Twenty-Seven Dollars’ Worth of Ice Cream
Driving to Rhode Island for vacation, I nearly get sideswiped when I begin to switch lanes. My younger daughter is in the back. She takes a deep breath but doesn’t scold me. I realize that I am always in a hurry. I am usually running late, if only for something imagined.
Later that week I make a wrong turn and end up at a tollbooth for the Newport Bridge. I do not want to cross the bridge, the expensive bridge, so I ask the tollbooth operator how to turn around. She replies that I have to cross the bridge and pay the four-dollar toll. I rail a bit, in a controlled way, about the inadequate signage. She remains unmoved.
“Can I use a credit card? I don’t have any cash.” I have just spent twenty-seven dollars on ice cream, which I now regret.
“No.” Her face is immoveable. “You can fill out a form and send in a check for ten dollars to cover the toll.”
Ten dollars! No. I fish through my wallet and the cup holders in the car. A dollar bill, quarters, nickels, dimes, cruddy from spilled drinks. I get up to three thirty-five. My two daughters help search the crannies of the car.
“Please move your car. There’s a line behind you.”
“Just a minute, just a minute.” I persevere; remember another zip pocket in my wallet. I get to four dollars. I hand her the crumpled bills and cruddy coins and try not to scowl. She looks like the meanest person I’ve ever seen. She waves me through.
The Newport Bridge is expansive and beautiful, and the sun is setting. Narragansett Bay sparkles like a postcard. I tell the girls to enjoy the view. Lena, my fifteen-year-old, sits next to me in front. She had made impatient noises throughout my ordeal. Now she says, “You didn’t have to talk to her like that.”
I push down my irritation, don’t let myself admit that she might be right. I am proud that I didn’t completely lose it. Behind that search for change in the car is the piled-up stress of late mortgage payments, bounced check fees, the deep inadequacy of never being on top of the bills. And twenty-seven dollars’ worth of ice cream.
I jokingly ask, “You guys want to go to Newport, as long as we’re here?”
Eliza, eleven, knowing we have spent four needless dollars to get here, is quick to say yes. But Lena will have none of it. And I remember the ice cream, the dessert I am bringing back for everyone else. Cousins, sisters, aunts and uncles. So we turn around.
“There isn’t a toll this way, is there?” I ask, hoping against hope. I really don’t have four dollars now. I am trying to keep it together, not let the shame come out as anger. The girls say a sign said two dollars, so I ask Lena to scour the remembered pocket of my purse. But it is two dollars per axle—four dollars again.
A new toll keeper, another unsmiling middle-aged woman in uniform and badge, awaits. Holding down my irritation, I explain my situation to her—that I had crossed the bridge only because there was no turning back, and I returned immediately. She too tells me I can pay ten dollars by mail. I beg her understanding, saying I never wanted to cross the bridge at all, much less twice.
Lena makes more impatient sounds, holding her hand to her forehead.
The toll operator calls for a manager, and another woman, younger and bleached blonde, appears almost instantly. She smiles at me, and I feel a flood of relief. She asks who had instructed me to cross the bridge.
“I didn’t get her name.”
“What did she look like?”
“Um—brunette?” Surly? Put upon? My unbending enemy?
The younger woman is standing and thus higher than the rest of us, which gives her further authority. She tells the toll keeper, “You can enter it as a U-turn for Mary Ellen.” The toll keeper punches some numbers.
“You mean I don’t have to pay? Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” We drive away, and I feel the tension pinging through my body. Lena speaks.
“You shouldn’t talk to them like that—“
I cut her off.
“Lena. You can’t tell me how to behave. My god.” My voice rings with force and authority. The car goes silent, though I can feel the force of Lena’s glowering beside me.
I drive on, and the rightness of Lena’s criticism floods through me. I have used my age, my position as a parent, and my assumed authority to silence her. I justified my behavior as due to stress—the ongoing financial mess of my life—and considered I had behaved well under the circumstances. I had not screamed! I had even told Toll Operator #2 that I was sorry for my irritated tone.
But Lena is right. Soon she will be an adult and will be able to assert her rightness, and I will no longer be able bully her into silence. I can see it coming.
I know when we get back, after I have calmed down some more, I will have to apologize.
Before we eat our ice cream.
Alice Knox Eaton is an English professor, the mother of teenagers, and a writer. Her personal essays have been published in the First Person column of The Chronicle of Higher Education and the online journal Flash Fiction World. She has also authored several academic articles about Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, and a number of African-American writers and cultural figures. She blogs at aliceinbloggingland.wordpress.com.