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Tollbooth Madonna

In her old age, the Virgin Mary moves to your town in the North Carolina backwoods, buys a fixer-upper and takes walks on the side of the freeway. As she walks, she hums —  a song by Lennon, or Handel’s Messiah. Or something else. A lullaby with a name you can’t remember, something whistled through an open window on the last day you were young.

The Virgin Mary on the highway, amid the blown-out tires and glass-sharp gravel and styrofoam cups stained with dip spit. She comes after sunrise and before the end of night shift, like a yellow clearance tag on the cuff of the new day. The sun on your plastic tollbooth window shows all the fingerprints.

You recognize her by her gait, the song, or because your brother calls you up and says, “Did you know the Virgin Mary lives right around here?”

“Thank goodness she was able to get in,” you say. The country, you mean, with immigration being what it is, and of course, there being no box for ‘Saint’ on the paperwork.

She arrives without fanfare, no donkey or frankincense. She leaves her sneakers on the porch, to air. The Madonna wears a pair of Sketchers GOWalk Arch Fits in light maroon. She double-knots the laces.


The Virgin Mary on the highway, rolling dandelions between her index finger and thumb. When people from town drive past, they roll down their car windows and wave. They shift politely into the middle lane. It’s spring. The grass comes up finespun as fur.

No one important lives in your town. Even the local weatherman commutes back and forth from Fayetteville. The Baptist minister worries the Pope will show up next. Or worse, Jesus Himself.

“We can’t have the second coming here,” people say to each other. “Think of the traffic.”

More traffic means more work for you, the click-slide of the window, rattling drawer, pointing at the sign: Exact Change, Please.

The Madonna always turns around before reaching you, as if you might charge her for walking. What does your tollbooth look like to her, flattened under the glare of the sun? Opaque and resistant. A silver thumbtack marking out Nowhere from Somewhere.


In summer, you are the last stop before the road trip begins, the beach vacation, the out-of-town-email-response. Families pull up in the pink dawn, already poor-tempered from packing and preparation, thermoses of coffee throwing steam. Their cars teem with boogie boards and chip bags the size of small children. The Madonna trails behind them with the sun.

“She’s funny, isn’t she?” they say. “But nice. Definitely nice.”

They say this with concern, like they’re waiting for you to tell them otherwise.

A class of Sunday schoolers leaves a skyline of candles on the Virgin Mary’s porch. She extinguishes the display with a bucket of dishwater. She leaves dough in a bowl on her windowsill, to rise.


The Virgin Mary on the highway, in fall. The grass grows, tall and brittle, to her calves. School starts, and everyone is late all the time. The cars scream past and do not slow, they come one after the other like notes at the bottom of a piano, like the huffs of a woman in labor. Always the strong, angry colors: red, grey, black. Her head covering flaps in the wind.

The Methodists want the Blessed Mother as a guest speaker for the youth group. They show up on her front porch, asking for the hits: the angel, the manger. Perhaps she could mention the benefits of virginity. They would feed her, of course — pizza.

The Virgin Mary just tilts her head politely, drying her hands on a chintz dish towel. It turns out she doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t eat pizza, either.

This is really the last straw. Nobody wants to say it, but they do, in texts, at home, in church, to each other. The Virgin Mary is weird. She sends dishes to the potluck that are too spicy to eat. She doesn’t keep up with college football.

“If she’s living here, she could at least try to get to know us,” people complain. “She could make an effort to fit in.”

They toss their trash out car windows. They pay their toll.


The Virgin Mary on the highway, mostly forgotten. She wades in ripples through the grass. Sometimes an artist passes through, hoping she’ll sit for a portrait, or a particularly penitent Catholic. “What’s she like?” they ask, running their hands up and down the wheel. “I mean, what should I expect?”

What is she like?

You went to her door once, toward the end. You wanted to tell her that no one pays attention unless you make them, until you hold them up for every last cent.

Your brother was dying then. A tumor on his liver the size of a quarter. His life was a noiseless walk through tall grass. He never asked anyone for anything, and when he died, you knew, people would say his life was a waste, if they spoke about him at all.

It didn’t have to be like that for the Virgin Mary. You wanted to tell her that.

It was Friday, the beginning of Shabbat. You saw through the window. The Virgin Mary alone at her kitchen table, watching the candles burn down, eating carefully the bread. It struck you then that she knew a thing or two about the way things are paid for. She understood what being worshipped demands of you, in the end.


They say the Virgin Mary might live here forever. Her tomatoes are doing well. She is accompanied by no miracles except one. When death, in all its forms, comes to visit your town  — when a toll is paid, at the line between Nowhere and Somewhere, leaving someone else behind — the grief-stricken open their doors to find a single pair of Sketchers sneakers on the porch, perched like a polyester butterfly.

One day, it happens to you.

Kayla Rutledge is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at NC State University. She is the recipient of the 2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction from NC State and the 2020 Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize in Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work has appeared in places like the Santa Ana River Review, Peatsmoke Journal, and Waxwing. She is currently working on a Southern gothic novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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