Caitlin, Tollgate Collector

The sun, angling into her eyes, had come up "like thunder out of China 'crost the bay," and even as Caitlin Bordeaux made music of the poet's words, she couldn't remember his name. Nothing was right in the scene though the day had begun in promise. Nick had just gone through mere minutes earlier, the load piled high on his flatbed rig. Most of the night the truck had been parked in front of her house, the neighbors probably talking again. She didn't care, his mouth still alive on her. Now here's this turkey of a traveler playing music so loud it was damned oppressive. A '98 Nissan Maxima, gray, four-door; she had identified every car for a whole year, and hadn't dropped a bill or a coin in months. Why would some idiot heathen play music as if he were leading a marching band, and obnoxious music to begin with? Something in the day was going to bother her, she just knew it. Why wasn't the loud music ever something she loved, some Puccini, something with body to it? Or a decent dream song? In the back seat of the Maxima she saw the piled-up blanket moving with slight jerks, some living thing in motion. A thousand and one sights she'd seen in her two years here catching coin and currency; people in the back seat swapping favors, or so still they looked dead, once a huge snake sunning at a rear window. Surprises were never too far away. Obviously this was another one. She wouldn't even hazard a guess.

The monoxide fumes swirled through the door and her own cubicle exhaust system sucked them up, but the stream passed around her, touched her. Every time out it made her think of Bill Gennaro's garage back home in Indiana. They'd lived upstairs for ten years and oil and gas fumes and the smell of car rot she thought were environmental, were part of the universe.

It came again with the Maxima, odd for a car only four years old. Would the fumes cling at her skin, age her quicker than another job? In one glance she looked at the mirror propped up in place on each shift she came to work. Some of the collectors kidded her about it. Only Chauncy in the next booth had refrained from ragging on her. Every day thousands of people handed her money and looked at her, eyes at times so leveled and so degrading she'd want to smack them. Thirty-four she was and holding on for the ride. So far there was but the hint of wrinkles, and a thin line curving down beside her nose and getting lost at the corner of her mouth. The teeth of her smile were attractive, she believed, which made her smile reassuringly, an inner dictate making visible its demands. Blue eyes, hiding a bit of pain as always, might give her away if she let them. Nick said she was goddamn beautiful, but how could she count on that; didn't he smell of oil and gasoline and the fumes that 18-wheelers seemed to lug in their wakes forever, invisible tails of huge road comets. She was resigned that it came from having a trucker as a lover.

It was a ten dollar bill the man in the '98 Maxima had handed her, a good looking guy, maybe fifty, gray hair, but eyes out of a far grandstand, deep, labored, bedeviled. She hunted for more of the poet's words, but the music could have killed her. A diamond on one of driver's fingers, she thought, could pay off the mortgage. She made a face at the music, but he didn't make a move to turn it down. Then her heart leaped! Out of the corner of her eye she saw the high-crowned blanket move in the back seat. It fell partly away from what it was draped on and she saw a little blonde girl poking a straw through the bars of a small cage even as she handed the man his change.

Her heart leaped into her throat. She thought of her daughter Mercy still in bed at home and her own mother sleeping in the next room.

The man looked into her eyes even as he stepped on the gas pedal. The Maxima jumped out northward on the turnpike. The panic was on her, in the bloodstream, her heart jamming her throat. Nick was up the road ahead of the Maxima, the next exit about twelve miles away. Nick, with the lovely mouth, with the great hands, was the only hope. The only hope! Caitlin Bordeaux made her move. Screaming for Chauncy Dewitt in the next booth, she scared hell out of a man and woman in a '95 Chevy. She grabbed her cell phone and dialed Nick's number, praying he had his phone on. She held up one finger as Chauncy ran to her booth and she stepped outside. Cars plugged her lane. The fumes were rampant. She held her hand up for Chauncy to listen.

Nick answered.

"Listen, Nick. Life or death. If you want to see me again, listen." The demand was in her voice, in its ascension, that breathless lift. She tried to shake the scream out of it. "Behind you, maybe three or four minutes, a gray '98 Maxima, man at the wheel. He's got a little girl in a cage under a blanket in his back seat and he's playing music loud enough to drown out her cries." He started to say something but she wouldn't let him and Chauncy Dewitt ran to get his own cell phone. Traffic had slowed. Now three gates were stopped tight. "If he gets to the next exit that little girl could be lost forever." She had to tell a lie. "I called home. There's no answer. It could be Mercy. I don't know." She hoped it was a lie. Oh, God in heaven wouldn't punish her for such a little lie.

Nick's voice boomed back. "What the hell can I do, Caity? I can't stop him. What did you call me for? What the hell can I do?" Nick could choke every time he thought of her. His breath could hide in his gut waiting to blow him up, he thought her so lovely, how her hips would mound, how her mound would hip him. Driving the long days on the road he would play the little games of memory, the recall of taste and wonder, the softest touch coming in a moment of such clarity he could spend hours thinking about it, recreating it, the road spinning out ahead of him apparently in absolute control. Now it was done for sure. The screaming in his ear, making new demands.

"Goddammit, Nick, stop the truck. Block traffic. Don't be afraid of a goddamn ticket." Her voice was ascending. "The Staties aren't going to bite you. Stop the damn traffic! Make a roadblock! It's a little girl, Nick. I swear to god you'll never see me again if he gets away with her. It's only twelve miles to Exit Five."

Chauncy was on his phone and waving at her, pointing back down the road and up the road and then overhead. It was as if he were on television and explaining to an audience what was going on. He rushed over to her booth. "Caity, you sure?" His hand was over the phone and his eyes were wide but he was a new grandfather and a former Marine, a rock-solid man. Balding and rugged and smiling a lot, he never ribbed her about looks, never asked embarrassing questions. He'd come out of the fire-flung jungles of Viet Nam where he'd made life and death decisions by the hundreds, sometimes every day. Kicking in was the old adrenaline on the loose, the "you are it" pin tagged on his chest. The M-16 seemed to be frozen in his hands again. The plea in her eyes came universal, the mother's plea, and the knowledge of thousands of years of motherhood. He bet on her. "I saw him and the kid, Lieutenant. Is that you, Bubba? Yes, I saw him myself. '98 Maxima, gray four-door, music playing loud as hell like he was drowning out her cries. Son of a bitch, I get him I'll kill that bastard!"

It had been perhaps seven minutes since Nick had left, Caitlin thought. Twelve miles to the next exit. If he did 70-80 the Maxima could be there in minutes, the girl gone forever. It was up to Nick. She wondered what kind of a father he'd make. Now he had the chance to show her.

In the Diamond-T, the flatbed behind him piled with new but empty pallets, Nick Pridon saw the sign saying Exit Five was a half-mile away. Never had he met anybody like Caity in his twelve years on the road. Whenever he got to her place it was like coming home. That had to be important. If he went by the exit, let the guy and the kid get away from him, she'd know somehow. That truth snapped through him like a whip. The shift knob fit into his hand firm as her breast. The marvel of Caitlin Bordeaux came over him once more. His feet began to dance on the pedals, the gears taking on a new hum, the light load shifting slightly and Nick Pridon pointed into the floor to a trucker he was about to pass. He could have been saying anything but was obviously in need of some help. The brake pedal banged against his foot, the load shifted with a slight creaking, easily, like a snake in the grass, and the Diamond-T began a hitching slow-down on the turnpike.

The newly cut grass at the exit popped up just ahead on his right and the overpass beyond it where Exit 5 raced off to the west. Four American flags snapped in the morning air above the overpass chain link fence. The Kenworth rig beside him, one that Nick had seen before with a State of Maine map on the driver's door, ground slowly to a halt with him. Behind them came the screech of brakes, harsh screams coming off the pavement. But there were no impact sounds. Traffic stopped. Nick stepped down from his cab and looked behind him, back down the road toward the toll plaza almost twelve miles behind him. The traffic all along the pike was coming to a standstill. On a crown of the road, over a quick rise, vehicles coming to a crawl looked like dominoes edging into line.

A man leaped out of his car immediately behind Nick's rig. "It's on the radio. Some son of a bitch has a kid in a cage in his car. Between here and the last toll plaza unless he got past us and took this exit. The guy on the radio says the police are sending out a helicopter and they're coming down here from Exit 5. Says the guy is playing music loud enough to kill you."

The man looked back over his shoulder. Nick looked. The driver of the immense Kenworth looked. They could hear the music like a hundred boom boxes at work, and down the median strip, speeding on the narrow grass plot, careening, swerving in and out of sudden swales and dips, came the gray Maxima, the heavy music leaping out front of it like the blast of trumpets. Nick looked at his rig. He'd never get it across the median in time. Morning traffic was heavy going in the opposite direction. The man who talked about the radio announcement looked at him. All around them people were out of their cars, some yelling, some saying "kidnap, loud music," some complaining and swearing. The man behind Nick leaped into his car and pulled it broadside across the median just as the Maxima came up out of another deep swale and stalled on a crest of ground.

The man in the gray Maxima leaped out of his car and heard sirens in the distance, their wail as harsh and cutting as screams. When he tried to jump back into the car, half a dozen men pinned him against the side door. Nick pulled open the back door, flipped the blanket off the cage, unlocked the top and picked up the little girl. She screamed in his ears and struggled and he showed her to people gathered around them. A grandmotherly woman reached for the child and held her in her arms. The woman kept shaking her head and clutching the little girl against her bosom.

Chauncy Dewitt, standing in front of ten miles of backed up traffic at the toll plaza, danced across the pavement, waving his arms at Caitlin. He had the phone at his ear. People were all over the road, the radio still blasting out the news alert. Chauncy had called the local radio station. A gutsy early-morning disk jockey and news broadcaster had jumped the news with an instant headline for the morning travelers. "Here's in-process news breaking for travelers northbound between the Parkman Toll Plaza and Exit Five. A kidnapping is in process right now. A man in a '98 gray Maxima, playing loud music, has a small girl in a cage in the back seat of his car. Don't let him get off the road at Exit 5. It could be your kid he has." He had kept saying the same thing. The police had been called, the wheels had turned.

Caitlin Bordeaux, late that night, heard the engine of the Diamond-T grind to a halt, air escape the connection line, a door slam with a solid thunk, and Nick Pridon's footsteps on the walkway moving toward her. Mercy sat sleeping in her lap as she had for two hours, the night-light on, shadows bouncing around them, a few neighbors' lights throwing off a warm glow.

About the author:

Tom Sheehan met four of his Korean comrades last year for the first time since 1951. They celebrated Chicago and half a century in one sitting. They follow his work on Paumonok Review, Critique, Eastoftheweb, 3amMagazine, Small Spiral Notebook, Third Candle, Eleven Bulls, Literary Potpourri and storiesSouth among others. He's a three-time Pushcart nominee.