"Toby the Great" was published in Orson's Review in 2019!
Copyright Christopher Stanton
Toby the Great
Toby wasn’t very good at keeping promises, or at taking care of things.
The Cutlass had belonged to his grandfather. There hadn’t been a scratch on it before Toby was given the keys. Now, only one headlight worked because the wiring had been ruined after it was stuck in a flash flood in town. And the dark red upholstery in the back seat was savagely torn, as if a rabid raccoon had gotten trapped underneath and tried to scratch its way out.
Toby couldn’t remember what had happened in the back seat, and he was happier that way. People he had never met were constantly approaching him, at the bait store or at the diner where he worked as a bus boy, and throwing accusations at him that he could never prove or disprove or even remember. He had committed himself to ignorance because it was more comfortable.
The sleet was falling harder now and he stared straight ahead, trying to concentrate on the road, instead of the crack that stretched like a drunken fissure across the windshield. He lived with his brother in a trailer near the cove, and he just wanted to make it back there in one piece and stretch out in front of the TV; maybe put something on his eye where Sheila had smashed it with the bottle.
Toby had spent his life getting into disagreements with women. He tried to turn the other cheek, like it said in the Bible. But what had happened with Sheila less than twenty minutes ago made that very difficult. His lady friend was a part-time nurse and wore heavy shoes because her back hurt all the time. She had insulted his mother, who was long gone and whom Toby missed very much. He had slapped Sheila and shoved her against the wall in her kitchen, and that was when she punched him and grabbed a bottle of wine, wielding it as a weapon. Instead of hitting her again, Toby stumbled out the door and across the icy driveway to his car. As he was fumbling with the keys, the bottle hit his windshield, sending red wine streaming everywhere. He put the car in reverse and didn’t look back.
Toby turned off the highway and then onto the cove road. It was past four o’clock now and people were probably settling down to their Thanksgiving feasts. He thought there might be some peanut butter or maybe a few cold cuts left in the refrigerator at home. That would be better than the dry turkey and Old Milwaukees that Sheila had promised.
Toby reached the top of a hill and the frozen reservoir spread out below him. The beauty of it made his breath catch in his throat, and for a moment he forgot the throbbing pain below his eye and the two six packs he had guzzled that morning. He passed the gravel turnoffs that led to the modern housing developments nestled along the shore, and for once in his life, he didn’t feel resentful of the people who lived there. Reaching for the radio, he turned up a Cat Stevens tune which he recognized as a favorite of his brother’s from their childhood. His trailer was two miles down the road and Toby was sure he could get there before his eye swelled shut.
His wiper blades were frozen with sleet. They struggled to clear the windshield, making a deep growling sound that matched the noise of the wheels on the icy pavement. It made it difficult to see the yellow line running down the middle of the road.
Suddenly, the road split in two, then merged back into one just as quickly. Toby grabbed the wheel with both hands, gaining control of the vehicle again. He had made the drive from town back to his trailer countless times, usually in worse shape than he was now. This ain’t nothin’ I can’t handle, he thought to himself. Get a grip, why don’t you.
Toby had decided that morning that he was going to make a fresh start. Before his mother died years ago, she told Toby how much faith she had that he could do something positive with his life. He was only twenty-nine, which really wasn’t that old, all things considered. He was grateful for his job, and for the women who never seemed to leave him, no matter how much he screwed up. But Toby somehow thought, deep down, that there were bigger things in store for him. As he had watched the Thanksgiving parade on his tiny black and white TV that morning, he had gained a little bit of hope.
Toby figured the best way for him to make a fresh start was go to Alaska. He had a cousin named Paul from Kansas City who had spent almost three years working on a fishing boat up there. Toby had seen him after he came back to civilization. Paul had grown a beard and gained thirty pounds of muscle and talked about Greek philosophy and had quit smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Toby figured that if he could have at least one of those things, it would be a step in the right direction.
“A step in the right direction,” Toby said out loud. He liked the way the words sounded.
A dark shape dashed across the icy road in front of him. He slammed on his brakes, skidding out violently and fighting for control as the Cutlass struggled to stay on the road, before glancing off a birch tree and nosing into a ditch.
* * *
Toby could barely open his eyes. His temple ached and he felt the cold wind on his cheek from where the window had shattered.
He got the driver’s side door open and stepped gingerly into the thin stream that ran down the center of the ditch and fed into the reservoir. Ice cracked under the weight of his boots. The sleet was changing to snow and Toby felt it gathering in his mustache and around the collar of his fleece jacket.
Apart from his head, he felt reasonably intact. He strode up the side of the ditch to the road so he could get a better look at his car.
The left front of the Cutlass was crumpled where he had hit the tree. The nose of the car was in the ditch and the rest was up the bank, part way on the road. There was no smoke coming from the hood. Toby took that as a good sign. Perhaps it was even drivable. Hell, it had been through much worse than this, he thought. Nothing a tow truck and a sledgehammer couldn’t fix.
That’s when he saw the dog. It stood in the middle of the road, wagging its tail and watching him with soft brown eyes.
“Come here, boy,” Toby said, bending down and holding out his hand, palm down, like his father had taught him. It was a rangy-looking mutt, the color of dirty bricks. Part of its left ear was gone. It sniffed the wind and wagged its tail again.
“Are you hungry?” Toby asked. He took a few steps toward it. The dog whined and scampered down the bank toward the reservoir. It stopped, turned around, and barked sharply.
“What?” he called, almost expecting the dog to answer him. It barked again, and waited.
Toby shrugged and pulled up his collar against the snow. He stepped carefully down the icy bank toward the dog, who was waiting in a grassy area that sloped down to the rocky beach. Satisfied now, the mutt loped ahead of him, darting among the snowflakes as it raced toward the shore.
Toby had fished in this area of the reservoir before. It was an abandoned lagoon, naturally cut off from the housing developments further up the road by a sharp ridge. Dead trees jutted out of the shallow water, which had half-frozen during the cold spell a few days before. Kids from the high school could be found here on the weekends, drinking. Now it was lonely and quiet.
The sun was almost gone, and in its failing red light, Toby could make out a figure lying on the frozen surface of the lagoon, about forty feet out.
“Shit,” he said, his voice sounding strangely disconnected in the cold air. The dog stood next to him now, whining softly, its breath coming quickly.
Toby walked down to the beach and stopped at the edge of the water. “Hey!” he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Hey, mister. You okay?”
It was an older man, maybe sixty, wearing a heavy red hunting jacket. He was sprawled face up on the ice, immobile, snow covering his hair and clothes. A sudden gust of wind stabbed him, and Toby realized that he had to do something before it got too dark to see.
The dog took a few steps onto the ice. It whined, barked once, and then turned around and waited on the shore, wagging its tail.
Toby figured the ice was frozen clear through, or least enough for him to get across. Hell, the man had gotten that far out, and he couldn’t see any cracks on the surface. He took a few steps out, testing his weight. The wind blew the snow across the ice, making it difficult to tell its thickness.
So far so good, he thought, and picked up his pace. His temple was pounding and he struggled to see out of his right eye, which was nearly swelled shut. If his brother Frank were here, he would be on the ground, laughing uncontrollably at Toby as he tiptoed across the ice like an idiot.
CRACK! A rifle shot, echoing across the lagoon. Toby ducked down, his breath catching in his throat. Fuck, he thought to himself. What the—?
He felt the ice give beneath him, and as Toby looked back, he saw a new, jagged crack streak across the surface. No one was shooting at him; the noise he heard was the ice giving way. He struggled to his feet and darted the rest of the way across the ice, outrunning the gaping mouth before it could swallow him.
* * *
“Hey,” Toby said, gently shaking the man, brushing the snow off his face and thinning blond hair. His cheeks were blue from the cold, and one of his wooly black gloves was missing.
The man groaned a little and shifted his position. Toby could see no blood anywhere, which he reckoned was a good sign. He wondered what had brought the man so far out onto the ice.
The dog barked at him from the shore. Toby raised a hand and waved at the animal, who seemed to understand this sign and stood there, waiting patiently.
The man suddenly opened one eye and looked at him. “What —” he mumbled, then closed his eye again. His teeth were chattering.
“Can you walk?” Toby asked, shaking him again. The man groaned and did not respond.
Toby reached carefully under the man’s shoulders and brought him to a sitting position. The man mumbled a bit but offered no resistance. Toby had grown strong cutting rocks at the quarry the past summer and felt confident that he could get the man to shore. He just hoped the ice would hold.
“We’re getting you out of here, buddy,” Toby told him. He figured he was taking a risk moving him, but with the temperature plummeting and darkness coming fast, he decided it was best to get the man inside. He took hold of the man’s chest underneath his arm and stood him up.
The man’s legs buckled immediately, and it took all of Toby’s strength to support his weight. The man’s breath smelled sickly sweet and Toby tried not to cry out as he adjusted his grip.
“I can walk,” the man whispered.
“No sir,” Toby said. He was glad the man had spoken.
Toby took a few steps, half-dragging the man, who felt like five quarry rocks, on his back. He suddenly realized that they would have to choose another route back to shore, one that skirted the hole that he had made going out.
They moved slowly but surely: Toby testing the ice with each step, the man offering no help at all, one arm hung loosely around Toby’s shoulders, the other dragging limply by his side. Toby felt like a solider, dragging his wounded comrade off the field of battle. Sheila was constantly telling him to get his feet on the ground, not to daydream so much. Toby believed it was the only thing that got him from one day to the next.
CRACK! Toby stopped short. Not again, he thought. The man groaned and tried to sit down.
“Wait,” Toby said. “Don’t move, mister. I got you.” Toby shifted and readjusted his grip on the man, shouldering more of his weight, putting increased pressure on his own aching legs. He took another step, testing the ice. It shifted barely, but seemed to hold. The shore looked to be about twenty feet away. The snow was falling faster now and the wind whipped it across the lake, not permitting it to settle on its icy surface.
“I don’t know about you, but I’ve had about enough of this,” Toby told the man. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, his head resting on Toby’s shoulder. “I’d rather drown than be froze to death out here. What do you think?”
Not waiting for an answer, he gathered all of his strength and charged the rest of the way to the shore. Toby didn’t know if the screaming he heard was his own, but he didn’t have time to care. He collapsed on the snowy rocks, on blessed solid ground once again.
* * *
After a bit of coaxing, the dog led him back to the black Ford pickup, parked on a gravel access road that connected the cove road with the lagoon. The windows were covered with a thin layer of snow, which Toby brushed away with his bare hands.
He strode back down the path to where he had left the man propped up against a fishing rock at the water’s edge. The man smiled at Toby as he approached.
“Pete,” the man said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Toby didn’t know if the man was introducing himself or if he had mistaken Toby for someone else.
“Is that your truck back there, Pete?” Toby asked. “Do you have the keys?”
“Keys,” the man mumbled. He suddenly got to his feet, his knees shaking a bit, but steady. He smiled crookedly.
“In your pocket, I bet,” Toby said. He squeezed the man on the shoulder and reached in the pocket of the man’s red hunting jacket. “We’re gonna take you home, buddy,” he said. “Can you tell me where you live?”
The man nodded and pointed at the housing development over the ridge.
* * *
The man lived in a two-story prairie house built into a hill that dropped right down to the water’s edge. A light was on in the front room but otherwise the house looked like it was waiting for someone to welcome.
Toby knew it was the right one. The dog barked once when they reached the end of the cul-de-sac, passing grand, modern homes that looked straight out of a magazine. The man’s house at the end was hidden from the road, located at the end of a gravel driveway and surrounded by bare birch trees.
Toby stopped the Ford next to the front porch. The dog, who was on the seat next to him, licked his face enthusiastically and whined.
“End of the road,” Toby said. The man hadn’t said a word on their short ride up from the lagoon. He was sleeping now, his cheek pressed against the window of the passenger seat, his chest rising up and down peacefully.
Toby got out of the truck and ran up the icy stone walkway to the front door, which he unlocked after a few nervous shoves and turns of the knob.
“Hey,” he called. “Anyone home?” He knew right away that he wouldn’t receive an answer. He stomped carefully on the front carpet, knocking the snow off of his boots, then ventured into the living room.
A bay window offered a spectacular view of the reservoir and dam. And at the other end of the room, an enormous fireplace, anchored by a majestic deer’s head, stretched from a stone hearth up to the ceiling. A soft sofa and several reading chairs were nestled among bookcases that spilled books onto the floor.
Toby stood there a moment, taking it all in. He had never seen anything so beautiful.
The phone rang. Toby found it on a table in the hall.
“Hello?” he said tentatively.
“Pete?” an older female voice said. “Are you home? What happened?”
“Pete’s fine,” Toby said. “I think he’s going to be fine.”
Toby wasn’t listening to what the woman was saying. A painting on the wall across from him had caught his eye. It showed two fishermen on a tiny boat in a raging, icy sea. One of them was wrestling a fish into the boat, the other struggling to control the craft in the storm. Far in the distance, there was an outline of the rocky shore.
To Toby, it looked like Alaska.