Nagoya Writes

December 5, 2007

Toad Stranglers and Floating Eyeballs by Tom Bauerle

Filed under: Bauerle,Issue: May 2006,Prose — usbengoshi @ 5:50 pm

(excerpt from novel in progress)

“Think what it would mean,” Justin said as he studied the dark waters beneath the Eyeball Bridge, “to actually see a ghost, to catch him white-handed, with his winding sheet down around his knees, so to speak.”

All three were in their early twenties. They stood on one side of a metal two-lane bridge, at the junction of a gravel roadway and a whispering country stream. Cornfields and meadows stretched away on either side of them. The hot summer night smelled of pasture and running river. Frogs jumped and belched below. An occasional firefly sparked in and out of the river reeds. The three friends paused whenever it was convenient to take long swallows from the cold cans of beer they held in their hands.

Girlie Joy began to remember similar nights from years past. Her face went slack for a moment while dark things long buried in her subconscious welled up to the surface. She torpedoed the memories before they had a chance to surface, tossed down a depth charge of beer to finish them off for good. She searched frantically among the flotsam for something safe to grab hold of. She treaded water desperately for a moment before an inflatable thought bumped up against her.

How many small little happenings, she wondered, how many coincidences, synchronicitous connections coming together precisely so, at exactly the right time, how many had it taken to bring the three of them together again? After years apart, what blind chance, karmic fate, diabolical conspiracy, heavenly dispensation of serendipity had conducted them from faraway cities and a war on the other side of the world, to right here, right now, to be standing together this night on August 9th 1971, in the middle of a bridge at a haunted crossroads; three people who had never imagined they would ever meet again?

Girlie Joy shook herself, cleared her head by tapping the side of it with the heel of her hand. With a great effort she refocused her eyes on Justin’s face. “What would it mean? To see one? Have either of you ever seen a ghost?”

“Yes,” said Justin.

“No,” said Nate. “Sometimes I feel like one, though. Boo.”

“At least, I think so,” Justin continued. “Maybe lots of times. And this place was one of the weirdest ones. I was sure I saw the ghost eyes oogling up at me from beneath the water. The story says that around nineteen-fifty or so, a young guy was riding his motorcycle down this very road on a rainy night.”

Nate sniffed cautiously at the air. “Storm’s coming,” he said. “Going to be a real toad strangler before dawn.”

“Road was muddy and slick with rain,” Justin went on. “But the rider didn’t seem to notice. He had the big bike wide open, full throttle.” He pointed down the moonlit road. “Lost control as he hit that turn, just about there, just before this bridge.”

Girlie Joy stood squarely in the middle of the bridge, refusing to look into the water for what she knew was coming next. “What’s a ‘toe straggler’?” she asked, turning toward Nate in an attempt to change the subject.

The night was clear and full of stars. A gentle breeze broke up the scorched air that had been sun cooked all afternoon and moved it down the road. The moon was a fat crescent that tilted its horns to the east like a nervous bull about to charge the horizon. They were surrounded by fields full of corn that rustled with hidden movement.

The three had been friends in high school. They shone in the moonlight in stark contrast to one another. Justin Everson was of average height; his body squat and powerful from his high school and college wrestling days. His hair was dark, his skin pale. His blue eyes seemed out of place; they glinted too brightly to fit the rest of his face. Sometimes Girlie Joy looked into those eyes and felt herself falling through trapdoors. Justin had recently dropped out of college to come back home and take a good-paying job at the local truck factory. Now, however, he found he bitterly despised the mindless drudgery of assembly line work. He wanted to make his life better, but he had no idea how to make it happen.

Nathan Ruskin was a head taller than the other two. His long angular face jutted out beneath a head of sandy colored hair, the same color as the earth he worked on his father’s farm. When Nate was eighteen, he had been brought down by a sniper’s bullet in Viet Nam. He hadn’t returned from Asia until just a few months ago and refused to talk about what he’d been doing there or where exactly he’d done it. Nate was a godsend to the local recreational past times of gossip and conjecture, as almost every one of the local town folk had a different theory on what he’d been up to over there, some of them quite brilliant in their scope of detail and conviction of argument. Most people agreed Nate had come back more than a mite peculiar in character, but couldn’t reach any consensus as to which direction or what degree. Now he spent most of his time helping his father keep the family farm running, only slightly hampered by the limp in his left leg.

Girlie Joy McJames had a name that, among other things, she never forgave her father for. Her face was sunburned and freckled. She had hair the brazen red color that marks so many of the Germans and Celts who settled the northern Indiana prairie lands. The rumor was that her IQ was somewhere in the upper stratosphere, but she denied it whenever the topic came up in conversation. After a particularly nasty divorce, she now worked in a restaurant downtown and spent her evenings taking classes at the local college on any subject that looked interesting. She never had any specific degree in mind; she just liked learning and knowing things.

“That’s toad strangler, not toe straggler,” Nate replied. “A toad strangler is when it rains like doomsday. Not even the toads and frogs can out hop the rising waters. They all croak in the great deluge. It’s a hundred times worse than a snake suffocator.”

“Some say he drove off the bridge on purpose,” Justin broke in, taking Girlie Joy’s hand in his and attempting to lead her to the iron railing at the side of the bridge. “They say he killed himself over the unrequited love of a beautiful woman.”

“I’m fine right where I am,” said Girlie Joy. She turned her gaze away from where Justin was pointing at the riverbank below, but it didn’t help. The other side of the bridge was just as dark. She threw her head back and studied the stars instead.

“A toad strangler,” Nate continued, “ is when you empty out all the milk bottles, thermos jugs and cooking pots in the house and fill them full of dirt so that years after the flood hits you can show your grandchildren what dry used to look like.

“Some say it was an accident,” said Justin. “But in any case, he went over this railing at full speed and crashed into the water below. And when they pulled him out of the creek, he was stone cold dead, even though there wasn’t a mark on his body.”
Nate pointed below the bridge where something small had just jumped and splashed. “A toad strangler is when the fish spend their life savings on umbrellas and water wings and take off hitch-hiking for the desert.”

Girlie Joy still refused to look below the bridge, keeping her eyes fixed firmly overhead. Justin stepped in front of her, standing on his tip-toes, trying to get within her field of vision. “Except for one small thing,” he said, drawing his face close to hers, his voice taking on the sepulchral tones of a horror movie narrator. “When they looked at his face, they saw that both his eyeballs were missing from their sockets. They searched the stream for days, but they never found his eyes. Maybe the fish ate them. Maybe they just popped right out when he hit. But, they say that if you come here on the right night, especially when there’s a bright moon like this one, and you look into the water where he fell, his eyes will float to the surface and stare back at you.”

“And,” Nate concluded, “ there’s going to be one hell of a toad strangler before morning, mark my words.”

“Hey, you spilled my beer!” Girlie Joy took a step backwards away from Justin and found her back pressed against the railing on the side of the bridge. “I’m not looking down there. You just want me to do the scared little girl thing so you can hug and comfort me and cop a feel.”

“There they are!” said Justin, stepping forward and tugging Girlie Joy’s shoulder, turning her slowly toward the water. “I can see them! Over there! Shining in the moonlight and looking straight up at us. Look! Look! . . . and how the hell do you know it’s going to rain, anyway, Nate? There’s not a cloud in the sky.”

“It’s probably just some white stones in the river bed,” said Girlie Joy slamming her eyes closed before the dark water below came into view.

“I’m a farmer,” Nate answered with a smug expression on his face.

“And what the hell is that supposed to mean?” asked Justin.

“It means,” Girlie Joy said from the midst of her self-imposed darkness, “that he works with the elements every day of his life, so he’s probably more aware of natural phenomena than you or I. The aborigines in Australia, for instance, when they are traveling through the desert, can smell water ten miles away . . .”

“Wait,” said Justin pointing into the darkness below. “He’s really there. He’s there, for real.”

“Get outta here. There’s nothing there,” said Girlie Joy, taking a peek, much against her better judgment. “Wait,” she said. “What is that? Are those rocks? They really do look like eyes. What the hell is that?”

“All right, then,” said Nate. He downed the last dregs of his beer, reached through an open window of the car, to withdrew a flashlight from the back seat, and walked to the far end of the bridge. “If there’s ghostly eyeballs in the creek,” he said, stepping down the embankment, “then I’m going to go down there and give them the evil eye right back. I’m going to pluck them up, hold them in my hand and engage them in the greatest staring contest of all time. First one to blinks loses, and I don’t aim to lose.”

“I mean it,” said Justin. “He’s there. Not just the eyes. The whole biker. Who is that down there?”

They could hear the uneven splashing as Nate hobbled in the water below. “Come for me, ye haunted orbs!” he yelled. “I’ll make eyeball soup outa ya.” The splashing sounds stopped abruptly. There was a moment of quiet as each of them inhaled sharply.

“Jesus,” shouted Nate. “There’s a guy down here!” He directed the flash light beam into the darkness ahead of him. The other two watched from above as the tiny circle of light flicked across ripples of running water, the rocky sides of the creek bed, and came to rest on the half submerged face of a young man.

The face surrounding the eyeballs was the cold empty white of cracked eggshells. The eyes were wide open and staring at the sky above. “Jesus,” Nathan said. “He’s all busted up. I think he’s dead. We better call the police or something!”

“What is he doing there?” asked Justin. “I mean that story was from back in the 50’s. Who the hell is that guy?”

“He’s a different guy, ya moron,” said Nate. “I mean he’s got to be. There can’t be any connection between the two, can there? But either way, he’s just as dead.”

Everything faded from Girlie Joy’s vision except the whiteness of those eyes, the still pale skin, the glowing small white circle of the flashlight beam. She exhaled, shuddered, felt things icing up deep inside. She’d never before seen eyes that didn’t blink. That was the most unnerving of all. The eyes in the broken face remained focused on something high overhead and far away. “What’s he looking at?” Girlie Joy asked. Without meaning to she followed his gaze upward. “Look,” she said, after her eyes refocused to the darkness, “the stars are going out.”

Overhead the stars were being devoured by a cover of clouds creeping in from the west. The three watched as constellations were unmade: scuttling scorpions, tragic queens and love sick maidens, brave hunters, slithering dragons, bears and dippers (big and small), swallowed whole by the approaching storm. A wind sprang up, caressed them gently, then forcefully. Then it grew violent like a betrayed lover, shoved and abused them and moaned urgently in their ears before it screamed off to flatten the tops of the corn in the fields beyond.

The frogs stopped singing. The three only had time to race to Justin’s car, Nate hobbling painfully behind, before the deluge slapped against their windshield and blew them toward the city and the Berry Street Police Station.

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