Jeanine punched in, signed her cash out from the manager, tucked the heavy leather pouch under her arm, and walked out of the trailer into the frozen night. Steam shooting from her nostrils mingled with that rising from her coffee. As she waded between car bumpers through swirling exhaust, she gave little nods to the drivers that meant “’Morning, don’t squish me.” Inside the toll booth, she flipped on the light, then the heater, then with stiff fingers began cracking the quarter rolls like eggs against the counter’s metal lip. She stacked quarters, three to a pile, all around the booth—across the counter, atop the register, even along the windowsills, which were barely wider than the coins themselves. Back when the toll had been an even dollar, she had been able to read the whole newspaper in the hours before dawn came and traffic picked up, but then some genius in the Maine Legislature had come up with the idea of raising it a quarter. Not a full dollar, just a quarter.
She hadn’t yet turned on her green arrow—there was still a red X over her lane—when she saw the car, a beige sedan, speeding directly toward her. First she shook her head “no” and jabbed the air, pointing toward the open lane two booths down, where Mick was wrapping up his shift. But the car didn’t turn or slow. Jeanine hesitated, a prolonged second of indecision she would later rename shock, and in that time the car hit the first rumble strip, and a man’s head, visible in silhouette, jerked up. The second rumble strip—brrrup!—and the driver slammed on his brakes. The wheels locked and slid sideways over the third rumble strip, throwing frost into the air, and the car came to a stop mere feet from the booth, the driver’s side window facing Jeanine. A jowly man well into middle age shot an exasperated look through the sparkling air, before his eyes darted away. It was the type of look a father gives his teenage daughter who’s come downstairs in a revealing dress. Then he ran his hands over his gray face, pausing to press his middle fingers into the tear-gaps. Still, Jeanine stood frozen. Careful not to meet her eyes again, the man crouched over the wheel and nosed forward into Mick’s lane, giving a polite, almost girlish wave to the motorist who let him cut the line. Mick, his back to Jeanine and his radio blaring, had missed the whole thing.
“Dave,” Jeanine said, nudging her husband awake when she got home just past noon.
“A car almost hit my booth today.”
“The guy was asleep at the wheel. The rumble strips woke him up just in time. I could have died.”
“Glad you didn’t.”
Jeanine inhaled to go on, then didn’t. Dave’s breath slowly deepened.
She slipped under the blankets. They could sleep together for a few hours before Dave had to head to the warehouse for his shift. Jeanine reached up and pulled the cord, shutting the blinds against the ice-filtered sunlight, then warmed her hand on Dave’s cheek. Unlike his limp, steel-gray hair, his beard was a swarm of colors: black, white, red, blond. Already he was too deeply asleep to be roused by her cold hand. That was okay, though, because all she had really needed was to hear that he was glad she was still around, with all her pieces attached. Jeanine had planned to tell him, and in her imagined descriptions had untangled all the details of the event as the sun slowly rose over the blue pines and she dropped her fortune of quarters, three at a time, into cupped palms.
It had been an expensive car, hadn’t it? A Mercedes or something. The man’s ringed fingers must have been resting on the top of the steering wheel, staying the course as he slept. How would that car have behaved if he hadn’t woken up? The concrete prow, that steel-reinforced wedge that was supposed to protect her, might have divided the car down the middle. Then its two halves might have clapped together, flattening Jeanine like a bug. Or—she had heard talk of this possibility in the staff room—the prow could have launched the speeding car straight at her head. It had happened down on the Mass. Pike; a car had somersaulted over the barrier, crushing a booth, which had luckily been empty.
Gradually, in her imagined descriptions, Jeanine had orbited closer to something she wouldn’t want to say out loud: it wasn’t shock that kept her frozen for those seconds that could have determined her life or death; it was courtesy. Somehow she had felt that this man must know what he was doing, that he couldn’t really be asleep, and that leaping out of the booth would have been insulting to him. Impolite. And, at the same time (all while the car was barreling toward her), there had been a flash of awareness of the other toll collectors—those just arriving with sleepy eyes and runny noses and those leaving, coiling scarves around their necks and patting pockets for the jingle of keys—how they would tease her. How her leap from the booth would become the new staff-room legend. These were the concerns that kept her still, the concerns her mother would have had—her mother who took comfort in the fact that everybody else was always right, and whose hands were crooked and raw from twisting.
I could have died of meekness, Jeanine now realized, pulling the
blanket up under her chin and shimmying into the warm hollow of her
husband. Dave would never hear any of these confessions now Jeanine had
met this central truth. I could be perfectly calm and collected, ready
for inspection, my shirt tucked in, only dead.
"The Toll" was originally published in Tufts Magazine, Winter 2012