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.