By J. Speer
He had a thankless job.
Jerry realized this as he worked the toll road booth collecting change and dollar bills from travelers in a rush. It was Thanksgiving Day. The wind blew cold outside the booth. Snow flurries scattered here and there in the wind. He pulled his upturned collar closer towards his neck. Then, he blew warm air into his hands. He had gloves on but due to changing money, he just had the finger-less knit kind that could grip easily. His fingers were slightly numb.
The Oklahoma turnpike was unusually busy the days prior to Thanksgiving. For days, he collected tolls from this stranger or that stranger, from Minivans to Porsches or Teslas. He greeted each with a smile and sent them on their way with a good holiday wish. “Have a great Thanksgiving, folks. Be safe traveling,” he’d add with a short wave. Most zoomed past once they cleared the booth, so they missed his send-off. Some were curt. Most were pre-occupied. Yet, a few here and there wished him a happy holiday too.
Jerry was 44 years old. He had worked at the factory damn near most of his adult life until it shut down last Spring. He had seen the advertisement for the toll booth job on Indeed. It took him a while to put together a resume since he wasn’t used to job shopping but he did eventually. They called him right away. But he was low man on the totem poll, a new hire, which meant he would work through the holiday season. He bargained with another co-worker. Give me Christmas day and I’ll give you Thanksgiving and Black Friday. It took some hard negotiations but it worked. Besides, he had plans for Christmas. Palm trees and white sandy beaches……maybe a margarita in his hand or a mojito. Florida or Cancun maybe….if Dianne could go. Wishful thinking, he said to himself.
He’d been dating Dianne off and on for a few years now. It wasn’t too serious, just fun. He was a widower. His wife, Lee had succumbed to cancer 6 or 7 years prior. It was a harsh ordeal to go through and he decided to stay single afterwards for quite a long time. The kids seemed to like Dianne enough. His 3 boys and daughter thought she was alright but he knew deep down that Dianne would never take the place of Lee in their hearts. It was just casual. They were more like friends than lovers really.
The wind blew harder outside the booth. He looked over and waved at George and Lucy, the other toll booth workers. They all looked out in unison at the growing darkness outside and the thicker flurries coming down swiftly now.
It was pretty much dead…..not a lot of travelers around 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day. He figured everybody was warm and cozy inside homes celebrating and feasting on turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. His mouth salivated at the thought of it. He exhaled.
In the distance, he could see headlights making their way slowly in the heavy snow towards the booth lanes. The driver seemed cautious and moved from one lane to the other as if trying to determine which toll booth to proceed to. Whomever it was, they decided on Jerry’s booth.
It wasn’t a fancy car, just a 4-door sedan in navy blue with tan interior. Jerry leaned out his window prepared to smile at the passenger.
“Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you’re doing alright in this snow tonight,” he said.
He looked at the woman in the car. She was pretty and she smiled back at him.
“Thank you,” she said as she gave him her toll ticket.
“$3.50,” he said to her. He noticed she turned down the music and the heat in the car. She had been listening to the kind of music he preferred too. It sounded like maybe a Kenny Chesney song or Dwight Yoakem.
She dug into her purse and gathered the money. She dropped it into his hand.
“Not very busy tonight are you guys?” She asked him. He noted the curls framing her face and the dimple on her right cheek. She was lovely, just as lovely as his wife Lee had been.
“Nope, not at all. Glad to have your company actually,” he said.
“Ah, I’m traveling from my mother’s. Went to see her at the nursing home,” she said. Her eyes seemed misty a bit. “Is there a diner nearby? I missed Thanksgiving dinner. Due to COVID, we can visit the nursing home but not remove our mask near the residents. Can’t risk getting them sick.”
“That’s good of you,” he said. He leaned further out the window. Nobody was coming down the toll road, so he figured he had some time to direct her.
“Try Claudette’s down the road. I think it’s exit 42A. Should be on the right. Best food around this area. They should be open tonight I think for the truckers. Claudette’s good about that, always taking care of them guys and in turn, they keep coming back,” he added.
“Try the pumpkin pie. Best around.” He continued.
She looked at him a bit.
“Are you busy tonight…..I mean, after your shift?” She said hesitantly as if it had just dawned on her. “Maybe we could go together, seeing as how you gotta work for Thanksgivin’ and all.”
She extended her hand with a slight wink. “I’m Lisa.”
He took her hand gladly and paused a bit when she said her name. Almost like Lee, he thought to himself. Normally, he’d decline….but maybe.
She didn’t really know what had come over her either. Usually she wasn’t so forward with any guy but she had a rough day at the nursing home. It was hard to see her mother there…hard to see her decline and her mom seemed sad and depressed. Lisa had done her best to cheer her mother up. She couldn’t afford to have her mother live with her. Her mom needed a nurse’s care and 24 hr attention, around the clock care. She was worried for her mom.
The man in the toll booth had smiled when she drove up. He was a nice man and something about his kind eyes appealed to her. So she had asked him. Why not? She reasoned.
They went to Thanksgiving dinner at Claudette’s that night. They laughed and joked and had a good time together. He ordered the turkey dinner with turkey gravy and homemade mashed potatoes. She ordered the same.
A year later, that thankless job and that chance encounter led to a marriage. They went to the justice of the peace before Thanksgiving. Jerry had talked to the kids about it and they were on board. Earlier, in the year, Lisa had gotten her LNA license through a state grant and with Jerry’s help, had moved her mother back home. She took care of the kids and her mom during the week days. Meanwhile, Jerry had gotten a slight raise at work and was doing well. On the weekends, Lisa would pull a double shift as an LNA while Jerry stayed home to watch the others. She did this to supplement the family’s income.
Together, Jerry and Lisa put together quite a nice spread for Thanksgiving at his small home. He was no longer a newbie at work, so he was able to get off for both Thursday and Friday. The kids and Lisa’s mom had helped with the dishes. They had made Lisa’s mom’s best recipes. The group bowed their heads for prayer and each went around the table saying what they were grateful for. Jerry said he was most thankful for a thankless job which turned into a blessing in disguise by meeting Lisa. Lisa smiled and hugged him. She said she was so thankful for him and her new family and that her mother could join them. They all nodded and smiled.
In that little home full of heart, it really was the happiest of all possible Thanksgivings.