Initiation Into The Cult Of Late Night Frog Collection

Every summer I am too much in love with the season and its inhabitants. In the coldest winter months when everyone pales and the snow ungrounds me, I can see all of the people I know for the intimate strangers that they are, with wind-burned lips and thickened waists. But in the summer the warmth of the sun and the extended hours of daylight color their cheeks and fill their eyes when they lean in doorways, and I love them. Too much for my own good. This kind of loving unsettles my stomach.

For several summers of my childhood, I lived near a sleep-away camp on a lake in the foothills. My father was a painter and my mother was a writer, and they did a three-month residency each year starting in June. We stayed in a cabin on the shore of an alpine lake where the wooden floors were cold in the morning and the blue paint that peeled from the boards stuck to bare feet. My parents considered our ninety days at the cabin a private working time, and my sister and I were given sandwiches in the morning and told what time to come back for dinner each evening. My parents thought that this would be a formative experience for us, and that our personalities would expand to encompass all of the qualities they saw in themselves: hearty work ethic, creativity, charisma. I used to fill a backpack with a bathing suit, towel, and books to keep the boredom at bay. Then my sister and I would find some soft spot on the shore of the lake to sit and swim and build structures of leaves and branches until we got too hot or too cold.

In the drama of adolescent boredom, I hoarded cigarettes slipped individually from the inner pocket of my father’s canvas jacket in preparation for rainy days, of which there were many. I knew that he could not tell my mother of this thievery even if I was discovered in the act. He had quit several years ago, but whenever he got lost in a painting he could only pace in the hall for several seconds before grabbing his jacket by the collar and stalking out the door with his fingers poised to grip the strike-anywhere book of matches we left under the lid of the grill. When I woke up to the hard metallic pounding of rain I would pocket my collection of cigarettes and roll the filter end of each back and forth under my thick yellow raincoat as I walked around the lake, slipping on the wet roots of the trees and the slick layer of pine needles beneath the evergreens. On rainy days I was allowed to leave my sister in the cabin, provided I gave her something of mine with which to occupy herself. She was seven years younger, and I could amuse her with almost anything of mine that she thought I valued. These were the few days when I was not lonely for company my own age.

The camp was all boys, and the outermost bunk buildings were angled against the lake a half-mile from where our cabin stood, beyond a curve in the shore that hid the camp’s dock from our little inlet. When it rained all of the boys were kept inside playing board games and doing crafts, unless they had to use the bathroom. The bathrooms were behind the dorm that was furthest from the main building, and boys younger than seven had to be escorted by one of the counselors. The counselors were fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, and most of them liked to smoke. I would wait outside the camp bathrooms with my hoarded cigarettes until the counselors came through the downpour with their train of timid boys who wore their fingers in their mouths. The counselors would trade me chocolate bars and comic books and sometimes their girlfriends’ letters for a cigarette.

I met Paulie on a drenching afternoon in early June when I was fifteen and he was sixteen. A tow-headed six-year-old boy waited under the overhang of the bathrooms for ten minutes until Paulie was done talking. I had seen Paulie before but I had never spoken with him until that summer.   He had a distinctive assortment of features and a swagger to his walk that made him seem to be composed only of muscle and tendon and youth. He was young in a self-possessed way that gave his mannerisms a sense of urgency and vigor, as if he were a man who had become a boy again for just a little while.

Paulie’s camper watched his own kneecaps jolt up and down with cold below the white-piped hem of his bright red shorts. Paulie accepted a cigarette. When I asked, he told me about his scar. A white line ran like the tributary of a river from the bridge of his nose down into his left eye socket and pooled just above the part of his iris that was flecked with amber. The rest of the eye was a thick, hazy green. He had cut the milky curve into his brow when his father threw him a screwdriver in the backyard. Paulie caught the tool, but while his hands were flung into the air to clasp its handle, his forehead was colliding with the screw he needed to tighten on the bottom of a raised porch that overlooked the lawn. There was so much blood running down Paulie’s face when he took his hand from the cut that his father thought the eye had been punctured.

“It hurt,” he said, “but pain is no evil.” He grinned at the ground and blinked his hot hazy green glass jungle eyes. The slope of his left eyebrow was interrupted again halfway down. When he was ten, Paulie had shaved off half of his left eyebrow alone in the upstairs bathroom where his father kept a razor. It was not part of a dare or threat. He had only wanted to see what he would look like. That half of his eyebrow was thin and far paler than his dark hair.

Despite his scar and the strange asymmetry it lent his gaze, Paulie had a girlfriend. He told me about her the next time it rained, while he watched the water drip from his hat onto the toe of his boots. He talked about her as if he were older, his voice getting harder with the lilt of her name, his words breaking quick as the fall of the rain and the drift of fog over the lake. He gazed at the ground as if to draw attention to his broken brow. He only ever looked up to laugh, but when he did he opened his mouth to the sky and let the water drip down his face and into his eyes until he seemed to be laughing so hard he had to cry.

. . . . .

            During the year that passed between that summer and the next we grew far older than we really were. In the second summer we were fast friends. In the hottest nights of late July we snuck out and swam to the camp dock to rest half in and half out of the water while cabins full of bunk beds of homesick boys sweltered at our backs. The nights seemed to pulse with childish breathing and the sounds of my parents shifting in their sleep. The loudest of all was Paulie, when he spoke and when he was silent. He was not readily intelligent, or funny, or even overtly kind. All he had was a way of assembling his features into a smirk or a smile that made everyone he directed his gaze towards feel as though they were in on a joke, and Paulie was the one who had come up with the joke in the first place.

The first time I touched Paulie I had to close my eyes. When I ran my fingers along his brow until I felt the ridge of his scar, his shoulder blades pulled together and he shivered from the base of his neck all the way to his knees. His thigh was pressed up against mine and I felt his skin quiver like a horse twitching away a fly.

In my second summer with Paulie I realized that causing someone else to experience pleasure was to make them vulnerable far beyond the infliction of pain. Pleasure fully overwhelms people even in its most rudimentary, indelicate sensations, and their intellect abandons them to their physicality. Cuts and punches and broken bones all give the same reactions: people pull their features together, stiffen their limbs as if to hold the pain in the place of its origin, scream, cry, turn pink, and pale, and pass out. But everyone reacts differently to pleasure.

Paulie’s eyes would roll back behind their lids and his mouth would open to expose the breadth of the gap between his upper and lower jaws. He was a blind man, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the dark while the water lapped the dock. By the end of August I knew that the thing about Paulie that the girl who still wrote him letters must have loved was his scar, and how the skin of his forehead rose against that milky ridge of damaged tissue while his pupils fell back beyond his eyelids. I liked to watch his face while he became senseless, but the sound of his heavy breathing made my stomach hurt as if I had eaten too many apples.                                               Afterwards we would sit until our blood slowed, then I would give Paulie a cigarette and in the smoky haze we would talk about his girlfriend.   Paulie would talk about her and I would listen. He said that some of the letters had drawings in them, ducks and swallows and birds of prey. She wrote their names beneath them as if the penned wings were inscribing a code on their manilla sky. He said that she wrote as if he were her own private diary, locked and sealed. He said he didn’t think about her at night: she was too good, too abstract.

. . . . .

            By halfway through August the frogs chirped to create a tumbling wave of sound each evening, and they sang long into the night. I told my sister that I had been catching peepers the first time I came back to find her staring me down under the kitchen light, pretending to read a mystery novel while she watched the screen door. The next time I tried to sneak out was two nights before we had to leave. I felt the preemptive lack of Paulie, and it made me anxious. When I stepped into the hall Laurie was waiting in a chair by the door with her boots on, clutching a flashlight in both hands.

I made her walk in front of me so that Paulie would see her first. He was leaning against a high-boughed pine tree and I caught his eye with a finger to my lips before he could speak.

“Hey,” I said. “Laurie is going to catch some peepers with us. That alright with you?”

“Yeah,” he said, and nodded. His fingertips played at his collar. “You lead,” he said to Laurie. She jumped when his gaze fell to her, but she met his eyes with the solemnity of an initiate into the cult of late night frog-collection. Without a glance at me Laurie set off into the trees and started to follow the curve of the lake back towards our cabin, but Paulie caught her shoulder as she turned.

“You want to wake up your parents,” he asked. She shook her head, and her long pale hair pulled beneath his fingers. He looked down at the strands taut against his skin and stepped back, his hand sliding from her shoulder. He tipped his chin in the opposite direction around the lake and she followed his glare. She walked with the rapid hip sway of embarrassment and her rubber boots slapped at the backs of her calves. Paulie stood for several soft seconds watching her move farther and farther along the bank, and once she was just a white blur we could only see from the corner of our eyes he let out a long sigh. Paulie stepped close to me and his bare feet, so quiet slinking from the boys’ dorms, snapped twigs and rustled pine needles. His fingers closed around my wrist and his arm was warm against mine. His whisper was damp when his lips grazed my ear, “Let’s go catch some frogs.”

I shivered and he stalked off, pulling the cap from his head and holding it cupped above the ground, as if to drop it over some unsuspecting amphibian. He was an easy-jointed ragged teenager. The back of his shirt was damp from the trees and his free hand was pocketed in a pair of jeans a size too short but loose at the waist with the leanness of adolescence.

By tacit agreement we kept close enough to Laurie that we could always see her in front of us, turning the beam of her flashlight on every rustle and chirp. Paulie and I did not have to look for frogs, but we did. We walked close together, elbows knocking, crouched low to listen. We filtered leaves and grass through our fingers and scraped our feet on roots and rocks. Our limbs hit painlessly at branches and one another, and we stumbled loudly in the dark as quietly as we could. Our breath came fast from our lungs and we laughed without a sound as we tripped over one another in the cacophony of invisible frogs.

Through the amphibious clamor came a shriek at human pitch, and it was the cry of children surprised by needles in doctor’s offices, of slipped knives and dislocated shoulders. In the wake of that sound came others: the high girlish shout had raised the voices of the campers in reply and the night was filled with hollering and boyish bellowing that seemed to echo through the trees. We were lost in the darkness but running hard towards the source of the original scream. Paulie sprinted like a jackrabbit and the forest smelled of crushed pine and the coming fall as I kept pace with him, branches cutting across my face and arms and panic in my throat. We saw her at the same time, a pale blur amidst the conifers. As she turned towards us, my foot caught a root and I fell hard on my knees and elbows with the blood pounding in my ears fast enough to make me senseless. I got slowly to my feet with the ache of shock in my muscles that drove out any fear. Several feet in front of me was a thicket of densely thorned brambles that glowed at the center with Laurie’s fallen flashlight. Laurie stood at the edge of the thicket and Paulie knelt before her, holding her tightly to his chest as her shoulders shook. I walked towards them and Paulie took his long arms from my sister and leaned back, taking her wrists lightly with his fingertips to show me the shallow lacerations that ran from knuckle to elbow. The blood was a dull burgundy on Paulie’s shirt and smeared across Laurie’s forearms.

“Hey, hey,” he was saying. Laurie could not take her eyes from her arms, and her eyes were wide and I knew that she was about to faint and could not hear him. She fell forwards into him and he caught her with a sharp inhalation. “What the hell,” he said.

“Blood makes her pass out,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“What do we do?” His voice wavered.

I knelt beside him and he let her slip into my arms with her shoulder blades against my knees and her legs stretched out in front of me. “She’ll be fine in a moment,” I said. “But she won’t feel too good. And she’ll probably be mad at both of us. She wants to be tough.” Paulie laughed.

“We’re going to have to sit here for a bit,” I said. “You can go if you want. Somebody might’ve noticed you aren’t in the camp.”

“No,” he shook his head. “I’ve never seen anybody faint before.”

“Oh, she does it all the time. I made her pass out in a store once trying to show her one of those Halloween costumes that’s a cloak with a white mask that the blood runs down with when you press a button.”

Paulie laughed aloud, and tucked his feet close to his body, holding his knees in his arms. “I got one of those when I was eleven, but my mom didn’t let me wear it out because she was afraid I would get hit by a car without something reflective. I think she just thought it was too creepy.”

Paulie blinked at me, then got up and began to access the position of the flashlight. I looked down and Laurie was staring up at me.

“Hey kiddo,” I said, and Laurie’s eyes filled. She started to raise her hands from her sides to wipe her eyes but I shook my head and slipped off my t-shirt. I used one of the sleeves to dry her face, then I found the place along the seam under the arm where there was already a hole and ripped the shirt open, struggling with the worn fabric until I had separated the front from the back. “Close your eyes,” I told her, and she nodded. I wrapped each half of the shirt around each of her arms as well as I could. Paulie kept his back turned, staring at the ground in front of him where it was lit by the inaccessible flashlight. As I tied the last awkward knot he knelt and picked up something from the leaves by his feet. “I don’t think I can get the flashlight,” he muttered. “That’s okay, let’s just go back,” I said. He nodded and I helped Laurie stand.

“You alright?” Paulie asked. Laurie wouldn’t look at him. When I put my arm across her shoulders she tensed, but didn’t shy away. We walked back slowly with Paulie murmuring the places of roots and rocks. When we reached the cabin Paulie hesitated. His fingers played at his collar. “You can go now,” I said. He nodded at the ground. As I led Laurie up the stairs he slipped back into the trees.

I took Laurie directly to the bathroom, but stopped in the hall to grab one of my mother’s scarves from the hook by the door. “Okay, you’re going to sit right here on the toilet,” I said. “I’m going to tie this around your eyes so you don’t have to look.” She followed my instructions and I knotted the gauzy fabric behind her head, then searched the cabinet until I found some cotton balls and a bottle of iodine.

“This is going to hurt,” I told her. “But pain’s no evil, right kiddo?”

“How much?” She asked.

“Not too much,” I said. I soaked the cotton in iodine and left it in the sink, then removed the pieces of my shirt from her arms. “You know,” I said. “This was my favorite shirt.”

“No it was not,” she said. “Yes it was,” I intoned.

“Hey, its not too bad,” I said. The scratches had bled dramatically, but the cuts were shallow. She gasped when she felt the sting of the iodine but she didn’t whimper or complain. Her right arm, which had been cut more deeply, was nearly clean when the bathroom door creaked open.

“What is going on?” My father stood in the doorway, squinting against the harsh light and white tile. His eyes moved from the bottle of iodine perched on the lip of the sink to my hands full of cotton balls to Laurie’s arms and my bare torso. “What the hell happened?” His voice pitched and he stepped forward to pull the scarf from Laurie’s face, but I caught him across the chest with my arm, “don’t,” I said. “She’ll faint.” He sighed because he knew I was right, but he crouched in front of her with his hands on her knees.

“Laurie,” he asked. “What did you do?”

She began to cry again, and told him that we had been trying to catch frogs, that she had dropped the flashlight in a patch of thorns and had not seen them. When my father asked me whether this was true I nodded. Laurie did not mention Paulie, but she turned her body towards me to show the weight of her oath to the late night frog collectors.

After my father put Laurie to bed he motioned me outside and sat down on the porch. I sank onto the first step. “She is so much younger than you right now,” he said. “You have to be careful with her because she wants to be able to do everything that you do.”

“I know,” I said. When I had sat down my knees had started throbbing, and I looked at them for the first time. I licked my fingers and started to wipe away the dirt. “Its not like I stuck my arms into a bunch of thorns first.”

My father leaned back against the side of the cabin and crossed his arms over his chest, the porch light in his eyes. “Do you know what your mother used to say about kids before we had you,” he said, ignoring my tone of exasperation. I shook my head.

“She said, ‘children are like poetry: short and full of meaning we cannot understand. They are either miniature epiphanies or fools.’” He smiled and looked at me down the length of his nose, but I stared at my knees where they were skinned and hot to the touch. The skin around the abrasions would be purple-grey by morning. I held my mouth in a line and bit at the inside of my lower lip while I ran my fingertips across the feverish skin until there was blood under my fingernails.

“Sometimes,” my father said. “Your mother and I talk about you and your sister as if you were just any children, not our children.” I looked up at him and his eyes snapped to mine, testing, “She thinks of your lives as patterns of events that collapse upon themselves to make a person. I see you in images, real and imagined. We both think of you as an art form. But as you get older, I think we are finally realizing that you are just a person.”

. . . . .

            We left in the late evening of a lemon-yellow day. The fog lay yellow across the water and the paneling of the camp bathrooms threw a yellow glow into the air about them. The haze of the day grew orange with the sunset, and then gray. Our car was packed and the cabin was scrubbed clean and swept free of our lives there. Laurie closed the screen door so softly slowly that it did not make a sound. Her arms were covered in band-aids. We stopped at the bathroom before we left, and my mother and Laurie went to the camp offices to use the bathrooms there while my father waved me out of the car with a twist of the wrist and, “It’s a long drive.”

When I came out of the bathroom, Paulie was standing by the door. “I’m leaving,” I said. I wiped my hands dry on my shirt.

“I figured,” he said. He stared at me, hot glass green hazy jungle eyes. I looked past him, at my father sitting in the car with his head tilted back against the headrest and his eyes closed. He had stayed up late packing, bickering lightly with my mother so that I had fallen asleep to the rhythmic tension of their voices. Paulie looked down at his feet, and back up again with his blinking grin.

“I’ve got something for you,” he said. He was clutching it in his fist.

“Paulie,” I said. “I’ve got to go,” pointing with my eyes to the car.

“I know, I know, I know.”

He was grinning and blinking and I held my hand below his until he opened his fist. A frog fell into my palm. As I closed my fingers on it I realized it was dead, but when I looked up at Paulie his eyes said live frog, and he grabbed my shoulders, pressed his mouth to my cheek, let go, and ran back towards the camp. As the slam of the bunk door faded I walked to the car and got in. My father’s head still rested on the seat, but his eyes were open and he swallowed as I sat down beside him. “Alright?” He asked. “Alright,” I said.

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