Max Hipp ~ Tollbooth

The macabre scene looked like a Halloween prank to the toll tak­er. Then she saw the blood. – St. Petersburg Times, 2005

Manny is cross­ing 34th Street, mak­ing a list of things to pay for—flowers, music, dress, food, church—when Ernie’s car hits him, and his body smash­es into the wind­shield, his head and shoul­ders burst­ing through the pas­sen­ger side.

*

Ernie thinks Manny fell from the sky, glass shat­ter­ing and wind howl­ing, but he refus­es to stop, hoist him­self out, and start answer­ing ques­tions. Instead, he hunch­es over the wheel and squints through the spi­der-webbed wind­shield, think­ing there is no mon­ey for nurs­es, mur­der­ous thugs mon­i­tor­ing and break­ing him down with pity when all he wants is a new blad­der and a back straight as it was in that cock­pit over Germany, where he could feel the fires a mile above the city car­nage. Now there is only the phar­ma­cy and expen­sive pills, life reduced to what you pay to get the job done, each day thin­ning the mem­brane between breath and the grave.

*

Manny is kiss­ing his daugh­ter at her quincean­era and bleed­ing into Ernie’s car. She is a child again in cribs, on laps and swing-sets at the park, a lit­tle girl draw­ing cray­on pic­tures on the wall, say­ing I don’t want to be a girl, Papa, why can’t I be a boy? He kiss­es her cheek but his mouth is numb, his face unin­hab­it­ed. The teeth don’t sup­port the lips, the skull doesn’t house the brain. He is hov­er­ing in air, a piñata explod­ing at a par­ty, nev­er falling to earth, nev­er can­dy rain­ing down for the chil­dren.

*

Ernie can’t give up his keys just as he would nev­er give up his gun, though he can no longer find his gun and sus­pects his grand­son, who is into heaps of drugs in Orlando back­rooms. Kids are so spoiled the­se days they have no spine for war. There is no video game, no moth­er to mol­ly­cod­dle and fix the lunch­es and pick them up when their brains spill out in the Rhine. He has dri­ven for sev­en­ty years, dri­ving syn­ony­mous with man­hood and being American and free, until toll plazas stop you and you have to pay, and keep pay­ing.

*

Manny opens a win­dow in the dream house he has promised his wife, Lupe. The gulf wind stream­ing into his lungs moves noth­ing like the air in Juarez, where police smile when they under­stand what they can do to you. At the win­dow, the light is strong. Lupe smells of calla lilies, her breath again­st his chest. On their wed­ding night he’s lost in her gown. They laugh like chil­dren, blood rush­ing, life ris­ing up like the sun and clouds, feel­ing each oth­er for the first time, the way god want­ed.

*

Valerie will not eat the last cup­cake: doc­tor says her toe will get worse if she doesn’t exer­cise and cut the sug­ar. But how can she exer­cise in a toll­booth, with the gro­cery store after­ward to make din­ner for Kenny, who no longer loves her. She is lone­ly enough to let the numb­ness come so he will care about her more than Monday Night Football, Tuesday league night, and Wednesday pok­er, hell, every night takes his mind off her, this life and mar­riage. He is just as fat, drink­ing beer like it’s Prohibition after stand­ing at the machine arrang­ing bits of met­al on the con­vey­or, slope-shoul­dered and hunch­ing his back, poor baby. She’s stopped look­ing close­ly at the dri­vers pulling up and hand­ing over mon­ey, no eye con­tact from the rich, the poor, and the old. She’s avoid­ing the cup­cake when the Buick pulls up to the toll­booth with Manny’s leg­less body stuck in the wind­shield. Ernie is lean­ing out the win­dow with his mon­ey, blood in the pas­sen­ger seat, say­ing, “Is this enough? Is this enough?”

~

Max Hipp is a teacher, musi­cian, and writer liv­ing in Oxford, Mississippi.