Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue

I Never Saw the Sea

After Herb died, I had to get a better job. Except for when the kids were little, I always did work. But on my own, I wasn’t going to make it on what they paid me at the farm-and-feed store cash register.

We were married almost twenty-five years. Herb was the guy whose laugh you heard over the crowd at the Eazy Street bar. He was the life of every party, always the center of attention, so when he shone a little of that light on me, I was hooked. Trouble was, once you’d seen all his acts and heard all his stories, you weren’t such a great audience any more, and he’d be going out looking for a new one. But by then Vern was two and Sheila was on the way, and Herb had made foreman out at the Goodland feedlot where he’d been working since he was seventeen, so we carried on as best we could. I told him his two-pack-a-day habit (two packs of Marlboros and two six-packs of Budweiser) was going to kill him before he ever saw his grandkids, and I was right. He was hugging the steering wheel of the tractor when they found him, blue around the mouth and way past any sort of help.

Sheila flew in from Atlanta, and thought I should come stay with her and her husband Bill for a while. They’ve built a huge house in a new subdivision, but to be honest, I just didn’t know how she and I would pass the time together down there. I said I’d feel better at home.

It was Marge at the Daylight Donuts who put me onto the Kansas Turnpike job. I used to stop there on my way to the feed store to fill up my travel mug. I must have half a dozen of those mugs — there’s always one or two rolling around in my car, one in the sink, and a couple in the booth next to the coffeepot. Well, I’ve always got one to hand when I need one. Anyway, she’d seen an ad in the Garden City paper and the pay was pretty good. So I applied. I had plenty of experience with a cash till, and I told them I could relocate. So they posted me as a toll booth attendant outside Admire.

I sold the house in Lakin and found a tiny little shingle cottage in Council Grove. I got a dog too. Herb never would have a dog in the house — it ruined them for hunting, he’d say. Since he didn’t hunt but once a year with a buddy over in Great Bend who already had a good duck dog, we never had a dog at all. Till I picked out this wiggly little wiener dog pup from a litter for sale in the supermarket parking lot. Fritz is a great little guy — always glad to see me, barks like a banshee when anyone comes up the walk, but wagging his tail at the same time. Just something warm and lively and cheering to put my hands on.

I heard Marge retired and the Daylight Donuts closed up. I don’t know where you get a decent donut in Lakin any more.

So anyway, the Turnpike sent me out here to Admire. I drive over and slide my namecard into the slot so it reads: “Arlene S. is helping you today.” I sign off on the cash drawer with the last shift and check the weather advisories. People getting on the pike just take a ticket from the machine, so unless they’re lost or the machine doesn’t work, they’re pretty much on their own. But when they get off the pike at my booth, I take their money and make change and maybe a little conversation. I keep a box of dog biscuits to hand out with the change if they have a dog in the car. They like that.

The thing about this toll booth out at Admire that I never expected is that it’s in about the prettiest place in Kansas. I know, some people would think that’s not saying much. But if you grew up around Garden City, which is just way too much flat, gray, scrubby nothing where the wind stinks of cowshit and meatpacking, you’d think whoever named it Admire knew what he was doing. I sit in my booth and look out at this rolling, curvy, green-velvet plain cut with little creeks and lines of cottonwood trees. The sky changes all day long, and the light goes all different colors depending on the clouds or the weather or the time of day. With those long hills all green and billowy, it’s almost like being on the ocean, though the closest I’ve ever been to the ocean is Cheyenne Bottoms when it floods. Summer nights, we get a near blizzard of bugs around the lights, and then the bats come swooping in and gobble them up.

You can see things coming out here. There’ll be a purple veil of rain to the west, or low cold snow clouds come running in, and you know what to do. I can pull the blinds against the sun or crank up the heater against the sleety wind, and there I am, safe in my little nest.

A couple miles west of the booth is the Admire Cemetery. A little old place with curlicue gates and cows and horses on the other side of the fence. And meadowlarks. You can be driving along at sixty-five miles an hour with the windows rolled up, and you can still hear them singing as you go by. I guess I just never noticed things like that before.I’ve wondered if they’d let me be buried there so I could be near the meadowlarks and the hills, but Herb and Vernon were laid to rest in Lakin, so I expect that’s where I’ll end up.

Vernon. He was his father’s son, for sure: cheerful, a little cheeky, always looking for a laugh and a good time. But a good kid, really, a good kid. Captain on the track team — they were state champs his junior year. His grades maybe weren’t the best, but Herb gave him a part-time job at the feedlot and figured that had worked out well enough for him. Vern wasn’t so sure about it, and he’d been talking to an army recruiter in Garden City. “Don’t worry, ma,” he said to me, “I can always go to college later on the army’s dime.” He was a smart kid, really, trying to think it all through. As he put it, he was “checking out all the options.”

Till a drunk in a pickup truck bigger than Vern’s crossed the center line on route 50 and crushed him to death against a telephone pole. When they pulled the drunk out of his truck, with a split lip and a sprained wrist, he just kept whimpering, “But I’m a good guy.”

I hope to God you don’t ever have to be waked up in the middle of the night by the sheriff’s car door slamming and that revolving light flashing round and round, sliding off the cottonwood leaves. To this day, the sight of police lights makes my hands start to shake. I’m a really careful driver.

After that, I think Sheila must have felt she just wasn’t as important to us. She was up and out of there the minute she got out of Lakin High, and went up to Fort Hays State, where she met Bill. He was an ag school star, and got himself a plum job with one of the big companies that invent new kinds of corn and wheat and such. He makes more money in a month than Herb ever did in four. Their lives are so different now, I don’t think Sheila can understand at all how I can live by myself in a little old house and sit in that lonesome tollbooth every day.

It’s mostly quiet out here, between vehicles. I asked my boss if it was okay to have a little TV in the booth, but he said no, it wasn’t professional. The night guy has one, but he brings it back and forth so maybe they don’t know about it. I never was much of a reader, but I brought a Danielle Steel paperback I got at a garage sale for fifty cents. Sheila says her books are real popular, but I couldn’t get into it. These glamorous people with cocktail parties and flying to Europe and high-powered business — I just didn’t care a whole lot about their problems. Then one night, I happened to catch this old movie on TV and I liked it a lot, about a dirt-poor farm family trying to get to California just to make a living. The credits said it was based on a book. So I went to this secondhand bookstore in Council Grove, to see if they had it.

The woman who ran the place must have liked plants in theory, because there were plants all over the place. On the shelves, hanging from the ceiling, lined up along the windowsills. I say in theory because they were all dead or dying. There were leaves and dirt and cobwebs and dead flies everyplace and you couldn’t even begin to see in through the windows. I doubt anyone swept or ran a vacuum in there for years. But the owner, she didn’t get around too well — she was hugely, enormously, pathetically fat, and had an oxygen tank strapped to her chair. She was on the phone when I came in, hollering at a bank clerk about her accounts, swearing and sweating. I felt sorry for whoever was at the other end. She slammed down the phone and said, “You want something?”

“Do you have The Grapes of Wrath?”

“You think I know every book we have in here? Jesus. Fiction’s in that row, by author. Just go look.”

“I don’t remember the author…. Thanks anyway, I guess.”

“Steinbeck. S. No, not there! That row.”

I was afraid to piss her off any more, so I stepped over two boxes of books and crouched down on the filthy carpet. I figured I’d pretend to look, then get out of there.

But there it was — four copies of it. I think high school students sold their assigned books to her when school was over. I paid her a buck and left as fast as I could.

I liked the book even more than the movie. That got me started reading other books, but the bookstore was so creepy that I started going to the public library instead. I think the librarian was thrilled to have someone to pick books out for. She helped me find out about this bird I saw too. One day I kept hearing this long, windy wolf-whistle. It sounded both close by and a long way off. Then this tall tan bird sailed in and landed on a fencepost. It had long pointed wings, and it tipped them straight up then hinged them back down perfectly smooth in an instant. It stood there on those long, tall legs and gave out that whispery whistle again. It was so elegant. The bird book we found said it was called an upland sandpiper, which seems like the right kind of bird to have in an upland place that looks like an ocean.

That bookstore closed down last year when that woman died. There’s a payday loan store in there now.

So I was reading some short stories the first time the old aqua-colored Oldsmobile pulled up to the booth to get on the pike. I learned to drive in a car like that, with three on the column and a wide, slippery bench seat in front. An old man’s car, the kind they keep sitting under a carport and use just for trips into town when they don’t want to drive the pickup. It was an old man driving it, too, with his wife. He took the ticket out of the machine, but then just sat there. I slid open the window and asked if they needed help.

The man was peering at the ticket, then handed it to his wife who couldn’t seem to figure it out either.

“How much is the toll?” he asked.

“Depends how far you’re going. When you get off the turnpike, there’ll be another nice person like me at that booth, and you pay them.” I smiled at them. He sat with both big freckled hands on the wheel, tapping his thumbs on the rim. His John Deere hat sat funny on his head, too bright and clean, not broken in yet.

“Going up to Topeka,” he said. “Taking my wife to see a cancer doctor up there. At St Francis.”

“Charlie.” His wife turned her face away to look out the window. “She don’t need to hear all about that.”

“You know how to get there?” I asked him. He pulled a folded paper out of his shirt pocket.

“Yeah, I got directions.” He handed the paper up to me. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, but I saw what exit they were supposed to take and gave it back.

“You just follow those directions, and when you get to that exit booth, the toll’ll be a dollar eighty.” I bent to look over at his wife. “You take care, now. Those doctors up there will take good care of you, I’m sure.” She just kept on looking out the window as he put the car in gear and rolled up the ramp to Topeka.

They came back through that afternoon. The old man handed me a dollar bill, three quarters and a nickel.

“Guess I’ll be stocking up on these,” he said. “We’ll be back and forth a bit.”

“Everything go okay?” I asked. Meaning did they find the right exit and the hospital and all.

“Well, they took lots of tests and things. They think the chemo will do her some good, so we’ll be going up regular for that for a while.”

“Okay, well, good luck then,” I said. “Guess I’ll be seeing you.” He lifted a hand and pulled away.

I saw them a few times a week for a while. The old man always had the exact change. I told him about buying a K-Tag, so they could just drive on through the electronic lane without stopping to pay, but he said, naw, it wouldn’t be worth it just for a little while. His wife sometimes looked a little better, sometimes smiled and said hi to me. Other times she looked like she might be trying to sleep, and she was peaky and pale.

One afternoon he came back alone.

“They thought she should stay up there a few days,” he said. “Her blood counts got a little low.”

I bought some yellow mums at the market, in a little ceramic pumpkin for fall. I took them to the booth, and the next day when he came through I gave them to him.

“To cheer up your wife,” I said. “Hope she’s doing better.”

“Aw, she’s fine. Just needs to get a little strength back. That chemo can be pretty hard on you,” he said.

I didn’t see them for a while after that. I hoped that meant the chemo was done and she was home again.

Sheila and Bill flew me down to Atlanta for Christmas. I paid extra myself to bring Fritz in a carrier under the seat. Sheila fretted about him, though. Luckily I caught myself before I put my dinner plate down on the floor for him to lick or she’d have had a heart attack for sure. I let her think he slept on the folded blanket on the floor of the guest room.

It was sixty degrees in Atlanta when I left, and nineteen in Council Grove. I leaned into a freezing wind full of snow to get into my tollbooth, and I was happy to be there. And there came the aqua-colored Oldsmobile, with the old man and his wife. She was bundled up close in a big old coat, huddled in the corner of the front seat.

“You have to drive up to Topeka today?” I said. “Be careful. If it gets bad, you pull off onto that service plaza and wait. The plows are out, but it’ll be slick in some places.”

“Yeah, we will. She’s just not feeling good, so the doc thought I should bring her up.”

“You take care, okay?”

Funny how in this job, I see people come and go, and then they just disappear and I never see them again. Most of the time, I don’t even think about it. They just pass on through and that’s that. But I was glad to see that Olds coming through the booth a few days later, coming back from Topeka. The storm had passed off, and it was one of those brilliant, freezing cold blue days.

“Hey,” I said. The old man was alone. He stopped the car, then started to look vaguely around for his money, like he’d forgotten where it was.

“Hey,” I said again. “You okay? How’s your wife?” He stopped pawing for his wallet and looked up at me, his eyes gone all shiny and wet. He just stared up at me.

“She’s dead,” he said. “She died.” And he laid his forehead down on his hands hanging on the steering wheel. There was just a harsh and sorrowful wind booming across the asphalt.

“Sir? Sir?” I called to him. He raised his head a little. He was shaking.

“Sir? Just one minute.” That poor man was in no shape to drive. I couldn’t let him. I filled a coffee mug from the pot, and dumped in some sugar. I zipped up my coat, came out of the booth and pulled open his door. “You slide over, now.” Like a lost kid, he did what I told him. I got in behind the wheel and handed him the cup.

“I’m going to pull your car over right here, out of the way, for a minute. Drink some of that coffee. It’ll warm you up.” We sat there.

“Is anyone at home with you?” He thought hard.

“My niece’ll come,” he said. “From Kansas City. She’d come down.”

He stared out the windshield. Then he said, “It don’t seem fair. At our age. All these years, you’d think if you got this far, you’d be home free. You wouldn’t think it’d be laying there in wait for you. I don’t know what I thought. Just didn’t think it would be like this.

“It’d be fifty… fifty one years in April.” Fifty one years. More than twice what I got with Vernon. Or Herb. Did that make it twice as hard? Or should he just be damned grateful to have had all those years? I remembered some of the things people said to me when Vernon died, and when Herb died too. Well meant, I know, but I had enough sense not to say any of them.

A cattle truck came chugging up to the booth.

“Sir?” I remembered his name. “Charlie — you sit there a minute and drink that coffee. I got to go take care of this truck, and I’ll be right back, okay?”

The damn trucker wanted to flirt, needed receipts, needed change for a twenty. When he finally pulled away, the Olds was gone. And that was my favorite Daylight Donuts cup. Oh well. God knows I got others.

Last week when I got to the booth, there was an envelope for me. Just addressed to Arlene S., The Admire Tollbooth, Admire, KS.

“Dear Arlene S,” it said. “I am sorry to drive away like I did. Please know your kindness is remembered. You happened to be the first person I said those words to, so I hope you understand. I will be all right in time. Maybe some time I will drive over and bring your cup back. Thank you. Sincerely, Charles S. Robertson, Osage City, KS.”

I thought about writing him back. Or looking him up in the phone book and giving him a call, just to see how he’s doing. But there’s a balance to keep. I’m just the tollbooth attendant, you know?

It’s nine o’clock now. My turn on the evening shift. One of the stories in that book was about a sea captain, who builds a house in the middle of the prairie when he retires because it’s the only way he can feel like he’s on the sea again, watching the grass ripple in the wind like waves. So my idea about the ocean and the prairie wasn’t so silly after all. It’s dark and still and cold, and I snuck Fritz into the booth tonight with me. He’s sleeping under the counter, nice and cozy, and the lights from the booth are shining out into the night, like a little lighthouse. It’s starting to snow.

  © Julie Stielstra, 2017


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