I had been walking in the desert for what seemed like days. I was thirsty. My radiator went kaput somewhere on I-10 last night. No cell reception out here. The desert night comforted me—beautiful stars and comet trails. But after the sun rose, the temperature shot up far too quickly. By the time the sun was directly overhead, my legs felt like rubber and my tongue was swollen.
In the distance, what looked like a town from the Old West arose. One dirt road split two rows of shabby buildings. “Water,” I said out loud to myself. I blinked five or six times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Mirages of water on the horizon had been fooling me all morning, but this looked different. A tumbleweed blew by. A vulture landed on top of a barrel cactus. A scorpion crawled up my leg and I brushed it away.
When I got to town, I pinched myself to make sure it was all real. A saloon with faint piano music welcomed me on the right and an empty sheriff’s office slept on the left. The saloon probably had water so I walked through its two swinging half doors. My tongue felt like it was the size of a shoe sole.
The saloon was empty except for a bartender with a long, white beard and a Victorian woman playing an upright tack piano. The woman’s song was familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d heard it before. It didn’t sound like something you would hear in a saloon, though. It was almost a slow waltz, but the timing was complex, in three, then three, then two.
“Whatcha drinkin’, partner?” the bartender said.
“Wawa,” I said. My mouth wasn’t working.
“Haha,” the bartender said. “Looks like you got the thirst real good.”
The bartender pulled out a vanity hand mirror and handed it to me, pointing at my tongue. My tongue was the size of a saucer, inflamed and inflated like a balloon.
“The name’s Smitty,” the bartender said. “I reckon you prolly want some water. Water ain’t cheap out here, sonny. It’ll cost you. Cost you big.”
I pulled a hundred dollar bill out of my wallet and offered it to Smitty.
“You’re money ain’t no good here,” he said. Smitty pulled a pint glass down from the shelf and poured some clear, crisp, water into it from a barrel that had a tap. He placed the glass in front of me. I reached for it. He pulled it away.
“Hold on, now. I’ll give this here water to you, but you have to promise to do me a favor,” Smitty said.
“O-way, o-way,” I said.
He gave me the glass and I poured it straight into my throat and into my belly. A few seconds later, my tongue shrunk and I felt much better.
“Thank you, Smitty,” I said, panting in relief.
“Charlene plays the piano real nice, don’t she?” Smitty said.
“Why yes,” I said.
“Charlene’s in trouble, see,” Smitty said. “I’m gonna call in that favor today if it’s all the same.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I need you to shoot Terrible Ted for me,” Smitty said.
I felt my stomach hit the floor, not literally, like my tongue probably would have had I not gotten some water.
“I can’t shoot nobody,” I said.
“Well then, I ain’t givin’ you no more water,” Smitty said. I felt my tongue begin to tingle again. It swelled ever so slightly.
“And if I shoot Terrible Tim—”
“Terrible Ted. What then?”
“You can put your mouth on this here tap spigot for all I care. All the water here is yours,” Smitty said.
“What about the Sherriff? Won’t I get thrown in jail for shooting someone?”
“Nope,” Smitty said.
“How do you know?” I said.
“Terrible Ted done shot the sheriff. And now, he want’s to make off with my Charlene.” Charlene continued with her odd, cut time waltz.
“I ain’t got a gun, Smitty.”
Smitty unbuckled a belt and holster from his waist and put the bundle of revolver and bullets on the bar. “Here you go,” he said.
“Where do I find, Ted?”
“He’ll be here at sundown.”
“What does he look like?”
“You can’t miss him. Big, tall, dresses in all black. You know, how you’d expect someone named Terrible Ted to look.”
“What is this place?” I said.
Suddenly, my tongue began to swell and I couldn’t speak.
“Yeah, you prolly have a ton of questions, like “Is this real?,” “Why is my tongue getting so big?,” “Why is Charlene playing Radiohead?”
“Waydiowed!” I pushed out. My tongue was getting fatter by the minute.
“Yeah, I don’t care for them that much. Singer sounds like a drowning cat. She likes that there ‘Pyramid Song,’ so I like it, too. Bout all she plays, anyway.”
“What wime wis it?” I asked.
“3:30. You got ‘bout an hour and a half till showtime.”
I wandered out of the saloon and onto Main Street. A tumbleweed crossed my path. My tongue hurt. If I strained my eyes, I could see the swollen end of it in my lower field of vision. A vulture landed on a hitching post to my right. It squawked at me. I sat in a rocking chair on a porch not a few yards from the saloon. A scorpion ran across my pant leg and I brushed it off. I fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of a slow pile driver banging in the distance. My swollen tongue made it difficult for me to turn my head. My tongue was the size of an inner tube and hung down below my belt.
When I did catch a look at the pile driver, it wasn’t a pile driver. It was a twelve foot tall man, dressed in black, walking slowly and heavily into town.
“Teywible Ted,” I tried to say.
Ted made his way to the middle of the street on the other end of Tiny Town. The town proper was maybe fifty yards end to end, so he wasn’t too far from me.
Terrible Ted stood in the middle of the street with his hands about six inches from his side. From where I sat, he looked like a cross between just about every western character you could imagine. His head was square like John Wayne’s. He was scruffy like Buford Mad Dog Tannen. His build was like Clint Eastwood, but twice as large.
“Draw!” Terrible Ted said.
I jumped up from my chair, walked to the road, and turned to face Terrible Ted.
My tongue throbbed of fire. It hurt so badly that I would have gladly shot Ted just to make it all stop. From the sight of things, Ted was going to shoot me anyway. I'd might as well try to defend myself.
“Draw!” he said.
I pulled the revolver from my side belt and pulled the trigger. My shot landed ten feet in front of Ted.
Ted pulled his revolver and shot me. His bullet hit my tongue, but the bullet bounced off of it. While the throbbing continued, the impact of the bullet was insensate.
“Draw!” he said.
I fumbled the revolver from my side and took a shot. This time, the bullet was closer, but hit short, just in front of Ted’s black boots.
Then, Ted shot me again in the tongue. I felt nothing.
Before he could say “draw” again, I pulled the revolver up with both hands, lined Ted up in my sights as well as I could, and pulled the trigger. This time, I shot him right between the eyes. He fell backwards and hit the ground with a resonant thud. I twirled the revolver around my finger, like they do in the movies, but I didn’t know how to land it in my holster.
My tongue was on fire and nearly dragging on the ground now. I went into the bar. Smitty was gone. Charlene and her tack piano interpretation of Radiohead were also gone. I put my mouth under Smitty’s water barrel and pulled the spigot. Water cascaded into my mouth. My tongue began to shrink. I kept drinking. The barrel seemed to never run out. I kept drinking. Then, I passed out.
I awoke to a splitting headache. The fluorescent lights didn’t help. The walls were white and the room was cold. My tongue hurt like it was on fire, but in stead of being a big fat inner tube hanging from my mouth, it was just a little swollen and wrapped in a bandage.
“Mr. Simmons, you’re awake,” a soft, pleasant voice said from the hall.
“Tharlene?” I tried to say.
“Yes, I’m Nurse Charlene. I will let Dr. Smith know you are awake.”
“You were stung in the tongue by a scorpion,” she said.
“And, lucky to be alive,” Dr. Smith said. He swept into the room, grabbed the medical chart, and scratched his well groomed white beard.
“That bandage on your tongue can come off tomorrow,” he continued.
“Wher ‘m I?” I tried to say.
“Desert Town Medical. Highway patrol found your vehicle thirty miles south of here. A construction crew laying tar saw you wandering around, delirious. Another hour and you would have been done for.”
“Sorpion?” I asked.
“Yeah, only one critter leaves a sting like that. Had to be a scorpion. Never seen one prick someone in the tongue, though. Must a felt like your tongue was the size of Idaho. You probably hallucinated a bit, too.”
Before I could attempt to speak, Dr. Smith continued, “We’ll keep you over night and then send you on your way.”
“Your car? We towed it here for you. Mechanic said it just needed some coolant. Topped you off, too. He’ll send you a bill for the tow and tune up. We’re glad you’re alive son.”
My head spun. Nurse Charlene and Dr. Smith left the room. Moments later, Charlene returned with some water and a few pamphlets. “Here’s some light reading for you, if you’re up for it. Sorry we don’t have a television.”
One pamphlet read: “The History of Desert Town: From Tiny Town to the Best Kept Secret in the Desert.” The pamphlet showed Tiny Town, as it appeared to me, from the saloon, to the dirt road through the middle.
I drank the water, felt my tongue’s bandage on the roof of my mouth, and was grateful to be alive.
The next day, I drove on. On the way out of town, I passed a road paving crew. Their large black tar machine had broken down. “Terrible Ted” was spray painted on its rear.