The Toad Is Not a Metaphor

It sucks working at the library because if you need to take a piss you gotta walk outside and all the way around to the front door and then through the stacks to the back in order to get to the men’s room. So it’s lucky there’s a floor drain in the mechanical room. Still, I do worry about the cameras. Everyone has cameras now. But when you gotta piss, cameras don’t worry you too much. You justify yourself as you’re unzipping your fly, positioning your body away from the mechanical room door just in case someone walks in. “Fuck it,” you say. “It all goes into the same drain anyway.” And, “If they didn’t want me to piss in the floor drain, they should have put a rest room somewhere on the ground floor.” So, I was justifying myself as I let fly, and feeling relieved when I noticed what looked to be a clump of slime adjacent to the drain. “That’s kind of gross,” I thought. “I wonder why a clump of slime is there. Is it something growing?” I looked closer and was shocked almost into a state of non-pissing when I realized it was a gigantic, puffy, slime-colored toad. But I’d already started pissing and I couldn’t very well quit in the middle. I tried to direct my stream away from the toad because I knew they’re quite delicate, their skin being permeable and used as a way of gathering oxygen into the blood. I know this because I studied pictures of them when I was a kid and even read some of the attending words. I’ve always liked amphibians. The word sounds cool, first of all. Second of all, they themselves are cool. Amphibians: the word from the Greek. Direct translation: both kinds of life. And of course I think of the old evolutionary timeline in full color. On the left, you have the creatures that live in water, the plankton all the way up to the fish. And then, crawling up on the shore of the primordial deep, you have the amphibians. And then the small reptiles and birds and dinosaurs. And then the mammals. Including the strange looking creatures that walk on two legs.

I had the impulse to gather up the fearsome looking toad and bring him outside, but it was a cold rainy day in the fall and when I looked at the toad again, happily perched on the lip of the drain, a leaky pressure relief valve dripping water on the concrete and making the whole area wetland-like, brown algae and all, and I thought maybe my help wouldn’t be appreciated. Maybe, in fact, if I were to gather up the toad and throw him outside, where soon and very soon the temperatures would dip into the single digits like they are now, it would be the toad’s death sentence. I looked away from the toad just for a moment and when I looked back, it had vanished. He might have moved like lightning and tucked himself into the nearby length of PVC pipe. Or he might have simply retreated into the floor drain, where, a few inches beneath floor-level, there was a P trap, which, as its name suggests, traps water so as to prevent sewer gas from wafting up into the mechanical room and making the whole place smell like effluvia. So, there was a little hidden pool down there for the toad to spelunk around in. In a way, this whole area might have been a toad wonderland.

That was October. It’s January now. And I’m working in the same mechanical room. I’m happy to see that the toad is still here, perched on the lip of his private cave. But I’m concerned as well because he looks smaller. It occurs to me that it may be a different toad. It also occurs to me that I may be remembering it wrong. “He must be able to catch some bugs down here to eat,” says Steve the electrician when he stops to chat. “I don’t know,” I say, eyeing the toad. “Either that or he’s starving to death.”

Every Wednesday, Mary and I write. We’ve been friends for twenty years or so, originally when I had just gotten accepted into grad school at Iowa. Mary had already been through the Workshop and we used to drink a lot of beer together and dream about literary fame. But twenty years whittles down one’s dreams as well as one’s desire to drink a lot of beer. Now what we do is we write together. Today it’s over the phone. She calls and says, “Are you ready?” And I say, “Yes.” And then, to postpone the horribly uncomfortable plunge into the cold water of writing, she asks me if I have anything. “No,” I say. “But I’ll come up with something. Maybe I’ll write about the toad. How about you? Do you have anything?” “No,” she says. “Maybe I’ll write about my kitchen.” And then we hang up and begin.

It used to be more difficult for me to go from equipment repair to writing. If I was in a writing state of mind, I could hardly get anything done with my hands. And vice versa. Used to be, equipment was far in the lead. I’d start the day repairing equipment and end it repairing equipment and if I wanted to write, I’d need to clear out huge swaths of time in order to change over into a writing state of mind and then begin. That was until Mary taught me how to fast write. “Just pick a direction, and write,” she said. “Just go. And don’t stop. Don’t worry about verb agreement or grammar or anything. Just go.” We’d go for a half hour and then, whether we were ready or not, we’d stop. And then we’d read whatever it was we’d written to one another. This method changed the way I write. And it also, necessarily, changed the way I think when I’m writing. I loosened up quite a bit on my control of things. And writing became an adventure.

That’s not to say it’s not difficult to begin. We’re still jumping naked into the ice-cold ocean. But when you’re with someone who has already stripped down and is running toward the surf, you’re embarrassed to remain fully dressed and stroll along the beach.

“Don’t stop to question what anything you’ve written might mean,” she said. “And don’t ever erase anything. No backspacing. Don’t ever say no. Never ever say no. Say only yes.”

From the second we create a metaphor, it begins to restrict us. It’s so easy for a metaphor to be self-conscious. Or heavy-handed. If you string it out, it becomes tortured. If you mix two of them together, they become…um…mixed. If, for instance, starting to write is jumping into the ice-cold ocean, what can continuing to write be? It must be swimming. What else could it be?

But, fuck that metaphor. Writing isn’t swimming at all. Not for me at least. That metaphor makes far too much sense. If I’m doing the breast stroke, say, I pull handfuls of water along the sides of my body as I kick my feet and, therefore, I move forward. Why wouldn’t I move forward?

Writing’s not like that. You don’t do one thing and, necessarily, get a certain result. Maybe it’s walking on white nothingness. Which sounds writerly and almost sickening. But I don’t care. I’m fast writing. I take a step into white nothingness. And by any reckoning I should fall. But the page is there. And the words don’t seem to disappear into the white nothingness. They hover there. Waiting for me to continue. And so I do.

All of it might be for nothing. And often it is for nothing. But who gives a shit? What have I lost? Besides, some of it might be for something. And I wouldn’t have anything to work with or worry about or be proud of if I hadn’t taken that initial plunge. Or step. Or whatever the fuck it is.

After Mary and I are done, we read what we’ve written out loud to one another. And then Mary disappears and I’m back in the mechanical room. I’m punching tubes. What that means is, I’m cleaning out the insides of copper tubes that make up the water-side of a heat exchanger. It’s not so hard to do. I glance at the floor drain. The toad is nowhere to be seen.

There really is a toad. I’m not making it up. And he really does seem to be gone now. I hope I didn’t kill him with my most recent piss. Whatever. Fuck the toad. I gotta finish punching these tubes.

He’s probably fine.

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