“Kill the toad, man. Before it kills you.”
That was the last thing my record producer ever said to me. He didn’t die or move away or anything. Like everyone else I know, he just got fed up and stopped talking to me. That was four years ago. I’ve been driving ever since.
My current travel companion smells like yeast and somebody else’s cigarettes. His name begins with a K but I gave up trying to remember it about a hundred miles back. I picked him up on I-65 at sunrise and he hasn’t stopped picking paint flecks off his jeans since, slipping them into a zippered pouch on his backpack. Had to ask him twice to stop singing. And I suspect I’ll either have to keep asking or shut the radio off. He’s telling me his story, how he wound up thumbing rides in the middle August, casting blame like breadcrumbs. Problem is, he still believes he’ll find his way home, oblivious to the defeat in his own eyes and the fact that he’s already booked passage on the orphan train. If not for a brainless supervisor, a lazy ex-girlfriend, a dismal zodiac reading, and some uppity negro named Tayshawn, my new friend would be the mayor of earth. His life is everyone’s fault but his. You can hear him working his tale out in fits and starts, repeating parts with added fervor, as if convincing me will somehow make it true.
He must realize his story’s out of gas so he decides to involve me. “So, Jeremy, is it? What do you do for a living?”
“You’re looking at it,” I say, eyes still on the road.
“That’s it, you just drive?”
“Jeremy the driver, eh?” A few seconds pass in silence, then he cocks his head like an overly curious basset hound, “So, you like an escort driver or whatchamacallit? A courier?”
I consider his original question again, vaguely aware of the underwater effect of heat shimmering on asphalt. What exactly do I do for a living? The question implies an exchange of some kind, a sacrifice maybe. But I don’t ask for much and I forfeit even less. I’m a nomad. Gas stations and ATM’s are my oases. And I’ve narrowed my addictions to exactly one. So I don’t really do much of anything. And I’m not sure what I do do actually qualifies as living.
K obviously reads too much into my silence. He snaps his dirty fingers and says, “I shoulda known, man. You’re running dope, aren’t you? Or is it guns? Just my friggin’ luck, hooking up with a damn drug smug—”
A familiar turbulence works its way through my system. I recognize the sound first, then the emotion. Laughter. My body and my brain are wracked with it. And when I realize how long it’s been since the last time, I laugh even harder. I can’t stop. Hell, I can barely drive.
The spasms subside when I narrowly miss sideswiping a tractor-trailer, sobering me up enough to make the exit and park alongside an antique gas pump. K is out of the car and heading toward the convenience store, either afraid or offended or both.
If he only knew how close to right he was.
I gave my sister cancer when we were nine. The adults in my world tried to convince me otherwise, but I knew what I knew.
The leaves were browning and the air reeked of exhaust from a nearby tire factory. I was Peter and she was Tinker Bell, dueling imaginary pirates when I knocked Katie out of our tree fort. The ambulance carted her off with a broken collarbone. She came home three months later with leukemia and died six months after that, on our birthday. We shared the same womb. She got the looks and brains. I got the attitude and all the healthy cells.
The shrinks talked about displacement, said that I was transferring blame and withdrawing to a dangerous place. Katie called me a silly boy for blaming myself, said that we were lucky that the broken collarbone helped them find the cancer so that God and Daddy could get her all healed up. That’s what she’d say, all healed up, with a pink-and-green inflection that made you believe it. I loved her even more for that.
We buried Katie two days later, along with the best of what was left of our family. My mother pretended that nothing happened. My father quit meeting my eyes. My brain told me I killed my twin sister.
Eventually they tried to replace Katie with a new baby. But it felt cheap, like buying a new hamster because the dog ate the last one, as if affections were disposable. Turns out, maybe they are.
Tink lost her light. Peter grew up, bitter and filled with regret.
I’m a little surprised when K-man returns from the men’s room, munching a Slim Jim and sipping chocolate milk. He leans one shoulder on the truck, trying to look casual but missing badly. It’s obvious he’s anxious about something but can’t figure how to broach the subject. Another attempt at small talk fizzles on his tongue so I point the neck of my Coke bottle at the tarp-covered truck bed and say, “Feel free to have a look around. Might put your mind at ease.”
His neck turns pink and his hands fly up, miming surrender. “Hey, you say you ain’t carrying any shit, then I guess you ain’t carrying any.”
He climbs back into my truck and I follow. Once we reach cruising speed I say, “Just to be clear, you know I never really said that.” I watch his eyebrows flirt with his hairline. “You know, that I wasn’t carrying.”
His face and hands morph into the sign language equivalent of Say what?
I shrug and hit the seek button on the radio. His fidgeting turns chronic and his eyes scan every crevice of the cab. He scratches phantom itches and keeps stretching his back to mask his curiosity. The radio dial pauses to preview the strongest signals, teasing us with snippets of rap, country, talk, metal, and sports until I hear an all-too familiar voice. As it too disappears, K’s hand shoots forward. “Go back, man. I love that tune.”
I manually crank the digits back until the familiar voice returns, my voice from another lifetime. For once I don’t ask him to quit singing.
The assumption early on was that I would follow in my father’s lucrative footsteps. Lord knows I had the training. In the early days, Dad used to make Katie and me travel with him to hick towns all over the southeast. He’d drop us off at the local ice cream shop with a pocketful of quarters while he drove to the big tent to begin his reconnaissance, shaking hands, praying, re-inspecting his hair, and choreographing the transitions between music, healings, and offering plates. Katie and I would mingle with the hordes of religious nuts, cripples, and thrill seekers before taking up our posts on the front row. Our job was to feed the kitty, to prime the pump, to get the ball rolling, or any number of clichéd synonyms for warming up the crowd. “Nobody likes to go first,” he’d say, as if our pretending were perfectly normal. “You two are like movie ushers for the Holy Spirit.” I hadn’t learned the word pimping yet. With Katie as my escort, I hobbled and grimaced onto the stage. After receiving my holy antidote, Katie would grab a microphone and testify to my previous afflictions and subsequent healing.
Dad eventually graduated from backwoods revivals to local religious programming, and from there to a national platform—the higher the profile, the more conservative the ministry. Once he massaged his Katie testimony into a tear-inducing spectacle, he gave up the healing routine altogether.
When I was fifteen I worked up the courage to challenge him on this. “Don’t you think it’s…I don’t know, sacrilegious to use Katie’s death to make money?”
“Is that what you think this is all about?” He looked shocked, hurt even. “Son, your sister’s death is the single worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But it’s like, like a casualty of war, unfortunate but necessary. It wreaked havoc on our lives, but God is using it for a greater good. Just like He’s going to use you.”
“You can tell God to keep his grubby hands off me.”
Dad smirked and shook his head. “You’re just like the Pharaoh, son. Your heart is as hard as your head–and that’s saying a lot. But mark my words, God is going to use you whether you sign up for eternity or not.”
“You mean like how you used us? In your healings?”
Dad flinched. He made a fist and I think he meant to use it. Instead he showed me his back, feeding the murder in my heart.
From that day forward my religion became the formation of a new self, the antithesis of my father, pursuing every god but his, indulging every whim into a fresh addiction. I moved in with communists, overdosed on jazz, and slept with blacks and Mexicans. Even forced myself to learn to write left-handed. The outlet for my cancerous existence was music, my own gritty brand of alt-rock. Rolling Stone christened me “an angry poet for a legion of disenfranchised misfits”. But I still couldn’t escape my father’s shadow. Art was not enough. I needed fame too, just to rub my father’s nose in it. Somewhere along the way I sabotaged my career, my passion, my one good gift, all for the empty pursuit of glory. I turned into the thing I hated most.
The Tennessee State troopers are out en force, tucked into blind spots on the median. The sight of them cranks on K’s curious fidgeting like a ratchet. His demeanor has sunk to just south of paranoid.
“You okay, man?” I say. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine, man. I’m fine. I mean, well, on second thought I guess I could use a tissue.” He leans forward and opens the glove box, then yelps like a little girl when Prince jumps into his lap.
“Calm down,” I say. “You’re gonna scare him.”
“Get him off me.” K tries mightily to shrink away from the hideous fist-sized toad resting on his thigh. “I think he freakin’ peed on me.”
“I think he thinks you peed on him.”
K’s feet keep backpedaling uselessly on the floor board until I scoop Prince into my own lap and caress his knobby brown flesh with my thumb. He blinks at the panting man in the passenger seat.
I was sober when Amanda told me she loved me—not a good combination at all.
“Wait,” I said. “You’re serious aren’t you?”
Eyes glistening, she bit her lip and nodded.
“We had a deal, remember?”
“What, you don’t think I know about you slipping out at night for cheeseburgers?” She meant this to be funny, making light of our ground rules—no hard drugs, no meat, and no falling in love. But it just hung there between us. Until the first tear fell, clearing tracks for others. I could never stand the way she looked like Katie when she cried.
“You know,” I said. “That’ is the single most unattractive quality I can think of.”
“What? Crying? Or the ability to actually fall in love with someone?”
“No, falling in love with me. I could never respect you for that.”
That same afternoon, I drove past public restrooms until I could hear her bladder scream for mercy. When she duck-walked into the ladies’ room at a rest stop in Colorado I crammed two thousand dollars and a hand-written note into her purse and gave it to the security officer at the information desk. The note said: Sorry.
And I was.
That was 2002, the winter I spent with the hippies. These were the real hippies, the grow-your-own types, Manson family throwbacks, free love enthusiasts, not the rich kids with smelly dreadlocks, $300 sandals, and corporately sponsored jam band festivals with working toilets. They adopted me into their community as one of their own. It didn’t hurt that I had money. Or that I evened out the guy/girl ratio. Or that I was half their age. Or that I was a bit of a celebrity.
We practiced a nightly ritual which included bonfires, guitars and tambourines, reefer, and something they called The Chosen One, although I never observed any actual choosing. It was more of an even rotation. When his or her turn came up, the chosen one would select from an assortment of modified crack pipes, load it with what looked to be flecks of dried paste, and commence to leisurely toking.
By the time the hallucinations commenced in full, we were all primed with marijuana and ready for a show. And the chosen one rarely disappointed. Our communal intoxication left us with the profound impression that we’d finally partaken in something real.
After my third stint as the chosen one, I left $500 in the community money bag and snuck out of camp with Prince and a handful of loaded baggies.
We find an abandoned campground at the base of the Smokey Mountains. It turns out that K is less jumpy when given a job to do. He doesn’t talk any less though, recounting his mother’s battle with lung cancer and her subsequent memorial service in excruciating detail while he twists a can opener around a can of baked beans. He’s done most of the work, as I’m too anxious to help. Tonight I’m the chosen one.
We devour multiple helpings of sausage and beans while the gray sky fades to black and the forest chatter finds its groove. K rekindles our flame; sparks spiral skyward like the sparks in my veins. With no preamble I retrieve Prince from the glove box, then forage through my gym bag to produce a blue plate wrapped in tissue paper. To K’s horror I hold the toad with one hand and press my thumbs against various glands, squirting milky venom onto the dry plate. As it dries, it turns the color and texture of rubber cement. Minutes later I scrape the residue into the pipe I stole from the hippies.
I offer K a toke and am secretly pleased when he declines.
After an awkward silence, he says, “A toad named Prince, huh?”
“Just so you know.” I say. “I was groomed to be a preacher. Sometimes it comes out when, you know, I’m seeing things.”
“You ever turn violent?”
“Not yet. But feel free to kill me if I do.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
And so it begins. The smoky nectar burns in my mouth, my head, and my lungs before I feel it leaching into my bloodstream. I’ve only ever had one bad trip on this stuff and thankfully this doesn’t feel like another one. The first wave turns the forest into a kaleidoscope of grays and greens. The second wave is jazz, snippets of Coltrane bopping through the second movement of A Love Supreme, my heart keeping time with the inimitable Elvin Jones. Then I can smell a mixture of Katie’s skin and mom’s spice rack. Diamonds wink in my peripheral vision and I have the sensation of sifting endless mounds of dry soil with my hands. A voice not unlike mine alternates between laughing and whimpering, sometimes both together. My bloodstream teems with warm chlorophyll, my legs take root in the soil and spider out in every direction, my arms multiply and sprout impossibly-hued leaves. My last cognizant impression is one of me towering over a wide-eyed semi-stranger with a sermon welling up inside me. I think the stranger’s name begins with K.
My relationship with my father devolved into a series of nods and grunts and public pleasantries. Somewhere along the way, he’d lost the ability to distinguish between the mission and the ministry. Arrogance and the almighty dollar blurred the lines between the sacred and tacitly profane. This became clear to me on my seventeenth birthday when he excused himself from my party to take a phone call in his office. Shoulders touching, mom and I cut the cake and dished the ice cream for a gaggle of friends and aunts and cousins assembled to exaggerate yet another meaningless milestone. Ten minutes later I was dispatched to Dad’s office to tell him his ice cream was melting. But as I raised my hand to knock I heard Katie’s name. After a wave of guilt—I’d failed to pause even once that day to stop and think about my sister–I craned my ear and listened.
“I know, Stan. I know. But we can’t keep borrowing money just to save a few employees. We either need a new bag of tricks or the layoffs are inevitable.”
Stan Ewing was Dad’s business manager and maybe the only decent human being in their waning religious empire. He was a whiz with numbers and knew more dirty jokes than the drummer in my band.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Dad said. “But as much as I hate to admit it, we’ve milked the whole Katie angle dry. It’s got no traction any more.”
He went silent for a few beats, then laughed.
“Unless you know any lepers we can heal or any more dead daughters to—”
The first blow missed the target. It caught Dad in the ear and sent the phone skittering across the hardwood. Between his shock and my momentum, his cordovan chair flipped backward and I was on top of him, showering fists into his miserable face. My tears mixed with his blood and skewed cartilage.
Mother found us sprawled on the office floor, Dad unconscious and me flailing impotently with my broken hand and weeping.
I don’t remember, but mom swore I kept repeating, “You promised, Daddy. You promised Katie you’d get her all healed up.”
I’m flat on my back, basking in the hallucinogenic afterglow when I smell coffee. The sky is a big blue bowl of popcorn clouds. A twin engine prop plane buzzes somewhere above and behind me. The best part of abusing Prince’s venom is the sweet, velvety hangover—no nasty headaches or heartburn, just lapping waves of melancholy and a few twisted memories.
“You okay?” I recognize the voice, but still can’t place anything but the K.
“Yeah,” I say, my tongue pasted to the inside of my mouth. “So far so good.”
“That was some show you put on last night. Kind of like fire-and-brimstone with a dapple of honey.”
I respond by grinning and moaning.
“Tell me something, is the Repo Man supposed to be Jesus?”
“I guess so. I don’t know, maybe.”
He’s quiet for a while, then says, “Thanks.”
“For what?” I say, although I think I know the answer. I can see the change in his eyes. He’s not my first convert. And frankly, if not for the lingering effects of toad venom, it would really piss me off.
“I can’t explain it really,” he says. “I guess you could say I found Jesus, or he found me or something. Either way, you introduced us and now I got my walking papers, so to speak. So, like I said, thanks.”
“Great, my life’s calling. I’m pimping for a God I have no use for.” But that’s not entirely true and I know it. Dad was right; my heart was hardened, but more like glass than iron. And behold, when the Repo Man stood at the door and knocked, he used a tire iron and shattered it into million pieces. And as hard as I rail against it, I sense my own conversion metastasizing in bits and pieces, patched and pasted and quilted with only minimal and begrudging consent from me. But my inner cynic refuses to concede or admit anything. “Hate to break it to you partner, but you’re about to trade the best years of your life for a few cheap, religious thrills.”
He’s quiet again, then says, “Listen, just so you know. I took your toad down to the creek and let him go. I think he was killing you, man.”
I stare at my shoes, resolved to press my rage through the fog in my brain. A twig snaps somewhere in the distance and I realize I’m alone. “Hey man, what’s your name again?”
But he’s already gone.