ou and Eddie Garcia pulled, from the storm tunnel in the cowfield that bordered your backyards, and from your own sere backyards, from amid wet, high weeds out in the field, from your green front yards, or the communal yard encircled by the houses of Westin St., or from deep window wells, or from beneath the flat stones that lined the creek out back -- in the pink mornings, at yellow mid-day, in the blue evenings, or from behind the beams of flashlights, and always in the heat, whether dim or prickled, seething or arid, and while devoured by mosquitoes, and despite the yapping dogs, and despite the neighbors who didn't like you two traversing their yards -- a dozen or so toads, and you would bring them in a gunny sack to one of the two red brick planters that abutted your front stoop. You boys would upend the sack—you on one side, Eddie on the other – and the toads tumbled with soft thumps, ten or so inches down, pale bellies, warty backs, meaty legs. Some would leap, others attempt to climb to the lip of the planter and you boys would, with middle fingers locked behind trigger thumbs, flick them hard on the underside of their chins. The smaller ones flew all the way to the opposite wall. They'd smack their skulls or spin ass-over-muzzle and hit the bottom corner of the planter wall, then leap and climb again and again and you boys would flick them back.
"The Alamo," you called the game, and how long you played depended on what the other neighborhood boys were up to: sandlot play, pellet gun wars, bike races. It was summer, so you played without a sense of time, tirelessly. Now and then, one of the other boys would join you for The Alamo, but most of them lost interest in minutes, rather than the hours that you and your best friend would devote to the game.
It had begun, you told yourselves, out of scientific interest. You'd begun believing you were testing their endurance, their persistence, their strength, and somehow, over the course of the season, it conflated with the old historical dramas your father made you watch. The largest toad you'd call Davy Crockett or Sam Houston, or John Wayne. What you learned, if anything, was that the creatures were more tireless than yourselves. You'd play till one of your were called in or until the mosquitoes harassed you indoors, or the other kids enticed you away to play something else. You'd release all but the largest into the night grasses out in the cowfield. Crockett or Houston or Wayne you'd keep in a jar until you could think of a suitable final experiment until the dissection. One of them you crucified. It baked under the sun until it was purple as a blood blister, dry as leather. Another one you tied to ten yards of twine around its ankle, tied the other end to the chain link fence out back. You flung the Crockett up and over the fence and into the creek, imagining it would drown. You'd retrieve it in the morning and dissect it. But when you and Eddie drew in the line, next day, all that remained of the creature were its rear feet and one naked shinbone. Horrified, shocked, you both laughed, a screaming, rattling hysteria. Threw the remains back into the black water. You said, "Musta been a snapping turtle."
Eddie said, "Yup. Ray Powell says they can bite through your finger, chop right through it."
"I'd buy that," you said.
For some reason you were tempted to stick your hand into the water. Eddie cleared his throat, said, "Do people eat toads?"
"Like they do frog's legs? Don't think so. I wouldn't."
That summer, you dissected around a dozen toads. To prepare them, you usually drowned them, first binding their rear legs, then dropping them into a bucket. You'd return an hour or so later, tack them belly-up and spread-eagle on a one-by-six board, and with a scalpel and scissors, open them up and remove their innards. You'd pin the guts to cardboard, label what you could identify, but neither of you really took the time to learn anything. If you couldn't identify an organ, you made something up: gall bladder, spleen, etc.
You experimented with killing methods sometimes, like the time you both prepared a mixture of gas, oil, and DDT in a Royal Crown Cola bottle. Eddie provided the funnel. That was the day your Uncle Kay dropped by to pick up a few automotive tools from your father. Kay was close to your age and you loved everything about him. He was pipe stem black, muscular as a bullwhip. Kay and his 16 touchdowns, his perfect bird-legged girl friend Tress, his pressed jeans, his oiled, parted hair, his white smile, his pockets full of change that he'd dispense to you and your friends with grandfatherly ease. Well, he drove up, that day, in his Mustang, and as he greeted you boys on the way to the front door, he took and doubletook your science, paused there in silence, stared at the toad, the tacks, the board, the scissors, the blade, the noxious bottle, the funnel, and you two on your knees. You felt your shoulders lift earward. Kay slid his hands into his pockets, jingled his coins. "Your daddy home," he said.
"He's in the living room, studying."
"Aw yeah, that's right."
You held the creature in your right fist. Eddie held the funnel in one hand, while his other was poised on the neck of the bottle.
"What y'all up to?
"Gonna dissect this guy," Eddie said.
"What's in the bottle?"
You told him.
Kay stepped a little closer, jingled the keys and coins in his pocket. His gold Converse shoes were impossibly clean. "Here to pick up some tools and so forth. Me and your Uncle Bobby gonna tune up his Fairlane."
"Dad won't mind if you go on in. Mama's getting her hair done with the girls."
Kay grinned. "Them ladies and they hair." The smile ebbed and he shrugged. He looked as though he was about to move toward the house, but all he did was clear his throat. "Gas, oil and bug poison, huh?"
You nodded and Eddie shrugged.
Kay nodded, too, but didn't otherwise move. Eddie cleared his throat, clasped the bottle around its throat, but didn't lift it. The toad squirmed in your grasp, and you tightened your grip. The animal pissed in your palm, but you held him tight, looked at Kay's ironed cuffs, his sun-colored sneakers.
Kay said, "Gonna make him drink that mess?"
You said, after a beat, "We figured it'd be faster than drowning him."
Eddie said. "So we can dissect him."
"A little surgery, huh?"
Eddie nodded and you said, "We wanna be doctors."
Kay nodded, said, "Good, good." Then, after a longish moment of quiet, he slipped his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms over his chest. His skin darkened: eggplant to navy to panther, to something that felt almost heavy on your own skin, a pulse, a throb, atmospheric weight. He was more solid than anything in the yard. Even his shadow had substance. You could feel his heat. You had never seen him or anyone else so black serious. "Lemme ask you fellas… can I ask y'all something?"
Before either of you could answer, Kay said, "How would you feel if someone was doin that to your child?"
It didn't end right away, but by the time June became July, the Alamo game petered out, and you two would hunt only one toad, bind it, drown and dissect it, display and label its parts. No games, no torture. You'd go to the library, the two of you -- now and then -- read up on human anatomy, biology, nature. Without discussing it, you tried to absorb Kay's gravity, but there was no fun in it, really. You'd hunt reptiles and amphibians down at the creek, identify them and let them go. You'd tag trees and study plants, but day by day, you spent more time with the other boys in sandlot games, or watched television, or went to the movies, the bowling alley, and you, yourself, took to building model cars, and Eddie to rebuilding his Schwinn Sting-ray, and flirting with June Pettigrew, the pale-quite girl who lived a couple houses down.
In late, late July, Eddie and his family went on some beach vacation in a place you'd never heard of. You and your father and Uncle Bob built a go-cart for you that week. You painted it red with a yellow lightning bolt and called it The Flash. Your big sister Bonnie took a job as a junior camp counselor. Your father took and passed his exam and began applying for jobs. Your mother hosted a Tupperware party. Your little sister Les broke her foot skateboarding. Dino Powell, the ugly boy who had a crush on Bonnie, bought a black '63 Beetle that seldom ran, and he and Kay spent hours in the Powell's yard taking it apart and putting it back together, while you watched and pestered them with questions. You more or less forgot about your science.
On the weekend morning just before Eddie's return, your father told you to mow the lawn, so you pulled the bright green mower, the rake and the edger from the shed out back. You worked hard and fast, hoping to finish before it grew too warm. Already it was in the high 80s and muggy. The backyard was mostly dry and stunted, so it took little time to cut it down. But the front was green, thick, and still slightly dewy. You had to move slowly to keep the grass from choking the engine dead. When you were half way through, it must have been in the mid-nineties, and sweat bit your eyes, made your jeans heavy, and your tee-shirt feel like latex on your back. You had trouble breathing. The air was all dark green and gas and oil and hot metal. Heat rose from the grass and wavered like liquid glass. When you closed your eyes everything was red. When you opened them again the whole world atomized for a few seconds and slowly drew together as a green blare.
Not more then ten paces from you, you saw a toad struggling away from the mower in the uncut grass. You cut a swath straight to it, and gave slow chase. You toyed with the creature: it scrambled right and you herded it left. It struggled the other way and you herded it back. The toad bounded with great difficulty under the hedge just outside Bonnie and Les's room and you followed till the hedge roots nearly choked the machine dead. You withdrew the mower and finished the yard. You took up the rake and began gathering up the clippings. Heat rasped against your ears. You wiped your brow, blinked. You saw the toad pulling its legless body across your neat lawn. The bottom of its torso hacked away, its stomach and intestines trailing behind it, pink and gray and bloodless. Your heart beat at the roof of your mouth, and you swallowed what felt like a hen's egg down your throat.
How many impulses swept through you in how short a time? Crank the motor up and kill the thing. Lift it up in the blades of the rake, run out back and fling it over the fence into the water. Hide, hide, run into the house and hide. You imagined your father stepping out of the house to inspect your work, discovering your cruelty and whipping you bloody. Or you'd collect the creature in a jar, take up Dad's shovel, climb the back fence and bury the jar. You'd pray for the creature, place wild flowers on the grave. Your parents would kick you out. Or they would make you cook and eat the toad. Your school bus would overturn one day, and you would be cut in two, crawl along the berm with your innards trailing you. Inside your head lay a long white hallway punctuated by dark gray rooms, none of which were furnished or comfortable or clean. You did nothing but watch the child pull itself across the grass. You felt the heat prickling your flesh. Everywhere.
Finally, finally, you dropped the rake and walked on your empty legs, back to the tool shed as the child pulled its entrails across the lawn at the base of your skull. In the dark gasoline smelling shed, you meant to take up the shovel, but for some reason you picked up your pitcher's mitt. Your hand, your arm jittered, your chest tightened. Tears rolled down your face and you hung the mitt back onto its hook and took the shovel. You moved your empty legs back to the front yard, and though you had walked back to where you had seen the child, there was no sign of it. So you walked an outward-moving spiral, methodically. Methodically, you checked under shrubs, and plants and bushes. Methodically, you crisscrossed the yard, then walked an inward-moving spiral. You did the same thing in the side yard, the same in the back. You searched until the insides of your shoes were slippery with sweat. You looked across the expanse of the yard. You looked in ridiculous places: tree trunks, the tops of shrubs, the sides of the houses, up into the sky, into the palms of your hands, your hands. You looked at your hands once more, just to make sure. Still, no child anywhere.
You walked to the stoop and sat, your trunk in the shade, your legs in the sun. You sat there till your clothes cooled a little, and your brow felt dry. You stood, cleaned up the tools and put them away. You went inside to tell your dad you'd done the job. "Good man," he said. "You free now. Gone and do whatever you want."
Reginald McKnight is a short story writer and novelist. He has won the O. Henry Award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and the Whiting Writer's Award, and many other awards and prizes for his work. In addition to writing, McKnight has been a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Maryland, College Park, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is currently the Hamilton Holmes Professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. He is the author of He Sleeps, Moustapha's Eclipse, I Get on the Bus, The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas and, White Boys, African American Wisdom and Wisdom of the African World.