When they passed the oblivious man walking something yapping for the attention of a much larger, hairier beast, he almost tripped over the leash, but his wife kept in her march.
“iPods are good. Do you know how much music they can hold? Thousands of songs!” It would have been nice to convince her without a struggle for a change, but she was a real deal killer.
“He looks like an idiot with those things in his ears.”
He could kick himself for agreeing to this. On that genial summer evening, Henry Farr wore the same cutoffs with one of the many designer label polo shirts he owned, affectedly worn with the collar up. Lazed out like a maharajah on a vinyl cushioned chaise lounge, his pipe cleaner legs seemed to betray his self-styled omnipotence. The bottoms of his feet were black from walking around the patio barefoot all day.
“How would you guys like to do us a solid while we’re away? Maybe you could take turns and stroll over to bring in the mail and feed our frog…oh, and give the plants something to drink.”
The two, or was it three glasses of chilled Vigonier he imbibed in the last hour had him floating merrily in a sea of appreciation for the impeccably rolled joint that Henry whipped out for them to smoke as soon as they arrived. Henry had the most awesome stuff and he didn’t make them wait half the night for it either.
Hoping to make an impression and raise himself to Henry’s level of cool, he said “Well, I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t, right?”
In the groovy dream-like setting, induced by the Farr’s fabulous stash of alcohol and drugs, everyone laughed like crazy at his hysterically witty way of signing on.
“Yoo-hoo! Is anybody home?” He wasn’t taking any chances.
She slammed the door shut with her foot. “Look at this crap! How do you leave a place like this and take off on vacation?!”
“They’re frolicking in the lake as we speak.”
He watched her nose around like one of those attractive television detectives, then in a counteraction against what she judged as an act of rash negligence against her good nature – if the place had been neater, she would have put some welcome-home impatiens in a jelly jar - and she was always on the lookout for an opportunity not to be taken for a fool, she dropped the stack of mail onto the kitchen table like a bomb, knocking over a bottle of nail polish.
He checked to make sure the top was tightly closed. In the meantime, a pack of Strawberry King cigarette paper perched on the cutting board presided over everything like a rebellious knave. He almost expected it to scurry off like a mouse when caught in his glance, but it just sat there in legal defiance, waiting for its owner to come home.
“Where’s the frog? I didn’t even know that they had a frog. Here froggy, froggy, froggy!”
“Here it is,” said her voice from the other room.
Xenopus laveis came from a huge warehouse off the thruway that sold cases of toilet paper and ketchup, and just about everything else, including fresh shrimp and imported portable DVD players at remarkably low prices. He had been under the impression these places were created for families who had low incomes, who needed the break that buying this way afforded them. But when invited to accompany Henry and his wife on one of their Sunday afternoon shopping sprees, he noticed more Lexus and Cadillac SUVs than Fords and Chevys in the parking lot.
The instructions on the box said: when metamorphosis occurs you will want to transfer your frog into a larger tank so you can watch it thrive for what could be years of pleasant biological observation.
“How long have they had this thing?” he asked, both of them staring at it incredulously.
“I don’t know.”
“Look how dirty the water is! It can’t even swim!”
“Calm down. It doesn’t know any better.” She pinched some food pellets out of a tin and dropped them through the opening at the top of a small plastic container. The frog instantly thrashed for its food, smashing itself against the sides. “Yikes…whoa!”
It was always refreshing to see her emerge from her emotional igloo. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” he cried out jokingly, trying to make light of it. After all, this wasn’t their frog. He would make sure to have a proper set up in a good-sized tank with a filter and plants and maybe even one of those silly plaster sunken ship hulls.
“Let’s go.” She was standing over by the door jingling the keys. “They live in a shithouse and so does their frog.”
They fell into being together after escaping from the party where they met. Hosted by a well-known interior decorator who had a reputation for lashing out at her contractors in public, even the recently acquired dreamlike portrait by Walter Field that everyone assumed she got at a discount, the interesting variety of deliciously prepared hors d’oeuvres, and the anticipated appearance of a movie star who failed to show up anyway, couldn’t redeem this fete from its fate.
Several insalubrious looking strangers sat down next to him and began conversing in French. He rose and ducked out to the hall. While giving in to being possessed by a tenacious cuticle, she seemed to materialize out of thin air.
“Don’t you just hate the way she did this place?” she asked him in embarrassingly full volume while trotting her fingers up and down the hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, feigning nonchalance at licking fresh blood off of a thumbnail.
Before her, he lacked what it took to date New York City girls. He would inch up closer for a better view and maybe more, but their clothes looked too expensive and made no sense to him. They came off fiercely independent as they milled around the sooty city like they owned the place, in well-scrubbed skin and dangerous high shoes.
Out one evening trying to wedge into a spot at a popular over-crowded bar, he couldn’t resist hearing a woman air her view to another woman who listened in silent obsession.
“Listen, I don’t care how great you say he is; you can always tell a man by his shoes. And you know what? If he walks in here tonight wearing those cop-hoppers, well, you get what I’m saying, right?”
An onrush of realization, as if he discovered he had soiled his pants - not enough to qualify him as a goner, but just enough to want to keep a safe distance from everyone for the rest of the evening - moved him to lower his eyes with faked indifference to the most comfortable pair of shoes he had ever owned, American-made and at a decent price. He might have admitted their run-of-the-mill brown was a bit outclassed for here, but a surge of wide-eyed panic caused him to lose it completely.
What chance did he have among the highfalutin cowboy boots and those suave Italian loafers?! Even the sneakers mingling with the flip-flops were way out of his league! Not quite grasping the idea of this whole New York shoe thing, and not really wanting to, he still pined and hankered. Oh, how he wanted one of those women!
It wasn’t long before they announced their engagement to his family, who nodded in dumb struck approval like a bunch of stupid bobble heads. His father would ask him repeatedly, “Why is she such a farbisener all the time?”
He couldn’t count the number of times she saved him from plunging into the muck of his childish sentimentality. Remarkably unyielding in her belief that it was a good thing to disown her white bread and pressed ham-eating family, a situation that he was never invited to understand fully, he respected her ability to remain so grounded.
“You live in a fairy tale,” she told him.
He wished she would stop being so brusque when she came home in the evening.
“I made chicken. Cluck cluckity cluck! I left it out in case you might want some!”
“Did you go to Henry and Leslie’s?”
“I did. I also washed that disgusting box they keep that poor creature in. Phew! It stunk!”
“You didn’t have to do that. I wouldn’t have.”
“It has no life in that thing! How could they not know that?”
“Because they’re assholes,” she said.
He agreed with her, even though she always explained people away like that. This one was an asshole, that one was an asshole. The frog wasn’t an asshole.
“Listen, here’s a swell idea. What do you think about telling them it died? We’ll say that it got really gross and we didn’t want them to come home to see it that way. But then we let it go. See? They won’t really care that much anyway. We let it go. SET IT FREE.”
She knew about the clump of wet granola dropped off the edge of her spoon to land on the front of her good silk blouse. “Are you mad? Let it go where?”
“I’m mad at them for torturing the poor frog that way!”
“So you want to steal it and then lie to them. Great… And where are you going to let it go, pray tell?” she asked, mimicking him in ridicule.
“I’m thinking of driving home to put it in the pond along Waysides. I used to hear frogs there all the time. Come on! Take a day off and let’s save the poor thing.” He reached out with his hand to touch her. “Let’s let it go, babe.”
The dishtowel she had been using to clean her blouse fell and landed on the floor. She left it there and walked away from him.
These might have been the worst two weeks of his life. Each time he went over to Henry’s he tried mental telepathy to petition the frog to die. Please die. Go away now. Show them how their stupidity makes things fail. Just go. Die already, will you! It almost killed him to see it suffer in that rotten container, imagining it day after day for the rest of its life longing for something he was convinced its instinct knew existed.
With one day left, he dutifully watered the coma inducing philodendron plants, brought in the mail, and for the last time fed the wretched thing waiting for its lunch. No matter how many times he changed it, he noticed the water was dirty again.
He walked home in an unsympathetic sorcery that seemed to cast a disconsolate haze over everything. Something was hanging from a shrub - an unusually thick piece of web perhaps. Pretending to examine it until a woman with red slacks ambled across the street; he crouched down like a child, then covered his face with his hands and sobbed.
It was late when she came home. He thought he smelled alcohol but he wasn’t sure. When she returned biting off a banana she had found in the kitchen, and with her hair tucked behind her ears in that new way she had been wearing it lately, it surprised him for a second that she looked like a monkey.
“I’m thinking about really doing that thing with the frog.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“It can live for seventeen years. Can’t you even imagine how cruel it would be for it to live like that, for it never to be able to swim and live a decent life? Listen to me! Don’t you even care?”
Her eyes were glued to a catalog she was flipping through.
“And I’ll never be able to go to Henry’s again.”
“Why, that’s a long time for you to go without smoking some of that weed Henry turns you on to all the time too. No wonder you’re upset. Don’t worry, bud. It’ll never last that long with those two.”
The sensation that summer was soon to end filled him with the same sense of urgency felt a long time ago, when school was soon to reopen so he would play outside in the backyard until darkness called him in.
He clutched the frog in his hand as he walked through the wheat colored meadow, where modes of insect noises emerged from within; crickety cracks, boops, and several buzzing sinfoniettas. At the pond, vigorous dragonflies were blissfully feeding off the water’s velvety iridescent green surface.
Its heart was beating strong and was a reassuring pulse against his cool damp palm. He kissed it on its head. “Go man, go.”
He released the frog and watched it swim. He was alive and kicking and he never looked back.