In the middle of the afternoon, on the winding route hugging the coast, he got a flat tire. The car broke down between his workplace and home. There was little Denis could do but wait for help. He had lost his spare tire a long time ago and his tool kit was sporadically filled with a few, but not enough tools. It was a second-hand car, bought and wrought through hours of low wage work. It was a miracle that it had lasted for as long as it did.
He decided to sit on the hood of his car, using what he had left of the minutes on his cell phone plan to call upon friends who might offer him a ride home. No one answered. He lit up a cigarette and watched the cars drive by one after another. Denis looked over the cliff out into the waters. The waves, the rustling of the trees along the coast, the sprinkles of water being carried up to the road by the wind kept him busy for a while.
Afternoon turned to evening and there was little sign of help. His hands had dried from the cold air shifting down the coast. He had little to rush home to but being broken down over the cliffs, uninvited, as if an intruder to the side of the road was not what Denis had planned. His cellphone blinked and ran out of battery just as the last of the sun had set over the calmed waters. He stepped out onto the emergency lane and began walking. There was no more point in waiting.
They told me to never go past the outposts that led into the hills. I was safe where I was and was to live there for the rest of my life. Our days were spent in fear of going past the mud trails and into the wild. We were like a valley, surrounded by our people, our songs, our stories, and our way of life. Our view of the horizon was simply covered by hills and the hours of sporadic sunshine that dropped in through the different times of the year.
Every so often, when people grew frustrated and an air of despair swept through like a poisonous gas, someone would talk of escape. They threatened to leave, to head out into the unknown but it never happened. We would listen and console them, but we knew there was nothing anyone could do. We lived our lives the only way we knew how, but always knowing the hills were watching through day and night. We knew there was something beyond them in the distant horizon but as we grew older, it terrified us less and less.
Alone in my toll booth, I saw many people pass through on the course of their lives. I saw cars, I saw trucks, and bikes but mostly, I saw people in a rush. In the mornings, they dropped their coins and bills into my hands in a hurry and drove past to work. I would have to hear the occasional complaint about long lines and traffic jams but after a while, I couldn’t get myself to care too much. I sometimes offered apologies but usually, I stared blankly until the drivers would grunt or growl and drive through.
I didn’t know where they were going but they were headed somewhere over into the western part of the state. I never saw the same face twice, even though many of the cars going through were identical. During the rush hours, the impatient faces would look down the packed rows in anticipation of getting through. I always felt as if they saw me as a sort of gatekeeper and extortionist getting in the way of their lives. I was the unnecessary outpost between their lattes and their work, their families and their nights, wherever they happened to go to in the city.
At night, I was usually alone, and the cars were fewer, speeding through the regulated toll lanes in a fury. I would serve the occasional car and hand over a receipt but most of the vehicles were fitted with access passes allowing for a faster crossing. Sometimes, tourists would ask for directions. I would help them if I could but I would usually refer them to the gas station a mile down the road. I always knew where they were going but sometimes, there just wasn’t enough time to get the message across. The cars behind were always in a hurry to get through to the other side.
“Greed is a great driver of people,” I read somewhere once. I didn’t think it was true.
“Is it not ambition and the pursuit of something like happiness and greatness?” I used to ask and confirm to myself, without much validation.
When Mason got his first job, it was to pursue his ambition of working as an entrepreneur and achieve success in his businesses. The older and richer he got, the more he seemed without worry and carefree. He was promiscuous, he spent freely and did as he pleased. I saw his name in the paper once and although he appeared unhealthy and worn, he had achieved success without a doubt.
I met him once for coffee and he spoke openly with me about his exploits in life. We were friends, so I reached a point of confusion and worry, and I asked him “Don’t you fear you will lose your job and family if you get caught doing the things you do?”
“I don’t think about it that often. I’m too busy having a good time,” he replied, his boldness heightening. He had ordered the only alcoholic drink the coffee shop carried and nonchalantly offered me a prescription painkiller when I told him I had a slight headache.
When we decided to part ways at the end of the afternoon, I wished him good luck.
“There’s no luck involved, Tom. We get it all just the way we want it. Best wishes to you,” he stammered unhappily as I left.
Hal lived for the quiet and beautiful scenery of his small town.
“It’s what makes my village great and keeps us in a state of enduring and historic peace and calm,” he would think proudly.
His life was as planned, as expected and as he had wanted until tourists started arriving by the thousands. The first time he saw people from a land far from his, he was startled and curious.
“What could they want from our little town?” he wondered.
Before long, many people with unfamiliar faces and mannerisms unlike his own began arriving. Some stayed for long periods, some stayed only for weekends, but they arrived, without doubt, in early spring and mostly left in early winter. He saw young students and older couples taking pictures and walking through his village. He realized soon thereafter it was the beautiful nature that had hypnotized him that had also attracted so many others to his little town.
During the winters, Hal felt as if he was back to his old land, with a few families and neighbors and little to do but work. He began looking forward to the spring when people would start arriving again. The people of his town didn’t change much over the years, and Hal remained the same through the changing times. He would make brief friendships and in winter, he would read through the post cards received by his parents from guests who had stayed at their small Bed and Breakfast.
After a few years, the tourists stopped coming so frequently, deciding to opt for other places around the globe instead. His small town was mentioned less in travel guides and television and quite soon, most of the tourists, if there were any, were from close by towns out for a quiet weekend getaway. The euphoric buzz around his town had died down.
Hal moped around during the warmer seasons and caught the eye of his parents, who decided to send him on a vacation.
“Hal, you’ve been here watching people travel to our town for years. Don’t you think you should go see them now where ever they may be in the world?” they asked.
“It’s felt like a six month vacation every year for the past fifteen years. The world has already come to our doorstep. I think I’ll try to enjoy being home all year round again,” he said laughing.
Nothing ever made Benny happy. It seemed that he had forgotten how to enjoy the little things and the big things always escaped him. He always stated a logical cause behind his misery and a well calculated reason for his dissatisfaction. He complained about petty details, usually nothing that was ever life threatening or seemingly of any consequence. It never bothered me much, but I wondered how he could waste his time on such trivial matters. I also never understood how there could be someone in the world so unnecessarily miserable until I met him.
He complained and whined so much that I asked him once “Benny, what makes you happy?”
“I’ve never really thought about it but I’m glad you asked,” he said. “Happiness itself would make me happy. That’s the obvious answer. I guess it’s a combination of chemicals and feelings and what not. Let’s not get into that. But I know it’s not at the bottom of a bottle and I won’t ever find it in a paycheck. I guess I don’t really know. I know what makes me unhappy. A lot of this makes me unhappy,” he said.
“A lot of what, Benny?”, I asked, confused.
He looked at me like I was stupid.
“I guess if I think about it, complaining. Complaining makes me happy,” he said, wondering if I would be satisfied with his answer.
I stood there confused. I didn’t want to ask him anything else after that.
Every Sunday, my grandfather would take me to the convenience store near their home. He would let me choose my favorite ice cream and sit with me at one of the steel tables fitted with plastic chairs outside the shop. People would walk by and smile, but he would focus fully on me. I always chose either vanilla or chocolate. The other flavors were out of the question. Choosing was usually the most difficult decision of my weekend. My grandfather was a busy man but I don’t think anything brought him so much pleasure as seeing me enjoying myself, free to do as I pleased.
As grandpa grew older and weaker, he would give me a little bit of money and I would walk to the store myself. The ice cream would melt if I waited to get back home with it so I would eat it on the way back hoping to show him a little of what I had purchased. He would look over the dinner table where he was seated and express his approval. He always asked why I never bought him something and I would always smile my sheepish, guilty smile and then burst into laughter. Grandpa always brought the world to a standstill for me, especially on Sunday afternoons. I was usually too busy having a good time to worry about the details.
“Why do we work more and get paid less than the bosses?” Robbie would ask his mom every day. Robbie and his mother were day laborers, working around the city for daily wages through a contractor.
“Because work is a privilege, Robbie. We should take what we get and be happy with it,” his mother would always reply with her sights lowered to the ground.
“Are most people poor because they think people will stop working and get lazy if they have too much money, mama?” Robbie would continue.
The other workers didn’t like him because he talked too much. Really, it was because he asked questions that stirred unrest in their minds. Robbie poked and prodded, asked and pleaded for answers but he rarely received anything more than a usual standard reply and a shrug of the shoulders.
“Robbie, get back to work,” his supervisors would say to him whenever they caught him talking to the other employees. They knew he was smarter than the rest of them and as Robbie grew older, they asked his mother to stop bringing him to work.
“He’s an extra income for us. We really need the money,” his mother begged when confronted.
“But he’s such a smart boy, Rosetta. Why doesn’t he find something that will help him make something of himself?” one of the bosses replied.
“I don’t want to fill his head with hopes and dreams,” Rosetta said with tears in her eyes.
Robbie was let go the following day. Rosetta wasn’t given a reason and Robbie didn’t complain. From then on, he asked fewer questions and did his best to keep his head down like the rest of his coworkers.
They would walk onto the bus everyday at the same time and at the same bus stop. I couldn’t tell how old they were because they always sat at the front of the bus, usually in the same seats. Laughter was the medicine for all their woes. I never caught what they were laughing and joking about or even what they spoke about, but their bond was without question one of great friendship.
One morning, one of the two girls walked onto the bus and sat down alone. Initially, I wasn’t sure it was her because I was so used to seeing her as part of a pair. The bus was silent and like any other that rolled into town on cold, wet mornings. I speculated about the whereabouts of her partner but didn’t come up with a suitable reason for her disappearance. Maybe she found a new best friend, maybe she moved away, and I wondered even the worst of fates but didn’t think more about it. I didn’t really know them. She just stared out of the window, sometimes with her headphones wrapped around her ears. But from that day on, she walked alone and sat by herself, without the same smile and joy she had enjoyed on those little trips with her friend.
Jacob waited at the bus stop for his ride home. It was a day like any other. Overcast, threatening rain and crowded, especially in this part of the city. He saw a man approaching near to where he stood but Jacob didn’t raise his head. He knew very well how to mind his business. His headphones were playing some of his favorite music and he decided it must be some sort of ploy for money. Why else do people come up to strangers anymore, Jacob thought. From the corner of his eye, he watched a passenger walk away in haste and disgust. The man could obviously no longer stand to be in the presence of what was obviously a beggar. Within a few seconds the man approached where Jacob stood. He spoke but Jacob didn’t remove his headphones, hoping the man would go away, or at least realize that he was busy within his own world.
“Hey, do you have any friends for sale?” the man asked. His eyes sparkled blue and he looked disheveled. The effects of age and lifestyle had taken a toll upon his physique.
“I’m very sorry,” Jacob replied, unsure if his generalized apology would suffice to put off the man. The man walked away without quarrel and onto the next person. Jacob couldn’t help looking over. No one seemed to have heard the man’s request. A woman reached into her purse a pulled out a coin. The man stared blankly, eventually walking off without taking the money. He would be finding no friends here.