Life Span


“I have it,” our grandmother repeats. She again extends a dime, four nickels, and ten pennies pinched in her beige cotton glove. Our mother, behind the wheel of the Hudson, bats the gloved hand back as we near the tollgate. “You paid last time,” our mother says. The car sways over the dividing line to the right. “I certainly did not,” our grandmother says. “Yes,” our mother says, digging for a fifty-cent piece through the open purse on her lap, “you did.” The car sways over the dividing line to the left. “I think I know what I did and did not do,” our grandmother says. She reaches across our mother to thrust the money toward the open window. Our mother slaps her back. Our grandmother plants her elbow in our mother’s chest. Our mother backhands her. The coins from our grandmother’s glove shoot across the dash; the coin from our mother’s purse rolls onto the floor. Our car lurches and brakes. The car behind us screeches to a stop. Two other cars honk. A man yells. We kids sink down in back. “Now look what you’ve done,” our grandmother scolds. “Look what you’ve made me do,” our mother screams. My brother and sister and I search our pockets. I have three pennies. My brother has a nickel. My sister doesn’t have anything. We roll down the back window and give the man in the tollbooth our change. He waves it away, nods toward our mother and grandmother hugging each other, each of them weeping Sorry Darling So Sorry and says, “Just get them out of here.”


Hey you. Yeah you. Don’t be scared of us. See this red shoe? Guess where it came from. Can’t? Well we’ll tell you. It came off the foot of a little girl just like you who was killed in a car crash; she was hit so hard by a Mack Truck on the bridge her shoe flew straight across the bay and landed here in our back yard in Sausalito. How do we know? Because Jimmie and Stevie and Pete and I saw it happen. If you look close you can still see something dark on the heel. Something wet. That’s right. Blood. The little girl’s blood. No one knows where the other shoe is. Maybe a shark swallowed it. Maybe it’s in China. Want it? No? It’s your size.


Squinched in a window seat on the Greyhound Bus with white gloves on my lap and my first Kotex belt digging into my hip while the fat woman beside me scratches a pink hand oozing with poison oak and an old man behind me reaches through the space between the seats to stroke my elbow, once, before I yank it away to frown at a freighter passing in the gray water below and will myself to be on it, a foreign correspondent bound for adventure, adult and brave and free.


Ralph Mathis works in Tollbooth Three Ralph Mathis works in Toll booth Three Ralph Mathis works in Tollbooth Three—perhaps this time he’ll notice us—four high school girls from Drivers’ Ed—and let us into Johnny’s show for free.


Dan smells like Aqua Velva and Marlboros and I smell like Arpege and Tareytons. We pass a plastic cup of my parents’ gin mixed with his parents’ Scotch back and forth as we drive. My head is on his shoulder; I help him shift; he’s such a good driver he can steer the Ranchero with his knees. We have never seen each other dressed up before but this is surely how we’re meant to look from now on: he like Peter Gunn in his dark suit, me like Kim Novak in my strapless lavender gown. After the prom we are going to the Tonga Room and after the Tonga Room we are going to not-go-all-the-way under the bridge at Fort Point. I have not been this happy since

I was a baby. I will write a poem about the city, the way the lights look like jewels on velvet, no, sequins on slate, no, diamonds on a pet jaguar’s back, but I will have to write it later, for there is nothing in my purse but lipstick and a dollar, no pen, no paper. Dan turns the radio up—it’s our song—Andre Previn, “Like Young”—and blows a perfect smoke ring and I poke through the center with my index finger like I always do and we both laugh as we cross over our bridge into our city.


The baby sings in the backseat. The baby does not know that the lanes are too narrow. The baby does not know there’s a drunk in a Corvette careening in front of us, a legion of tourist buses crowding behind us, a blind man on one side, a stroke victim on the other. She doesn’t fear the proximity of the guardrail or expect the towers to crumble or the girders to buckle or the pavement to break in midair like a plank sawed in half, which is exactly what will happen the minute we bomb Cuba and Russia bombs us back and I am forced to roar into the open gap braking all the way down to the ocean floor as the baby sings in the backseat. E I E I O.


Jay jumped. Twenty-seven years old. No one knows why. Oh there were reasons. He’d lost his job at the paper. He’d started drinking again. He feared he was gay. He feared he was crazy. His wife had divorced him. She’d taken his son. She’d taken his dog. His son called her new boyfriend Dad. There was a lump in his groin. He owed ten thousand dollars. He had to beg from his father. He hated his father. His car had blown up. He lived in a motel. He was losing his hair. He’d gained thirty pounds. His left molar throbbed. He was brilliant and kind and funny and good but Jay had never learned and never would learn to play the saxophone the way the saxophone should be played so what was the point, Jay whispered, leg over the railing, what was the goddamned point?


Toni meant to jump. She parked at Vista Point but when she saw the perfect moon rise over the perfect silver water she thought: Not now.

One thought on “Life Span

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Captcha loading...