We were driving north through the desert in a 1954 Buick Skylark. We’d been down on our luck and in desperate need of getting out of the rotten town we’d found ourselves in. A thousand miles from anywhere and short on cash. We’d needed a ride, we’d need one bad. We’d found the Skylark at a local junk yard waiting to be crushed. It cost us less than a bottle of the rough local beer. The owner of the junk yard had been a leathery old lady with a peg-leg and no teeth. She’d laughed as we drove the car out of the gates. It had been a nasty laugh like bubbling tar. The Buick was a wreck this much we knew. It’d been yellow once, now it was all faded and rusted, dented and pockmarked. With the bulbous shape of the bonnet it looked like we were driving a tumour or a particularly bloated corpse. That had been two weeks ago. Now we had no idea where we were. The desert was endless, we had no map, there were no signs, we didn’t even know where we were heading. Two weeks of driving through dust and all we had to show for it was a glove compartment full of toads. I don’t even remember where the toads came from. I don’t remember a lot of things these days.
I held the big steering wheel at the top with a single lazy hand at the end of an equally lazy arm. It hardly even seemed worth steering most of the time. The roads were all razor straight and glass smooth. On the horizon the sun was starting to set. Lurid pinks danced with yellows and oranges in a cloudless sky, a massive orgy in a melting sky.
Benz lounged in the passenger seat with a toad held above his head, staring at it’s pale and warty belly with eyes like saucers. His tongue darted out, snake-like, tasting the toad’s underbelly.
“Benz. Hey Benz” I said. He didn’t reply, still enthralled to the toad. “Gimme that!” I shouted, snatching at the helpless creature in his hands. I missed. I kept batting at him trying in vain to take the toad from him and wrestle his attention back into the flimsy and nebulous place that is reality. Clutching the amphibian under his arm he flailed at me, slapping my head. Fending off his arm with one hand I lunged for that blasted toad. That was when I lost control of the wheel. A Skylark veering off an arrow straight road at 60 miles an hour is not a relaxing experience. Two tons of steel isn’t easily convinced to slow down, even when the going’s rough and heavy. The whole experience felt a lot like life. It was plain sailing on the straight and narrow, but the minute you stray off the beaten path things start to go wrong. Like the Buick you can try to smash your way through everything that gets in your way but you’ll eventually get whittled down and shattered into oblivion. A whole army of cacti fell as we careered into the dusty wastes, I was too dazed by the shock of it all to even think of taking my foot off the gas. Eventually the old Skylark tried to plough over a ditch or a hole, some sort of shitty topological blindsider like that. The noise was like someone tearing a wet rusty gong in half with their teeth. The engine spluttered and stopped, leaving us to rumble our way to a stop against a big fat Saguaro.
I slumped back in my seat and sighed, just happy to be alive, trying vainly not to think about the fact that the Buick was clearly not going to start again. The thought of being stranded wasn’t something I really wanted to contemplate right then. Benz started from his toady fugue and slowly turned his head towards me.
“You’re the reason we can’t have nice things!” he shouted.
Wrenching the sack of toads from the glove compartment he hoped out of the car, not even bothering to open the door and made a beeline for the horizon. In my hand I still held the toad I’d snatched from Benz. It let out a cry like a chain-smoking crow. Shrugging I liked it’s belly. I mean, what was the worst that could happen?
The next couple of hours are still a bit vague. I can only remember flashes of things. Brush-strokes of marmalade across a tangerine sky. An old woman crying snakes into a river made of wishes. An upside down mountain filled with bees. That the colour mauve is really a nice guy once you get to know him. All memories etched in moments of clouded glass. Then came the clarity, like rising out of sleep or breaking clear from the clouds into the rarefied dome of heavens, all crystal blue and crisply clean. I found myself where I now stand: a vast plain of coarse, grey dirt. The nothingness surrounded me on all sides, the sole interruption to the expanse was a figure standing a couple of yards away from me. He stood with his back facing me. All I could see of him was a mop of thick curly black hair and his coat, a big trench that looked like it was made from old and rotten sail cloth. They turned to face me. His thick round glass and a slug-like moustache mad him look like an accountant. In his hands he held a large pointed hat, which he fussed at as if trying to brush away dust.
“Give me the toad” he said.
“But it’s my toad” I replied.
“You have no trousers. Your argument is invalid.”
I looked down. He was right about the trousers.
“It’s still my toad.”
The man raised the hat from his hands and popped it onto his head. He twisted like an uncoiling spring, turning himself back to face the direction he had before. Thrusting out his arm and pointing at a spot in the distance I heard him whisper “Bang!”
The world exploded with sound, the ground shook and a mushroom of thick black smoke rose up on the horizon. He turned back to face me.
“I’m a goddamn wizard! Give me the toad!” he shouted.
I shrugged and handed it over. I mean, what was the worst that could happen?