car, one from either side, examining his head and shaking their own. Meanwhile a couple of burly guys in dark windbreakers and dark pants stood by with their arms crossed, looking bored. She guessed they would be the ones who had to pull the body loose. There was a wrecker waiting to tow the car away.

The first trooper on the scene had managed to coax the driver out of the car, then escorted him over to near where her boss had vomited. The trooper had hold of the elderly man’s elbow so he wouldn’t run away, but the man seemed docile, even content. Several feet away stood a pair of red-faced police officers in blue uniforms, arguing with a surprisingly tall trooper whose face looked like granite. She thought she heard the word “jurisdiction.”

Just then another trooper came over and squatted down next to her and said hello. He said his name was Monroe. He was black like her, with skin just a shade darker than her own. She figured that’s why he’d been assigned to talk to her, instead of one of the white officers. She told him her son was in law enforcement too, a lieutenant with the state wildlife commission. Then before she could stop herself, she broke down crying.

Trooper Monroe took her statement and handed her his business card. He said her boss had given her the rest of the night off, then offered to give her a ride home in his patrol car. She said no, she didn’t want to leave her Nissan in the employee lot. Somehow she managed to drive it home, but the journey was a blur. She pulled into her driveway in a haphazard way and somehow got her front door unlocked and staggered to bed.

But every time she closed her eyes, she saw the man in the windshield, his mouth moving, asking for help.

She switched on her TV and watched an old episode of “What’s Happening” and finally drifted off into four hours of dreamless sleep. At 7 a.m. her alarm went off. She hit the snooze button but then ten minutes later her son called. He’d gotten word about what happened from Trooper Monroe and wanted to make sure she was all right. Joy was not all right, not by a long shot, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. No sense worrying him. She figured he had enough to worry about. But she did make him promise to come for dinner the next Sunday.

By then she was wide awake. She took off the clothes she’d been wearing since last evening and put on an old T-shirt and some shorts and pulled on her old robe and went outside to get the newspaper. Some rain had fallen overnight, leaving everything sparkling in the morning sun. She picked up the paper and shook the moisture off the plastic bag it was wrapped in and pulled the slightly damp coil of newsprint from inside. She stood on the front porch for a minute looking at the front page but saw nothing about the man in the windshield. Maybe she had dreamed all of it. Maybe it never happened.

But then she went back inside and fixed herself some oatmeal and coffee and at 8 a.m. she turned on the television and there it was. “Our top story this morning – death takes a toll,” intoned the anchor, a very pretty, very pregnant Asian woman whose face had spread out considerably as her stomach grew larger. Joy winced at the bad pun.

But Joy was glad to finally find out from the TV the name of the driver: Karl Werner, 83 years old, originally from Pennsylvania. He’d lived in Pinellas Park for the past twelve years. He suffered from Alzheimer’s, a wafer-thin blonde reporter said, standing on the approach to the Skyway toll booths. His son didn’t live in Atlanta. His son had died in a plane crash three years ago. He had a daughter who lived five minutes away from him. She had been in the process of getting him into an assisted living home when he decided to light out for Georgia instead.

But what about the man in the windshield? The TV people had nothing on him, said he hadn’t been identified yet. Instead they jumped over to another story about a charter school going bankrupt and closing, and they left Joy hanging.

She called her boss to see when her next shift would be, and he said don’t worry about it. She should take a week off, two if necessary. They would figure out how to cover her shift, even if he had to go pull Nita out of her sickbed. She thought he still sounded shaken.

Five minutes later she got a call from Nita, who sounded perfectly fine except for being angry at their boss for calling her up and ordering her to report for work. She was eager to hear details about what had happened on the shift she had been supposed to work.

“Did you talk to any reporters?” Nita asked. “Are you gonna be on TV?”

Joy said no, she hadn’t even thought about that. She and Nita talked for a few more minutes, but it was clear Nita wanted to get off the phone now. She was disappointed in Joy. This was her shot at being a celebrity and she was blowing it.

Joy checked the news again at 9 and then at 10, but the TV people still didn’t have a thing about the dead man. Finally, she put on a big straw hat and went out in her garden to pull weeds, something she always found soothing. When she came in for lunch, her phone was ringing again. It was one of her friends who wanted to go on the cruise, asking about what had happened at the Skyway, so she went through the story again. The more she told it, the less real it seemed. It was becoming more of a story and less of a raw experience.

She worked in the garden some more after lunch, then for dinner fixed herself a small salad and got ready for bed even though it wasn’t really dark out yet. Her gardening had tired her out, as she’d planned. Sure enough, as soon as she climbed into her bed and turned on her little bedside fan for white noise, she was floating away into a dreamless sleep.

But then around 9:30 her phone rang, waking her up. It was her pastor. He’d just heard about what had happened from his wife, he said, and wanted to check on her, see if she needed any counseling. Joy sighed and sat up in bed and switched on her bedside lamp. She could picture her pastor in his study, wearing one of his peach shirts, surrounded by books he had probably skimmed. His father had been a mighty man of God, a powerful preacher. His son tried his best to do what his father did, and it always reminded her of a kitten imitating a lion. She told him thank you, she didn’t need any counseling, but if she did, she had his number and would call. He insisted on praying with her over the phone, so she sat through him mumbling his way through old phrases his father would have made sing – the Great Comforter, trouble on our way, whatsoever you do to the least of these and finally he hit the “Amen!” hard and she said, “Amen and thank you,” and hung up before he could say anything else.

She switched off the lamp, but her exhaustion could no longer carry her into dreamland. She closed her eyes and there was the man in the windshield again, looking straight into her eyes, looking down into her soul. She sat back up in bed and fumbled for the TV remote and switched on one of the old Western shows her husband used to watch when he was alive. He told her once that he liked it because the hero always did whatever had to be done, no matter what. She held her tongue at that, as she often did with him. She knew that in this world people who did whatever had to be done, no matter what, usually hurt themselves or others or both.

She dozed a bit then but woke up to some old police show she had never liked. She switched channels. One of the late-night talk shows was starting. She hadn’t watched it in years and didn’t recognize the host, a skinny white boy with a goofy smile and messy hair. He told a couple of jokes about the president, then he said, “Did you see what happened down in Florida? This guy drove up to a toll booth with a man stuck in his windshield! I guess he wanted the two-for-one discount!” The crowd roared. “Some people will do anything to get into the commuter lane, right?” They roared even louder. “Florida Man gotta Florida, right?” The crowd sounded hysterical now. Joy switched off the set, tears spilling down her cheeks. She sat in the dark and sobbed.

She didn’t really sleep at all that night. She walked around her house in the dark, sometimes staring out the window, sometimes sitting in this chair or that one. In the morning, when she heard the newspaper slap the sidewalk, she staggered out to get it purely by habit, her mind still consumed by what she’d seen and heard, the images that had flashed through her brain. But when she pulled the paper from its damp plastic bag and unrolled it as she the walk back to her porch, she snapped back to the present, stopping halfway up her steps. On the front page with a large, smiling picture of the dead man under a headline that said, “HE DIED HUNGRY.”

She rushed inside and spread it out on the kitchen table. The newspaper had made up for its lapse of the day before by pulling out all the stops today. There was all the stuff she’d heard on TV about the driver, but they had really dug into the background of the dead man. His name was Arnold Keller. He was a local, born at Mound Park Hospital as it was once known, to an old family that had helped settle the area. There was even a road named after them up near Clearwater. She’d driven on it a time or two.

Arnold had grown up here, fishing and swimming like other boys, getting into mischief at school. He was popular and his teachers thought he had a bright future. He went off to college, got married, got divorced, got married, got divorced again, got in a little trouble with the law. He had worked at one of the local tech companies for a while, then walked away to take a job as a disc jockey for a couple of local radio stations. He played a prominent role in several little theater productions, including Shakespeare in the Park. He also did a few television ads for a travel agency, ads that were supposed to be zany but were mostly just corny. That’s where they’d gotten the photo. She recognized him now. She’d seen the ads, although she had never really paid attention to them. The story said that despite the ads, he’d never had the money to travel anywhere.

The reason he had no money was that he’d been a drunk, an occasional drug addict, a man in recovery, a sober man for six years until he fell off the wagon again. The story didn’t come right out and say he had a mental illness, but it was strongly implied. His last job had been working as a sign spinner outside a tax preparation store, wearing a foam crown and a toga and pretending to be the Statue of Liberty. The story had a little picture of him doing that. He’d attracted attention by singing patriotic songs while he worked. The photo was three years old. The story said that one day he simply dropped the sign and walked away for no apparent reason. He hadn’t worked a steady job since. He had been living in a low-rate motel off 34th Street South with a couple of his buddies, all of them taking turns standing by the roadside with a cardboard sign begging for change, then splitting the proceeds. He had just told his pals he was going to walk across 34th to the McDonalds and get a burger. He never made it.

Joy searched the story for some word about survivors but apparently there were none. She wondered who would bury the poor man. She looked out the window and there sat the black cat on her fence, looking back at her. She was tempted to go out and chase it away, but instead she called her pastor. He didn’t understand her request at first, and then he did but pretended he didn’t. Finally, she told him plainly, “Reverend, all I want to know is who’s burying the man. That shouldn’t be hard for even you to find out.” Then she hung up.

She put on the same sweaty clothes she’d worn gardening the day before and went out in the garden again, but she couldn’t do anything but stand there, lost in thought. Then she went back inside and searched her purse until she found the card she’d gotten from Trooper Monroe. She called him but got a voice mail. She left a message, made some oatmeal, tried to look at the rest of the paper but couldn’t. Finally, her phone rang and it was him. He said he was calling from a Denny’s and apologized for all the noise in the background.

She asked him if all the stuff in the paper was true. He said yes. She asked about whether he had any family.

“Not as far as we can tell,” the trooper said. “His ex-wives don’t live in Florida anymore, and he never had any children. We tried contacting some of the other Kellers in the county but none of them would claim to know him. Once the medical examiner is done, I don’t think anyone’s going to claim that body.”

She thanked him and just as she hung up, the phone rang again. It was her pastor, sounding oddly stiff. He said he had the name of the funeral home. It had the contract for dealing with poor people who died without family. She recognized the name. It was the same one that had buried her husband with all the expensive pomp and circumstance suitable to a retired professor. They called it “funeralizing” him for his “transition.”

She thanked her pastor profusely, which made him sound a little less offended, and he reiterated his offer of counseling.

“Maybe next week,” she said. “We’ll see.”

What she did next didn’t take long, especially when she found out that the funeral home didn’t bury people in a potter’s field anymore. She contrived a story for the woman at the funeral home, then showered, got dressed in one of her nicer outfits, and drove over there. They had the box waiting for her, and she gave them her debit card.

The tricky part was timing her drive up to the toll booth. She pulled over to the side of the road and watched until she could see one of the big cruise ships approaching the bridge from the Port of Tampa. It looked like a floating city, shining white in the afternoon sun. She drove through the Sunpass lane so none of her co-workers could see what she was doing. Then she began the ascent to the top of the Skyway bridge, the Nissan straining a bit at the climb. When she got to the top, with the big yellow supports arrayed on either side, she pulled over to the side and carefully climbed out of the car, just barely avoiding being hit by an 18-wheeler rolling past at full speed. She hadn’t realized how windy it would be up here, and the sense of vertigo she would get from looking down at the glittering bay waters below. She waited patiently and at last the cruise ship began sliding by.

She was so intent on what she was doing that she didn’t notice the highway patrol car that pulled up right behind her car. Trooper Monroe got out and called to her, “Ma’am, are you all right? Did your car break down?” She recognized his voice but shook her head at him. She pulled the lid off the box and upended it. The ashes inside swirled around like snowflakes, some sprinkling down on the ship below, some flying up into her face, some settling onto the side of the bridge.

“Go on,” she said. “Go on.”

When she was sure the box was empty, she turned to the trooper.

“The paper said he’d always wanted to travel,” she said, trying to call out above the noise of the passing traffic. “I’m doing to the least of these what I would want done to me.”

The trooper didn’t know what she was talking about. He told her she needed to get her car off the bridge. She agreed with him. She got back in her car and with his help she pulled back into traffic. She headed to the far end of the bridge, where she turned around and came back and headed home. As she pulled into her own street, there sat the neighbor’s black cat by the roadside. She saw him wander out into the middle of the road and sit down.

She was tempted to floor it. Instead she very carefully, very slowly, drove around him.


Craig Pittman (Photo by Dirk Shadd)

Fiction by Craig Pittman