The Sonoran Desert Toad
by Ward Parkway
As the rusty screen door slammed shut behind him, Farmer Bob could see his breath drifting away in the silent pre-dawn air. Beneath his well-worn Carhart coveralls he remained quite toasty though, from Mrs. Bob's hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, and a big pile o' buttermilk biscuits smothered with thick sausage gravy. That and a steamin' pot of coffee, black as your old hat, steeled him against the frigid February morning. With old and callused hands, he pulled his Ralston Feed cap down snug and headed out through the back yard to the barnyard gate to break ice on the water tanks. Winter always meant extra chores, but he took it all in stride. For Farmer Bob, there just weren't no better life to be had.
The sky glowed a faint, dark magenta through the hedgerow to the east as he went quietly about his work. With a blunt and scarred axe, he quickly busted up the ice on the shallow ankle-high water tanks lined up against the feedlot fence. Then, picking up a small pitchfork, he tossed the frozen chunks out onto the dirty concrete, where they crashed and skidded away in all directions. With that finished, he strode around the corner of the white wooden barn and lifting the metal latch on the side door, opened it wide. The door opened onto a long hay-strewn hallway, on either side of which were the gates to knee-high pens constructed of metal tubing and closely-woven wire mesh. Above each pen hung an infrared lamp dangling waist-high from an electrical cord, altogether creating a segmented series of dim red glows down the length of the dusty and cobwebbed hallway. Going over the day's schedule in his head, Farmer Bob paused to stoop down, unlatch and pull open each gate behind him as he made his way down to the other end.
As if on cue, the daily procession began. From each pen emerged half a dozen or so Colorado River Toads, of varying sizes. Hesitantly at first, as if still half asleep, they hopped out into the dimly lit hallway, pausing before turning and following Farmer Bob down to the feed trough at the far end of the barn. With the last of the thirty pens opened, there formed a surging river of toads streaming down to take up their places in the little stanchions arrayed along the long galvanized metal feed trough. As they were bellying up, Farmer Bob busied himself filling two five-gallon buckets with feed pellets from a small chute protruding out of a storage bin. Walking along the backside of the trough, he poured out the contents of the first bucket, stopping when it was empty to retrieve the second bucket and finish filling the remaining length. He walked back to peer up the hallway, making sure there were no stragglers. Seeing that all the toads were now enthusiastically enjoying their morning repast, he reached up and threw the first switch on a grimy control panel mounted on the wall behind him. A creaking mechanical noise accompanied the slow, gentle closing of the little stanchions around each toad, holding them firmly and comfortably in their places as they continued their unabashed munching.
Farmer Bob then retrieved a dusty remote control that lay atop the switch panel and pointing it across the feeding area at a small, black Sony mini stack, fingered the small rubber buttons to mount and play one of the five CDs he kept loaded in it. The dusty silence suddenly gave way to the haunting strains of "Lizard Point" from Eno's Ambient #4 - On Land. He didn't have the foggiest notion who this Eno feller was, as he'd found this particular CD layin' on the dashboard of his pickup after a visit from his nephew. The toads musta' known though, as they always responded well to it, producing copious amounts of fluid, now oozing out and visible like small, glistening pearls along their backs.
He set the remote back down and threw the second switch on the panel, starting a steady electrical hum as a line of miniature milking machines descended on black rubber tubes from the ceiling above the trough. When the little metal suction units reached chest height, they stopped abruptly and the floor beneath the trough began to rise on hydraulic cylinders, bringing the toads up to a level where they could be handled comfortably without Farmer Bob's having to bend down.
Starting at one end and working quickly, he moved down the line of toads, first inspecting, then carefully attaching a suction unit to the back of each one. The toads seemed unmoved by this daily ritual, as they went about their meal. When the last toad was hooked up, he stepped back to the control panel and threw yet another switch, turning on the pump apparatus, which each toad acknowledged by raising its head momentarily from the trough.
Later, after the toads were sucked dry, he'd unhook 'em, lower the floor, release the stanchions and open the door to the barnyard, where the sun would be warming things up a bit. Farmer Bob weren't no factory farmer - these here were free-range toads, 'cept at night when they enjoyed their cozy, heated pens.
Once set in motion, the milking process would take awhile, so Farmer Bob leaned back against the wall and reaching into his back pocket, pulled out a beat up-looking Motorola cell phone. Unfolding it, he punched in the number to the local collection depot and listened as it rang. After several rings, a voice on the other end answered. It was Dewey Purnell, the feller who drove the big stainless steel tank truck.
"You oughta stop by this morning, Dewey," drawled Farmer Bob, "My tank's gettin' near full."
"Sure thing, Bob," answered Dewey. "We've got two other stops to make in your neck of the woods this mornin'. I'll be damned if both Ed Fletcher and Hob Carter didn't call to say they were ready for a tankin' as well. I oughta make it over to your place by eight o'clock or so."
"That sounds fine," replied Farmer Bob, pausing to remove his gimme cap to scratch his head.
"You'll be sure to keep some back for you and the missus, now won't you Bob?"
"Oh, you can bet on that," he laughed, puttin' his cap back on. "She's got herself a whole shelf of pans dryin' out in the root cellar. Looks like we're gonna have ourselves a good year."
Farmer Bob said goodbye, folded up the phone and stuffed it back into his hip pocket. He stood there for a while, looking out across the line of toads. He knew damned near every one of 'em by name. There, near one end, was Big Pete, his top producer. "What a fine animal," thought Farmer Bob, a proud smile breaking across his weathered face.
He turned and wandered back outside where the sun was just bursting over the east ridge behind the back sixty. The exploding, multi-colored mandalas spinning in his head from the night before were beginning to ease up, allowing a bit of normal reality to creep back in. He took out a small rolled toader from his zippered chest pocket and lipped it, reaching back into side pocket for his lighter. Giving it a flick, he lit his smoke and crouched down on his haunches, takin' a long drag and staring out across the farm. A flock of birds traced a lazy arc in the brightening sky overhead as the morning sunlight filtered across the frosted meadow. The music flowed out of the barn and danced slowly like shimmering objects in the air around him. Later, he thought, after the tank truck had come, he'd drive on over to the truckstop cafe for a cup o' joe with the neighbors.
Exhaling a thin stream of smoke, he heard the speaker in his wrist telemonitor beep, signaling the end of the milking cycle. Drawing one last puff, he stood up, tossing the butt to the ground and stepping on it. Farmer Bob took another look around before turning to go back inside, admiring the brilliant swirling auras surrounding the dormant peach trees as they stood dreaming in the orchard.
"Yep, there just ain't no other life for me."