Late last year, I shared a short story here called “Toad.” Set in the high desert of Southern California, it was the tale of an imaginative little boy in the late 1950s. To be a free-range kid in those days was heaven, because Toad could go anywhere but toward the highway. With his two best friends, Shorty, the gray burro, and Rex, the German Shepherd, Toad roamed the desert alone or with his younger brother, Jimmy. The story was filled with sunlight as you would expect from something set in the summertime desert.
Toad began as a bit of flash fiction. I loved the little boy. Later, I expanded the story several times. I wasn’t done with Toad. The further away I was from Toad, the clearer I could see him. I couldn’t get the boy out of my head. I wondered how he would grow up, who his friends were, what happened to his parents, his brother.
The more I thought about Toad, the more I really wanted to write more of his story. What I didn’t want to do was write a novel. I wanted more freedom to explore, to change voices, to change points of view. I’d read a novel by Clifford Garstang, What the Zhang Boys Knew, a few years back. Cliff’s work was a novel in stories, wherein a pair of boys living in an apartment complex in Washington, D.C. figure prominently in each story, which focus on other residents in the complex.
I couldn’t put Toad in a high-rise in Washington, but I could leave him in the desert, let him go away for school and work, and return to his roots. Along the way, Toad picked up a good friend, Pollywog, who moved in “up the road.” Pollywog and Toad met in high school, before they went their different ways. A not-so-nice aunt and her two young girls, one a spoiled princess who hated everything and one a studious child who hid from conflict inside the pages of books, joined the family. Jimmy, Toad’s younger brother, found voice in his own story.
Toad remained the center of the stories, as did the desert compound where he grew up. Family came and went, married and divorced, had kids and lost kids. Life went on, but Toad’s story unwound in ways I didn’t expect.
I have a lot of work to do on this before it’s ready for publication. I hope it’s out in the first half of next year.
And why did Toad draw me in? Partly because I spent many summers in the compound, which was exactly as described in the stories. Party because I was a free-range kid, something my grandkids can’t be nowadays. Partly because I knew and loved the inspiration for Toad. His story needed to be imagined and told. I hope I do him justice. Time and our family will tell.