A man was sitting in a toll booth. His name was Joseph, Seffy for short. He was drinking from a flask and he had a box of kittens in his lap. There were four kittens, and they were three days old.
The toll booth was not so bad. There was a space heater. Most people had EZ-Pass, and they shot through the automatic lane without even knowing Seffy was there. He sat in the booth that advertised “All Other Cars.” The management had explained that in a few short years, all toll booths would be automatic: no more real humans making change, but rather credit cards and a mechanized woman’s voice, flat and pettish. To Seffy, a few years was an eternity. If he made it through his twenties—one more year—Seffy had promised himself he’d be sipping from a coconut on some backwater beach in Belize.
Seffy was wearing a coat, but no socks. He had the poems of Rumi, but nothing to eat. The temp agency had given him the night-shift, and he’d just come out an hour ago. The management had shown him how to operate the space heater. The management hadn’t liked the kittens. When they asked Seffy about them, Seffy said that his cat had given birth that morning and then been hit by the school bus, which was not true.
“The school bus,” the management had said. “But it’s Saturday.”
“I know,” Seffy had replied. “What are the chances?”
Across the highway was a massive splay of forest. A half moon. Pines laden with snow grew quietly towards a cloud-flecked sky. Seffy could see the tree layers very clearly: needles sitting next to needles, bunches of them building a branch, fanning into a tall cone, a canopy. One needle was small, but thousands of needles together was overwhelmingly large. His life didn’t matter much if you looked big picture. He wasn’t an only child. He wasn’t the only dude who kept poems in his pocket. Life was like that; it didn’t need you. The kittens slept.
A slow car was approaching. For a man in trouble, Seffy was suddenly thinking, a toll booth wasn’t an ideal place to hide. It was a rural area, and it was nine pm. The whiskey calmed Seffy’s nerves, the pills rounded it out. Tomorrow he would ask for the call center gig; tomorrow he would apply for his passport. Seffy watched the car get closer, thinking about what he would say to J.J. and Olivia when they pulled up in their beater sedan, packing heat: leave me ruined, exhausted from the journey of this night. But it turned out to be a false alarm. Just a myopic old lady in a Subaru. It took her a year to get her window rolled down.
“How much?” She looked at him suspiciously.
“Two-fifty, Ma’am,” said Seffy. Politeness came naturally to him.
“What’s the senior discount?” She pursed her dry lips.
“Excuse me?” Her request took Seffy by surprise. The management hadn’t mentioned a discount system. He’d had fifteen minutes of training.
“I’m gaining traction on ninety, seems fair,” she said more conversationally.
“How much is the highway worth to you?” Seffy asked. Questions were his forte. He could go all day asking them. If a tree falls in a forest. Why is there something instead of nothing? The lady paused. She had dark eyebrows and white hair. Big glasses. Her spine was bent. Seffy wondered how long until his own mother looked like this: she already wore Easy Spirits and met her friends for weak coffee and cards at the mall.
“Huh. Let me see.” The woman seemed to be genuinely contemplating his question. She put her car in park. “I live over on Route 11, so technically I could take the back road.” She squeezed the steering wheel. “But then there’s a detour in Sheldon, so it’d be twenty minutes extra…”
The kittens had started squirming in their box, mewling. They were hungry. Seffy had remembered that cats liked milk. He liked milk, but was lactose intolerant. He worried that maybe the kittens were lactose intolerant, too. That kind of thing happened: the world flipped. Kids loved peanut butter until it caused them cardiac arrest. You loved a woman until her husband threatened to kill you. Seffy had found baby formula for his kittens, lactose-free. He took the bottle and put it under his armpit to warm it. What did the price of the highway toll matter to him? In a few years, an AI robot would force this old ninny to pay up. Seffy had read that Silicon Valley hadn’t worked out the empathy algorithm yet. Efficiency at the expense of human touch. Humans were assholes to each other.
“What have you got in there?” The lady asked, eyeing the cardboard box. For almost ninety, she exhibited a sharp eyesight.
“Kittens,” said Seffy. He picked up the box with his free hand, and dangled it out the toll booth window. The kittens skidded into each other and complained.
“Handsome fellas,” the old lady nodded. Seffy felt his face flush with pride.
“Orphans,” he said, pulling the box back in. “They don’t have anybody in the world but me.”
“Are you feeding them well?” the woman asked, her suspicion returning.
Seffy yanked the baby bottle from under his arm, and waved it around. “Top notch nosh,” he said. This seemed to satisfy the old lady.
“You’re head of the family then,” she said.
Head of the family. Seffy had to admit he liked how that sounded. How important. In the past, responsibility was a shackle. The girls he had dated, once they stopped being muses, were burdens. People wanted things from you, wanted Saturn and its rings when all you could do was pen pentameters, and muster small bursts of affection. But things were different now. Tomorrow he could be dead. He sipped from his flask. Adopting animals might be a calling. “Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah,” he murmured. The old woman was staring at him, eyes like dinner plates. When she blinked, he thought, falcon.
“I’ve got a mess of kittens myself,” the woman offered. “Hadn’t seen Blackie for ages, found her in the linen closet yesterday with twelve. Ugliest things you ever saw.” Seffy nodded in encouragement. Any company was better than no company at all. “My son said I should drown them,” she continued. “But I don’t have the heart. Never did.” She sighed. “No, they’ll grow and fade into the forest, get picked off by foxes.” Seffy nodded again, this time thoughtfully. The kittens in his box were blind and thick-headed. The way they knocked each other around, sniffing for milk, reminded Seffy of his time with Joey on the school bus. Joey’s dad worked in a candy shop. On the bus, all the kids would push and squeeze to sit next to Joey and his bag of jawbreakers and pixie sticks. Seffy remembered the desperation he felt when his small ropey muscles were no match for the bigger, brutish boys and girls whom Joey preferred to share with anyway. Seffy watched as these golden children poured flavor crystals of blue and green between their lips, he a failure of evolution. He moved the bottle to his other armpit.
“The strong ones survive,” he said.
“Generally speaking,” the lady agreed.
“But,” he added, “the runts get creative.”
“About the toll…” the old lady peered at him expectantly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Seffy said. “By donation.” He was looking for better karma.
“Well, I’ll pitch in,” the woman said, searching around in the console. “I have a Sacajawea Coin somewhere.” The liver spots on her cheeks looked like little brown violets. “But it might take me a moment.”
A moment was fine by Seffy. He had four hours left to the shift, and a lot of thinking to do. He took the bottle from under his jacket, slightly warmer, and proffered it to the kittens. There was only one nipple, so three complained while the fourth drank. But one in-the-money was better than nothing. That’s what Seffy’s mother thought, anyway. Seffy’s sister was a successful certified public accountant, and until recently, his mother thought Seffy bagged groceries. In fact, this was not true. For the past year, Seffy had been working at a grow-op. He worked for J.J. and Olivia, a pretty good paycheck. Olivia had, of course, robbed him blind.
“I didn’t raise you to be a criminal,” Seffy’s mother had pouted when Seffy came clean to her after the robbery.
“Ma,” he said. “It’s legal in a lot of states.”
“Your employer threatened to break you in half like a chicken bone,” she’d replied. “Legal is not the word I’d use.” She was annoying, but he’d been thankful for it. All the weed had lent him a special kind of paranoia. She hid him in her house and made him waffles. But Seffy couldn’t stay with his mother for long. Seffy and his mother were not cut from the same cloth. She thought his hemp pants and dreadlocks were distasteful. He found her daytime TV shows depressing. She liked new handbags. He liked floating into a softly clouded world where the universe emanated its essence.
Also, his mother wouldn’t stand for his drug habit.
“Jiminy!” The old woman’s arm shot out of the car like a jack-in-the-box, a shiny gold coin in her hand. She used it to tap on his window, a little ice pick. “Yoohoo!” Seffy took the lady’s coin.
“I-74 thanks you,” Seffy said. He felt a poem coming. He ripped down an employee conduct notice and wrote, “The Falcon” on the back. He thought, hard, but no other words came out.
“Blackie is a good cat, don’t get me wrong.” Seffy did a double take. The old lady in the Subaru was still there. He felt a slow sliding away, like his brain and his feet were too far apart from each other. He realized the bottle of milk had rolled, and the kittens were roving across their rude habitat, unsuccessfully stalking the formula. Their vulnerability made his stomach sour.
“Who is Blackie?” Seffy asked. And then, because it seemed to him like eternity had passed, he asked: “I’m sorry, what is the time?”
“Blackie, my cat with the litter,” said the old lady tartly. “It’s 9:15.”
“I appreciate that,” Seffy said. He surveyed the blank highway. No one entered the lane for “All Other Cars.” Perhaps the AI future had already begun.
“Do you ever wonder,” Seffy asked, his eyes burning just a bit, “if pets are slaves?” The woman paused, considering. Terrific. A real philosopher.
“A cat isn’t a slave,” she said after some time. “A cat is a cat.”
“Huh.” Seffy nodded. “That’s a fresh take.”
“Fresh or not, it’s true,” the woman said.
“How about this one,” Seffy said, because questions were always bubbling in his brain like a hot cauldron of glue. “Is suffering a necessary part of life?”
“Hah,” the lady said. “Old as time, that line of inquiry.”
“Well,” said Seffy. He leaned out of his booth in anticipation. “What do you think?”
“The game is rigged, but it’s the only one in town.”
Seffy frowned. “I guess,” he said, half-heartedly. He’d been hoping for a more satisfactory response. His heart was in pain. He was a regular guy, a romantic. He had always worked odd jobs and written poetry in his notebook. But then J.J. and Olivia had offered him the gig. This meant making money and busting ass. It meant spending time with Olivia the siren, the live wire. She ate only ropes of cherry licorice.
“Listen,” said the old lady, “suffering changes a person, makes them grow.” Her engine was still running, but she didn’t seem to have anyplace she had to go. “Take my son, for example. He couldn’t find a wife, tried to mail-order a bride from Belarus, but it turned out she was part of a scam.
“Believable,” said Seffy somberly.
“But he weathered the heartache. Then he met a great gal down at Dave’s BBQ pit.”
“That’s nice,” said Seffy.
“Depends who you ask,” she said. “Now I only see him when he comes ‘round threatening to cull my cats.”
Seffy sighed audibly. He couldn’t stop thinking about Olivia, that stark white throat, that grater-box laugh. No one else in Seffy’s life thought much of writing. His friends preferred video games; his mother read Reader’s Digest. One day—early on—he and Olivia had been sharing a joint, and she’d pulled his book of Rumi from his pants pocket.
“What’s this?” Olivia asked.
“My lifeline,” said Seffy. Olivia was intuitive, so she didn’t laugh.
“It must be something then,” she said. Olivia was young; Olivia was pretty. Olivia kept handguns and plastic bags of cash in the refrigerator. Olivia started to read:
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest.
“Holy,” she’d said, flicking her tongue over her bottom lip. “This poem is an advertisement for our product! ” Olivia looked at Seffy. “Don’t you think?”
“Sure,” Seffy shrugged. It wasn’t worth disagreeing with Olivia.
“J.J.!” Olivia howled across the kitchen to where J.J. was making a baloney sandwich. “You gotta read this poem by this bona fide junkie from a thousand years ago!” Seffy giggled. He felt lucky to have the job, finally the cash flow, and Olivia was fun like a sharp piece of glass. She would move all different ways to reflect the sun.
“Finally, we discovered where Blackie was hiding,” the old lady was saying. “She’d spent days on a loose stone inside the well.” Seffy came back down to earth. He looked at the lady as if for the first time. She must be younger than she was letting on. He stared at her dark eyebrows, and a sluice of sweat charged down his neck. This wasn’t an old woman, it was a trap! Any minute she’d reach up and yank off her white wig to reveal…. he blinked. He could see the blue veins on her hands, rising out of her skin like snakes. Those were hard to fake.
“Is everything all right?” The old lady asked. “You seem out of sorts.”
“What?” Seffy said. “No, I’m fine.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Oh fear shrouds lots of things. Believe me.” The old lady’s glasses were magnifying her pupils into caverns that could be fallen into. Not for the first time Seffy imagined himself a hunted little mouse. Another way to die. Seffy looked down at his kittens. They were still eating and mauling each other.
“Anytime there is a spring rain,” she continued, “I run for cover like Chicken Little. I read somewhere that once, a hail stone the size of a pumpkin hit a priest and killed him during the liturgy.” She shrugged. “No,” she said. “No shame in fear.”
“No shame,” Seffy echoed. His heart softened. He understood now that the lady had been sent by some divine compass to help him. To soothe his fried up nerves. The quiet that bloomed into the cold night after that was wonderful. The tall pines across the road were daggers. The snow banks below them were like a locked-up bath, ready to be knifed open and melted so that Seffy could once again become clean.
“Well,” Seffy said. “I’m afraid of a woman.”
“Ah,” the old woman said. “Go on.”
“She’s so beautiful, she has cracked me, the mirror.”
“You wouldn’t be the first.” The old lady started to cough, a rattle of her rib cage, probably wracked by osteoporosis. Sometimes even Seffy could see beyond his own paranoia. It made him feel foolish.
“Ma’am,” he said. “At your service.” Seffy looked around for a bottle of water, but he had only the whiskey.
“It’s fire water,” he said, offering the flask out the window. “But it’ll clear you up.” The woman took it, and poured a little back. It made her sputter. Then she smiled. Perfect dentures.
“Thank you,” she said. “Now keep talking.”
“Olivia—the woman—she got my poems,” Seffy said. “She peeled back my sky. I wrote verses for her. I recited them.”
“Of course you did,” she nodded.
“I said light prismed through her body, casting rainbows. I wrote that lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”
“She did you in,” the old woman said, matter of factly. “She broke your heart. No wonder you need kittens.” She tsk-tsked, and Seffy remembered a time when he’d been young and protected and cared for. His heart surged.
“And her husband didn’t even notice,” he added. “He made sandwiches and ate them and didn’t hear me.”
“Oh,” the lady looked surprised. “She had a husband?”
“So to speak.”
“Well,” the lady said, trying to be sympathetic. “Women can be fickle. I should know. I am one.”
“Yeah, but Olivia isn’t like you.”
“Son,” the old lady said, her tartness returning, “you don’t know me from Adam.”
“I don’t mean to be contrary,” Seffy said quickly, “It’s just that, for example, she locked me up.” The lady looked confused, so Seffy explained, “I worked with some, uh, sensitive data, so when I was in the room with it, she locked me in. For security.”
“What are you, NSA?”
“Well,” said Seffy. He hated to lie. “Something like that.”
“Oh.” The woman regarded Seffy with a new air of caution. “How long did she lock you up for?”
“Once, twelve hours.”
“Did you have a snack? A bathroom?”
“None of those things.”
One time, Olivia really had disappeared. Seffy finished working with the plants and laid himself out on an empty greenhouse table. He burbled through his questions: Why do people fear losing things they don’t even have? Is love just a feeling? She did not come, and he was hungry. The hunger would not be easily satiated. For the first time, he wondered if he’d die. Starvation. He’d been starving for ages. He had never fit into the world, but Olivia had given him a place to fit. Olivia was his purest wine; her high was highest.
“I have to admit, I’ve never held anyone against their will,” the lady said. “Don’t you have a boss you could report her to?”
“She’s the boss.”
When Olivia had come back, hours later, the keys on her belt had clinked like a jailer’s.
“Is that it?” The lady asked. She was looking at him suspiciously, like she didn’t believe him. “There’s got to be more to the story.”
“Oh, there’s more…” Seffy said, trailing off. He felt his silence said the rest. Outside the wind picked up, and Seffy felt a chill descend. He began to slap his arms against his sides to warm himself.
“Hey space cadet, I found the money you stole from me,” Olivia had announced just two short weeks ago. She was holding up the $10,000 dollars cash that Seffy had saved under his bed.
“Jeez,” he said. “I wouldn’t steal from you.” His voice was faint. He really hadn’t. He’d clocked thousands of hours in with J.J. and Olivia by then.
“Yeah, this is my money,” Olivia said. Her tone was atonal and troubling, a robot’s. “You’re lying in bed with my moolah in piles, writing poems about God and frogs and other bullshit.” She bared her teeth.
“We’re not messing with you,” J.J. said, appearing out of nowhere. “We’re keeping that cash, or you’ll be needing the witness protection program.” J.J. was just meat. He scared Seffy in an ordinary way. Olivia, however, made him shake. Recently, in the kitchen under a naked bulb, Seffy had gazed at Olivia, at her lovely gaunt face, and said, “God is in your eyes.” He had meant it. She had been moved. She’d picked up his book of Rumi and read him something.
“When you go to a garden, do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses or jasmine.”
He was only now registering it as a message of restraint.
“There are good people, and bad people posing as good people,” the old lady said.
“That’s what my mother says.”
“It depends,” he said. His mother rankled him. He blamed her. “My mother’s religion is Black Friday and Ruby Tuesday.”
“Well,” said the woman. “I don’t know her.”
Seffy flexed his neck. He started to windmill his arms. They moved as though disconnected from his body, but it got him feeling warmer. With his arms he pushed the resentment of his mother aside, and in its place pooled a sense of love towards this old woman. His kittens had resigned themselves to a meager dinner and fallen asleep. His heart swirled with love for them, too.
“Listen,” he said. “How do you find true happiness?”
“Well,” the woman paused. She watched his arms go round. “You drink the wine that moves you.”
“Holy,” Seffy said, arms frozen in mid-swing. “You know Rumi?”
“Who?” The old lady peered at him, bewildered.
Suddenly, Seffy saw lights coming, a slew of honey bees bearing down on him and the lady and “All Other Cars.” They were flashing like little bolts of understanding. He’d been looking for answers from the wrong people. The wrong person. There was a line, he was recognizing, between larceny and love. This old biddy was who he’d been meant to meet all along.
“And love!” He practically shouted, “is love just a feeling?” He was dancing with excitement: he had so many questions; she had so many answers. Outside, large white flakes of snow had started to swirl to the ground, but also Seffy, realized, money. Money was swirling out there, too.
“Are those one hundred dollar bills?” The woman asked, taken aback. Seffy tried to focus. He considered his flapping arms: he’d secured it all so soundly in the lining of his coat, but now his sleeves were bleeding cash.
“Jiminy,” he said, hugging himself.
Neither of them spoke.
“You’re a criminal,” the old lady said finally, a frown blooming.
“I can see how it looks like that,” Seffy said. An otherworldly tiredness was washing over him.
“Young man,” she said, as the car behind her began to honk. “You certainly are troubled, and I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go.”
“So go.” Seffy shrugged. Life was like that. People were assholes to each other. J.J. and Olivia had taken his money, so he’d taken theirs. He’d grabbed the first plastic bag in the fridge he could get his hands on. Also, it was the heaviest.
Then, he’d run.
“But it’s red!” The lady shouted. She was no longer his guardian falcon; she no longer cared about his sorry heart. She looked cold. She looked hysterical. The honking, Seffy concluded, was really riling her up.
“Love is red?”
“No! The light. The light is still red!” She was pointing towards the round toll booth stoplight, not yet shifted to green. Seffy paused. She was right, this was Seffy’s job. But he needed her!
“So stay,” said Seffy, more softly. Beauty wasn’t wisdom, wisdom was beauty: until now he’d been confused. “The sufi opens his hands to the universe,” he said, a handful more bills tumbling as he swept his arm out the window, “and gives away each instant, free.”
The honking behind the old woman’s car continued. A man in a Jeep poked his head out and shouted “Hell-OOO?! This ain’t coffee hour!”
“I don’t want your money!” The woman snapped, yellow eyes flashing. “I paid you!”
A brief surge of omnipotence charged through Seffy. He didn’t always have to be the runt. The old lady looked small and old and flustered. He was, for now, a rich man. Were beings just doomed to a boring helplessness? Were they all just kittens, really, the comfort of their warm blood the only defense between life and a dump in the river? Seffy felt a tear loosen and fall.
“All right! Thank you for your support!” Seffy called out, and flicked the light to green. The lady got her window up fast. She floored it, didn’t say goodbye.
To the kittens Seffy whispered “Shh. Shh shh shh.”
Outside, a cold wind was blowing the snow around. Seffy’s hundred dollar bills had taken flight, little paper locusts blustering down the freeway. The honking ceased. The next car rolled forward. The AI future would be a snow squall, Seffy thought, thick and faceless and new. It would blot you out, or nurse you alive just as mysteriously.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.