top of page

Toll Taker







     For the first time, Martin Harper elbowed his way into the Ben Franklin Bridge's employee’s common  room. Traffic noise subsided as the door automatically shut behind him. The  table in front of the restrooms was occupied by three men and one woman—all in dark blue overalls. Their table was strewn with hard hats, lunch bags, and the remnants of four hearty meals. Without looking up, a man with a ponytail pointed Martin to the second table, “Toll takers that way.”

     At a second table near the rear of the room, a round-faced woman with chestnut eyes beckoned Martin. “Hey newbie,” the woman stretched out a well-tattooed arm. “Names Gretchen Cole. Everyone calls me Gretta. Second day how’s it—“

     “AND THEY CALL HER OTHER THINGS!” The woman from the maintenance table shouted. and was joined by a chorus of laughter from the rest of her crew.

     “That’ll be enough from you cable climbers.” Gretta teased.

     Martin shook her hand. “Martin Harper. Please call me Marty.” 

     “Okay Marty. Second day. How’s it going?”

     “Better than the first.” Marty popped the top of chicken salad.  “Always thought making change was simple. But when people are handing you tens, twenties, and hundred dollar bills and other folks people are honking behind them—''

     “Honking?” Gretta's eyes flashed concern. “You gotta watch for the setups, Marty.”


     Gretta pulled out a piece of Swiss cheese from the middle of her sandwich, inspected both sides, and laid it aside with an, “ugh. Yeah. Biggest is passing phony Ben Franklin's.”

     Confused, Marty looked up from his salad. 

     “Bogus hundred dollar bills. . . Takes two of 'em. First driver passes you a counterfeit bill to pay the seven-dollar toll. Behind him or her, their buddy starts blasting the horn and you start making change without taking time to give the bogus bill a good look see. Happens all the time. Have to pay attention.”

     Marty speared an olive. “Any more scams I should be looking for?”

     “If you’ve got a pencil. I got about twenty I can think of right off the top of my head.”




     “Here comes our newbie,” Gretta said to the man across from her as Marty entered the lunchroom.     “How’s it going, Marty?”

     “Better and better. One clown laughingly gave me fourteen rolls of pennies and told me to count them. . . I thought about your comments, pulled out my cell phone and pretended to take a picture of him, his car, and license plate. When he asked why, I told him we hung them on our asshole wall. He peeled rubber and headed on to the mainland.”

     “Think I heard him taking off,” Gretta laughed and bit into a three-layer tuna fish sandwich.

     “Wondered about that clown. White Ram pickup truck, right?” said the man with a well-waxed mustache sitting across from Gretta. “Thought you might've done something to piss him off and he was stiffing you for the toll.” The man offered his hand. “Welcome aboard, Ralph Brush.”

     “Marty Harper.” Marty shook hands and then spread a napkin on the table. On top, he laid an egg salad sandwich, two dill pickle slices, chips, and a Fuji apple. 

     “You one of those vegetarians?” Gretta asked. “Salad yesterday. Eggs today.”

     “You watching my diet?” Marty laughed.

     “Not being nosy, mind you. But you're—“

     “Yes, she is.” Ralph touched the tip of his nose.

     Gretta glared at Ralph then smiled at Marty, “You're kinda skinny. Meat and potatoes would fatten you up a bit.”

      “If you’re offering lunch I’m in.” Marty smiled eagerly. 

      “Me too?” Ralph asked hopefully.

     “I wasn't talking to you.” Gretta snarled playfully at Ralph, touched the tip of her nose with her left hand and made a perfect arching hook shot with her lunch bag into the trash bin. “Swish.” Gretta glanced at the wall clock. “Twenty more minutes, gents.”

     “Nice shot,” Ralph said with aquick lick of his lip. 

     “Juvenile compliments will not earn YOU  an incredibly delicious Gretta Cole lunch.” Gretta folded her arms across her chest and turned to Marty. “Any highlights on the job so far?” 

     “One. . .” Marty hesitated. 

     “And that would be?” Ralph twisted open the top of his thermos.

     “I seem to have a regular customer— She’s been coming through my toll booth since my first day. Eight-fifteen sharp. Drives an immaculate Edsel convertible.”

     “Nice design, but lots a little things went wrong with that car . . .” Ralph paused. “Public didn’t buy many of them. . . But I've seen that car. . . Red head? Late twenties - early thirties? Green eyes? Lots of freckles?”

     “That’s the one. Nice lady.”

     “Very nice. . .” Ralph looked at what was left of Marty’s lunch. “You gonna eat that other pickle slice?”

     “Don’t sound like you boys are talking cars.” Greta shot a look at the wall clock. “Either of you notice the color of the car?” Greta shuffled a plate knife and fork into a Nordstrom's carry bag and stood up.

     “Cherry red. A white stripe on the side. Always washed and waxed. You can tell the woman loves her car.” Marty said.

     “Well that's better.” Gretta laughed. “Gotta go. See you boys tomorrow.”

     “Where’s the bridge crew?” Marty asked as the door closed behind Gretta. 

     “Probably eating on the tower.” Ralph pointed to the ceiling. “View's terrific. You

gotta try it.”





     Gretta was sitting at the far side of the lunch table with her back to a vending machine with a large OUT OF ORDER taped to the top. Marty came in clutching a brown paper bag in his left hand and a small glass vase with two bright yellow tulips in his right. 

     “Marty, you getting flowers already?” Gretta shot him a suspicious look. “You lettin’ folks cross our bridge without paying the — Oh, no. Don't tell me.” Gretta grinned widely. “Marty. Marty. . . That from the redhead Edsel driver?”

     Sheepishly Marty nodded and gently placed the vase on the table. Next to the vase, he laid a small powder pink envelope. Around the name, Marty was drawn tiny blue and green butterflies. “She said my booth was drab. Needed some color.”

     “What’s her name?” Marty shrugged. “Be careful. I had a flirty fling a while back. Disaster. Turned out he was married. . . And a lousy lay besides.”

      “She’s young enough to be my daughter.”

      “You got kids?”

     Marty stared at the tulips for several long seconds then looked up. His eyes glassed over. “Lost both my daughter and my wife . . . to a drunk driver . . . three years and two months ago.” 

     “I’m so sorry.”

     “Me too.” Marty moved the tulips to his right and stared down at a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich.




     Ralph and Gretta were already halfway through lunch when Marty shouldered his way through the door. In his outstretched arms, he carried a paper plate. On top was half a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. “Turns out Valerie and I both have the same birthday,” Marty offered before anyone asked. “Is that weird or what?”

     Gretta and Ralph exchanged a knowing look as Marty set a cake knife, paper plates, and plastic forks on the table.

     “So the redhead’s name is Valerie.” Gretta smiled. “Warned you.”

     “Would you like a slice or not?” 

     Gretta grabbed a fork and a plate. “Give. Let’s see if this woman . . . see if Valerie can bake.”

     Ralph leaned across the table and took a fork and a plate. “The Edsel brought you a birthday cake?”

     “Not originally. . . Not until we realized we shared the same birthday. That's when she handed me half the cake and told me to share it with the rest of the toll takers. . . And before I could refuse she drove off with a wave.”

     “Happy Birthday,” Gretta and Ralph said as one.




     “How is your dog doing?” Marty asked as he sat down.

     “Took her to the vet. Like me, Lola's gettin’ old. How’s your redhead?”

     “She’s in love.”

     “Get out of here. Marty, you devil—''

     “Not with me. She met someone online. Promised to tell me all about it. . . Of course, we never have time for a long conversation. Guess I'll get the story in bits and pieces.”

     “Hate to say I warned you.”

     “Gretta, she’s so young and she looks radiant.”

     “Yeah, and you look a bit disgruntled.”

     “She reminds me of my. . .” Marty’s turned away. “My youngest was a redhead.”




     Ralph was banging the glass on the vending machine as Marty entered the lunchroom on his morning break. “Damn thing ate my dollar,” Ralph growled.

     “Valerie told me her new guy is cute and handsome at the same time.”

 Ralph whacked the glass again. “Third time this month. They should have left the out-of-order sign on this piece of junk.”

     “How can someone be cute and handsome at the same time?”

     Ralph looked over his shoulder. “What did you say?”




     Gretta looked up from a Sudoku puzzle as Marty pulled his lunch bag out of the common refrigerator saying, “Traffic's light today.”

     “Fellow you don’t look so good.” Gretta pushed the puzzle to one side. “You okay?”

     Marty set his lunch bag across from Gretta but left it unopened as he sat down with a sigh. “He’s a great dancer. Bought Valerie a corsage and a box of See's candy on their first date. Like some high school kid for god sake.”

     “Yeah,” Gretta grinned. “What woman would enjoy immature gestures like that?”

     “I agree,” Marty said then reached into his lunch bag and a pulled-out box wrapped in pink paper and topped with a pink bow. 

     Gretta stared in disbelief as Marty eased the gift across the table. “For me?”

     “For both of you.”

     “Both of us?”

     “The steak is for you. The bone's for Lola.” 




     The noise in the lunchroom joined the rumble of traffic as the lunchroom door opened and Marty entered.

     “So the bartender says to the horse. . .” A tall, muscular member of the bridge crew leaned across the lunch table and whispered “Why the long face?” Most of the crew laughed. The only female member sighed. “I think Adam told that one to Eve in the Garden of Eden.” Which got a second, louder laugh from the crew.

     Marty stopped at the end of the toll-taker table and said too loudly. “He took Valerie for a blimp ride! Who takes someone for a blimp ride on their second date? Who even thinks of taking someone for a blimp ride?”

     “Man’s incorrigible.” Gretta grimaced and peeled the last piece of rind off an orange. 

 From across the room, a female voice asked. “Does he have a brother?” The woman with the maintenance crew tilted back her hard hat and blinked her eyes flirtatiously.

     “Man wants to dally on a dirigible.” Ralph laughed. 

     “That wasn’t funny,” Marty said.

     Gretta gummed an orange section. “Yes, it was. Never thought about doing the deed on a dirigible.”




     Ralph sat next to Marty facing the door as Gretta and two other men entered the lunchroom. Despondently, Marty twirled an index finger in a bowl of alphabet soup. 

     Gretta joined the table and started to introduce both men. “Bob Whitaker and Paul Joola. They're usually on the night crew. But they'll be here substituting – Jesus, Marty you look terrible. What's going on?”

     Marty didn't look up. 

     Ralph answered the question. “Valerie’s engaged.”

      Whitaker and Joola exchanged confused looks.

     “How do you know?” Gretta asked

     “When. . . “ Marty stuttered. “When she paid her toll she flashed her beautiful smile and a large diamond ring.”

     “That was quick,” Gretta said.

     “Too quick,” Ralph added.

     “I know,” Marty sighed. "And she looks so darn happy.”

     Gretta and Ralph exchanged a knowing look.

     “This about the redhead in the red Edsel convertible?” Whitaker asked. 

     “Has to be,” Joola said. 

     Embarrassed, Marty looked from face to face. 

     “Sorry,” Gretta said. “There's not a lot to talk about around here.” 




     “I'm afraid to ask,” Gretta said as Marty sat down. 

     It's okay,” Marty touched the tip of his nose. “Go ahead.”

     “No. No. Valerie is really none of my business.” Gretta nodded. “I get it.”

     They ate in silence. Until Marty looked up. “When they set a date . . . I’m invited to wedding date.” 




     “September 15,” Marty said.

     “That's only three weeks from now.” Ralph poured coffee into his cup from his thermos.

     “Wow, that was really quick,” Gretta said.

     “Too quick, don't you think?” Marty asked. 

     “Do I detect a tad of jealousy?” 

     Marty shrugged. “Valerie’s hoping for a Hawaiian Honeymoon.”




     The room was noisy and crowded. “That's What Friends Are For, “ by Dionne and Friends played from a boom box on top of the OUT OF ORDER vending machine. A TACO TUESDAY SIGN was draped across the far wall. Toll takers and the bridge crew intermingled causally flirting, discussing sports, politics, and in one corner –  Valerie's marriage plans.

     “The wedding date has been delayed. Maybe till January next year,” Marty sighed with obvious relief. 

     “You know,” Ralph said. “Marty, you do go on and on about that woman,” 

     “Hear, hear,” Whitaker lifted a taco high in the air. 

     “Did Valerie tell you why the delay?” Gretta asked. 

     “I get everything in bits and pieces or the car behind her starts honkin'.” 




     “His divorce won't be final until January.”

     “He was married all this time?”  Gertta hissed. 

     Marty shrugged. “Something was off about this guy from the beginning.”

     “I'll bet Valerie didn't know he was married before the blimp ride.” Ralph offered.  

     “I'm going to ask her tomorrow.” 




     For the first time, Marty sat at the head of the table, Gretta on his right and Ralph on his left. Bob Whitaker and Paul Joola sat across from each other. 

     “Thanks to all of you for coming here after work,” Marty opened. “Something is wrong, and I need your help.” 

     Puzzled looks were exchanged around the table. “Whitaker and Joola, I barely know either of you and I know you know some of the story, but here's a short version. A beautiful redhead in a vintage Edsel started coming through my toll lane on my first day. Eight-fifteen sharp. One day she brought me flowers and then we found out we had the same birthday.  I didn't mean to-- Well, maybe 

I was flirting. . .”

     Gretta gently placed her hand over Marty's. 

     “Okay, I was smitten. But I knew she was too young. Out of bounds. . . Suddenly she was in love. And then engaged. I guess – ”

     “Don't want to be rude Marty,” Joola interrupted. “But it's Thursday night. There's a group of us who – ”

     “Yeah. Where is this going?” Whitaker asked 

     “Sorry.” Marty looked from face to face. “Last Friday when Valerie drove through my toll lane she had deep black bruises on her arm. She said was hit by a softball. They looked like finger marks. It looked like someone grabbed her. Someone grabbed her hard.”

     “You think her fiancé likes to play rough?” Gretta asked. 

     “You tell me. Monday morning Valerie drove through with the convertible top up, and she was wearing a long sleeve blouse, a scarf, and sunglasses.“

     “So?” Joola asked 

     “Unless it's raining, really pouring she never drives with the top-up. First time I've seen her in a long-sleeved blouse. And I could barely see the left side of her face, but it looked bruised and so did the side of her mouth.”

     “Guys an asshole.” Gretta sighed angrily.

     “Marty?” Ralph asked softly. “Why did you ask us here tonight?”

     “Since Monday, Valerie hasn't come through my toll lane once. I've asked around, has she been through any of your lanes?”

     Heads turned from one another. Marty accepted a chorus of 'no's.' 

     “Maybe she's on vacation,” Whitaker said. 

     “Nope. Valerie said she's saving her vacation days for the wedding and honeymoon.”

     “Flu? A lot of that going around.”

     “Family emergency?”

     “Like me. . .” Marty took a deep breath. “She's alone. Well, she was alone out here. And unless she bought a speed boat, she has to cross this bridge to get to work and back.”

     “Why don't you give her a call?” Whitaker suggested.

     “Never asked for her number.”

     “Always a gentleman.” Gretta smiled. 

     “If it isn't a lot of trouble, will you all keep a lookout?”








     The door flew open. Bob Whitaker pushed past two exiting members of the bridge crew. “Easy buddy,” the woman pushed the lip of her hard hat up with a finger. “Don't like being jostled by no one.”

     “Lady I don't know what's going on, but it could be. . . it could be . . .” Whitaker moved toward the toll takers table.

     The woman grabbed his sleeve “Jesus, it could be what?”

     “Murder. Kidnapping. I don't know.” Whitaker said in passing.

     “Gotta hear this,” the woman said.

     “I'm down.” The man behind her said.

     Both members of the bridge crew followed Whitaker and took corner seats at the table. Whitaker took a deep breath and looked at Marty and Gretta who were already on high alert.

     “What's going on?” Marty asked at the same time eyeing the bridge crew.

     Gretta was not as subtle. “Okay, Tina what do you two want?”

     Tina pointed to Whitaker “Man said there's been a murder.”

     “Might have been a murder,” Whitaker said defensively avoiding any eye contact with Marty.

     “And?” Gretta asked Whitaker.

     “The Edsel. . . The Red Edsel . . . “

     Marty pulled his chair closer to the table. “Yes?”

     “Was it a 1960 Ranger Convertible?”

     “I don't know the model.”

     “Only seventy-six were made. . . “ Whitaker said confidently. “Probably only about twenty still around today.”

     Tina laid her hard hat on the table, “What the hell is this car lecture about? I thought you said there

was a murder.”

     “May have been a murder.”

     “Get on with it Whitaker,” Gretta said.

     “Eight-thirty this morning the Edsel came through my lane. Man was fumbling with the bills in his hand.” Whitaker looked up at Marty. ”I remembered your story and without even thinking about it I asked the guy 'How's Valerie?' He shoots me a startled look, shoves a twenty in my hand, and took off.”

     “Shit,” Marty said.

     “What did he look like?” Gretta asked.

     “Big dude. But everything happened so quick. . . “ Whitaker closed his eyes. “Black hair. Wearing those Highway Patrol sunglasses.” He looked at Marty. “Sorry. I know that's not much help. I was thinking about the story you told us.”

     “What story?” Tina looked around the table. And Marty told his story a second time.




     Sergeant Johnathan Dent looked across at Marty with frustration. “You know you're not helping a whole lot.” Marty nodded. “In that case, let's see what we haven't . . . and I'm emphasizing 

the haven't. . . got.”

     “I'm really sorry Sergeant.”

     “Yeah. Okay, her name is Valerie but you don't know her last name.”

     “We have the same birthday.”

     “Right. You . . .” Dent sighed, “and probably one hundred million other people.”


     “You don't know where she lives. Where she works. Even what she does when she does work.”

     “That's right.”

     “You're suspect is a big guy. A big guy who wears Highway Patrol sunglasses.”

     “That's right.”

     Sergeant Dent broke the lead on his number two pencil. “No Mister Harper that is wrong. You know almost nothing about this woman but suspect she's been murdered because some man is driving a car that is the same make and color as hers. You don't even have a license plate we can work with. Without more definitive--”

     Marty stood up.


     “I want to thank you for your time Sergeant-- If I can fill in a few blanks I will get back to you.”

     “Mr. Harper we try to--”

     Marty did a smart about-face and left the office.




     Someone had butted the maintenance crew table against the toll takers table. Members of both crews intermingled and looked shot confused looks at one another as Marty finished relating his experience with the local police department.

     “I didn't have much to offer.” Marty said, then asked around the tables, “Am I crazy? After Valerie found out he was married. . . and they had to delay the wedding. . . maybe she took off. . . sold the guy her car. Maybe she--”

     “Now that does sound crazy,” Gretta said.


     “The last part. Unless you've been exaggerating all along.”

     “I'm confused.”

     “So am I,” Tina said.

     “Ditto,” Ralph said.

     “Along with the rest of us.” Joola took a sip from a can of Diet Coke.

     “She loved her Edsel, right?” Gretta eyed Marty.


     “Well, maybe she did take off for a while, but there's no way she sold that Edsel or let someone else drive it.” Gretta glanced at the group. “All that said, the car's the place to begin.”

     “You're right. It's is a classic.” Whitaker jumped in. “Ten to one Valerie 's a member of a car club.”

     “If it's Valerie 's car . . . then the guy driving it is up to no good,” Ralph said.

     “Agreed,” Marty said. “Maybe I'm not crazy.”


     Marty stood. “I have two things I want to check out. But if you're in the mood and feel it's safe. . .

if a guy in an Edsel convertible comes through your toll lane. How about rattling his cage a bit.”




     “Anyone seen him?” Marty asked.

     “Wouldn't know if we had,” Gretta pointed across the table. “Whitaker's the only one who's seen his face. “I've been looking for the Edsel.

     “Me too,” Joola added.

     “Edsel first and we'll go from there.”




     “Nothing,” Marty asked.

     No one replied except Ralph. “Maybe we scared him off.”

     “Maybe we did.”




     “Bastard's done something,” Gretta hissed. “He comes driving the Edsel through my lane this a.m., top-down country song on the radio. Man starts to hand me a twenty. I pretended to drop it. Had to open my gate, and bend down real close to his door. Got my cell phone. Inched up face to face and said, 'Valerie told me you had to delay the wedding. Divorce won't be final till January, is that right?' He starts to say, 'How did--' and bam! He gives me the finger and he's off, but not before—” Gretta touched her temple. “Man's got dark hair five-ten or eleven. Hundred sixty of seventy. Good shape. Bushy eyebrows and a small Z-like scar on his left cheek. Still wearing Highway Patrol sunglasses. And,” Gretta held up her cell phone, “I got a picture of the license plate. Let's see what the cops can do with all that.”

     Marty, Tina, and Joola let out a soft cheer. “The license should give the authorities--”

     “VALERIE FORNAM!” Ralph shouted as he stormed through the door waving sheets of paper. “Her name is Valerie Fornam.” Ralph took a deep breath. “And she's a member in good standing of the Legends Car Club.” Ralph pulled out a second sheet of paper and held it high so everyone could see it. It was a full-page photo of a cherry-red Edsel. Ralph handed the photo to Marty. “Look familiar?”

Marty nodded.

     Ralph lifted the third piece of paper and flashed it around the table. “And. . . ta.. . da. . . “Here are all the Edsel's specifics including--” He pointed to a series of numbers at the top of the page. “The license plate.”

     “Let me see that,” Gretta almost ripped the sheet from Ralph's hand and held it up next to her phone.

     “BINGO! We have a match and a description.”

     Marty's face lit up. “And we can finally offer Valerie's last name.”




     Disappointment permeated the employee's room.

     “Not much help from the police.” Marty sighted. “Three weeks to check a license plate. Give me a break.”

     “I don't like the sergeant's attitude,” Gretta said puffing up her body and mimicking Police Sergeant Johnathan Dent's baritone. “Folks the police have a lot on our plate right now. Checking license plates is not a high priority.” Gretta squinched up her face and continued in an even lower voice. “And, Miss Gretta Cole, there are a hundred men who match this description.”

     “Gretta, you should be on television,” Tina said putting her hard hat on and heading for the exit.                “The rest of the bridge crew wants an update – what can I tell them?”

     “Tell them to give us a heads up if they see a red Edsel heading to the toll gates,” Marty said.

     “Yeah, I'll --” Tina clapped her hands. “Got an idea. Be right back.”



     Marty opened a manila folder and spread two sheets of paper on the table. “Valerie works . . . or at least. . .” Marty paused and took a deep breath. “Valerie worked for the Washington State Gambling Commission.”

     “They pay pretty good,” Whitaker said.

     “You're not helping,” Marty snapped.


     “Valerie was a Casino Technician. An expert. In high demand. She fixed slot machines all over the state.”

     “That's a woman I'd want on my side when I'm playing Wheel of Fortune for a dollar a pop.”

     “STOP IT!” Gretta whacked the table for silence. “What else do you have, Marty?”

     Marty looked around the table and said quietly, “None of her friends on the commission or the casinos she services have seen her for over three weeks. I spoke with a casino worker who said Valerie mentioned a man named Frank several times over lunch. A fellow technician reported to their boss that he suspected Valerie might be in an abusive relationship. He noticed bruises on her face and arms. He told the boss that it looked like someone had beat her up pretty bad.”

     “Boyfriend's an asshole,” Whitaker saidGretta smacked the table. 

     “Like to meet him.” Gretta smacked the table. “I'd stomp on his cajoles.”  

     Ralph glanced at Gretta. “Ouch. We got the message. Marty, did you find anything else?”

     Valerie had an appointment with H.R. On the fifteenth, but she never showed up.”

     Gretta took Marty's hand in hers. “I told you you weren't crazy.”

     The sound of commute traffic followed Tina into the employee's room. In each hand, she carried a brown shopping bag. “I have presents for everyone.” Her smile was contagious.

     “What do you got, girlfriend.” Gretta stifled a laugh.

     “Modern day Campbell soup cans without the string.”




     A blue Ram pickup was just heading to the mainland when Marty's two-radio buzzed. “This is Marty.”

     “Yo Marty. Ben Meyer, north tower, you got the Edsel heading your way. . . whoa, he's changing lanes looks like gate three.”

     “Thanks Ben.”

     Marty clicked the two-wayradio three times.

     “This is Joola.”

     “He's coming your way.”





     “He hands me a ten spot. I inspected it like I'm from the Treasury Department.” Joola laughed. “Dude got impatient. I say, 'How's the divorce going? I was looking forward to your wedding. Already bought a present.' He gives me a look. “Hit any women lately,” I asked. Mumbles something and I hand him back a single dollar bill. He stares at it. Then at me. I smiled. He took off without a word.” Joola snickered. “Rattling his cage we are.” Joola held up his two-wayradio and turned to Tina. “Thanks for these.”

     “You bet,” Tina said. “And we have a few other tricks up our sleeves don't we, Marty.”

     “We do. That we do.” Marty looked at Tina “Do you want me to start?”

     “Why not? They were your ideas in the first place.”

     Marty stood.  “Okay, seems like everyone's on board. Here's the plan.”





     The two-way radio incoming signal rang in all five toll gates. “This is Tyler at the island approach. Edsel's on the ramp.”

     Gretta, Joola, and Whitaker pushed the emergency stop button on their tollgate panels, grabbed large orange traffic cones, and exited their toll booths. Traffic already waiting in their lanes was ushered through with a wave of the arm and a simple “This one's on me.” Steel barrier gates lowered behind the last car in each lane. The trio placed the cones in front of the gates and directed cars to Ralph and Marty's lane.

     “Marty, this is Ben Meyer. He's passing under the north tower.”

     “Thanks, Ben,” Marty clicked the two-wayradio twice. “Tina, did you copy?”

     “Got it. Here we go.” Tina slid her chair from one side of the control panel to the other, eased the volume dial from three to nine, leaned into the microphone, and hit the loudspeaker switch. “HEY FRANK. . . VALERIE SAYS HI. . . WANTS TO KNOW HOW IT'S GOING WITH THE WIFE AND KIDS.

     Gretta raced into the observation room holding both ears. “Lord Tina! I think they heard that in Canada.”

     “That's what I was aimin' for. Wanted to get his – ”

     The crackle of a two-radio interrupted Tina.

     “Ben Meyer's here. Man in the Edsel got your message. He's looking everywhere at once.”

     “Tyler here. Frankie almost drove into a garbage truck.”

     “Keep at it, Tina. Dudes staring at the sky. Thinks he's getting a message from God”

     “Marty this is Ralph. I'm closing my lane. He has to come your way.”

     Gretta pointed out the observation window. “Traffic's backing up, but I can see the Edsel. He's jockeying his way toward Marty.”

     “Perfect.” Tina pointed to a five-legged desk chair. “You take over the microphone. Let's keep the pressure on. I've got another message to send.”

     Gretta hopped into the chair and leaned over the microphone. “FRANK. . .” Gretta thought back and remembered. “FRANK YOU PROMISED A HONEYMOON IN HAWAII.”

     Immediately there was a crackle from the two-way radio. “Dude's looking left and right. Up and down and banging his steering wheel.”

“Music to my ears,” Gretta laughed and looked at Tina. “And speaking of music, may I have the honors?”

     “Be my guest,” Tina laughed. “It's the blue button on your left. I've already set the volume.”

Gretta placed her palm on the button and peered out the window. “The Edsel's four cars from Marty.”


     “Hey man, what's with the one lane of traffic?” The teenage driver of a dull green minivan asked Marty.

     “Police emergency.”

     “Okay. But – ” The boy pointed upward. “Who's Valerie?”

     Marty gave the teenager a puzzled look.

     “Hey man it's all we're hearing about and now there's the emergency sign flashing on top of all the toll booths. Says HEY FRANK –  VALERIE IS WAITING FOR YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE.”

     “Oh, that – ”

     Both cars behind the minivan began to tap their horns politely. Behind them, a huge gap had been created. The Edsel had come to a complete stop. The man inside had removed his Highway Patrol sunglasses and was staring at the emergency sign flashing above the entire toll plaza.





     In the control booth, inside the observation room, Gretta pushed down the Fog Horn button. The horn already programmed to get your attention at volume three, wailed across the Ben Franklin Bridge.

     Frank leapt from the Edsel and darted back through traffic away from the toll plaza. He never saw the Harley Davidson weaving expertly between vehicles. His death was proclaimed accidental by the Mount Vernon Police Department after a brief investigation.




     Marty, Gretta, and Ralph were cleaning up after the celebration.

     “That was quite a party,” Ralph said.

     Gretta tapped Marty on the shoulder. “You took us all on quite an adventure my friend.”

     “That it was.” Marty smiled. “Will, you help me take down this sign.”









     Except for Marty and Gretta at the far table, the room was empty when a young man pushed through the door.

     “Hey Newbie,” Marty and Gretta said as one, slapped a high-five, and broke into unrestrained laughter.

     Cautiously the man approached. “Is this the toll takers table?”

     “That it is. That it is.” Gretta laughed.

     Marty extended a hand. “Welcome aboard. I'm Marty Harper. And this lovely lady to my left is Gretchen Cole, but everyone calls her Gretta.”

     “Nice to meet you both,” the newbie took a seat. “So you're Marty.”  The newbie reached in his jacket and handed Marty a small pink envelope with tiny butterflies drawn down the left side. “A pretty woman handed me this an hour ago.  I believe this is for you. The paper inside matched the envelope.


To my favorite toll taker, Marty

     I hope you remember me. If you do, I owe you an apology. When I found out that Frank – hereafter known as the Jackass was married - I went to pieces. How bad was I?? Even sold the Jackass my Edsel. Nothing seemed to matter. The Jackass had no intention of ever getting a divorce. Got a ticket on a tramp steamer. Didn't know where it was going and didn't care. After a few months, I went from passenger to cook. This past year we traveled all over the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. So much to tell you. 

     Our birthday is coming up and I'd love to see you again. How about a cup of coffee and a big slice of chocolate cake? I hope you forgive me. 

Still Your Friend????



                                                                                                                                                    PAGE 13

bottom of page