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FICTION


Reading occupies most of my spare time. Three great motivators for this are a pitiful social life, a lack of cable television, and a chaste lust for librarians. That being said, my reading selection is markedly shallow, consisting of only four types: mysteries, biographies, historical fiction, and cookbooks. Write a plot-twisting World War II whodunit with Julia Child in a central culinary role and I will be the founder and president of your fan club.


Feeling unqualified to answer the question properly, I brought in a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and leaned it against the window of my booth. It’s got elements of all four of my restricted reading categories. Historical fiction— Great Depression era racial and economic tension in the deep South; Biography—Scout’s summer-time friend, Dill, is based on a young Truman Capote; Cookbooks: Calpurnia’s concoctions in Atticus Finch’s kitchen could make the mouth water of a Vegas tourist waddling out of an all-you-can-eat buffet; and Mystery—Boo Radley, one of the greatest mysteries of all.


The next note came four days later. Hey Toll Man, you continue to surprise. “Neighbors bring food with deathand flowers with sickness and little things in between.” It’s a quaint choice. What’s the name of a person who has treated you unfairly?


I wonder now if I had stopped replying at this point in the interchange, whether anything else would have happened. Would I have just been left alone, my life allowed to unfold along its measured course? I wish I knew. It might be comforting to know the exact spot at which I’d become powerless. It’s hard for me to acknowledge how much joy I got out of the notes, the first few, anyway. Someone wanted to know about me, my interests, my experiences. I knew the answer to who had treated


me unfairly right away. That wasn’t the challenge. Conveying the answers to the previous questions was easy: a movie case, a song recording, a book cover. But how was I supposed to get the message across that Ms. Thigpen, my high school geometry teacher, accused me of cheating on the final exam I aced after studying my ass off for two weeks? She convinced my classmates, the principal, and even my parents that I did not possess the intellect to pass her exam without a flaw. She failed me and I had to sit through her class for another year. After that, I didn’t see much point in trying.


Giving the problem of presentation some


thought, I went to the library to use the computers. I printed a picture of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. On the way home, I made a quick stop at the drug store to buy a frozen pizza and some art supplies. While the pizza was cooking, I cut out the picture of the witch and glued it to a piece of bright orange construction paper. I hadn’t used Elmer’s glue in over 15 years and I got a little carried away with the glitter and pipe cleaners. When I was finished, I had the old witch standing beside a large blackboard filled with geometric shapes and equations. Written in block purple letters above the top of the blackboard was the title Ms. Thigpen Bids You Welcome to the Gates of Geometry Hell. I put my art project up in the booth and had


another week of frequent comments from the drivers. People are generally so guarded about their perceived weaknesses and insecurities, but apparently that doesn’t apply to one’s math ability. It’s interesting to hear how many people proclaim they suck at math with such unabashed enthusiasm. Hey Toll Man, she didn’t look that scary to me, but


I could see the hidden potential. If you had your choice, what public official


would you most like to see fall? It’s important here that I establish the


sequence of my discovery. I thought the note’s reference to not looking scary was simply drawn from my caricature of Ms. Thigpen. I had no idea it might mean something else. In answer to the public official question, I put a picture of Alan Halstead, the Director of Caltrans, inside my booth. It was an unadulterated picture I printed from the Executive Biographies section of the Caltrans website. I didn’t share my reasons for displaying it in the booth and for the next few days, my coworkers called me a traitor, brown- noser, suck-up, and, my personal favorite, douche-bag. The director was unpopular for many reasons, but the ones that topped my list were the stagnant pay and cuts in benefits for transportation employees while he got a fat raise. When he fell from the top floor of the Caltrans


headquarters building in Sacramento, I took the picture down. My mind clung to the slim probability of coincidence and the police reports of suspected suicide added weight to my rationalization, though not enough to erase the tickle of guilt. I was almost successful in chalking it up to the Fates, when a nagging paranoia inspired a web search for Ms.


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