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Toll Taker


Louise Norlie

I don’t remember who first introduced me to the concept of “unexpected deeds of generosity.” It was probably some television pundit who always made me roll my eyes. I never thought I’d experience one myself until yesterday at the Harrington Toll Plaza.

“Your toll has been paid by the car in front of you,” Cindy shouted above the din.

“No kidding! Thanks, Cindy! Have a great day!” I replied as I rolled up my window. I wanted to see the expression on her face but a glint off my mirror blinded me.

That was the first time I had ever spoken her name although I had seen it on her tag for years. Her name felt strangely awkward on my lips. I wondered if I surprised her by knowing it. Thinking of the “unexpected deed of generosity” that I was in turn called upon to undertake, I hoped it brightened her day to have a courteous driver say a few friendly words. I realized that Cindy had not paid my toll herself, but I wanted to act generously to her in particular.

Not many people ever get to know their toll taker. I had commuted up and down that same road every day for over a decade. At 5:30 as I passed through this toll plaza I always encountered the same attendant at the sixth booth from the left.

Cindy seemed different than others who sullenly hand you your greasy change with a grunt of apathy. She made eye contact with me almost every time I encountered her. Her eyes had a searching, almost touching, nervousness, yet she was always polite. I wondered how she endured standing for hours, often in the cold, breathing the nauseating smell of exhaust. I never spoke to her before because as much as I wanted to pause, the yellow signal flashed Toll Paid, Thank you, and the impatient beeps of waiting cars drove me forward.

Now I was filled with a sense of hopefulness for myself, for Cindy, for that kind stranger, for mankind. Life is good, I assured myself as I regarded the future with unexpected confidence.

The next day I wanted to say something to Cindy, although I had such a mind-numbing day at work that had no idea what it would be. The rain gushed a hazy river over my windshield. Water gurgled and burped everywhere. I was practically driving through an ocean.

As I entered the sixth lane I idled for a long time behind a queue of towering dark trucks. When I was about to pull into the tollbooth a shape flashed across my path. I slammed on the brakes. The woman was not looking toward the oncoming traffic – she was looking in the opposite direction, at the road ahead. I was angry. It seemed like she had a death wish. I almost hit her.

I beeped. The woman swiveled to face me in the glaring gaze of my headlights with a desperate expression. It was Cindy. Holding a duffel bag, she frantically wavered between the two adjoining lanes which were impassible. Vehicles poured through them, their red lights glowing through the smoky fumes like fire.

I knew what I needed to do and cracked open my door.

“Cindy! What are you doing?” I cried as she stared at me, “Come here! I’ll give you a ride.”

Immediately she wedged herself into the passenger seat as the car behind me flashed its lights. I hardly had time to look at her. A responsible citizen to the end, I paused at the tollbooth but there was no one behind the grimy window.

“Go! Just go!” she screamed at me.

“Okay, okay!” I replied, surging past the signal that flashed, Stop, Pay Toll.

“What were you doing? Are you trying to get killed?”

“No, maybe,” she screamed frantically. The traffic was rushing past me at a freakishly unusual speed, the lights glimmering like ghosts. I wanted to look at Cindy’s face but I could not break my concentration for a moment. I saw her hand clutching the handle of the duffel bag.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing,” she snapped. At this, I began to feel alarmed. I had made a mistake to let her into my car. This whole thing was a mistake. This was all wrong.

“Can I let you off somewhere?”

“No. Just keep going!” I was going as fast as I could. I was driving in a cloud. I could hardly see in front of me but I heard the thunderous rush of traffic unceasing.

“I need to pull over. I can hardly see,” I yelled.

“No! Keep going! You have to keep going!”

“I can’t! Can’t you see what’s happening? Do you want us both to get into an accident?”

I tried to change lanes, straining to see behind me, suddenly feeling her hand over mine, her hand grasping the steering wheel, which I forcefully shoved away.

“What are you doing?” Now I was desperate to pull over, remove her from my car any way I could, even if I had to drag her out. I stopped in a narrow shoulder near a swaying patch of windblown trees whose limbs twisted through the grey sky.

“Get out! Now!” I yelled. She didn’t budge, so I leaned across her to open her door, get out get out, I reached for her duffel bag to hurl it onto the grass if I had to but it was heavy and she yanked it away from me and at that very moment she bottom tore and out poured coins and cash from the booth.

“I’m going to call the police.” She grabbed the cell phone from my hand and started to run for the woods. I jumped out of the car to stop the thief as a thundering noise and light then final darkness clapped over me.

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