, September 2023

At the Molly Pitcher service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, late July, as Carl and his younger brother and sister followed their father from the far end of the parking lot towards the building, a woman in the next aisle began screaming that her finger was caught in the car door as her young children looked on helplessly.

Ignoring the woman, their father told them, “Don’t look and walk faster.”

There was no one else around and the building looked distant through the blur of heat foiling up from the asphalt.

Their father was walking faster and pulling ahead.

“Mister, please help me!” the woman cried.

They were now past her and could not see her without turning around. Their father slowed to allow them to catch up but didn’t stop.

“Someone will help her,” he said. “They have police and security all over this place. Now, come on, let’s get inside.”

The blast of air conditioning when they entered gave them a chill. The bathrooms and food court were crowded. Nearby, a janitor was sweeping next to an overfull trash receptacle.

“Stay here,” their father said.

They watched him go over to the janitor and start talking to him. He was an older man and he had to lean in to hear what was being said. The man finally nodded, then resumed sweeping as their father came back.

“I told him about the woman in the parking lot and he said he would let someone know,” he explained. “Now, who needs to use the bathroom?”

They used the bathrooms, then went to McDonald’s.

The kids picked at their food and sipped their orange drinks, all three staring out the window at the hundreds of cars in the lot and the passing vehicles on the Turnpike.

“Alright, what’s wrong?” their father finally asked, eating fries from the two younger kids’ trays, as usual, too cheap to order food for himself, only coffee.

Nobody answered.

“Is it about that lady in the parking lot?” he asked, continuing to help himself to the fries, then tearing off a hunk of his youngest son’s hamburger. “Because if it is, there’s nothing to worry about. Someone will have helped her by now.”

“How do you know?” Carl asked.

“Well, I did tell someone who works here, and look at all the people in this place. I’m sure someone was there within seconds, and she’s probably already been treated at the First Aid station and is back on the road.”

Carl looked out the window. There were people going in and out of the building, but none looking around as if hearing screams for help.

After their father finished their food and smoked a cigarette, they headed back out to the parking lot. There were no cries or screams, no ambulance or police, only oppressive heat and the whir of traffic. The kids looked around in vain for signs of what had happened earlier as they followed their father back to the Datsun, inside of which they would have to continue down to Washington DC and spend the next week “on vacation” with him until the following Saturday at 5:00 pm, when they would finally be released back into their mother’s custody. ▪