Cottonwood Trees 




 I got him cornered, right where our live oak tree kisses the garage. His little bitty dragon head flicks from side to side, living proof something can step out of a dream and show up right here in my back yard. I got to trap him, even if I get  grass stains all over my Fourth of July flapper dress.
    Smack.  I throw the orange crate on top of him. Such a ruckus. I’ve got him, and he knows it, poor darling. Now comes the tender part. What Mama calls, “the art of it”. I lift the crate ever so slightly. He pokes out his spikey little nose. “Oh, no you don’t!” I holler, slipping in the wire screen and flipping the crate over.
    “I got him, Daddy!”
    He can’t hear me. Too busy fixing the speakers in our driveway for  the Independence Day Talent Contest.
    “What’s up, Pudding?” He comes round the corner, guitar flapping on his chest like he’s the king of Country Western. He may not be the handsomest daddy on planet earth, but with that root beer brown hair going every which way, and what Mama calls his “Carpetbagger smile”, he’s the greatest thing going.
    “He’s magic, Daddy. Last night I dreamed a horney toad crawled out of my right eyeball. Now, here he is. A dream come true.”
    “More like a cautionary tale, Miss Beatrice Delilah Ransom. Get too close, he’ll spit hot blood out of his eye.”
    “He won’t spit at me. Look at him, Daddy. He’s falling in love.”
    Daddy leans in, close enough to get spit on, but my daddy’s so brave, he doesn’t care. “He is something special alright. Horney toads are endangered, you know.”
    I reach in to the box and rub his belly, soft as Mama’s ear lobes. “He is a rare jewel. Can’t wait to show him to Mama.”
    Daddy lets out a long breath, like air going out of a tire. I lean on his shoulder. Can’t have him caving in on me. Not today. “She’s got to get home soon. I need her to give me pointers on my tap act.”
    “I can’t make her come home.” His eyes go out across our precious half acre and to the grove of cottonwoods in the back. Mama used to sit out in the grove in an old rocker, me on her lap, telling me Rumplestilskin. One night she busted up that old rocker, saying I was too old to for stories. After that, she started hauling all the recycling back there, all the junk she “doesn’t have the energy to deal with”: her tiny used-up gin bottles, my old scooter, my broken  bike, our old cracked bathtub with the claw feet. Nobody can see the mess from the outside. To the world, it looks like a beautiful stand of old growth cottonwoods. Me and Daddy know better.
    Down in the crate, my miracle horney toad sees a baby unicorn beetle and snaps it up, yum, yum. Mama was already gone when me and Daddy got up this morning. I feel like eating a beetle myself.
    “What you going to call him, Pudding?”
    I regard my darling toad,  his eyes kind of sleepy now he’s had his dinner. “Pudding’s taken. I’ll call him ‘Custard’. Maybe Mama’ll make us some after the talent show.”
    “’Bout time you started learning to make it yourself, Miss ten and a quarter.”
    “I got to start cooking?”
    “Not a bad idea.”
    I chase Daddy all  around the yard. He lets me catch him, then we hold onto each other, real tight.  “Blue Scooterbard, Pudding.” he whispers. When I was real little, I couldn’t say “boulevard”. I came up with “scooterbard”, and Daddy made up this idea that when you step onto the Blue Scooter Bard--my favorite color is blue-- you’ve found your own special way of doing things, and you do it, no matter what. Tonight, it means I’ve got to do my best tap act ever, even if Mama doesn’t show up.
    “Yes, Daddy. I’ll make you proud.”
    “You always do, Pudding.”
     We hear squeaks of wagon tires on the sidewalk, little voices, laughter of some lady. Not Mama’s laugh.      I grab my crate, and find a good seat out on the driveway. Our block talent contest is the highlight of July the Fourth in our tiny corner of our beautiful town of Austin, in the great state of Texas. The sun is quivering from the pollution haze in our gorgeous dusty blue sky. No place on earth’s got skies like this. I look at the bright red begonias busting out of their pots, the warm breeze rustling the leaves in our cottonwood grove. Why isn’t all this enough for Mama? Why isn’t she here?
    First up is a new kid, lemonade-color hair, eyes way too big for his round face.
    “My name is Elmer Per Johnson,” he says. “Ya’ll  can call me ‘Per’, like ‘pear’, cause it is easier than saying Elmer Per Johnson. I am six and three-quarters, and my hamsters, Ned and Ted, are going to race down this track I made all by myself.”
    Everybody claps like crazy. I sneak a look down the row at Per’s grand folks, Nana Pearl,  and Papa Ben. Never been inside their house, but they always wave to me when I go by their place five doors down. Once they bought lemonade from my stand in the heat of the day. Tonight, they’re smiling, but their eyes are funny, like they’re seeing and not seeing at the same time. They’ve been like that since Per and his big sister came to live with them.
    Per puts each hamster in a big pink plastic ball at the starting line. We cheer and scream, til finally Ned starts moving and makes it all the way to the finish line. Ted just sits in the plastic bubble, chomping lettuce.
    Per picks up Ned and Ted and bows to the crowd. I figure he thinks his hamsters are cuter than my Custard. That depends on if you are into common pet store mammals. Me, I prefer trapping a wild creature that came out of my dream into the real world!
    I don’t pay much attention to the next acts. Same kids as last year, doing the same routines. I go over my tap steps, craning my head to see if Mama’s standing in the back . I can’t find her.
    Per’s sister gets up, one of these girls so skinny she turns sideways, she’s a human
envelope. I never get on with girls like that. I’ve never been taunted as “fat”, but Daddy says my little dimpled elbows are “cute as a button”. I hate that.
    “My name’s Reese Ellen Johnson. I am ten and three quarters. I wasn’t blessed with a
great voice to sing for ya’ll, so I will speak the words, in honor of the birthday of our sacred country.”
    Sacred? Who uses words like that?
    She fluffs up her pale strawberry-color hair, “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain...” Her skinny little arms float like she’s signing ‘wheat’ for the deaf.
    “For purple mountains majesty...”
    I hear sniffles. Reese’s voice shivers as she lifts her arms. “America. America. God shed His grace on thee.”
    I’m crying too. I can’t stand this skinny girl, but I cannot deny the complete and utter beauty of her presentation. She’s so brave to stand up there, letting out so much feeling, when everybody knows her mama and daddy got put in jail. I sneak a look down the row at Nana Pearl and Papa Ben. Bawling their eyes clean out.
    “And crown thy good with brotherhood. From sea to shining sea!” Her voice cracks, like she’s fixing to keel over. Daddy runs up and puts his arm around her. I feel so proud of him.
    He leads her down to sit by Nana Pearl and Papa Ben and Per. Everybody claps, for Reese and her wavy little arms, for Daddy saving the day, for the human tragedy of Per and Reese losing parents to the jail house.
    I hop up. Daddy hits the guitar and I tap for my life. No sad stuff. No tears. Just a rip-roaring twenties routine, in my red-white-and-blue flapper dress that Mama sewed for me out of her head. Everybody claps to the music, whistling and cheering. I look for her face. Mama’s got to be out there somewhere in the dusk. No Mama. Nowhere. I go all white inside, like my heart’s buried in snow.
    Daddy gives me a big old hug. “Tremendous.”
    I grab Custard’s crate and flee to the back yard. I don’t want to stand around and hear people say, “Beatrice Delilah Ransom, you were so great. Where is your Mama? Why didn’t she come?” Then the low whispers, “Poor child. She deserves a mama who doesn’t
spend all her time down at the Broken Token.”
    I hold the orange crate close, singing America the Beautiful to my Custard.     
    “You have a beautiful voice.” Reese says, standing by her brother in the burning sunlight.
    “I do not.”
    “Oh, but you do. I can’t sing at all without cracking.” says Reese.
    “Well, I can only sing when I’m all by myself. That way if it’s awful, I’m only one knows.”
    “You won a ribbon.” She holds out a big blue bow.
    “Everybody gets one. Ya’ll got ‘em too, didn’t you?”
    They hold up their bows, real proud.
    “What you got in the box?” asks Per.
    I peel my arms off the screen, holding the edges down tight. I’m not too sure I want them to see my darling.
    “Horney toad.” says Per, like he’s in church.
    “Horned lizard,” says Reese.
    “People call him a toad,” I say, not trapping the snap in my words. This uppity girl’s creaky voice drives me crazy. “He probably likes horney toad just fine.”
    Reese twirls a button on her little checked shirt. I hurt her feelings.
    We all watch Custard flit around the crate.
    “He doesn’t like it in there,” says Per.
    “He’s mine.”
    “He is a creature of the wild, “ says Reese.
    “I trapped him, fair and square. His name is Custard. My daddy says he can spit blood out of his eyes.”
    “Your daddy is so great,” says Reese. “You’re the luckiest girl in the world.”
    “I am not. Did you see my mama here tonight?”
    Per and Reese study the crab grass.
    “She didn’t come. I worked on my tap act so hard.”
    “You were great,” says Reese.
    “Can I see him close?” says Per.
    I take Custard out of the crate, his little claw feet scratching me. Should I tell these kids where Custard really came from? Will they laugh at me? At him?
    Reese squeezes her skinny body between me and Per, her face real close to Custard.
    “He’s going to spit,” says Per, pushing her closer.
    She shoves her brother out of the way. “I am not afraid of this animal,” she says, looking right into those jet-brown eyes.  “He’s magic.”
    I breathe. “How can you tell?”
    “Look at him. He’s harboring a great secret.”
    I don’t know any kid uses words like “harboring”. But, she’s got a point. I put my head next to hers
and stare into Custard’s eyes. “If I tell ya’ll the secret, will you promise not to tell one living soul on
this earth?"
    They cross their hearts real fast. “He crawled out of my eyeball last night in a dream. Now, here he is.”
    “I knew it,” whispers Reese.
    “Is that all?” says Per.
    “You don’t know a thing, Elmer Per Johnson,” I say. “Did you ever have a wild creature crawl out of you in a dream and end up in your back yard?”
    “We had to give up our back yard, and our house,” says Reese, her voice going real tiny.  “And, our mama and daddy, they could sure use some magic---”
    “Shut up,” says Per, grabbing Custard. My darling horney toad flips out and lands in the crab grass.
    “Catch him!”
    Per squeals and Reese lunges after. I feel something funny in my belly, like the whole world is tearing open, and I’m stepping into someplace I’ve known only in my dreams. My hands sweat, my heart goes wild.  I see Custard leaping out of the crab grass. I run after him, into the grove. 



Horned Toad © Texas Parks and Wildlife