Frog Circus

Dear Mrs. Harleminn,

I realize it’s been quite a long time since we spoke. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but there is a relatively good reason for that. See, I have a confession. In 1982, I placed that four-pound coffee can full of tiny, lifeless frogs, covered in a thin layer of grape jelly, on your porch.

If you’ll indulge it, I’d like to explain.

I’ll start at the beginning. Eddy Griffenbackher and I were going to create a frog circus, wherein frogs would do short, but elegant gymnastic routines. You undoubtedly remember Eddy — he was basically notorious. I have a lot of Eddy stories myself. One time Eddy convinced me to ball up the fresh tar they used to seal cracks in the asphalt and hurl it at the backs of passing cars. Never satisfied with mere mischief, Eddy upped the ante to offer me ten extra points if I could hit Officer Cramer, who was on duty at the time. (That’s how my mom met Officer Cramer, actually. He’s a really forgiving man, and that uniform was a lot more expensive than you’d imagine. My mom knows how to get a lot of stains out of a lot of things, but gooey tar and trooper uniform are unfortunately not in that impressive number, and she owns at least one trooper uniform to prove it.)

Eddy was notably the one who tricked me into jumping out a second story window while playing Dukes of Hazzard. He was also the one who told me I got shot by a 22-pistol, when Ben and JP shot me in the hindquarters with a BB Gun. (That was an interesting story to Officer Cramer, too, and he spent a not inconsiderable amount of time investigating it, much to the delight of Ben and JP’s moms. You can likely imagine the ways this improved our relationships, as well, after the fact.)

Eddy was also the one who insisted that I was so good at cartwheels I could definitely do one across the top of the swing set. It was a 4×4 on top, as big as a balance beam. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do a cartwheel on a balance beam, he said. What I lacked, Eddy said, was confidence, not experience. So I did it. I think you saw that one, or at least the ambulance.

Before you judge him too harshly, you should know that when I missed the beam and dove, head-first like a portly little flesh-dart, into the packed snow beneath the set, it was Eddy who ran to get my mom, like Lassie summoning grownups to the well. And it was Eddy who sat next to me while the ambulance came, promising that I would eventually be able to move my arms and legs again, and if I didn’t I could be Bo Duke the next time we played Dukes of Hazzard.

I’m not trying to make excuses. I mention all of this so that you’ll understand that there were special rules when it was me and Eddy “playing” together. It’s fairly remarkable that we both survived our relationship.

Back to the frogs on your porch.

We gathered all of those frogs from the muskeg behind our houses. It took most of the morning. We started early because Eddy said they were slowest at dawn, when they were first waking up. I’ll tell you, Eddy was wrong about a lot of things, but he was certainly right about that. We meant to get 30 or so of them, you know, selectively snatch the best, the real frog impresarios — but there were so many, and they were so easy to catch, we got carried away. After filling both our yogurt containers to absolute capacity, we still wanted more. I ran home and emptied the coffee can my mom used for second-tier utensils (potato mashers, that giant fork thing, etc.) and we dumped the yogurt cups into there. We were dizzy with frog acquisition and increasingly audacious in our plan. As we threw frog after frog into the can, we rhapsodized about trapeze frogs, frog gymnasts, and even a special musical number with frogs riding other frogs to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” It was going to be magnificent.

Admittedly, mistakes were made.

First of all, we should never have taken a lunch break. Our furious frenzy of frog gathering took us much further into the day than we intended, and Eddy’s grandma started bellowing Eddy home for lunch. As you know, Eddy lived with his grandmother, who had openly dedicated her life to three very discrete pursuits: growing marijuana, smoking marijuana, and drinking gin and tonics. All legal at that time in Alaska, but making her sort of a postmodern Tom Waits-y grandmother. So you know as well as anyone else on our block that ignoring Grandma Griff was as dangerous and ill-advised as ignoring an overflowing toilet. In a rush to comply, we attempted to secure our frog supply for a short break.

We cut a hole in the lid of the coffee can we’d been tossing the frogs in, but Eddy, evidently inspired to uncharacteristic sentimentality by our impressive, squirming brood, was adamant that the frogs needed lunch, too. He suggested we bring them flies, which were the only thing we were certain frogs liked to eat. A quick reconnaissance of our respective windowsills yielded derisory results, so Eddy and I began to explore other fly-getting stratagem. This brings me to the grape jelly. (We voted for poop first, of course, but rejected it on the grounds that: a) neither of us had to, and b) it would take our friendship in a direction neither of us was sure of, for reasons we couldn’t really elucidate.)

We knew that flies loved grape jelly, based on our experience with church picnics at Sandy Beach. You could hardly eat your own sandwich, for the flies circling anticipatorily around your head. And we’d all seen what happened, should some poor provincial child leave their PB&J unattended — it was like fly bacchanalia. Grape jelly would bring us flies. We were delirious with the perfection of our solution. The only problem was how tightly the frogs were packed in the can. After smearing grape jelly on the lid of our coffee can, we postulated that only the strongest of the frogs would be able to get access to the flies licking the jelly on the lid. We solved our problem by putting the grape jelly directly into the can. That way, we thought, the flies would fly right in.

I’m aware that this conclusion was specious, but there’s a reason the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is cliché. It’s because so many people have left their own coffee cans full of grape-jelly-frog-corpses on their neighbor’s porches.

Maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea.

Our second big mistake was caused by Eddy’s failing to return from lunch. In fairness to Eddy, his grandma was pretty unpredictable. Midday was usually a sweet spot in her ascension to weed and gin nirvana, and her lunches were more epic than an Up in Smoke, Pineapple Express, Top Chef montage. I personally witnessed one Dali-esque cornucopia that included taco dip, Swedish meatballs, and stacks of frozen burritos. Before you get too worked up about this, remember that Grandma Griff also thought the bus driver deliberately lingered in front of her house trying to catch a glimpse of her in her nightie, and would not be convinced it was because she lived on a bus-stop corner. It’s pretty likely Eddy was forced to play protracted rounds of UNO, or had been sent on some weird surveillance mission (see “Bus Driver,” above). I’m not trying to point fingers. Regardless, we should’ve checked the frogs much, much sooner. Much sooner.

Our last, and definitely biggest, mistake was that we morbidly miscalculated the viscosity of grape jelly.

Generally, Eddy and I relied more on inspiration than research in making our plans. If we had read even a little bit about frog physiology, we’d certainly have learned that frogs breathe through their skin. Which we can all agree is pretty hard to do if your skin is covered by a non-porous, sticky, grape layer of death — regardless of the size of the hole you cut in a coffee can lid. I feel badly about it now, but what’s done is done. It literally sealed the deal.

I waited for Eddy forever. Long after I ate my own sandwich, watched back-to-back episodes of The Addams Family and The Munsters, and got into a slap-fight with my little sister, I realized Eddy was likely out for the day. After laboring over my loyalty to him and my general fear of successive noogies (the typical penalty for insubordination), I decided he would want me to forge ahead with our endeavor, rationalizing my plan with a fantastic idea: I would surprise Eddy the next morning with a small but impressive troupe, performing some basic tricks on a popsicle-stick balance-beam I would construct.

Naturally, I built the balance-beam first, thinking that the glue could dry while I trained the frogs. I giggled like a lunatic at the thought of Eddy’s shock and delight when he angled his head into the sheet tent we’d built and saw what I’d already accomplished. He’d be so proud of me. This last, albeit short, construction project extended the window of frog-jelly immersion well beyond the survivable duration. Whatever hope remained for, say, the top layer of frogs was categorically eliminated while I lovingly placed those popsicle sticks on the lateral supports. By the time I finally opened the lid to the frog can it was clear the final circus curtain had fallen, long before it ever was raised, for all of the can’s occupants. I pulled lifeless frog after lifeless frog from the can, finally dumping the lot of them on the grass next to the now irrelevant tent and tiny balance beam.

They were goners.

In a cataclysmic fit of desperation (and a testament to the utility of offering the class to fourth graders) I actually attempted CPR on one frog, but our disproportionate lip size kept causing me to essentially insert the frog’s entire head in my mouth, and after several attempts I realized I was only desecrating and disrespecting the dead with my efforts. Also, the likelihood of me vomiting was progressively and exponentially increasing, which would have worsened an already deep transgression. Unfortunately, I found my attempts at chest compressions equally futile, being either too firm, which was messy and vivid, or too slight, which was like giving the world’s smallest and most irrelevant massage.

In my anguish and panic, I thought that if anyone could save them, it would have been you, Mrs. Harleminn. I don’t know if you were aware of this, but at the time you were something of a neighborhood hero. You were the one who told us the worms Ben and JP cut in half to freak us out would ultimately become two worms. You were the one who told us that puppies and kittens would never get carried off by eagles because eagles just ate fish. You were the one with a greenhouse in your backyard. You were the most scientific neighbor I knew. So I left the coffee can on your porch and rang the bell.

I’m writing to say that I’m ashamed I didn’t stay to explain. Please understand my mother had very firmly informed me that if Officer Cramer came to our house even one more time that summer she was going to send me home with him. And, based on his thoroughness in the BB-gun incident, Officer Cramer was certainly going to investigate the death and unceremonious gifting of 300 tiny frogs. So, I split. I watched you from my porch window, though, which is why I’m finally compelled to write this letter.

I want you to know I am sincerely, truly sorry, and deeply regret the pain I caused you. I just wouldn’t feel right if you died and I never told you the truth. Not that you’re going to die or anything, although my mom did used to say your soprano solo in the church choir made her think you were.


Your Neighbor
Anna Tennis

P.S. I smacked your giant dog in the face with my alto saxophone case every school day for probably five years. He was trying to eat my cat’s food, and growled, lunged and nipped at me as I attempted to disembark the porch, so I did what I had to do. That dog was an asshole.

The Day I Jumped Out a Window

When I was 11, my best friend was Eddie Griffenbacher.* He lived with his grandma, for reasons he never detailed. (*No, it wasn’t. But even I don’t want to talk shit about someone. It’s not because I have class. Eddie would kick my ass.)

He was very, very, impressively naughty.

He came by this honestly: his grandmother was like a David Lynch character. She was short, round, and, I think, chronically intoxicated. She curmdugeoned around her house in a beige sweater-vest over a plaid shirt, khakis and fluffy white sneakers that resembled King’s Hawaiian rolls. Her hair was old-lady-did into fully-formed curl banks, but the back left corner of her head was all matted down and disarranged, like gray-hair crop circles amidst the otherwise puffy rows. She smoked endless Benson and Hedges cigarettes; they dangled eternally from her yellow fingers, the nails of which she kept painted the same bronzey-brown color for as long as I knew her. She was always drinking some ice-cubey alcohol cocktail from an amber-glass tumbler: between the yellow of her fingers, her nail polish, and the yellow tint of her glass, it seemed like everything around her was saturated completely with tar. Somehow, her entire microcosm had become the color of an old fly strip.

I grew up on an island in Southeast Alaska. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the broader world, so it never occurred to me that anything was unusual about Grandma Griff. In 1983, when I was 11, I just thought of her as very, very unpredictable. One minute, she’d be blithely smiling away, cough-laughing at the television, then suddenly, KAPOW! She’d be standing on the front porch, cussing her face off for a series of reasons I was never able to make complete sense of. They seemed to involve Eddie eating or not eating lunch, his overall commitment to the family, and his relative “little shit” rating for the day. Grandma Griff would shuffle around the deck, cussing, coughing, and leaning on things in a kind of modern baroque until she was satisfied or distracted, upon which she would return inside. Sometimes, she would emerge again moments later, and begin cuss-coughing at him anew — apparently revived by some libation or inspiration inside her house. Other times, she would come back out and just stand there, wobbling back and forth like a buoy.

Me and Eddie had a lot of good ideas. Mostly, they were about ways we could get food. We were obsessed with food, especially beef jerky. One of the two grocery stores in town carried this beef jerky that had been … what? chipped? powdered? processed? … to make it the same texture and consistency of chewing tobacco. (See, “1983,” above.) Regular beef jerky would jump off a bridge at the mere sight of beef jerky snuff it was so inferior. Somehow, the jerky-chipping process made all of the resulting fluffy beef jerky snuff 100 percent surface area. It made it a total flavor experience. Your taste buds didn’t have to do anything but lay back and wait for the magic to happen.

It was so expensive, but so awesome.

On the rare occasion we both received and managed to make it to the end of Main Street with enough accumulated allowance to buy a little container of the beef jerky snuff, we would immediately load as much of it into our mouths as we could hold and suck on it until all of the beef jerky molecules had been extracted. The remaining byproduct was the same color and texture as asbestos pipe insulation. There was only enough jerky snuff in the can to do this beef jerky soul-extraction routine three or four times, if you really watched yourself.

Occasionally only one of us would have money, and the ensuing hour after purchase would be begging, refusals, and at last, meted pinches of shared contraband interrupted by limited periods of blissed-out snuff reverie. We were budding junkies. One day, it was just gone, and we moved on to Carl Buddig Original Deli-Thin Corned Beef. I have eaten more of this product than most people have consumed water. There is actually a twelve-foot-section of my small intestine that is entirely composed of Carl Buddig Original Deli-Thin Corned Beef, and I kid you not when I say it is the most effective part of my entire GI tract. (If you ever have to eat my corpse to survive, parts of me are going to be just scrumptious. You’re going to be so glad it was me who died.)

Food was our main concern but the Dukes were our second. We shared a passion for The Dukes of Hazzard, by which I mean it eclipsed every other interest we had, all other conversation, all the time. We played it without fail — first with little Matchbox cars, then with the bigger ones with the wind-up tires whose elastic tension made them fly down the sidewalk (or, alternately, get hopelessly stuck in your stupid hair). Eventually, we just ran around, reenacting episodes of the show or making up our own. I, still at age 11, really wanted more people to see me as Daisy Duke, but Eddie laughed hysterically when I suggested I be Daisy.

I was Luke.

I didn’t even get to drive unless I was driving Bo to the hospital. And usually Bo just drove himself to the hospital and I still rode shotgun. I just had to do all the shooting at the bad guys (compound bows take two arms, really) and sometimes hold the wheel so Bo could shoot, even though he would cry out in pain from the effort. He was strong, but he was just a man, after all.

Ensconced in smooth, rust-colored velour, Eddie’s grandma’s loveseat was the perfect Charger. The arms were low enough to leap over and into the driver’s seat, just like the General Lee.

Sometimes, Eddie would be Boss Hog.

If you are a Dukes plebe, I will catch you up on an important detail: Boss Hog was a bad guy. He was this fat, gross, rich, turdface who was so greedy he would eat barbeque ribs while he watched his henchmen beat you up. That’s low. And yucky.

When Eddie was Boss Hog, we played some modified version of tag. Usually, I would be hapless, Bo-less Luke, running for my life while Boss Hog and his thugs chased me all over Georgia. (Georgia, in this case, meant Eddie’s Grandma’s house, and the woods behind it.) If Eddie caught me, he would punch me in the arm or thigh (middle-finger knuckle raised, a la the famed “Charlie Horse” maneuver). It was a motivating consequence, and I would scramble like a feral monkey to avoid it.

The back of Eddie’s Grandma’s house featured two identically-sized windows, placed on the diagonal from one another. Inside the house, one window was in the hallway, next to the first bedroom. The other window was on the landing, directly above the awning of the little back porch.

Eddie and I often clambered out onto the little back porch. It was a very attractive and vaguely risky escape route, since it was really not that high off the ground, and the ground below it was muskeg. Muskeg is basically a dense moss found all over Southeast Alaska. If you stand in one place for a few minutes, you will slowly begin to sink into the muskeg, little puddles forming around your feet as you descend, like you were standing on an enormous wet sponge. So if you fell off the roof of the porch — or jumped –- it was exhilarating, but safe. We did it a lot.

On the day in question, Eddie was on an absolute tear. He was always a little crazy, but on this particular day he was the Boss Hoggiest Boss Hog Hazzard County had ever seen. He chased me like a rabid dog all around the yard of his Grandma’s house, and when he cornered me, he never broke character.

Somehow, his feverish intensity and my resultant giddiness combined to form the most frenzied chase scene since Casino Royale. We were screeching intermittently and laughing maniacally as we raced around the house, down to the basement, up the stairs, through the upstairs hallway, down the back stairs, around the yard, and through the woods. At some point, our chaotic crashing and screeching must have disturbed Eddie’s Grandma, because she ambled out onto the back porch and starting yelling into the woods after us. “What the hell are you doing, Eddie Griffenbacher? You think I need you to make a mess of my house? Get over here and I’m going to [cussing] beat your [cussing] little white [cuss]!” Usually, we would huddle in the woods and giggle if we had inadvertently ired the Grandma. But this time, we were too far gone. We couldn’t stop. Our chase had taken on a life of its own, and we were powerless against the strength of it.

We scrambled through the woods and around the house, bathed in admonitions and increasingly vigorous (and creative) swear words, and ran back through the front door. Eddie’s Grandma made chase, trundling to her living room, and swearing at us to stop, etc. from there. Her proximity was energizing.

We ran even faster, flying over furniture, cornering on the stairs by grabbing the banister and spinning through the air like acrobats. We were on fire. Grandma made it to the front stairs and was gasping and spitting with rage, no longer even uttering complete sentences as she slowly ascended: “This minute! [Cuss, cuss]! So much trouble! Little [cuss, cuss]!”

As she closed in on us, Eddie almost cornered me in the hall, and his attempted grab/pin maneuver spun me like a top down the hallway. I was going so fast that it actually made me go faster, like a soccer ball whizzing down the field. I was unstoppable, uncatchable. I flew down the hallway, and then I jumped out the window onto the porch roof.

Except I jumped out the wrong window.

I flew through the air like a little dart, pointed at the ground. I landed with a kawhump! in the muskeg, feet first, and immediately sat down, certain I had broken every bone in my body and died. Eddie poked his head out the window I had just disembarked. I looked up at him. Eddie looked stricken — his face was pale as fish skin. Behind him, I could see the lumpy figure of his Grandma. She looked down at me, too. We all regarded each other for a while.

“Where are your feet?” Eddie croaked.

I looked down at my feet. They were, indeed, missing. I panicked. I must have broken them right off my legs.

My heart pounded, and my hands scrambled down my legs to my ankles, feeling for what were sure to be two bloody stumps. There were no stumps, however, just muskeg. I wiggled my toes. I realized I could still feel them, so they must be somewhere. Then I figured it out. The force of the fall had driven them into the muskeg up to my ankles.

They were really in there. I tried to pull them out, but I was all shaky and freaked out. I grabbed one and tugged, and it came out with a smurch. I repeated the procedure on the second foot, and then lay back on the muskeg, breathing heavily. It was a lot to process.

I looked up at Eddie and his Grandma. “They were stuck in the muskeg.” I said.

I don’t know who started laughing first. We cackled like lunatics, gasping for air. Eddie couldn’t stand up he was laughing so hard. He had to support himself with the window frame. I rolled on the muskeg, pounding the soggy ground with my fist, absolutely contorted with laughter. Grandma laughed and coughed, by turns, clutching her midsection and leaning on the window frame above Eddie. Eventually, we calmed down. Eddie’s Grandma retreated into the depths of her house. I could hear her muffled laughter and hacking cough as she descended into the living room.

I looked up at Eddie and said, “Can I just be Daisy now?”

Eddie rested his head on his arms. “No way. You’re Luke.”