Feeling schmaltzy tonight, so look out. Gonna post a little personal fiction, some free-writing I did after waking up from a deep self-conference. I do so love good conversation! I will post two (count ’em, TWO) schmaltzy stories tonight, and YOU, you hapless reader you, must decide which one you like better. Or maybe you’ll hate ’em both. It’s all you. So here we go with Story Number 2:
A BOY AND HIS FROG
When I was a boy, around nine or ten years old, my family lived in a new housing development in what we used to jokingly call the suburbs. We were only joking because the town in the valley below us was hardly urban. It was a little college town that had started as a little gas station sandwich shop at the intersection of two major roads. That’s all the town had been before they had built the college. Back in the old days, the days of my grandparents, there had been a train stop in town near the park where the young college students from the surrounding farming regions of north-central Pennsylvania would arrive for their education. Our town was so small, we only had the one traffic light at the center of those two main roads. That was until they put in the Walmart in 1992. Then we had two traffic lights – one in the center of town, and one to regulate the traffic rolling in and out of the Walmart parking lot. Yep, we gained a traffic light, but lost a thriving downtown shopping district that used to be lined with little mom-and-pop clothing shops, furniture stores, toy stores, newsstands, and bakeries. There was a Western Auto (which also served as the toy store), a Benjamin Franklin five-and-dime, and even a local grocery store called Super Duper, but Walmart put them all away. They all turned into antique stores, because people who lost their businesses had a lot of old family heirlooms to sell, and antiques were the only thing Walmart didn’t offer.
Back in the days of my youth, around 1980 B.W. (Before Walmart), I spent my days with my best friend Jeff, riding our bikes along the quiet streets of our growing neighborhood. We often stopped to play in the construction sites of new homes that were being built all the time – after the workers had gone home, of course. One day, when one of the homes that had been our secret playground was finished, another family moved into it. They had children our age, but they were girls. The youngest girl was Christina, and she used to try to keep up with us as she was desperate for playmates. Her sister was a teenager already and had no time for playing.
We were nine or ten, she was seven or eight. But we were boys, and we had no time for her.
Still, she tried.
In the springtime, when the air was fresh and the as-yet-undeveloped fields around our homes were blooming with all sorts of wildflowers and adventure, the peepers would come. For those that haven’t lived in the country before, peepers are tiny little frogs that peep. And you know summer’s not far off when you hear what sounds like millions of them, all peeping a chorus under the starry, firefly skies. Now, despite our neighborhood being slightly above the rest of the town, nestled just below the big, rolling hills that grew off the Appalachians, we got a lot of rain in the spring, and so the undeveloped ground got quite swampy that time of the year. Even the developed ground got swampy, much to the chagrin of some of our parents. No one liked having water in their basement.
Anyway, the swampy fields behind our houses would often grow little ponds, and the peepers and other amphibians would settle there for mating season and just peep, chirp, and croak their little heads off. And, of course, Jeff and I, being boys of nine or ten, we’d head out into that mucky swamp to catch as many of the little buggers as we could. There was one very good, very large, and very deep muck pond in the farthest field behind our houses. We could wade into the middle of it, feel the mud trying to suck the boots off of our feet, and the water would pour into them as it was well over our knees in some spots. We didn’t care. There were frogs out there.
One early evening, just as the first stars were appearing in the sky, the song of the peepers beckoned us off our bikes and into the big muck swamp. And sure enough, who should be tagging along but little Christine. Some girl, thinking she can slog into a muck swamp on her short little legs and catch frogs and toads like we could. But there she went. Jeff and I were armed with flashlights, as we had read or heard somewhere that if you shine a light into a frog’s eyes, they’ll freeze up like a deer in headlights and you could just scoop them up at your leisure. As we slogged through the deep muck, Christine tried to keep up, although she had neither gumboots nor a flashlight. She just trundled along behind us as best as she could, following the beams of our flashlights in the growing shade. And although her legs were short, and she had neither the proper footwear nor equipment, I couldn’t help but be impressed at her determination.
That is, until she fell behind a bit. But we didn’t care. We had found a big toad, and we were creeping in for the grab. But suddenly, I heard Christine cry out with a splash. The toad jumped and swam for it. Jeff cursed (he was good at cursing) and I turned to see the top of Christine’s head and lower back sticking out of the muck swamp as she struggled to pull herself upright again out of the muck.
“Leeches got her!” was Jeff’s prognosis. I ran – rather slogged — as fast as I could, over to Christine, who had managed to lift her face out of the swamp water. She gasped, struggling to tell me her feet were stuck. “Sinkhole!” was Jeff’s update.
I grabbed Christine around the back and under her arms and pulled. She didn’t budge. Her feet and probably lower legs were stuck good. I called to Jeff to help me pull, but he just laughed, the beam of his flashlight shining right in my eyes. Christina was just making sounds expressing disgust and terror. The sounds of a trapped animal, I thought. I let her fall forward into the water a bit and she sobbed, but I used my new leverage to give it one big heave, and we fell backwards, her bare feet splashing above the water for a split second. She had lost her shoes to the muck. They weren’t the priority right now, however, and I pulled Christine back to the weedy edge of the swamp. We fell on the ground, our legs and her bare feet covered in stinking muck, breathing hard. Her muddy face showed the white streaks of tear tracks and she whimpered, staring at the pond and then at me. Her eyes were as big as a frog’s. And she was beautiful. I don’t know where the hell that thought came from, but there it was. She was beautiful, and she was scared, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I leaned in and kissed her. Right on the mouth. Just a quick peck was all, not like one of those long, drawn-out smooches you see in the movies. I sat back, and she stared at me, eyes even bigger now with shock and surprise.
“You’re okay…” I started, but suddenly she leapt forward like a frog escaping a flashlight, and she was all arms, also like a frog. And she was on me, hugging me tighter than I think I’ve ever been hugged.
“Don’t you ever leave me alone out here, Pickledick Jones!” she said. And I knew she meant out here in the muck swamp, but in the moment, I took it to mean the whole damn world.
I thought hard to think of something cool to say, like in the movies, but all I could come up with was, “Okay.” Jeff kept his flashlight on us the whole time. He was stunned to silence. I figured he’d have plenty to say, but soon his light moved away from us and onto the water. I could hear him splashing around behind the light.
I heard him say, “Her shoes gotta be around here somewhere.” Sure enough, moments later, Jeff came over with both of her small, muddy shoes. He threw them next to her. “Here,” he said. “Your mom’s gonna be pissed, but not as pissed as she’d be if you lost ‘em.” Jeff was a great pal, and a damn good frogger.
After that, the three of us were inseparable. More to the point, Christine and I were inseparable, and Jeff was cool with it. After all, for the first few years, it was just us playing in the fields out there as new houses were being built. The new families that moved in brought babies, no one that could ride a bike or play in a construction site. And Christine’s older sister was usually too cool for us. She hung around kids with a car so they were never in our neighborhood. They were downtown at the McDonalds or whatever.
The years went by as they do. The field soon had ten new houses, and the back field with the big muck swamp was dug up to put in a Christian academy for the kids that were too holy to go to school with us regular kids. We grew up doing the things kids usually do, having adventures and then getting into trouble, and then getting into college.
After college, Christine and I got married. Jeff was my best man, and I remember the laugh he got when he finished off his best man speech with the line, “Of all the frogs we caught that summer, I think you caught the best one.” Indeed, Christine’s nickname from that fateful night on had been “Frog,” because of how big her eyes had gotten, and how fast she had leapt forward to grab me.
Yes, Christine and I had been inseparable from that night on. There was never anyone else, for either one of us. We moved out of that little town to go to grad school, which was a trying time, but we made it. We moved to Pittsburgh and started jobs, which turned into careers before we even realized it. The idea of having children was there at the back of our minds (and on her mother’s lips every time she called), but we had plans first. We wanted to travel. We wanted to see the big world beyond our little pond. And we were going to do it.
But then Christine got sick. It started small, as such things do, but turned bad quickly. So bad that she was soon in the hospital, in a special treatment center. I took time off work to be in there with her whenever I could. She just got thinner, and quieter, and weaker. But her eyes still lit up big when I’d come into the room, and she’d smile big, and her thin little arm would reach out. I’d kiss her, and she’d tap me on the nose with her fingertip and say, “Peep!” That was a thing she had started to do way back when, I can’t even remember. It would come out at the end of arguments, and that was how I knew the argument was over (I usually lost), and everything was okay again.
One afternoon, I was sitting at her bedside, reading her a new book, when her tiny little hand appeared over the top of the pages and she gently pulled the book down so that I could look at her. She was smiling, glowing, like an apparition. I leaned in and stroked her hair.
“Thanks for not leaving me alone out here,” she said.
“Don’t you leave me alone out here,” I pleaded.
“Oh, I won’t,” she replied. And then she ‘peeped’ my nose, and she was gone. Well, gone from her body anyway.
That was seventeen years ago. My whole life then ended seventeen years ago. And man, it was a good one. Jeff and I are still close, but he lives in Atlanta now and I currently live in South Korea. I became a traveler to honor Christine’s plan. I teach to pay for it. It’s the life of an expat. I don’t think I will ever return to the U.S. except to visit every couple of years or so. Truth be told, I’m running from debt collectors. Student loans and medical bills that are insurmountable. And let’s face it – I never really grew up. That was all Christine. Now I just want to show her the world, because I know she didn’t leave me alone out here.