|SOPHIE GOES APE by Sara Mossman|
Sophie had adjusted, as much as was possible, to a life with mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, but pulling down a 40-hour week always proved a challenge to her, no matter how “easy” the job. Yes, it’d been a slow slide from office work, to temping, to light retail, to fast food, and then finally to manning a tollbooth, a position she managed to snag with the help of a Department of Disabilities counsellor.
Besides withstanding the gasoline exhaust from all the passing cars, she had to contend with the relentless ocean of noise, the sweltering 100 degree Florida weather, the sight of car after car and truck after truck, as well as the berserk number of dirty looks and snide comments from the toll paying drivers. Frequent commentaries by drivers were,
“Hey, saving for that vacation cruise? Gimme a receipt right now please!” or
“Tough job, ain’t it, baby?” or
“I bet that cash stash under your mattress is getting’ pretty big, isn’t it?”
Basically most drivers assumed toll booth operators were sloths waiting for every chance to steal from the taxpayers. Her standard comeback as they drove off was a smile while muttering,
“Bipolar wench at your service, you bastards...”
Then one day, Sophie had the progressive ill fortune of meeting up with nasty Tommy Biggs, a loud mouthed, muscular, slightly overfed, American man driving a 1989, souped up, butter yellow, mint condition Cadillac from his father’s car lot in St. Petersburg. Tom Biggs was in his late thirties and loved all manner of evil, including dog fights, nudie bars, drinking binges and fixed up and foxed out tarts for hire on US Highway 41, as well as harassing homeless people late at night with his cousin Ben when they thought nobody else of importance was looking.
Tommy grinned and ran his right hand over his blonde buzz cut as he anticipated his mini assault on the upcoming toll booth operator. Sophie was a perfect target: (seemingly) shy, overweight, probably celibate for a good six to ten years, and no doubt wearing white socks and high-water stretch pants along with her worn out, light green uniform top.
Biggs reached into his pocket as he pulled up to Sophie’s booth and grabbed a giant pocket full of pennies.
“This is at least a buck!” He yelled at Sophie and then added, “The rest is a tip!” And with that he flung the hand full of change like a hardball of shrapnel at Sophie through the open top half of the government Dutch door and sped off laughing. Every set of tires going through her toll station affected the expected outcome of her till. Sophie scrambled about in her toll booth operator box to find all the change on the floor in between successive drivers so as to pick up and count the change. Sometimes he threw 89 cents, sometimes he threw barely more than fifty cents, and sometimes he threw a dollar with a bit more change.
Any other employee at the tollbooth station would have followed a grievance protocol for dealing with hostile drivers, but Sophie’s mental illness clouded her understanding of her rights. She was mainly worried about recovering the change off the floor so as to not get in “trouble”.
She was getting so obsessed with this man’s daily gag that she started losing sleep, something bipolar people cannot afford. After having reached the hazardous point of having not slept well for a total of three weeks, Sophie completely lost track of her medications, lost track of meals, and lost track of which days were her days off and which days were her days to work. She just showed up seven days a week and was sent home if she showed up on a day that she wasn’t scheduled. Normally very conscientious about her appearance, Sophie was now dishevelled and bleary, and rambled somewhat when speaking.
In Sophie’s neighbourhood, zoned commercial, was a costume shop, and it just so happened that Halloween was approaching in only two days.
“This is WAR,” thought Sophie. She’d been dreaming of going all out and dressing up as either a queen or a hairy jungle gorilla for years, but never had been able to stash away the cash for this fantasy.
“This year I’m not wearing another bed sheet toga with plastic flowers in my hair,” thought Sophie. Using her grocery cash, her medication co-pay cash (instead of buying medications), her phone bill money, a portion of her rent, and all her laundry quarters, she bought a black, hairy, realistic gorilla costume with a removable head.
“Screw renting the costume,” mulled Sophie to herself, “I need one of these...”
It was top of the line, and startling and frightening when worn. Sophie took the gorilla suit home, put it on, and practiced springing up and shouting very masculine monster noises. Again, no sleep. Sleep was irrelevant.
It was Halloween Day, and Sophie drove to work on empty in every sense of the word: no sleep in weeks, no meds in weeks, no food in days, dehydrated, no socks, underpants put on inside out as she’d used her laundry quarters to buy the costume, unbrushed, unwashed hair, unflossed and unbrushed teeth, no make-up, no body shower, not to mention her gas gauge, which registered about a 32nd of a tank. Her mission left in life was to spook the pants off her tormentor, Tommy Biggs.
Mr. Biggs usually passed through her booth at about 7:30 am, and used his binoculars from a distance to make sure he picked Sophie’s booth. That Halloween morning, a Thursday, was different, however.
The night before, while Sophie had been jumping off her bed and hopping around her apartment in her gorilla suit, Biggs had spent his whole night on his knees, praying to God for forgiveness for the first time in his life. His cousin Jenna had convinced him to go to a Baptist prayer service with her. Jenna knew about all of Tommie’s bad habits, vices and pastimes, including hurling fistfuls of pennies at Sophie at the toll booth, tossing frail, homeless vets headfirst into dumpsters in the middle of the night, heavy drinking, the turpitude of going to nudie bars, and the barbarity of supporting dog fighting.
That Wednesday night, the pastor of the church had started the service with old Baptist hymns, which ran up Tommy’s spine like velvet zippers straight to his tear ducts. His eyes hadn’t had a good flushing since his blighted childhood. Sad for many things, he was mostly devastated that not only did others hate him for his ill will, but he’d reached the point where he also hated himself. At the end of the service he was the first sinner to go forward to the altar to repent and accept Jesus as his saviour. The pastor told him that the best way to leave behind all the evil of the world was to get as involved in church life as possible: choir, men’s ministry, weekly prayer meetings, Sunday service, and help with upkeep of the church. Enduring faith was like a three-pegged sturdy stool, said the pastor: daily prayer, daily reading of the word of God from the Bible, and frequent fellowship with other believers.
Tommy sat up straight in his butter-yellow Caddy, nervously holding a new one dollar bill in his left hand and a hot java in his right hand. His Cadillac was extremely easy to steer. Without using his binoculars, as if by magnetism, his car floated into Sophie’s toll pay station. He held out the dollar, ready to say he was sorry to Sophie for having been such a jerk.
Meanwhile, as Sophie watched Tommy’s yellow Cadillac roll up she ducked down below the Dutch door and put on her gorilla head. With that, she sprung up like a madwoman and hollered “RAHHH!!!” in the most guttural and horrific manner possible.
Tommy hit the roof of his car, spilled his steaming hot coffee onto his right leg, peed his pants, and began having his first adult panic attack. Never in his grown-up life, odd as it seems, had anyone scared or tormented him. Of all the pranks to pull on Tommy Biggs, Sophie had unwittingly selected his Achilles heel of insecurities. Tommy’s older brother, Jack, used to hide behind doors, shower curtains, and closed closets when Tommie was as young as three, four, five, six, and seven.
Jack’s disguise when he’d snarl and jump out had been a gorilla monster mask. Jack was older than Tommy by five years and ended up dying of undetected, untreated pneumonia when Tommy was only eight. Tommy always secretly thought Jack died because Tommie hated his monster pranks so much. Tommy, sitting in his Cadillac, hadn’t seen a gorilla head, much less the best one on the market, in a good 30 years. He jolted through the toll booth area and parked as soon as he could on the side of the road.
“Oh Jesus, Lord be with me,” thought Tommy Biggs as he drenched his new Hawaiian shirt with tears of panic. A full-blown combustion was occurring in that butter yellow Caddy. A half hour later the state patrol pulled over and found Tommy in shock, unable to speak, staring straight ahead with tears rolling down his cheeks.
Meanwhile, back at the tollbooth, Sophie immediately began to draw attention to herself. Having had her coup, seeing Tommy Biggs spill his piping hot coffee, seeing him shriek like a toddler, seeing his eyes bug out, was simply not enough. Sophie, now completely gonzo, kept her gorilla head mask on and managed to frighten the daylights out of plenty of additional drivers—that is, until the cops got twenty frantic phone calls and realized that they had a renegade loon at the toll station. Along with the tollbooth head manager, the cops descended upon Sophie and put a brisk halt to her shift.
The manager explained that Sophie was a referral case from the disability office. Sophie was unable to coherently explain who or what drove her to bring a gorilla monster mask to work and scare innocent drivers. She was taken directly to a mental hospital where she got back on a pattern of regular sleep, a regular regimen of taking her meds, and into good hygiene. She would go on to have numerous constructive adventures, achievement, and even true love.
After three days in the local crisis unit, Tommy Biggs recovered his speech, received a referral for counselling, and faithfully kept attending the Baptist Church. He came to understand that the undetected pneumonia, which killed his brother Jack, was not his fault. He became a changed man.