Last Toll Home

You have to fucking gun it when you’re merging onto the I-35 from the Ben W ramp. If you’re coming in from the 80-foot concrete tube, and those passing lane white rectangles that dissolves quickly to your left don’t look like one solid white line, you’re not going fast enough. You need to press your foot down on the accelerator until you forget that there are people in those cars you need to cut in front of, go 70. The speed limit is 55: we know, the cops know, the people in those cars know, your Mamaw knows, go 70. If you hit 70 and there’s still a car to your left hand side, go 80 and try your hardest to get passed that person’s front wheel. If you get that far, the person has to let you in or else both of you will be devoured by pavement. Crash. Everyone who merges onto the I-35 is a potential cannibal, we’re looking for a way in no matter what it takes.

However, if Big Guns Upstairs blesses your soul for those 10 seconds and there just so happens to not be next to you, go 90. You won’t get a speeding ticket, only because the cops are only there to report the accidents that occur there so often.

In my first marriage, I saw a blue sedan that was rear ended and crushed by a semi. The driver was decapitated. She was a mother of two. In my second marriage, there was a white SUV that was side-swiped and turned over. It was a hit and run. It’s easier to cause pain to someone when it’s convenient enough to disappear quickly.

Not everyone uses the Ben W. ramp, because only the small pickup trucks filled with locals who have knowledge of this highway. We’re taught about this toll road from the 2nd grade and on. If you ask anyone in your University about the Ben W. ramp going onto the 385, they can tell you at least one person they’ve heard of who has died on this road. People would merge and then never exit. In high school, it was known as “The Ramp to Heaven.” The only reason why they keep this road open is for the 3 AM truckers who travel from their manufacturing factories from Ben W. Street to Talladega. I can see the ramp from my toll plaza. Its short concrete slice of death is in clear vision about 40 yards to my left hand-side.

My toll plaza is the last toll until you hit the long road that I-35, leading from Laredo to Waco. Eventually it becomes US-77 when you drive up North enough, from there you can feel the Oklahoma winds sweepin’ down the plain, and if you hear closely you can hear the songs of alcoholics echo amongst the corn fields.

The role of a toll plaza attendant is an extravagant, yet necessary role. You don’t do it for the fame, recognition, or the rock star sex. You do it because the jury found you guilty and you have no other options.

Every day I see the same businessmen, soccer moms, truckers, and motorcycle gang members. Some treat me with the respect of handing me their money, when they can “find it,” and just simply driving off. Some brave souls flash their concealed weapon at me. Half the time they’re just bluffing, all hat no cattle. In that situation, you just flash yours back at them and watch as they drive off into the fog

Tonight was one of those nights: fog hitting against headlights. Not many on the road at this hour, 3, about near and past going. The fog was extra heavy tonight, as if you could take a coffee mug and scoop it up. Almost looked like heaven from where I stand. But I’m nowhere near heaven, far from it. I’m in Texas.

At this hour, the only people I encounter are the ones with eight wheels or more behind them. I recognize more trucks than I do faces, however George Washington’s face is the one face I see the most during my shifts.

I’m the only one who works the third shift. During the day, I sleep. It’s too loud for me during the day now. I’ve come to realize that the nighttime is the time that I belong in. It’s the silence, I think.

“It’s colder than a cast-iron commode out here, slick.” says Rick the Trucker to me, as he passes me 3 George’s.

“You’re telling me.” I see my breath visibly escape my mouth with every word I speak.

“You gota heater in that concrete cage of yours?” He says to me while I hand him his fifty-cent change back.

“Just the one I brought from home, Rick. They won’t install one inside this tiny box”

“Well you go ahead and have a nice night there, Rob.”

I hear the gears in his truck clank and clunk. I can’t even hear him finish his sentence because the roar of his engine drowns out any other sound. With every fiber of its being, it revs forward. Disappears into the hog-killin’ night. Echoes vibrate the fog, only for the fog to form back to its original shape. I watch the lights of his truck disappear. Sometimes I try to keep looking to make sure I’m alone, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I don’t want to be.

Silence is probably the one thing chief never tells you about this job. After living a life entirely around noise, you find silence as a close friend. We are both very busy people. I take cash from people, while Silence hushes ignorance. Ignorance is the greatest thing anyone can have nowadays. After living, God knows I need some.

                        Auto Accident?

                                    Quickie Divorce?

                                    No problem!

                                     This is Dan Newlin

with Cast-Iron Attorneys, and we’ve got your

                                    back, 100%, from here to Mississippi, to right down

                                    where the Good Lord made ya! We are Texa-

            I shut off the my portable radio.

Asshole.

“Asshole!” I say it out loud. Loud enough to wake the cattle. My pulse quickens, breath weighing down, teeth clenches.

I hit the side toll window with my right open palm. My hand turns red for just a second, but it goes back to its pink-pale color two seconds later.

“Fucking-Piece-of-Shit!” With every word, I hit the window harder. Until my hand doesn’t turn pink-pale. Until the cattle begin to chatter amongst each other.

“Don’t-You fucking-AGH-Son-Fuck!” I start to run out of words to say, so I just keep hitting the window. I let the noise fill in all the empty spaces of fog outside. I forget what time it is for just a quick second.

“Robbie?!” A familiar voice calls outside from the window. I barely even noticed the pure white Lexus that just pulled up to my toll booth window.

My body stops still in its tracks. My right hand still ringing, all I can do is look and be taken back by the golden eyes that have darted me once before. This is like a scene from a really cheesy sitcom, except there’s no studio audience laughing in the background.

“Robbie, is that you?” Her voice feels like velvet. The fog around us turns sweet.

Her pale skin could almost blend in with the fog outside. She wears her all-white pant suit, with a peach-silk blouse underneath. Her nails painted like October-orange skies, framed to her ear-length scarlet hair. One look from her could kill a bull, however I’ve been destroyed and recreated with every glance she’s ever given me. Back then, and now.

“So you still hurt yourself when you get mad, huh?” She wraps her white, ghostly hand around her gear shift and puts her car into park.

Shit.

            Silence and light chuckles break silence. It’s not awkward at all. I’ve experienced silence with her many times. The 3 PM and 3 AM type silences. When you find someone you can be silent with, keep them. Don’t let them go. Sometimes you need to be just quiet with someone. You need to find the correct type of silence too. Not just the ones where you’re forced to say something, but an honest silence. Silence that breaks through county borders, between sips of coffee, or a silence that come before hear words that should matter to you. But you only notice the silence after you’ve shared so many words.

She takes out her black, gleaming wallet. The logo P R A D A gleams in gold on the middle magnetic flap.

“Highest bill you can take is a 20, right?” She says to me, with a sort of half chuckle.

Go 70.

            “You forget what a dollar looked like” I say back to her, with the straightest face I can give. My right hand is still red when I reach for her twenty dollar bill. It feels like a million tons in my hand, and throbs when I lower the cash register money plunges down. While I give her the appropriate dollars and quarters back, I break the silence.

“So, Carol.” She’s halfway finished applying red lipstick. She pops them in her rearview mirror.

“What brings you to the I-35 at this hour?” My breath floats away from me. The rush of the cold makes my swollen hand go numb. I lean over the window and rest all my weight towards her.

Go 80.

            She presses her red lips together. Thinks for a second, and tilts her head to the side so that her red hair cascades over her right shoulder. She exhales and looks toward the fog in front of her.

“I don’t know, Robbie. Maybe I just wanted to go for a drive.”

Something about Carol was different this time. Back then, I would know how she would feel but just her looking at me. I would know she was guilty of feeling a certain type of way, by just looking at the way she removes the hair from her face and pulling it back behind her ear. Now, she lets her hair rest on her cheek. She stays mostly looking away from me, which is something I was never used to. The cattle is probably laughing at me at this point.

Go 70.

            “Heading anywhere in particular?” I say back to her. I force a smile, half expecting her to melt for me in this 40-degree weather. I hear one car off in the distance zoom past the TEXpress lane. It disappears into the fog.

“No. I’m just ‘driving until I find myself.’ Sound familiar?” Carol said, in a mocking tone.

Go 80. I chuckle it off. I feel the heat from her car hug against my skin.

“How does Miller feel you going out so late?” I noticed she isn’t wearing her wedding ring.

She just throws her head back and lets out a “country yuk,” which is the I-know-more-and-I-am-better-than-you laugh.

“Oh, Miller’s out too. Don’t worry about him! Just taking a quick drive before he gets back home now.” She responds, with a smile full of white teeth.

“Well, I don’t drive the I-35 anymore, Carolyn.” I look down and begin to fumble with my fingers a bit to keep myself distracted.

“I’m just the troll under the bridge now.”

“So does that make me travelling royalty?” She says back, with a half-smile.

She looks different than she did 10 years ago. When we were 18, she would put her hair up into pins and hair bands. It wasn’t as short as it was now. If I cut my hair, then my dad would like it and fuck whatever he likes, she would say to me. So, does he like me? I would say back to her. After saying that, she would take off her pins and ties and would jump on top of me. Of course not.

“Face of a princess, bite of a bronco.” I ironically quote myself to her, while we both chuckle.

After she chuckles. She just looks at me, with her big hazel eyes. She exhales.

Carol as long as your eyes are in Texas, I know there will never be just one lonely star in this shit state. I used to say that to her. It’s still true.

“Where did all those years go, Robbie?” She finally says to me. She rests her head on her snowy fist, revealing black scars the size of Houston on her wrists.

“Well you attended to my first wedding, right?” I jokingly said back to her.

She laughs, covering her mouth with her hand.

“No, no! I never went to any of your future divorces!” She keeps covering her mouth.

“Why do you do that?” I say to her, seriously.

“Do what?” Carol asks. Tilting her head slightly, so that the toll lights flood through her coppery locks.

“You cover your mouth whenever you laugh now.” I ask her, while motioning my hands around my mouth.

“Why do you do that?”

You still notice those things, Robbie?” She looks at me, with a mocking face.

Go 70.

“I mean, I’ve just seen you laugh so many times, and it doesn’t look right.” I try to say as casually as I can.

“A lot of things don’t look right anymore, Robbie. Now, was the first marriage before or after the trial?” She says to me, still laughing.

I don’t laugh.

“Okay, no. Why do you have to mention that?” The air around us becomes thick. My fist clenches.

“Oh, please. Come on now, Robbie that’s all in the past. We can’t joke about it?” She waves an open palm towards me, as if to negate my feelings. I think about dropping it, but…

Go 100.

“You really think I want to talk about that while I’m working this hourly-waged little fuckshit job, Carol?”

She begins to realize the gravity of the situation. She begins to back away from me a bit and blink quickly.

“Look, I’m sorry… I didn’t realize that this was still fresh for you.” She tries to apologetically speak to me.

“Don’t you dare apologize after the fact, Carolyn! You come driving up to this toll booth with your white Lexus and your hundred thousand-dollar pant suit and spit my mistakes back into my face!” I’m screaming so loud, I’m sure even people from the South Toledo Bend hears me.

I see Carol begin to clench her fist. Her red lips are pressed together, she finally lets out

“It’s not my fault you were guilty of your crimes, Robbie! Your brother trusted you with that firm, and afterwards he had to build it back from the ground up!” Her hands are clenching onto the steering wheel, while her body is tilted towards me. She continues on,

“You and I both know the money from those clients was embezzled and stolen from them! I followed the case, Robbie. It all lead to you! Dan drew up all the evidence and the paper trail fell from the shoes of a man who could afford everything, but stole it anyway!”

“He set me up! Okay, Carolyn?!” It goes silent again.

I let out a loud exhale, which created a cloud from outside my toll window. I hit the cash register with my open palm, just to hear the cogs clang on impact.

“FUCK!” I begin to breathe heavily through the pain I’ve caused myself.

Carol stays silent, and only watches me. Still staring at me, ready to attack with any given thing I could say next. She stays calm while she watches me catch my breath. I finally fight through the heaving to form words and speak to her calmly.

“The so-called money that was stolen from those clients was transferred from one of Dan’s unlinked Roth IRA accounts that was made when me and Dan first started the law firm.”

She begins to loosen her muscles and listen to me, more intently.

“It was easy for him to fake statements and make false claims because most of the money in that account grew within the bank, and the money became untraceable to the source. It trailed from the company’s account to the client’s account, and then Dan found a way to wire all of it into my account. By the time I noticed the balance difference, I was already in handcuffs.” I begin to rub my hand and gain my composure.

“He needed a way for me to leave the firm and make sure I didn’t create more competition for himself. In the end, he betrayed me.”

Carolyn is still silent. She looks down to her gear shift, possibly trying to find words to say to me in-between the letters of her gear shift. She finally says to me.

“Was the firm worth leaving me, Robbie?”

I nod my head, looking down towards my shoes. The words I need aren’t down there, and I’m almost pissed at myself for not knowing what to say. I never thought I’d be asked this question. At least, being asked it a second time. I don’t say anything to her, again. I let history repeat itself.

It stays silent for about a minute and I’m almost curious as to why Carol hasn’t put her car into drive and just disappear into the fog. Instead she stays. She’s always had a habit of doing that, staying when she knows she wants to leave.

At this point, all I can do is lean over my window and look up towards her every five seconds. Eventually she glides her milky fingers across her hair, as if she was making fine wine. She stops for a second and rests her index finger on her chin to think. She finally says to me,

“How different am I, Robbie?” She says to me. Her speaking becomes lighter than a snowflake.

It takes me a while to respond.

Go 80.

“Different? Like, from when?” I say as slowly as I can.

I begin to hear the rustling of trees now. I wonder if it was blowing this entire time we’ve been speaking. I wonder about a lot of things that have happened when I wasn’t looking. It was at this moment, I noticed Carolyn looking out into the fog in front of her. She looks straight at it the entire time she speaks to me.

“Do I look happy, Robbie?” She says to me.

“What does happy even look like?”

Go 90.

She begins to strum her steering wheel in front of her with her blossom fingers. Almost as if she’s ready to accelerate away into the fog any minute now. She reaches down toward her gear shift, only to take out a moist towelette from her purse. She begins to rub her right eye with it to reveal pounds of makeup covering up a black eye. She looks up at me, only to look back down.

“Miller… Miller’s home. I knocked him out with a toilet tank cover.” Carolyn lets out an exhale that shakes her entire body. I stop and look at her. She then begins to smile and lightly laugh to herself, which draws me back a little.

“You know, when I was younger, like “kid” younger…” She began to trail off sentences. Taking her time to speak. Making sure I heard every word.

“I would think the sun followed me everywhere I went. Even when I played hide and seek, the sun would peer through the cracks of the pantry door and it would find me.” The humming of her engine begins to become audible to me.

“Whenever I would go places and I didn’t see the sun, I would think that it got bored and it went off and followed something else. I would still try to find it though. I’d go to places where the sun would hit my skin, and I’d welcome it back.” Another car zooms past the TEXpress lane.

“Sometimes, I even tried to reach for the sun. Could have sworn I got close to touching it.” She laughs a little bit.

“When you left me, I changed to prove I was somebody without you.”

“Carolyn…” I said softly to her.

“I guess I’m just tired of chasing after something I can’t reach.” She says, softly.

Crash.

We both stayed together in silence and I forget what time it is. She stared out into the fog, with her black eye gleaming against the orange lights that hang from above the toll plaza. She may have started to cry, but I couldn’t hear anything. We just sat there, making human noise and I’ve never felt so honest about myself than in this moment. I felt almost as if I had been stripped bare. Like there was nothing left for me to reveal. I was every bit of me that I could offer to the world, and I like to think she felt the same way.

“Get in the car.” She says to me, while looking up at me.

This stops me cold. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

“Wh-What?” I say back to her.

She begins to laugh, this time without covering her mouth. All of her becomes loose again. She springs her hands up into the air.

“We can just leave right now, Robbie! I have a lot of Miller’s cash stuck in this purse and we can just drive all the way to Austin, Laredo, even all the way to Las Vegas if we wanted.” Carol becomes more excited as she tells me all this.

“It’ll be like what we talked about when we were younger, except this would be in a white car instead of a white horse like you said.” She begins to laugh as she speaks.

“Come on! You can get away from this toll booth and we can both start new lives. We don’t have to be stuck in this state anymore. We can leave it all, Robbie.” I stay looking down the entire time. My mouth would slant lightly at the idea of this happening. For a moment, all I wanted to do was throw this nametag on the cash register, stomp on my portable heater, and get into the car and drive off into the fog.

“Carolyn…” I say, with a juggled tongue and a heavy mouth.

“I’m sorry. But, I-I can’t.” Those words left my mouth, and I almost wish I didn’t see my breath in the cold because watching what I said dissolve into thin air made it even harder to say what was next.

“Everything that ever made sense at one point was here, and a lot of things that didn’t make sense happened here. This doesn’t make sense. Maybe it will. I feel like if I go now, I’ll never find out what else I could make out of. But just the comfort of knowing that it did make sense at one point, gives me faith.” She looks at me, and smiles like the sunrise.

“Well, thank you for giving me an answer this time.” I give a light laugh to that.

Carolyn puts her car into drive, and I take one more look at her, entirely.

“It was nice seeing you again, Robbie.” She says honestly.

“Same to you.” I reply back.

She presses on the accelerator and evaporates into the fog. I look deep into the thick of it, and watch as her two lights fade away as if the lights curled like cocoons and disappears. Until it becomes just fog again.

I’m once again with silence, but it feels different this time. It feels a lot heavier now. Harder to swallow, even. The only silence worth listening to is the silence that comes before hearing something you know you’re going to want to forget. The calm before the storm. It gives you hope that things will turn out different. I feel as if Carolyn always held onto that slight hope.

A couple of minutes pass by I notice the sun beginning to rise toward the direction Carolyn drove in. It crawls above the horizon, past the fog, to where it looks like a faded torch in the distance. I imagine her with her car windows still down. Going 100 down the I-35. The wind filling the empty spaces of everything within her. Her smile as she sees the sun rising, knowing she’s coming closer to the thing she always wanted to catch. For so long she thought it was gone, but now she realizes that it’s there. It’s always been there.

***

I wrote Last Toll Home for my Intro to Fiction class this semester as my last piece that was workshopped and critiqued by my peers in class. I always try to write out scenes that involve only two people, because in most social scenarios of my life I really only hang out with one other person and from there conversations can easily become deep and meaningful, so I just stick to what I know when it comes to interactions between two people.

I wanted to write about talking to your ex, but in a way where things are different. People are different than how they were years ago, and I really wanted to give the feeling of people changing but they’re surrounded by a place that is fast paced and ever-changing as well.

The toll booth that is the gateway to the I-35 is fictitious, however the I-35 is known as the deadliest highway in Texas. The Ben W ramp is fictitious as well, but it served as a metaphor for “one-upping” your ex by Going 70, 80, 90, or 100 when things became too heavy. It can also be seen as a way for our protagonist, Robbie, to sort of find a way to get back into life and sort of cut in front of people to get there.

Last Toll Home is a story about hope and the insecurities of stages of a life ending and beginning. There are reasons why these two people are on this highway tonight, and they are both looking for a way out but instead they find each other and they crash against the pavement, so to speak, in a beautiful way.