Jack pulled latex gloves over his wrists and assembled the change—two ones for those who gave him fives; two ones and a five for those who gave him tens; and two ones, a five, and a ten for those who gave him twenties. As he creased the currency and constructed the piles, he stared out the front tollbooth window, watching the sports cars, SUVs, trucks, and sedans approach, searching for one car in particular.
Jack’s supervisor assigned tenders to the same booths each day and allowed them to personalize their mini-offices. The middle-aged woman in the booth to Jack’s left taped family pictures above her money drawer, and the older man to his right, who always wore a Washington Redskins cap, maintained a bobble head collection of sports heroes. The collection included Michael Jordan, John Riggins, and Cal Ripken, but workers from other shifts had added Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. On the man’s sixty-fifth birthday, Jack presented him with a Socrates bobblehead, and received a hearty, though confused, thank-you.
When Jack became a toll tender the prior year, he intensely watched each approaching vehicle, unsure if it would slow down, unsure if it would enter the correct lane, unsure if it would slam into his phone booth-sized workplace. How could he know if drivers were looking? They rarely looked at him when they stopped to pay, and would surely not remember his thin, bearded, thirty-year-old face.
Jack was a Philosopher, and while his day provided food for thought, it was not easy to spend eight hours in the middle of a super highway. He encountered multitudes of human beings each day and knew nothing about any of them. But the job paid well, and he’d learned to cross several lanes of incoming traffic to reach the men’s room.
Today, Jack looked for Jane. Jane wasn’t her real name. At least he didn’t think it was. He had named her Jane, as in Jane Doe, which was a bit morbid, though he saw nothing morbid about Jane. The name just seemed appropriately mysterious.
Jane dragged herself out of bed to drive to the job she hated. She pulled on black slacks and a white knit sweater, slipped into well-polished shoes, and tied a predominantly red silk scarf around her neck. She locked the door of her small third floor apartment, drove to the drive-thru donut shop for coffee, and headed for the interstate highway, humming as the radio played Eric Clapton’s version of Autumn Leaves.
Jane drove through the same cash lane each morning. The first time she entered the lane, she’d opened her door and said, “Sorry, the window won’t go down,” as she reached her left, ringless hand through the space above the open door and below the roof of the old blue Chevy. The toll tender cheerfully indicated it wasn’t a problem, took her five, gave her two ones folded lengthwise, looked directly into her blue eyes, and told her to have a nice day. Jane, distracted by the tender’s gaze, flicked her black hair away from her forehead and drove away.
Today, as Jane neared the toll plaza, she turned down the radio, aimed for the lane, glided into the space parallel to the booth, and looked up at the tender. She didn’t know the tender’s name was Jack. When she thought about him, and she did think about him, his name was Mr. Cash Only.
When Jane stopped, Mr. Cash Only stepped out of the tollbooth and carefully opened her door. Jane handed him three dollars, wishing she had a bill that required change. She smiled at him, revealing straight teeth framed by a smidge of red lipstick, and had no idea she’d greatly improved the tender’s day.
Jane noticed Mr. Cash Only was younger than most toll tenders and good looking in an undernourished sort of way. Other tenders were polite, but there was something about him that was more genuine, as if his actions were mindful, not by rote. She forced herself to cease imagining the tender’s life beyond the tollbooth.
Jane liked to think, and it was one of the reasons her husband had left her. He told her she spent too much time analyzing life and not enough time enjoying it. He wanted something else and he found it. He found a giggly, young woman with big breasts and a small brain. Jane believed most men preferred intelligent women until they lived with them, a fact she found disappointing, though she was grateful she could now read books without constantly having to request that the television volume be lowered.
The remainder of Jack’s work day was routine. He dispensed change, gave directions, counted and organized money, and wondered about Jane. He cheerfully thanked each person passing through his lane. This was not because people were cheerful, and not because he had been trained to be cheerful, but because he believed everyone was basically good until life pushed them in evil directions. When he noticed weaponry attached to a Harley Davidson, he suspected the rider might be heading toward the dark side, but that didn’t prevent him from thanking the man, as he delivered two ones and a five, though he stared at the rider’s tattooed arms and was conscious of his own un-calloused hands. When his shift ended at three o’clock, Jack drove home in the brown Jeep he’d inherited from his father.
Jack parked in the garage under his building, and rode the elevator to his fifth-floor apartment, dangling a bag containing a bottle of wine and a frozen dinner. Following a day in the booth, he looked forward to sitting on the balcony of his small quarters and staring out at the distant blue hills. After an early dinner, he worked on his dissertation title “Philosophy, Linguistics and Love.” He’d been writing it for two years. The project gave focus and structure to his life, and he knew if he didn’t complete it, he would never secure a university position.
Jack’s dissertation was based on the hypothesis that the use of the word love for so many types of relationships made it impossible for society to share meaning, assumptions, and logical conversations about love. Although Philosophy historically made broad assumptions about love as it related to partners, friends, spouses, parents, children, and God, the job was becoming more complex. People now said they loved their new car, or they loved their book group. Jack had thought his ex-girlfriend loved him. Now she said she didn’t, but maybe she only loved him the way she loved her book group, which was weird, but maybe not her fault. The etymology of the word love, the Old English lufu, meaning love, affection, attraction, or friendliness, was no help.
Jack had no word to describe how he felt about Jane. To him, she was a delightful movie playing over and over again, and it didn’t occur to him she purposely drove to his booth. Jack wrote three pages before going to bed, rose at 6:00, and arrived at the toll plaza with a thermos of coffee and a ham sandwich at 7:00. It was raining hard and all the gray made the outside walls of the booths appear more neon than usual. Deep puddles formed in the lanes and everyone wished they’d brought their boots.
At three o’clock, Jane wished it was five o’clock and that the work day was over. She was a paralegal at a law firm specializing in drunk drivers and did not believe people were basically good. She saw too many reckless people with no remorse and noticed an inverse relationship between the amount of money drunk drivers invested in their defense, and how little regret they had for their foibles. Her boss appeared to have downed more than a few bottles of gin himself, but was well known for successfully reducing charges, sentences, and fines. Sometimes he put his hand on Jane’s shoulder and asked if she would like a drink after work. The creepy touch made her ill, but she knew he was smart enough to realize she had friends in the legal profession who could make life difficult for him if he went too far. She stayed at the firm for the money and hoped to save enough to move north where summers weren’t so oppressive.
Jane became a paralegal when she couldn’t decide what to study in college and didn’t believe she should incur debt. She went to paralegal school online, believing the profession would allow her to afford an apartment, and she was right, but she still couldn’t afford a four-year college education. Outside of work, she read history books and never tired of learning new things, secretly hoping she was filling in what she’d missed by not continuing her education. Her favorite topic was the American Civil War which she believed was still being fought.
At the end of the day, Jane drove home, made a sandwich, and poured a glass of wine. She enjoyed the quiet after dealing with clients, colleagues, and court officials all day.
The next day was rainy and Jane treated herself to a few mini donuts at the drive-thru. She was tired. Although she rarely watched television, she’d stayed up watching a documentary on cliff jumping, a sport she considered both ridiculous and intriguing. Were these men and women jumping to get away from something or to get to something? The photography from the jumpers had been breathtaking, but she couldn’t imagine herself being able to leave the cliff. At 8:30, Jane finished her first donut, licked her fingers, and waited behind five other cars in Cash Only Lane Number 2.
When Jane arrived, Jack stepped out as usual, but his elbow caught his lunch bag and it splashed into the deep puddle beside Jane’s car. Jane opened her door and picked up the bag, but the bottom gave out and the sandwich fell into oily water. She looked at Jack through the half-open door.
“You can’t eat that.”
“No, guess not.”
“Here, I have an extra donut. That will keep you going for a little while.”
“I don’t want to take your food.” But he did want to take her food.
“I don’t need it. I insist.”
Someone blew their horn. Jane handed Jack the donut and the fare, closed her door, and watched Jack return to the booth and push the green light on. As she drove away, she saw him carefully place the donut on a stack of magazines.
After the donut sharing incident, Jane had lengthier conversations with Jack. She listened to Jack suggest ways to fix her window, as he eyed the growing number of vehicles lining up behind her. One day, Jane noticed Jack was listening to a Willy Nelson tune and complemented him on his taste. She said she loved Willy, especially his version of Stardust, and wondered why her comment seemed to send Jack into a momentary state of reflection. She wished they could meet away from the highway but hesitated to suggest it.
Two weeks later, Jane approached Cash Only Lane Number 2. When she was beside the booth, she was shocked to receive a blank look from a woman in her fifties with blue eye shadow. Jane opened her door and pushed a twenty through the gap above the window and, ten seconds later, explained her window was broken. The woman took her money and gave her change. Jane, disoriented, paused again before shutting the door and driving past the green light. Her routine, and she liked routine, was shattered. Why had Mr. Cash Only deserted her? She wished she had a donut.
Jack was not in his booth that day because the supervisor had decided that rotating positions would increase efficiency. Jack was irritated and distracted, and constantly looked at the lane to his left to catch a glimpse of Jane. Several times, he looked down to see impatient drivers waving their money at him. He was polite in his duties but made no eye contact. At last he saw the blue Chevy and the blurred image of Jane, pull into the next tollbooth. He felt lonely and trapped, his space suddenly smaller.
Jane drove north but veered off the highway at the first exit. Her change still lay in her lap—two ones, a five, and a ten. She turned left and drove over the highway to reverse direction and drive south. In five minutes, she was in the southbound Cash Only lane, receiving two ones back after giving a five to a grey-haired man with a baseball hat. Proceeding one exit south, she turned around again and headed north. She slowly approached the toll plaza for the third time that morning, veering toward the booth containing Jack.
Jack did not expect to see Jane in his lane. He gazed at her for several seconds before stepping outside the booth to open her door. Then he stopped, returned to the booth, changed the light to green, left the booth, walked around the front of Jane’s car, opened the door, and slid into the passenger seat. Jane smiled at him, thinking it might not be the best way to start a relationship, but stopped herself from thinking. Jack wanted to ask Jane if she loved him as much as she loved Willy Nelson, but he stopped himself from asking. Nobody else would do what they were doing, but that made them both happier. Horns sounded behind them as Jack secured his seat belt and Jane removed her foot from the brake. Then they left the booth in the middle of the highway behind and drove north in the fast lane.