Story — From the December 2017 issue

The Year of The Frog

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Technically we had a real father, a sperm father. It was just that we’d never seen him or heard anything about him except the three details our mother had let slip: he’d been a son of a bitch, he’d worked in the oil fields, and he’d once screamed like a woman when a bee got in the house. His most obvious legacy was my brother’s nose, which was unlike mine and my mother’s, rounder and more peevish and almost always red. It didn’t occur to us to wish for more. What more can you ask of a man than his nose?

“Child support, for one,” our mother said. She’d vowed, after our father’s disappearance, never to take up with a man again. They were all big babies, each as needy and selfish as the next, and she’d done her time with babies when my brother and I were small. We were only eleven months apart — what they used to call Irish twins — and she’d been solely responsible for every diaper, fever, tantrum, and wet bed, every need, every rebellion.

On top of this she had to take care of her ladies, a trio of rich widows who lived in old Victorians in town. It was our mother’s job to keep their gloomy houses clean, as well as keep their secrets, exclaim over gossip, and listen with interest to long recountings of their nightly dreams. They called her their “girl,” or “dear,” or simply Rita. But on those nights when wine or age got the better of them, they called her a thief who’d made off with their silver, their earrings, even a cheese grater. How they berated her on the answering machine, their voices croaking with indignation. How they sweetened later, when they’d found the grater in a drawer and had visitors to prepare for. How many times she was fired and rehired, there wasn’t any counting. Through it all, our mother sighed and carried her trusty mop out to the truck. We’d never seen her flirt with a man before. It was a thing we could not have imagined.

But the Frog made her smile and toss her long braid. He dragged her out into the field for picnics. He was not a handsome man — in fact, with his wide-set eyes and gangly limbs, you might’ve called him ugly, a charge that would’ve bothered him not at all. He drifted cheerfully into our lives, fully confident of his welcome, and after a few days drifted back out, presumably to Albuquerque, where he had a job in advertising and a wife of many years. Her name was Juliet and he spoke of her with affection, telling stories of the trips they’d taken and the garden they’d grown. Once he even brought us a huge zucchini and presented it with fatherly pride. He and Juliet had no children, but doted on a skinny, trembling dog who wore sweaters even in the desert heat.

He spoke of his wife with such fondness that I wondered when she’d accompany him to our house. Maybe I even asked. But it was the Frog whose whereabouts concerned us most: When would he be back? How long would he stay? Couldn’t we call him? (No, our mother said. Absolutely not.) He made our chests constrict with an almost unbearable joy. When at last we heard his car rumbling down the hill, we ran to meet him like puppies, jumping and stumbling, flanking him across the yard while he ruffled our hair and told us how we’d grown.

Too proud for such displays, our mother busied herself at the sink. If she smiled over the dishwater, charmed by his long-limbed stroll, we never saw it, consumed as we were in showing off. We did push-ups and cartwheels and presented him with hasty drawings, frenzied in the way of country children. And yet he always slipped away from us, into the bedroom with our mother.

Once sequestered they would not come out, no matter how we pounded, pleaded, threatened, and lied.

“We’re hurt!” we called.

“We’re bleeding!”

“Come out or we’ll set the house on fire!”

We burned the corner of an envelope and wafted smoke under the door, somehow failing to expect what we got: our mother in a gray whirl of bathrobe, her fist like a hammer on our heads. Our teeth clattered painfully. Still, we tried to see through our tears to the Frog. A glimpse of him lying on the bed, perhaps. A wave. A sign.

Then one morning our mother would emerge alone.

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