It was her last day, the last hours she’d spend a full night in that box. The gel on her chapped hands, the roar of traffic from the E-ZPass lanes. Was she ever really here? In a matter of time even the memory of the tollbooth would lose the smell of gas and dirty rain.
She’d been called every word in the book by him by now. She shouldn’t have allowed those words to cut into her, for they had little to do with the person she’d become. She should have had a snappy comeback, like her co-worker Delicia always had a snappy comeback, but she was not a person of words. If she’d been a person of words she would not have been sitting in a tollbooth.
His car pulled up. Here he was again, at the usual hour. Pressed blue shirt, bow tie jauntily knotted. No more than nineteen or twenty. Close-cropped hair, brown. Kindness lifting from his gray-green eyes. The kindness bothered her the most, because even when you knew better, even when a part of you was wary, he tricked you into a state of openness and hope. But he never surprised you. Possibly she didn’t even want him to change. Or she simply wanted all the aspects of him to fall along a straight line, so she could think about the church across the street and be convinced it could actually help people, or look into the face of any kind man and trust that he didn’t, beneath his good intentions, really want to shove a rag down her throat.
She felt tired, so tired. She couldn’t lift her head. Maybe it was harder knowing that she didn’t have to hold herself together any longer. But really? He’d come back. There were plenty of his kind to be found, on the sidewalks or at city hall. Just yesterday it was the plumber who refused to walk into her house because he’d somehow gotten the idea that the moss stain on her roof meant that an unclean person lived inside. Unclean?
The young man was silent, as if he sensed she’d already moved on to another life, a better line of work, one that allowed her to walk away. He didn’t reach for his wallet, as usual. The cars stacked up behind his. And just to carry things forward, just to pull them out of the present, she heard herself say the word for him, though she’d never before said anything like that in her life. It managed to cut down everything he valued about his body, and the bodies of those he loved, alive or not. It also took in what he desired, and laughed at that, told him it was low class, told him it was weak, told him it was filthy.
Where could he go from there?
“Three dollars,” she said.
His face emptied, as if she’d touched the nerve he’d been waiting for her to touch. There it was, death: out in the open, dull, metallic, the smell of wet meat between them. They were in it together. My God, he said, not ready to see what she’d taken from him. And then he drove on.
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