My nephew, Troy, made me a toad out of Play-Doh, but if you really examine it, it looks like a fish. It’s supposedly playing an oversized guitar—even though it looks like it’s bearing a turd—while donned in a black charro suit (my brother had to explain what that was later: “You know, like what the mariachi bands wear”). I let him think my ignorance of Mexican culture was why I couldn’t make sense of all that black stuff; I had figured the fish was just holding a turd before a backdrop of night.
Regardless, Troy’s excitement infected me, and I was proud to receive it. The moment blurred before me as tears clouded my eyes. I kissed Troy and thanked him for the beautiful statuette, which, while I spoke to my nephew, did seem to resemble a toad from my obscured periphery.
“You likey?” he asked.
“Lovey,” I corrected.
For the first time in a while, I accepted the gift without fretting about where to put it once I got home. I knew instantly it belonged on the shelf above the kitchen sink.
The kitchen tiles provided agreeable acoustics for the toad. Its tinny voice and the gentle strumming that accompanied it were a soothing soundtrack while I untied my shoes. It brought to mind sun-scorched mesas in Mexico—even though I’ve never been to Mexico—and of mariachi bands blaring on crowded subway cars—which I was far more familiar with.
I took my shoes and walked into the bedroom to put them down next to my bed. The courteous toad played a smidgen louder so I could still hear as if I were still nearby in the kitchen. Overcome with nostalgia of dingy trains and the eccentrics therein, I felt compelled to look in my bedside drawer, where I kept cherished knickknacks incapable of being tossed. Long-forgotten student IDs from my adolescence resurfaced, displaying a barefaced and narrow-necked boy whom I haven’t seen for years. Joyful tears gathered once again, as I sat hunched on my bed, cupped in the sanctuary of the sweet past, the romantic syrup of mariachi music drizzling from afar. Snapshots of places I’ve been and those who accompanied me; places I’ll never be again, people I’ll never see; relationships beginning, ending, fizzling, and fading; times when, for better or worse, personality traits and habits were born or went extinct; in short, the good and the bad. And as I sobbed, the toad also sobbed, harmonizing with me, and his fingerpicking slowed to a beautifully tortured pace that reminded me of twinkling stars.
I placed the cards into the drawer and walked back to the kitchen to observe the concert that occupied it, but it stopped the second I began to observe. The toad stared at me, lopsided and silent. Too emotionally drained to deal with the quandary, I filled a glass with water and chugged it down in order to replenish my tear ducts.
As I got into my pajamas in the bedroom, I heard the toad strumming once again—this time a sort of Mexican lullaby.
I didn’t remember falling asleep, but, as what usually happens when the only evidence of having fallen asleep is the sudden morning, it was fantastically restful; and chocked full of beautiful dreams, too. A main player in one of my dreams was my best friend in high school named Philly. I haven’t seen him in 15 years, but he had accompanied me on the subway every day to and from school back then. Philly always wore a blue Superman tie, which tickled me since he was just over five foot and flirted with 200 pounds. I wondered if Philly still had that tie. I decided to call Philly.
“You in Mexico, bro?” Flamenco poured from the prolific toad’s ax.
“Nah, it’s just a gift from my nephew. I think it’s magic or something. Say, you still got that Superman tie?” His perplexed response was just audible over the racket of melodic wailing and crooning from the kitchen. I paced, as is my custom when I’m on the phone, from the bedroom to the living room. Somehow that talented toad kept his volume relatively the same—just outside the range warranting complaint.
Philly thought it was “crazy” that I called to ask him about that tie. He told someone he was with, as was his custom, that I had asked about the Superman tie, which garnered from Philly a childish giggle—the very same chubby giggle he had in high school. He told me his uncle passed away recently—partly due to a lifetime of devout smoking, partly due to medical incompetence.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Philly.”
Even though Philly went into detail about his uncle’s tragic deterioration—about how his legs were like pool cues, about how the nurses left him lying in his own mess—my hips would simply not quit. They churned like the sea, and my feet were spring-loaded; I was under the spell of the merengue even though my heart was with Philly.
“I’m not sure I ever told you this: I called my uncle ‘Superman’, because that’s what he was to me, ya know? The guy could do fucking anything, bro, he was unbelievable.” Philly breathed heavily as he told me this. I assumed because he was still a stocky guy—perhaps even more stocky now thanks to time’s propensity to serve poundage—and because he was going through a hard time.
“That’s crazy, man. What are the odds of that?” I offered, whipping my carpet to meringue with dance steps.
“But bro, listen to this: we buried him with my tie in his casket. We wanted him to wear it, but his wife wouldn’t allow it. She’s a bitch.”
“Holy shit, dude.”
“I’m glad you called, man,” he huffed, his ability to speak strained yet determined. “It’s been rough around here lately. I’ve had to use a few sick days because I couldn’t get my ass off the couch. But I don’t know if it’s because of your beautiful voice, or because of that Mexican music you got playing over there, but for some reason I can’t stop dancing!”
I forced a laugh that matched his own and told him how happy I was that his sexy ass was feeling better, but all I could think about was the curious music. The playful jig incensing my feet staled to stomps that delivered me stiffly into the kitchen. Once again, the toad snapped off his jam the second I peered in his direction.
“Yo. Yo, you there?” Philly’s voice crackled.
The connection was terrible in the kitchen and worsened the closer I walked to the toad. Sizzles commanded the line, and I could barely make out Philly saying in a dejected tone, “I can’t hear you, bro. Call me back.” Suddenly I was alone in my silent kitchen, save for the haunting chant of a dial tone. And the longer I stared at the statuette’s bulging, hastily shellacked eyes, the more I was convinced it was just a fish.
Rich Glinnen is a market researcher by day and a writer by night. He enjoys bowling, and eating gruyere with his cats at his home in Bayside, NY. He was nominated for the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology. His work can be read in Kenneth Warren’s Lakewood House Organ, at foliateoak.com, petrichormag.com, underwoodpress.com/ruescribe and richglinnen.tumblr.com. His wife calls him Taco.