A gift of free time on the toll road

It happened at an unlikely spot: on I-95, between the two Waterville exits. Traffic here is usually negligible, even during Maine's tourist season. Just past the first exit, I drive into what looks like an enormous used-car lot. I keep the motor running, air-conditioner going, for five or 10 minutes, an act of faith in forward motion.

Then I open the windows on this breezeless afternoon and shut off the motor.

Reports begin flying through the air, like the yellow Frisbee three children, stationed between cars, have started throwing. Something has overturned. A trailer. A walker stops to speculate with one seated driver, then moves on until someone else calls him over for news. He's one of the news-gatherers who set off down the highway, actively pursuing the facts.

Passive types sit, waiting for change. Restless ones walk the highway, apparently not driven by a need to know what is happening or when it might end, but needing to move. A man with long black hair paces back and forth by our car, pulled by his short-haired brown dog.

It's a sun-baked day - the end of summer. This kind of weather (it must be 85 degrees F.) makes it hard to welcome the mind-set that comes with fall, its shorter days and bigger responsibilities. License plates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, even Florida, show that many have come to Maine's vacationland from elsewhere.

My son is interested in license plates. That's how he amuses himself as 3 p.m. approaches.

"What do we have to eat?" he asks. I look around to see if a Good Humor truck happens to be stuck with the rest of us.

"How long do you think we'll be here?" he asks.

I shrug, wishing we'd eaten some lunch.

"Guess," he insists. "How long?"

"Can't tell," I foolishly persist, knowing what he wants is an answer, however inaccurate, not an evasion.

"Would you give a dollar if it was just another five minutes?"

I answer "yes" without hesitation.

"Five dollars?"

Yup. I wonder, as he no doubt does, how high I'll go, but he makes it easy for me. "Five hundred?"

"I'll take my chances," I say.

We're not the only ones who are hungry. Word comes back from one scouter that a family in a burgundy van is very upset. They're heading to a barbecue and bringing the food. Everyone's waiting.

We walk ahead, curious to see what's happening. A car is backing down the breakdown lane, seeking the exit we all wish we'd taken. Some people will do anything to get where they're going.

The family in the burgundy van takes a different approach. They've spread bags of groceries on the highway, filled with chips, condiments, and a cooler full of sodas. The back of the van is a banquet table.

Evidently, not all the food was meant for the grill: Two adults and three children chomp hero sandwiches. Soda cans snap, baseball caps sit backward on male heads. A round-faced, plump woman in red shorts and a sleeveless white top takes her last bite of sandwich. "Maybe I'll go for a little jog after lunch," she says to her husband, then chuckles.

Across the highway, on the grass beside the breakdown lane, a man in sneakers jogs. A boy rides his bike. It must have come off the rack on his parents' car. "Why not?" seems to be the prevailing spirit after an hour of waiting in the summer sun.

On the other side of the picnic van, a man sits on a low nylon beach chair, feet propped up, shades on, reading a paperback. Strangers mingle. It's as if a large picnic or carnival has taken over this unlikely site. I imagine candy wrappers and apple cores scattered over the interstate tomorrow, clogging the pathway of the hurried, the efficient, the determined-to-be-here-or-there.

If it gets late enough, maybe we'll just forget about our shopping. I'll shove my to-do list out of sight and slurp smoothies in the backyard with my son. We'll play catch and shoot baskets.

Visions of eternal sunshine float through my mind, when suddenly new sounds fill the air. Doors slam. Cars rev. Some drivers snap into immediate action, ready to make up for lost time, while others, reluctantly, throw the Frisbee just once more, then head back to their abandoned cars, waving to those they've met. Debris on the makeshift playground disappears as quickly as it appeared. Like summer in Maine, a stall in time.

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