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WILLIAM HART

 

 

 

William Hart

William Hart’s stories and poems have appeared in several hundred literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. He’s authored nine poetry collections and two novels, Never Fade Away and Operation Supergoose. He also makes documentaries with his filmmaker wife, Jayasri Majumdar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toll Road

 

 

 

Just her luck, losing their money to go home on. When she was dressing she’d felt the bill folded tight in her left hip pocket. She’d pushed it deeper with her fingertips. The next time she checked she was standing in line to buy a bus ticket and her fingers came up with nothing but an attached thread!  Panicking, she searched her other pockets. She went into the waiting room and unloaded her backpack onto plastic chairs and looked through everything. The fifty was gone.

     Now she remembers the motel room key. She was in a hurry to check out because the taxi had come. And it was raining. Leaving the room, carrying Conrad, didn’t she push the key on its plastic tag into the pocket with the fifty? She thinks she did. And when she pulled the key at the desk the bill must have come with it. She decides to call the motel after she gets home to see if anyone turned it in.

     Their ride is slowing. The old pharmacist who picked them up in Bonner Springs steers onto the shoulder of a feeder road west of Emporia. He stops in front of a farm implement store. When the wipers chatter he shuts them off. With a finger crooked by arthritis he points to a blond brick building visible through young poplars. “There’s the tollbooth. Don’t let them spot you.” He points again. “Cut past that showroom, then downhill through the woods. You’ll see it.”

     “Thanks for everything.”

     She lays her sleeping son, wrapped in a plaid blanket, on the front seat, opens the car door and steps out. She lifts her backpack from the floorboard and swings it on, catching some hair under a shoulder strap. She frees the hair, then picks up Conrad. His eyes fly open, sky blue and surprised. He bleats in protest. 

     The pharmacist, who is tall, leans down to meet her eyes. “You be careful,” he says. A smile pulls upward against his sagging face. She can feel his pity and realizes how desperate she must seem. She waves goodbye, gives the door a push. The vintage Dodge lumbers away, leaving tracks in the rainwater.

     As she crosses the lot of the implement store she stretches her legs and inhales air heavy with the smell of decomposing leaves. Combines rear high above her, their shiny green shells beaded with rain. Behind the store she shrugs off the backpack and passes it through a barbed wire fence. Pushing down on the middle strand, she clutches Conrad to her chest and takes him through.

     In front of her a wooded hillside falls away for as far as she can see into the trees. She angles downward on a carpet of wet leaves. Bare limbs nod against a leaden sky. With each step, her son’s hot forehead bumps her cheek. A cold drop taps her scalp. 
     The rural quiet is shaken by the loud mufflers of a big truck suddenly decelerating. The noise startles her and she feels Conrad jump. The top of a gasoline tanker flashes into view above the leaf carpet then disappears. 

     A familiar warmth is spreading against the hand supporting her son. She lets him finish. Then she squats and lays him across her thighs. The wet diaper gets tossed under a bush. Conrad, nude below the waist, grabs at his toes, ignoring the cool air on his bare flesh. His nose is red, one nostril crusted with snot. His lips are dry and cracked. He begins to kick as she fastens his diaper. A car swishes by on the wet turnpike below. Another. 

     She walks parallel to the highway until she sees the entrance ramp curving down from an overpass. Beyond the overpass squats the brick tollbooth. She keeps to the woods until the booth is blocked from view by the bridge, then descends on dead grass to the bottom of the ramp. 

     During the next half hour she watches two dozen cars and several pickups roll down the ramp and accelerate past her outstretched thumb. Many vehicles whoosh by on the wet turnpike. Most of the speeding faces ignore her. Some stare.

     She begins thinking about the visit. It started well. Ray, though pale from being locked up, looked happy. As happy as a man might be seeing his son for the first time. When Conrad’s tiny pink paw came to rest on the glass separating him from his father, Ray covered the hand with his own. Son grinned back at dad and patted the glass. Then little Conrad laughed, showing his lone tooth. Yes, a good start.   
     Ray put his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers, making a goofy face. That’s when things soured. Young Conrad’s mouth fell open and he blinked several times. His torso expanded as he drew in air. Screams followed, desperate, piercing. While baby howled, Ray’s face stiffened with annoyance.

     She was able to coax her son out of his negative mood with bright whispers and bounces on her knees, but her husband nursed hurt feelings until the end of the visit when he managed about half a smile. How ridiculous he could be! After the trouble she’d gone to, and Conrad getting sick, this was their reward—seeing a grown man pout? Ray asked when she’d be coming back and she told him she didn’t know. She’d be back, of course. He was her husband and she’d keep coming until she gave up on him, a possibility she now recognized.   

     The rain starts again and she moves under the bridge. Soon the air is noticeably cooler. She covers the top of Conrad’s head with the corner of the blanket and turns up her jacket collar. The rain, she realizes, will make it harder for drivers to see her, but she hopes it might also soften someone’s heart. She keeps offering her thumb while the cloudy sky darkens with evening. 

     A car rolls down the ramp with its headlights on. As it goes by her all the faces inside turn to look. She counts three guys in the front seat, two in the back. The brake lights glow as the vehicle pulls onto the shoulder and stops, tailpipe pluming. Five guys? This worries her a little. But does she have a choice? She’s been at it two hours and this is her first ride. She lifts the backpack and walks to the car, a Lincoln. The driver runs down his window as she approaches. He’s about forty, dressed in a good fitting green jumpsuit. His smile is friendly and although his hooded eyes suggest toughness, she sees no meanness there. A raindrop strikes his glass lens. “Where you headed?” he asks.

      Next to him are two Mexicans, one thin and pale, the other stocky. In the backseat sit a lanky blond guy about her age and a muscular Indian with a ruggedly handsome face. A crew of laborers, she guesses, with the boss driving. Likely safe enough. “Ponca City,” she tells him.

     “We can take you as far as Wichita. That help you out?” 

     Wichita is halfway home, she thinks. Also it’s a bigger city than Emporia so the chances of catching a ride might be better. “Sure would,” she says. She reaches for the door handle as the blond guy opens from inside.

     The spacious interior of the new smelling car is pleasantly warm. She gets Conrad situated upright between her legs, facing forward, and when the Lincoln accelerates her son is pushed into her as she sinks back into the leather upholstery. The comfort of the seat and the warmth from the heater are relaxing. She closes her eyes. How she’d love to fall asleep! Conrad begins coughing, his hard little body convulsing against her thighs. It’s the same dry cough he’s had all day. She picks him up and lays him on her shoulder, patting his back until the fit passes.

     The Indian leans forward and asks in a soft voice, “Your baby sick?”   

     “Flu, I think.”

     He nods and sits back. 

     The blond guy seems very aware of her presence. He hasn’t said a word since she got in but whenever their legs touch he abruptly draws his knees together. Now and then his eyes hop across her, out of curiosity or whatever. She decides he’s feeling shy. It’s always puzzled her, this effect she has on some men. 

     The headlight beams light up the rain.  She can sense the car’s weight in the seductive smoothness of the ride.  Faint the sound of tires cutting puddles.  The heavy Mexican is asleep, his head tipped forward, loose on his neck. 
     Through her window she can make out treeless hills. On one a dozen cattle stand bunched together. Probably keeping each other warm. Does the rain ever freeze on them, she wonders. She notices the driver watching her in the rearview. His eyes return to the road.

     The blond guy and the Indian are talking in low voices. “Go on,” she hears the Indian say. “Worse she can do is say no.”      

     The other shakes his head, smiling a tight smile. 

     “If you don't ask her, I'll ask her for you.” 

     She feels her neighbor’s blue eyes skating her face. She hears “Needaplacetostaytonight?”   
     “Pardon?”

     “You and your baby. Need a place to stay in Wichita?”

     If I touch him, he might blow through the roof, she thinks. Not likely much threat in a man so skittish as that—and staying with him would be a way to keep dry. But she knows Conrad would rest better in his familiar crib—and if he gets worse she could take him in to emergency. She doesn’t know a thing about Wichita, where the hospitals are or anything. “It’s a kind offer,” she says, “but we need to get home.” 

     Her rejected benefactor swings his face forward. She hopes she hasn’t set him back with women. Conrad begins to cry. His little arm, inside the blanket, pushes against her leg. She loosens the blanket. The wail peters out and his eyes fall shut.

     “Doesn’t cry much,” the Indian comments. 

     She smiles. “Not much.” She’s glad for that. She’s never seen tears get a man anywhere.

     The driver keeps the needle around seventy-five and the miles slip away. Outside it’s pitch dark except for the Lincoln’s high beams and the dim, quivering headlights of the cars in the distant northbound lanes. Her mind turns again to her husband. Maybe her parents were right that he’d never grow up. In high school a lot of the guys were immature like him but by now most of them had settled down, while Ray seemed stuck in his teens, running with his friends, drinking too much, getting in fights. The fun loving all-state cornerback she’d fallen in love with her junior year was, if anything, less grown up then he’d been in high school.
     She’d thought the army might mature him, but on Okinawa he pulled the dumbest move of his whole life with his drinking buddies in the Quartermaster Corps. He claimed he’d been trying to score money for a house. Why not just save for a house like everybody else? She knows why. Ray has the patience of a puppy.

     What kind of father will he make when he gets out? Will he lose it every time Conrad doesn’t do what he wants? Was today a sign? They crest a hill and the lights of Wichita open out in front of them. All those lights, spread to the horizon, make her shrink a little inside. Soon she’ll be somewhere out there, thumbing a ride. And it’s raining again. 
     It isn’t long until they’re speeding on an elevated freeway beside treetops and buildings. They pass the roof of a long warehouse, then a junkyard piled high with scrap. An immense oil refinery is beginning to dominate the skyline ahead. Someone’s silent flatulence makes itself known inside the car.

     The Lincoln descends an exit ramp to a city street. Minutes later it pulls into a parking lot behind a sprawling building covered in corrugated steel. With the engine and wipers killed, the rain is loud on the car roof. Nobody moves until the driver opens his door. Then the guys pour out as cold air pours in. In the rearview she sees the trunk lid rise. The Lincoln rocks gently as suitcases depart and guys hurry to their vehicles scattered around the parking lot. 

     The blond kid is first to the street in a silver Trans Am. He winds his engine to a scream then pops the clutch. Tires spin on wet pavement then bite with a screech as the vehicle blows forward through a stop sign. More fire in the guy than she thought. 

     The driver is at her window, speaking through the glass. “I have to make a call. Need to use the facilities?” 

     He lets her into the building and she’s struck by an acrid, metallic odor. He flips on the lights, revealing three partially built industrial tanks under a thirty-foot ceiling. Pointing to the far corner of the room he says, “Through that door and down the hall. It’s on your left.” 
     She changes Conrad between sinks under florescent lights, her movements duplicated in a mirror. Her son has made a surprising mess for a baby who’s had little to eat. As she cleans him with a wet paper towel, she notices his skin is blotchy. He feels hot and he’s shivering. She fastens the new diaper and wraps him in his blanket. On her way back through the hall she passes a lighted office and sees the boss seated, talking on the phone. He looks up at her and smiles. Into the receiver he says, “Sounds good. Say hi to Jenna. See you tomorrow.” He hangs up.

      They hurry through the rain. He opens the car door for her and she climbs in with Conrad. It’s cold in the big vehicle and their breathing fogs the windows. The engine turns over. Conrad cries weakly. She uncovers his face. He stares at the headliner, wheezing faintly. 

     She wishes it would turn cold enough to snow. When it was snowing you could at least hope to stay dry. She wonders where the turnpike onramp will be. Will she find a place to stand out of the rain? How will people see her in the dark? They are passing a brilliantly lit oil refinery. The huge complex of girders, vessels and pipes smells of sulfur. It steams and hisses.

     “Bet you’ll be glad to get home,” the man says. 

     “Sure will.” She thinks of her warm apartment, the Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator. She’ll be able to fix Conrad a bottle and lay him down in his crib. Let him sleep it off. By morning he could be on the mend. They are moving through an old neighborhood of small houses. The car heater is really putting out. She feels toasty right down to her toes. 

     From darkness and rain materializes the turnpike interchange. Bright lights on tall poles backdrop the heavy shower falling at an angle. The tollbooth is another squat brick building with picture windows. She notes with dismay that the onramp is out in the open, all of it visible from the booth, no trees anywhere. With a sinking feeling she wonders where to get let off. She doesn’t see a place. 
     The Lincoln slows and the car behind them jerks out of their lane, engine roaring, and speeds past. Her driver pulls to the curb and shifts into park. “This isn’t going to work,” he says. “You’ll get soaked.”      

     The knot in her gut tightens. What to do? 

     “How about if I drive you down there?”

     She looks at him. Such a generous offer makes her suspicious. “Kind of out of your way, isn’t it?”

     “I got nothing pressing.”

     She estimates the round trip at two hundred miles. A pretty big favor. But she’s in no position to ask questions. “Thanks, mister.”  

     “You hungry?” 

     “I’m broke.”

     “Let me buy you dinner.” He winks at her. 

     Oh, so that’s it, she realizes. At least he’s honest about it. Or is he? She looks him over again, and again finds nothing threatening. He’s just a guy, wanting what most guys want. She glances down at her son and sees his eyes are fixed, uninterested in the world. He looks plain sick. I got you into this, she thinks, and I’ll get you out. “All right,” she says. She tells herself she’s only agreeing to let the man provide transportation and food. 

     The Lincoln pulls away from the curb and she watches the windshield fill with tollgate. Inside the tollbooth a woman in uniform rises from a stool. The woman pushes a paper card through a hole in the booth window and the driver takes the card and tosses it on the dash. He punches the gas.

     A few miles down the road he says, “There’s a decent place to eat in Blackwell.”

     “Sure,” she replies without enthusiasm. She senses him studying her face.

     “You’re not really interested in dinner, are you?” he asks.

     “Not really.”

     “I suppose you want me to take you straight home.”
     “That would be great.”

     “Do you mind telling me why I should want to?”

     “Well… because you’re a good person.”

He laughs. “What makes you think so?”

     “You were the only one who would give us a ride.”

     “Come on. You know why I gave you the ride.”
     “I think you also did it because it was raining.”

     He starts to speak, then doesn’t. He stares down the highway into the rain, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Finally he says, “You’re right, I did.”
     They pass dark fields, then a farmhouse with bright windows, then more fields getting lost in the rain. “So you taking us home?” she asks.

     “Have to, don’t I?”

     “Not that I know.”

     “Don’t good guys save the day?” He smiles at her.
     She finds his smile a little hard to read but guesses he means well. “So I hear,” she says, smiling back at him.

     She places her palm on her sleeping infant as he breathes in. He has stopped shivering and looks peaceful now. Through the blanket she can feel his warmth and his small heart tapping evenly and strong. With a little luck, they’ll be home in two hours.

 

 

©2014 William Hart

 

 

Author Links

 

'Shootout': story by William Hart in Thieves Jargon

'Burden of Tomorrow' in Southword Journal

'Never Fade Away': Purchase Hart's novel on Amazon

 

 

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